It is a standard narrative trope. We’ve encountered and enjoyed it millions of times: life is not as it seems. Our hero is not what she appears to be. Behind the veil of illusion, there is a different and more profound reality to discover.
If I have previously reflected on the ubiquity of this trope, I probably concluded that it is so commonplace only because it is a very easy idea to hang a story around.
I am now wondering if there is something much more fundamental to the trope. I am wondering if an ability and willingness to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists is the ultimate source of our humanness.
Take, for example, religion and science.
On the one hand, religion tells us that the savage and unpredictable storm is really an angry god. On the other hand, science tells us the storm is really an atmospheric disturbance created by the interplay of fundamental laws. The explanations are different, but they both rely on the idea that the truth of the matter is very different from what we directly experience. For them both, direct experience is an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists.
With these examples in mind, take a closer look at learning, creativity, language, consciousness, hermeneutics, the human reproductive cycle — really, just about anything fundamental to understanding humans as humans — and the trope turns up time and again. It seems to be as ubiquitous in reality as it is in our stories. If that is correct, perhaps, the trope appears in our stories so often only because we are fundamentally the kinds of beings that make sense of the world from that perspective. Perhaps, our stories mirror and reinforce an innate way of looking at the world.
Now, if this is true, here is a curious thing.
True happiness, the sages often tell us, is found only when we learn to appreciate the here and now, our given circumstances, the moment. Unhappiness, we are told time and again, is rooted in an inability or an unwillingness to appreciate the inherent value of direct experience. We suffer unnecessarily only when we grasp for superfluous wants beyond the here and now.
If the sages and I are both correct, it looks like our ability and willingness to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists is not only what makes us fundamentally human but it is also the root cause of our unhappiness. We are our most human, it seems, when we treat the given as something to be looked through and dismissed. We are also our most unhappy when we fail to appreciate what we are experiencing in the moment.
My highly speculative and totally-talking-out-of-my-ass theory to make sense of this apparent conflict is that the species is coping with a recent adaptation. Our brains, at some point in our recent evolutionary history, developed an ability to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists. From this adaptation, many of our most distinctively human traits have sprung. We are, nevertheless, mammals fundamentally and, for most of our evolution, we were animals that took direct experience as a given and succeeded because of it. We carry both traits in us now because they both helped us to succeed over the course of our existence.
The big worry for me, however, is that the ability to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists might actually be a maladaptive trait. Because of it, we dominate and control the environment like no other species and are reproducing at a frenetic rate. On first impression, this seems like the very definition of an evolutionary win. However, if our species gets wiped out in the next century or two because of our domination of the environment and frenetic population growth, that will be a undisputable lose. Our “success” might be so fleeting in geological terms that in a few thousand years no trace of us will remain beyond a curious spike in carbon emissions. If that is the case, as a species, we would have been much better off never developing the traits that allowed us to dominate nature and reproduce so frenetically.
There, of course, remains an outside chance that enough people will recognize the reality of what is coming and act together to make the dramatic changes necessary to avert the species’ oblivion. Perhaps, our day-to-day existence will become so difficult that we will have no choice but to change our ways before it is too late. There is even the faint hope of some kind of technological fix. And while the colonization of other planets is also feasible, abandoning the ship does not really seem like much of a solution or a victory, when we were the ones who scuttled it.
It seems we have painted ourselves into the corner of a familiar story. A catastrophic outcome is inevitable and only a miracle will save us. Is there a plucky band of misfits assembling now who will save us, thanks to their courage and conviction? Perhaps, a higher power or powers has already picked the chosen one and will reveal his or her true destiny shortly. Perhaps, that flickering light is not a star but a starship racing towards us, laden with the technology and know-how we will need to survive and flourish. One can only hope that there is some reality in these well-worn fantasies, but that in itself is an all-too-familiar story.