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Reality is not an illusion July 18, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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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.

Thoughts?

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The pseudo-depth of religion October 17, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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We, unfortunately, live in a largely anti-intellectual and unsophisticated culture.  There is not ample interest in things philosophical or subtle.  I will not lament this here for its own sake, but I will mention this as a pretext to address another issue.

We are pattern seeking beings that desire meaning and purpose in life, but we are rarely exposed to the various approaches to finding these things.  The depth of that search is often too terrifying to traverse, and so we try to find other ways to fulfill this need.  And, lucky for us, culture and its complex structure has supplied our history with just such a function.  The vast majority of people are usually exposed to one source of meaning and purpose; am ancient cultural tradition that still holds sway for many people.

I want to call it religion, but that is too simplistic in the end.  It is my view that religion is a natural expression of our desire to explore the world for meaning. It is a way to look inward and in many cases to project outward what we desire to find there, and to latch onto narratives, myths, and the illusion of ‘something more’ in order to add color, depth, and importance to a world that seems meaningless.

It is a kind of metaphysical or ‘spiritual’ impulse to explain the universe in terms of intent, intelligence, and often in love.  And the result of this impulse that we share are the many religions an spiritual pursuits of the world.  These are the vehicles of providing meaning, purpose, and intent into an otherwise meaningless existence.  And because we sense this meaninglessness often enough, we seek shelter from those cold winds of loneliness and purposelessness.

That is, people seek the part of our psychology that is responsible for the religious cultural impulse to find meaning.  The easiest way to do this is to take an atavistic glance back to the introduction to such feelings; the religion of our childhood.  And if not our childhood, the religion of our early attempts to look for meaning in the world.  For many, groups such as Campus Crusade for Christ (or some similar group) seek to fill the insecure holes that creep into our lives in a time of emotional upheaval and change of the early tastes of freedom that college provides.

In general, whenever the insecurities and fears of life emerge, the desire to see meaning and purpose weaved into the fabric of life and reality act as a sort of blanket against the coldness of the world.

But before I continue I must hark to the whisper of a ghost which has come my way.  A strange and somewhat lively sprite—lively for a dead man, anyway!  A moving of thoughts tussles its way to my mind’s ear and words resolve into a thought:

Mystical explanations are considered deep.  The truth is that they are not even superficial

And with such a deep strike into the heart the thought evaporates and the spirit haunts another.  Or perhaps it has sunk so deep into me that I can no longer distinguish between it and myself.  The difference—it is indifferent!  But the whisper of the name of “Nietzsche” reverberates throughout and my mind returns to the task at hand.

But this spiritual visit has had a purpose, I fathom.  Because in a largely unsophisticated world, the early reaching for meaning and purpose are mitigated by religion; they are softened for us by a pseudo-depth of assertions of truths that are always bolstered by nothing but faith—in other words by sheer preferential desire for them to be true.

It is common for people to scuttle through there youth while largely unconcerned with the ramblings of religious ideologies.  Yes, if pressed they parrot the memories of their early exposure, but they live secularly and leave to Sundays (or some other bequeathed holy day) the quandaries of any depth.  It is only to these holy days that purpose and the insecurities of meaning emerge into the sunlight of our thoughts.

We have not yet allowed the scab to form over such insecurities in order to have our fears heal.  And so we protect our raw minds from the exposure to the dangerous world and we often miss the sophistication and depth which lives there while distracted by this protective preoccupation.  Because we spend so much energy nursing our fears in public, we miss the true depth of the world.

And so what of true depth and subtlety?  What of philosophy? Why, upon the hardship of emotional turmoil, of loss, or of dissatisfaction do people turn to their lord, to the false depth of dogma and myth rather than to do the real, hard, and growth-inspiring work of looking deep within without the lenses of faith and childhood brainwashing?

We avoid the difficult in life and revert to looking at it through Christianity or some other absurd softening of our mortality and ultimate meaninglessness.  And in doing so we miss that it is our responsibility to lend meaning to our lives.  We must take responsibility for how we face death, loneliness, and dissatisfaction.

So often churches will remind us that in the pursuit of money, power, or otherwise transient things, happiness can only be temporary.  They cannot supply real meaning for us, which we crave.  But then they assert that a real happiness, a real and eternal answer may be found.  But this is only an assertion.  It is a promise that cannot be kept.  It is another distraction from the truth that mature and aware adults have to face.  It is a fantasy to cover a scary world.

The thing is that the churches who remind us of the ultimate meaninglessness of our earthly desires are correct.  They just fail to acknowledge that they are not offering anything different.  Their mystical explanations are only deep in an illusory way.  Their façade is not even willing to dip its little toe into the waters of the universe out of fear that the water is too cold.  And it is cold.

Warmth can only be found with one-another.  And so churches, in gathering communities, are creating a mirage; it is not the message of eternal life that provides meaning and purpose, it is the company that sits upon this superficial message that supplies the meaning.  It is the illusion of having eternal companions, covered by real but temporary ones, that perpetuates the illusion.

When we find meaning and purpose in shallow promises of eternity, we find not even a shallow pool in which to swim.  The universe is deeper than we can comprehend.  Its true beauty lies beyond the fear that is manipulated by religion which only thinks itself deep.  Come and join the universe and dive into fathoms unfathomable.  Rather than transcend this world, transcend your fears of it and come swim with us in oceans of reality.  And when you do, you will find true warmth in the company of the disillusioned and the free.