The Uncertainty of Reality

By Anthony Gold

Look about you. How certain are you that this is real?

What makes you so sure? That you can touch things and experience emotions?

We do the same in dreams.

The great Taoist Zhuangzi tells the story of Zhuang Zhou who dreamed that he was a butterfly. In the dream he fluttered about from flower to flower, enjoying the nectar. The butterfly did not know that it was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he awoke and felt certain he was Zhuang Zhou again. Then he was struck by this thought: Was it Zhuang Zhou dreaming that he was a butterfly, or was the butterfly now dreaming that it was Zhuang Zhou?

How can we be certain?

Philosophers have pondered this question for centuries. Nietzsche’s famous quote, “There are no facts, only interpretations” spawned an entire school of philosophy known as existentialism – which, at its core, proposes that we give everything all the meaning it has for us. In other words, nothing in and of itself has any meaning. It is our judgment that gives it its meaning – not some objective form of truth.

Even the stuff we call “solid form” is hardly solid at all. Atoms are 99.999999999% empty space. We think our hand touches the table – but our hand touches nothing. The electron cloud surrounding the atoms of our hand encounters the electron cloud surrounding the atoms of the table – and the like charges repel one another. This gives us the sensation that our hand rests on the table. In fact, nothing is touching nothing.

Likewise, we can’t actually sit on a chair – we hover about 0.000000001 centimeters over the chair – due to the same subatomic forces repelling one another.

As Albert Einstein said, “Reality is merely an illusion – albeit a very persistent one.”

What, then, is real?

You do not seem to doubt the world you see. You do not really question what is shown you through the body’s eyes. Nor do you ask why you believe it, even though you learned a long while since your senses do deceive. (W-pI.151.2)

The world is an illusion. (W-pI.155.2)

This world seems so serious and so significant to us. We strive and toil to achieve goals, yet rarely question the very foundation upon which our efforts are directed.

Lucid dreamers know they are dreaming a dream. The illusory nature of their contextual reality is evident. The German poet Novalis noted, “We are near waking when we dream we are dreaming.”

In Monday’s class we will explore the uncertainty of what we call reality and how we can experience the indescribable joy and relief that come from seeing through the illusion. I look forward to seeing you then.

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