On a weekend summer night some time back, I was listening to live music at a laid-back venue. As I stood surrounded by a young, hip crowd, watching the performers play spirited, lighthearted music under strings of cute multi-coloured lights, a sequence of thoughts crossed my mind in quick succession.
They are vague to my memory now, so I am afraid I will be constructing some of it as I recall.
The beginnings are especially blurry. I guess they had something to do with the historical evolution of music. This in turn made me think of the idea of history repeating, or at least rhyming, which led to what feels like a small revelation.
The notion of reality that is shared among people — well, educated people in the modern world — is that there is a single truth of what happened in the past. What happened in the past consists of a great many things: a convoluted, interconnected web of natural, historical and cultural events and changes, all constantly causing each other in their interconnected evolution. In this history there are patterns to be found. For example, physical changes occurred in exact accordance with the natural laws. Social, cultural and political changes, although much harder to derive from the exact natural laws, still obey broad, qualitative patterns that have been empirically found and described by historians, political scientists and economists. It is in this realm of socio-politico-cultural evolution that history supposedly rhymes with itself. Together, the determinism of natural history and the qualitative patterns of human history are pieces of the great puzzle of Truth, or Reality, that are being steadily revealed by science and humanistic studies, and used to advance predictions of the future.
As individuals in the modern collective human society, tightly knit by a global database of shared truth, technique and values, this is what we constantly and subconsciously refer to as the single Truth. No one person has experienced all of it (in fact, almost none of it has been experienced by anyone alive), but there is the scientific method that provides indirect means of knowing what happened. Thus, Reality is viewed as an elephant that many different blind men have partial access to, and the process of reconstructing it is the great human enterprise. Regardless of how complex and ultimately infeasible this enterprise is, we still trust that Reality is a single elephant. My experience and account of reality may have little overlap with that of a 7th century Chinese philosopher, but within the final grand picture of the whole Reality, they must finally be compatibly reconciled, otherwise that Reality is not complete or true.
As I watched the musicians, my next thoughts were about a very different kind of truth, a very different form of reality: the personal one.
Not for the first time, I realized that the shared notion of the single Reality is after all indirect. This Reality which subsumes everything that ever happened: the big bang, electrons, dinosaurs, other people’s lives, the Holocaust and the final death of the universe, all ticking away along knowable laws, is a belief. It is a cluster of thoughts in my head that I have acquired from others and believe in because they are connected to other thoughts in a dense interconnected network of relations, reasons and logic. The glue of reasoning that holds this cathedral together is part of the scientific method, which is itself learned, indirect truth acquired from others. Most of this great undivided Truth is not really what I directly observe.
What, then, is my direct truth? It is only my own subjective experience: sensations, feelings and thoughts that are constantly unfolding before me, undeniably. It is undeniable to me not because I have scientifically proved its reality to myself, or had it validated by historians or seen it upheld by society as a shared belief. It is true, beyond denial and beyond the notion of having to prove or believe in it, simply and clearly because I have experienced it.
Some of this direct truth can in fact never be proved by the mechanisms of science and incorporated into the shared Truth, just as most of the contents of shared Truth will never be direct truth to me, regardless of the infallibility of evidence and proof. For example, when you hurt me, the pain that arises is as real as anything in subjective reality could possibly be. Yet, within the framework of the shared, objective truth, it is notoriously hard to even prove its existence. How can I get everyone to know and therefore believe, in perfect detail, my summer weekend night of live music, as my own memory of it is already beginning to fade? Technologies that can bridge the gap between such personal realities and the shared, objective Reality are on the horizon. Yet in the meantime, a lot of truths that are plain truth to me cannot be accepted as shared Truth by any means.
The shared ‘objective’ and direct ‘subjective’ truths thus appear to inhabit different worlds, and be antagonistic in fundamental ways. There are bridges connecting them, such as neuroscience, but they are not the same truth, and in fact they often come into direct conflict. As science tirelessly builds its cathedral of the one Truth, it remains nervous and uncomfortable with subjective truths , deciding on different occasions to dismiss subjective truths that counter its version, or simply announce that they are unreliable, and therefore unimportant as a topic of scientific investigation.
But science hasn’t won the war yet, despite how strongly shared human opinion is going along with it. For example, consciousness is one of the great remaining puzzles to science. We do not understand the very entity on whose subjective experiences we have constructed the whole cathedral of objective Reality. How then can we claim that this Reality is infallibly true and complete? Subjective truth thus still has some trump cards that threaten to topple the entire scientific cathedral.
I got sidetracked into a philosophical discussion. I’ll abort that here, and just tell you what I felt that night. I felt that from my perspective as I stood there, there is only one reality, and it is my reality. When I close my eyes, reality goes dark. When I am in a dreamless sleep, reality disappears. When I am happy, reality changes, although nothing about the physical world does. The only universe and reality I know wakes and sleeps with me. My perspective is the only one that truly exists, and subsumes all else, including the bits and pieces of the cathedral of objective Reality that I have learned. Proofs and arguments about other perspectives, and truths discovered by others and incorporated into the great shared account of Reality, are mere thoughts when it comes to my subjective cosmos, and lack the undeniable authority of my immediate and direct experiences, such as hunger, love, or stubbing my toe.
In my reality, history has never repeated. Even when there arises conversation or thoughts about the repeating of the shared history I only indirectly know about, the conversation or thought itself arises and unfolds in a manner that has never occurred in my reality before. In my direct, immediate, unprovable but undeniable truth, reality is one. It is one in the sense that there is no more than one account of it. It is one in the sense that it never repeats itself. It is one in the absolute sense, that there was and never will be anything else. (It is also one in the sense that apparently different things like cars and chairs and people and emotions and science and the past all constantly blend into each other if you carefully notice, but let’s not get into that.) This reality is one, like a single gem, constantly revealing its endless facets with every new experience. I hold this one reality in the palm of my hand, and I am the sole observer of it. (I would earlier have said sole author, but now I doubt that I author anything about reality, although there exists the illusion of authorship.)
So that’s what I felt in a few seconds as I watched the musicians. Oh, and there is a small note about contemporary social life that was attached to this realization, which I shall conclude with.
Even as I stand listening to nice live music in a pretty setting, surrounded by happy young people, I can’t help but compare my life and experiences with those of imagined others that have social media accounts and might be having a better time than me. This very tenuous imagination has a very real effect on my immediate reality. It makes me feel anxious and distracted. But if I look closely, I see that in my subjective world, the reality where other people are having a better time is only as real as my thoughts about it. As I pay more and more attention, I see this more and more clearly, and as my imaginations of derived reality recede into the darkness, it is replaced by appreciation for the great and miraculous mystery of my unique undeniable reality, constantly turning its facets of pain and joy, boredom and serenity, glistening like a perfect singular gem under the only light of my consciousness.