Nearly everyone today knows that the Earth is not flat. We know that the perceived flatness of the Earth is only an illusion caused by the enormous size of our planet. If you can convince NASA to put you up into space, there is no doubt that you can prove that the Earth is not flat. But what if someone told you that what you call reality ― the one that you can observe and where you can find Earth ― is also just another illusion, i.e., a false reality? Would you make an effort to find out what is true?
Just because our present notions of reality are consistent with our everyday experience, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are correct. For example, people were limited in their technology in the past, so they had no evidence that the flatness of the Earth they perceived was just an illusion. Due to their lack of insight, many claimed that if someone steps beyond the edge, that person will fall.
In our time, even if our technology has given us quite an advantage over our predecessors, we still cannot claim that we are no longer limited in our experience of reality. As a result, many of us who naturally possess an irresistible impulse to question the nature of existence get agitated when it comes to the issue of whether what we know is real and not just an illusion.
What if some “other” reality exists, but is hidden from our awareness? If people had mistaken ideas about reality in the past, then how can we be sure that our ideas aren’t erroneous even now?
The Idea of “Substance”
"Substantiality is inversely proportional to ponderability"
- Franklin Merrell-Wolff
Some people claim that if we cannot perceive something, then it cannot and does not exist. Others claim that even if it did exist, then the only thing we can do is to speculate about its existence since we cannot directly experience it. It is in this regard that the notion of substance enters the picture.
Substance is a very old concept in philosophy and many philosophers have their own views regarding it. In the general sense, substance is the fundamental element of reality or “what a thing is made of.” Materialists, for example, see atoms as substances. Idealists see ideas as substances.
The issue about substantiality is the kind of problem that countless thinkers have tried to solve for ages. One such thinker was an American philosopher and mathematician named Franklin Merrell-Wolff. Wolff was not only an intellectual, but also a mystic who reportedly had an experience with the transcendental reality.
According to Wolff, the material objects that we see, which have a high degree of perceptibility, are less real. Subtle or abstract objects, which have a low degree of perceptibility, are of a higher degree of substantiality or 'more real'. In other words, the level of reality or true substance is the inverse or opposite of the level of perceptibility. He expressed this idea using the statement: “Substantiality is inversely proportional to ponderability” or “reality is inversely proportional to appearance."
One of the difficulties we encounter with our limited perception is that we get used to treating objects as substances themselves, so we fail to realize that these objects are just “appearances.”
A dog, for example, can be of different kinds and characteristics. A dog can be small, large, domestic, wild, furry, skinny, fat, and so on, but these are just the properties of being a dog. If you remove all these properties, can you still say that something is a dog? If not, then where can you find a "real" dog? Does a “dog” really exist? Should we, therefore, say that a “dog” doesn’t exist because we cannot perceive a dog “in and of itself” or we cannot see its substance?
Our Limited Perception
Reality, as we know it, can only be experienced through our perceptions. Unfortunately, since our perceptions are limited, we cannot really experience things as they actually exist. Again, we should ask, does it immediately follow that something does not exist if we cannot perceive it through our senses?
As Wolff stated, the things that we cannot see are more real than the things that we can see, and modern science has tons of evidence to back up this claim. There are many “invisible” objects in this world that we cannot perceive directly, but have been proven by scientists to exist. Gravity, the higher and lower frequencies of light, black holes, electromagnetic radiation, and subatomic particles are just a few examples of these invisible objects. We cannot perceive them, much less their substance, but we have gained the ability to create man-made instruments that help us detect these objects. Thus, we become capable of forming conceptual models (ideas) of them.
However, due to lack of interest in exploring the unknown and the unseen, many of us become so dependent on experts to tell us what exists and what doesn’t exist. It becomes very hard for us, individually, to acknowledge the existence of other things we have yet to see or experience unless they have been confirmed by people who have the capability and technology to search for these objects. Experts tell us what to believe even though most of us do not really understand what they are talking about. Heck, sometimes even the experts themselves don't really understand what they are talking about.
So, with all of this in mind, I think it is important for us to remember one very important lesson: we must not always rely on others to tell us what is real or not real, what is true and not true, or what exists and what doesn't exist. There are some things that you just need to find out and experience for yourself, yes?