Real Faith

My primary article of faith: Reality Exists. Duh.

My primary article of faith: Reality Exists. Duh.

My Primary Article of Faith: Reality Exists

As a suggestible young (science-fiction reading) kid, I was troubled and puzzled by the prospect of an idea I encountered in some speculative fiction: the notion that the world might be a figment of my imagination. I was also informed, perhaps a tad early, that no measurement is ever completely exact - we can never know reality absolutely. Together, these ideas opened the door to the troubling prospect of a false and arbitrary universe. With some urgency I pondered and eventually came to hold and take comfort in the notion that reality exists ahead of any proof. Further, as participants we influence and are influenced by reality, but do not control it at whim. This has developed over time into my primary article of faith:

  • Reality exists, it is not altogether different than it seems, and I am part of it.

Well, duh. [reality]

The thing is, some people do seem to conduct themselves as if the universe is a figment of their imagination, and treat others as merely part of their fantasy. It seems like many fall prey to this fallacy to some lesser degree. Sometimes whimsical, often harsh, in any case this seems to me a lonely, alienating perspect ive [metaphor]. And not very likely.

That said, the exact story for real-world stuff always does seem to be a few steps out of reach, no matter how many steps we take [comprehensible]. I accept that I can't know anything completely, but believe I know some stuff that has some bearing on reality. That it's worth knowing stuff, but it's useful to not get too carried away: there are limits to how exactly and how completely we can know anything, and much that's important cannot be navigated merely by knowing [chaos].

Skepticism and Mysticism

Believing that reality exists aligns me strongly with naturalistic philosophy, including fundamental disagreement with the notion of the "supernatural" [craft] [superstition]. If something influences/is influenced by nature, then it is part of nature. It's important, though, that this does not necessarily mean everything is explainable. Simple-minded skepticism is as dubious as gratuitous mystification, particularly the tendency to conclude that an inability to prove something is sufficient indication that it doesn't exist [surprise].

Sidenote: Godel's incompleteness theorems at wikipedia: The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an "effective procedure" (essentially, a computer program) is capable of proving all facts about the natural numbers. For any such system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem shows that if such a system is also capable of proving certain basic facts about the natural numbers, then one particular arithmetic truth the system cannot prove is the consistency of the system itself.

In fact, modern mathematics (particularly, modern algebra - Godel, Lowenheim-Skolem, etc) establishes that substantial, consistent systems of logical axioms, eg for elementary arithmetic, intrinsically allow for statements that are true but cannot be proved within the system. Godel proved that this is the case. (Godel's Wikipedia page has a quick gloss on his Incompleteness Theorem, which is part of that story. See sidenote =>)

Physically demonstrated principles of 20th century physics, like the dual particle/wave nature of light or quantum tunneling, expose limits of our ability to know the exact state of real processes at the limits of our models - unyielding limits of our ability to perceive precisely (Heisenburg uncertainty).

Growth in personal and media communications increasingly acquaints us with the profound intricacy and variation of experiences and perspectives across the world and from person to person - exposes us to limits of our own experiences and perspectives.

All this adds together to make undeniable the mistake in presuming that all is knowable, and in restricting attention to only that which can be known [science]. "Knowable" is not all of "actual".

Mysticism, on the other hand, often seems to me an exaggeration - a kind of lack of faith in the wonders of the natural world, and/or the need to fabricate some explanation, even though arbitrary and unconfirmable. Sometimes, uncertainty may instead be warranted [fuss] [faith].

Desperation for answers, even when their lack means pain, usually isn't actually resolved by false answers [boat]. Finding substantial traction in the world can be challenging enough without willfully introducing distortion of our own.

Both skepticism and mysticism, untempered, distort our view of what is. Yet, each in suitable (modest) proportion can be avenues to touch the world, and be touched thereby [mythology].

So, what actually is?

Everything Leaks

While definiteness says "that thing is right there, exactly", the truth is that the boundaries of that thing are a lot less exact than we like to think.

Physically, particles of that thing are perpetually subliming off into space, and particles of other stuff - dust, gas, moisture, photons - are perpetually colliding, disturbing, and sticking to it. Semantically, most things do not qualify exactly against their ideals, they differ.

Just like the coastline at the seashore, the more closely you look at any boundary, physical or ideal, the more intricate and interspersed it becomes [viewing].

Haziness of definite boundaries is all the more true for people.

When does the air i'm breathing, the food i'm eating, stop being something else and become me? [eat] When I exhale, excrete, was the stuff already something not-me while residing inside me, or is there some maginot line the stuff crosses, where it fundamentally changes to become not-me? There is no absolute dividing line.

When you look closely in the physical world, boundaries blur. This phenomenon is even more pronounced in the world of thinking and awareness. Which is the real me? The one I was yesterday, or the one today? Ten years ago? The one they know at work, on the sports field, on the school board, in bed? [self] What about personality - my values, choices, attitudes, ideas, feelings? How about my ideas, clever or dim?

All these things are informed by my experiences - shaped by where I come from and what I've been through [experience]. My internal landscape is influenced by the world and others who share it, while I influence/inform them. Where are the distinct boundaries at which my self can be completely distinguished from others?

Boundaries leak [connected].

I do not mean to say that there are no separations. It's just that separations are a matter of degree. I am situated more here and you are more there, yet I am not completely here and not completely not there. We are not completely separate nor completely interspersed. My influence (both deliberate and inherent) extends me, but my presence and my influence are stronger the closer you get to my center. (Where is that? I find satisfaction in this notion of consciousness.)

Then there's elusiveness inherent in communication. How can we know how close what you think I'm saying is to what I think I'm saying? [differentiation] Or, might what I am saying admit actually distinct interpretations, intended and otherwise?

My response to these semiotic issues is the same. Though relative, the differences are not arbitrary, they are a matter of degree, and there is often some baseline closer or further from the intended message. Deconstructionists may not agree, but if so, I suspect they're making this more complex than is necessary or useful. Then again, I might not know what i'm talking about [is] [music].

Free Will vs Predetermination?

If everything leaks, and I can't even say exactly where the boundary is between "me" and "not-me", what can I hope to say about how much control I have over my fate? In fact, questions of free will versus predetermination seem vacuous to me. I believe that, ultimately, there's no practical difference between the two ideals, but they reside within separate domains of discourse [will].

Being part of the play of events means I am a conductor of that play - conductor as in "conduit" and as in "cause" [playing]. We inform and are informed by our experiences.

It seems that the useful questions are not about being forced into a course by those factors (predetermination), nor about dominating our experience with something completely outside the system (free will). The useful questions are about our part - we are dancers in a big, big dance, influenced by and influencing the music, and one another.

Blind Faith

Regard for religion, as a dogmatic institution, tends to be polarized, venerated by adherents and villified by skeptics. The truth of its role in human culture is probably somewhere between the two extremes.

In particular, blind faith can support useful viral memes, like "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". These kinds of principles have helped foster cooperation, even in those that might otherwise fail to see the simple pragmatic advantages. I don't have expertise with history, but I've noticed threads of this kind of benefit woven into many histories.

On the other hand, religious intolerance and antagonism, just like nationalism, have underlaid some of the largest-scale and most terrible aggressions in human history. Some of the same principles so useful for promoting cooperation can also be behind the antagonism, when interpreted in simplistic ways.

What happens when the brother you are to love includes only those that believe the same as you? Opportunists amp up their influence by marking non-believers as exempt, or worse - strengthening the propagation of their creed, but narrowing the scope, and ultimately, distorting the principles on which long-range benefits depend.

This is how blind-faith can be helpful and harmful. I suppose that any oversimplification is fraught with peril when it comes to matters of consequence. The antidote is efforts to "shine the light" [look] - education, communication, differentiation. This is part of the reason for my credo, "reality exists", with the notion of benefit to be found in reality's unfolding - though never to be completed - discovery.

How Useful Is Any of This?

When faced with the eternal abyss prior to and following my life and that of those I care about, how does any of this offer comfort? How does this help reconcile when the world seems grim and full of pain, or worse? Where is my lasting reward for being nice?

First of all, if my soul is of my experience in reality, not some supernatural element, I then have more stake in the world as it is. Being part of reality along with everything else means my well-being and legacy depends on the well-being of others, and vice versa [religion]. Fostering well-being in the world - of which my own well-being is part - is the goal, rather than attainment of unmitigated well-being (heaven), elsewhere. (What well-being actually is, and how it is fostered, becomes the question/quest.)

Second, once I'm (apparently) gone, my influence and the things that informed me will reverberate. the shape of the world will be affected by the shape I had, just as my shape has been informed by the world. In some real sense, I will still exist by what I've influenced, and by the aspects of the world that influenced me - the myriad threads of which I am part. I am not separate from the world - everything leaks.

In my view, the notion of a soul is a shorthand - a metaphor - for this reverberation/non-separation. That's what i take R.D. Laing to mean by "Experience used to be called the soul." [experience]

Third, and most directly, I consider this perspective to be a counterpoint to self-delusion and selfish deception [look] [truthiness]. My own actual presence and vitality is in the fidelity of my engagement with the world. Distortion usually diminishes that, and can be harmful to myself and others [fanaticism].

This is what I believe.

A la taoism, and Finite and Infinite Games (see Some Favorite Books), I play to continue the larger game, and sometimes am amazed at my part, both mundane and exotic [openness].


  1. [reality] Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. -- Philip K. Dick
  2. [metaphor] Those at the center can imagine what it is to be outside. The strong can imagine what it is to be weak. Illuminated lives can imagine the dark. Poets in their twilight can imagine the borders of stellar fire. We strangers can imagine the familiar hearts of strangers. -- Cynthia Ozick, The Moral Necessity of Metaphor, Harpers 5/86
  3. [comprehensible] The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible. -- Albert Einstein
  4. [chaos] I just realize that we start out in these very awkward ways, and we do look a little stupid as we draft, and that's all right... You have to be willing to go into the chaos and bring back the beauties. -- Tess Gallagher
  5. [craft] The way of the mystic and the way of the artist are related, except that the mystic doesn't have the craft. -- Jean Erdman
  6. [superstition] It's no accident that the words "supernatural" and "superstition" use the same prefix. It is unlucky to be superstitious, in just the same way that it's unlucky to drive with your eyes closed.
  7. [surprise] The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...' -- Isaac Asimov
  8. [science] Science [...] means a form of knowledge adequate to its subject. -- R.D. Laing, _The Politics of Experience_
  9. [fuss] In the years since, Alice, too, has seen the ones who shake and scream and roll their eyes back as if snakebit, but she has always doubted the sincerity of this. Anybody can get worked up if they have the intention. It's peacefulness that is hard to come by on purpose. -- Barbara Kingsolver, _The Bean Trees_
  10. [faith] "Faith can cut in so many ways," he said. "If you're penitent and not triumphal, it can move us to repentance and accountability and help us reach for something higher than ourselves. That can be a powerful thing, a thing that moves us beyond politics as usual, like Martin Luther King did. But when it's designed to certify our righteousness -- that can be a dangerous thing. Then it pushes self-criticism aside. There's no reflection." "Where people often get lost is on this very point," he said after a moment of thought. "Real faith, you see, leads us to deeper reflection and not -- not ever -- to the thing we as humans so very much want." "And what is that?" "Easy certainty." -- Jim Wallis, from Ron Suskind NYT Magazine article of Oct 17, 2004: _Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W.Bush_
  11. [boat] Affability keeps the boat from rocking but truth keeps it from sinking. -- ?
  12. [mythology] Let us say, then, to summarize, that a mythology is an organization of images conceived as a rendition of the sense of life, and that this sense is to be apprehended in two ways, namely: 1) the way of thought, and 2) the way of experience. As thought mythology approaches - or is a primitive prelude to - science; and as experience it is precisely art. -- Joseph Campbell
  13. [viewing] What will undo any boundary is the awareness that it is our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited. -- James P. Carse, _Finite and Infinite Games_
  14. [eat] (Have you ever really considered the visceral reality that you are composed of what you have eaten? That your hand is made of material from the broccoli and/or potatoes, or whatever, that you recently ate?
  15. [self] "Selflessness - the central concept of Buddhism," he explained, "doesn't mean that you don't have a self, but that you understand the self is a constantly changing, interdependent process, that you don't have a fixed, rigid identity. Selflessness erodes racism, sexual and nationalistic differentiation. There is no male or female self in relationships, for instance." -- from Vanity Fair, Jan 1996 article on Uma Thurman
  16. [experience] Experience used to be called the soul. -- R.D. Laing, _The Politics of Experience_
    a b
  17. [connected] Tug on anything in nature and you will find it connected to everything else. -- John Muir
  18. [differentiation] This does not mean that I can see what you see. On the contrary, it is because I cannot see what you see that I can see at all. The discovery that you are the unrepeatable center of your own vision is simultaneous with the discovery that I am the center of my own. -- James P. Carse, _Finite and Infinite Games_
  19. [is] The sky exists and it is blue. 'Is' serves to unite everything and at the same time 'is' is not any of the things that it unites. None of the things that are united by 'is' can themselves qualify 'is.' 'Is' is not this, or the next, or anything. Yet 'is' is the condition of the possibility of all things. 'Is' is that nothing whereby all things are. -- R.D. Laing, _The Politics of Experience_
  20. [music] Music is the cup that holds the wine of silence. Sound is that cup, but empty. Noise is that cup, broken. -- Robert Fripp
  21. [will] "Free will" and "determinism" reside in different domains of discourse, as chemistry and physics occupy different realms of abstraction. In the extreme, both "free will" and "determinism" amount to what happens - the universe proceeding, according to all factors, a scope beyond any which we can know - but in which we can and do, always, participate. I would just call it "will" and avoid the misleading absolute connotations and artificial dilemma.
  22. [playing] Completely un-selfconsciously, without purpose, [the infant] turns from one to the other, and we would say that it was playing with the things, were it not equally true that the things are playing with the child. -- Awa Kenzo / Eugen Herrigel / Komachiya Sozo, Zen in the Art of Archery [Debunked in , the book still has some incisive stuff.]
  23. [look] Everything in the world is wonderfully and magnificently mixed up. It is exactly like a woven tapestry. A tapestry to bring tears to your eyes... True, it is very easy to get into a muddle, but there is one magic formula for keeping out of muddles. I'll sell you that formula, oh dreamer. There, take it. Here it is: look. Look. Look. That's all there is to it. Look - and that's all. Look, even when you want to screw up your eyes. Look, even when you don't like what you see. Look, even when it's not what you expected. Remember, the world is never wrong. What is - is. Even if you hate something in the world and want to destroy it - look. Otherwise you will destroy the wrong thing. Get me? -- Yevgeny Shwartz, Western Massachusettes _Valley Advocate_ interview around 1980
    a b
  24. [religion] When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad, and that is my religion. -- Abraham Lincoln
  25. [truthiness] It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the President because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true? -- Stephen Colbert, _Onion_ interview and _Truthiness_ Wikipedia entry
  26. Fanaticism consists of redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim. -- George Santayana
  27. [openness] Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability. It is not a matter of exposing one's unchanging identity, the true self that has always been, but a way of exposing one's ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that is yet to be. The infinite player does not expect to only be amused by surprise, but to be transformed by it, for surprise does not alter some abstract past, but [i think, by illuminating it,] one's own personal past. -- James P. Carse, _Finite and Infinite Games_