The Question of Reality

January 19, 2011 § 9 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?” — Chuang Tzu

From Plato’s Cave to The Matrix, thoughtful humans throughout the ages have found different ways to ask the same question: Are we fully cognizant of the true nature of the reality that surrounds us?

There is a basic unease to the human condition, the vague and gnawing sense that there must be something we are missing, something we have not been told; a feeling rooted, no doubt, in the fact that we are born into a world where the most burning questions have only theoretical, subjective answers.

Religion has attempted to fill this void with meaning, but even in its answers, more questions arise.

How solid is our reality? Science, so often pitted against the mystical, has the most mystically fraught of answers: not solid at all. On an atomic and subatomic level — as we all learned in school, though most likely didn’t grasp the full implication of at the time — there is space and movement between atoms. The so-called solid wall is teeming, pulsing, dancing — molecules full of wide open space.

If I put my hand on the wall, the sensation I experience as touch is the interaction between the molecules of my hand and the molecules of the wall; on an atomic level, there is a point where the difference between my hand and the wall become indistinguishable.

In other words, it has been scientifically proven in our lifetime that the reality we behold is — to some degree, anyway — illusory.

The idea that the nature of form is misleading and ultimately unreal, of course, has been in existence for centuries — perhaps most famously put forth in the Eastern concept of Maya, (found in Buddhism and Hinduism,) a word derived form the ancient Sanskritma, meaning “not,” and ya, meaning “that.” Though the details differ, Judeo-Christian philosophy reiterates the same basic idea: that things are not as they appear, and this world is but a pale echo of a brighter, truer place.

There are more sinister shades, more paranoid potential, to this question of reality. The possibility that, as in The Matrix — where humans are grown by sentient machines, imprisoned in a virtual computer-generated world —we are living in an unperceived prison of sorts. As the character Morpheus says:

“What you know you can’t explain. But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad.”

Of course, we can clearly see that there are many things wrong with the world — war, hunger, violence, hatred. Easily, that can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it-feeling of unease can find its root in quite tangible phenomena. Perhaps it is a form of escapism to look elsewhere than the obvious issues — wishful thinking that there is some explanation which would make the world’s horrors somehow more comprehensible. And yet, true though this may be, it doesn’t hurt to probe, to dig, to question consensus reality.

The Matrix premise borrows heavily from the Gnostic tradition, wherein the world was created by imperfect gods (though within the spectrum a perfect one exists.)

These flawed creators are described as a race of inorganic beings local to our solar system, called Archons. Agents of error, they feed off human misery and hence work to deceive the mind towards darkness. Pretty trippy stuff, considering the ancient texts date back to the 3rd and 4th century.

The fact that our experience of stimuli in the world is actually an experience of our brain’s interpretation of that stimuli (rather than the thing itself) does make a Matrix-like gap between reality and perceived reality plausible.

After all, the smell of a rose is simply information recognized through sensory organs and registered as “rose.”

The light waves we see when we perceive the rose are in our eyes, not the thing seen; the molecules we smell are in our nose, not the thing smelled. They are not the thing itself, but a relayed message or impression of the thing.

In the language of philosophy, this is known as the “brain in a vat” thought experiment. Theoretically, if it were scientifically possible to place a brain in a life-sustaining liquid environment (or “vat”) & hook its neurons up to a supercomputer—generating electrical impulses identical to those the brain normally receives—the brain would perceive the simulated reality as experiential reality.

This concept is used as a  basic argument for philosophical skepticism; as theoretically it is impossible to know, from the brain’s perspective, whether it exists in a scull or a vat.

Brain in a vat

Surrealist artist Rene Margitte plays with this concept in his famous painting, The Treachery of Images, which displays a pipe, underneath which is written in French: “This is not a pipe”

For, indeed, it is not a pipe, but a representation of one. Yet our first thought upon reading the painting’s caption is to object—certainly this is a pipe. 

Yet upon reflection we must admit that the clever artist’s pronouncement is absolutely accurate and, indeed, our tendency to associate the-thing-itself with its representation has been illustrated.

How can we assume this world is as it seems, when nightly dreams themselves can seem so real? What deeper, truer, more expansive identity and truth might be revealed to us about the cosmos and our place in it upon leaving or waking from this reality?

I’m not in any hurry to get there, and as Tom Hanks says in Joe vs. The Volcano, “Some things take care of themselves,” but I do — after many a dark night of the soul wrestling with doubt — have a good feeling about it. After all, the world minus man’s debacles, is a place brimming with potential and inspirational phenomena.


I’ve heard the life-as-dream/world-as-illusion theory described as angst-producing, proof of pointlessness. I don’t see it that way. Does an inspiring nocturnal dream enrich our spirit any less because it gives way to a deeper, fuller reality upon waking? Is a great novel any less meaningful because it didn’t really happen? When you start subdividing it, the word “real” itself begins to lose meaning.

We can knock on a table and feel reassured by its bright, solid sound. But even the table is like Magritte’s pipe — both what it seems to be and also not at all. Reality ripe with paradox and potential, lots of wide open space for us to take a tip from the molecules and dance, even in the smallest spaces.

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