What do we mean by the term “reality?” Looking around the room things seem real enough: chairs, a table and sofa, windows opening to the outside world which is filled with countless other “real” things. But the question really being posed is this. “How does my human experience of reality differ from that vase of flowers sitting on the mantle?” Quite simply, I know that I exist whereas all those other things exist without any specific knowledge or awareness of their own existence. This basic exercise illustrates the dual nature of reality itself, a point which is central to understanding our human nature. As human beings we are constantly juggling these two modes of reality, the reality associated with being and a deeper reality which is a function of knowing. So which is the more essential reality?
For a vase of flowers, an atom, or even a planet hurtling through space reality is limited to the fact of being. Furthermore all those objects are subject to certain physical laws and behave accordingly. But the very existence of universal laws of physics leads one to ponder how such laws came to be determined in the first place, does it not? And the fact that beings such as ourselves even have the ability to pose such a question is itself evidence of that second kind of reality (knowing) which surely transcends the more basic reality of being. Only a knowing subject can actually pose a question. To know therefore represents a higher state of reality than simply being.
This realization combined with the existence of universal physical laws strongly suggests that some knowing intelligence must have pre-existed any natural state of being. Why? Because only an extremely knowledgeable being would be able to formulate the intricate body of laws which govern the physical universe. And although our human reality includes the ability to know, our knowledge clearly comes after the fact of our being. That is why mankind, from time immemoriam, has postulated a source reality, some kind of primal divine entity whose superior knowledge and being preceded and ordered the material realities we daily observe. The question of who or what this preeminent divine reality might be has led to much conjecture and disagreement throughout human history, but the one constant theme seems to be some recognition that we ourselves are somehow extensions of that divine all-knowing being.
One of my favorite poems as a child spoke of six blind men and an elephant, a clever parable touching upon the problem of perception and reality. Relying solely on the sense of touch each blind man describes the elephant according to his own experience. One man encounters the beast’s leg and so describes the elephant as being “very like a tree.” Another examines the trunk and concludes that elephants are similar to snakes. A third finds the tail and pronounces that the creature must resemble a rope, and so on. Finally they quarrel passionately, each man insisting that his understanding of elephants is the correct one. In the end each goes off convinced of the rightness of his respective position.
The poem illustrates a universal problem we encounter when attempting to grasp reality because each and every human being views reality according to his own understanding. We all have subjective prisms through which we filter our experiences. When trying to approach the reality of God, a reality whose enormity far surpasses any paltry human notion of reality, we are like those blind men, each trying to form a comprehensive mental image based on one fleeting encounter. Yet if God is who we suppose him to be the question, “What is real?” is ultimately a search for God. And since man possesses a deep desire to know the truth his quest for reality is more than an exercise in philosophical curiosity. It actually becomes a moral imperative.
Our touchstone with reality lies deep within the subjective mind where every person first encounters conscious reality. The one thing that the “I” invariably knows to be real is “me.” The awareness that “I am me” forms our human identity in fact. It is not enough to simply exist, as a lump of clay exists. Our humanity demands a cognitive awareness of one’s existence. We not only know but we know that we know reflected in Rene Descartes’ famous dictum, “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”).
Of course, knowing presupposes being, otherwise there would be nothing to know. Descartes had to first exist before he could possibly think anything. So knowing is not the cause of one’s being even though it may be said to affirm it. No human person is a self-determined, that is, objective reality. We are all subjective beings endowed with a capacity to know. The rational mind permits one to understand cause and effect relationships. Every individual is demonstrably the product of external causes. This means that one’s awareness of the self must be conjoined to an awareness of the “other.” Each one of us is connected to and dependent on an external world. Even in the womb one is biologically connected to its mother. After birth the child’s genetic disposition is further enhanced by social and familial connections. No subjective being exists in a vacuum and so we intuitively discern the difference between “I” and “thou” from the earliest stages of life.
This “I – Thou” relationship leads naturally to the question of causality since the subjective “I” cannot hope to account for its own being. The world itself is the product of a seemingly endless string of causes going back to its very beginning. Change any one of those prior causes and you will have changed the outcome. If great-great grandpa hadn’t winked at great-great grandma on the boat deck 150 years ago you wouldn’t be here today. Suppose that billions of years ago our sun had assumed a larger or smaller mass. The planet earth would today be too hot or cold or the wrong chemical composition to sustain life. This causality leads us to a further separation of reality into two distinct orders, that which first caused the cosmic chain reaction and everything else which was caused by it. Any being caused by something else is necessarily a dependent reality even though it may in turn become the cause of something else. But for argument sake let us momentarily limit our definition of objective reality to some prior and independent “uncaused cause.”
How are we to know if such an objective reality truly exists? Well, there is always the cosmic “smoking gun” theory. Having the privilege of living next to the Rocky Mountains, I gaze upon those majestic pinnacles every day. Their very presence invariably raises the question, “why is there something instead of nothing?” Those mighty sentinels change mood constantly with the weather, the light, the time of day. They are as endlessly variable as are the diverse blankets of living vegetation which crawl up their craggy flanks. All of nature in fact raises the cry “what is the cause of all this, and more?” The very hills would testify to the existence of some being which first cause them to be (through whatever extended process).
Human beings, bound by our bodily senses, are at a disadvantage when trying to discern God’s ultimate reality. Even in the natural world we discover the limitations of the sensory data we receive. For example, looking up at the autumn sky one is tempted to exclaim how blue it is. But in fact the sky is not blue, it is colorless. Color is merely a property of our atmosphere, and a very fleeting one at that. By evening the same sky may turn crimson and gold as the sun sets. By nightfall it will appear pitch black. Mutable properties such as color, texture, hard, soft, hot, cold may engage our senses but they do not tell us what a thing truly is. Properties have no substance in themselves, they must adhere to something material. I may touch a round green ball or a soft pillow but try to purchase a gallon of round, a package of green, or a pound of soft at the store. Yet it is these very properties upon which our senses rely to make judgments about what things are.
How then are we to discern invisible realities when even the visible material realities surrounding us prove to be so paradoxical? Take music for instance. As we know music is made up of various sounds heard with the ears. But sound itself is merely a property of the music, not the music itself. In fact sound, as physics teaches us, is merely an atmospheric vibration or wave of energy. But before such physical vibrations can be called sounds they require someone to sense those waves in his ears. The vibrations are then passed into the brain which processes and identifies those waves of energy as sounds. But music is more than a sequence of arbitrary sounds. One must choose and coordinate various specific sound waves selected from countless pitches, timbres, and dynamics, all arranged in an intelligent manner which presents a melodic idea. In other words, brute physical forces can produce any number of sounds such as the crack of lightning but music implies something much greater. It needs an organizing principle or idea, that only a knowing creature can provide, which is then translated into particular sounds that other sensate creatures can apprehend. Music is born in the mind, whether that of a simple lark or a great composer.
For the listener, the senses may absorb any number of various sounds, some musical and others just noise, which the mind quickly filters out. For it is in the listener’s mind that music is actually heard as the composer intended. Sounds, rhythm, harmonies, and dynamics are all properties of music but until mentally reordered as a musical idea in the ear of the listener, these properties themselves do not constitute music. Music in this case is what philosophers would call the “ontological reality,” meaning the essential nature of the thing. But our modern physical sciences, which are quite adept at describing the physics of each and every note, are incapable of commenting on the ontological aspects of music. Music presents itself to the mind of the listener as an idea, although it requires physical properties to express the idea to a music lover. The same paradox can be roughly applied to man’s understanding of God whom we may perceive through the physical properties of the created order, although he himself is quite distinct from that order. Reality is not always synonymous with its apparent properties.
God’s mysterious being greatly exceeds our human imaginations. Like Plato’s men in the cave all we can see is a vaporous shadow reflecting on the wall. From the earliest ages the effects of divine intercourse were apparent everywhere in the world although man had precious little firsthand knowledge of the actual divinity. Not surprisingly countless myths, legends, and inferences about the exact nature of God (or many gods) proliferated over the eons, feeding the skeptic’s view that any and all religion is suspect. Fortunately for mankind we were not abandoned to the uncertain devices of speculation and mythology. As time progressed God began gradually to make himself known through revelation and finally he assumed human flesh via his Incarnation. By coming to dwell among us as a man God allowed us to experience his absolute reality in a sensate, tangible form..
God is the absolute, objective reality from which all lesser realities proceed, including our own subjective human reality. We are a part of that order of created reality which is the extension of, and yet entirely distinct from God’s objective reality. Created reality includes not only the physical universe but the many governing laws of mathematics and nature, creatures of every sort, and of course mankind itself. In short, the sum total of reality consists of God (the objective creator) and everything else (his subjective creation). Within his created order one can find any number of rational subjective beings including the various choirs of angels (including their fallen brethren called demons) and humans. Nor is creation itself limited to the material realm but even in such spiritual orders it becomes an extension of the absolute reality of God.
From our human point of view, reality may be summed up in one word, life. Life makes possible our own reality but that does not mean that life is limited to a biological fact. It has a spiritual dimension as well which is equally compelling. For every man, woman, or child life is not just a matter of being, it is also about knowing. St. John explodes this mystery of life with a profound insight: “What came to be through him (God) was life, and this life was the light of the human race. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot comprehend it.” (Jn 1:4,5) In other words, of all material life forms, it is the human person who alone is capable of comprehending the light of God. Human life is inexorably drawn to experience the light as the reason for its existence. We are drawn to the flame like moths. We were made to know the true light which is God, “the true light which enlightens everyone.” (Jn. 1:9)
Today’s culture is taking a far different view of reality. Mankind is perilously close to constructing a synthetic world where the artificial becomes more real than what is real. Electronic based “virtual realities” are sadly becoming a substitute for human relationships. Society attempts to redefine sacred institutions such as marriage while science tinkers with human genetics and reproduction in a process of “un-natural selection.” Are gene scientists really predicating outcomes or merely loading the DNA dice with techniques such as in-vitro fertilizations which indiscriminately sacrifices innocent embryonic life hoping to achieve desired outcomes such as high I.Q.s, sex selection, etc. Playing God is always a dangerous game where nature is involved. Such efforts represent an attempt to deconstruct God’s creation to fit current fashions and ideas. If we refuse to believe that Divine reality is the source and summit of every other reality, we will also treat his natural laws as something infinitely plastic and mutable (which well may include the utilitarian abuse of helpless humans).
The real truth of the matter is quite the opposite. It is our human laws and constructive technologies that are woefully subject to change and obsolescence. Subjective human reality is tenuous and short lived. Nations come and go, ideologies fade away, and human beings must die. Death is a constant reminder of one’s transient nature and our utter dependence on the one objective reality of God. God’s natural law and the limitations he placed on nature may be bent a bit but these can never be entirely ignored. Doing so is only to invite disaster.
The only reality which is both unchanging and immortal is the objective reality of God. It is God, and not ourselves, who is ultimate and absolute reality and who transcends all lesser realities. To deny God is de facto to deny reality itself. God’s methods are quiet and subtle. He reveals himself in the silence of the human heart. He nudges and encourages, using every means available to make himself known. Part of his mystery is that God is both all powerful and yet humble to a fault. He is pure love, waiting to be discovered when he could just as easily announce himself with grand eloquence. But He wants us to find Him, which is why he endowed every human with reason, curiosity, and a hunger for the truth.
The search for truth is therefore man’s sacred quest for reality ~ because it is the search for God himself. St. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein) outlined the parameters for that search very well indeed before her martyrdom by the Nazi regime in 1942. “Do not accept anything as truth if it lacks love, and do not accept anything as love if it lacks truth.”
Francis J. Pierson
Copyrighted material – taken from my forthcoming book Word Without End