Each of us perceives the world, and everything and everyone else in it, through our senses. Our personal imperfect mind-body composite mediates our experience of reality. So what is reality? Is there something ‘out there’ which is immutably real whether or not you and I are aware of it? This has been a disputatious field for philosophers and theologians down the ages. Religious believers hold that ultimate reality is a supernatural Being. Most philosophers, whether religious or not, accept that the universe exists. There is a story that Dr. Samuel Johnson asked a lady who had announced herself to be an extreme sceptic what she did believe in. When she replied “the universe”, Johnson retorted “By God, Madam, you’d better”.
Disbelief in the reality of anything or anyone outside oneself is solipsism. It is obviously difficult to ascertain how many people are solipsists, though a good many self-absorbed egotists behave as if they were. Bertrand Russell relates that someone once wrote to him asserting that they were a solipsist, and expressing surprise that there weren’t more of them. Russell replied “I am surprised at your surprise.”
Even though not solipsists, large numbers of people - if they are adult enough to consider them at all - regard other people’s realities as being less real than their own, and therefore deserving of less respect. It is the way of the world that the realities of the powerful trump the realities of the weak. The inflamed realities of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld have devastated the humble realities of hundreds of thousands of anonymous Iraqis. The Islamic realities of Osama bin Laden and growing numbers of fanatical jihadists are increasingly impinging upon the less hubristic realities of multitudes in the West who don’t want their lives to be disrupted by fantasists, and just want to be left alone by all the godbotherers of assorted stripes.
But there seems little hope of this for the time being. Reaching out to the Other is no longer fashionable in this self-obsessed age. Empathy – the wish and ability to stand in another person’s shoes without stepping out of your own – was a fashionable aspiration in the 1970s but is nowadays widely scorned as namby-pambyish. Conflict resolution is rarely a priority; most combatants, military and mental, are more intent on victory than on compromise. Their respective realities brook no rivals.
When the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly and woke up wondering whether he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was a man, he was opening himself to possibilities beyond the armour-plated ego which so many 21st century people barricade themselves into. What the world needs is many more butterflies, and far fewer blowflies.