Thursday, August 13, 2009

Reality, or What's Really Real?

A Facebook friend posted a note about how relativism denies individuality today that seemed to me like a bunch of gobbledygook (or I may just be out of practice with my philosophy), but it prompted some general thought about relativism and subjective experience.

Surprisingly enough, I don't think I'm a relativist, or at least not in the strict sense. I do think there is absolute truth, that there is an actual reality out there. Obviously reality cannot differ from person to person: either the sun revolves around the earth, or the earth around the sun, or they both stand still, or they both revolve around something else entirely, or they both just vibrate up and down, or the sun is really a collective hallucination, or...something else. There is a way the universe works. The problem is, however, that none of us actually directly experiences reality, so we don't necessarily all agree on what that is. It's impossible. That's exactly what perception is—the attempt of our brains to interpret signals and form a coherent view of reality. I mean, it's not like reality is in bright, living color. Color is entirely a product of living brains translating wavelengths into visual impressions because, for some reason, sight is the sense we use the most to gain information about our environment. Obviously things do reflect whatever wavelength of light they do whether or not we were looking at them, and if you wanted to, you could define that as color, but the qualia of, say, yellow, requires a human (or some animals, I suppose) brain.

(Incidentally, is this the point people are getting at when they say God can see/experience things much more clearly than us because he isn't limited by our senses? I mean, I assume he still has senses, but that they're different ones, because I don't understand how you can, um, sense reality without senses, unless, of course, you are reality, but that's going a little too out there for my tastes at the moment.)

Anyway, I think it's pretty well established that different people do perceive the physical aspects of reality differently. People have passionate arguments about whether something is navy or black (or maybe it's really dark purple?) or whether a particular shade of blue-green is more blue or more green. Some people hear that noise TVs make, while others of us can't hear that wavelength. Some people think cucumbers have a strong taste while the rest of us don't have the kind of taste bud or the chemical or whatever that makes the bitterness stand out. So obviously in the most fundamental ways, we all perceive reality slightly differently. And at least in most of these examples, it's nonsensical to say that one person is perceiving reality accurately and something's wrong with the other person. (It's much easier to say that if, for example, someone is colorblind, though I would still say that to that person, light at wavelengths of 510 and 650 nanometers are gray, just as they are green or red, respectively, to others.) Does the reality of cucumber have a strong bitter taste or a very mild, nearly flavorless taste? Neither. Obviously it does contain a chemical that makes it bitter to some people and to those of us who can't taste that chemical, it's not bitter. It's not that it is bitter but we're not tasting it or it's not bitter and some people are just making something up; it actually is bitter to some and not to others. Voila, subjective experience.

Now that's all well and good; we already knew we feel temperatures slightly differently and see colors slightly differently and taste and hear things slightly differently and that some smells that are foul to some are fair to others (gas, Sharpies). All that doesn't really matter, though, as you can pretty much average it all out and assume that's close to the truth. And really, what does it matter if some people can hear a sound that others can't? None of this is very important to everyday life (as long as you're not the colorblind one who can't tell what color the traffic light is) and epic truths. We can all be pretty sure that where one of us sees a brown cow, someone else doesn't see a bolt of lightning or a bicycle or a scarf, so as long as we both see a large animal with dark fur, we can be pretty confident that it has some connection to reality, and that's enough for now. (Of course, we could just all be sitting in cold tanks of water in the bowels of the earth with machines activating the parts of our brains that tell us we're seeing large, dark mammals, à la The Matrix, so I suppose agreement doesn't necessitate accuracy, but for simplicity's sake, let's go with it for now.)

So, on to things less immediately tied to direct perception of reality: religion. If there is one real reality, is there any sense in which beliefs can be true for some people and not true for others? I think here, it depends on what kind of truths you're trying to get out of religion.

Can there be one god, and also be many gods, and also be no gods? Can Jesus have died for our sins 2000 years ago, and the Messiah not yet have come, and if there's going to be anyone to save us it's going to be us ourselves? Can God have created the earth and everything on it in seven literal days, and life on earth have evolved over millennia, and us all be perched on the back of a turtle? Um, I can't see how. Some things (particularly specific events) directly conflict and thus cannot all be true.

But can it be true that God's plan for their life gives some people meaning and purpose while others would feel their lives less purposeful if they thought their lives were being controlled by a god? Can the route to communion with God be through traditional rituals for some, through unrestrained emotional expression for others, and be impossible or not to be desired by yet others? I certainly would say so.

Contradictory? I think not. Certain factual claims either have to be true or false. Either God is an old white bearded man or has blue skin or is Jewish-looking or is a plate of flying spaghetti or is something else; he certainly cannot be blue-skinned and white and Jewish and pasta. You can certainly argue, and I think most people do, that God is none of these things and that these are all our representations, which can differ according to what best suits us and what we are best able to worship without affecting the actual nature or existence of God. This nicely removes this entire problem. But to remain in the realm of factual questions of what God actually is or how the earth came into being or whether our consciousnesses will live on after death—when there are contradictions, some options must be right and others wrong. (Of course, my personal feeling is that it's highly unlikely any one religious tradition has it all right. Nevertheless, there is a right that it is theoretically possible to be.)

Pointing to the physical realm as proof of one belief or another often fails, and this goes back to the perception issue. One person looking at nature sees evidence of God's handiwork in creation, while another sees evidence of a struggle for survival resulting in evolution by selection. One person sees healing through prayer where another sees healing through modern medicine with prayer just happening to coincide. One person sees God's hand at work in their life, guiding them to the right decision about a job or relationship where another sees their own decision-making process with different aspects of their consciousness trying to hash it all out. One person sees God bringing a person into their life for a reason while another sees a chance encounter that they may or may not learn from. Each of these could be a reasonable interpretation of the data, but obviously the mindset, belief structure, and past personal history they are being filtered through affect which interpretation is decided on.

Other claims are less coupled to an absolute reality and depend yet more on a person. For example, it is obviously true (at least if people's claims are to be believed) that believing in God makes some people feel as though their lives have meaning, since they are all a part of God's great plan. Equally as true to others, though, is that the only meaning that could comfort them is one devised by themselves rather than imposed from outside; they have no desire to be a cog in some great unknown plan, the devising of which they had nothing to do with. For many atheists, the thought of living under God's thumb is terrifying. Now, obviously these feelings do not change the reality of whether there is or is not a God who has a great plan we are all a part of, but the 'reality' of whether God is nice or good or whether God comforts people can certainly and legitimately vary from person to person. Religion (or God) can give meaning or sap meaning, soothe or agitate, inspire or depress.

Since to me it seems rather difficult to prove any given claim (even God's existence, much less his color or age or gender or habits of creation) to everyone's satisfaction, I feel we're left with relativism. Of course you have to believe what you believe, what your perception of reality causes you to believe, and it's only reasonable that you should accept that others only believe what their perceptions of reality lead them to believe, whether or not you accept the validity of that belief. And really, to a certain extent, if you can't perceive the true reality and have no way to know who is closest, it almost doesn't matter. I mean, if more evidence comes to light that would push you one way or another, you should take it into account, for the truth does matter, but if the truth is actually unknowable, what you believe doesn't.

NB: I know most people who are religious (and, for that matter, most who aren't, I suppose) do say you can know, but since various groups admit as evidence that which other groups aren't disposed to admit as evidence, we seem to be at an impasse. Yes, the Bible says, but to believe what it says, you have to believe it was inspired, so you have to believe in the God who inspired it, which is what the Bible was supposed to be convincing you of. Likewise, I assume to believe in what scientists have to say about origins of life and such, you have to be convinced nothing exists which cannot be measured or sensed, but isn't God exactly such a thing? Presumably one wouldn't want to rule out God at the very beginning of a process one was hoping would reveal evidence for the very same.

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