The Perception of Reality: Objective or Subjective?

perceptionREALITYWhere best to start a discourse on the concept of reality than my own perception of it? First of all, let me explain why I am a supporter of the theory that reality is subjective and created within the mental structures of our minds; that reality, objectively, does not exist, which can be for some a pretty hard concept to get to grips with at first.


How can we describe reality?

It is tempting to accept that what we see around us is real and part of reality. The wonders of nature and the diversity of our architecture, in fact all that we perceive fill our consciousness every day; the people we interact and live with, the technology at our fingertips. In fact, everything we see around us makes up only the perception of reality. But, is this enough to explain what reality actually is? Is reality simply a vast collection of atoms, their physical existence explained by quantum physics alone? Or does reality completely exist within perception, linked to our ability to create meaning to the objects we see?

It is also safe to assume that for reality to exist there has to be a sense of awareness present to be in touch with the reality we perceive. This statement suggests that reality is uniquely subjective and personal. We can only be aware of our own experiences and
perceptions. For instance, I am aware of myself writing this post right now, on my laptop, in my bedroom, on this sunny day in May, birds singing sweetly outside my window and my wife clattering the dinner plates as she prepares our evening meal. Those experiences are perceived by my senses as real, and there is no denying it. What I just experienced was a perception of real events occurring within a collection of consecutive moments in time, as I was sensing them. If I had not been here, I would not have experienced the perceptions and therefore they would not have become part of my reality. Now, as time moves on, other sounds are entering my awareness and providing the continuity of reality, as experienced from this space and in this time.

Therefore, reality must work in conjunction with time, or rather the awareness of time. Does this same reality exist when we are not in a state of awareness, such as when we are asleep where the sense of time is not perceived, but often altered and distorted? The dream state is a different kind of reality, one where the subconscious is free to create whatever the hell it wants! But I wonder if we would dream if we had no sense of a conscious reality? I suspect not because the material that prolifirates the dream world originates from the conscious world. Many a psychoanalyst will tell you that dreams are created from our past experiences and associated feelings and emotions and cannot be formed by using ‘new’ material that we have never experienced before. They may appear surreal and unfathomable but the core of the dream material is always rooted in what we know and have experienced, although presented sometimes in highly confusing scenarios.

Perceiving objects and concepts that cross our path both unconscious and conscious exist because we place a value on them, given differing ratings if you like; some will rate higher than others because there are stronger meaning-value to them. If no value is afforded then these objects are not perceived by our sensory systems, but I would hazard a guess that this is rare. Objects that tend to have no value are those that are clearly not within our sphere of influence and therefore not part of our reality. For instance, I know that there are millions of trees in Alaska, which exist because I’ve seen photographs and films showing that they are there. I can freely choose to pick one of those trees as an object that I want to include into my reality. But while I’m convincing myself that it still stands in that wintry, cold forest in the wilds of Alaska, I don’t have evidence that it still exists. because my awareness is not continually monitoring its existence. That particular tree may have been felled recently and converted into planks and for sale in a hardware shop in Anchorage. If I carried on believing that it’s still part of that forest, then I am suffering a delusion, dare I say a wish-fulfillment; a belief that it still survives despite the dubiousness and lack of proof of its existence. So, that specific tree cannot be part of my reality (i.e. I have no access to perceive it because I live in a different part of the world). There is a fine line between belief and perception. How can I perceive an object when I don’t even know that it still exists?

So, everything we detect with our waking senses, creates a relationship with the world and the objects within it, but these objects can’t exist without sentient beings making sense of them. Take a chair as an example. I can see that as an object it exists, taking up a space in the corner of the room. I can see it, touch it, hear it when I move it around the room and I can possibly even smell the wood that it was made with. There is no doubt about it, the chair definitely exists in the real world, 3 dimensional and occupying time and space. But would it exist if we couldn’t detect it with our senses? Think about it. It would be pretty difficult to know it was there if it could not be seen, felt or smelled, wouldn’t it? If I lost my senses now, after experiencing the world for all of my 50 years I would still be able to detect that a world exists out there, full of objects, which I can draw from memory and help me form a reality, still subjective because of the relationship I had fostered with these objects and preserved safely in my memory banks. Any new objects that are created and occupy my sphere of influence will not become part of my reality because there would be no way for me to sense their presence. With no communication with others nor the ability to create a relationship with that object it would simply not exist in my reality. Reality would be non-progressive to me; stuck in the same reality permanently. But what if I had been born with no senses? I would not be able to form any personal relationships with objects and unable to communicate with other sentient beings to help me create my subjective reality (though if this was possible I would only interject the subjective realities of those other sentient beings. Wouldn’t reality be non existent to me?

How is our reality created in the first place?

At a very young age, we learn to identify objects we encounter (and very quickly too may I add) and attach linguistic attributes to them, which creates the world that we call our reality. How complete this world is depends on the amount of consciousness a person has
access to. Some people, bless them, go through life with little awareness of what is going around them. And I mean really going around them, failing to notice the minute details that lies within perception, that sometimes gets overlooked, moments lost forever, never to be re-captured. Perceiving objects in our awareness helps to ground them into our reality. They fit into a category-based memory system that is essential if one is to function in everyday situations. It is perfectly obvious to me that we all are capable of labelling these objects in our own, unique way. For instance, whenever I watch a programme on my television, its not just the material from the programme that constitutes the complete concept of the object (i.e. the television) for me. I have other unique investments
with the TV, importantly that it was my dad’s last TV before he died. Anyone else who views programmes on it will not have that private, emotional attachment as part of the whole concept of the object. They may, of course, have their own special attachment to my dad’s TV which I have no access to. They may communicate the personal significance to me, but I will always revert back to my personal meanings first rather than theirs. It may sound strange to write about an emotional attachment towards an inanimate object, but we as a species love to possess things and feel something for them. Think of a classic car that an enthusiast restores with loving care, or a photograph of a loved one which remains special forever. But those objects that are regarded as non-important also have some investment embedded within them. Only not as much.

So, what do we use to help us perceive reality?

Our senses, namely our eyes, ears, touch and smell help to confirm that these objects are real and exist as solid objects. Non-solid objects, such as ideologies and concepts exist because a group of people once used their mental structures to create them, formulate
and test them and finally made others aware of their existence. If such ideas had not been conceived by their originators, they would not exist and therefore not be a part of our world. It would have been as if a child had not been born because conception had not
occurred between that particular egg and sperm. The concept of Marxism (to use as an example of a random conceptual ideology) would not be part of human thinking if Karl Marx had not become a noted political philosopher. One wonders what ideas, concepts and technical marvels as yet not invented/created which will become part of our future reality. Think of what the world is like today compared to, say, 50 years ago, and try and find anything that is common with both. Isn’t the reality of the 1960’s different to the one that is experienced today?

So, historically, reality to us doesn’t stay in the same place, though it is locked in time if we were able to time-travel. It doesn’t have solid properties, one that can be touched, prized or kept. In fact it relates closer to a concept rather than categorized with the world of physics, a collection of atomic matter that can be found in the world around us. It’s ‘properties’ shift because of changes in society and technology and other progressive elements, largely propagated by ideas and decision making that originate from the mental structures of human beings. In fact we as a species create the world we live in, and a relatively small proportion of us succeed to make significant impact in instigating important and irrevocable change. Steve Jobs comes to mind. The introduction of computers and the internet is a classic case in point. Over the last 20 years the availability of high tech gadgets (I also include the prolific advancements in mobile technology here as well) has transformed the way we live so much that it would be unusual to find anyone who do not possess any of them. They have become part of us and our world as the television set did to our parents (or grandparents) decades ago. For someone who has lived through the recent whirlwind transitional period in technology in our society, I would argue that reality has changed so dramatically, that we now live in a world that has mutated to something that could never have been envisaged decades ago.

More investigations soon…

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About Gwyn H Hughes

I am a person-centred counselor with also a passion for family history, of which I write about at I also write articles for The News Hub.
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9 Responses to The Perception of Reality: Objective or Subjective?

  1. kendall says:

    I am curious if you have compared this analysis to the Buddhist concept of sunyata. You strike many similarities here that I find in the Mahayana.
    Very nice work.

    • Hi Kendall,
      Thanks for reading the post. It seems like my take on reality has naturally led me to buddhist concepts of which I was unaware of. I do however see reality in a phenomenological standpoint and that we can be connected to objects in our world in our own unique way. But most of this awareness is lost because we are too busy dealing with life! We have forgotten to stop and look and listen to the world around us. I read a book and hardly give a thought about the effort and time it has taken the author to think, conceptualize and produce the art of what I am holding in my hands. Perhaps it is more of a Gestalt way of looking at reality but I do see more depth and beauty in our world more than ever.

  2. Pingback: Reality; it’s so subjective | quantum gypsy

  3. Ray Summer says:

    As a fellow person-centred person, you’re probably aware of Carl Rogers’ Do We Need “A” Reality talk. Well worth a listen.

    Here are the links


    Great blog.

    • Thanks for the comment, Ray and I appreciate the links you provided. Unfortunately they didn’t work, but I have read Rogers’ “Do We Need ‘A’ Reality?” paper which I presume is what was on the links. I have been completely sold on the idea that only individual subjective realities exist for some time. It makes so much sense to me. I will be preparing my next post soon on Rogers’ 2nd Proposition which involves of course his view on reality.

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