Sunday, November 11, 2007

Reality and Meaning

A poster on NOM wrote the following:
Nothing makes sense. I am reading, but it all seems so contrived. I am just waiting for this dream to end so I can experience something real.

Life seems so contrived. All the motions: eating, sleeping, working. Death, joy. Everything is so imaginary. It all exists in my head.

Yet around me, I perceive a universe that actually exists, and I see nothing of myself in it. Yet I am completely and utterly dependent upon the universe for my existence.

So my question is, if it is made up then it isn't real? And if it is real, then it isn't made up?

If all the imaginary things exist because of me, and I am a product of the universe, then why are all these imaginary things separate from the materialistic world I live in?

And even if my thoughts are real, then why do they matter? If meaning doesn't exist, then why do I care? Why do I continue to live?

But if meaning is contrived, then what is meaning? Who's meaning? What meaning is the most meaningful?

And here is the clincher: Who is the bastard who taught me that imaginary things are not real? Life is imaginary! Everything is contrived, in our heads, and nothing is "real" by the definition of real. I will say this with arrogance or humility. Either way, it's how I see things at the moment.

"And I guess that I just don't know, and I guess that I just don't know."
-Velvet Underground "Heroin"

My response:

I am sorry for the anguish that you are experiencing.

One of the things I gather from your post is that you want to experience something real. In my previous post I showed that there is one thing that we can know for certain and is impossible to doubt, and that is that something is happening. That is real. That is reality. Something is happening. "What it is ain't exactly clear".

If we insist that we must be certain before we can move on, then we are stuck right here with the concept that something is happening and we can go no further, because any step we take beyond this point enters the realm of uncertainty; we have to start making assumptions and hypotheses. But, since our certainty journey is over, why don't we see where the uncertainty path might take us?

Now just because we are leaving the realm of certainty that does not necessarily mean that we are leaving the realm of reality. Our assumptions might match reality, but we have no way to be certain of that. With each assumption we make, we will be creating a model of what we think reality is, that might be correct and might not. But, it is important to remember that we will be working with a model of our own creation that represents our conception of reality; we will never be directly perceiving reality.

Let's start with the assumption that observation is happening and that there is an "I" that is doing the observing. Let's assume that there are a few different types of observation I can make: visual, auditory, olfactory, taste, tactile (including texture, temperature, etc), temporal, orientation, etc. Let's assume that there is something out there that exists; that I can observe even if it is only through rudimentary tools of observation. With those assumptions in place, let's start looking for patterns or consistencies in our observations. Can we then derive laws of perception such as Gestalt organization and Piaget's object permanence? Can we then also recognize what we term laws of nature: an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by some force, etc. If we do this, we end up with a scientific worldview that is based upon the above mentioned assumptions.

Might this model be faulty? Might our model making abilities be constrained by limitations in thought that we are not even aware of? Sure. But this is what we have to work with. This is one of the few models that we can make that does not lead to a dead end. So, if we assume that we really are homo sapiens spinning on the third rock from the sun, what now?

Some of the observations we have made were that we get hunger pains when it has been a while since our last meal, and it feels good to have sex, and it feels good to care about the feelings of our spouse and children. Drawing from our observations and the observations of others that they share with us, we learn that some pleasure seeking activities can lead to great pain later on. So, words of wisdom and morals are created and passed down to warn of those activities that can result in sorrow or danger. Things can be put into the moral code that don't belong, but that is a tangent to this discussion. So, the answer to what now is keep making observations and do what you believe will lead to lasting happiness.

Now, for many of us, we feel like we need a purpose in life. Without a purpose we observe an internal sense of sorrow and lack of will to do anything. I believe that purpose isn't something out there that we can observe. Purpose and meaning are perceptions that we have to bestow.

Personally, I can't think of a purpose to my life that I can bestow at the universal or eternal levels. I just really don't think my life has any influence at those levels. However, at the local level in space and time, I can give my life meaning and purpose. I choose to care about the feelings of my wife and child. They would be very upset and hurt if I were to suddenly not be here. I make a positive difference in their lives and I choose to care about that. I observe a feeling of emotional closeness when I have these thoughts. My life does not feel pointless. Even if all of what I assume to be reality is no more than a dream, I am emotionally invested in this dream, and that is real enough for me. It is the only thing I am aware of; it is my life and my only experience. I am going to go with the assumption that it is real. If I assume that it is not real and do something stupid like kill myself and it turns out that this life is real, then it would cost my loved ones dearly. I love them too much to take that chance. I'll die eventually regardless, but I'd like to make as much of a positive difference in the lives of my loved ones and posterity as I can. I observe that that thought makes me feel good, and that is enough for me.

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