Social media users grapple with the idea of multiple realities through The social dilemma, Netflix’s documentary on how algorithms manipulate our interaction with the virtual world. Former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris said in the last few minutes: “If we don’t agree on what truth is or whether there is such a thing as truth, we are toasted… ”. This should thrill metaphysicians. If we wait for a solution to this dilemma, we might be here for a while.
Plato began his investigation in 375 BC with the allegory of the cave in The Republic. People bound by chains face a wall onto which shadows are cast by objects in front of a fire behind them. They believe the shadows are reality.
The entirety of Indian philosophy and Western metaphysics is made up of such theories.
The Kena Upanishad calls Truth “that which cannot be expressed by the word but that by which the word is expressed”. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad proposes elimination as an investigation: Neti neti, ‘not this, not this’. Elsewhere it is Maya, the illusion, a dream. The six theistic schools – Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Purva, and Uttara Mimamsa – come up with their own theories of origin. The non-theistic schools — Buddhism, Jainism, Charvaka, and Ajivika — have developed entire systems that contribute to what we use today as rational analysis and logic. Aristotle thought of reality as what is what it is and what is not what it is not. Sophists thought it was relative. Correspondence theory has suggested that it should match the facts. The theory of coherence finds a place for it in a system of other beliefs. Semantic theory has examined him through the inherent logic of words – what Buddhists call “labeling,” which is part of his “Dependent Ascension” philosophy, which includes the conditional nature of relative truth.
The only common ground on absolute reality is that it is unknowable and immutable. We are all shaken by this slight opening of the Foucauldian curtain.
One of my teachers, Asha Pillai-Balsara of the World Center for Creative Learning in Pune, a senior in the traditions of the Indian mind, recently subjected our cohort to a brainstorming exercise:
“Are you in the room or is the room in you?” She asked us to think.
A seemingly obvious exercise. Of course I am in the room, do you think. Still, you can touch an object and have a cup of coffee to be sure.
How would you know though? When you dream, you think you are there too.
I know, you think, because I see it, I touch it, because it takes up space, because by consensus we agree that it is so, that it serves some purpose. So, we generally agree on the reality.
Yet you only know it as a series of images inside your head inverted through a lens in the occipital lobe. So how do you know it exists regardless of your observation? Yeah, I panicked like Bruce Willis realizing he’s seeing people dead at the end too.
It is an age-old investigation that even sheds light on our science. “Does a tree that falls on an island with no one to watch it still fall?” Is a thought experiment attributed to George Berkley in 1710. It has evolved in various forms. Sound only exists when a sound wave is received by a listening device, the American scientist noted in 1884. Without an auditor, the falling tree makes no noise. And see ?
In 1936, Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, told a meeting in Copenhagen that the path of an electron could only be determined if one determined the meaning of “being”. This sparked a reflection on anti-realism, the idea that reality only exists if it is observed. Thomas Young’s Double Slit experiment, in which sunlight passes through two slits, observed interacting waves.
Going further, scientists have distinguished between the determinism of classical physics, which tells you where a photon will land, and the non-determinism of quantum mechanics, which can only offer you a few options. It gave us insight into the randomness of nature.
The awareness of such an essential illusion is at the heart of all philosophy. The ability to navigate independently is the crux of all psychology.
We treat those who do not perceive reality as we collectively agree to know it. And we challenge these definitions every day. The more we search, the more the field of investigation widens.
“It’s confusing because it’s both utopia and dystopia,” says Tristan Harris. This is why insight, in therapy as well as in meditation, can be very difficult. This leaves us wondering how we do it. Where is the meaning?
The schools of philosophy recommend a middle way, doing what you have to do.
“… Connoisseurs agree
In this, one should not have extreme opinions.
The mind will not be caught in
Either eternalism or nihilism.
The unfathomable limit of reality,
The average limit will be achieved.
– Sagarmatiparipraccha, verses 2.73 and 2.74 (translation 84000.co)
Much of the Bhagavad Gita is just that, urging Arjuna to know the truth and do what he must, regardless of the outcome.
The goal is not to seek the truth, but to look beyond the illusion, thus freeing us to act for the intended purpose. It’s living the present moment.
When we can’t even be sure what we perceive, what use are our extremist views? What are we earning? All it takes to come out of the illusion is awareness.