The Limits of Reality

By Jin-yeong Yi

The Matrix television

“You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”

—Morpheus, The Matrix

Less than 2 years ago, Richard Dawkins published a book titled The Magic of Reality. It’s a very nice book, with Dr. Dawkins’s trademark prose complemented by Dave McKean’s richly detailed illustrations. At the end of the first chapter, Dr. Dawkins writes:

“[T]he real world, as understood scientifically, has magic of its own – the kind I call poetic magic: an inspiring beauty which is all the more magical because it is real and because we can understand how it works. Next to the true beauty and magic of the real world, supernatural spells and stage tricks seem cheap and tawdry by comparison. The magic of reality is neither supernatural nor a trick, but – quite simply – wonderful. Wonderful, and real. Wonderful because real.”

I agree, I think reality is wonderful–and I think reality is overrated. Shoot me. To the good professor I would say: have a lucid dream and then tell me it wasn’t wonderful. Tell me that meeting Charles Darwin in person and discussing evolution with him for two days straight was boring compared to reading The Origin of Species. Tell me that flying with invisible wings was a dull and uninspiring experience compared to flying on an airplane. Tell me that traveling to the center of the Sun was a cheap and tawdry experience compared to observing it through a filtered telescope. It’s your world we are talking about, not mine, not theirs, not ours–but yours. And it’s wonderful because it’s yours.

There are plenty of things I appreciate about reality. Reality made my standards, reality gives me contrast. If there were no reality, or at least the knowledge of reality, I’m not sure that it would be possible to appreciate fantasy.

H. L. Mencken had a point when he wrote:

“Alone among the animals, [man] is dowered with the capacity to invent imaginary worlds, and he is always making himself unhappy by trying to move into them. Thus he underrates the world in which he actually lives, and so misses most of the fun that is in it. That world, I am convinced, could be materially improved, but even as it stands it is good enough to keep any reasonable man entertained for a lifetime.”

I wish I could be like him, sometimes…sort of.

But to suggest that reality is superior to anything that we can imagine is practically Leibnizian. Reality is a one-size-fits-all world that wasn’t designed for us on even a collective level, let alone on an individual level. In my view, to be able to have dreams but not be able to realize them is not only a waste, but a perverse travesty. What makes for a richer experience, observing and studying the stars, or reaching out and touching them?

I am not content with the magic of reality. I want magic–real magic. As I’ve said before, I respect science and can appreciate the wonders of the natural world it has and continues to reveal, but I do have a longing for more. For all its beauty, the world seems too fixed, too solid, too predictable, too mechanical. I have a deep-seated longing to find a hole within the omnipresent tapestry of unalterable constants, of scientific theories and mathematical equations, a “glitch in the Matrix,” if you will.

One might ask, “Then why acknowledge reality at all? Why don’t you just ignore it and pretend that it isn’t there?” Easier said than done. As Ayn Rand pointed out, “You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

In his critique of arch-materialist Joseph McCabe in Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton proves Rand’s point:

“Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine. The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel.”

To which a good materialist can only reply, as S. T. Joshi did: “To be sure, it is more ‘restrictive’ to believe that two plus two always equals four rather than that, at various times as my fancy dictates, it equals five or seven or a billion, but what is one to do?”[1] I am not unsympathetic to Chesterton’s wish to believe in fairies and imps and the supernatural in general, but alas, that does not seem to be the universe we live in.

I don’t believe that I hold a grudge against science. If the universe really is as “mathematical and regular” as it looks, science cannot be faulted for that. A person that jumps off the roof of a 100 floor building, convinced that he has wings, will very likely end up as a sorry mess of meat and bone on the ground, regardless of whether or not he acknowledged the law of gravity. Science didn’t invent the law of gravity or any other natural law; it merely discovered and codified them.

Science is all well and good, but when it comes down to it, I’m more concerned about the universe within than the universe without. In other words, the subjective world, as opposed to the objective world. The world where anything and everything is possible, the world where any and every fantasy can be realized.

Joseph McCabe once wrote, “A nation is most gifted with poetic imagery in its adolescence, when the imagination is far more developed than the intellect.”[2] No matter where science and reason take us, may we never lose our capacity to imagine and dream!

[1] God’s Defenders by S. T. Joshi, Chapter 2 (“The Bulldog and the Patrician: G. K. Chesterton and T. S. Eliot”)

[2] “The Truth about the Prophets” by Joseph McCabe

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