Philosophical Ruminations on the Nature of Reality, and Our Place in it

1. Thoughts on the Biases and Limitations of Secular Education�

America’s Christian leaders have long felt frustrated with secular education’s biases and limitations – and so have I, only not for the cookie-cutter reasons.

A federal court ruling on the status of teaching some variation on the theme of “intelligent design” in our public schools was in the news not too long ago. While I’m sympathetic to such an idea conceptually, the court’s acceptance, rejection or postponement of the establishment of such a program was not my primary concern.

Although, really – take a good look around, and one would have to be blind not to grant intelligent design. Start with the human body. Humankind will never build a robot as profoundly remarkable and sophisticated as the flimsiest of us. Never.

In any case, the greater tragedy of the strictly secular world view has little to do with the positivistic belief in random evolution (random being the operative word), nor with science’s justifiable criticisms of a glibly, untenably-argued creationism.

� Like those options were the only two formative possibilities, in the first place.

No, the greater tragedy has to do with secular education’s casual acceptance of the physical world as gospel, so to speak: namely, that what you see (and can measure) is what’s “real,” while any of the rest of it is speculative and, more often than not, delusional.

Secular education’s view of the world and the cosmos is, and has always been, filtered through the lens of agnosticism. The science behind secular education can’t prove there’s a God, and it may never. Yet already in this century, empirical methodology has determined there’s life after death (I’m not making that up), and that there likely actually are things like alternate realities (yay, quantum physics!).

Regardless, removing the topic of God from this discussion – for He/She/They/It is not really at issue here – the primary problem with the agnostic perspective is that it’s identical, in practice, to the atheist’s: simply put, if empirical science can’t prove that something is so, then that topic is commonly ignored in our secular schools.

So, all that our students are left with are discussions regarding the measurable physical world – and that’s pretty much it. Therein lie the biases and limitations.

Not only isn’t there more to our universe than just the physical realm, it can be easily (and tenably) argued that our physical universe is a secondary reality, a construct of intelligent design and, therefore – it only follows – an illusion, too.

When we “die,” do we cease to exist? No. We move on, away from the illusion.

There’s some empirical support (The Afterdeath Experiments) and a mountain of substantive anecdotal evidence to deduce just that. Arguably, thus, our lives are figuratively comparable to feature movies.

By extrapolation, then, the world we live in is a kind of movie theater. Blow up the world, and all you’ve really done is blown up the movie theater. Life carries on.

Just think of it. Were our students taught such a perspective, an army of them might not be so quick to “evolve” into intense cynicisms and depressions about living in a random universe without meaning that’s, by the way, out to get them.

Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

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2. Thoughts on the “Twin E’s:” the Bottom-Line Purpose of LifeâÂ?¦

Living life here on Earth is difficult, by design. It’s not an accident – any of it.

Where else in the greater physical/non-physical universes are we more likely to learn courage, compassion, humility, hope, faith, resilience, discipline, wisdom – you get the idea – other than by living in an illusory construct reality such as ours, a secondary physical reality that’s been designed to invoke such emotions?

Ours is a reality that’s been purposely intended to invoke and to teach, by way of unavoidable effort and sacrifice on our parts, how best to sidestep this additive of pain – emotional pain that doesn’t exist “on the other side,” and so was created in this construct reality as a device to make us want to feel better, and to act better.

Yet it’s a physical reality that induces both pain and joy, designed and put into play by none other than a single Creative Source, or God. A single, hands-off God that never ever plays favorites – yet who is apt to passionately observe us from very afar, lovingly embracing the very same experiences, day in, and day out.

This God cares – only God never intervenes, except when sought out by us for muted loving communion between, or during, our earthly crises – and that’s that. Why? Because the only teachers any of us will ultimately listen to, in this illusory setting, is ourselves, individually. It’s been structured that way. We can be taught to believe in one thing or another – but our teachers all move on, leaving us with just our individual inclinations, many of them neither consciously clarified nor embraced.

Loneliness fills us in this illusion, as well. Some distant part of each of us knows this physical reality is a fabrication – because we vaguely remember, if only very rarely, what it’s like to be in our primary setting, before and after “death.” We don’t remember it well, of course – this setting was not designed for us to be able to do that consciously – but we do have a gnawing hunger for More than what we’ve got here: it’s that Unfilled Hole-Inside-of-the-Donut recovering addicts often speak of.

So what some of us come to realize as we get older is that the only ones we have here to hang around, to interact with, to palpably love and be loved by – or to battle, if we must – are ourselves.

Life is about learning to navigate through the gray. Those who’ve experienced some manner of spiritual awakening commonly report that once they’re in that space, a resounding recognition of paradox takes place – one that makes sense.

Murder is a paradox, for instance. There are times when we sense it’s very, very wrong (which is why all earthly cultures come up with laws to try to prevent it) – and yet in times of war, or during capital executions, we murder because we feel it’s the right thing to do in such contexts. It’s not evil to defend ourselves, is it?

Yet the act still makes most of us squeamish, and rightfully so. Those of us who’ve killed others in war or in self-defense commonly never get over it.

God isn’t big on murder. Still, no divine interventions occur when we do that to ourselves (there are God’s representatives, say, who work behind the scenes on our behalf throughout our lives, but usually only minimally – which is another topic for another day). Most of the time, all of the big decisions are ours.

When you contemplate it, you come to realize there are no blacks and whites in life – no hard fast rules that always apply, in all circumstances. It’s our task to figure things out as best we can. And lately, we’ve often humiliated ourselves.

All of this planet’s great spiritual teachers were human beings who started out as infants. That’s not a mistake, either. Before anyone reaches his or her full potential, even on the level of a messiah, lessons have to be learned, and empathy for others embraced. No one “gets it” at 20. They can’t. Our universe wasn’t blueprinted that way.

In any event – the punchline? Once the smoke clears, what’s the purpose of life?

It’s twofold, I’m convinced of it – and we can label it the “Twin E’s:”

The purpose of life in this physical reality is to Experience�and to Express.

That may not seem like much. But, oh – for most of us, it’s flat-out overwhelming.

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3. Thoughts on the Unlikely Existence of Aesthetics in the Arts�

Who among us hasn’t gotten into an argument with one or more people over which movie, actor, song, singer, painting or, say, artist is better than another?

Or, how about this – forget about discussions centering on such topicsâÂ?¦ What about TV cable channels, like VH1 in the U.S., that rank “greatest ever” musical performers by category, for instance?

If you get the feeling that maybe, just maybe, such discussions (or TV rankings) are, at best, arbitrary – I’m convinced you’re on to something. And it’s no small deduction on your part.

Here are a few brainteasers: Was Bach better than Beethoven? Was Beethoven better than John Williams? Was Vincent Van Gogh better than Norman Rockwell?

You get the drift. The topic here is “aesthetics:” i.e., that certain something that makes one’s talent, appearance, or his or her art, superior to someone else’s.

Do aesthetics actually exist, then, as a meaningfully accurate tool to determine any kind of superiority in artistic expression? In fact – what is artistic expression?

My undergraduate college advisor specialized in the philosophy of art – and I found his course on that subject pretty jolting. Over the centuries, it turns out, philosophers have agonized over the existence or non-existence of aesthetics.

Maybe not agonized, per se, but certainly heated arguments have erupted, and subsequent treatises were written, attacked and defended�and then re-written, attacked and defended again.

What resulted was this: no one to date, in the history of art philosophy, has ever been able to pitch a powerful argument in favor of aesthetics, and make it stick.

Many have likened aesthetics to a kind of invisible pixie dust that attaches itself to a piece of art, making that piece of art necessarily superior to one without it.

Okay, came the challenges – show me the pixie dust, then, or at least describe it. The philosophers pitching the concept never were able to. Not without inducing justifiable teasing from their challengers, anyway. And so it’s continued to date.

The most impactful author for me in my lifetime was Kurt Vonnegut, whose latest book, “A Man Without A Country,” I just finished reading. (By impactful, I don’t mean or even imply aesthetic, by the way.)

Vonnegut closes this recently published book by relating the following story:

“I asked (an artist friend) how to tell a good picture from a bad oneâÂ?¦ He said, ‘Look at a million pictures, and you can never be mistakenâÂ?¦’ I passed this on to my daughter Edith, a professional painter, and she too thought it was pretty good. She said she ‘could rollerskate through the Louvre, saying, “Yes, no, no, yes, no, yes,”‘ and so on.”

Some philosophers of art, in fact, have argued more or less the same thing in recent decades – and critics have come to believe the concept has substance. But try to argue experience-alone on merit, and get ready to duckâÂ?¦or listen for the guffaws.

Here’s my take on aesthetics: the concept has nothing to do with the “quality” of art – or of beauty, for that matter. The same issues are at play.

Aesthetics instead, I suspect, are a culturally derived, subjective/non-verbal form of communication – and that’s pretty much it. In the end, the purported quality of art is relative, and varies from one human being to another.

There is no universal quality standard for “better-thans” in the arts.

Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, in other words.

Donald Croft Brickner lives in Tallahassee, Florida. Questions and comments may be emailed to him at:

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