Saturday, November 7, 2009

Is Reality Over-rated?

Is reality overrated? I'd have to say so, although it surely does matter what you mean by "real". A long time ago I remember reading some line in The Razor's Edge about how if you could believe something then it would be real, but you'd have to really believe it, like the ground beneath your feet. In the context of that book, or of that age, it did seem to be a powerful statement, although I'm certain it just sounds fluffy here.

Of course at the tender age when I and everyone else was reading Somerset Maugham, I hadn't yet experienced insanity of the sort where you really do inhabit a world of your own creation. Only once, thank goodness, have I been hoist by my own narrative petard out of sensible reality. It wasn't fun like drugs, although there was a certain similarity, I'd have to guess.

I'm pretty nutty in the choices that I make, but lots of people actually think that I'm the paradigm of solid grip on reality when it comes to making sense of what I interact with. Honest!

Sure, I have lots of trouble with career and women choices, but who does that distinguish me from except for movie stars and really rich people, and hasn't anyone ever watched Citizen Kane?

Just look around you and you'll see lots of love affairs defined by irresistible looks, or aspects or whatever else can support projections of fantasy love. You'll see people reaching after fantasy homes and kids too. I wonder if it works for them. We've given a real shot now at material comfort to more people than ever before in the history of mankind. But we sure haven't brought reality up for the masses of mankind.

As a pretty left-leaning thinker it isn't much of a stretch for me to blame the ever more massive immiseration of the population of our planet on the cultural uprootings accomplished by the blue-jean imperialism of America the Beautiful.

But if I fall off the leftward edge into a kind of Libertarian idiocy, I also know that there is something pretty dreamy about what we've represented. Lots of people happily leave behind their magical belief systems in favor of something so demonstrably real. Ordinary people living in virtual castles and driving cars. Based on engineering can-doism based in turn on science.

The extremist flag wavers want to have us as innocent as our tear-streaming songs about ourselves. The other ones, like me, want us to wake up to how much actual and deliberate harm we've caused to nascent people-power in the name of our corporate interests. Think Pinochet, and Iran Contra, and then think CIA.

But there is one thing undeniable about this true American Dream. To the extent that we base our gettings together on science, there really is some reality to the good part. That's the basic horror right there in so-called Creation Science, since there is no way short of coercion to get people to agree on what is so patently a crazy notion. That all the evidence for earth's true age was planted by a trickster God? That's just nuts!

Scientific agreements are nothing more or less than the ones with the greatest chance of getting the most people to agree. And that right there is a truly wonderful thing. No matter, truly, that there can be collateral damage along the way; when what we agree to falls a little bit short since it's always still a work in progress.

And too bad that things like politics and economics can't be so grounded in science. I mean really, way too bad!

For sure the one thing that absolutely must drop out from scientific reality is the possibility of a personal God. Or does that just throw a baby out with some bathwater . . . .

I'm pretty sure that one may be a difference without a distinction. If scientific thinking limits you to the very razor's edge of what it is about yourself which is distinct from everything else out there - if that's all the room there is for choice, then OK that's also all the room there is for God's intervention too. I'm not sure the problem survives the thought experiment. That's really plenty of room.

Let's say, just for instance, that tanks. Hey, it could happen! But maybe someone likes the name and offers us a million dollars. Then would we have done all that hard work just as a kind of lipstick on our pig. Like makeup for a Saturday Night Date, would it make any difference how the connection got made?

I haven't a clue most any minute of my life what I really want the next. But I do know what I'm missing, and it's almost always people. My sweetheart, my daughters, my friends. The rest is so I have that space for the missing, I guess; so that I can have some security against the daily buffetings of life.

That's what compelled me to rebuild my old sailboat too. It was the metaphor, I guess. A warm cabin down below in the face of stormy weather. It's where I could and would and did feel most alive. No need to really brave the wildest oceans, just a taste was all I needed. And I did love it best alone.

Now I can easily imagine lots of improvements to life on planet Earth. If we'd all stop clambering over one anothers' backs to get to some very top, we could dial back our load on the planet and begin actually to enjoy one another. We really could.

But in the meantime, in almost precisely the way that our now so antiquated automobiles allowed the redefinition of our landscapes, there is a more powerful transformation afoot which can really wreck havoc to our collective reality.

At the very farthest reaches of our collective scientific agreements must be by very definition the realm of physics. That's what digs down to the really hard stuff, upon which everything else must ride. We all know that physics is almost done and the really interesting stuff now will come from the life sciences; genetics, bioengineering, bioinformatics, that sort of thing. Maybe nano-technology if you can stand Neal Stephenson any more.

But at their root, these are all what Thomas Kuhn called "normal science" which fills in the gaps to our theoretical picture of the world. These are not paradigm shifting realms unless and until they come up with new mechanisms to understand mind, say, or inheritance of characteristics, say, or how to assert perfect corrections to our imperfections.

But so far as they are mechanisms, they will still depend on physics, and anyhow it's the nature of paradigms that they are pretty soup-to-nuts. So, when the life sciences folks "discover" that mind really does matter, the same thing will have happened in physics. It's just a Somerset Maugham chicken/egg problem to which there's no real way out other than to shift the whole darned paradigm.

So now on our quantum edge, as I keep saying over and over and over until you feel like you're hitting your head on bricks (I know, I know), waiting excitedly for our newest particle accelerator to find the last one, it really is time to wake up and smell the, um, delusions? I wonder what delusions smell like. Let's smell the coffee!

So, do this little thought experiment. Ask yourself what links together all the little pieces which make up the story of your life. If you're a little bit too sophisticated like, ahem, I am, you'll already know that there are only constructed narratives of your life's history. You can prove this easily enough by rubbing off some of your memories of yourself with those who know and love you.

I would never go so far as some nutty post-modernists, who would say that all reality is constructed, leading up to the really big Grand Narrative of Normal Science, which is really just a tale of raw power. I would never do that. I am way too tied to reality, as I've already told you.

But anyhow, even the parts of your own story which won't rub off - the ones which stick in every single version, the skeleton if you will - this narrative frame still depends on all sorts of emotional connections being made. Even if mom was just a flash in the pan, dad probably liked her for at least a moment. And someone had to care for you before you could learn to speak (which "they" now find out starts already in the womb, duh!).

And the words you use are all about getting together with other minds. The shouting and warnings and pushings back, these are all things which define who you interact with, and then they in turn define you too.

And that right there is a whole slew of non-physical reality, well, unless you are just a bag of invasive germs because you can't stop wanting to have physical contact all the time with everyone, which is perfectly understandable, but a little gross.

I mean if everyone remains available that way, then we're all just beasts, right? Doesn't a kind of sameness come over every connection as if we ourselves were just undifferentiated sub-atomic particles? Well, obviously, I can't speak for you.

But anyhow, what do you really care about? Would you like those things to be separated from reality? Can you live on only your dreams?

It's long since plenty clear that at the very most extreme reaches of our abstract thinking, we can't really tell if reality is hard or just a kind of probability wave propogated in literal nothingness. We even have real experiments which prove that you can't pin down the smallest particles - that all you can do is approximate their position until you collapse them into reality by rubbing them off on some of their partners. That's called perception.

But until that happens, these sub-atomics (funny name, that) only exist as a cloud. And that cloud, while real, is also truly conceptual until the moment of its perception. I'm not making this stuff up, it's in any physics text book. The probability cloud quite literally cannot be perceived, but it's reality is trivial (well, relatively) to prove. It's not in your mind, but it's also not quite in reality. It's a kind of conceptual reality that's 'out there.'

So if, at the limits - at the razor's edge - there is a kind of conceptual reality which is provably not "in" the mind, but "in" reality, then one might wonder about the connections between and among the pieces of this conceptual reality. If, by definition, there can't be a physical, perceptual connection, then perhaps there is some other kind. Perhaps emotions are also provably 'out there.'

They are certainly harder to measure, these emotions. They don't have any kind of physical distance metric, right? But as a human being, I know you know what I'm talking about. And at the limits of our physical understanding of the cosmos, what if it did turn out that these subatomic particles, which after all provably can't possibly inhabit the same physical universe as one another, because they don't even perceptually exist yet, are only connectable by a kind of emotional relation.

I think you'd then have to say that emotion really is out there in the cosmos, as the kind of improbability glue which holds all this non-perceptual reality together.

That's good enough for me to count as a kind of personal God. You know, as a kind of aspirational entity which doesn't, you know, actually have to, like, really, um, exist.

So leaving that big can of worms alone, I sure do wish you could see how this changes everything. I sure do wish you could see that the gravity-hadron - the "force-carrying" particle which might put the final nail into the standard physical theory's coffin, ahem, is purest chimera. It's both a figment of our imagination and real, and while it might be findable, we still might not be able to find it, by virtue of cosmic twists of fate.

I'm fine either way. Gravity and physical love make another fine distinction without a difference for me. You can't really have one without the other, I mean physical and emotional love, at least not beyond a single life-time if you want to be a nun or priest or something else really out there. Or maybe you never even want to see the kids you sire? Well, I guess you could have test-tube babies certified high IQ or something, like the magic synthetic oil which makes my car run forever. I wonder, would you have a trade-in policy on those kids? If there were some sort of genetic mixup?

I'm glad for the stuggle with and against my physical impulses. I'm glad that science never ends. But most of all I'm glad for love, and for that I don't really care what turns you on, gentle reader, I really don't. Because it won't be real unless it's real for you too.

OK, so I do care. You're wrecking my cosmos by your not caring, and damn it, I'm rather attached to it, my little cosmos!

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