Monday, March 14, 2016

Reality, Illusion, And Time

     "A man once said to the universe, 'Sir, I exist.'
     'However, ' replied the universe, 'that fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.'"

     [Stephen Crane]

     I hadn’t planned to post again today, but this piece from Dystopic got my brain chugging, and once it started it refused to halt upon command. The portion most responsible:

     Consider this quotation:
     Nothing real can be threatened.
     Nothing unreal exists.
     Herein lies the peace of God.

     This seems pretty straightforward on its own. If it is real, it exists. And if it is not real, it does not exist. Knowing what is real and what is not real will give you peace. That’s the literal truth of the quotation. But observe this woman’s take on it:

     As I read this passage, it seems to me that we are encouraged, once again, to see that the world in which we live in illusion. It is not real, and therefore does not truly exist. The real, in my view, are the intangibles of hope, love, joy, peace, and the like. These cannot be taken from us except by our choice. And when we are in our right minds, we choose to keep these blessings in our hearts.
     We have the peace of God when we have His intangibles.

     She takes this to mean that the world does not exist, and only intangible feelings exist. What feels hopeful, joyous, peaceful, etc… is good and real. Everything else is illusion. Peace is found when you see the world as illusion, and God as real.

     She has failed to note that it is possible to believe both are real.

     Find the holes in both Celia Elaine’s and Dystopic’s morphologies while I refill my wine glass.


     Scarlett Johansson’s star vehicle Lucy was panned by the critics. Yet it’s more important than it might seem – though its genuinely important bit is nestled among action sequences and special effects that were most of the “draw” for its intended viewers – and I shall tell you why. First, a snippet:

     There’s some misdirection and ambiguity in the above, but the most important part comes through:

Ours is a temporal reality.
If time were subtracted from it, “real” and “not real” would be meaningless terms.

     But time is the dimension that supports change. Indeed, time mandates that everything change. The implication is both exalting and terrifying:

Since everything changes,
ontologically, existence is of infinitesimal duration.

     Heraclitus put it somewhat more lyrically: “You cannot twice step into the same river.” Other waters, he noted, were forever flowing thence, transforming the reality of the instant with each instant that passes. Either way, this forces us to be at least a little tentative about what is “real” or “unreal.”


     Even for a drunken Irish-American (former) physicist, the above can seem unduly metaphorical and obscure. A citation from a terrific novel (which, sadly, also contains a lot of utter nonsense) will help to clarify it:

     “You don’t understand what time is,” he said. “You say the past is gone, the future is not real, there is no change, no hope. You think Anarres is a future that cannot be reached, as your past cannot be changed. So there is nothing but the present, this Urras, the rich, real, stable present, the moment now. And you think that is something which can be possessed!

     You envy it a little. You think it’s something you would like to have. But it is not real, you know. It is not stable, not solid – nothing is. Things change, change. You cannot have anything … And least of all can you have the present, unless you accept with it the past and the future. Not only the past but also the future, not only the future but also the past! Because they are real: only their reality makes the present real.

     [Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed]


     Identity – the isolation of a thing as denominable and enumerable apart from all other things – is itself a time-dependent conception. To have identity, a thing must have both duration and continuity. Yet even over a time interval shorter than our perceptions can grasp, it will change. It is our consciousness of its endurance in macroscopically perceptible ways that allows it to bear a meaningful identity.

     So it isn’t entirely right to say that the world around us – what the Hindus call Maya – is an illusion, but neither is it entirely wrong. It’s functionally accurate and very useful to see the world as objective, substantive, “real.” But beneath our perceptions things are changing, which lends an ephemerality to what we think we know that can never be excluded from our calculations.

     God has embedded us in Time because we need it. The natures He gave us demand it; our existence as the body / mind / soul combinations He made us renders our dependence upon the continuing flow of time absolute. He wants to see us change – grow – evolve, if you like. Because of time and the inevitability of change, our knowledge of natural law – the laws that govern all of our temporal reality – is doomed to be forever approximate. “One plus one equals two” isn’t “wrong.” Rather, it’s a statement in a formal, entirely conceptual system we use to make useful, albeit approximate statements about reality: specifically, about the changes we expect it to present to us.

     Change is the only constant. All else is as ephemeral as the mayfly.
     It has always been thus. It will be thus to the end of Time itself.
     Only God Himself is constant and eternal.
     Only God is ultimately real.
     Praise Him.

5 comments:

  1. Does a two-dimensional thing exist?

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  2. I just knew that post would spur some musing on your part. I don't think I can reply tonight. My wife is somewhat... irritated with my long disappearances to muse on such matters. But I think this shall be a post for tomorrow.

    One thing I can say now, however, is that we are talking about *slightly* different concepts that are, nonetheless, interrelated. My original post was to point out the lunacy of the Progressive notion that all is subjective, that you determine your own reality. It doesn't work that way.

    At the same time, the Allegory of the Cave also applies. What we see is often a dim reflection of what actually is, and your notion on time reducing the specificity of things is in line with that. The river is never exactly the same in any two given moments of time. But to us, the shadow of the river, so to speak, is nonetheless a close enough approximation to reality to be called the river.

    And the river's existence or non-existence is not a subjective matter. It is an objective matter. But our *description* of it is approximate, and contains subjectivity. That much, I readily concede.

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  3. Actually, the river is totally subjective. Drink from it, pee in it or use it to power a windmill.

    And if you instead choose to sit in your house and ponder the river, others will use the river. Sooner or later -> subjective.

    And Plato's cave? Of course! So what?

    The version of reality we react to (the shadow we choose to acknowledge) is the one we'll let kill us.

    When I was a kid in high-school, I thought Plato was obvious, Aristotle was fascist and Sophocles was transcendant - or weird.

    (Granted, that's partly because we don't have any of Sophocles' actual writing. Maybe he was banal, too.)

    He may have laughed at cats, pre-video.

    It sorta doesn't matter if Plato or Descarte or anybody was "right" about existence or the human condition, or what we perceive as truth.

    We're here, and you gotta feed your family. God or Aristotilean logic might help you work out the problems when you're trying to fall asleep, but you have only 3 choices:

    1) Do the best you can while respecting that others are in the same boat;

    2) Do the best you can, and disregard others;

    3) Ponder.

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  4. Odd. I always pegged Plato as the more fascist of them all and Aristotle as the obvious one. Plato's philosopher king and his admiration for the Spartans (while, it should be noted, voting with his feet to stay in Athens) struck me as remarkably utopian and short-sighted from a man who was otherwise quite insightful and intelligent. The end result of the combination of Spartan values and a "philosopher king" would probably look much closer to a fascist dictatorship in modern context than anything else I could think of.

    While I agree with your last statement, the rest doesn't work. If you pee in the river, certainly you have changed the river in some fashion. But that doesn't mean the river does not exist at the precise moment you pee into it. Nor does it mean that, by peeing into it, you have subjective control of whether or not a river exists or even, it should be noted, whether or not the pee exists.

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  5. Darn! I wrote "Sophocles." I meant "Socrates."

    Dystopic, you have a point, but my remark about the river made sense when I wrote it. Rationality may not be my native language.

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