In western culture there is a single underlying idea which influences all thought from religion to science. It is a simple categorical assumption taken almost unanimously and acts as the foundation from which all other lines of inquiry arise. There are, of course, specific terms for this in the specialized languages of philosophy, cognitive science and neuropsychology. However I am going to try to explain all of this without that jargon, instead using metaphors and other language devices to explain it in familiar terms.
“I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process -an integral function of the universe.” -Buckminister Fuller
Western ideology is built upon the basic principle that reality and everything within it is a noun, a thing; and verbs are merely tools for describing the interactions between things, or nouns. Within this assumption lies a validation predicated solely upon circular reasoning. The underlying nounness or thingness of everything is often proven using methods or logic based on the a priori assumption that everything is a thing.
Modern western thought tends towards methodological absolutism, the notion that a single method of determining truth is available to us and that we should apply it to the exclusion of lesser methods in regard to all lines of inquiry. In western culture the predominate method was once religion. But choked by its own dogma and the tide of technological advancement, religion has begun to become replaced by science. Even most religious people today have a worldview that presupposes the superiority of science for determining most of our daily truths. Yet religious fundamentalists still cling to absolute faith in their method at the expense their ideological and spiritual evolution and adapting to truths revealed through the scientific method. More and more so, the perception of science in public has begun to accumulate its own fundamentalist dogma, most likely to the expense of their own ideological and spiritual evolution. This may be explained by the human tendency of overcorrection, which I discuss elsewhere on this site. My point here is that both religion and science have some inescapble similarities and one of them is the notion that reality ‘is’. That it is independent of consciousness and that we are essentially rats trapped within its maze who must understand the maze in order to benefit from it. What neither side is willing to admit is that perhaps the maze is all in our minds and that it is a product of consciousness. We have closed ourselves off to the idea that rather than experiencing the maze, we are actively creating it through our attempts to observe, measure and label it.
Reality is a verb.
To illustrate this point we will look towards quantum and social science theories that seem to indicate a correlation between reality and subjective experience.
In early quantum physics science attempted to discern what the nature of particles was. As particles were considered the building block from which all of reality was comprised it was deemed useful to understand exactly what a particle is. However a new problem introduced itself during the testing. Particles were defying definition by sometimes acting as particles and other times acting as waves. Essentially, particles would take on the characteristic of a thing or a process (noun or a verb) depending entirely on the methods and instruments used to measure it. This led quantum physicists to theorize the inseparability principle, which states that an observation or measurement cannot be known independently of the method, device or observer used to make it. The nature of particles is objectively unknowable and the outcome of the tests could not tell you about the nature the particle so much as the relation of the particle to the method of observation and measurement. The state of the particle was dependent upon the assumptions inherent in the testing method.
Although this observer effect suggests inability to make objective statements from a subjective measurement, quantum physicists now describe the effect as a measurement problem and not an objective limitation. Therefore I submit this not as an absolute proof, but as a piece of perspective in a larger framework.
Another interesting paradox within quantum physics is the thought experiment known as Schrodingers Cat. In this experiment a cat is placed in a box with a container of poison gas whose casing is being degraded by a radioactive substance in the box. Because radioactive decay is not entirely predictable it is impossible to determine at which point the gas will release and kill the cat. With no other knowledge of the activity within the box at a given time, the state of the cat (alive or dead) cannot be known until the box is opened and we can observe the state of the cat. Until that observation is made the cat must be considered both alive and dead, even though it can only be in one state or another independent of the observer. But from the observers perspective this experiment suggests that reality exists in all possible states until defined by an observation. Again, more recent interpretations of this attempt to remove the suggestion that objectivity is perhaps a bit futile, yet it still serves as a metaphor in favor of reality as a verb. And just in case you were worried, it was only ever a thought experiment and no cats were harmed in the making of Schrodingers paradox.
The Asch Conformity Test was an experiment to determine whether or not individuals relied more heavily on their own observations or if they would adopt the opinions of other observers who claimed to perceive things differently. To do this the experimenters put one uninformed subject in a group of confederates who were told to answer the questions in a specific way. The questions involved a simple visual task in which a single line was to be compared with a set of lines of varying sizes. The participants would then be asked to match the single line to the line within the set that corresponded in length. The confederates would answer first, sometimes giving the correct answer and sometimes giving an incorrect one as a group. The test subject was then observed to see if they would answer the question correctly or if they would follow the group and give an incorrect answer. About a third of the time, participants would conform to the group. The interesting findings came from surveys after the test where it was found that about half of the time the participant gave a wrong answer it was because they agreed with the answer and not because they felt pressured to answer that way. Later this experiment was done simultaneously with ekg tests that confirmed that in many cases, the actual observation was being affected by the confederates wrong answers. Participants were giving the wrong answer because after hearing it, they actually observed it. Their reality was reliant on the consensus of the group.
The phenomena known as groupthink is well documented. The internal biases of a group and their willingness to conform for social and practical reasons has been at the center of much speculation in the scientific, economic and philosophical communities. During the process of groupthink our own perceptions and perspectives are whittled away in favor of a dominant ideology, even if the ideology formed independently of the perceptions and perspectives of members of the group. In groupthink the members come to think what they think they are supposed to think. So what does groupthink tell us about reality? Could reality be constructed from the same process. Do social cues narrow our scope of reality and define it regardless of contradictory information? Is reality itself observed or do we merely confirm the bias inherent in our ideologies of what reality is? If reality can be limited by this process, does it in fact exist independently of the observers?
Meanwhile, Spiral of Science suggests that those who tend to disagree with the opinions of the majority will remain silent for fear that dissent may isolate them from the group and cause negative social, economic or personal outcomes. Plenty of people view reality differently than the dominate majority. Yet these perspectives are tucked into the marginalia of observable realty for failure to conform. Galileo Galilee is a great example of an individual who refused to accept the dominant paradigm and suffered for it. Yet after many generations his idea became the dominate paradigm for understanding the cosmos. So what happened? Did reality change or did the observers? Or is there any difference?
We assume that reality exists independently of us. That it is a noun. An observable phenomena. Yet many of our observations seem to indicate that what we observe to be reality is merely a confirmation of our biases. Furthermore, there seems to be a sort of democratic function in the description of reality itself. Reality seems to conform to what we believe reality is or what we believe it could or should be. Yet any estimate of what reality is in one generation will change dramatically in the next few. Does reality change or does our understanding of it change? Or could that be a false dichotomy? Perhaps as we fine tune our understanding of reality through the processes of philosophy, science, religion, art and other ideas, observations and labels we also create a new reality which conforms to our expectations. Whether or not this can be proven to be the case we still have to deal with the fact that what we call reality is never the same over time. Whatever reason is given for this still leads us to conclude that reality is not static. Reality is not a thing. Reality is not a noun. It is a verb. A process of interactions between phenomena that is ever changing, doing, not being.
Given even the slightest odds that we create reality rather than merely experience it, how would you think and act differently if you knew that what you could convince yourself and others to believe reality was became reality itself?