Is ‘real’ really real or just no big deal?

“In giving up the dualism of scheme and world, we don’t give up the world, but re-establish unmediated touch with the familiar objects whose antics make our sentences and opinions true or false.”  Donald Davidson, Inquiries into Truth & Interpretation, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2001, p. 198.

The word ‘real’ is a divider. Just like with God, when your real isn’t my real that’s enough to create the type of zeal to come to blows. We constantly show we don’t need the Gods to start a war. That is a fact. It might seem everyday and familiar to sophisticated modern people like us constantly figuring out what is real and what a mere figment of our fancy. Nevertheless it is a fact: whenever people think they’re right, ‘really’ right, death’s on our doorstep.

So let us examine this little word ‘real’ for what it does to our reality. Let’s see whether it belongs with the familiar family of other infamous four-letter words. To start the inquiry, try to remember the last time you heard somebody saying person X was not a ‘real’ Y. For instance X was in fact a muslim but she wasn’t a ‘real’ muslim in that she did not wear a hijab. Or, X was in fact liberal but he wasn’t a ‘real’ liberal in that he didn’t verbally come out in support of gay marriage. Or, X was in fact born here but he wasn’t a ‘real’ national because he failed to defend his identity. Or, X was indeed a refugee but she wasn’t a ‘real’ refugee in that she did adopt our identity. Or, like in my case, I am an atheist but I am not a ‘real’ atheist because I do not think religion is the worst thing that ever happened to the whole wide world. Like I’m not a ‘real’ autistic because, well, I don’t look like one.

It won’t be too hard to come up with your own examples where something like this was thrown at you or somebody you liked. So follow me in tracking how the word ‘real’ flies like a boomerang hitting the utterer of it smack in its own face. At least when we’re lucky enough it doesn’t hit a very real person in a very real way before it has fully bent back.

What the word ‘real’ does is carve up the world according to a scheme. This leaves open two alternatives. Unsophisticated people do not question their schemes and murder by it. We sophisticated people are better. We just know that our scheme is temporary, always a paradigm shift away from a better scheme. We conquer this world one falsification at the time. We congratulate ourselves for not having a final scheme. In a very Western way we don’t believe because we know. That’s our scientific reality: knowing that only science is capable of deciding what’s real. Forget about feeling awkward or torn, ambivalent or just plain guilty with respect to other people; we have science to adjudicate for us, that is our real identity. We are really sophisticated.

We can forget about the humanity of muslims, bigots, refugees, autistics and whonot. We may not have it all figured out but we at least know how to figure it all out. With a magic yardstick of science it’s only the unscientific which stand in our way to wisdom. If there’s any disagreement left it is because some of us are not really committed to science. That is it, you’re only real if you accept that science mediates all knowledge. We have made this world according to the scientific scheme as the only scheme. Never mind science isn’t yet conclusive on everything, we can place ourselves outside of this world as long as we just consider the neutral evidence. As being sophisticated can be tiresome, we create experts who (impartially no doubt) do all this sciencing for us. Nobody said being sophisticated should be dull.

The boomerang hangs still in mid-air. Maybe it ponders whether it should turn back with the risk of hitting such well-intentioned people bang in their heads knowing it is where it will hurt them most. The laws of physics however are ruthless, as we all know from all of our everyday scientific experiment of living by them.

So science says ruthlessly that our kid, our neighbor, our mother or our friend aren’t real when they believe in God, in diversity, in racism or the rights of transgenders? That can’t be true. It’s just this version of science. It’s just this conceptual scheme – not ‘real’ science because the world can’t be like that (and, really, the world can’t be like that! and we don’t need science to tell us that as it’s a familiar fact of unmediated touch with the people that we love). So we give up this science even if others hold fast to it. We may well be parents, children, friends or neighbors of them. It will be pretty awkward, we might feel torn and ambivalent, maybe even guilty for realizing they’re not ‘real’ realists, or that they believe we’re not (because, in our scheme, we know while they always merely believe).

What can we do but dodge the issues and not bring them up in familiar discussions with people familiar to us? There is science and there is everyday life; science ruthlessly rules supreme but it is after all a fact we can’t just blow up the relation to our friends, because are they not what makes life worth living for? And so we happily go on with our separate businesses until such time as something of real value to us does come up. Then we hear we are an X that is not a ‘real’ Y. Bummer, the boomerang has hit our head hard. Some of us our hard of hearing and may ignore not being real. Others are hard-headed enough to repeat that whoever calls us unreal is a kettle calling a pot black.  And then they’ll come to blows like sophisticated people do: each retreating to their own territories where ‘real’ science rules only the sublime calling the other committed to a conceptual scheme like if they still believed in the gods.

There is no such thing as a conceptual scheme. There are no such things as paradigms as there are just people trying to make sense of each other.

That’s our world inhabited by people who have other opinions but who can be friends as long as they nor we lock the door to live happily never nafter in our own mind’s prison. I rest my rather unreal case.


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