October 26, 2010

[Reflection] On Reality and the Academy

Before reading on, watch this brief video (in short, test your "awareness" by keeping track of how many times the white team passes the ball):

OK, so you've watched the video. You've tested your awareness. And hopefully, you've had a similar reaction to mine (and now you'll be extra vigilant when driving a car)!

However, I bring up the video for a different reason: I find this video helpful in illustrating the multifaceted nature of reality. Ever since I first watched this video I haven't been able to shake off the implications of being 'duped' by the moonwalking bear. For had I not been told by the good people at London Transport after the first scene that there is in fact a man in a bear costume dancing ridiculously across the screen, I never would have considered this to be a material 'fact' in this video, despite having used my own eyes and ears to decipher what is happening on the screen. 

This raises a philosophical question: Is the bear actually really there? For those of us who have been told of the 'trick' at the end of this video and have gone back to verify this claim, the bear is part of our conception of reality - it is has become a material fact. We have gone back to make sure that we see the bear, and sure enough it is there - the bear is real. But for those who aren't told to look for a bear, the bear may as well not exist. If you were to ask them whether they saw a the bear in the video, they would think you were crazy. So, again, one could make the case that the bear does not exist... at least for this latter group - they could go on forever thinking that the video has nothing to do with a dancing bear, and that they 'passed' the awareness test because they accurately counted the number of passes made by the white team. To complicate matters, I have shown this video to friends and some of them have still failed to see the bear on the second and even third showing, after being told to look for a moonwalking bear! It just goes to show that reality is muddier than we think.

If we were to gather people who have only seen the first part of this video with others who have been told to look for a moonwalking bear and have verified this as reality, we would have trouble coming to agreement as a group about the what really happens in the video. This is because we have different presuppositions. In other words, we can ask people the same question after watching the first half of the video (did you see a dancing bear?) and yield different results because there are multiple versions of reality out there.

OK, I've belabored this point... After all, it's just a YouTube video with an optical illusion, you say. But it's the broader implications that we can tease out and apply to more relevant issues that makes this important. Here's another example:

Recently I was listening to a CBC radio interview with Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk about a perplexing issue he's recently explored in Northern Canada. Inuit elders were claiming by the dozens that the earth was beginning to 'tilt' away from the sun. Whereas for decades the sun was known to rise and set at certain locations at certain times of the year, and whereas this had proven to be empirically true year after year after year, the elders discerned that something had gone awry because the sun was no longer where it was supposed to be at the given time of the year. It seemed to be drifting 'south', and not just by a small margin. The moon and the stars also seemed to be out of place. And so it was decided that the earth is in the process of tilting.

Western scientists were equally perplexed, because when they were told of this phenomena it did not fit their understanding of reality. This type of Earth tilting as the Elders described would be impossible according to the natural laws of geophysics. And so Western scientists have sought a different explanation. As it turns out, the Western scientists claim, high-paced human induced climatic changes have caused a change in the major wind patterns in the North. This has caused a hot air inversion layer, which causes light to bend differently. In turn, this creates an optical illusion in which the sun moves across the sky. The sun, moon, and stars appear 'out of position' because of the way light is being refracted differently through our changing atmosphere. But, they confirm, the sun, moon, and starts really are where they are supposed to be.

We can pose the question again about reality - has the earth tilted, as the Inuit Elders suggest, or is it merely an optical illusion caused by a changing climate? Aren't both 'realities' possible? Does it matter which reality we conceive? Or does what matter have to do with what we do about it? Does it help the Inuit to 'know' that the sun is where it is supposed to be, when in fact it appears elsewhere? The Inuit are adapting to their new reality, explains Kunuk, while the Western scientists are using it as further evidence that we need to do something about climate change.

Reality is subjective. And since most of us have different conceptions of reality - one might say we have different 'ontologies' - this poses a basic problem when it comes to communicating, discussing and debating various issues. For if the very ontology through which we interpret reality is divorced from the reality of the people with whom we are discussing, the possibility of reaching understanding is challenged. For those academically inclined, particularly in the field of Geography, R.T. Harrison and D.N. Livingstone (1980) offer a 'presuppositional' approach as a means to explore the very foundations of reality and the process of knowledge creation as a starting point to overcome the "pervasive influence of presuppositions in all scientific and philosophical thought" (25). It is useful! The following chart which they have offered helps us to uncover the multiple levels at which presuppositions are built, which is the first step in becoming aware of such presuppositions and trying to overcome them:
R. T. Harrison and D. N. Livingstone. "Philosophy and Problems in Human Geography: A Presuppositional Approach," Area, Vol. 12, No. 1 (1980), pp. 25-31.


  1. nice Ryan,
    so are you saying academia has a place in the real world?

  2. That's not what I was trying to say... in fact I was trying to say that there is no such thing as the real world, but rather different real worlds and that academics need to make note of that. However, as a side note - I do think academia has a place in the real world... we just haven't been very good at making that connection meaningful here in neoliberal Canada.

  3. Thanks Ryan(?) especially for the reference, I instantly rushed to jstor and got the article. I am more interested in Livingstone's Geographies of science work,but this is good for an early glimpse of the later work. I especially like the quote from Kafka at the end: "truth is permanently on the point of taking off its mask and revealing itself as illusion, illusion in constant danger of being verified as truth"

  4. No problem - but the real thank-you goes to my doctoral seminar supervisor for making us read some very intellectually stimulating articles.