Where am I?

Since I got back from Europe 5 days ago, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, not sure where I am. It’s a quite disturbing experience, and rather than fading with each successive night, I think last night was the most intense version of the phenomenon. Here’s a brief description of what’s been happening each night in the last few nights.

I wake up, and sit up in a mostly dark room, and the surroundings look foreign and unfamiliar. I have the sensation of looking at the doorways, wall-hangings, and even the ceiling fan and having the sensation of all of it indicating that I’ve traveled to a very different place than I’m used to. And for maybe the next 30 seconds, I’m trying to remember where I am, and I just want to be home. And I’m very clearly NOT home.

Did I travel to England?

Is a thought I had one night. Another I was almost certain that I had gone back to Bruges. The only thing I was certain of, in those moments before I come back to reality, is that I’m definitely still traveling, and I’m exhausted and just want to be home, finally.

I was away from home for 2 weeks. I visited 7 cities.  I landed in Brussels, then continued onto Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Den Haag (because I cannot think of it as “The Hague” anymore), and finally Amsterdam. I was changing cities every other day or so, and so I woke up, both in the middle of the night and on each morning (excepting the 2 nights I closed out some clubs until dawn), in an unfamiliar place. And, now that I’m home, that sensation has seemed to stick to my brain, despite the fact that Kate was next to me 2 of the last 5 nights.

What’s most interesting about the experience is that moment where my brain finally understands–and accepts–that I’m back home. I’m back in the US, I’m in West Philly, and this is my apartment. What’s interesting about it is that my mind seems to fight this realization, and there is a moment of cognitive pain, not unlike cognitive dissonance, where my brain is forced to accept that this is my stuff.

Even stranger is the experience of almost watching the surrounding of my bedroom almost visually transform into my stuff. It’s not that they literally change shape, but the realization of where I am shifts the emotional content of the items in a way that is, in some cognitive sense, indistinguishable from actually changing their shape and color. Perception and recognition are embedded in a foundation of emotion, and if you don’t believe, deep down, that this is home, then it won’t look like home.

And this makes me even more aware of how much belief and emotion effects perception and cognition.

And it makes me even less certain that we 1) choose our beliefs and 2) can change our worldviews simply with rationality and logic. Because in that moment, right before I accept where I am, the room is foreign. I am NOT at home. I’m in some weird AirBNB or hotel somewhere and I’m far away from home and I’m a little scared. And my mind fights the evidence to the contrary, even when it is as plain and overt as evidence can possibly be.

Imagine how hard it would be if I refused to, or could not, look at the evidence? How could I change my mind?

[insert argument about how people refuse to be skeptical and seek out alternative information, and how this is bad and we’re all screwed. Feel self-righteous]

There is obviously some residual emotion left over from my trip. Because while I enjoy traveling, and am glad I went to see all those places, I had moments while away of painfully missing home, and having the sensation, especially at night, of feeling lost, alone, and very much wanting to be in my own bed.

It’s somewhat ironic that when I actually returned to that bed, I then have the experience of that bed feeling not like home at all.

I’m tempted to try and concoct or fabricate some deeper meaning to all of this, as if there were some profound personal revelation of feeling lost everywhere, making my home equally wherever I am, but I think that’s evidence of a brain trying to find pattern and intent where there is none. I think it’s simpler and less interesting than that. I think that our brains try to predict the world, and for 2 weeks it got used to predicting being far from home, and it’s going to take a few more nights for it to settle back into the routine of being home.

And yet the sensation of a deeper, existential, and philosophical lesson is fighting to remain in the spotlight of consciousness, and I more deeply understand the workings of the spiritual or religious sense of mind; it’s a sensation that insists upon itself, in the face of evidence.  Despite the fact that its more like a waking dream-state where the monsters and fantasies of the sleeping mind slip into reality which cannot permit them, we still won’t look directly at reality and see it for what it is.

The vacation is over, I am home, and I have to go to work in a few hours.

To sleep, perchance to dream

Open thy eyes and let escape a dreamscape.

To wake, entranced to seem

Open thy mind and the world will let itself







Kant, perception, and other things you probably don’t care about.

I have been having an on-going conversation with someone recently who, upon reading Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God (upon my suggestion), quoted this section of his book and responded (below):

The fact that we observe a universe moving through time, ever changing, from the furthest point to the left onward to the right on the diagram above, is the product of the physical nature of both our minds and the universe: it is in one sense and illusion, like the illusion of solidity, when in fact solid objects are mostly empty space; but in another sense it is an interpretation of a pattern that really does exist — a pattern that does not really move or change, but is genuinely experience, just a solidity is genuinely experienced and, in its physical effects, is a real fact of the universe.

Everything we experience is a construct, a convenient way for the brain to represent the otherwise complex and jumbled data of the senses and brain systems. But we have ample evidence, ample reason t believe this “reconstruction” of a world outside of us is based on real data from that world, and thus strongly corresponds to it.

[her emphasis]

First of all, read this book.  It stands, for me, as one of the best defenses of metaphysical materialism I’ve seen, and is written for laypeople.

Now, onto her response (in part) and my continued discussion.  Warning, this post contains philosophical terminology and may only be interesting to people who care about this issue.

She said (again, in part):

This is what I meant when I was talking about reality being an illusion. Yes, there is a real universe (particles, energy, etc.) but our experience of it is subjective because we are in fact human and not some other mode of creature. We experience time even though time exists all at once. If we weren’t human, but instead a different kind of living creature, for example, a black hole, then (possibly) we wouldn’t experience time, or gravity, or even matter in the same way. In this way, our reality as human beings is an illusion and our experience is entirely subjective. Does that mean there are “laws” of our collective subjective experience that apply to all humans? Of course, gravity is one such law. But gravity is subjective to our experience as humans, and it applies to us only because we are such a creature as such a law applies to. Therefore, our human reality is an illusion because of our collective subjective experience. And a collective subjective experience (I suspect) is the closest we will ever get to an objective reality.

So I understand your point (I think).  I’ve bold-faced the important statements, which I will be focusing on.

I want to make a distinction between subjective experience and illusion.  The fact that my experience of, say, eating some ice cream is subjective does not mean it’s an illusion.  It means that I have a privileged perspective on that experience, one that others only have a limited perspective on, but it still is a real thing.  My experience of the ice cream is different from yours (if you are watching me eat it.  If we are sharing it that is a more difficult question), but so long as there is actual ice cream, there is no illusion.

The word “illusion” means, for me, an experience with no referent.  It means that if I experience the flavor of ice cream (which is subjective) and there is no ice cream, then I experienced an illusion.  If I hear the voice of god (and there is no god) I’ve experienced an illusion.  But my experience with ice cream, when actually eating ice cream, is not an illusion,  It may not be reliably 100% accurate with some hypothetical objective reality, but the fact that there is some difference between the truth and what I’m able to perceive does not imply an illusion, but rather mere inexact perception.

Before I address this further, let’s see what else you said:

Objective reality could possibly exist but it would be impossible for anyone to experience. By argument once you are a “one” you are subjective. Objective reality, therefore, even if it exists cannot be experienced except through limited subjective experiences. And each being/creature/thing will have their own subjective experience of what is. All of us–humans, superior alien intelligence, black holes, or vampire, blood-sucking rabbits– are just blind men feeling up different parts of the elephant (a sexy elephant wearing lingerie).

And I venture to guess you would agree that a “strong correspondence” is still not actual reality.

If I’m looking at a desk, my perception of it creates a simulation of what I’m able to perceive with my eyes.  That is, a small set of radiation (visible light).  Immanuel Kant was famous for (in part) noting the difference between the phenomena and the noumena.  The phenomena is the perception–the simulation our mind creates–and the noumena is the proposed actual desk.  He agrees with you, and says that the phenomena is not the noumena.  He thought it would be impossible to ever experience the actual desk.

I reject this very framework.  My argument is not that we actually see the noumena, I reject this type of model of perception altogether.  I don’t think the distinction between the phenomena and the noumena is a meaningful distinction.  I think trying to project an actual thing in itself (this is Nietzsche’s term) out there, as an objective being, is nonsensical. This does not mean that the desk does not exist, it just means that the desk is not a separate ontological category as my perception (the phenomena).

The Vedantic tradition, of which both Hinduism and Buddhism are part, offer the solution that says that all is the phenomena, that all of reality, is actually an illusion (maya).  That the world exists in mind.  This interpretation is dependent upon the subject-object distinction that Kant talked about.  It allows the phrase “the world is an illusion” to mean something (or at least to attempt to mean something).

But I view the problem differently.  And here, describing it is difficult because our very language (and possibly all language) is modeled on this metaphysical framework.  We say, for example, “I see the desk” (subject-object).  But there might be another way to describe it.  The physicality of the desk, myself, and the radiation interacting with both are part of a larger system (the universe, yes, but the room I’m in is sufficient).  There is a continuous physical connection between all of them.  The reality of any of them are indicated by the interaction, one specific example of which is perception.  That is, my perception is one kind of physical interaction among physical objects, even if it seems different from our point of view.

The problem comes in with subjectivity.  The subjective experience is a created phenomenon when a part of this system is self-reflective.  It simulates itself, and creates a small “strange loop” (this is Douglass Hofstadter’s term) and this creates the illusion.  But the illusion is not the desk (or the world in general).  The illusion is the separation (this may be like Zen non-duality, in fact).  The illusion is the concept of the distinction between the phenomena and the noumena.  In a strange (and imprecise) way, the illusion is the very phenomena itself (but that would still allow the subject-object ontology to be valid).

Remember when you said, above:

By argument once you are a “one” you are subjective.

Well, that to me is telling (assuming I’m interpreting you correctly).  Because becoming this “one” is where the illusion comes in.  I think this is what some philosophers mean when they argue that consciousness is an illusion (I’m looking at you, Dennett!).  It’s not that consciousness does not exist (it is a physical thing), but rather it’s that it creates an illusory separation from the rest of reality and an illusory unified self.  I am not sure, but it may have to do this by the very nature of how consciousness works (which is a mystery, still).  The illusion of your singular identity, a pattern out of chaos narrative if ever there is one (cf. Dimasio), creates the sense of a subject-object relationship with the rest of the universe (or at least the rest of the room). In reality, you are just a continuous part of that reality.

It’s tempting to flip Kant on his head and say that it is the phenomena which is the illusion (since it actually has no referent, since our simulation is imperfect and is not a faithful representation of the thing) and that the noumena is all we can see (because we are the noumena ourselves), but this does not work because it is equally dependent upon Kant’s same ontologically dualistic description.  Whether you look at Kant as he wanted or upside down, the same ontology is necessary, and it is this ontology which is at issue.  It fails for the same reason as Kant’s formulation does, just upside down.  Perhaps flipping it makes it more clear why his original concept fails, actually.

Kant, Vedanta, and other epistemological/ontological solutions to this problem seek to define the world as the illusion.  But it is, in fact, the separation (and thus the subject-object relationship) which is the illusion.  So it isn’t that the objective reality might exist but we may never experience it, rather it’s that reality (not subjective or objective) exists, and we cannot help but experience (some of) it.  We can’t not experience it because we are part of that reality.

At least, we can’t not experience it until the created loop of our subjectivity can no longer be physically maintained, because the organism which supports it falls apart.  So long as the physical (often biological) foundation (our bodies, or whatever computer which simulates something similar) upholds the subjective separation (subjective consciousness), we cannot help but experience the world.

In my framework, we replace Kant’s noumena, or the world “separated” from us, with the problem of resolution.  Rather than being dualistic, this is a monistic ontological solution which is left with problems of information transfer rather than ontology-bridging problems (that is what my MA thesis was about).  It’s not that we don’t see the real world, it’s that our (current) perceptual gear cannot perceive all existing information (the whole radiation spectrum, every level of detail at all sizes, etc).  For this, the solution is not that the other information does not exist or is an illusion, but rather that we need more perceptual tools to see them.  Technology, in other words.  Science and skepticism.

In the history of religion and philosophy, most metaphysical constructs have separated our (often “limited”) world from the ideal or heavenly world.  It may have started with Plato (at least philosophically), but it is pretty universal across cultures. Many materialistic responses have sought to simply reject the transcendent (logical positivism), rather than realize that it’s just not transcendent at all.  Many criticisms of this largely universal concept still hold onto, at least implicitly, the dualism that underpins the problem.

Once we realize that we create the illusion, merely by thinking (hence why Zen meditation is still worth pursuing, even if some of the religious associations and rituals still stick to it), we can start to realize that Kant’s phenomena/noumena distinction is not actually a real thing.  Then we can go on with our lives, actually living in a real world where words like “objective” and “subjective” are concepts which no longer have any meaning.  Then we can stop arguing about objective and subjective (relative) morality and truth, because those distinctions are no longer real either.
Wouldn’t that be something!


Truth or Happiness?

In a conversation last night with a dear friend, the issue of what is more important—truth or happiness–arose.  As a skeptic, my answer is truth.  But I want to say a few words about that because I think that maybe the terms are not as clear as they may seem.

Is there a “truth”?

Yes.  Next?


…OK, so I should not be so flippant about that answer.  For some people, this question is not so clear, and for others the answer is no.  For the philosophically inclined, I will say that I reject the concept of reality being inaccessible or an illusion.  So While our perceptual tools are not always reliable on their own, there is a reality out there and it actually is what it is regardless of our often faulty perceptions.  Reality is there whether we think about it rightly or wrongly.

The issue following that (and in another way, preceding it) is which epistemological methodology we use; how do we figure out what reality is like while avoiding those mistakes of perception? Skepticism, obviously.  We demand demonstrable, repeatable, and rational evidence for things and the better that evidence the stronger our acceptance of that thing should be.  So our path to truth is an empirical, logical, and and ultimately a skeptical one.  We believe things when we cannot disprove them, for so long as the theories we generate maintain their justification.

A word about theories.

Remember, theories are things which have survived the assault of people who want to try and tear it down (for the sake of, perhaps, another potential theory).  Theory is the graduation point in science, not some mere guess.  But also, they are nothing but language; they are descriptions based upon the logical rules which make up thought, perception, etc within our heads.  The theories themselves are not real, objective things (they are, at best, intersubjective).  But they try and describe real events and phenomena, sometimes successfully.  Pointing out that the theories we use–the language we use–are subjective narratives which are not objectively real says nothing about the world itself.  The fact that our subjectivity is stuck in our own head, and that theories are subjective experiences, does not mean that the referents are not actually there.  It only means that the language we have to describe it is an imperfect map to the terrain.

Theories are not corresponding maps, in other words, but they try and describe reality in terms our minds can comprehend.  And many scientific theories do this so well that we can predict and construct to such a high degree of complexity and resolution that the computer you are reading this on can work.  Amazing, isn’t it? Such huge accomplishments, based on an empirical theory of truth, that provides some happiness for many people.  Technology is the evidence that our ideas can represent the world well.

Unless, of course, you believe some sort of solipsism is true.  In which case, you are writing a wonderful blog post right now!  And no, that is not me being full of myself, that is you being full of yourself.   Also, you are responsible for everything, including the things you hate and don’t believe are true.  If the world is an illusion, you are responsible for Republicans.

What is happiness?

Are you insane? Don’t ask a philosopher that! Unless you want to read 50 pages that will ramble in incoherently, don’t ask that.

Let’s say that happiness is some kind of emotional or intellectual (and no not “spiritual” because that word does not mean anything!) experience.  Whether it is a conglomeration of emotions, it’s own emotion, or even some kind of an intentional stance we take to ourselves, it is an experience or a background set of experiences.  It is a mind or body state, of some kind.  You want more detail, too bad.  All I am willing to say here is that it’s a real, physical thing like any other experience.  It happens in our brain (and possibly in other parts of our nervous system), and is a real phenomenon of some kind.

Happiness is nice.  it’s better than non-happiness, by definition.  It may (or may not) feel different for different people, but it’s a good thing.  People like happiness.

See, less than 50 pages! And only a little incoherent!

And yet you still have no idea what I think happiness is, do you? Well, I don’t give a flying purple fuck, because it’s not important to the point here. So go eat a pile of expertly-thrown monkey shit if you are left unsatisfied by that.

I’m apparently feisty today.

Are happiness and truth at odds?

There certainly is a tension between truth and happiness in our culture, but is that tension necessary?

Will learning more about the actual nature of reality cause happiness to decline?

Maybe.  There might be some (scientifically and empirically valid) studies which talk about that.  I’m not looking them up, mostly because I want to believe that the answer is no but I know deep down inside that the answer of yes would make me unhappy.  Try that mind-fuck on for size!

So, in other words, I want the truth to lead to happiness. I have an emotional interest in the proposition that valuing truth will at least not make us more unhappy.  That being said, here’s my rationalization; I have a value for truth, which trumps happiness, because I know that when people don’t know the truth it often causes harm.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you need to browse this website:


False beliefs may seem harmless, but they are not.  Not always, but they are often harmful.  By demanding a level of evidence to accept something, you make it less likely (ideally) to get swindled or support a dangerous lie.  And because I care about my happiness, which is in part related to the state of the culture around me, I am motivated to care about truth prior to happiness.  Mostly this is because the harm of non-truth upsets me, and so if I try and consider happiness first, it backfires.  But, of course, this is only true because I care about what is true, fundamentally.  If I didn’t care what was true (or if I thought that truth was subjective or didn’t exist) then I could just be concerned with happiness since truth is, in that hypothetical world, not a real thing.

Of course, some might say that my belief that there is actually an objective reality is not true (or only true for me; from my subjective perspective), and so the harm is illusory.  Of course, I want to know what method they used to tell me that my belief in truth is not true!  If there is no truth, then we couldn’t tell the difference, rationally, between truth or untruth.  The concept of truth would be meaningless, and chaos and nihilism would ensue.  Pure hedonistic, lawless, chaos!  Well, not really, but if there is any means to make a distinction between two ideas in terms of which one is more in line with how the world operates, then we have a methodology to determine truth.  It may not always work, but when it does work we have access to the real world! Amazing!

Bu the more important point is that if we deny the distinction between a helpful and a not-helpful method and set of ideas, we ignore real-world harms.  There is no truth, eh? No objective reality? Tell that to the children who die because their parents choose prayer over medicine.  Tell that to people getting the Measles right now because other people believe that the MMR vaccine causes Autism (thanks Jenny McCarthy).  Tell that to creationists and other delusional people who deny evolution for the sake of an ancient mythological just-so story about a man, his wife/property, and a garden they were kicked out of because the property/wife was too skeptical.  Without a reality, we cannot be angry about these things because there is no objective truth to tell the difference.  But we can tell the difference.  and that very ability to rationally discern indicates a methodology of decision.  It indicates a way to choose between theories.

And yes, there are complicated problems with theory choice in the philosophy of science, but this does not point to the lack of objective truth, but only to problems in refining the methodology to attain it.  it’s sort of like how this is not a duck.  The empirical evidence can give us clues, even if we are missing pieces or are not sure which, among similar theories, to choose.

There are actual truths.  Evolution is true, the creation stories of the world religions are not.  This is not mere opinion, this is an idea backed up by evidence derived from experience of the world around us, meticulously tested and probed to the breaking point–but does has not broken.  Mythology is not true for the culture is exists within; it’s either verifiable or it is bullshit.  Saying that mythology is “true” seeks to conflate meaning with truth.  An idea might have meaning, but meaning does not imply truth.  If something is true and is understood by someone then that idea has meaning, but the fact that it is also true is a different question.  The Harry Potter Universe is largely internally coherent and meaningful, but magic isn’t real so the story is not true.  The concept of “spirituality” might have meaning for you, as if does for many people, but it does not correspond to anything intersubjectively real.  When it’s tested, it fails (there is $1,000,000 waiting for you if you can prove otherwise).  Things that have meaning to you might simply not be true.  Yeah, it sucks, but only because you prefer comfort to reality.

This is not about comfort v. truth, because if so comfort would win in a landslide election,  But mere comfort, for me anyway, is not enough.  Comfort is not happiness.  They might coexist, but not necessarily.

So what about happiness, then?

Some people might not like how reality is.  Compared to an emotionally powerful narrative of some religion, the apparent coldness of truth seems dry and is not conducive to happiness.  I don’t give a flying fuck.  Happiness within an illusion can only remain happiness in ignorance.  And this is where some people may come back with “well, I’d rather be happy and delusional than see the world through your eyes and be miserable!”

False analogy.

Christianity and it’s ideological ancestors and cousins may have tainted this question for us too much to see this clearly (Nietzsche sad that “the Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.”), but there are no mythologies more awesome than the intricacies of cosmology, biology, quantum mechanics, or even mathematics.   As I have argued previously (please read that post if you have not already, as it applies to more than just humanism), the attempts of many liberal-minded people to seek solace in some sort of religious or spiritual environment in the face of the wasteland left behind the wars between the powers of monotheism and science (which has created an illusory dichotomy between the beauty and meaningfulness of religion and spirituality versus the dead, meaninglessness of a world without divinity) are still stuck in that Platonic worldview.  The question is framed in such a way that to ask whether we want religion or science/atheism seems to be asking if we want happiness or boring, dry, grey “truth” (which is actually just a lie, a deception of Satan or at least Loki).  The idea that truth is a fiction is, surprisingly to some, a very Christian (Platonic) theme.

The narrative of Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic (hell, it’s down-right Platonic, neo-Platonic even, of them) dichotomies between meaning and nothing, Heaven and Hell, etc is ubiquitous.  It’s so old, so natural-seeming to us, that most people simply don’t even know it’s there.  When I discovered it myself, I was blown away, and frankly I still reel from it.  I, who never believed in any gods, always distrusted Christianity, and who found the idea of Heaven silly from a young age, was susceptible.  It is one of the most invisible assumptions and ideological axioms in our culture, and it’s power to sway not only our actions but our very beliefs, cannot be underestimated.  And if we think that we avoid it by leaving those large-tent religions, we are fooling ourselves.

But replacing one version this narrative with another one, rather than discarding it, is much easier.  Christianity and New Age Paganism, for example, have a lot in common despite the fact that they hate one another in many cases.  They have very different theologies, for sure, but the similarities of their basic metaphysical assumptions are striking.  There is an implicit distinction between the spiritual and the physical, the sacred and the profane, and meaningful and the meaningless.  These are false distinctions.  They simply are not real except in the mind of believers, and then only as abstractions with no correspondence.

There is no meaninglessness.  If it were meaningless, we couldn’t conceive of it, think about it, etc.  We have a place-holder word, but it points to nothing.  (Also, there is no nothing.  Same reasons).  There is no ‘spiritual’ world or being.  Because of that, ‘physical’ is redundant.  Everything that exists is physical (or material, or whatever term you prefer.  It is made out of stuff).  Tell me the difference between the lack of marbles, the non-physical marbles, and the imaginary marbles again, please? In other words, the dichotomy between the area (or realm, or whatever) of the source of happiness and the (other) area from where happiness cannot derive, is not a real thing.  Wherever happiness comes from, it is coming from somewhere real.  And knowing more about that reality will give you more information about your happiness (if you look in the right places), and what causes it (or prevents it).  Must I invoke Sam Harris?

So, the best way to be happy, both individually and as a culture, is to value skepticism as a methodology towards truth.  That way, your worldview is accustomed to change, possibly being wrong, and since you have been using it you are more likely to already have ideas which are rationally justified, so more likely true.  No matter how open-minded your faith tradition is–no matter how new, radical, or enlightened it is–the nature of faith is to conserve itself.  Conservation of culture is stifling of curiosity, freethinking, and ultimately of the truth.  So while paganism and other forms of Western New Age might be tied to liberalism generally and may provide more happiness than the traditional religions, they can only become less so and never more so.

Not without truth, anyway.

The longer a tradition which is not skeptical stays around, the more tradition, and thus conservatism, becomes important.  So the new age is preferable to Christianity, but only because Christianity has been in a position of power, and power only seeks its own happiness, not yours.

Progress is in the direction of atheism and naturalism.  That’s where the truth leads.  So, again, what about happiness?

Spirituality and religion only look like better sources of happiness because, in our culture, we have been conditioned to see a relationship between meaning and belief in something more than this mere physicality.  Since Plato’s long influence, people have thought that the physical is cold and dead, and needed something more to give it life and meaning.  This is a disease which has been eating at our species for two and a half millennia.  And as Nietzsche said, in my favorite quote of his,

“To translate man back into nature; to become master over the many vain and overly enthusiastic interpretations and connotations that have so far been scrawled and painted over the eternal basic text of homo natura; to see to it that man henceforth stands before man as even today, hardened in the discipline of science, he stands before the rest of nature, with Oedipus eyes and sealed Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird catchers who have been piping at him all too long, “you are more, you are higher, you are of a different origin!”—that may be a strange and insane task, but it is a task”

We need to ignore the siren calls of spirituality and religion, thinking they are the only possible source of happiness.  We cannot be content to lie happy in illusion.  There are more things in reality here on Earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your mythologies.

So, tell me that your religion provides happiness where the truth cannot, and I will say you are not looking closely enough at the truth, or are still viewing it though lenses with Platonic or Zoroastrian labels on them.  I think you need new glasses, ones with scientific lenses.  Because if you want to know more about happiness, you need truth.  Truth is the tool by which we better understand the potential for, as well as limits and causes of, happiness.  Because while we could experience happiness with little truth, the truth is the only sure way to lead to any more.  The better our access to truth is, the better we can be sure we are heading in the right direction.  Without truth, our forays into happiness will be a crap-shoot at best.  Being a good craps player means knowing the odds, and the odds are a kind of truth.

It’s not so much that truth causes happiness as untruth causes harm (or at least chaos and unpredictability).  But remember, even if the lack of truth in your world is not harming you (and it might be doing so without your knowledge), it is hurting someone else somewhere–possibly many others everywhere.  And I, personally, can’t remain happy knowing that is possible.  Or, at least I can’t without avoiding truth, which doesn’t seem like a good solution.  Ignorance is one thing, but willful ignorance is quite another.

I choose truth and happiness.

Reality is not an illusion

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.