The Relativity of ‘Reality’

“The Relativity of ‘Reality’”

by Robert Anton Wilson

from Neurolog #4, 1978
reprinted in Email to the Universe

From the viewpoint of semantics, “reality” is a multi-ordinal concept, having different meanings on different levels of abstraction. On the lowest level of abstraction “reality” refers to immediate sensory consistency. “Is there really a kangaroo in that chair?” can be answered by obtaining the consensus of the group; or, if everybody is stoned, by bringing in some objective observers with objective instruments, etc. On the highest level of abstraction, “reality” refers to logical consistency with a body of established scientific fact and theory. “Is entropy real?” can be answered by consulting a reliable textbook on thermodynamics. Between the level of kangaroo and the level of entropy, there are many other levels of abstraction and, hence, many kinds of “reality.”

For instance, “Is the Gross National Product real?” is a question on a certain level of abstraction; and if equally intelligent people can, and do, argue about this it is because they are talking on different levels of abstraction and are not aware of the fact that there are different levels of abstraction and different kinds of “reality.”

This is the semantic relativity of “reality.”

2. Every tribe has its own “reality-map,” or worldview, or weltanschauung. What is “real” to the Eskimo is not what is “real” to the Zuni Indian or the Congolese or the Japanese Buddhist or the German businessman or the Russian commissar, etc. If you travel around the world with the naive assumption that everybody is living in the same “reality,” you will make numerous embarrassing mistakes, insult countless people unintentionally, make a splendid ass of yourself and generally contribute to the worldwide belief that tourists are a Curse of God sent to punish peole for their sins. To recognize that every culture, and sub-culture, has its own “reality” is the prerequisite of sophistication, tact, and true tolerance. Otherwise you come on like the Englishman who claimed all Chinese understand English if you just shout loud enough.

This is the anthropological, or cultural, relativism of “reality.”

3. Every nervous system creates its own “reality.” Out of the billions, or billions of billions, of energies intersecting the room in which you read this, your brain, performing 100,000,000 processes per minute (almost all of them unconscious to those circuits called the ego and recognized as “me”) arranges a few hundred or thousand into the Gestalt which you experience as the “reality” of the room. To demonstrate this, in my Exo-psychology classes, I will have the students describe the hall outside the lecture room; no two will describe exactly the same hall. Or, I will have everybody write down what they hear in the room during a minute of clock-time; no two lists of these sounds will be identical. A variety of chemicals introduced into the nervous system, or direct brain stimulation with electrical impulses, or yoga, etc., will create an entirely different neurological “reality” while you are still sitting in the “same” room.”

This is neurological relativism, or the relativity of perceived “reality.”

4. Two scientists moving at different accelerations can measure the same phenomenon with equally accurate instruments and obtain totally different readings of it extensions in the space and time dimensions. (Einstein, General Relativity.) On the quantum level, a variety of different philosophical reality-maps, or “models,” describe equally well both the experimental data and the mathematical equations that are known to “fit” the data. Any attempt to get around this by adding more sophisticated instruments leads to adding still more sophisticated instruments to monitor the first set, and so on, forever. (Von Neumann’s “catastrophe of the infinite regress.”)

This is physical Relativity, or the relativity of instrumental “reality.”

In conclusion, “reality” is a concept borrowed from the theologians who, being bankrupt, are in no position to loan anything to anybody. We would do better to restrict ourselves to questions that can be answered. Such questions will take the form, “At this date, with the knowledge presently possessed by humanity, which model best accords with the facts?” When it turns out, as it usually does these days, that several models work equally well, we might then ask: which models are most amusing? most optimistic? most worthy of our time and energy? most elegant and esthetic? And we can keep in mind, too, biologist JBS Haldane’s warning, “The universe may be not only stranger than we think, but stranger than we can think.”


Mr. Wilson is the author of the Illuminatus! trilogy, Cosmic Trigger, and diverse other works.

(submitted to rawilsonfans by RMJon23)

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