The messy multiplicity of the real: If it’s all an illusion, does any of this matter?

It’s often noted that the Buddha had little inclination to indulge metaphysical speculation. “I speak of suffering and how to end it,” he said, “This is all that really matters.” As a consequence, with respect to the core sutras that define these teachings, there is little speculation about god or the ultimate nature of reality. That is, the Buddha’s core teachings were primarily pragmatic in nature. His main goal, it seems, was to help suffering human beings understand and make peace with their condition, not to encourage metaphysical noodling. He says as much when he asks: If you were injured by an arrow, would you first insist on knowing its trajectory and who fired it before taking action to treat your wound?

Nonetheless, despite this pragmatic bent, for many of us, it is the apparent metaphysical implications, assumptions, and corollaries of Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual schools of thought that most capture our imagination: “In order for reincarnation to be true, mustn’t there also be individual souls that exist to be reborn?” If ‘everything is one,’ then how can we possibly make sense of individual choice and free will?” And one question that seems to loom especially large in the minds of many socially engaged spiritual seekers: “If the totality of reality that I experience, including my own self, is merely an illusion, how can any of this really matter? What difference can it make how I live my life, the kind of person I become, if, as Buddhist and some advaita schools seem to insist, the entire universe is ultimately an illusion?”

The knotty relationship between the ethical and the metaphysical has created puzzling implications not only for Eastern schools of thought, but also for many Western ones. In fact, it would probably be easier to list the philosophers who have NOT speculated about the connection between the (descriptive) what ultimately is and the (ethical) what-ought-to-be than to name those who HAVE wondered and worried about it. And we are, it seems, often caught in the middle. On the one hand, we are often desperate for assurance that, surely this physical, mortal journey of guaranteed suffering and pain is not all there is. But nor, it seems, can we comfortably bear the thought that these lives of such anguish and tender delights are, when all is said and done, “nothing more than a dream,” “the play of Brahman,” or merely “a momentary idea held in the mind of God.”

Back when I still had the chutzpah to speak about such DEEP things — as a philosophy professor, I was actually paid to indulge such hubris — I walked students through various Eastern and Western metaphysical theories, knowing that the gnawing nihilistic worry would eventually take form in whoever managed to stay awake during class: “If even my own identity is nothing more than an illusory construct created by thought, then what is the point of any of this?” “If individual selves are just temporary modulations of an energetic ocean of being, then how can my ‘choices,’ make any difference at all?” These were, after all, mainly young people in a North American university. Did anything matter more to them than confirmation that their precious, autonomous life paths deserved star billing on the grand stage of existence?

The response I usually gave was satisfying to almost none of my young students, but it rang true enough to me then, and, over the years, has continued to do so: “To ask whether or not something is real is the wrong question,” I suggested. “We should, instead, ask HOW something might be real.” There are so very many ways for entities to be real, after all, and so very many ways for them to matter. The fact that a dream does not exist in the same way as the bowling ball in my closet does not necessarily make the dream “less real” or even less significant. Why hold such prejudice against the existential status of dreams and illusions? And that my felt, subjective experience of being an autonomous individual with a distinctive character might ultimately recede into an energetic plenum (or whatever) does not necessarily negate the reality or preciousness of my personal identity, does it?

I’m pretty sure that, like most of my philosophical “gems,” I’ve borrowed these insights from wiser, more grizzled predecessors. But I don’t need credit for authoring them to give myself credit for being flexible and open enough to have recognized and resonated with such wisdom, especially given how generally rigid and closed I could sometimes be back then. In fact, this repositioning of the “Is it real?” question is one of the few intellectual perspectives I have held onto over the years. Like a cozy pair of sweatpants, this way of thinking has actually come to fit me even more comfortably over the decades.

I feel no need to choose between the dichotomous “Is it real or not?” or “Does it matter or not?” because I now deeply accept that there may be multiple modalities of existence and value resting companionably, consistently and simultaneously alongside one another. Whether one appeals to pluralism, perspectivalism, or relativism to describe such messy multiplicities, the lessons are the same: There is no requirement to worship the law of non-contradiction or defer to Ockham’s razor. So long as I refuse to submit the entirety of my being to the authority of rationalistic rules created by and for the mind, there is ample room for many species of reality and value.

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