The Why of Reality by Nathanael Stein

The easy question came first, a few months after my son turned four: ‘Are we real?’ It was abrupt, but not quite out of nowhere, and I was able to answer quickly. Yes, we’re real – but Elsa and Anna, two characters from Frozen, are not. Done. Then there was a follow-up a few weeks later that came just as abruptly, while splashing around a pool: ‘Daddy, why are we real?’ 

I don’t have a ready answer this time, partly because I don’t really understand the question. Four-year-olds ask Why? a lot – the stereotype is true, maybe even an understatement – and they use Why? ambiguously. Like little Aristotles with their legs dangling from their car seats, their Whys are ‘said in many different ways’. Sometimes these Whys even fall under neat, Aristotelian types: they might be asking what the point of something is, or how it’s made, or even asking for a criterion. Usually, you can feel your way by context.

But sometimes, like now, I have no idea what my son is asking me to explain. He’s learning about the world, and learning how to ask questions about it at the same time, so there are at least two moving targets. My only clue so far is that he previously wondered whether he was real, which made it sound like he was trying to sort things into real and not-real. So maybe the follow-up is a request for a definition: What makes something real? What distinguishes the real things from the unreal ones? If so, this could be a bit awkward. ‘Why’-questions at their most straightforward correspond to ‘Because’-answers, where the ‘because’ refers to something other than what we’re trying to explain. You’re cranky because you haven’t eaten; we’re driving because we need to get food; this food is healthy because it has the nutrients you need. But when the question is ‘Why am I real?’, what other thing is there to fill in the blank after ‘because’?

I have a professional interest in this query. The notion of reality is one of the most basic and most abstract ones we have. Raising questions about the very idea of what’s real has led to some of the most important, classic work in philosophy – from Parmenides to Aristotle to Avicenna to Aquinas to Immanuel Kant. It also, however, has a tendency to produce the kind of frustrating, easily caricatured work that leads people – including many philosophers – to wonder whether certain questions are simply pointless or even illegitimate, and to adopt a kind of skeptical stance towards abstract questions in general. That attitude can be helpfully critical, but it can also be facile and self-stultifying, and it likes to masquerade as pragmatic good sense.

So how does that kind of question get started? It’s easy enough to notice when a child starts confronting questions about good and bad, right and wrong. That’s one reason for thinking that these questions have good credentials. But when, if ever, does reality itself become an object of curiosity, or puzzlement, or wonder – and why?