Reality, Truth, and the Good Life

What does it mean to live a good and fulfilling life? For the largest part of mine, I was completely ignorant of that question. I was pulled along a path I didn’t choose by forces I didn’t understand. I set money and titles as the central goals and believed that with the next achievement I would be happy and free of any worries. I was dedicated and driven. When everyone else went to parties in university I continued studying. When everyone went home after work and had a social life I continued working. And it paid off. I collected academic titles and earned increasingly more money. But nothing actually changed. Everything was just a new baseline and I was still not happy or free. Not even the birth of my first child changed that. It made it even worse because new worries were added on top of the old ones. After years along this bitter path finally, my mind rebelled and collapsed. Chaos encompassed me all of a sudden and from one day to the next there was nothing left for me but debilitating anxiety.

During that time of chaos, I enamored myself with discipline and a patchwork of principles that let me wage war against myself, against my mind and body, to extinguish the dragon within me. They were the weapons and armor I used to finally gain victory. But luckily war was eventually over and these tools I choose reached the end of their usefulness. I could not go back to the principles I followed before. I realized that I was driven by a deeply ingrained lack of self-esteem which made me worry, fear, and reach for external validation. But I also intimately knew that none of the paths I had chosen before was right for me and so I had to face the question: What actually makes a good life?

I owe myself an answer. So, no more waiting and postponing. My search for a long-lasting system of truths that guide my daily existence toward a good life has to begin now. That is why I will put down my thoughts into this series. I write all this because formulating it helps me to structure the ideas in my mind. All those articles are my journey toward understanding the good and hopefully, I will end up with something I can believe in. A bedrock unshakeable that will last me for the rest of my life.

But where to start my search? Looking for all the claimed truths and beliefs out there and checking one after the other will lead me to nothing substantial. There are just too many and I wouldn’t even know how to test them. I simply have no good understanding so I have to start from the bottom, from some first principle, and see where it leads me. But what is that principle?

For better or worse I start my search by following Socrates in his hunt for the perfect forms, some truths that neither change over time nor with context. He claims only a philosophical investigation will lead me from the cave of shadows into the bright light of some objective truth. Fair enough, so let me pick up the spirit of the dialogue and immediately challenge the notion of such truth by asking myself: What does it mean for something to be objective in this world? Can there even be such truths that exist beyond my personal opinion? To answer that I believe I have to understand experienced reality because truth has either to be at its core or has to emerge from it. Only when I know what makes up my world do I have the chance to understand if reality allows for fundamental guiding principles of human existence and maybe it even tells me what they look like. And maybe I am wrong, maybe there is a different way to approach this problem but it is the path my rational mind requires right now to be satisfied.

A simple observation: While I write these words I sit in my office at home looking at the monitor in front of me while my hands touch the keyboard. Is that how I perceive reality? Is this monitor as it stands in front of me its true representation, ever the same no matter when or from where I look at it? No. I can observe its components, the black frame, and its silver stands. I see the changing images on its surface that are produced by a myriad of small light sources. I know I can take it apart even more down to the level of molecules, atoms, and then quarks. There are smaller and smaller building blocks I can find following this reductionistic approach and I will never hit the end. There is never this true underlying substrate that makes up the world. So what I perceive is an aggregation of a potentially infinite amount of elements that get reduced to this one experience I call monitor.

Why is that? Because I only experience this world through my eyes, ears, touch, feeling, and any of the other senses I have. Those imperfect bridges into what is. They only let through a small part of what I could perceive. I don’t experience molecules, atoms, or quarks. I just see the macroscopic whole. All that complexity of the world that rushes into me in a never-ending onslaught is reduced to a mere fraction, condensed into a slower stream of potentials and what I am left with is some far-removed representation of what could be some true reality. What I have is Sensory Reality.

But that means I already have to establish a gap, maybe even an impassable abyss, between True Reality and what information reaches my mind. Even if there was objectivity in the first place it could only reach me as a shadow. To me, it is not even clear if truth could survive this transition. And I cannot stop yet because the sensory stream of information is continuously being merged and reduced again while it travels through my nervous system and brain. I never experienced the raw potentials created by rays of light hitting the cone cells in my eyes, nor the oscillating movement of atoms in the air reaching my ear. I perceive something else: an ever-changing cloud of concepts. Concepts like trees, wind, hot, cold, and any other object and property of my experience: a collection of patterns I detect through my Sensory Reality. It is also at this stage where my reductions reach a simplicity that allows me to make predictions, and classifications and establish cause and effect about sensory reality. I am enabled to build a world model, an intelligible version of what is. I create Intelligent Reality. The abyss just got wider.

And I am not done yet. There seems to be another leap I have to take. One that transforms my modeled world into the actual living place I inhabit. Another leap that like a magic trick lets me experience. It not only makes me recognize the green in a leaf but it makes it a vibrant part of my world. Because what does it even mean for something to be green except for the experience of it? This mystical quality I would call consciousness and hence this reality Conscious Reality. It is the place where good, bad, pain, joy, and suffering exist. But how this reality comes to be is a complete mystery to me.

But, alas, I am not even allowed to be conscious of all of intelligent reality. Only a narrow sliver becomes life the rest flows out into sub-consciousness, sometimes emerging but mostly disappearing as if it never existed in the first place. So, I reduced my reality even more without knowing what guides that focus. I increased the gap again.

A single question led to many and the realization that I cannot count on reality itself to provide the truths I am looking for. I have to search for them with ever more vigor and for that, I have a rough map now. I can take a closer look at all the different stages of reality and see if something emerges.

But I am blind. There is already a truth right under my nose. I know that I experience, that I have a conscious reality filled with life. But isn’t that pure subjectivity? This knowledge stays unchanged as long as my mind is unchanged by emotions or opinions, but at the same time it is the subject, there is no independence of my mind since experience is partially or in its totality my mind. Experience is the one thing that is objective while being ultimately subjective. But on its own, it is hardly a guiding system for my life. It is for me a profound realization that I experience but it needs some more investigation to build the good around it.

What I am left with so far is an abyss between true reality and me and a single truth. How can I recover true good, happiness, and beauty from that? I don’t know for now, but optimistically I go on and try to figure out what reality is. Not with a purely scientific view of the world but an experience-based one.