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Saturday, August 4, 2012


Our search for Reality is our desire for understanding and truth, our hope towards goodness and happiness, our want of wholeness and health. Or, as philosophers might say, the connection of our beings with Being.  Or theologians, the union of us creatures with God.

So what is reality?  Often we define a word by contrasting it with its opposite.

In common speech, the real is often opposed to the rational. Indeed, studies of the brain indicate that the rational or interpretive part of the brain often follows the emotional or gut feeling part of the brain. So the latest statistics on employment mean one thing to Democrats (added jobs, yay!) and another to Republicans (still unemployment over 8%, yay!). And yet isn't it also so that the "real is the rational, the rational the real" as dialectical thinkers like Hegel discovered? Isn't our rationality, including our ability to interpret and to verify scientifically, our path to reality?

Also the real is opposed to the virtual. As we watched in The Matrix, take the blue pill (or was it the red one?) and you see the real reality as opposed to virtual reality. If, as some scientists postulate, the universe is a hologram, then is it real at all? Some say with Kant that the really real is the noumenal underlying the phenomenal. So does even what you see with the right pill lie above or beyond your sense perception?  Is there any way for humans to attain reality without some imagination? Isn't virtuality also reality?

And the real is often opposed to the artificial.  So is it kosher for an athlete to compete in the Olympics with artificial aids (prosthetics, chemicals, wind and water resistant clothes)? And is artificial intelligence real intelligence? So if they are able to upload my brain software into a robot, will I really be there?  But then again, is not the artificial merely the extension of the real?  Don't we use tools (words, machines, computers) to extend and prolong our bodies and minds? Aren't tools real?

Real is often opposed to fantasy or myth. The stories of the Grimm Brothers or the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita are not true history, that is, real.  Is what a photographer presents after she processes the picture in photoshop, or what an impressionist paints or dances, or what a playwriter directs real?  Does art and religion and even science get to reality? Yet who would say that these activities are not different ways of achieving reality?

Certainly most opposed to reality is delusion.  The beautiful mind of John Nash was delusional, the result of paranoid schizophrenia. Indeed don't we define mental illness by its separation from reality? Or as the white swan dancer in the Black Swan gets more in touch with her dark side and so is able to better portray the black swan, does she gain or lose touch with reality? Are the realists who see the world mainly or only in quantities of personal wealth and national power sane? Is mental illness (schizophrenia, depression, phobia) a way to or from reality? Is not "free will" a necessary illusion for our adaptation to our environment?

And dream is not reality. Even though some Indian philosophy teaches that reality is the dream of Brahma, Buddha was said to wake up through enlightenment under the Boddhi tree where he achieved Nervana.  Certainly I can tell the real world from my dreams. Yet we also know that dreams teach and are the way that the brain processes and prepares for the workaday world.  And are we not encouraged to have dreams and try to achieve them? To what extent was Ghandi an unrealistic visionary or a shrewd and pragmatic politician? At the end of the movie Inception, did the spin wheel (the tool to distinguish the dream from reality) stop spinning?

Truth (reality) is contrasted with fallacy (unreality). A fallacy is when and where a person argues a point as logical when it is not. A few days ago I watched a video of recently deceased Gore Vidal and William Buckley with great wit pointing out each other's fallacies. Elsewhere I have discussed various fallacies based on confusing in thought the object or expression with the subject or the act of expressing or in action the world as we would like it to be with the world as it is. But, still, don't we acknowledge that error is the way to truth in science and failure the way to success in politics?

Maybe truth, happiness, and health which we identify with our search for reality are also somewhat illogical, involve dreams and illusions, and are achieved through our ability to imagine and make up things. Maybe reality is not so different from its opposites.

Think about it.

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