To ask the question of what ‘reality’ means in the context of the natural sciences requires firstly determining what reality refers to in general. The common notion is that reality refers to the sum of real things, or to be more precise, actualized real things. The problem with this assumption is that we then have great difficulty defining what constitutes a real thing, as opposed to ‘part’ of a real thing. Whether we go up in scale or down it becomes confusing as to what is real on any given scale.
The solution to this problem is to take away the notion of ‘parts’ and ‘wholes’. Reality is not the sum of ‘parts’ of reality, but the relations between things on the same scale, more precisely of a genera with which interaction is possible as the observer of that reality. Each ‘thing’ is itself a set of relations between things of a lower genera, and insofar as it has relations with other things of its genera is a ‘part’ of something of a higher genera. Reality is ‘evental’ insofar as actualization involves an event of appearing that is simultaneously registered. This registration can be either in the being itself, if the being involved has the reflexive capability, or in an other being. This is the basis for the observer effect in quantum mechanics, an effect that is no less real when the ‘observer’ is not a being to which we would ascribe an ability to experience, such as a mechanical observation. Some sort of ability to register an event of appearance is required for that event to occur, what seems to be two actions, appearing and registering that appearance is fundamentally one event that forms a relation, making interaction possible.
This of course admits that reality is relative to each observer, however it doesn’t imply a radical solipsism, since most of the relations we have with other things that we can interact with, i.e. are available at our generic scale, are the same relations other human beings have with those same things. For the most part our reality is a shared reality. However it does mean that any given reality is always a construction based on a given perspective and its actual or potential relations.
The difficulty of the relation between the natural sciences and reality is that the natural sciences aren’t interested in how things are in themselves and for us, they want to understand how things are in themselves and for themselves, as well as for each other, whether those things experience reality in the sense that self-aware human beings do or not. This is the fundamental meaning of ‘objectivity’ in the scientific sense. (in the human sense, objectivity refers to shared perspectives on shared reality). That this is an impossible perspective outside of imaginative projection is a subtlety that is lost on many researchers.
For things to interact at all they must appear to themselves and each other and be registered as having appeared in some sense, even though that sense does not include experiencing that appearance and resulting interactions in our sense. That sense, then, is what natural science views as its ‘reality’. However we have no direct way of experiencing or understanding that sense since it is not experiential, and so reality as understood by modern natural science can only be a projection. The imaginative metaphorical constructions scientists use when trying to share their insights are not an add-on, something dreamt up for the public, that scientists themselves have no need of, but are intrinsic to modern scientific explanation itself. For the most part, when engaged in research, scientists may not focus on such metaphorical projections, but that is only possible due to their use of mathematical constructions that allow interactions to be observed, studied and verified, for the most part, without the step of making the projected reality ontologically sensible.
A reality that is only available in either a mathematical construction or through metaphorical linguistic projection, though, is not at all what we think of when we think of reality in general. Reality insofar as it is for us must include the ability to experience such as reality.
The ability to view reality as a mathematical construction is not, as we tend to think after hundreds of years of modern scientific history, intrinsically intuitive. The assumptions required for a valid foundation to mathematical constructions of reality are in fact very specific to a set of beliefs that came to their full completion during the middle Renaissance. For Plato and Aristotle this ability to project reality as technical, and therefore ontologically representable mathematically, would have been restricted precisely to what is not nature, to what is produce via techne – artifice or craft. The introduction of the notion of a nominal Theos as a creator began with the Stoics and continued through neo-Platonists such as Plotinus. The determination of the creator-being as a ‘divine engineer’ began during the rise of Protestantism with theologians such as William of Occam. Once the being of the creator was so determined nature, thought of by Aristotle as phusis (self-originating), no longer appears as such in scientific study. The properly modern notion of ‘natural science’ that replaced theology of nature would more accurately be called ‘the science of reality as artifice, as created’, specifically as created in the most efficient manner possible by a divine engineer. Occam’s razor, for instance, depends for its plausibility on the notion that such a divine engineer would do things in the simplest, and hence most efficient manner. Leibniz’s alternate proposition for choosing between equivalent alternative theories, that the theory which most satisfies the imagination is to be preferred, retains a more Catholic view of the creator as a divine artist, not concerned so much with efficiency, but trying this, trying that, erasing something that wasn’t to his liking. Leibniz’s basic assumption is that the human imagination is the closest thing available to divine creativity, and therefore what satisfies the imagination most is likely to be what would satisfy the divine artist the most. That science continues to use Occam’s razor in spite of the simplicity of earlier theories generally having been their downfall is itself an example of the prevalence and continuation of unquestioned assumptions within the sciences. While scientific doubt applies to the theories that result, it has not been applied with any fervour to the basic assumptions that underlie the founding conceptions and methods of modern natural science. Even Descartes for all his valiant doubting was impressively careful to leave anything that might cast doubt on the mathemetization of ontology off the table, such as the obviously unasked question of the nature of the Ego or, for that matter, that of the Cogito.
This produces a problem for postmodern natural science in that, since modern science is based on these creationist (and specific as to the nature of the creator) assumptions, the further one understands a given natural science, the more rational the notion of a creator-being becomes. As Heisenberg put it “The first sip of the natural sciences will make you an atheist, but God is waiting at the bottom of the glass.” As well, since these assumptions structure the development of theoretical edifices, there is always an inherent structural ‘place’ for such a creator-being, whether the author of the theory subscribes to those religious beliefs or not. Since the structure assumes a creator-being, something that fits the minimal required structural description must be substituted, hence in cosmology the initial singularity has most of the same attributes as the ‘god of the philosophers’: it is the uncaused cause of everything; what came prior to it is an inscrutable question; it is more unique and improbable than anything in observed reality, etc. The last one mentioned is specifically ironic, since in defending cosmology against the charge of improbability Stephen Hawking unwittingly responded with precisely the retort of Christian apologetics when charged with the improbability of God, that given anything as complex and improbable as reality we shouldn’t be surprised that its origin is even more complex and improbable. Worse from the non-believer’s perspective, the properly theological notion of God from Aquinas on is not subject to probability calculations, since it is untensed temporally, while the singularity of cosmology, since it no longer is, remains a temporally tensed being, and therefore subject to probability laws. One of the favourite arguments of vulgar atheists does more harm to the believability of one of their favourite beliefs – the big bang theory as the origin of everything, than it does to the theological notion of God. That reality had a specific beginning has been treated as allegory by Catholic theology since the time of Aquinas, an allegory meant to suffice as explanatory for those without the complexity of thought required to comprehend reality as the eternal (and indeed not necessarily intended) result of God’s inherent creativity,
The solution, from the perspective of a non-believer, is simply to not dispute the notions of more advanced theology, but to work from them. Aquinas doesn’t attempt to prove the existence of a God – he felt that would properly be impossible and even irreligious. His argument for the rationality of believing in God is thus simultaneously a valid argument for the rationality of not believing in a God, and can also be a valid argument for it not mattering. Aquinas saw more clearly than most people today that once you’ve admitted a beginning to reality, you’ve admitted creation, and therefore some sort of creator-being, from then the debate is really only about the nature of the creator being that both theists and vulgar atheists have already tacitly admitted to. Since making a huge assumption, such as that reality had a beginning, is not a valid argumentative ploy, Aquinas begins with the assumption that seemingly goes against his case – that reality is eternal. Once the need for a beginning and end to reality and thus an accounting for both is dropped, the almost desperate fantasmical notions required to sustain that cosmology vanish, and their unreasonableness becomes all too readily apparent.
This does, admittedly, put the results of modern natural science into fundamental question. The resulting almost automatic panic of “but what about technological progress?” can easily be shown to be groundless, since modern science in no way grounds technology, rather the reverse. Technology in its essence is nothing technological, as Heidegger pointed out. It is rather a specific mode of revealing reality. In revealing reality as if it were technical, and only in that way, technology in fact founds modern science as an accounting for reality revealed in that manner. Just as technology is not in its essence technological, modern science is not in its essence scientific. Its essence is co-founded in technological revealing and a specific Protestant ontology of creation. Reality can be treated as if it were created, but the resulting science will inevitably strand itself in paradoxes that can’t be solved without dumping that basic assumption. The current crises in the sciences, from physics to cognitive science, are precisely those paradoxes.
The very notions of development and natural history as evolutionary require an intentionality that is simultaneously necessary and denied by natural science. That intentionality, as telic causality, was not an issue for Plato and Aristotle, who didn’t make the assumption that unidirectional time based cause and effect was the only or even the important form of causality inherent in the real. Rather, the conception that what is must have posited itself retroactively as the foundation of causality, returned to by Hegel in his Logic, was too obvious an assumption to have been questioned. Our ‘common sense’ assumption of material and efficient causality as the foundation of reality (and even those in a restricted sense) only appears as a common and natural assumption from habit, and in fact is dependent on the belief in an a priori intentionality that can only be located in a specific interpretation of the nature of a creator-being.