All about reality

Brent Gohde
Mar 16, 2018 · 6 min read

Accepting and resisting, aspiring and building

With Stephen Hawking’s death comes a great temptation to recap and explore in depth some of his more important contributions to human history. I’d recommend reading what he has to say on those matters, though. It’s enlightening, exciting, frustrating, confusing, glorious, and profound. And I’m not sure I’m quite qualified to put it in my own words. When a guy has the theoretical radiation emanating from black holes named after him, I’m not convinced that Physics 101 class equipped me to succinctly summarize the words of perhaps the smartest human ever.

For one writer at The Atlantic, though, such a task is effortlessly sublime. In her piece memorializing Hawking this week, Amanda Gefter begins speaking personally before expanding into concepts that might be beyond comprehension if not for her brilliance. Give it a read. My big takeaway: Hawking proved mathematically that particles don’t exist.

Any other post I’d start in with words from other dead white guys to question the nature of our own reality, before bringing it back to Hawking and parallel universes, making a case for alternate timelines and expanding our perception. Problem is, that’s all theoretical. And I’m here to say, we gotta play the hand we’ve been dealt.

Parallel universes are a fun trope for fiction and film. Are we living in the darkest timeline, as pop culture-savvy influencers like to say over on Twitter dot com? Probably not. Could always be worse, right? But it’s unhelpful to speculate, because here we are and this is happening. And you don’t need me to tell you we have no choice but to accept where we are. We absolutely must do so if we’re gonna get anywhere.

For the moment, though, let’s try something: imagine a perfect day. Go ahead. You get that job or raise. You go on a date that’s a lot of fun. You’re healthy, you’re happy, and so is everyone you love.

Pretty cool, huh? When I was writing the first draft of my novel last year, I thought it would be a utopian vision of a brighter future, one where we’ve learned from history and everything was lovely for everyone. But in speculating about the future, I looked an equal amount of time into the past. And I realized we haven’t come so far in those ensuing years. It would be irresponsible to predict happiness on a global scale in my little story. Instead, I understood why dystopian fiction is so big — it’s a call to action, a warning. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.

I tweeted something along those lines, and a friend (I’ve tried to figure out who, but nobody’s owning up to it) wisely reminded me, “One person’s utopia is always someone else’s dystopia.”

Circling back to that perfect day of yours, it all went right. For you. But you getting that job or raise means someone else didn’t. Your date went well, but someone else didn’t get that shot with the guy or gal across the candlelit table from you. Those either/or propositions give someone the short end of the stick. Not everybody wins in your perfect day.

And yes, it feels like the breaks haven’t been going your way. And the news is filled with people in the same rickety boat. Those in power have a habit of holding on to their own idealized lives at the expense of the less fortunate.

Alright, maybe it’s worth mentioning one dead white guy at this point, one who might help lighten the mood. Idealism is a school of philosophy that started in the 4th Century CE, and states consciousness — what’s in the mind — is the only thing that’s real. This is in contrast to materialism, and keeping in line with Professor Hawking’s fun theories about the ephemeral, physical building blocks of reality.

Too many podcasts I like toss around a word spellcheck doesn’t like, ‘qualia.’ The way it’s always explained is with regard to the color red. How do I know my red is the same as your red? Maybe your red is what I think of as blue! Whoa, right?! Qualia! Sure. Anyway, this is to illustrate reality is subjective, based entirely on our own individual abilities to perceive.

All things are — all reality is — created by the mind then? Cool. Fine. And then there’s classical idealism and subjective idealism. In either case, though, we apprehend things with our senses, and our senses feed information to the brain… so everything exists in the brainy mind stuff. This in so many words is what George Berkeley argued for, and what other philosophers did a good job of arguing against.

But we’re not here to debate the nature of reality. Rather, we’re here to discuss doing the best we can with the information our senses are sending to our brains. Because none of us can reason away who represents us in government, what the doctor tells us our diagnosis is, our boss’s decision about that raise, our crush’s text saying they don’t want to go to dinner with us…

“That’s what’s happening,” someone told me a couple weeks ago to underscore some news even Hawking couldn’t logically disprove was real. (He was still alive at this point, though apparently had more pressing matters to attend to.) Which brings us to my ultimate point: here we are. There’s no parallel universe to which we could escape.

But, as we like to say in marketing, it’s an opportunity. Darkest timeline or only timeline, things don’t typically just, like, happen. Natural disasters, disease, accidents… can’t do a ton about those, I guess. We’ll accept what we have to. But, say it with me, we control what we can control.

If we don’t like something, we can do our best to change it. When in dispute with someone, do what’s right and let them either go along with what’s right or decide to be the bad guy in the exchange. If you’re having a perfect day that includes a raise, use that money to help others instead of buying a second Ferrari.

Because ultimately, we gotta do our best, be the good guys and gals. It’s not an either/or proposition, either. There’s plenty of ‘winning’ to go around (March Madness notwithstanding). We can try to rationalize, try to deny reality… But there’s no escaping the truth, as we’re finding out on the front pages of every newspaper every day.

We can maneuver and pivot, ignore and deceive, inveigle and obfuscate. But in the end, whatever the qualia, we can all pretty much accept the reality of the present moment. Let’s be open to the truth, live in the now, and help each other as best our senses tell our brains to help. Let’s accept, but let’s also aspire. Let’s resist those doing wrong, but let’s enable those doing good. Because whatever the true nature of reality is (I promise you it’s not a computer simulation, but even if it is), let’s do our best. In March Madness parlance, leave it all on the floor.

The great tragedy with Hawking’s death is, to me anyway, he didn’t die empty. He had much more to learn and teach and write and conclude. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t do his best. (And when he wasn’t at his best, personally and professionally, he was good about publicly owning up to the reality of his mistakes.) So let’s not waste a day. Let’s get after it. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. And keep punching.

Brent Gohde

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Adventures in reading and writing. Making sense of what’s new in science, sci-fi, philosophy, culture, and creativity. And basketball.