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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #39, 12/5/2006

Theory and Reality

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

The real world is big and very complicated. To deal with it, we develop theories. These are simplified models of reality that we keep in our head and that tell us what to do in situations we have never encountered before.

We know that it is not a good idea to fall off a cliff or jump off a building, not because we have ever done it before, but because our theory says it is bad. We've fallen off of smaller things, and we know it hurts. We know something about the physical coherence of our body and how falling can disrupt it, so we try to avoid it whenever possible.

The problem with theories is that they can't possibly model all of reality. The best they can do is describe one tiny corner of it, and even that theory may be subject to change.

Modelling human behavior can especially difficult. Just when you think you have people all worked out, they do something to surprise you. Modelling your own behavior can be equally frustrating. You thought you wanted one thing, but it may turn out later that what makes you happy is something completely different.

The essential nature of theories is that they are tentative and incomplete. It is our own little brains that are making them up, and these brains are tiny compared to the immenseness of the universe. For our theories to be useful and not lead us astray, we have to be constantly testing them against reality. We need to be thinking about them all the time to make sure we haven't overlooked something.

Sometimes, we think we have a pretty solid theory, but then some little bit of information comes along that seems to conflict with it. When this happens, our natural inclination is to brush the fact aside. We dismiss it as an anomaly, or we pretend it doesn't exist. Actually, we should be paying very careful attention to these little things, because they could become big things later.

We can become heavily invested in our past theories, especially if we have made commitments based upon them, and when we fall into those ruts, it can become especially difficult to recognize and absorb those irritating little anomalies. We can easily become "stuck" on our theory, even when reality begins to diverge from it.

In fact, this is one of the greatest dangers of life. Reality goes one way, but you go another. At best, you may not be getting the most you can from reality. At worst, you may be heading for a crash.

Reality has its own independent structure. It follows its own rules, not ours. We tend to forget this sometimes, especially when our emotional needs are very strong. We expect reality to do what we want, and we pray to God to make it happen.

The fact is, reality doesn't give a damn about us. It is going to do what it is set up to do, without regard to our feelings. It is the job of our theories to match reality, in all its cruelty and complexity, not the other way around.

If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one to see, does it really fall? Yes, it does. Huge and complicated processes take place outside of our view, and by the time we actually interact with, say, the forest or a person, there are a lot of things in motion that we may not have a clue about. It is good to get an overall impression of the environment—whether there is danger, for example—but you also have to be cautious and observant. No matter how good your theory may be, there are a lot of things you don't know yet and perhaps that you will never know.

Reality requires humility. You should never march in with your bright, shining theory and think you have things all worked out. You never have things all worked out. The best you can do is choose a workable theory for now, and then see where it leads you. Later, based on what you really encounter, you will modify your theory or perhaps throw it away altogether.

Reality is a big, rich, wonderful mess, and you don't do it justice if you think you understand it all.



  • This topic was covered in a different way in our Glossary entry on Reality.

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