Reality, part 6 – Conclusion: Truth and Beauty
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." – John Keats
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart.” – Helen Keller
This series on reality stretches my “Pencils” theme to the limit. I mean the caveat that I am not proposing academically rigorous arguments, just suggestions.
I have thrown competing ideas from different levels of reasoning together at times, which handicaps what there is of my logical thread. In particular I have talked about my belief that we, the collective human species, create the physical form of the world around us, and I have also discussed how rejection of fact can create viable worldviews without necessarily changing our physical world. These are different things. They are related in that the viable, fact-ignoring worldviews are a necessary (not sufficient) precursor to the breakdown of the factual world itself.
Before I conclude, it’s important to remember that our general conclusions are always based on our specific circumstances, which will change. Doomsday predictions from Malthus to Marx have a way of not actually happening. However, they can happen, and recognizing that possibility is a major reason they don’t happen. Malthus’ fear that the world would run out of food helped inspire the scientists who figured out how to fix Nitrogen from the air for fertilizer, which created a huge boom in world food supply. Marxism helped drive liberal capitalist democracies to invent welfare programs and unions (both of which desperately need reinventing today), which protected the working and the poor from the worst tendencies of the profit motive while allowing that motive to continue to create wealth for everyone.
So what does collective solipsism mean to us, now?
My first takeaway is that we really, really depend on each other. I mean in a deep, spiritual sense that is very real. If we collectively create our world, we sure as hell better make one we can live in! The only way to do that is to agree at least enough to retain a consensus on the basic stuff. The only way to do that is to listen to each other and really hear, before we speak. We are all, every one of us, more alike than we are different. We need to discover that over and over again.
My second takeaway is that God is real. There is no better way to name the collective power we have. I have always had a deep sense of God. I think it’s what’s called a mystical connection. My someday son-in-law is a philosopher, and he calls me the last of the Jamesian pragmatists. He’s right. I don’t push too hard to understand. I experience what I recognize as God. I pray and am comforted. I seek and I find. I ask and am answered. More than that I can’t say.
Oh yes, God is love. I don’t know that God is conscious in the epistemological sense of self-awareness. God just loves us and does whatever we collectively desire. I so deeply pray that we are responsible in our desires.
God, but it’s hard to be human
And know that I really am free
Oh, I know I will get what I want, Lord
I just hope that I want what I need
-- “Hard to be Human” by Hugh Moffatt
What is reality?
What is NOT reality is anything you think, including this essay. Thought is processed reality, not reality. It may be functional, or it may not, but it’s a construct of our minds either way.
Reality is anything we know directly without thinking: when a song touches you, when you fall in love or out of love, when your heart breaks or soars, when you’re so scared you can’t think (or just a little uneasy), when you’re so angry you can’t talk (or just mildly annoyed), when pain makes you pass out (or just nags at you a little), when you’re completely despondent (or just a little sad), when you read an essay that opens your mind to something you never thought of before (or bores you so you don’t finish it), when you laugh so hard it hurts or hurt so deeply you start crying and laughing at the same time, when a flower opens your soul, when something makes you smile and you don’t know why, when you pray deeply and honestly, when you connect with a friend and know that connection is timeless and without boundary, when you suddenly empathize with an enemy over some unimportant shared experience. Keats was right about truth and beauty, and there is beauty in all feelings, even the terrible ones.
We all share these feelings. We have them in common. The problem is that what brings them about is different in each of us. It’s the feeling that is the same, not what causes it. Some people are afraid of snakes; others are afraid of public speaking or 7th grade (Yikes! That still makes me shiver!). Whatever causes it, the fear feels the same. It’s the world and its complexity that makes us feel so different from each other. If we peel down to the feelings that drive us, they are simple, there are only a dozen or so different ones, and we share them all.
What can we do?
We create our world moment by moment, brand new all the time. It seems stable because we remember how it was yesterday and expect it to be mostly the same today. This is the foundation of science. Science isn’t going away soon, but it’s weakening, in the weak—and maybe eventually the strong—sense. It’s not a bad model for our world, and scientists are pretty functional as priesthoods go. Let’s try to keep the facts straight, and above all else, let’s take care of each other. Let’s celebrate the beauty we share, even in its terrible forms. This holds us together. If we are together, we can keep our world together…even make it better. It’s in our power. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but it’s true.
It’s all done in tiny, individual steps that don’t seem to matter at all. I wish there were a silver bullet, but this is all we have.
Sometimes you reach out to help someone. Sometimes you choose to look on something that makes you happy instead of dwelling on something that makes you sad. Sometimes you stop before taking an argument or a fight to the next level. Sometimes you say a word of encouragement to a stranger…or a friend. Sometimes you share something deeply personal, and it touches someone else. Sometimes you just don’t do anything, because your mood is not helpful. Each of these acts is a step toward saving the world. You don’t have to put yourself in danger or do anything radical. Just lean a little more towards kindness and sympathy at every step. We need to be patient. We’re unlikely to see results in our lifetime, but they will come. That’s what faith is about.
Some may never take this path, and no one can all the time, but never give up. You’ll make mistakes, but intentions matter, and we’re in this for the long haul. There really is no other way. Either we change ourselves, or we go the way of the dinosaurs. No heroes or politicians or scientists or religious leaders will save us. It’s up to us. All of us, even that guy over there who [fill in the blank].
There are truly evil people in the world, but they are so rare that it’s unlikely you will encounter more than one or two in your whole life, even by hearsay. If the evil in the world were the result of evil people, we wouldn’t have a problem with evil, so play the odds and give that [fill in the blank] guy the benefit of the doubt. We need him, too.
What about tyranny, injustice, aggression, and violence?
Nonviolence is always best in the long run, but we’re human, and we’re not always capable of what’s best. Even Gandhi admitted that. We must resist wrongs. If we resort to violence we must do so with skill, clarity, and discipline. We must be skilled at the combat involved, clear as to our objectives, and disciplined from start to finish: disciplined to avoid violence if we can, to conduct violence without anger, to end the violence when the time comes, and to heal the wounds on both sides afterwards. Violence done right is really hard work.
No fights to the bitter end, no insults to no end, no staking out the moral high ground—we all fall short of that somewhere. In large and small things, try to end with love and kindness no matter where you started, in whatever seems the best way to express it in the moment. Forgive yourself your failures.
Remember, we’re not changing minds, we’re changing hearts. Only a change of heart can bring us together and stabilize reality for us.
Let’s do this!
October 2, 2019