Thursday, June 30, 2011

De Experientiam

I seem to be seeing more and more things recently which point me to the conclusion that we are losing touch with reality.

As I sit here composing my dirge to reality, I am playing Angry Birds HD Free on my iPad. Now, if I were to actually set up such a situation where I truly launched birds of varying colors at helpless pigs poised over their destruction, I would most certainly leave me daughter without a father for a protracted period of time. And yet, this little arcade game of Avian-Procine Bellicosity is one of the most popular - and most well known - apps for the various i-devices.

But it's not real, so it's okay. Problem, Angry Birds playing PETAns?

Even as I write this post, I am not actually writing. I am hitting keys laid out in an arbitrary pattern; little bits of plastic which trigger electrical impulses that are sent through a myriad of busses and buffers (and even through the air via Bluetooth), to cause little variations of the brightness of pixels in my screen. The thoughts are real, and the light shining in my face is real, but are the words real?

How real is virtual reality?

Don't get me wrong, I love computers. Well, more accurately I have a love-hate relationship with the blasted machines. Suffice it to say that at present, my livelihood - and by extension my family's - is dependent on my facility with them, and the programming thereof.

Still, doesn't it frighten you at least a little bit how much of our lives, our civilization, is dependent on electrical representations of 1s and 0s whizzing through wires (and the air)? Just sayin'

But in all seriousness, I pose the following question: In a world with increasing dependence on computers and other electronic technology, do we know what is real? Do we know how to interact with reality? How real is virtual reality?

Some of you may be wondering what bee got in my bonnet, what the efficient cause of this thought chain is.

To put it briefly, I fear that we are being trained to reason in the wrong direction.

For a culture which prides itself on being scientific - that is, observing reality and then deriving theories to explain it - we seem to thing that we can somehow start from the theories, to learn all there is to know from books, and then to develop our theories of society and governance without actually looking at reality.

I see by the glazed look in your eyes that I'm getting a little hypothetical. Let me exemplify.

  1. Item 1: I have recently been embrangled in a Facebook conversation (will I never learn?) in which one of the chief points of debate is the place and nature of experience, and knowledge gained thereof.

  2. Item 2: Whilst berating my... discussion... partner for not recognizing experience and its importance, I have managed to spectacularly fail at truly experiencing him through his posts so as to actually understand what he's trying to say, filtering them instead through how I would interpret them, and how wrong he must be. I'll give you two guesses how well that's gone, and the first doesn't count...

  3. Item 3: I have come upon one of the most well reasoned criticisms of the Post-Conciliar liturgy that I have yet heard - it is not the organic development it was meant to be, but rather was written theoretically, torn by those exploring theories of the ancient masses (i.e. before 300 A.D.), and those dissatisfied by the Church/Mass and wanting to make it bound ahead. So instead of the well reasoned and thought out Vernacular Mass that we are receiving this Advent, we received a Mass which was unfortunately a source of great confusion and sadness for many people. Many more knowledgeable than I have placed this at the foot of starting with theory and not reality.

So what's with this love affair with experience? Des Cartes put that to bed, didn't he? Cogito ergo sum and all that - I think, (and a thing that thinks exists), therefore I am. He claims that he was able to develop everything from there, but... Things fall apart.

The Cartesian essays which are often fodder for introductory philosophy classes follow his rejection of all things he's ever know to have fooled him as unreliable. He therefore relies solely on reason and seeks to build himself back up from there.

The thing is, reason still remains unproven. He trusts it because it has never failed him, but his memory has, and maybe it is now? How does he know that he is remembering correctly? Perhaps he has simply forgotten all of the times when reason failed?

Our senses tell us that what is attained by reason tends to match what we perceive in the external world. Our reason tells us things and reveals patterns about our observations. They work together, but are not the same thing.

Furthermore, even if we allowed the assumption that reason always works, that only means that reason is self consistent. It is a way that appears to describe the universe, but the maniac says the same thing about his theory that everyone is out to get him, and is able to put forth a quite consistent logic that adequately describes the events that are agreed to happen. To see an example read the chapter, "The Maniac" in G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy.

Now, I know, you're probably saying, "Well of course reason is self consistent, otherwise it wouldn't be very reasonable, would it? And isn't that a point in its favor?" Well, yes, it would be, except that self-consistency is not sufficient to prove a thing, by reason's own standards.

No, this doesn't disprove reason, and I'm not trying to do any such thing. However, reason is itself not sufficient, and even if it were sufficient in itself, it is unable to make the leap between the ego and the external world.

As obvious as it may sound, it takes an experience of the outside world to know that there is an outside world.

I guess the main point I'm trying to make is that we should always favor the real over the virtual, and seek the reality, the real things, the real people. Reality is good, it's a good place to live. There is value in academics and the abstract, in stories and fictional novels, but to paraphrase Morgan Freeman, we are not human doings, we are human beings.

My challenge to you this day is to experience your reality. Experience the air you are breathing. Experience the reality of other people present to you, with you. Touch reality, hold on and don't let go.

I suppose it's about time to wrap this post up. What I hope you take away from this is that while reason is a powerful tool, it is just that, a tool. It is a filter by which we undersand our experiences, but we must have those experiences. Experience reality today, you will be better for it.

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