Is Reality Relative? (#104)

17 years ago the city council in Monza, Italy (famous for its Formula 1 Grand Prix) prohibited pet owners from keeping their goldfish in bowls (like the one in the picture above). Here’s part of what the measure’s sponsor said, “The ruling is intended to transmit a message about the correct treatment of domestic animals. A fish kept in a bowl has a distorted view of reality and suffers because of this…

“Distorted view of reality”? How to be sure that a goldfish who’s stayed in a curved bowl for almost all its life is living in a distorted view of reality? Furthermore, how to know what the fish thinks is reality and how to be certain that it suffers? Also what if we’re living with a transparent curved fish bowl on top of our heads as well? Okay maybe that’s too much.

Anyway, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their book The Grand Design explain that though differing from ours, the goldfish could still formulate scientific laws governing- say the motion of objects (from observations of things moving outside their curved bowl). For example, a ball moving through a horizontal surface which we would observe as moving in a straight line, would (because of the distortion) rather be taking a curved path for the goldfish. Despite that, a Newton-like goldfish could formulate its own laws of moving bodies in nature. It could then predict the movement of bodies outside their bowl which would always be correct in their curved frame.

Is it really right for us to say that the goldfish is wrong in its theory even upon knowing its frame of view? No, I don’t think so. We perceive reality our way. And the goldfish does it its way. How do we not know we’re living in a sort of giant filter of our own? (That which blocks reality—like the transparent curved bowl of some sorts on top of our heads?). We don’t.

Indeed this time, you’ve got to go with the maxim: reality is how you perceive it.

So is reality relative?
The philosopher may simply say yes. But the scientist would disagree.
Modern physicists are coming up with interesting ideas and concepts of science such as the string theory, m-theory and the multiverse. Very complicated subjects, if you ask me. String theory explains how there are 11 dimensions instead of the normal and visible 3. It’s quite convoluted. And it has its ways to find out the meaning of everything and reality. Anyway, so there begins to occur a clash between the philosopher and the scientist. One aiming simply to find meaning. The other craves invisible quantum data, suggesting the laws of the universe.
In our fish bowl example, viewing it normally we would have to conclude that the fish is right in its perspective. Viewing it scientifically and in the quantum manner though, would give us results in weird ways we don’t want to get into here. Since honestly I don’t even know and it’s perfectly okay to say “I don’t know enough about this to have an opinion.”

Seeing this matter in the psychological form though, subjective realities are a whole different thing. A subjective reality is indeed relative. In fact it’s just the perceived reality of an individual. We can’t say what’s right and what’s wrong in a reality perceived by someone. Subjective reality is a kind of thing where there is nature in it’s pure form, and we look at it, our thought patterns, mental models and biases filter them and we look at the situation at hand through those infiltrations if you like. Then comes the final perception of reality. They would be relative. Because it’s something which is perceived to be true and hence has the tendency to differ from two individuals thinking.

Real reality or just reality on the other hand is a tricky subject. You see, reality is the state of things as they actually exist. And that can’t be relative. At least it’s not apt to call reality relative if there exists a definition for it—the way things actually exist. But won’t we always have to perceive reality through our senses and thought patterns? Won’t they always act on our comprehension of reality to some extent?

At least the goldfish in the curved bowl can rest assured that it is living in reality (even if only in its little bowl).


The book where I first heard about the fish story from:
The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

World Briefing | Europe: Italy: City Wants Happier Goldfish – New York Times

Council bans goldfish bowls – ABC News

Questioning Truth, Reality and the Role of Science – Quanta Magazine

Quantum physics: Our study suggests objective reality doesn’t exist –

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