I have been musing today on the definition of existence and reality. Superficially, it seems a bit ridiculous to dwell on such things because there exists a core group of the "real" upon which we all can agree. We can generally agree that matter exists and is real, that color exists and is real, and that life exists and is real. However there lies on the fringes of our experience certain elements upon which we do not so easily agree. It is because of this questionable area of existence that we can ask questions like, "if a tree falls in the forest and no is there to hear it, does it make a sound?"
We may become entangled in the apparent silliness of such questions because we believe it is obvious that the tree does make a sound; life in an uninhabited forest follows the laws of physics exactly as does an inhabited forest. The problem with this explanation is that it focuses on the laws governing the tree rather than those governing the sound. The real question here is, "what is sound?" Is sound defined by the stimulus or the perception of the stimulus; can something be a sound if it is not heard? Consider the perception of sound by a deaf person. A deaf person acknowledges the existence of sound only because they have heard, so to speak, about it from others who are able to perceive it. In a society comprised entirely of deaf people, would sound exist and if so what would its definition be? If we dig more deeply we find the deeper question has to do with the nature of existence. Does something exist because it can be perceived? Are the characteristics of something defined by our perception of them or is our perception governed by the characteristics of the thing itself. Where do we place the authority to dictate reality, upon ourselves or upon reality itself? If I claim the authority to discern what is real then I can control whether grass is, in fact green. If I do not perceive "green" then green does not exist. However, if I acknowledge that the grass is indeed indisputably green, regardless of my perception, then I place the authority or reality upon the grass or, more broadly, matter; green exists because the grass is green.
This line of thinking can take us into an interesting world into which countless explorers have ventured over the course of human existence. Many have planted their flags there and a few still maintain their domain. But for the most part, we wander through this land as nomads, often not even noticing the countryside around us, and only a few of us display any kind of loyal citizenship there. I would suppose that, though I do claim the rulership of a certain One in this realm, I enjoy (perhaps too much?) riding out into the wilder country and spying on neighboring kingdoms. During my brief travels I have espied some interesting behavior. Far to the east of my home, there lies a village wherein some sadist has locked a poor cat in a box with a vial of poison.
Maybe wandering about in this world is a little pointless, after all regardless of whether it is so because I perceive it as such or because it displays the characteristic independent of my perception, the fact remains that the grass is green. As for those things which are outside of our perception, the lonely falling tree for example, who really cares? One could claim that which happens outside of experience does not affect the world within experience. However, even if this is the case, we have to acknowledge that there are things which do affect our experience which escape our immediate perception. Bacteria affected life before it was observed and labeled as did gravity and the earth's orbital path around the sun. Similarly, some would argue that global warming does not exist though others claim that its existence falls within the realm of perception and thus must exist.
Perhaps such subjects are distant and unimportant in the day to day workings of one's life, yet the principle can be applied much more personally as well. If a child discovers at 16 that they were adopted, the truth of their parentage, which was indisputable for the past 16 years, suddenly has become untrue. We may argue that the "truth" has never been true, it was simply perceived incorrectly by that child. But up until the moment of revelation, "reality" was set and immoveable in the mind of that child, afterward their reality changed. To take it a step further, let us say that two newborns were mixed up and each given to the wrong set of parents. Let us then say that the truth was never revealed. If no one knows the truth, does it cease to be true? If you asked one of those parents if it is true that child x, which is not theirs, is actually their child they would say, "yes." It is their reality that this child is theirs. If you held one of these parents at gunpoint and said, ?If this is your child I am going to kill you,? they would have to die in order to maintain the truth. If their reality is based on false perceptions, it matters very much to the people in these stories whether or not truth is based on perception. It is the difference between dying for truth or a lie.
Throughout the existence of people, there have been individuals who have not perceived the world the same as the majority. These individuals have claimed to experience things that are out of our experience. There are people who claim that sounds have a taste. There are those who have claimed that the pain of others brings them pleasure. Innumerable other individuals experience a reality far different from others. Mentally ill, is what we call them, and we devote remarkable amounts of time and money to the study and treatment of these individuals. If reality is based on perception, then all of this money is wasted and the lives of these individuals would be much different.
Even this example is flawed because we know that the truth maintained by the people in this story is not true. That is to say, we have greater knowledge then they. Is truth, then, the exclusive property to the enlightened? To apply this argument to something which, I believe, is vastly more important than global warming, greenness of grass, or lineage, once a religious system is universally abandoned, it the becomes a myth. I wonder then, what was the reality of those who lived and died experiencing something that is now universally accepted as untrue. Does my reality supersede theirs? Even now, some argue that God does not fall within the realm of perception and thus does not exist. I would acknowledge that God falls within the realm of my perception and thus, does exist. Who then owns the rights to truth? Who then is enlightened? Does God not exist until after one has experienced Him and if so does He simultaneously exist and not exist in my life and the life of a Realist (will someone please let that poor cat out of the box!)?
We can see that the nature of reality and whether or not it is dependent upon experience is important because it changes how we view one another. If I believe that reality is based upon experience then I can also believe that, for everyone who does not experience God they way that I have, God does not exist. However, I happen to believe that God exists entirely independent of my perception of Him. I believe that Truth is true whether or not I believe it to be so. Likewise, one who does not believe God believes that regardless of what experience I have invented to justify my need for a divine being in my life, God does not exist and never has. I have placed the authority of existent upon the thing and not upon the perceiver of the thing. The Realist has placed the authority of existence upon his perception of the thing and then he denies my perception. Like the person who claims climate change is not evidence of global warming, he claims the evidence of my reality is mistakenly interpreted. But what is true and who is right? Well I am of course :o)
We can see how incredibly difficult it is to imagine that reality is different from what we perceive. No matter how many times we practice these kinds of thought exercises trying to stretch reality beyond the realms of our perception but the truth is that it is ultimately impossible. The reality that is dominant will always be the reality which we have experienced. We will always view those who believe a truth that does not match our experience as mistaken or mentally ill. Still, it is helpful to at least recognize that there is a difference between acknowledging that something exists because we experience it or that it exists simply because it is.