What is real?

As children, fantasy inhabits our imagination and we come to confuse the real with fantasy. As adults, reality sometimes seems so hard that we want fantasy in the real world. We create fantasies to support reality. Religions play this role on one side. But one strand of academic thought seems to be compromised by the acceptance of many distinct realities and not one in particular. There are those who defend the existence of a single reality and that it is absolute. There are those who defend the existence of two realities like Plato, a sensitive (of experiences) and another intelligible (of a priori knowledge). I’m not inclined to accept either. I sympathize with Karl Popper’s view on the possibility of three worlds: one objective, one of our thoughts and another that is the product of the interaction between the first two.

This is a more sophisticated understanding of what is real known as the thesis of the three worlds of Popper. However, I’m interested in a somewhat different approach. It looks more like the proposal of Richard Dawkins in the book “The magic of the reality”. To judge that Dawkins did his job very well I doesn’t intend to repeat it here. I want to present an explanatory model developed by graphic artist Tracie Harris. The “Tracie fallacy model” works very well to demonstrate the need for the presence of some attributes that, more generally, give meaning to the concept of existence.

In the model are presented three glass jars with the same characteristics, but of different contents. The first bottle contains some dice (vial of existing dice), that’s right, those dice of board games, the second vial has no content (vial of nonexistent dice) and the third does not have (let’s assume this is the vial of transcendental dice). When placed in this way it’s easy to assume that the vials contain what has been proposed. However, by mixing the three bottles and removing the labels, the Tracie model becomes more interesting. If the observer is asked to identify which of the glass jars contains the existing dice he will quickly distinguish the vial whose presence of dice is perceptible to the view, shake the vial and noting that the dice produces sounds upon contact with the glass surface, or still, he will take the measurement of the glass jars identifying the one with greater mass. What interests us is the existence of characteristics, beyond those that can be seen, whose measure allows us to infer their existence. If we ask the observer to identify the vial of nonexistent dice he will have difficulty differentiating it from the transcendental vial and will eventually resort to kicking or simply to faith.

We could represent these elements by means of sets. Set containing “x”, empty set and set containing “y” with empty set attribute, but I think it would make the explanation less attractive. However, it provides a good mathematical demonstration of how transcendental attributes are inconsistent with nature. The bottles of Tracie reveal the problem of distinguishing between what is transcendent and what is not real. There simply are no characteristics or attributes that allow us to differentiate them. Thus, transcendental entities, with respect to attributes, are equivalent to non-existent entities.

We can also ask the observer to estimate how much dice is in the vial of the existing dice. With any luck the observer will not hit the amount on the first try, but will give an approximate value. We will tell him that our guess is ten thousand times greater than the value he presented. To our embarrassment, the observer will laugh at our absurd assumption. The aim is to demonstrate that, although we have presented nothing more than hunches about quantity, we can not assume any kind of assumption by the restriction of tests alone. This is because there are certain things we know about the volume of the bottle and the dice, which makes certain kinds of assumption simply absurd.

Finally, the observer is asked to take a guess at the amount of transcendental and supernatural dice in the transcendental dice flask. After hearing the glance of the observer we will tell him that we believe that the number of dice there is ten thousand times greater than your guess. Since we’re talking about the bottle of transcendental dice, our assumption will no longer seem absurd. This is because, in fact, we know nothing about transcendental dice. There is no way to distinguish them from nothing.

This is the kind of problem that arises when we commit to the existence of any unnatural phenomenon. That is why we have said that science provides us with the best tools for understanding nature and reality. Using such tools, the bias of the observer is eliminated. Any person can reach the same conclusions following the description of the scientific procedure.


Richard Dawkins. A magia da realidade: como sabemos o que é verdade.
Karl Popper and John Eccles. The Self and Its Brain: An Argument for Interactionism.
Tracie Harris. Modelo da Falácia da Tracie (1/5) – The Atheist Experience #593.

Creative Commons License
This work by Alison Felipe Alencar Chaves is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.



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