Friday, August 17, 2007

Whose reality is it, anyway?

Earlier, I wrote a little bit about how reality is currently seen from the eyes of a modern day physicist. I have assimilated that perspective into my own views of “reality”, as that is my nature. I am one who gives great credence into the inquisitive nature of the human race. When we go about investigating the unknown with discipline and integrity, great things can be achieved. The most important thing that one can do is to keep an open mind. If you go about trying to get facts to confirm your own preconceived reality, then you are going about it incorrectly. By doing that, you are not trying to find out what “reality” actually is, you are just trying to bolster your reality as you see it, and are not interested in finding out anything new.

That’s what got me wondering about this question of “reality”. Reality seems to change constantly. So, does that mean that there is anything that can actually be called “reality” that doesn’t depend on human observation and cognition?

As I said, my reality is one that matches the latest views from the world of science, and has very little input from the religious or mystical realms. It’s not that I believe that science has the answer to everything. But my makeup is one that sort of adopts Occam’s Razor as a primary factor. Occam’s Razor is usually stated as “The principle states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory.” Now, I will be the first to admit that many of the advances of modern particle physics and cosmology are definitely not simple. In fact, they are downright bizarre. There is no reason, really, for anyone to believe them other than for the fact that the people coming up with these latest theories are following the scientific method (of which I have spoken of many times here), and whose work is being reviewed by many very educated and knowledgeable peers. It is just that, given my education and background, I find those explanations far more likely to reflect “reality” than anything that includes a supernatural deity.

(For the record, I am not attempting to be sarcastic or dismissive by using the word “supernatural”. I am just using that word with its most straightforward definition, “beyond observable nature” or “that which is unknowable”. I think that most everyone today would agree that, whatever one’s definition of God you might use, it is beyond observable nature.)

This has not always been the case with our human species. I think that our species has always been inquisitive and has always sought explanations for the world they observed and experienced. For most of our species’ history, our ancestors did not have anything that could rightfully called science. Therefore, they attempted to resolve the great questions of their times by whatever means they have available. I envision the great questions to be things like “why do these things in nature happen?” (which includes things like lightening, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, night and day, the nature of the sun, moon, and stars, etc.) and “why do people die, and what happens to us after we die?”

Very definitely, those are very vexing questions. Every culture seems to have attempted to explain them in their own method. I cannot even begin to count how many different ways “reality” has been explained over the course of human history. The gods and goddesses from ancient Greece serve the same purpose as the gods from the more primitive cultures, such as early Polynesians, native Americans of North, South and Central America, Africans, ancient Egypt, pre-Roman England, and on and on. (Again, I am not trying to be dismissive; I just don’t have any other word other than “primitive”.) That is, the purpose of their particular religion was to explain the observable universe. There are some secondary reasons, such as the ruling class cementing their hold on power and over the ruled, but in my mind, that is indeed a secondary reason.

I have wondered how it might be to live in a time and a place where science, as we know it, really didn’t exist. How was it to live in ancient Egypt, where it was just common knowledge that the body was the vessel that held your soul, your Ka. To make it into the afterlife, you had to journey down the Paths of the Dead. If your body had not been properly prepared for your afterlife, your Ka was doomed to wander for all eternity in whatever purgatory they envisioned. Every year, you paid tribute to the White Bull. Everyone instinctively knew this was reality. It was not a matter of questioning, as that would be questioning the gods and the ruling pharaohs.

I could try to give a short summary of many different cultures throughout the history of human civilization, but that would not serve much of a purpose here. I am just trying to illustrate how every society’s “reality” is much, much different than the most every other society. They are all different, but they all depended upon, and still depend upon, one thing; cultural learning. These “realities” must be passed down, from generation to generation. Over time, without any outside influences (such as invasions of hoards of Spanish conquistadors or Roman armies) these “realities” mutate into something a little bit different. These mutations take such a long time that it is difficult, if not impossible, to see those changes from a single human being’s perspective. That is, the “common knowledge” of the day is actually something that must be taught to each succeeding generation. It isn’t something that is likely to be happened on by someone who has not been fully introduced to the subject. I sometimes use the word, “indoctrination”. That has gotten me into some hot water with friends, but that is how I see it. That word obviously has some emotional content to it, but I am using it as unemotionally as I can. You need to teach your children the “ways of the world”. What else is Sunday School at the local church than a way to teach your children what you want them taught?

The reason that I, personally, think that science provides a way to answer some (not all) of the Big Questions is that the different people from different backgrounds and different cultures can come up with the same answers as others, as long as the same process was followed. This is not necessarily true when you are discussing what I refer to as religious viewpoints. However, that is certainly not how a lot of other people see it.

Currently in this country, we have a movement which I call “fundamentalist Christian” whose goal is to make their own reality, based on their own biblical interpretations and teachings (including those mutations I mentioned earlier), and to impose their reality on everyone else in this country. They see science as just another viewpoint, equal to that of any other religion they disagree with, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, or even Catholicism. That is, it can be disposed of, very quickly, without much thought because it differs from their reality. Scientific findings sometimes contradict those views of the fundamentalist Christian. Therefore, that aspect of science, in their minds, can be summarily dismissed. They have their preformed reality, which they do not care to see adjusted, and therefore anything that might contradict their reality must either be regarded as not true. If, in the case of dinosaurs (as I wrote before), the truth is so overwhelming that it cannot be summarily dismissed, it must be somehow assimilated into their view of the world without disturbing the fundamental underpinning belief that their strict interpretation of the literal, word-by-word truth of the Bible is left intact. This leads to some very complex and awkward mental contortions on their part, but it is, in their minds, better than having to adjust their reality.

That is what really upsets me about how fundamentalist Christians. They believe that proven facts, backed up by years and years of research, inspection and re-inspection by very dedicated and educated people, are somehow equal to their more supernatural based views of the world. They believe, for instance, that everyone studying geology, archeology, genetics, ice cores from Antarctica, etc., are all wrong when they state that the world is more than 6000 years old. In the reality of the fundamentalist Christian, their reading of the Bible has the World beginning with Genesis, and if one counts the “Adam begat Adam, who lived a hundred years, and all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years”, you can come up with roughly 6000 years accounted for in the Biblical texts. In my reality, this sounds very much like any other religion, which has its own explanations for the beginning of the world. I think it sounds ridiculous. I think that people, in this day and age, who insist that man lived in the same time as dinosaurs, just because they can’t explain the timescale of the world otherwise, sound just as ignorant as those people in the past who insisted that the Earth was flat or that the sun revolved around the Earth. However, in someone else’s reality, the age of the Earth really is only 6000 years, and science is the thing that sounds ridiculous.

That is hard for me to accept, but it is an undeniable fact that people in our current society can’t agree on reality. Everyone has their own notions of reality, which they are loath to give up. This is one reason, among many, that I don’t have a very high opinion of our species, as a whole. We have achieved some incredible things, and will continue to do so. However, we do that in spite of, not because of, people’s insistence that their “reality” is the only one. People are not seeking “the truth”. They only want to validate “their truth”.

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