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.

  1. #1 by enamatthew on June 22, 2011 - 19:05

    Very interesting topic, thank you for putting up.

  2. #2 by modestypress on June 22, 2011 - 21:27

    I agree that it is an interesting response. On the one hand, perhaps it makes sense to “define” or “redefine” reality in a way that is most inspirational, comforting, and agreeable. On the other hand, if I have a knife stuck in my anatomy, or have just fallen off a cliff without killing myself, I will be very conscious of pain, and no amount of positive or transformational thinking will alleviate the pain that much. I would probably prefer some competent first aid and analgesics to a great deal of inspirational thinking at that point.

    I have also been thinking about the idea of the entity humans describe as “God.” William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience was probably the first book to study religious belief from a secular, “social science” point of view. He described two main varieties (mostly describing varieties of Christianity). Today, one would be labeled “fundamentalist” or Calvinist or evangelical or some such. The other would be described as “liberal,” or ecumenical, or “new age,” or some such, with an emphasis on positive thinking. I would put your post closer to that second classification.

    Nevertheless, the more I have contemplated religious belief, the less sense it makes to me. However, you spin it, all human life involves some suffering (and for some, an enormous amount of suffering and injustice that no amount of “positive thinking” or contemplating of “unity” or what not can really alleviate or make sense of ) and as self-conscious creatures, we are aware of our own mortality. Not being a God, or a God-like creature, I don’t know how the universe could have been better arranged or organized. Nevertheless, I prefer to think of the universe as a mysterious accident rather than the creation of an entity we call “God,” Because such a creature would have to be a creature of enormous and unimaginable evil.

    It’s more the nature of evangelicals to worship God and to prate about the need to “Obey” him, than the liberal believers. In both cases, however, I would describe the relationship of human beings to the imaginary or real “God” as typical of humans in “abusive” relationships. Unfortunately, there is no way to send “God” to therapy for borderline personalities so he can stop indulging in abusive “Acts of God” such as tornadoes, plagues, earthquakes, genocides, tortures, and abusive relationships. Hmm…the last three are human-caused maladies, are thy not? Perhaps we should just work on pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps as best we can. As people once said, “Pray and pass the ammunition.” Though perhaps it should be, “Pray and pass the bandages, and the antiseptics, and the hugs and the cell phones to dial 911. And then read the eulogies.”

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