When I look around my room, I see a laptop, a lamp, a coffee cup, and various other odds and ends. The temperature in the room is cool. I hear the rain falling outside and sometimes the dog barking. This description is what it’s like to be in this room now.
Some philosophers mean that these sensations have an additional feeling. It’s because the scene around me feels real. I feel like I’m really in a room, with a lamp, with the rain falling outside. These feelings are not accompanied by a vague sense of unreality that seems to infect dreams or hallucinations. It all seems real.
Source: Max Vakhtbovych/Pexels
What is this feeling? Is there such a thing? One way to approach this question is to consider individuals who say things are not right seem real to them.
Derealization is a symptom in which a person reports that the world around them does not seem real. It is often linked to the related phenomenon of depersonalization, where one feels somehow detached from oneself.
Derealization can have various causes – trauma is an important cause, but not the only one – and various manifestations. Some people report feeling like life is like a movie or a video game. If there’s one thing that people with derealization seem to miss, it’s what I’ve described above – a sense that it’s all real.
Some philosophers have thought that the sense of reality is nothing but awareness of objects in one’s environment. These individuals are acutely aware of things in their environment that just don’t seem real to them. But examination of derealization suggests that this cannot be entirely accurate. The philosopher Alexandre Billon recently argued that the phenomenon of derealization should lead us to take seriously the idea that we have a sense of reality.
Billon reviewed the psychiatric and philosophical literature to think about how to understand the different accounts of how this feeling (and lack thereof) works. I want to focus on such an account. What derealization lacks is something affective, a kind of emotion. As Billon pointed out, this is a view that has a long pedigree in the history of psychiatric thinking on derealization. There is evidence that derealization is associated with defects in emotional processing. But, if what derealization lacks is some kind of emotion, what kind of emotion is it precisely?
Start by thinking that positive emotions are often responses to value. Love is, in part, a response to the value of one’s beloved, and joy is a response to the value of all that joy is found in. recognition that the world matters.
To experience derealization is, at least in part, to miss this basic feeling of worry. (Billon attributes the idea that the link between emotion and value is crucial to understanding derealization to the unpublished work of philosopher Richard Dub, although he reports that Dub’s view is different from that suggested here) .
If that is what it is to have no sense of reality, then we also understand what it is to have a sense of reality. For many of us – that is, for those who are not prone to derealization – the sense of reality can be seen as a kind of emotional background noise for all of our experience, so constant that we only notice it when it is missing.
I look around to notice the room, the lamp, and the rain falling outside. I also do it to feel that this matters and concerns me about what is happening here.
As Billon has pointed out, one objection to this view is that one can own the belief that the world is meaningless or worthless (for example, some pessimists do) without experiencing derealization. But in the current view, the sense of reality is deeper, or at least different, from our beliefs about reality. It is not an intellectual state but an emotional state.
This view can shed light on some philosophical debates about reality. Consider the debates over the metaphysical status of virtual reality. Many of us think that virtual reality, as fascinating as it is, is unreal. When I play miniature golf in virtual reality (like I did), I use an unreal putter to hit an unreal ball.
Against this view, some have suggested that the virtual world is not an alternative to the real world: it is an equally real, albeit non-physical, part of the world. Philosopher David Chalmers has argued that we should think of virtual worlds as real, and in fact, if that whole world turned out to be a computer simulation (as he thinks it is), that wouldn’t call into question the claim that it there really are lamps. , and desks, and dogs.
How do we decide between our current boundary for reality and the larger one advocated by Chalmers? One thought suggested by the above is that this decision is ultimately one for our collective hearts, as much as it is for our heads. For any aspect of our experience to be real, it is partly necessary for us to regard it as real, and for us to regard it as real is partly to extend a fundamental attitude of concern for it.
Whether virtual worlds will be considered real will then depend, in part, on their importance to us in the same way that the familiar physical world, at least for most of us, already does.