Reality and Ultimate Reality

Reality, total reality and ultimate reality are seen differently by science, philosophy and religion. Ultimate reality is the absolute or universe source.

What is real?

To understand what life is all about, first of all we have to decide what is real. Science, philosophy and religion all present huge challenges to our ordinary, everyday concepts of reality, and how far can we trust the evidence of our senses? Maturing thought has brought us to accept that abstractions may be real, but now we have another dimension to ponder – the virtually real. Some worldviews deny the reality of our Universe, saying that everything we see is a mere illusion and that reality lives only in an ideal world. Some see many realities rather than just the one. Clearly too, reality is always changing, and though there are things beneath this flux that apparently endure, the sheer pace of change confuses us and fills us with doubt. Resolving these dilemmas requires us to have an open and flexible approach.

How can we know what is real?

How we can know anything is real is itself a matter for debate. Many times something has been widely believed but shown to be wrong. Scientific method, logic, hermeneutics and other disciplines of thought provide reasonable confidence that certain propositions are true; yet these are all only partial approaches, and to a degree subjective. One way of proceeding is to accept everything as real, even though it may exist only in the mind. Thus, we can think in terms of “total reality” - everything that is, has been and may be, including possibilities not yet conceived. This is a useful foundation for thought, if only because it enables us to admit all possibilities at least initially, consider them and then form our conclusions as to which might have most value.

The idea of ultimate reality

There is a widely held view, largely intuitive, that reality has an “ultimate” dimension, a core or baseline which is a firm foundation for the other things in life which are transitory. If this is true, it is obviously the key to many of our questions. There is no certainty that such a thing as ultimate reality exists – it may be just a trick of the mind - however it is an idea that has roots in all directions. Part of our humanness is that we have a sense of dimension that goes well beyond ourselves. We are also capable of abstract thought, and so – though scientists might disagree - we tend to see ultimate reality as something not physical but metaphysical.

Different meanings of ultimate reality

Ultimate reality can be understood in different ways, whether as the sum of all things, the underlying truth of all things, or the source and destiny of all things. Even the language we use can limit our understanding of this concept. Science sees ultimate reality in things like energy, the laws of nature, universal order, and the drive to create; it still hopes for a theory of everything which will tie these ideas together. Philosophy sees ultimate reality in notions like universal mind, or the absolute, or the ideal; again there is no agreement. Religion holds that ultimate reality lies in the sacred or divine, though this may take different forms, reflecting the overall diversity of faiths. By definition, however, there can be only one reality that is ultimate.

The idea of the absolute

If total reality is the sum of all reality (a quantitative notion), we may regard ultimate reality as the deepest reality (which is qualitative). Adopting this view, we are effectively saying that ultimate reality is the absolute value of everything: the hottest heat, the coldest cold, the most loving love, and so on. As such, the idea of ultimate reality is useful because it gives us standards. Typically the absolute (taken as a whole) is considered to be without form or substance, without limits, transcendent above everything, immanent within everything, and – not surprisingly – beyond description. And if the absolute is our ultimate reality, it is by implication the most fertile and creative of all things and therefore our source. Likewise, as the most destructive and final of all things, it may be our destiny.

And now, for a poet’s perspective, read Trees

We live in a world of many realities, things that have happened, are happening and may happen. Within this vastness we perceive an ultimate reality, which is the highest or deepest reality. It is the absolute, transcending all, within all, and possibly the source of everything. We do not know and cannot know whether this ultimate reality is just a thing or whether it has a mind of its own, or a personality or power, but potentially it is a standard or a goal to which human beings can aspire.

Suggested further reading

Hsu, Sung-Peng. 1976. “Lao Tzu’s Conception of Ultimate Reality: A Comparative Study.” International Philosophical Quarterly 16: 197-218.

Valea, Ernest. 2011. “The Ultimate Reality in World Religions.”

Watts, Alan. 1987. The Two Hands of God: An Exploration of the Underlying Unity of All Things. London: Century Hutchinson.