A view backstage at Beverley Minster

What is truth, what is reality?

Neil Pickford pursues matters philosophical.
I watched ‘The Matrix’ again t’other night, in a sober frame of mind. My dear wife had instructed the family to view and consider the various philosophical implications contained therein, so we did that.
Now, I don’t know if you’re aware of this but I used to be the highly-regarded film critic for the Bristol Evening Post (an unpaid position, but as much free booze and canapés as you could scoff at all the press previews – I put on two stone in six months).
Using my profound and highly-tuned sense of critical observation I stared, impressed, at the special effects, the ‘bullet-time’ traceries, the 3D fighting and the amazing minimalistic acting technique of Keanu Reeves (and I mean that in a good way). By gum, it still looks good after 12 years and the story – of how humanity is controlled by machines that have created an artificial reality to fool everyone into believing that they are living normal lives – continues to touch a chord with troubled teens today.
It raises questions about what is Reality – which was precisely the philosophical point that we were supposed to be debating. However, because I am a fundamentally superficial creature I found myself focusing on how cool were the clothes that our heroes wore in the ‘Unreal’ world of the machines.
In spite of this my tiny mind did, eventually, turn to a more intellectual plane and I pondered the question from the perspective of my own studies into Philosophy at the oldest university in Britain.
In this we were invited to ask just how we perceived reality and therefore if our perceptions were an intrinsic part of reality or merely a veneer of interpretation based on a deeper reality which we didn’t really perceive fully – or something like that.
I soon philosophically concluded that if an object walked like a duck, talked like a duck and mixed with other ducks – whether I was there to see it or not – then it probably was a duck so I might as well get on and worry about something else, such as where I was going to watch the Magic Roundabout that day.
Nevertheless we all know how different perspectives lead people to different conclusions and, to make matters worse, we all tend to believe that we are right, and anyone who disagrees with us is obviously wrong. There’s no chance that we could be wrong.
It’s a dangerous attitude, one that is often abused by those in power and, let’s be honest, the Church is not free from guilt in this matter. The most famous example is Galileo who was forbidden from teaching that the Earth revolved around the Sun because this contradicted the accepted view that Earth was the centre of the universe. As we now know, he was right and the papal authorities were wrong but in those years what, exactly, was ‘True’? During those years the accepted Truth was that the Sun revolves around the Earth but, regardless of dogma, the Reality was – and always had been – the opposite.
Now where am I heading with this line of thought?
You may well ask and, frankly, it’s a question that’s worrying me as well because once you start questioning reality, where do you stop?
For example, we know that the camera lies. I ‘know’ that my physical body is a good shape for my age – not fantastic but good – and, in fact, my shoulders and arms are powerhouses of muscle, developed over many years of chair-shifting. Topping this torso is a kindly face crowned by a full head of hair that is gathered into an unusual but stylish ponytail.
The camera’s reality tells me that I am 25 per cent overweight, my beautiful blonde (and grey) pulled-back hair never seems to register on the printed page and my facial expression defaults to that of a grinning baboon. One of those viewpoints is obviously wrong – but which one?
Simultaneously with relationships: how many people sincerely believe they are the life and soul of the party while, all around them, the rest of the world thinks they are a crashing bore? Or, rather more seriously, that their marriage is stable while, in fact, their spouse is being unfaithful?
Once you start going down the path of doubting everything where does it end? Could we logically conclude that we are all, in fact, merely energy sources for machines, cocooned and living in a virtual world where all that we sense is an illusion?
Actually, yes, we could, and I shall explain.
Logically, no initial observational viewpoint of reality is necessarily better than any other, so the first step towards constructing a coherent world view is always going to be a matter of faith or hope. Maybe later observations will change your viewpoint but, to start with, it’s like stabbing a pin blindly into a board to find hidden treasure.
But you’ve got to start somewhere so I’ve decided that I’m going to stick my pin into the Minster and believe that it really exists, and in very much the way that I picture it.
Bother – because if that’s so then I’d better start cleaning the floors because I perceive that they are still littered with Christmas tinsel.
And let this week’s column be a warning to you on the dangers of trying to watch a thought-provoking film when you’ve just eaten pizza.

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