Another quote, this time from science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." This is from a speech given in 1978, entitled "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later". By all means read the whole thing, at http://deoxy.org/pkd_how2build.htm, but here is an excerpt that put the quotation more in context:
It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question "What is reality?", to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." That's all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven't been able to define reality any more lucidly.
But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener. Sometimes when I watch my eleven-year-old daughter watch TV, I wonder what she is being taught. The problem of miscuing; consider that. A TV program produced for adults is viewed by a small child. Half of what is said and done in the TV drama is probably misunderstood by the child. Maybe it's all misunderstood. And the thing is, Just how authentic is the information anyhow, even if the child correctly understood it? What is the relationship between the average TV situation comedy to reality? What about the cop shows? Cars are continually swerving out of control, crashing, and catching fire. The police are always good and they always win. Do not ignore that point: The police always win. What a lesson that is. You should not fight authority, and even if you do, you will lose. The message here is, Be passive. And—cooperate. If Officer Baretta asks you for information, give it to him, because Officer Beratta is a good man and to be trusted. He loves you, and you should love him.
So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power.
So Dick was talking about how people who create pseudo-realities, which give them power over us, but only if we believe in them. We do have the choice not to believe, although it can be easy to loose sight of that.
Now I have some rather odd personal definitions of words like "belief". Somewhat different from what you will find in the dictionary, but very useful, I think, in thinking clearly about this subject.Truth: what other people want you to believe.
Facts: information about reality that we get using measuring devises of known accuracy and that give the same answers again and again.
Knowledge: combine facts with rational explanations that generate testable predictions. Do the tests again and again, publishing negative results with just as much fanfare as positive ones. Be skeptical of outlandish results, use critical thinking and work very hard not to commit any of the errors that plague our efforts to think clearly.. Do all this and eventually you arrive at a body of scientific knowledge. Unlike "truth" this sort of knowledge is not absolute. It is provisional and subject to revision as more data becomes available and explanations improve. But is it the best you can do. And much has already been done. Familiarize yourself with the existing body of scientific knowledge -- stand on the shoulders of giants, the view is much better.
Belief: a last resort to turn to when the currently known facts and the best available explanations of them don't answer you questions and you must have an answer on which to base your decisions. Beliefs should be avoided at all costs, much better to admit that we don't yet know and just continue searching. But the world being what it is, there are many decisions that must be guided, at least in part, by nothing more substantial than belief.
Reality Based: based on what we know really exists, as detailed under knowledge above.
Not Reality Based: beliefs which have been put to the test and repeatedly disproved.Such beliefs tend to have such immense popular appeal that one flawed investigation supporting them out-weights hundred of well design studies disproving them.
Credulity: a willingness to believe in someone or something in the absence of reasonable proof.
So I would say it is best to first stop believing and then observe what doesn't go away -- that's reality. And when someone comes to you preaching absolute "truths" be very, very suspicious. And that includes me, though I'm going to try very hard not to preach or offer absolute truths. Just the facts, ma'am, and some rational explanations which include predictions that you can test for yourself.
For those interested in pursuing this line of thought about thinking, here are several Wikipedia articles that may be of interest:
List of cognitive Biases,
and another article on Logic & Fallacies -- Constructing a Logical Argument.
I can give the highest recommendation to Skeptic magazine, which you should be able to find on a newsstand near you or check out the electronic version online.
Above, I defined belief as "a last resort to turn to when the currently known facts and the best available explanations of them don't answer you questions and you must have an answer on which to base your decisions." The world being what it is, there are many decisions that must be guided, at least in part, by nothing more substantial than belief. For those who are curious about what I do believe, I've added a page entitled "What I believe" to this blog.