Wednesday, 6 December 2006

WHAT IS REAL?

Each of us perceives the world, and everything and everyone else in it, through our senses. Our personal imperfect mind-body composite mediates our experience of reality. So what is reality? Is there something “out there” which is immutably real whether or not you and I are aware of it? This has been a disputatious field for philosophers and theologians down the ages. Religious believers hold that ultimate reality is a supernatural Being. Most philosophers, whether religious or not, accept that the universe exists. [There is a story that Dr. Johnson asked a lady who had announced herself to be an extreme sceptic what she did believe in. When she replied “the universe”, Johnson retorted “By God, Madam, you’d better”.]

Disbelief in the reality of anything or anyone outside oneself is solipsism. It is obviously difficult to ascertain how many people are solipsists, though a good many self-absorbed egotists behave as if they were. Bertrand Russell relates that someone once wrote to him asserting that they were a solipsist, and expressing surprise that there weren’t more of them. Russell replied “I am surprised at your surprise.”

Even though not solipsists, large numbers of people - if they are adult enough to consider them at all - regard other people’s realities as being less real than their own, and therefore deserving of less respect. It is the way of the world that the realities of the powerful trump the realities of the weak. The inflamed realities of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld have devastated the humble realities of hundreds of thousands of anonymous Iraqis. The Islamic realities of Osama bin Laden and growing numbers of fanatical jihadists are increasingly impinging upon the less hubristic realities of multitudes in the West who don’t want their lives to be disrupted by fantasists, and just want to be left alone by all the godbotherers of assorted stripes.

But there seems little hope of this for the time being. Reaching out to the Other is no longer fashionable in this too individualistic age. Empathy – the wish and ability to stand in another person’s shoes without stepping out of your own – is widely scorned as namby-pambyish. Conflict resolution is rarely a priority; most combatants, military and mental, are more intent on victory than on compromise. Their respective realities brook no rivals.

When the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly and woke up wondering whether he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was a man, he was opening himself to possibilities beyond the armour-plated ego which most people barricade themselves into nowadays. What the world needs is many more butterflies, and far fewer blowflies.

15 comments:

zola said...

Good morning Anticant ( is that your name today?) : Your words threw me into flapping adventures.
That butterfly adventure was for the likes of a GK Chesterton a kind of reality that can never be owned or possessed because evrytime we think we grasp it is already flown away out of the nearest window.
I often sense this to be a wise appreciation. Reality is always on the move and we seek or follow it somehow or the best way we know how. Oh how often has reality shown itself to me after i have done this or that. Often.

But, as always, the likes of an Oscar Wilde ( alias Cassius Clay) step into the ring. Reality now becomes flying like a butterfly mixed with the sting of the bee.

That's the best i can do this morning.

anticant said...

Buon Giorno, Zola: I am always anticant - it's you pert lot of wordtwisters who dub me GrumpyAunt or whatever [but never VinegarTits, I hope, doubtless in vain....]

GK Chesterton was a pretty hefty butterfly! The champion of plonking paradox. Oscar, I think, was far more self-aware than his critics perceived. He wrote to Bosie in 1894, not long before the tragedy struck, "Death and Love seem to walk on either hand as I go through life: they are the only things I think of, their wings shadow me."

Please blow a kiss to the reindeer for me.

anticant said...

The only true reality for everyone is the here-and-now - this moment [which has already passed as I type]. It is where our awareness is focussed - or should be. The past is gone - we can't change it, only our feelings about it. The future hasn't happened yet.

zola said...

Damn it I missed it again ... but nearly got it.
Must try harder next time i guess.

That blowing of a kiss to me reindeers will be from a distance.
Smell their breath you should!!!
Even vinegar tits would be preferable.

anticant said...

The mind boggles.

Toby Lewis said...

Is idealism intrinsically bound up with religion?

Doesn't your support of Chuang Tzu's different realities, recognising you can be unsure if you are a butterfly or a man, mean you have vaguely idealist leanings?

I always like to think I'm a realist. The world would exist without any observer but what it would be like having planets hanging around in limbo with no beings is definitely puzzling.

Also, your attempt to understand others and their actions as long as they are tolerant in return seems reasonable. Yet how do we negotiate where to draw the line in the way we grant respect to others? For example, many religious people, as long as they are not proselytising and trying to colonise the beliefs of others, might well be more tolerant than the average secular atheist.

zola said...

Anticant : You should know a few things about these reineers ( in the Finnish language they are "Poro").

Not so long ago i was driving alongside a train track up north by Kiruna in Sweden. A poro was running just ahead of the train on the tracks. It could not think to get off the lines. The train was trying to stop ( not like this globalisation btw) but my god how fast that poro did run. They do not have too many marbles I'm afraid. A lapland hare ( Janis ) is more smart.

The lapland hare ( the janis) also changes colour with the seasons. In the winter, now, white is the colour.
Just this morning a grey squirral was jumping on some of our trees in the garden.
I like that kind of thing.
Priceless it is.
But so simple too.

zola said...

Welcome back Toby : good points in my book.
With no joke here I have often grappled with the question : "is it possible for the Sun to have consciousness"?
Consciousness is surely not a mere human event is it?
But this takes me into a realm of "otherness" as myself.

Karl Marx grappled with this too if i recall.
After Hegel it seemed impossible to avoid alienation as we needed abstract concepts to really live the natural being world.

Toby : did you check on the Chris White thing and CiF tape?
Think we should contribute to his blog now he has opened it up for many of us.

anticant said...

Stinking breath, not many marbles and won't get out of the way? Sounds like our persistent blowfly BS if you ask me!

zola said...

Have you seen all the rest?
Billstickers has been working hard.
I put a little thing on me web.
Upset many has he.
But ..... there is always that but..

Goethe was no fool as you know.
Could i learn from that?
Might I?

I say take away the pain but keep the swelling.

anticant said...

Glad you've peeped into my humble burrow at last, Toby. Just because I quote something doesn't necessarily mean that I identify with it. Realism? Idealism? Just labels, aren't they? What I'm on about is AWARENESS. The universe consists of a myriad multiplicity of awarenesses - yours, mine, and everyone else's. Maybe including the Sun's [pace Zola].

I'm sure you know Ronald Knox's limerick:

There once was a man who said 'God
Must think it excedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no-one about in the Quad'

And the anonymous reply:

Dear Sir, Your astonishment's odd
I am always about in the Quad
And that's why this tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by Yours faithfully, GOD.

Drawing lines? Ah, that's the big issue for us all, isn't it. I do my best to go along with the maxim attributed [probably wrongly] to Voltaire, that one should tolerate everything except the intolerant - which gives even the most tolerant of us plenty to be intolerant about these days!

I myself draw the line when people invade my space and attempt to foist their preferences onto me. My response is NO.

Toby Lewis said...

I like the terms realist and idealist because they seem to define positions that people take to such matters even if the fight may sometimes become ridiculous. "Why Hylas, how could you possibly believe in this matter stuff?" Because I can kick stones my esteemed bishop.

I've heard the limericks before as a student. I didn't know they were by Ronald Knox.

Awareness and tolerance are clearly important, yet they can make certain issues baffling. I advocate the complete removal of religious affiliation in education.

Yet I had a very interesting interview with the headmistress of a faith school called Mrs Locke. The woman, while not quite as enlightened as her namesake, provided the defence that the school do an all-round good job but also encourage their children to say prayers morning, noon and night.

My instinct tells me this breeds irrationality, yet given such institutions exist I worry how we get to the situation where we could have lively humanist systems of education that rival the weight of tradition that fuses religion to education in a perhaps worrying way. Is this a case where what we should tolerate and what we wish to be aware of compete against each other?

anticant said...

Children should be taught about all religions impartially in schools as a matter of history, culture and general knowledge. They should not be taught in schools to BELIEVE in any one of them. That should be a matter for their own choice, and for private education at home.

zola said...

Come on you guys : The Enlightenment and "Bildung" was lost in the 1930s which is not so long ago. However could "write poetics" today?
But maybe ... the times are a'changin agin.

Toby did you mean IRRATIONAL or did you mean Non-Rational?
I love the non-rational mixtures but I try my best to steer me ship away from irrational nasty things as in Homer and those risky Greek cliffs and whirlpools.

Anonymous said...

'Good morning, Cassius Clay is that your name......'
Clunkimg fist lands.
'What's my name Zola?'
Mohammed Ali we all chorus.