I'm not sure whether ultimate reality can be known. Heck, I'm not even sure whether limited reality can be known.
Meaning, there may be no such thing as reality.
This might just be a word we humans use for our way of looking upon the world, a subjective viewpoint which has no resemblance to the way the world really is, because there is no really beyond the subjective viewpoint.
Alternatively, perhaps reality really exists, but it is nothing like our thoughts about it.
Religious dogmas have it wrong. Mystical teachings have it wrong. Philosophical notions have it wrong. Scientific theories have it wrong. This is what I was thinking of when I wrote one of my first Church of the Churchless posts ten years ago, "Just have faith."
Here's how to tell the difference between true faith and false faith: Imagine that you are standing in the middle of a bare windowless room. Two doors lead out of the room. Both are closed, but can be opened with a turn of the doorknob. The doors are marked with signs that describe what awaits on the other side: (A) Reality, (B) Belief
After you open a door, you have to walk through it. The door then will shut and you never will be able to leave the place you have entered. Choose Reality and you will know things as they really are, from top to bottom of the cosmos. You will know whether or not God exists and, if so, the nature of this ultimate divinity. You will know whether death is the final end of your existence or if it is the beginning of another form of life. You will know whether there is a meaning to the universe beyond what human beings ascribe to it.
Or, choose Belief and you will know only what lies within the confines of your current suppositions about the nature of the cosmos. For the rest of your life you will be confident that what you believe to be true, really is. Any evidence to the contrary will not make an impact on your mind. You will remain doubt-free, faithful to the beliefs you now hold about God, creation, life, death, and the purpose of human existence.
Which door would you choose to walk through?
Before answering, consider carefully the potential ramifications of your choice. Reality is an unknown, a mystery. It could be frightening or fabulous, painful or pleasurable, warmly loving or coldly uncaring. Do you want to embrace absolutely real reality? Or would you rather hold on to your beliefs about what is real?
Great questions. I'm not sure how I'd answer them if the doors I described actually existed. I like to think I'd choose Reality, but this might be so mind-blowing, my brain would never recover from the shock of it.
Last night I was reading a recent issue of New Scientist. A lead piece by the editors caught my eye, "The beautiful, ugly truth. Better to see the cosmos as it is, rather than how we'd like it to be." It began with:
"The great tragedy of science," as Victorian biologist Thomas Huxley observed, is "the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."
The piece went on to talk about a story in the issue that describes the possibility of the universe not being symmetrical or homogeneous at very large scales.
Symmetry is pleasing to scientists. Much of modern cosmology is founded on the assumption that there is no special place in the universe. For example, if the expansion of the universe is accelerating, this is occurring everywhere.
Such may not be the case. Which leads to the editor's final paragraph:
A less-ordered universe might be less pleasing to the mind's eye, and in some cases less tractable. But perhaps it's time we stopped trying so hard to find the truth through beauty, and instead try a bit harder to find beauty in the truth of ugly facts.
Religions prosper by preying on the human propensity to shy away from ugly facts.
Like the inevitabilty of death, consciousness being dependent on the physical brain, the absence of demonstrable evidence for God, a dearth of reasons to believe in miracles or the effectiveness of prayer, our insignificance in an unimaginably vast and ancient universe.
We make up stories about how the world is because this comforts us. This is obvious in religiosity.
Yet scientifically-minded people also cling to explanations that attempt to bridge the unbridgable gap between the little we know and the vast amount that remains unknown to humanity -- possibly forever. Our natural tendency is to shy away from uncertainty, not-knowing, cluelessness.
We believe we're making progress toward fathoming the mystery of the cosmos. Perhaps personally; certainly as a species. Rarely do we seriously consider that questioning the Meaning of It All without finding answers might be our fate.
Both individually and collectively. Is this so distressing, though?
Consider: if the nature of reality (ultimate or otherwise) is beyond the ability of we Homo sapiens' to comprehend, then embracing a gigantic existential question mark is the closest we'll be able to come to any sort of final knowledge.
"I don't know" would be the wisest understanding; "I have no idea," the most profound thought.
“How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
-– Rebecca Solnit, reinterpreting someone else, who was misquoting Plato, who was quoting Meno, who was losing an argument to Socrates