The Many Layers of Reality or “Is a Fire Truck Really a Fire Truck?”

Is a fire truck really a fire truck? Is a truck really a truck? Is anything really what it is? We assume that things really are what they appear to us to be. This assumption is yet another form of the Myth of the Given. Unfortunately it isn’t true. Most of us have already realized that things are not always as they appear to us. I wanted to take this inquiry a little further.

Imagine this scene. You are walking with a friend near a busy street. You hear a siren sounding and then you point to one of many vehicles in the street and say, “Look, a fire truck.” Your friend immediately looks in the direction you are pointing toward and without even a thought recognizes the fire truck from among the many other vehicles in the crowded street.

But what is a fire truck…really? If we dismantle a fire truck into all of its parts and pieces and then pile those up on the ground and ask our friend what he sees when she looks at the pile she will probably not say “A fire truck.” She will say a pile of parts, or maybe just a pile of junk. All of the physical parts of the fire truck are still there, but the fire truck seems to be gone.

When we dismantled the fire truck we didn’t change the physical aspect of its reality we simply changed the functional aspect of its reality. Physically it is all still there, but the parts arranged randomly in a pile can no longer function like a fire truck. So we seem to have separated out a physical aspect of reality from a functional aspect of reality.

Now what happens if we take a beautiful new fully functional fire truck and park it in the middle of a village of tribes people in the rainforest of South America who have no conception whatsoever of what a fire truck is? The fire truck could sit there for years and huts and houses could burn down all around it and the fire truck would never be used to stop a single one of them. Is it still a fire truck? Theoretically it could still function as a fire truck if someone knew how to use it.

What if the tribes people start using the odd object that has been parked in their village as a meeting place for festivals. Is the fire truck now a meeting place? Is a fire truck a fire truck if it doesn’t put out fires? Is a fire truck a meeting place if it is a place where people gather? We are talking about another layer of reality – social reality.

The interesting thing about reality is that it is complex and layered. It contains at least a physical layer, a functional layer and a social layer. Which is really real? If you are a materialist you will say the physical layer is ultimately the real truth and everything else is relative. If you are a functionalist you will lean toward the functional definition of reality. If you are a cultural relativist you will tend to see the social reality as more foundational then the other two.  If you are a nihilistic relativist you will say that none of them are really real because they are all just perspectives and there is nothing that is absolutely real.

The Pragmatists had an interesting take on this. Charles Sanders Peirce saw the world as made up of an infinite array of signs that point toward an ever-evolving deeper reality.  In our example of the fire truck in the busy street there is a series of signs that lead to and interact together. The sound of the siren is a sign of a fire truck. The visual sight of the fire truck is another sign of the fire truck. The sounds that make up the word ‘fire truck’ are yet a third sign of the fire truck. The finger pointing is a sign to look in a particular direction. The fire truck itself is a sign of the ability to put out a fire etc…signs pointing to signs pointing to more signs forever.

What is the ultimate reality toward which all of these signs are pointing? According to Peirce that reality is not only being pointed toward but also revealed through and created by signs. For him signs are not just signs pointing toward reality, but also part of reality. Signs point toward realities. Those realities themselves are also signs that point toward other realities. Reality consists of signs, but signs are also part of reality. Reality is growing in the form of signs that emerge to point toward realities and themselves become the realities that future signs will point toward.

The ultimate reality will not be fully revealed/created until every possible sign – every last pointing – has come into being. Then we will finally see all of the signs that represent every possible perspective on what is real.