The Concept of Reality

The other day, I had a debate with a conservative friend on Facebook, on the relativity of truth.  In order to justify many of the Hindu right’s silly claims about cows (i.e. cow urine contains gold, cow dung can be used as protection against radiation, cows exhale pure oxygen…), he was forced to say that even science was manipulated.  This was amusing, because it was usually me arguing for the relativity of religious ‘truth’ against right-wing absolutists!

A few days after this, Kellyanne Conway came up with the terminology ‘alternative fact’, and things became purely Orwellian.  If one can dispute recorded facts based on one’s political conviction and force people to support it based on muscle power, then ‘facts’ become whatever you want to believe – or in an authoritarian society, what the government wants you to believe.  We have come from a “post-truth” world to a “post-logic” world.

The Phenomenal World

This took me back a few years.  In the most excellent discussion forum available on the Joseph Campbell Organisation website in those days (alas, no more existing), this was one topic which was hotly debated – and ironically, I was on the side which was arguing that an absolute reality did not exist!

Before you start carting me off to the loony bin, let me elucidate.

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The classic example of this is colour.  There is no way to prove that the ‘red’ I see and the ‘red’ you is the same, unless you can inhabit my brain or vice-versa; this is very evident in the case of a colour-blind person who sees everything in shades of grey.  The same thing can be said for taste, smell etc. It is all subjective.

There are three movies which look at this philosophical conundrum in creative ways: The Matrix, Vanilla Sky and Inception.  In The Matrix, the narrative is very straightforward; reality is an illusion created by an oppressive authority which has to be transcended to see the ‘actual’ reality.  In Vanilla Sky, the protagonist is living in a fantasy world; he has to take a ‘leap of faith’ to ‘open his eyes’ to reality – but we never see what it is.

Inception is easily the most intriguing film of the three.  Here, we have a team of people diving into recursive layers of reality within a person’s mind –dreams within dreams within dreams – and planting an idea inside.  However, by the time these multiple levels are negotiated, the characters and the audience are both left with a bewildering sense of disorientation.  And the film abruptly ends with a tantalisingly open-ended scene.

Truth vs Facts

In the discussion referenced above, somebody came up with an iron-clad argument for the existence of non-subjective truth – verifiable facts.  For example, even if we want to believe that Stephen King wrote Slaughterhouse Five, we cannot – because it can be verified for a fact that Kurt Vonnegut did.  In fact, the evidence of our senses here will compel us to accept something our brain does not want to.

But there are other things like the existence of God, the relative merit of communism vs capitalism, women’s rights etc. which are, indeed, matters of opinion.  Our problem is that we club these also along with ‘facts’ – and the line between fiction and fact gets blurred.

It is at this point of our discussion that we came to our most prickly issue – scientific facts.

The Method of Science

The majority of people who claim to be spiritual look upon science with some distrust.  They believe that science is too reductionist, too dismissive of individual experience, to provide a comprehensive picture of reality.  They are quick to point out that science relies on sensory data of individuals to arrive at results and conclusions – sensory data which is necessarily tainted with the individual’s bias.

While this argument is valid, science bypasses it by its method of experiment and observation.  Multiple experiments are carried out by different individuals, the results are recorded, and conclusions are arrived at based on the confirmation or refutation of a hypothesis based on observations.  So scientific ‘truth’ is in fact based on verifiable facts.

All right, so far?

Well… not quite.  What about the interpretation of facts?  It is also done by fallible human beings.  And facts are open to interpretation in different ways.

So I choose to call science ‘Constructive Falsehood’.  Even with the knowledge that we are relying on imperfect interpreters, the sheer number of independent observations gets it as clear to objectivity as we can.  So generally, we can accept the results of scientific experiments as ‘truth’ – with the understanding that this can be overturned the moment new knowledge comes to light.

Interpreting Reality

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Even to this, the naysayers have their argument.  How does one conclude that something is chance?  How do we accept that human mind cannot influence the outcome of an experiment?  This argument is especially pervasive in cases of New Age fads like ESP and precognition.

Unfortunately, science cannot answer this, because science does not deal in absolute certainties but reasonable ones.  The ideal scientist would say that “the argument has no reasonable scientific evidence.”

It works the other way, too.  Evolution is currently the only scientific theory which explains the origin of species, without positing an a priori cause. However, it can point only to reasonable evidence in support of its claim – it can never ‘disprove’ that God was behind it!  (Which is why theories like Intelligent Design still have followers, I guess.)

Once we dig deeper and deeper into the mechanics of the reality we see and feel, however, we see the safety net disappearing from underneath us.  At the quantum level, what is matter?  Not the solid thing what we have come to experience, for sure.  What is an atom?  What is an electron?  Is light comprising particles or waves?  What is time?

No absolute answers…

An Empirical Model

In engineering, we do a lot of mathematical modelling.  Fluid flow, heat transfer, mass transfer, chemical reactions… all are modelled mathematically based on experience, and the empirical equations derived out of the models are used to predict the physical and chemical behaviour of substances in the ‘real’ world.

And it works.  I can use a fluid flow equation quite accurately to predict the flow of a fluid through a pipeline.  When the pipeline is actually built and operated, the fluid behaves remarkably like the equations did in my computer.

So – this is what science does: it gives us an empirical, workable model for the universe which can be used to interpret and predict phenomena.  In their different paradigms, each scientific model is valid insofar as its interpretative and predictive powers are accurate.  So at a macro level, Newton’s classic physics works: at relativistic level, we have to use Einstein’s equations: at quantum levels, we have to take the help of Max Planck.  None of these models are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; they are ‘useful’.

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So, to sum it up – no, we don’t know what reality is in an absolute sense (we may never know).  There is no absolute truth.  But there are verifiable facts within a paradigm; and as reasonable individuals, we need to accept these facts even if they go against our belief systems.

This is how we have come so far.  If we let go of it, we slip over – into ‘La La Land’.

Life Etched in Spare Lines – A Review of “Dear Life” by Alice Munro

alice-munroYou know, I have been trying to put my finger on what exactly makes Alice Munro so fascinating. Her writing is without frills – she does not use flowery language or dazzling metaphors. Her stories can be read by any schoolkid without referring a dictionary. Ms. Munro does not write about extraordinary events; her characters are middle class men and women of Canada, going about their humdrum lives. It is Ernest Hemingway plus Jane Austen.

The first story in this collection sort of had me saying: “Is this the Nobel Prize winner? Oh come on!” but something in that bland narrative pulled me in, enticing me to try one more – then one more – then… well, you know. It was like a box of chocolates when you promise to stop after the next, and soon the box is empty.

The power of Alice Munro is not in what she says – but what she leaves unsaid: and that is quite a lot. The reader is asked to fill in the gaps, and I think most readers would do it in their own particular way, moulding the story to his or her own fashion. In most stories, the narrator is a child in the first person; a child who grows up as the story progresses. As we all know children see more of life and interpret it less. There is a disconcerting truthfulness to their viewpoints which makes adults uncomfortable. And when the child grows up and understands what she has experienced before she put on her adult glasses, this dichotomy of vision provides the tension which keeps the story on a knife’s edge.

The unwritten story was what had me returning again and again to this collection.

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The “child’s-eye-view” is most effectively used in the stories “Gravel” and “Voices”. In the first, a broken-up marriage is described in the voice of a child too young to form clear memories of events but has vivid recollections of things. When the story suddenly escalates to tragedy without warning, the kid suddenly grows up; and we realise that we have been hearing this child-woman all along – because in a sense, she has been trapped at the point of her tragedy. Her vision is crystal clear until the actual event, but the moment the adult takes over, analysis starts and we are now dealing with conjectures instead of concrete certainties.

In the second, the situation is more prosaic. In a country dance, the narrator and her mother meet a prostitute. The child is entranced by the elegant lady but the mum is understandably outraged. Sent upstairs to get her coat so that she and her mum can leave, the girl meets a girl called Peggy, who is visibly upset and crying, and her two suitors on the stairs. Peggy is part of the prostitute’s entourage and the men are quite obviously trying to pacify her. They are talking to her as the child-narrator had never heard a woman talked to before.

For a long time I remembered the voices. I pondered over the voices. Not Peggy’s. The men’s. I know now that some of the Air Force men stationed at Port Albert early in the war had come out from England, and were training there to fight the Germans. So I wonder if it was the accent of some part of Britain that I was finding so mild and entrancing. It was certainly true that I had never in my life heard a man speak in that way, treating a woman as if she was so fine and valued a creature that whatever it was, whatever unkindness had come near her, was somehow a breach of law, a sin.

It is obvious to us adults who read the story that Peggy has been somehow slighted by the “respectable” ladies at the dance – the child sees only the consideration she obtains from men, something that is forever withheld from her.

Nameless child narrators (who seem alter egos of the novelist herself) are central to the stories “Haven”, “The Eye”and “Night” also; and other stories such as “Leaving Maverly”, “Pride”and “Dear Life” also deal in part with childhood. In fact, most of these stories involve the shifting of human relations as people grow up, and they seem to wander all over the place without coming to a point. Many contain snippets of information that are seemingly irrelevant to what the author is trying to convey but then, as Ms. Munro’s narrator says in “Dear Life”

…And even farther away, on another hillside, was another house, quite small at that distance, facing ours, that we would never visit or know and that was to me like a dwarf’s house in a story. But we knew the name of the man who lived there, or had lived there at one time, for he might have died by now. Roly Grain, his name was, and he does not have any further part in what I am writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only life.

Life, unlike a story, is never neatly rounded off. Life leaves a lot of its story on unwritten pages – like Ms. Munro.

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dear-lifeThe characters in this author’s fictional universe are often jarringly disconnected from one another. In “Train”, the protagonist (unusually, a male) is on the run from a relationship: but not for the reason one thinks, as becomes shockingly clear at the denouement: in “Amundsen”, a relationship develops and unfurls with frightening speed. The characters seem to take it all in their stride, especially when narrated in Ms. Munro’s extremely spare prose. Sometimes, this alienation results in unlikely alliances too, as in “Corrie” and “Pride”. Many a time, core plot elements are hidden or only fleetingly mentioned. In the hands of a less skilled author, it would have been a disaster; here, it is what gives the stories their pith.

Because at the centre of it all, there lies hope. As Neal, a character in “Gravel”, says:

“The thing is to be happy,” he said. “No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.”

 

Yes, indeed.

A “Biblio-Centric” Look at the Year That Was

As far reading goes, this year has only been so-so: mainly because of upheavals on the personal front.

I lost my job of ten years in the United Arab Emirates. The blow fell in February, when the management told me that I would have to leave by end of May. It was literally a catastrophe: my son was moving on to grade 10, and the last thing we wanted was disturbance in his studies. However, it had to be, as it is impossible to stay on the Middle East without a visa. Thankfully, after two months of turmoil, things were settled by the end of April, with my family settled back home in India and my son admitted to an excellent school in our town. I also managed to land a job in Mumbai by June, so things all worked out in the end (like an Indian “family” movie).

On the reading front, I was surprised to find that my average rating on Goodreads follows an almost perfect normal distribution, a bit skewed towards the upper limit: 4 1-stars, 7 2-stars, 23 3-stars, 32 4-stars and 4 5-stars. My arithmetic average for ratings this year (3.36) also closely matches my all-time average, 3.46. So statistically, this has been just another average year. However, my reading has dropped considerably since July – maybe a natural effect of settling down in the new job and city. I have just only rediscovered my reading groove.

It has been a mixed bag of reading material, Fiction and Nonfiction almost equally distributed. I managed to read 9 Malayalam books, which is way beneath my target – but at least I’ve made a start. The heartening thing is that I have read a lot of plays, and a lot of Indian books in translation: a trend which I plan to continue in future.

Books

The best:

ആരാച്ചാര്‍ AARACHAR by K.R. Meera -no doubt about it. This book was an absolutely mind-blowing experience, truly deserving the Sahitya Akademi award it won. For those who can’t read Malayalam, it has been translated as “Hangwoman” in English. I’d recommend it to all who love good literature.

Ray Bradbury’s photo by Alan Light

The Silver Locusts (better known as “Martian Chronicles”) by Ray Bradbury. I was able to pick this classic up for a song at a charity sale, and it did live up to all its hype. This one is a real SF classic.

Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home should be a must-read for all fiction lovers. Susan Hill loves her reading, and it shows in the passionate way she writes about them.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell increased my esteem for this author who likes to hunt off the beaten track (however, his The Bone Clocks left me rather cold).

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is a brilliant adaptation of a bittersweet Russian fairy tale to the early twentieth century Alaska, without losing any of its poignancy.


Other significant reads:

The Crucible and Inherit the Wind are two plays which have topical relevance today, with the vociferous right hell-bent on snuffing out individual freedoms and inciting religious paranoia.

I have been a fan of J. B. Priestley ever since I read An Inspector Calls. I could locate a collection of four plays by him, and they did not disappoint. Also, I picked up a collection of four plays by an old favourite of mine, Eugene O’Neill: his Desire Under the Elms is a masterpiece of how the play can be structured for the proscenium stage.


I was extremely lucky to find The Thurber Carnival – James Thurber, the creator of Walter Mitty, is an unbelievable wordsmith. This collection contains many of his gems – a delight to read and reread.

Cartoons by James Thurber

Last but not least – you Poirot fans out there, you can’t afford to miss Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot: The Life And Times Of Hercule Poirot by Anne Hart!

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Personal Milestones

I got acquainted with the works of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar for the first time. His views are a necessary counterpoint to Gandhi’s and repays attention. Sadly, his voice has been buried under the Indian need to deify Gandhi.

I read Indian literature in translation after a long time. The Ghosts of Meenambakkam by Ashokamitran and I Take This Woman (Ek Chadar Maili Si) by Rajinder Singh Bedi were worthwhile reads. Must do more of the same in 2017!