Archive for June 22nd, 2011

Reality

In the first comment in response to my last post Modestypress wrote:  “I’ve decided to live life as if the world I sense is “real.” I don’t see any point for doing otherwise.”

That got me thinking.   I did not mean to imply the world isn’t real.   Rather, is reality constituted by each of us as a subject in a world populated with objects?   If so, then subjectivity is a unique personal experience.   We can assume that other humans are also subjects (and ethically we tend to believe we should treat them as such), but the rest of reality consists of objects of various sorts.

If we have a view of expanded subjectivity, then the nature of reality is different.  We are connected at some level with that which we experience.   Rather than being discrete entities navigating an external reality, we are entities enmeshed in experience, part of a deeper unity.

Such a possibility actually gets support from cutting edge science.   The most obvious example is how particles can impact each other across vast distances instantaneously.    This seems impossible, the fastest information should be able to get from one particle to another is the speed of light.    (To read more on the science behind it check out the Wikipedia articles on quantum entanglement and the principle of locality.)

The only way that such a result makes sense is if at some level the two particles are connected.   Yet they are not connected in space-time.   If they are connected it is either through something outside space-time which we cannot fathom, or space-time itself is not populated by discrete separate objects but has a deep underlying unity.

While this meshes well with many eastern religions, it also captures neo-platonic thought which heavily influenced Augustine and the early church.    The idea that reality is a unified whole containing diverse perspectives and attributes is not that hard to imagine.     I experience my body as me, an entity comprised of different physical attributes.  I can sit in nature and imagine myself part of the entire scene in much the same way; poetry explores this kind of imagined connection quite often.

So what would it mean if reality actually was unified?   What would it mean if the self isn’t only the thinking mind inhabiting a body, but actually is connected to and a part of all we experience?

First, everything we do to others (whether living or not) we would be doing to a part of ourselves.   We would at some level  be connected to all the pain and joy that exist in the world; if we cause pain or joy, we also would at some level receive it.

Death would have a new meaning.  Rather than being the annihilation of the self, with the only hope of continued identity being either a transcendent supreme being or the possibility that a soul could be reincarnated into different bodies, death would simply be the cessation of one perspective of experience.     That happens all the time.    The person I was 20 years ago no longer exists in the sense that the perspective of experience I had then has been transformed into something completely different.    Life is constantly changing perspectives.

If reality is unified, then no perspective has a privileged position or permanence.    Death may be less an ending than a change of focus — rather than experiencing the world as a human living at a certain period in history, my perspective could shift, perhaps mingling with other perspectives or taking on a new manner of experience.   Death may be the equivalent to finishing one book and starting another one — or turning the channel on a TV.

Ones’ perspective on life would alter as well.   One might better know oneself by looking at the world one inhabits.   What kind of reality do I experience, and why is it that I have chosen (or have been drawn to) this type of experience?   What does the world around me say about who I am?   Usually identity is separate from the external world, here it would be integrated.    How we look at luck, coincidence and chance would change completely.   Life would be a maze of interrelated coincidences, full of symbolic meaning.   Rather than seeing the world as a cold harsh stage upon which one lives a short often difficult existence, it would be a rife with opportunities and possibilities that we draw to ourselves in some way.

Success and failure would alter form completely.   Neither would be completely real, and certainly not permanent or all that important in the grand scheme of things.   Even poverty, wealth, exploitation and violence would shift meaning – if there is unity, the “self” experiences everything at some level.   The idea I’m living a comfortable life is just a focus of perspective at this moment.   At a deeper level all experience is shared.

Most people would simply dismiss all this as meaningless speculation.   We have jobs to do, families to raise, and the reality we experience runs by particular rules we have to navigate.   However, I would argue that thinking about reality from a new perspective might actually have some beneficial consequences.

It could certainly mean letting go of a lot of stress and anxiety — just entertaining the thought that the world is not cold and cruel but rather purposeful and full of opportunity alters ones’ mood.    It also could cause one to consider different goals; if this moment of experiencing life through this perspective is only a partial taste of a greater reality, then striving for material success for the sake of material success alone starts to seem pointless.

The mind would shift to looking for clues in relationships and life activities that might hint at how one can enrich ones’ experience at a deeper level.    The world as a whole would be more important; the day to day struggles and dilemmas could seem more trivial.   Fear of death would give way to acceptance of transitions.   Hatred would become irrational, since hatred of the other would be hatred of a part of the self.   Love would be the ultimate truth, in that it would entail the connection between apparent-self and apparent-other.

Human history contains many versions of reality that seemed absolutely natural to those living within them.  Slavery, the superiority of one gender over another, sacrifices to Gods, tribal customs, religious faith, and secular rationalism are all ways humans have conceptualized and thus interpreted reality and experience.    The idea that what seems natural at this point in time is based on a misunderstanding of reality certainly is feasible.

If we are willing to try out different ways of conceiving experience and reality we can avoid being trapped into the mode of thinking dominant in our particular culture.    To me, that’s liberating, and gives me some power over how I choose to interpret my experience.   Rather than accepting a world view created by otherse, I can use reason and reflection — the heart and the head — to determine what I believe to be true, and choose how I want to live my life.   That is real freedom.

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