The following readers’ answers to this central philosophical question each win a random book.
What’s the problem? Isn’t it enough that things are as they are? No, because we are sometimes deceived. We need to tell the difference between hard ground and marsh that only looks hard. We need to know whether something is a bear or only a child with a bearskin rug over its head. We have evolved to tell the real from the false. Injure the brain and the victim may lose their sense of reality. When you have flu the familiar world can seem unreal. You might as well ask “What is the nature of ‘upright’?”
The real is the genuine, the reliable, what I can safely lean on. It is akin to truthful, valuable, even delightful. Its opposite is not illusion, but the fake, the counterfeit, that which can’t be trusted, has no cash value. Theatre, television, paintings, literature deal in illusion but can be real in the sense that they nurture and enlarge us, help to make sense of experience. When they fail in this, they feel unreal, they don’t ring true. They are false, they fail as art. Theatre and everyday life overlap – although the murderer in the play is not prosecuted. Psychotherapists know how people act out ‘scripts’ which they can rewrite to invent a new reality. It may not matter if the story of my life is real or invented, until a lawyer asks if I am really the person mentioned in my long-lost uncle’s will.
Electrons, energy, valency, spin are real in so far as the scientific structure they form part of explains what we experience. Phlogiston no longer makes sense, so it has lost its claim to reality, as a banknote which goes out of circulation becomes a piece of paper. Promises, agreements, treaties are real only so long as they can be trusted. Some plans and commitments are called unreal because we know they will come to nothing.
To take the big question: is God real? ‘Real’ I find more meaningful than the ‘existence’ question. We cannot prove the existence of the electron or alpha particles or even such matters as market forces, compassion or philosophy. But we see their effects, and assuming they are real makes sense of great swathes of our experience. God is at least as real as an idea like ‘compassion’.
Tom Chamberlain, Maplebeck, Notts