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    Dixon's Avatar

    Article: The Gospel According to Dixon #4: Reality Is Real--Really!

    by Dixon Wragg
    Row, row, row your boat
    Gently down the stream

    Merrily, merrily, me
    rrily, merrily.
    Life is but a dream.


    There once was a man who said, “God
    Must think it exceedingly odd
    If he finds that this tree
    Continues to be
    When there’s no one about in the Quad.”
    --Ronald Knox

    One of the greatest impediments to communication and understanding is when people are coming from fundamentally different assumptions about the nature of reality itself. Few things are more frustrating than trying to achieve agreement about some fact, only to be met with a response like “Well, nothing is real; it’s all just illusion anyway.” Similar conversation-stoppers include “Everyone has their own truth”, “It’s all just stories; one is no more real than another”, and “Life is but a dream.”

    These positions share this basic feature: denial of
    objective reality, leading to a lack of any objective standards whereby we might distinguish truth from illusion--an insubstantial world in which nothing is objectively true or false.

    If we don’t examine this position too closely, it can look very appealing. It allows us to feel that we’re wonderfully tolerant because we’re unwilling to assert that anyone is wrong about anything. It spares us the hard work of learning about critical thinking, gathering data, and assessing claims reasonably, since we’ve told ourselves that all claims are equally true or equally illusory, so we needn’t bother with tiresome things like evidence and argument; we can just believe what we like! And, this “All is illusion” philosophy is really a “Get out of critique free” card, exempting our favorite beliefs from the terribly distressing possibility of disproof. Thus, it’s a marvelously impermeable armor for the closed-minded. I’m reminded of a Wacco discussion in which one fellow sidestepped critique of his claims by asserting that he didn’t exist!

    The deeper we look at such positions, the darker the picture. In this dream-world, there is no basis for asserting that the philosophy of Hitler is objectively any better or worse than that of Ghandi. They’re just personal preferences with no grounding in any objective facts; there is no such thing as a fact. Presumably there is, then, no basis stronger than subjective whim for endorsing or opposing the actions of a Hitler or a Ghandi, or indeed any actions. Nor can we make meaningful statements about, for instance, how to bake a cake, or whether a suspect committed a crime, or whether we love our spouse, or whether we really worked 40 hours this week (thus signing our time card is dishonest), or what our name is (thus endorsing a check is dishonest). If everything is illusion, anything you say is a lie!

    Similarly, in a world in which “everyone has his own truth”, everything is equally true, which means that nothing is true, because whatever claim you make, its opposite is equally true and they cancel each other out. Again, any statement is a lie, because for it to be true, any claim which contradicts it would have to be false, and we’ve already stipulated that nothing is false. So in that world, any claim of truth is meaningless, self-canceling. The whole silly mess evaporates, leaving the sour smell of self-contradiction.

    It seems to me that, if this philosophy is followed honestly and consistently, it’s paralyzing. Since any action implies some underlying belief, a refusal to assert anything as real must lead to inaction. Conversely, any action belies the “All is illusion” stance.

    There’s another way in which this “Everything is illusion” dictum cancels itself out. That statement asserts an objectively real quality of the world. In other words, to say “Everything is illusion” is to say that it’s a
    fact, not an illusion, that the world is illusory. It’s a description of a world that is really illusory, so again, it’s self-canceling—especially when we consider that even illusion is a level of reality; an illusion is, by definition, not what it seems to be, but it is a real illusion!

    One reason I’m frustrated when someone invokes slogans like “Everything is illusion” or “Everyone has her own truth” is that it’s not honest. Nobody actually believes it—not even those who say it! All of us, including those who make claims like “Everything is illusion”, act every day as if that’s not true, as if only some things are illusory and others real. You have survived beyond childhood because you have some understanding about what is real and what isn’t. We all know that gravity is real and the fantasy of being able to fly like Superman is just that—a fantasy. Those who really believe it’s all just illusion don’t survive past age 10, because they jump off a rooftop trying to fly—and receive an immediate, fatal lesson in reality versus illusion.

    Similarly, when you eat breakfast, your very actions presuppose that some things
    really are nutritious and others really aren’t. If you actually believed that everything is an illusion, it would make as much sense to eat a breakfast of gravel, styrofoam and gasoline as one of eggs, toast and juice. Every day your actions prove a thousand times that you believe some things are objectively real and others aren’t.

    Note also that if we say life is but a dream, imaginary, an illusion, all in your head, we’re implying that there is an objectively existent “head” for it to be in. It is not the imaginary people in our dreams who have dreams; it’s us, the dreamers, who have a more solid existence outside the dream as we lie dreaming in our beds. Imagination, illusion, maya—all of these terms imply an “I” who really exists, experiencing the illusion1.

    This is true for every type of experience. Everyone agrees that we experience perceptions and ideas all the time, even though some insist that all that is merely subjective, providing no evidence of a real universe outside our minds. But the idea of “experience” itself is meaningless without some real entity who has it. Thus Rene Descarte’s famous dictum “
    Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am)2. Thinking per se isn’t essential to his point; it’s just an arbitrary example of a type of experience. He could have used any verb—“I stink, therefore I am”, “I laugh, therefore I am”, “I golf, therefore I am.” The point is simply that any experience implies an experiencer who really exists.

    Furthermore, there are a lot of us! If you think that reality is all in your head, a dream or illusion you’re experiencing, then I’m only a figment of your imagination; I couldn’t be objectively real. I’ll kindly ignore that insult and the implications about your unconscious grandiosity and
    solipsism, and just politely deliver the bad news: I’m not an empty simulacrum existing only as a prop in your imaginary play. I’m real and you are too. I know it’s scary, but we can find ways to deal with it.

    Do you still insist that reality is entirely subjective, “all in our heads”? Let me call your attention, first, to your head itself, the matrix within which you experience this reality, then to your body, without which no head could survive, then to the nutrients your body ingests to fuel the physical processes which underlie all your experience, then to the ecosphere without which none of that stuff would be here, then to the underlying processes of star and planet formation which provided the raw materials for life, thus consciousness. Note that your subjective experiences, your reality, have emerged from this ongoing, complexifying dance, much of which occurred before any minds had evolved to perceive it. Now try and tell me that the only reality is the subjective one in your head.

    For those of you who are more “metaphysically” inclined, let me put it into terms you may find more palatable: For anything to be happening at all, the One (the Tao, the Ground of Being3, the Wu-chi, whatever you want to call It) cannot abide in its featureless oneness. It must manifest in the myriad forms of what Lao Tsu called “the ten thousand things”4. This manifestation occurs through the Yin-Yang level of polarities (Female/Male, Down/Up, Young/Old, Dark/Light, etc.) ramifying out into the innumerable forms we see around us, distinguished from one another, and thus defined, along parameters such as height, width, length, color, texture, sound, smell, vibratory frequency, duration, etc.

    Thus, manifestation is limitation. As the One limits itself in various ways to manifest in the many, like an Uncarved Block carving itself into seemingly separate beings, being whatever we are means that we are not what we are not. I am not a woman, a tree is not a rock, a hallucination is not an object. You can call it a dream or an illusion if you want, but the manifest world has shape and color and, just as we can lie about or misremember a dream, describing it inaccurately, we can also be right or wrong in our descriptions of this manifest world. And that translates into an objectively real universe, not one in which “everyone has his own truth”.

    But of course, some of you remain unconvinced. You are attached to the seductive dream of the illusory world, in which you get your infantile wish of never being wrong. To you I say: Okay! I give up! You win! It
    is all an illusion.

    Feel better now? Of course, if we are to make our way through this dream-world, we must distinguish between different
    types of illusion. For instance, even in our illusory world, dreaming about jumping off a cliff, imagining jumping off a cliff, drawing a picture of jumping off a cliff, and actually jumping off a cliff are different kinds of illusion—especially that last one, which will result in an extremely painful and debilitating illusion of imaginary injury! Even in this dream-world, different imaginary actions have different imaginary consequences. So we must come up with different categories of illusion in order not to be totally lost in it.

    I propose these categories: The illusions we have while asleep we can call “dreams”. The ones we have while awake, which seem to be in our heads rather than tangibly outside us, we can call “thoughts”, “memories”, ”perceptions”, “emotions”, or “hallucinations”, depending upon various details we needn’t list right now. Our illusory symbols we can call “words”, “pictures” or “numbers”. And those solid illusions, the ones we can bump into or eat, or that can eat us, the ones that can give us the illusion of being fed, or injured, or impeded--let’s call those “objective reality”. Those terms work best because everybody already uses and understands them. OK?

    Ahh, at last, agreement! Or is that an illusion?


    1. This is true even if you believe that individual egos are illusion and the only experiencer is some kind of overarching cosmic consciousness such as a god. The evidence for any type of god or universal consciousness is, I think, lacking. I’ll forgo this lengthy tangent for now and devote a whole column to it some time in the future.

    2. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Someone approaches Descartes at a cocktail party and asks, “Would you like another drink, Rene?” Descartes answers, “I think not”—and disappears!

    3. Here's a cool video on the Ground of Being.

    4. Lau Tsu, Tao Te Ching I like the illustrated translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English.

    About Dixon: I'm a hopeful monster, committed to laughter, love, and the Golden Rule. I see reason, applied with empathy, as the most important key to making a better world. I'm a lazy slob and a weirdo. I love cats, kids, quilts, fossils, tornadoes, comic books, unusual music, and too much else to mention. I’m a former conservative Christian, then New Ager, now a rationalist, skeptic and atheist. Lately I’m a Contributing Editor at the Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form (That’s right!), and have been getting my humor published in the Washington Post and Fantasy and Science Fiction. I’m job-hunting too, mostly in the Human Services realm. Passions: Too many -- Reading, writing, critical thinking, public speaking, human rights and justice, sex and sensuality, most arts and sciences, nature. Oh, and ladies, I’m single ;^D
    Last edited by Dixon; 09-07-2011 at 06:45 AM.
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  3. TopTop #2

    Re: Article: The Gospel According to Dixon: Reality Is Real--Really!

    Dixon, You are really real! This is absolutely brilliant!
    Last edited by Barry; 05-11-2011 at 05:46 PM.
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  4. Gratitude expressed by 2 members:

  5. TopTop #3
    Dixon's Avatar

    Re: Article: The Gospel According to Dixon: Reality Is Real--Really!

    Quote Posted in reply to the post by battindown: View Post
    Dixon, You are really real!

    Whew! That takes a load off my mind!

    Quote This is absolutely brilliant!
    Thank you very much!
    And welcome to my column, battindown. I'll be interested to know what you think of the other ones, past and future.
    Last edited by Barry; 05-11-2011 at 05:46 PM.
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