What is real?

What is less complete, more partial, is less real than what is more complete, less partial.

Illustration: We say that the story of World War II given in a chapter of an elementary school textbook is "less realistic" than that offered in the multivolume work of a master historian.

The textbook version leaves out very many important details offered in the master historian's account.

Illustration: A boy is scared by a stuffed tiger in a museum. His parents tell him, "Wait until you see a real tiger!"

The stuffed tiger is less real because it is missing things that a living tiger has, in particular, whatever it is that gives living creatures their life.

Illustration: We say a blueprint of a house is "less realistic" then a scaled down model of the house. The blueprint has fewer characteristics of the real house than does the model: It is merely lines, while the model has walls, windows, a roof, doors, etc.

Illustration: I know Bill only from online chats. His friend tells me, "You don't really know Bill until you've gone out and had a few pints with him!"

The version of Bill that I know is less complete, more partial than the version his friend knows.

Illustration: The world of physics is an abstraction from the world of experience. From the world of experience, which contains sights, sounds, textures, smells, feelings of heat, feelings of cold, pain, pleasure, and so on, physics abstracts only what is measurable using physical measuring devices. It is a small subset of the world of experience.

QED: The world of physics is less real than the world of experience.

Note: This does not mean that the world of physics lacks all reality. It is an important and useful abstraction from the world of experience, in much the same way that a blueprint is an important and useful abstraction of a real house. Because the abstraction is performed according to very particular and coherent procedures, it can be manipulated in ways that reveal to us important new things about the world of experience, much as an accurate blueprint of a house can reveal to us new things about the house: "Hey, I think there is a secret room there in the middle!"

Acknowledgment I: I want to thank Keshav for pushing me to render what I intuitively understood in a more explicit form.

Acknowledgment II: This entire post came to me while I was walking the "Path of seeing" in the woods at the Kadampa Meditation Center. I guess the path did its job!


  1. But could it be that a less "complete" version of something could be closer to the truth in some cases? Could it be, for instance, that when we look at a medieval manuscript of book by Aristotle, a process where we cut away some of the passages that seem like they're written in a later style might get us closer to the truth of what Aristotle actually wrote?

    Similarly, couldn't it be that the view of the world that physics presents could be closer to external reality than the world of experience?

    1. No, your analogy is faulty: if we "cut out" certain parts of a work by Aristotle in order to make it more accurate, we have done so based on other evidence we have, such as the fact that in other works of his which we believe to be more genuine texts, he never used such-and-such a word, or made contention X. But by definition, we cannot possibly have evidence from outside the world experience that justifies "cutting out" portions of the world of experience! Any evidence whatsoever we claim to have MUST be something we have experienced!

    2. What you are trying to argue is equipment of arguing, "We only have one work of Aristotle's extant, and based on that work, we can say it was not by Aristotle!" Such a claim is obviously complete nonsense.

    3. Another way of seeing this point: I might condemn Keshav's account of a crime by noting that 10 other witnesses saw it differently. They provide evidence from OUTSIDE of Keshav's perspective. But if the world of physics tries to condemn the world of experience as being inaccurate, it condemns itself in the very same manuever, since every single scrap, iota, and bit of evidence for the world of physics is drawn from the world of experience. If we can't perceive a tree in our front yard accurately, why in the world could anyone hold that suddenly, when we come to read a scientific measuring device, we DO perceive it accurately?!

    4. If the rock I am looking at at this very moment is actually totally different from the "real" rock, then why isn't the voltmeter I look at in the next moment also totally different from the "real" voltmeter? And if it is as different from the real voltmeter as the rock I perceive is from the real rock, why does this hallucinatory voltmeter suddenly give me some access to a hidden reality that the hallucinatory rock does not?


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