The Nature of Reality*

The Nature of Reality

Sermon offered July 16, 2017, by Rev Susan A Moran ©


Every year we have a wonderful Service Auction, and every year I offer the same service: people are invited to bid on the right to tell me what to preach about.  Last year, I was especially misguided and allowed two separate bids.  This morning, I am going to talk about the nature of reality.  Be sure to thank Bob Dyke at coffee hour!  Here is a sampling of what I have been reading this week:

“It appears that our reality is being dynamically generated based on an ultra-sophisticated algorithm that takes into account not just the usual cause/effect context (as materialists believe), and conscious observation and intent (as idealists believe), but also a complex array of reality configuration probabilities so as to be optimally efficient. Wait, what?”

(from March 2017 blog, Musings On the nature of Reality by Jim Elvidge)

I want you to know that the phrase, “Wait, what?” was written by the author of the blog, not me.  He stole the words right out of my mouth.

Here is a musing on the importance of language in describing reality:

“While much of reality is a shared conceptualization, a great deal of it is personal to the individual, for reality is how we describe the world: it is how the world seems to us to be. Therefore the foundation of our reality is our language use. What we know of the world we can only know through language, and as our language is subject to change, so too is our reality. The world will not change in the sense that physical objects may come into existence as a result of language use, but our comprehension of our impressions of the world (our experiences) often change as a result of language… Cultural differences in language use often create cultural differences in realities.  New Guinea tribesmen who have only two basic colour words (light and dark) have a different apprehension of reality to us. They live in the same world we do and they are capable of receiving the same impressions, but their reality is different from Europeans as their language use obliges them to divide the world into different categories.”

Launt Thompson, Armidale, NSW (cannot remember the website, sorry!!)

This idea that reality is subjective is not a new idea, nor is the idea that reality is language based. Both are true to a certain extent. Then I remember when my daughters were babies. Our writer says that “What we know of the world we can only know through language”.  Babies don’t talk and yet, they are aware of the reality of their world: the softness of their caretaker’s arms, the smell of the person who feeds them, the way the blanket feels on their bodies.  When they are hungry or tired or bored, they cry.  If you have ever been woken up by a crying infant, you know that the baby is very upset, even if the baby isn’t telling you anything in words. You are now both in a reality neither of you want, but there it is.  You have to get up.

As for reality being subjective, again, I agree up to a point.  But if we leave the chicken in the oven for too long, it’s going to burn, no matter how important our dinner guest may be.  We can wish it weren’t so, but that won’t change the reality. The tribe in New Guinea may not have language for the variety of colors found in the natural world.  But that doesn’t mean the purple iris isn’t real.  No matter how much our own minds may influence our reality, not all reality is subjective.

Some things are true—even if we don’t want them to be.  You can believe that climate change is a hoax if you choose. But anyone paying attention to the scientific journals and photographs of melting glaciers can see that the climate of the earth is changing, and it is changing rapidly.  Trees moving up the hill to reach cooler climates and species dying because of rising temperatures are both real, even if we don’t want to believe it. (Please read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert)

So, what does reality encompass?  Most folks would agree that everything that we can touch, see, feel, hear, and smell is real.   Our five senses can tell us a lot about reality. But what about hallucinations? Sometimes what people see or hear isn’t real; it’s just in their imagination.  It may feel real to that person but the rest of us don’t see Jimmy Stewart’s friend, Harvey, the human sized Rabbit.

Perhaps only proven scientific experiments can explain reality.  It is science that tells us how the sky is blue, and that light can be both wave and particle.  Science has helped doctors discover the molecular structure of certain viruses, as well as possible treatments.  Science can explain the pattern of the weather, and how trees grow.  Scientists are interested in the beginning of our universe and conduct experiments to try to understand what happened. There are discoveries being made in technology today that will greatly influence how life is lived in the future.  Already, reality is being manipulated to our ends.

A recent article reminds us that tinkering with reality is already happening.  “Geneticists can already clone animals; breed genetic diversity back into species at the brink of extinction via in vitro fertilization; rewrite genomes; and fabricate synthetic DNA. Glaciologists reconstruct ancient climate and atmospheric patterns (and predict future ones) by studying molecules trapped in ice. Marine biologists grow threatened corals in underwater nurseries. Botanists recently sprouted a delicate, white-flowered plant from genetic material inside seeds buried by squirrels in the Siberian permafrost 32,000 years ago. What will we be capable of in 10,000 years, or even 100?” (NewYorkTimes Magazine, “Arks of the Apocalypse” by Malia Wollan, July 13, 2017)

Proven scientific data is hard to argue with. But does science explain all of reality?  When science stops being able to explain phenomena is just when I find reality to be most fascinating.  Reality contains mysteries that cannot be explained.  Notwithstanding the influence of science and our elevation of science to an almost God-like stature, “reality” encompasses so much more than the data science can detect or explain.  It encompasses all experience and all observation. It encompasses things we cannot see or touch or understand.  Religious people have been describing a reality at the root of our existence for millennia.   I call it loving kindness and it has saved my life over and over.

Can love be proven by science?  How about integrity and humility?  What about evil?  Reality includes these things but where can we point to them?  Where is evil located? How about the number 37?  How about time?  Is time real or simply a human construct created so that we know when the train is coming?

I am not a scientist.  I am not going to pretend I understand anything about the nature of reality from the point of view of an astrophysisist.  I can’t even spell that word.  Scientific inquiry and the scientific method help us to be educated about our world. But I have experienced things that cannot be proven.  I believe in things that don’t have matter, like the soul of my beloveds who have passed away.   Through a medium, I have conversed with loved ones who have passed over.  How can science explain this?  It can’t, but I was there when the medium’s posture transformed into my husband’s.

And what about intellectual advancements?  Krista Tippet, in her newest book, describes what happened around the globe in the period 500 or so years before the common era: “In utterly disconnected cultures, Confucious was born in China, the Buddha sought enlightenment, Plato and Aristotle examined life and mind and soul, and the Hebrew prophets began to pen a people of God into being. The cultivation of inner life arose in interplay with the startling proposition that the well-being of others beyond kin and tribe-the stranger, the orphan, the outcast-was linked to one’s own.  Humanity gave voice to the questions that have animated religion and philosophy ever since:  What does it mean to be human?  What matters in life?  What matters in death?  How can we be of service to each other and the world?” (p. 2, Becoming Wise by Krista Tippet).

How did this “Axial Age” as it is known, come about?  Can science explain this?  Was there a leap in everyone’s brain development all over the earth?  Can this be proven?  If not, does that make this surge in spiritual maturity unreal?  Our reading this morning reflects the Buddhist belief that there is bliss, peace and utter joy to be found by everyone.  With meditation and practice, we too have the potential to be enlightened, awakened and calm.  Even if this is true on an individual level, and I have been lucky enough to have experienced this limitless sense of largesse and love, how will my awakening change the reality of the refugee who is living in a tent and not sure where her next meal is coming from?  Does my awakening lessen the evil that is rampant in the world? It will definitely help to lessen my own evil, but not necessarily that of my neighbor.  And if the refugee practices meditation and becomes an amazing guru, will that feed her family?

The reality of our world includes beauty and truth, goodness and love.  John O’Donohue suggests thatthe more love you give away, the more love you will have.  Reality is abundance, bliss and utter calm.  But it is also fraught with so much more pain than anyone should have to bear.”

If a group of 200 people reach enlightenment at the monastery, will that change the reality of the nearest 100 people who are suffering?  I believe that prayer can change physical composition, that thoughts can be transmitted without speaking, but I have trouble believing that the enlightened monk is changing the reality of the starving child.  If the nature of reality is this bliss, not everyone is given the same opportunities to seek it.  And even when people are given the opportunity to engage with themselves, to really explore what makes them tick, most people I have met don’t want to do the work this inside job requires.  (This is one of the least desirable traits of the human creature.)  Rare among most creatures, humans have the ability to self-reflect.  We have the ability to examine our thoughts.  We have the ability to be conscious of our actions and yet we choose to dissect everyone else’s actions instead. As I heard in a 12 step meeting recently, “people find fault with others as if there was an “f-ing” reward in it.”

Our inability to stay with ourselves, to really know and love ourselves, has a direct relationship to our inability to take care of each other. Regardless of what we believe about reality, here are the facts: millions of people live in a reality that does not include clean water; sufficient food, or shelter.  This reality is not caused by a lack of water, food or materials.  It’s because we simply don’t care enough about one another.

Our faith asks us to work to improve the reality for the millions of people (and animals) currently malnourished, abandoned, abused, exploited and enslaved.  For all of the advancements made by scientists and engineers, we are still very ill-equipped to deal with life on an emotional or spiritual level.  Along with being kind, faithful and trustworthy, we are greedy, jealous, cruel, petty, impatient and really devious.  Humans are still very new at being alive and being conscious.   I have hope that in another 1000 years or so, our spiritual lives will be as advanced as our technology.  Until then, the nature of reality on this planet remains inconsistent and uneven.

Dear Bob Dyke, the nature of reality is always changing, because we are always changing.  Every day we wake up to a new reality, even if it feels and looks much the same way as when we fell asleep.  One thing I am very sure of is that reality can never be defined or described because it is not static, and because any definition will be affected by the person doing the defining.  The person’s language, attitudes, age, and countless other traits will all influence how that person perceives reality.

Poet Mark Strand tells us that “We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention…We are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious. We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself. I don’t know that, but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of… But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.” (Mark Strand, as quoted by Maria Popova, Brainpickings, an online journal)

I agree that being alive is responding to the amazing reality of being alive.  But being alive is also about creating reality.  We have everything we need to create a reality of abundance and safety and love for all of us.  I am not sure what we are waiting for.