There are at least two statements about reality that cannot be seriously disputed: that reality is an idea, and that it claims to be something more and something other than just an idea.
Reality is a concept that claims to transcend the world of ideas; it has an existence independent of consciousness. Given that most ideas make some claim to a relationship with the world we experience, why does this one exert such a seductive power on us despite its obvious paradoxical nature?
Politically speaking some use it as an excuse for not trying to change things while others, like socialists, need to understand it specifically to change it. In all political debates the perceived division between idealists and pragmatists is continually expressed. For many of us reality is a depressing life of exploitation which stands in stark contrast to the proposed vision of society offered by socialism. But is that kind of social structure mere idealism or is it the prison of our working lives which is sustained by the ideological illusion of a single reality?
One attempt to define reality centred on the search for an unchanging essence within the objects that make up our world. Metaphysics attempted to comprehend the real, to grasp the truth and to witness the good. In its later synthesis with Christianity it became the search for God. Dualistic philosophical tradition liked to define it by what it was not: it did not change, it was not an illusion and, most importantly, reality could not in itself be evil because it was the creation of God.
There is an echo here of a much more ancient duality concerning structure and chaos which lies beneath the classical conception of truth and falsehood and Christianity’s good and evil. Evil, in some traditions, is defined as the ignorance of the truth – an illusion (false God) that prevents access to really. We hate what we fear and we fear what we don’t understand. But what was “understood” in this Christian context was the metaphysical belief in an unchanging “human nature” which in great part was confirmed by the fear of the historical developments that engulfed the Christians during the reformation and beyond. The Christian ideological schisms of the 16th and 17th centuries created an ever more desperate need for a realm of unchanging moral values and, revealingly, a source of absolute power (God).
Karl Marx was very interested in the nature of power and how it manifested itself historically; usually quite differently from the way it was explained within the ideologies of the power groups concerned. His theory attempted to trace the origins of political power and the social classes that have wielded it through history. It is more than an attempt, as Engels and others seem to imply, to use the methodology of the natural sciences to understand human history because history itself can be used to explain science in its ideological and social context. Science, in many ways, did not destroy religion as a way to legitimise political power, it merely replaced it (although some extreme reactionary regimes like the USA and Iran still use religion in this way). One of the reasons for this ideological dethronement is because science has become the contemporary language of “reality”.
So what does the scientific enterprise tell us about reality; and what do the politics of today’s power structures tell us about science? Physics and biology both have surprisingly little to say on the subject. There seems to be a great variety of speculation based on the experimental data. For instance, quantum theory can offer us a choice between the “uncertainty principle” which implies that the universe is essentially an unknowable paradox created by the nature of relationship between mind and perception; or it provides us with infinite parallel universes where every quantum possibility exists simultaneously. In biology the holy grail of genetic determinism is pursued with crusading zeal. It looks as though this search will end in a similar place where the physicists now repose, exhausted beside their over-heated particle accelerators after yet another unsuccessful attempt to find the definitive sub-atomic particle.
All of this tells us much about the motivations of the ideology that lies behind the scientific project itself. For all its failures in defining a coherent concept of reality it is still the dominant arena for our culture’s attempts to understand and so control nature. This reflects the hierarchical authoritarianism of the social structure of capitalism. A scientist is a potential member of a social elite; he or she has undergone the training that allows their “baptism” by the agents of the power-brokers of our society – in this case the scientific establishment. This group has in turn received its authority from the ruling class via government grants or company sponsorships. Without this patronage science could not and would not exist in its present form. All of which leads us to a more certain source of reality – money.
Along with fear, plain, death, hunger and love no one would deny that the need for money constitutes a reality; and yet most of us are aware that the notes and coins we use are in themselves worthless. Money is, in fact, merely a contract between buyer and seller which promises the seller that he can redeem the value of what he has sold to the buyer. No other human promise carries as much confidence within it as this one does in our culture. We might swear on a stack of bibles or give up our loved ones as hostages and still fail to create the confidence inspired by hard cash. Why is this? Simply because all of the world’s power structures are focused primarily on enforcing this financial contract. If any doubt arises concerning this law of exchange it causes chaos that leads to economic depression and, for the parasite class, the ultimate horror of a loss of profit.
So once again the quest for reality resolves itself into an idea; but an idea that derives immense power from a universal cultural consensus. This consensus is continually reinforced by social power structures such as the World Bank, IMF and the WTO but it was not created by them. Marx has said that men make history but they make it only with historical constraints. The bourgeois revolutions became possible because of the changing mode of production which made the feudal power structures inappropriate. The English Revolution of 1642 was in most part generated by the capitalist class’s need for a free market system to replace the royal court government’s monopoly production rights. Money replaced land as the economic basis for access to the new ruling class – the bourgeois parliament. Thus production for profit became the basis of English law where the means of life could only be secured through money.
Historically for some 300 years (compared to feudalism’s 600 and slavery’s 1000 years) capitalism has evolved into the global market system we see today. Once again a similar political situation to 1642 has arisen where the social power structures are inhibiting economic progress. The profit-motivated system prevents millions of people in the world from securing the means of life. A new idea has come into existence that challenges the old capitalist cultural structures – socialism. When the majority of humanity believes in this idea then it can transform itself into a social and economic reality. It is the historical relevance of an idea that can make it real because only then can it transform the power structure to reflect the needs of those who sustain the system of their own exploitation. In the end it is, and always has been, political power that defines reality for us all.
It is an entertaining diversion to speculate whether a tree still falls if no-one is there to observe it or whether the Earth was spherical before its inhabitants believed it to be so; but this type of philosophical debate is unavailable to those of us who are dying of hunger, war or disease. Political power is derived from humanity’s historical and social consciousness – or the lack of it. From this central process everything that constitutes reality is derived. In the words of a Rastafarian song:
“They wonder why the sun shines, they do not know that it shines for I and I (conscious people).”