Saturday, February 12, 2011

Real reality

I watched Inception for the second time last night and loved it every bit as much as the first time. The great thing about sci-fi movies like that is their ability to ask deep questions in an entertaining way. The question that came to mind last night was, How do we know what's real? And do we really care?

Spoiler Alert: Skip the next paragraph if you haven't seen the movie, since it will ruin it for you.

When Cobb and his wife Mal are lost together in a dream world of their own making, Cobb realizes that eventually they need to wake up. But Mal has left the real world behind, and the only way to get her to go back is to implant an idea in her mind--the idea that this life she's living isn't real. From within the dream world, only death can cause a person to wake up. So Cobb has to implant in her subconscious mind the idea that they must escape this world through death. The plan works, only too well. After they commit suicide in the dream world, they wake up in the real world; only Mal hasn't lost the idea planted in her mind. She refuses to accept the world around her as real. She insists that the two of them still need to wake up. This leads to a second suicide--only this time she is gone, never to wake again.

The same idea, and the same behavior to go with it, can have precisely opposite consequences in two different environments. If we're living in a dream, then rejecting the reality we experience is healthy. If we're living in the real world, then rejecting that reality is not healthy. I'm reminded of Plato's allegory of the cave. If the life we now see really is nothing but shadows, we ought to desire to see the real world. But what if Plato was wrong? Then he had his followers chasing after fantasies.

So how do we differentiate between "real" reality and false reality? How do we know when the desire to escape the world as it is perceived is a good desire, and when it is bad? One can't help thinking of religious experience in this framework. Is our desire to cry out to God good or bad? Is our thirst for something more about to free us from the shackles of the present life, or is it going to lead to our destruction? These are rather serious questions, on which it would appear the claims of many world religions, particularly Christianity, stand or fall. Yet we don't get to view this question from the outside, as spectators watching a movie. We're the characters in this story; we don't get to write the screenplay.

Given our position not as spectators but as participants in this story of life, my current thinking on the matter is as follows. What's real is what lasts, and what lasts is what's real. Whatever seems to be working at the moment is not what's real. This is a frustratingly difficult point to make, whether you're talking to a middle school kid who won't study, or a drunk college student who thinks he's perfectly fine to drive, or a nation addicted to debt. We exist only because of what came before us, and what came before us was only that which stood the test of time; and we are in fact capable of destroying all of it because we refuse to accept the long term consequences of our beliefs and actions.

We do not get to be ultimate judges of what's real; faith is the only way forward. Now faith lies between skepticism and blind trust; unlike both of them, faith truly looks to the future. On the one hand, pure skepticism can't see beyond the present because it seeks absolute proof for everything, whereas most things can only be proved by the test of time. Ideas do not survive because they logically follow from eternal and immutable axioms; they survive because they are approved by the one who rules over all creation and judges all things according to his will--in short, because they work. On the other hand, neither does blind trust look forward into the future, because it is blind; it sees only what it wants to see. The one who has faith is skeptical of himself and of his ability to judge the truth (as opposed to the one who is skeptical of everything but his ability to judge). Blind trust believes that its own unwavering perseverance will be vindicated. Faith does not seek vindication, but only grace. If we stand the test of time, after all, this is not because we have really understood anything, but only because we were given all we needed to live.

In short, I would argue for a spiritual pragmatic realism. The point of such a philosophy is not to resolve the question, "What is real?" but rather to embrace the idea that only time will tell.

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