Reality's Fugue

Reconciling Worldviews in Philosophy, Religion, and Science

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F. Samuel Brainard
  • University Park, PA: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , October
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Reality’s Fugue, Samuel F. Brainard presents a series of compelling arguments concerning the nature of reality and, more importantly, the connections between reality and awareness. In doing so, he engages with several important philosophical problems—among them Cartesian dualism, free will, and the problem of evil.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first section, Brainard sets the philosophical stage by distinguishing between three approaches to understanding reality: third-person views (which prioritize the way things are for everyone regardless of personal perspective), first-person views (which prioritize the view of individuals themselves), and dualist approaches which combine both bases for reality into a single coherent framework (13, 23). In the second section, Brainard illustrates each of these three approaches along with the paradoxes and issues each approach seems to generate with reference to particular religious traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and ‘Abrahamic Religions’). In the final section, Brainard presents a new vocabulary for understanding reality as being produced via interactions between collectivities of reference, or CORs, which include humans, other living beings (e.g., animals, algae) and matter (e.g., particles, objects).

In many ways, this book is reminiscent of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Basic Books 1979). Brainard borrows Hoffstadter’s metaphor of a fugue to explain how it is that apparently conflicting accounts of reality might be bound together into a single coherent composition but there are other more significant similarities. While Reality’s Fugue is dense and technical at times, it is also informal and playful in tone; it draws from a wide variety of seemingly unrelated domains (music, philosophy, religions, set theory, quantum mechanics) in order to illustrate its arguments; its task is immense; and its conclusions are insightful and profound.

In order to frame his arguments, Brainard introduces a number of technical terms, which are helpfully defined in a glossary at the end of the book. Yet to fully understand the author’s arguments, it is necessary (perhaps unsurprisingly) to read the book itself in order to become familiar with the specific and technical ways Brainard uses terms like “awareness,” “publicity,” “presence,” and “collectivity of reference.” The sheer number of new terms introduced coupled with the fine (though essential) distinctions Brainard draws throughout the text likely make this book unsuitable for undergraduate classrooms. But graduate students or scholars interested in epistemology, philosophy of religion, or philosophy of mind will find in Reality’s Fugue a number of helpful ideas and distinctions.

While scholars of the particular religious traditions Brainard describes may wish for a more thorough or nuanced explanation of each tradition’s epistemological basis or world view, Brainard admits to painting each of these with broad brush strokes (44). Since Brainard’s goal is the complete reimagination of reality itself rather than an in-depth account of any particular religious outlook, this seems both unavoidable and appropriate. Extensive endnotes also provide elaboration on key ideas and terms that are not fully explained in the text.

One of the key themes in the book involves the paradoxes generated through the interplay and interdependence of individual and collective views of reality. Some of Brainard’s most compelling ideas with regards to religion appear in the final chapter. He stresses that mystery is a helpful (and perhaps essential) approach which, while present in the world religions he describes, seems conspicuously absent from Western philosophy. Given that Brainard argues “reality as we know it has at its core an intractable puzzle about individuals and their collections” (174), the apparent acceptance by world religions of reality’s essentially mysterious character seems appropriate. Brainard also uses the puzzling interplay between individuals and collectivities of reference in order to present prayer as one means of engaging with or playing with that puzzlement. Likewise, the author sees virtue as, in part, involving attempts to see both individual and collective standpoints as distinct yet also somehow united (177).

Brainard’s writing is erudite and his arguments are compelling. While I am not sure Brainard achieves his stated goal of reconciling the world views of philosophy, religion, and science in this book, he does provide a helpful framework with which to approach this task.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is a Professor in the Humanities Department at Dawson College, Montreal, Quebec.

Date of Review: 
October 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

F. Samuel Brainard is an Independent Scholar of Asian and Western religion and philosophy. He is the author of Reality and Mystical Experience, also published by Penn State University Press.


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