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This is very compact because the contest had a 1500 word limit.

The Writing Contest

Cary Cook, Sept. 2006

The head of my writers' group sent us all an e-mail about a contest. The theme of it was expressed as follows:

"In a nation defined by video games, reality TV, and virtual friendships, with a White House that has perfected the art of politics as public relations, what is reality to Americans today?  And did we ever have a grasp of it?"

Normally I don't do contests, but this one pissed me off.  The first time I read it I thought they asked some legitimate philosophical questions, but unfortunately screwed it up with a political agenda statement right in the middle - not like they're trying to slip one through, but like they can't even tell the difference.  Then I read it more carefully and saw more incongruities.  Look at the first part.  What's the stock response?

        "Amen!  Kids nowadays have no moral grounding."

Look at the middle.  What's the stock response?

        "Right on!  Establishment's full of hypocrites."

Is this an effort to treat liberals and conservatives equally, or oblivious disregard of the distinction?  My guess is the latter.  Look at the two questions at the end - one about subjective reality and one about objective reality - again like there's no difference.  They could have easily made them both subjective:

What is reality to Americans today?
What was it to us in the past?

or both objective:

Do Americans today have a grasp of reality?
Did we ever have a grasp of it?

Either they have taken inconsistency to an art form, or they don't understand reality enough to ask a decent question about it.  But I figure, maybe that's a sign of sincerity.  Maybe that's why they're asking.  Common courtesy would give them the benefit of the doubt.  I click on the link to their website.  Vanity Fair dot com.  I stare at it for a full minute.  Vanity Fair.  Yes, it's a novel and a magazine, but just look at the words.  Vanity.  Fair.

It was then I knew I must enter this contest, if for no other reason, than to amuse my writers' group.  But forget the contest and assume the questions are sincere - both Vanity Fair's questions, and the real questions underneath them.  Some of them are answerable.

Reality to Americans today is one of three things.  To the liberals it's relativism.  To the conservatives it's obsolete absolutes.  To the majority in the muddy middle of the bell curve, it's mush (as the wording of this contest seems to illustrate).

Did we ever have a grasp of objective reality?  As Americans collectively, the question is unanswerable, because at all points in history people's comprehension of reality varies greatly.  The main difference from the past to now is not degree of comprehension, but a slide from absolutism toward relativism.  Look back to the Victorian era.  Reality was formality.  Nobody asked what reality was - to somebody or otherwise.  It was obvious to everyone, except fools and philosophers.  Of course, they disagreed on particulars, and they may have all been wrong, but they were rarely uncertain.

What happened?  Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, suffragettes, failure of Prohibition, Picasso, the Pill, Hefner, Lenny Bruce, rocknroll, drugs, gays, rap, yada yada.  You can deplore it all as a slide toward nihilism or applaud it as a triumph of freedom over oppression.  Either way it's all been said.

You wanna hear it again?  You wanna bitch about video games, "reality" TV, like it's fresh meat?  Why bother?  You're just recycling the same old shit.  Okay, it sells, but that's part of the problem - caring about what sells instead of what's real.  How real do you think this essay would be if I cared more about winning the contest than reality itself?

Break.  I have to explain obsolete absolutes.  Absolutes are eternal; they can't go obsolete.  But people's ideas change concerning what principles are absolute.  e.g.  Justice is absolute, but law is not.  Laws are made to achieve justice, but they don't always succeed and they can go obsolete.  Vigilante "justice" (actually vigilante law) is better than no law.  But state sponsored law makes vigilante law obsolete - ideally.  Note that the law of blood vengeance was once endorsed by Scripture until it was gradually phased out by state law.

Another example: Morality is absolute (unless you prefer nihilism), but particular codes of morality are made of people's ideas and are inevitably mixed with personal preferences.  Even if they are perfect for their time, they can still go obsolete.  Even if God Himself decreed a code of law and morality perfect for Bronze Age pastoral nomads, some of it would be made obsolete by global overpopulation.  When conservatives absolutize their preferences and cling to obsolete ideas as absolutes, they drive liberals over the edge into relativism and provoke them to fight bullshit with counter-bullshit.  They can even give morality itself a bad rap, which is how bad became Ebonic good.

But whereas obsolete absolutes are stupid, relativism is flat out insane.  Objective reality is necessarily absolute.  Einstein never said, "Everything is relative."  To say, "Everything is relative," such that it makes sense is merely to say that every particular thing is related to every other particular thing - as in Duuh! To say, "Nothing is absolute," is absurd.  It means the statement itself is not absolute, and therefore not absolutely true.  If nothing is absolute, then truth is not absolute; in fact there is no such thing as truth, and no justification for making any declarative statement.

The real questions are not about reality to Americans.  They're about reality:

  1. What is objective reality?
    Objective reality is that which is.  If you don't know what is is, run for president. Truth is that set of statements which is consistent with reality.
  2. Can anyone have a grasp of it?
    It doesn't matter.  We must assume so or die.  When truth cannot be known, but decision is required, assumption is necessary.  We never grasp reality perfectly, because human minds are finite, but any mind grasps it to a certain degree, and can usually grasp more of it by deliberate effort.  Grasping reality is analogous to visual focus.  Greater grasp equals sharper focus.  Sharper focus means more distinctions are visible.  It also means false distinctions are exposed as false, and irrelevant distinctions are exposed as irrelevant, and false is kept distinct from irrelevant.  Spock once said, "A difference that makes no difference is no difference at all."  He was wrong, but who cares?

    The problem is that people don't want reality.  Reality is scary as hell until you figure out that it's going to get you either way, so it's stupid to fear it.  People want comfort.  Grasping reality is just something we have to do in order to get to a satisfactory comfort level.  Once that level is achieved, there's little reason to grasp for more reality.  The only ones who go further are those who think comfort won't last without a foundation grounded in reality.

  3. Let's say you want to grasp reality.  Where do you start?
    It's the opposite of "Fake it till you make it."  Grasping reality starts with admitting truth: what you are, what you know, what you don't know, what you think and feel - not to every clown who asks you how you're doing, but just to yourself and a few close friends at first.  The hard part is accepting the consequences, but it gets easier.  (I readily admit I'm an arrogant sanctimonious loser.) Next, get rational.  All propositional truth is consistent with logic.  Though that which is logical is not necessarily true, that which is illogical is necessarily false.  Don't just use logic when it proves you right; submit to it when it proves you wrong.  After a while, your bad premises will be exposed, and you'll be on your way.  Next experiment.  Don't trust anyone to tell you the truth.  We're all liars.  You either find it for yourself, or remain ignorant.  When it gets overwhelming, fall back on faith in your chosen dogmas.  Don't kill yourself.
  4. The Big Question: Is objective reality worth grasping (beyond what's necessary for short-term comfort)?
    I wish I knew.  Socrates once said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."  The bastard never told us the examined life isn't worth anything either.  If we're happy in our lies and errors and it looks like our happiness will continue, then we have no reason to change - unless there's an afterlife (which the Moslems apparently take more seriously than we do).  But in this world being real and chasing truth doesn't get you money; it doesn't get you friends; and it sure as hell doesn't get you laid.  It does, however, give you total confidence of being as right as possible - and of justly deserving reward.  It also makes undeserved comfort less comfortable.
  5. If Americans ever grasp enough reality to desire only what we deserve, we might convince our enemies that a God who rewards good behavior may be better than a God who rewards evil behavior.

Half a year later I e-mailed Vanity Fair and asked them what happened to the contest.  They didn't respond.