[One way to interpret the image above is that the mechanical yellow creature is seeking truth, clamors around a blind corner, and discovers a mysterious mask, snake, worms… The extended mouth is the hunger for knowledge and discovery, but the creature seems frightened by what he found. Note that I find interpretations a useful tool, but ultimately they get in the way of appreciating visual images.]
Lately I see a great resistance to truth or reality (ex., science being protested in the classroom on political, ideological, or religious grounds), and while this is understandable, it’s backpedaling. The full brunt of reality is unbearable. There’s no mercy, no fairness, no justice, nothing to comfort the mind. We evolve stories and fantasies to allow ourselves to cope with existence, and to navigate our daily lives productively. Often these stories are true enough, and they can work for us most of our lives if we’re lucky.
Where I live people believe in karma, and there’s a dark side to this, which has to do with an unwillingness to confront reality. If a child is run over in the street and cruelly disabled for life, they will say that the child must have done something horrible in a previous life. This is explicitly a rejection of the possibility that something terrible, unforeseeable, accidental, random, could happen to themselves at any and every moment.
The effect, however, is to punish the child not only with his physical suffering and radically diminished prospects for life, but also to blame him for it, and stigmatize him as someone who did dastardly things before. All this rather than admit that one is also in the same soup where terrible things happen to good people.
This may seem an extreme example, but I think we all do this to some measure. Often when we think of reality we think in terms of scientific conclusions about what we know about the physical universe. We might then conclude that leading scientists know what reality is (even if we deny that entirely if they espouse that polluting the atmosphere will eventually compromise the atmosphere). A little aside here, but people who deny global warming are often people who can’t face reality.
Facts about the physical universe — or rather, very complex understanding of the underlying principles of what it is, and how it functions — is not the same thing as experiencing reality. So, for example, a precocious virgin could read up on everything to do with sexuality, be able to ace any quiz on the topic, but still not know what sex is as compared to a sexually experienced adult.
Similarly, we all know what the word “death” means. A child knows when his hamster is dead, but our understanding of the concept of “death” becomes more powerful over time, and our relation to our understanding changes. You can’t really appreciate death without appreciating life, and that’s a continual, evolving process.
The facts as we know them are important, but our relationship to them is what happens in reality. Rather than think of reality as accumulated knowledge that can be housed in one skull, I find it useful to think of it as the simultaneous and cumulative experience of all people (for starters, it would also have to include all creatures…), past, present, and future.
You can’t exclude yourself and say that your experience is not part of reality. You don’t even have a choice but to participate and be a window on it. In the same way, then, we can’t discount anyone else’s experience. Reality isn’t a body of information, which a computer could assimilate like it does Chess games, but is an experience of being. Therefore, reality must include the experience of all beings.
There is going to be a lot of cumulative pleasure (including billions of orgasms), but also being murdered incessantly. Nobody has to, or is capable of sustaining even a tiny fraction of the cumulative experience for more than an instant.
When asked if he believes in God, Jordan Peterson responded, “That depends how you define ‘God'”. A popular atheist Youtuber shot down Peterson for this, as if he believed in Santa Claus but was equivocating on admitting it. But that’s not what Jordan meant.
As a clinical psychiatrist who has treated scores of patients, Peterson considers ‘God’ in terms of coping mechanisms and models of reality people use to succeed in life. In a conversation with Sam Harris, Peterson made this point, and the two couldn’t get past it. For Harris, reality is objective facts, and for Peterson it’s the effectiveness of models, and whichever is more effective is the truest. Thus he refuses to denounce ‘God’ because the concept has been a cornerstone in what has been the most effective model for thousands of years.
The two intellectuals were talking apples and oranges, and it was frustrating that they couldn’t get on the same page. Peterson wouldn’t acknowledge the reality of incontrovertible facts, and Harris wouldn’t grant that those facts are irrelevant except in terms of how they are applied in someone’s subjective existence.
To go with an analogy using MMA (mixed martial arts), Harris was doing the equivalent of arguing that a certain move is the most deadly because it exerts the most force (let’s say a side-kick), and Peterson was arguing the the most deadly move is the one which has succeeded the most in defeating the opponent (let’s say it’s an arm bar).
I wrote a critical comment on the Atheist Youtuber’s video attacking Peterson. I asked him to consider if the universe was itself intelligent or conscious, or at least if there is more intelligent life out there than ours. If you defer to science, than you pretty much have to accept that the chances of other and higher forms of intelligence developing on another world in an infinite universe are extremely high. What did he think would be their take on the topic? And if we are conscious and intelligent, what if the infinite universe were also so? I’d generally think there needs to be a biological brain for intelligence and consciousness, but I’d have to wonder if the whole of the universe weren’t greater than the sum of it’s parts, or, indeed, my individual part. We go around thinking we’ve smarter than the universe. It’s a curious conclusion.
Rather than define ‘God’ as a bearded man who created the Earth in 7 days, what if we conceived of ‘God’ as the influence and effect of the entire universe on the individual? That’s not comforting, but for the scientific rationalist, it’s undeniable that the universe has extraordinary bearing on the individual.
Sam Harris, who is a prime example of a scientific rationalist, doesn’t believe in free will. Why not? Because it hasn’t been proven in clinical, repeatable, laboratory experiments. Rather, he concludes that all our actions are pre-determined and ultimately predictable, because all physical things are bound by the laws of physics, and every action is a response to a prior action. We are merely physical bodies reacting to physical events in a domino effect going back to the ‘big bang’. Free will, he argues, is a scientific impossibility because the laws of physics do not allow for matter to act independently of cause and effect.
Harris is wrong, and it’s an astounding blunder. Just because billiard balls have no free will doesn’t mean people don’t. We are conscious and able to deliberate, make decisions, and act on them., and when we do act we are not breaking any laws of physics (unless we’re Superman). Consciousness, further, is not a physical property, and not bound by the laws of physics. This causes a big problem, what brain/consciousness researchers call “the hard problem”: how can an immaterial consciousness interact with a material body?
This is, as far as we know, a scientific impossibility. Faced with this, Harris and many others conclude that consciousness doesn’t control the body, but is a mere after effect. Never mind for the moment that this throws up the equally impossible idea that matter somehow influences the immaterial. This is seeing reality too much through the prism of the intellect, and what we’ve already discovered about the universe. The other way to look at it is that obviously consciousness can control the body, but we don’t know how yet. This places subjective experience above objective fact.
You can’t deny the latter move. Consciousness itself can’t be found by scientific instruments, and yet we can only know this fact or appreciate it in and through consciousness. Therefore, if we limit our conception of reality to what science had already proven, we deny our own existence. Obviously there’s something wrong with that picture of reality.
One of my favorite conundrums has to do with the beginning of the universe. I’m sure I’m not the first person to come up with this, but I came up with it on my own, so I’m perhaps a bit fond of it. The existence of the universe is a scientific impossibility. There either had to be a first thing that arose out of nothing, which is impossible, or there always had to be something without a beginning, which is also impossible. Sometimes we have to accept that something IS even though we can’t explain why. After that, we can ponder that there are things that might be inexplicable, or just beyond our grasp (for now. Who knows what the human mind will be like in millions of years).
Here you can see a scientific rationalist, a clinical psychiatrist, and my local Buddhists all denying some obvious and incontrovertible dimensions to reality. Each has their map or model of reality they impose on the unfathomable depths, and which works well enough for them.
Reality, while its unconstrained awesomeness is intolerable, is also staggeringly beautiful. A philosopher once said (and I can’t find who said this): “Truth is indifferent to the seeker of truth”. If you Google this quote, you will just get links to this blog [same goes for “the unknown is always preferable to a known evil”]. This means that you can’t expect what you discover to be what you wanted to discover. However, there’s a beauty to the discovery which is not what we wanted to find out, but which nevertheless reveals more truth about existence. The greater understanding itself is desirable – its own reward – whether or not it works for us.
The classic example of this is, you guessed it, the discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. This displaced ourselves from the center of the physical universe, though now new research shows (last I checked) that the universe is expanding in every direction (not from one central point), in which case no position in the universe is more or less the center than any other. Whatever the new discovery is, one has to have a love of scraping away another layer of the unknown, of sheer discovery.
New discoveries, if they challenge our conception of our place in the universe may not be popular. Even if they don’t eschew our self-contentedness, they may complicate things that we thought we’d already resolved, shelved, and didn’t have to consider any more. This is one of the reasons new artistic styles (when they aren’t themselves utter hokum) initially repel rather than attract audiences. Discovery about reality is not limited to scientists, because it is not limited to objective knowledge about the physical universe. It also includes subjective understanding of the experience of existence. It’s not only understood through objective, rational arguments expressed in linguistic forms, but through subjective, even subconscious, non-linear avenues of communication.
Consider that while someone from the West might consider reality as something that is understood in and through the intellect, in the East reality has been conceived as something that is perceived directly when the intellect is temporarily dissolved. Talk about polar opposite conceptions. Note that whichever is more true, one could cultivate the intellect AND practice detaching from it.
Reality, or truth, when it is incrementally uncovered should confound rather than confirm what we already know and believe. Some scientists (more than one have said this) contend that reality is not only stranger than we conceive, it’s stranger than we can conceive. This makes sense when we consider that as compared to us, any other animal has a rather stunted scope of reality (or at least appears to). It’s not hard to then grasp that we probably also are quite limited in our scope. We can’t see as well as some animals, and we have no idea what it’s like to be a cuttlefish communicating through changing our form and color.
This brings me to a strange but obvious notion I have about the purpose of life. I say the purpose of life is to get it. It’s not to beat other people at some game, to accrue more, to win a competition… That’s just a defense, a mere prop, against the eventuality of missing the point — it creates the appearance that one must have a fuller existence, but the necessity for the appearance belies the need for a facade. Would it ultimately be better to own a priceless Van Gogh painting, or to understand it fully? Or, for the more literary minded, to own a priceless edition of Shakespeare’s plays, or to really comprehend them? Owning something doesn’t equal appreciating it — and the only reason to own something is to appreciate it – but you can appreciate something without owning it. The goal is appreciation, not ownership. One wouldn’t want to be on one’s deathbed and have to admit, “Well, I did pretty well all told, I amassed a small fortune and I earned a lot of respect (some even feared me), but, something is missing, and I feel it was all for naught.”
Sometimes I reflect on a rich boss I once had who had horrible taste in music. He had a mansion, a thriving business with over 300 employees, but I wouldn’t have switched places if I had the chance. I love music too much to give it up and have to listen to commercial pap in exchange for luxuries that I rather guess I also wouldn’t appreciate.
Reality shouldn’t be the enemy. While too much is crushing, we can gradually take on more and have a hunger for more. There is an unalloyed beauty to the glimpsed vista of the unknown. I see a new discovery a bit like reaching into the void, grasping something, and pulling it back into the realm of the known. It’s not only the scientist who does this, it’s potentially everyone on a personal basis every day at least for themselves.