Appearance vs Reality– The Crossroad Which Gave Rise to Philosophy

This seems plainly absurd; but whoever wishes to become a philosopher must learn not to be frightened by absurdities.”

– Bertrand Russell

Historically the first question in philosophy was ‘Is there a reality that does not change, despite the ever-changing appearance of things? And is that reality a single thing or various different things?’ This was the question asked by one of the earliest philosophers, the Milesians (of Greek Ionia), long before the days of Socrates.

A more recent question which runs along these lines questions our view and understanding of the objects used by us in our day to day lives and objects which soft sciences like physics, chemistry etc. say are made up of a million molecules, like a table and a chair. We are so certain of their existence in life and take them to be given. Here is where philosophy thinks differently and rather absurdly as one might say, in asking, does the chair which everyone is sitting on, and the table everyone is sitting behind right now, truly exist in reality? But then, what is reality? Isn’t this real and definite object actually a perception of the ‘appearance’ that we have registered of the chair, table. Bertrand Russell thereby states that there is a difference between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’ which now comes up.

The chairs and tables appear before us in a certain manner, in a certain shape and colour, but does that necessarily deem them real? As a rational human child in this world of science, I would call this rubbish. The irrational philosopher in me, if it exists would argue that they don’t exist, at least as real objects. And thereby arises the conflict of mind and matter. One cannot deny that a certain matter does exist, which we choose to name chair and table in this case. They aren’t just a product of what appears before us because this matter exists even when we leave the room. But is this matter truly in the form of a table and chair? No, that perception is a product of our mind. Matter is incapable of consciousness or thought. But our mind and our sense of sight give it the shape of a table and chair. And this is where two classes of philosophers arise- the idealists, who believe that nothing is real but minds and ideas, and the realists, for whom something real does exist independent of the presence of a human mind, although it may appear differently to each of us.

Coming back to the question of reality, when we see a table, our immediate processing is of the data of the sense that picks up the various features of the table, giving us the appearance of the table and drives us to the conclusion of its existence in reality. But if the reality is not what it seems to be, then does there exist any reality at all? Or is it all just a vague interpretation of past conditioning and different perceptions that we force to manifest into a reality we want to believe.

This gives rise to the concept of illusions and hallucinations. If everything is a product of our mind’s interpretations, can’t we call our whole life an illusion? What proof do we have as to whatever we see before us is the ultimate reality? Another argument justifies that it must be real because everyone perceives the same matter in a similar manner. Just because a table kept in a classroom appears similar to all the people present in that room, does it provide any validation that it is actually real? It is matter; it exists. But on what basis can we justify its existence as the table we see? Majority can’t validate everything. Yet, what of mental disorders like schizophrenia. In such a case, a person is labeled different because his reality is different from the majority. But does that make it false? If we see, it only strengthens the point that there is no reality and just the difference in appearance as perceived by different individuals irrespective of the number, thereby making it certain that matter and everything else that we see in this world is all a manifestation of the mind and its ideas and how we see the world. There is no real definite world. A physical world exists, albeit separate from the human mind. And thereby coming back to our chair, it is easy to see why it clearly doesn’t exist as a chair.

To give further examples and justifications validating the point stated above, an anecdote is presented. They say it started with John Locke’s sock. He wondered, “If my sock gets a hole in it, and then is subsequently patched, does it remain the same sock?” Then further, “What if it were patched twice? What if it went through so many repairs that no original threads remained – would it still be the same sock?” Amidst raging debates, yet again the easy way out would be to say, “A sock never existed in the first place.”

The problem with objects is that the difference between a pile and grain of sand, a stick and a twig is merely linguistic. Similarly, a cubical box may be used as a weapon, a chair, a table and depending on its use, the name and thereby its reality would change. And finally considering the universe as a whole, when we look up, we see stars and over ages we have developed the concept of constellations. We made a pattern out of dots in the sky and gave it a name, incorporating it into our reality. But out there in space, these stars are merely individual balls of fire. We have given it the concept of constellations when such a thing doesn’t exist in reality. It’s a product of our mind.

While this debate will never reach a conclusive end, the rational part of me doesn’t care. The philosophical one however argues that the chair and every other matter doesn’t exist in a reality but is a mere manifestation of our mind and its ideas. The mind gives identity to matter, which appears to be our reality.

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