I wrote this as part of an email correspondence with a new friend. I thought some others might be interested in seeing it:
The physical world is not an illusion. It may not be exactly as we perceive it, but what we perceive is not a lie, but merely one (of many) perspective. If you are familiar with Kant, then you might say that while we have phenomena, we can’t access the noumenal (the real world behind our mere perception). I reject Kant’s, and this Vedantic-style, metaphysics, because I reject the idea that there is a hidden reality behind the shadows on the wall (I think Plato’s cave analogy was completely backwards). We actually see the real world, it’s just that our perceptual gear does not see all of it (our evolutionary survival does not require an infinite resolution of perception) and so our brains often makes up for what we don’t see by filling in based upon experience and pattern-recognition. That is, what we perceive is not the world fully as it is (it can only be made up of one perspective at a time; that’s why it’s called subjectivity), but it is at least one real perspective on what is really there. If it were possible to see a room from all, or at least many, perspectives simultaneously (that’s a contradiction), then we would be objective beings (an oxymoron, like I said before). Subjectivity creates a problem of perspective, but the illusion exists in the description it creates, not the thing it is describing.
I’ve always liked this saying:
Before Zen, mountains were mountains and trees were trees.
During Zen, mountains were thrones of the spirits and trees were the voices of wisdom.
After Zen, mountains were mountains and trees were trees.
I don’t know what this word “spiritual” means. I have been asking people for years, and every time it seems to be a metaphorical rendering of subjective projection onto reality, rather than a peek at some actually real reality past the illusion of Satan, maya, etc. If we look at the world as a quantum fuzzy cloud of indeterminate particles, that is one perspective on reality. But at another level of description–that of tables, chairs, people, air, fire, etc–are all equally valid and real perspectives. Just because the solidity of matter is not real at all levels does not mean it is not a real description at others. The same way that I am technically (physically) a different set of molecules that I was a decade ago and I perpetually change in many ways, I am also the same fundamental person in many other ways. There is no contradiction there. Language is the source of the illusion, not reality itself.
In my experience, the various mystical and spiritual traditions from world history, including Buddhism, are largely about the nature of our description of the world, and not the world per se. They are linguistics, not metaphysics or ontology. In the postmodern era, linguistics and metaphysics get entangled in ways that are problematic. There is what the world actually is (which we use skepticism and empiricism to discover) and there is the problem of perception, description, and cognitive processes, which only have the power to deal with subjective description. We must dis-entangle linguistics from metaphysics.
Science is the method by which we eliminate cognitive and subjective biases and errors (as much as we can) to describe reality. There are interesting things to think about in terms of exploring “spirituality” and other mystical pursuits (through art, for example), but these things don’t teach us about reality outside of ourselves. what they teach is how we perceive the world, not what the world is. Language, art, and mysticism are only about understanding the nature of perception, language, and description of reality, and are always imprecise. They teach us no facts, and may only accidentally tell us anything about reality.