You Can't Know What Reality Is

How do we know what we know? Personally, this question has become important as we in social work look at what theory or model best explains human behavior, and what theory to use as we do therapy, or other interventions, etcetera. But it applies in other fields as well, and just in life as well. From politics to relationship with friends and family, knowing what policies we should support, and being able to understand each other's lived experiences. How do we know what we know, how do we respond when our lived experiences, and perspective is in violent contradiction with another person's perspective?

Famously, Descartes said “I think, therefore I am” meaning that since he thinks, he knows that at least he exists, and I think that this is a conclusion that we all have reached. We all start off knowing that I think, I know my thoughts. We live life from our own subjective point of view, and to ignore that, to ignore the fact that we are individuals navigating life would mean to make the rest of our conclusions on false premises

From here we begin to venture out, and realize “hey, other people are here too”. Usually, it starts with our parents, in our early stages we rely on them a lot, and so we acknowledge their existence for rather selfish reasons.

From there our lives and our thoughts can be boiled down to a mix of biological and chemical processings, which interact with our experiences, which further affect our chemical balances, and so on. Looking at us this way it makes you wonder, do we have any agency? Why do we do what we do?

Freud thought it could all relate back to your relationship with your parents, while if you look at Cognitive Behavioral Therapy then your feelings don’t have to do with your past experiences, but what you think about those experiences. Then again if you ask a social constructionist and they’ll tell you reality doesn’t even exist!

With so many different viewpoints, it leaves me wondering who’s right, or if it’s even possible to come to any objective answer. For the most part I’ve felt the best answer lied in empirical data, or research. If it wasn’t proven in a lab, then it doesn’t exist. For me though, this leaves out something.

Namely what is left out is one’s own personal experience. What if my lived experiences lead me to a different conclusion than what a study says? Bias is a real thing, am I to assume I am wrong? What if it’s the study that is wrong? Also, what about things you can’t test for, like the existence of the human spirit?

Some people might be ready to throw away their belief in the human spirit, but other people have lived their whole life with the idea. If you were to talk to a devout, deeply spiritual person, now at the age of 90, who lived their whole life knowing, knowing, that they lived their life so that their soul could got to heaven, would you tell them that you believed they didn’t have a soul?

I’m not sure I have any answers. Ultimately I feel both are important. One’s own life experiences are important, and so is having empirical data. We are likely to meet people who have different stories than we do. Maybe somewhere between all of our stories there is some kind of answer. At the end I guess all I have is a kind of cliche quote, “It takes two to speak the truth - one to speak and another to hear.” - Henry David Thoreau.

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