- Spencer Greenberg
A new framework for thinking about truth and reality.
Truth and existence are surprisingly complex concepts. The closer you examine them, the more complex they reveal themselves to be. What do we really mean when we make a claim like “this painting is not art” or “everything is subjective”? What exactly do we mean when we say “the color red” exists or that numbers exist? Philosophical questions like these are notoriously difficult to pin down precisely. We want to make it easier.
With that in mind, we’ve created a new framework (the 7 Realms of Truth) to help you clarify the meaning of philosophical claims and questions like the ones above. You can also use the framework to help figure out exactly what you believe is true about the world.
Philosophers have considered questions like those above for centuries, and one popular approach to defining truth is known as Correspondence Theory. Broadly speaking, Correspondence Theory says that something is true if it corresponds with a fact about the world, or a state of affairs. But there are different ways a statement or belief can be said to “correspond” with something in the world. For example, aesthetic values might not exist in the same way that the chair you might be sitting on exists, but aesthetic values still correspond with the way people make decisions about the clothes they want to wear, or the art they want to buy.
The 7 Realms of Truth framework summarizes the different ways in which something may correspond with the truth, or can be said to exist. You can think of these as different “realms” or "spaces" that truths and existence fit into. Let’s begin with a brief overview. We have divided these truth and existence claims into seven different types:
The 7 Realms of Truth
Some things "exist" in the sense that they are in physical reality, like atoms (in “Matter Space”).
Other things may "exist" in the sense that they are real experiences conscious beings have, like the taste of pineapple (in “Experience Space”).
Still, other things may "exist" in the sense that they are shared constructs across multiple minds, like the value of money (in “Consensus Space”).
Other things may "exist" in the sense of being conclusions derived from frameworks or from sets of premises, like the predictions or implications of economic theories (in “Theory Space”).
Some may "exist" in the sense that they are represented in systems that store or process information, such as information in a database (in “Representation Space”).
If absolute truths "exist" that would be just as true if the physical laws of the universe changed, or if all matter was rearranged (e.g. some people would put moral rules like "murder is wrong" in this category), then we can talk about these absolute truths existing (in “Absolutes Space”).
Finally, if supernatural entities "exist", such as spirits (meaning that not all beings inhabit Matter Space), then these beings are in a different realm than us (in “Supernatural Space”).
When a philosophical claim is made (e.g. "the death penalty is immoral"), we can ask ourselves: in which sense this claim is being made - that is, what "space" of the 7 above does this claim fit into?
As a way of better understanding each of these spaces, we can use the example of atoms:
It is true that atoms exist in physical reality (Matter Space).
It is true that I have internal experiences in my mind that are caused by the existence of atoms (Experience Space).
It’s true in the English language that “atoms” are sometimes defined as constituents of matter (Consensus Space).
It’s true that the existence of atoms is a consequence of the standard model of physics (Theory Space).
It’s true that Wikipedia contains information about atoms (Representation Space).
Many people think it's true that moral claims are about what ought to occur in the world, as opposed to claims about how atoms are arranged (Absolutes Space).
If supernatural entities exist, it’s probably true that they are not merely made of atoms the way, say, chairs are (Supernatural Space).
How to use the 7 Realms of Truth Framework
You can use this framework to think about the existence of different “realms” of truth, in order to clarify the ways in which certain claims are “true” or “real”. For instance, if we say that “atoms exist”, does the word “exist” as used there mean the same thing as when we say “numbers exist”?
If you are considering a particular philosophical claim about what is true or what exists, follow these two steps:
First, ask yourself about which "space" this claim is being made. For instance, does the speaker mean "murder is wrong" as a claim about Experience Space or about Absolutes Space, or about some other space?
Second, consider what you think it really means to claim that something in that space is "true" or "real" or "existent". For instance, you may think that claims about Absolutes Space are true in a very different sense than claims about Experience Space or Matter Space. You might also think that there are no such things as true or false claims about certain spaces in the framework.
You now have a new way of considering complex philosophical claims!
Now, we’re going to dig into each of the 7 “realms of truth” in detail.
Matter space: the realm of what physically exists, such as atoms, waves, and photons.
It is true (in Matter Space) that hydrogen atoms can be divided into subatomic particles, and that electrons have a certain amount of electromagnetic charge.
Physics (as in the theories that humans have invented about reality), being a set of ideas, is not part of Matter Space directly, but attempts to describe Matter Space.
If someone claims “everything is subjective”, a clarificatory question would be asking whether they are saying this applies to Matter Space: “do you mean that the question of how much electrical charge an electron has is also subjective? Or do you only mean to claim subjectivity for cultural beliefs (Consensus Space) or internal experiences (Experience Space)?”
Experience space: the realm of what we experience internally, such as emotions, colors, and sensations.
It is true (in Experience Space) that the ocean is blue (as experienced by me), that food tastes good (to me), and that being pricked with a pin hurts (me).
If there were no conscious beings in the universe, then Experience Space would be "empty" or "nonexistent".
If someone claims that “this painting is not art”, a clarificatory question would be asking whether they mean this only in terms of Experience Space: “do you mean that your own experience when you view the painting is not the experience you would require to call something art? Or do you mean that you don’t think this painting satisfies the shared cultural understanding of what art is (Consensus Space), or something else?”
Consensus space: the realm of shared ideas whose truth depends on a simultaneous belief by multiple minds, such as cultural, linguistic and societal constructs.
It is true (in Consensus Space) that money can be used to buy things, that America is currently a country, that “man” is the singular form of “men,” and that murder is illegal. If only one person in the world believed these things, they would cease to be true. So their truth is inextricably linked to some form of consensus across minds.
If conscious beings were unable to communicate with each other (that is, there was no language, even in rudimentary form), then Consensus Space would be empty.
If someone claims that “some rights exist, but healthcare is not a right”, a clarificatory question would be asking whether they are making this claim purely about Consensus Space: “do you mean that there is no societal consensus that healthcare satisfies the properties of a right? Or do you mean that when you reflect on healthcare you don’t get the same feeling (Experience Space) about its universality and importance that you do about other things that you’d say are rights?”
Theory space: conclusions that are implied by a set of premises (or modeling assumptions, or rules), such as implications of theories and frameworks.
For instance, it is true (in Theory Space) that in standard economic theory, the price of a good will be exactly the price where the supply and demand curves intersect (even though this is not precisely true of real markets in the physical world). And it is true, according to Newtonian mechanics (i.e., Newton's theory that approximates real physics, but not necessarily precisely true in actual physical reality itself), that if you instantly start exerting a constant force on a stationary billiard ball, it will accelerate with an acceleration exactly inversely proportional to its mass.
Even though human minds can invent and remember theories, Theory Space does not hinge on the existence of human minds, per se. If, for instance, all humans were to die out, but one day an intelligent alien race were to invent a theory mathematically identical to Newtonian mechanics, truths about the consequences of that theory would be identical to truths about the consequences of our version of it (since those truths merely follow from their premises).
If someone makes a claim like “increasing the minimum wage does not increase unemployment”, a clarificatory question would be asking: “are you saying that standard economic theory (Theory Space) does not imply that increasing minimum wage will increase unemployment? Or are you saying that you think that, due to inaccuracies in the theory, in the real world (Matter Space) measured unemployment does not rise when minimum wage is increased?”
Representation space: truths about systems that store or process information, such as truths about what’s stored in (or available to be experienced in) video games, VR worlds, databases, books or websites.
For instance, it is true (in Representation Space) that in the game Minecraft there are six kinds of “wood” you can make stuff out of, or that Wikipedia has more than 5 million articles in English, or that the book Moby Dick contains discussions of whales, or that my computer has files on it.
Representation Space encompasses questions about what information is stored, or what ways information is processed, regardless of the storage or processing medium (e.g., software running on silicon, writing on papyrus, neurons in a rat or human brain). Subtly, this is different than Matter Space claims, because Matter Space claims would be about what is physically there (e.g. WHERE the electrons are located) whereas Representation Space claims are about WHAT is represented (e.g. "those bits are an encoding of the works of William Shakespeare").
If someone makes a claim like “it is impossible for software to ever be conscious or feel pain”, a clarificatory question would be asking: “do you mean that it is impossible for software to store the same information and do equivalent information processing as a human brain (Representation Space)? Or do you mean that even if software were to store the same information and do the same information processing as a human brain, it still wouldn’t be conscious and capable of feeling pain (Experience Space)?”
Absolutes Space: the space for truths about the universe that don't depend on the laws of physics or the arrangements of matter.
For instance, many people think that moral claims like "murder is always wrong" can be objectively true or false, much like it is objectively true or false that you are wearing socks right now.
Some people believe that mathematical facts like "1+1=2" would fall into Absolutes Space, though other people see mathematical facts as falling into Theory Space.
If someone makes a claim like “it is wrong to lie”, a clarificatory question would be asking: “do you mean that it is wrong according to the behaviors practiced in your culture (Consensus Space)? Or do you mean that it is wrong because it breaks a universal, moral “rule” that is absolute and the same regardless of culture (Absolutes Space), or do you mean something else?”
Supernatural Space: where non-physical spiritual and religious entities exist (not the idea of them, but the entities themselves) if they are real.
For instance, if you believe in God, heaven, hell, ghosts or spirits, then you think they exist (in Supernatural Space), unless you think that, say, hell is literally inside the center of the earth, or, say, heaven is literally on a particular planet. If you are completely non-spiritual and non-religious, then presumably you’d say that Supernatural Space is empty (i.e., there is nothing in Supernatural Space).
If we want to say that supernatural entities exist, but they never reside in Supernatural Space, then, by definition they either (a) don’t exist or (b) are merely physical entities (in Matter Space), not actually supernatural ones. A “spirit” that is in our world permanently and completely made of atoms (obeying all the known physical laws) is not really a “spirit”. At that point it's just an animal, form of human, or physical phenomenon that scientists just haven’t yet developed an understanding of.
If a person were to claim that they believe in souls, a clarificatory question would be asking: “do you mean only that you think that after we die there is a place we continue to exist in that is not the material world (Supernatural Space)? Or do you mean that there is a physical part of us that is our soul that is in principle detectable scientifically (Matter Space), or something else?”
We’ve developed this framework to provide an accessible language for discussing and clarifying your beliefs on difficult philosophical topics. So the next time you’re wrestling with a philosophical question about what is “true”, what “exists”, or what is “real”, consider the problem from the perspective of the 7 “realms of truth”: Matter Space, Experience Space, Consensus Space, Theory Space, Representation Space, Absolutes Space, and Supernatural Space. Let us know if you find it helpful!
With this language of the "7 Realms of Truth" in mind, here are some interesting and tricky philosophical questions you may want to take some time to ponder:
What space do you think mathematical truths (like 1+1=2) fall into? Theory Space? Absolutes Space? Matter space?
Where in this framework would you place moral claims, like "it is good to reduce suffering"? Experience space? Consensus space? Absolutes space? No space at all?
If a person takes psychedelics, and has what they perceive to be a profound mystical experience, in which space would you think it is most likely correct to place this experience? Experience space? Supernatural space? Matter space? Representation space?
Do you think that there is anything in supernatural space? If so, what would you place there?In what space would you place claims about "what is beautiful"? Experience space? Consensus space? Representation space? Theory space? Absolutes space?
We don’t intend to imply that all these spaces actually exist, and especially don't intend to imply that they all exist or are real in the same sense as each other. For instance, it could be that some of these spaces don't exist at all (e.g. those that claim they are real could simply be confused or mistaken). It could also be that some of those spaces that exist do so in very different senses of the word "exist".
We also don't intend to imply that these spaces are necessarily all different from each other, or that they don't subsume each other (e.g. someone might think that space X is just subsumed into a combination of spaces Y and Z, and this is not a problem for the framework).
This framework is also NOT intended to make metaphysical claims about what's true; rather, its purpose is to provide a process for clarifying thought and communication around complex philosophical questions. These concise mental categories can be used to consider questions like whether Experience Space is just a part of Matter Space, or to disambiguate beliefs, like whether you believe 1+1=2 is true in the sense of Theory Space, or if you believe it is true in another space like Absolutes Space.
There are many (perhaps an infinite number) of such "spaces" we could imagine adding to this list. The list we have decided on is intended to be pragmatic: it is designed to cover the most important cases that non-philosophers tend to debate with each other.
Edited by Holly Muir