Thursday, October 15, 2009

The illusion of reality

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.--Albert Einstein

We were watching a television show the other night about different ways the world could end (defined as the human race being wiped out), one of which was an asteroid hitting the Earth. Discussion of this possibility centered (predictably) on how people would respond to the news - i.e., if you were told an asteroid would hit the Earth tomorrow (or next week), how would you spend your remaining time?

We turned to our wife and asked why people should behave differently under these circumstances; after all, we are all going to die eventually, so what's the difference? She rolled her eyes and said, "Well, you can't live like that every day!"

We find this is a common sentiment about the absurd - while people accept it in theory, they find it cumbersome and unrealistic to adopt in their everyday lives. After all, how can one possibly get through the day when none of it matters?!?

To us, this represents more a misunderstanding of the absurd than some fundamental disagreement with it. For example, one of the questions we frequently hear from people when discussing the absurd is: Why do we do things that seem decidedly unabsurd--have jobs, families, etc--when we could be just as happy (as defined by the absurd) sitting on a park bench? As one reader recently put it: "Why do you choose at all to have friends, lovers, family at all when you can be happy without all of it? You don’t live isolated in the middle of the desert or a mountain or a forest. Why not?"

The answer, of course, is that it doesn't matter what we choose to do. Put a different way--by accepting that the physical world is all there is, the absurd man frees himself to enjoy any and all experiences for what they are, rather than what they mean. Thus, one can have a family...or not. Live in a crowded city...or alone in a forest. Eat, drink, and be merry!...or sit quietly in a chair.

Put simply, this notion that the absurd man must wall himself off from the world is false. Indeed, it makes a mockery of the whole concept of the absurd, which is at root a method for finding peace and contentment (and even joy) in life, but without the burden that things must be meaningful to be enjoyed.

Reality, or what we think of as reality, is nothing more than an incredibly persistent (and convincing) illusion. Whatever you are doing right now, consider how meaningful it would be were an asteroid to hit the Earth tomorrow. More to the point, how meaningful would be your entire life? How about all of human history? Would the sum total of all our actions be any more consequential...than those of the dinosaurs?

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