The Dream Called Reality: Some Scattered (and Unoriginal) Musings on Metaphysics and Hope

By Jin-yeong Yi

“I am not a human. This is only a dream, and soon I will awake. It was too cold and the blood froze all the time”

—Per Yngve Ohlin

“What were those deathly creatures that flew out of the golden box? They were the ills that beset mankind: the spites, disease in its thousand shapes, old age, famine, insanity, and all their foul kin. After they flew out of the box they scattered–flew into every home, and swung from the rafters–waiting. And when their time comes they fly and sting–and bring pain and sorrow and death.

“At that, things could have been much worse. For the creature that Pandora shut into the box was the most dangerous of all. It was foreboding, the final spite. If it had flown free, everyone in the world would have been told exactly what misfortune was to happen every day of his life. No hope would have been possible. And so there would have been an end to man. For, though he can bear endless trouble, he cannot live with no hope at all.”

—Evslin, Evslin, and Hoopes, The Greek Gods 

Some months ago, I had a rather interesting experience. It wasn’t supernatural, but it was rather surreal. Early in the morning, at around 5:15 AM or so, I started walking downstairs for breakfast before I heard a noise. It was the sound of someone walking into the kitchen and switching on the light. Figuring it was probably my sister or her husband, I thought of returning to my room, since I preferred to eat by myself (I generally don’t like to talk during meals unless the subject matter interests me). But I decided to wait just in case the person downstairs was just going for a quick refrigerator raid before heading back to their room.

So I stood there in the middle of the staircase, and waited. You might say that it felt as if my life had temporarily stopped. The whole thing felt mysterious somehow. A collocation of atoms that had coincidentally come into being, the collocation of atoms that was me, was standing still in the darkness at a particular time and place, waiting for another collocation of atoms to exit a particular location. And this collocation of atoms was asking itself whether meaning really existed in a meaningless universe! I felt strange as I observed what was otherwise a very ordinary and mundane event.

If memory serves, at this point my thought process went something like this: is my life and this universe truly meaningless? They appear to be meaningless, objectively, but what if that meaninglessness was actually part of a massive illusion? What if the world in front of my eyes, as well as the events that occur around me, were products of God’s dream, as the Advaitins claimed? Gazing at the walls around me and the ceiling above me, I wondered if I really was existing inside the mental emanation of a Grand Architect.

Depending on how you look at it, imagination is either a blessing or a curse, or both. Imagination enables us to peer beyond the world we have, but it also prevents us from being content with the world we have. Imagination is the reason why life is such a tease. With the mind’s eye, we can look at anything we desire, but rarely are our deepest desires granted. Immortality may not exist, but we can imagine being immortal. True freedom certainly does not exist, but we can imagine being free. We may not be Gods, but we can imagine ourselves as Gods.

The ability to dream, along with skepticism, is the reason why I am able to cling onto sanity and hope in the prison of the real. Reality may be absolute, but my perception of it isn’t, because there is no way for me to know for sure whether or not it’s accurate (as far as I can tell). It may look like this world is real and that my life in it is real, but I am basing that on my own empirical observations; if everything around me were an illusion being fed into my mind, my observations would be rendered moot.

The word “dream” not infrequently enters daily speech. “This is like a dream,” “This is a dream come true,” and “The man/woman of my dreams” are some of the most common examples. It is often used to describe a superlative experience, like a joyous marriage or winning a championship. It’s as if we instinctively know that things usually don’t go our way in the real world, and that it is almost like a miracle when a cherished wish comes true.

Which leads me to the following question: Which is more real, our lives in the waking world or our lives in the dream world? Are dreams a parody of waking life, or is it the other way around? I’m using the word “real” in two senses here: real as in being a part of reality, and real as in being the opposite of counterfeit.

Most of us have had nightmares. Many of us know what it’s like to fall off a cliff or to run away from a shadowy entity, only to end up rooted to the spot.

Sometimes we wake up in our dreams. We notice that something is off, and that leads to the realization that we’re not in reality. If only there was a way to wake up from reality! For reality is a nightmare, a nightmare with moments of calm and sweetness, but a nightmare nonetheless. Depending on who we are and where the currents of causality take us, the nightmare takes on different forms. For some, it may take the form of something overt, like domestic violence or war. For others, it might take the form of something subtle, like a soul-killing job or a decaying marriage.

Apocalypse, that is, an ascent into heaven or a descent into hell (metaphorical or literal), is, needless to say, a ubiquitous theme in not only religion, but also in philosophy and the arts. There is no shortage of dramatic structure that describes an absolute beginning, middle, and end.

On one side, this view is challenged by those who take a cyclical view of history, represented by the likes of Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee, on one side, and those who take a Darwinian view of history, represented by the likes of Alexander Rosenberg.

Even if we are to assume that these thinkers are right about there being no straight narrative to history as a whole, it seems to me that the concept of there being such a “narrative” to individuals lives, remains unshaken. If there is no reincarnation, then birth, life, and death comprise not so much a cycle as a sequence. Each and every individual undergoes his or her own Apocalypse.

A possibility that possesses me is the possibility that life is an actual story, with a real plot. A story written by whom, you might ask? Maybe a cosmic playwright, or each individual’s “higher Self.” With this possibility in mind, I can continue to have hope in the face of the darkness I see–for the simple reason that the darkness is followed by dawn.

As far as I know, no one better represented this outlook than Per Yngve Ohlin, to the extent that he could be seen as a symbol for it. I suspect that he saw his whole life as a nightmare; that would explain why he surrounded himself with ugliness, decay, and pain, routinely mutilating and starving himself, using paint and soil to make himself look like a corpse. Perhaps he did such things so that he would never lapse into a dull acceptance of the nightmare as being all there is.  

Which leads me to the next question, which is a question that has probably been asked the day humankind discovered philosophy: What lies on the other side of life?

According to the worldview that I hold, the answer is quite simply–nothing. For if atheism is true, nihilism is true, evolution by natural selection is true, the mind is a function of the brain, etc., I have no reason to believe that my existence will somehow continue after the cessation of the electro-chemical activity in my brain.

The rub lies at the level of assumptions. As a skeptic, I recognize that all of the positions I hold are provisional and tentative. For all I know, I can be a brain in a vat–or, better yet, a spirit tricked into thinking he is a body, much in the same way that one might be fooled into thinking that one is a dog/cat/hamster/etc. during a particularly peculiar dream.

So that is the trillion dollar question: is this–all of this I see in front of me–real? I do not think this question can be brushed aside lightly, because the metaphysical question is the fundamental question, which must be answered accurately before proceeding any further. Unfortunately, I doubt that the means to do so are accessible to us. The metaphysical question is a complex and confusing mathematics problem with no answer key. As far as I can see, we are stuck with what seems and not what is. But that can be encouraging, because it is ignorance, not knowledge, in which room for hope lies.

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