What do you know?

We kindle this flame for the future
This week brings the beginning of a new year in the Jewish and Muslim calendars
We can’t know what this year will bring
We can be sure we will be surprised
Delighted and disappointed
Brought to laughter and to tears
By this light, let us enter the unknown ahead of us
With courage
With openness
Side by side
United by love


Readings

Monet Refuses the Operation, by Lisel Mueller

Doctor, you say that there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish the edges you regret I don't see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon does not exist
and sky and water, so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore my youthful errors: 
fixed notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe of objects that don't know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children of one great continent. 
The world is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water, above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air and changes our bones, skin, clothes to gases. 
Doctor, if only you could see how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

By Albert Einstein

The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience
is the sensation of the mystical.
It is the sower of all true science.
He to whom this emotion is a stranger,
who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe,
is as good as dead.
To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists,
manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty,
which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms -
this knowledge, this feeling,
is at the center of true religion.


Message, by Andy Pakula

Today is the first Sunday in our new theme, which is ‘mystery.’ From now until the end of December, we’ll be talking about some topics that are very central to religion: belief and faith and hope and mystery. We’ll talk also about the nature of religion itself - and whether or not we are doing religion here - whether we are religious.

Underneath much of this - behind the notions of faith and belief and mystery - is the reality that there is so much we don’t know. We certainly don’t know the future. We don’t even know with any certainty what will happen today.

Do we know the present or the past? What do we really know for certain? We’re going to talk about that today. 

To begin with, are we really here? Are you sitting here at New Unity and am I standing up in front of you talking?

Recently, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX announced that he is all but certain that we are living in a computer simulation. Everything we see and here about us - according to Musk - might well be part of a very complex and seamless virtual reality. Real reality might be very very different.

Of course, Elon Musk was not the first person to suggest that our experience of life is an illusion.

The following words have become embedded in our culture thanks to The Matrix:
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more.”

That is the moment when Neo is given the choice of whether he wanted to return to the false virtual reality or face the world as it is. Neo chooses the red pill - chooses to know reality as it is. If he hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been much of a film and we would have been left without some amazing special effects and a few sequels that were nowhere near as good as the original. But, was Neo’s choice sensible? Would he have been happier if he had chosen the blue pill and returned to the illusion? Was his world better off released from illusion into a bleak reality?

As a Star Trek fan, I have to remind you that Star Trek dealt with virtual and real reality long before the Matrix did. It was back in 1966 with the two-part episode “The Menagerie.” In it, the horribly disfigured and incapacitated Starfleet captain Christopher Pike was given the opportunity to choose living in a wonderful illusion on an alien world or to stay with the humans in a reality where he can neither move or communicate with the outside world.
He chose the illusion. Wouldn’t you?

And this is part of why Elon Musk contends that we are very likely living in an illusion right now. If faced with the choice between beautiful illusion and ugly reality, wouldn’t human civilisation choose illusion?

Musk says it’s almost certain that it’s already happened and that we are living in a simulation. 
Who here remembers the game ‘Pong’? It was an early computer game. It wasn’t massively multiplayer. It had no graphics to speak of. It didn’t run on more that one platform. It consisted of two green lines and a dot on a dark screen. The controls were knobs. The lines - which could only move back and forth - were supposed to be paddles and the dot was a ball that bounced around if you hit it with your paddle.

Now, just 40 years later, we’ve got photo-quality 3D simulation games with millions of people playing all at once.

And soon, we’ll have augmented reality and virtuality that seem quite real.

That’s the change in forty years. If computers continue to improve - even at a slower rate - it will eventually be possible to create an interactive virtual world that we can’t distinguish from reality. 

And if that’s possible, Elon Musk figures we would definitely be using it. So, he says there is only a “one in billions” chance that we are not living in a computer simulation.
The implication is that we are not only interacting with the simulation. We are simulations ourselves. Even we are not real.

What do we know? Is the world really the way it seems to us? What is real and how do we know what’s true and false?

In philosophy, these are called ontological and epistemological questions - what is real and what is the nature of knowing. If you don’t mind, though, I’ll stick to the one and two syllable words, even though the five and seven syllable ones might make me look smarter. But then, that would be an illusion… 

So, what is real and how do we know it?

Back in the 17th century, Rene Descartes asked himself what he could know with certainty. Recognising that our senses can deceive us, he discarded the evidence of sight, sound, smell, and touch from his pursuit. 

He concluded that there was one thing he could be certain of - that he existed. And he knew this because he was the one asking the question. To ask the question, he must exist. Of course, he couldn’t be sure he existed as Rene Descartes the human. He might be something else entirely tricked by his senses to believe those other things he normally took as fact. But to be the thinker asking the question, he must exist.

Elon Musk’s suggestion goes further - to imply that we can’t even be sure that we ourselves exist as thinkers. I can’t quite get my head around that notion - but then - maybe that’s how I’d feel if I was actually just a simulated entity… But, I want to take a step back from that ultimate uncertainty and let’s say that Descartes is right and that we can, at the very least, be sure we exist… 

And, of course, Descartes was just taking the argument to the extreme by asking what he could know with absolute certainty. It doesn’t mean that everything else isn’t real - only that we can’t prove it.

And this is what’s important. We don’t know what’s real and yet - in every moment - we need to decide how to act. Every day offers us choices - large choices and small. While Elon Musk and philosophers are asking whether we are living in a vast illusion, we live our lives every day making some kind of peace between the known and the unknown.

Most of us do not spend a lot of our time worrying about whether or not we are living in a vast illusion. If we took that seriously on a day-to-day basis, there’

But there are many more questions that many of us non-philosophers do wrestle with. There are questions of what is real and what we know that we may face regularly. And some of our answers to these questions will affect how we live every day.

Is there a God?

Do our spirits live on after we die?

Is love real?

What is right and what is wrong?

Why do people do terrible things?

Is nature good, bad, or indifferent?

Are human beings intrinsically good or bad?

Is there a purpose to my life?

Is there a purpose at all?

I suspect you can think of many more questions. Human beings have asked themselves questions like these throughout our existence. And they have come up with different answers at different times. 

And mostly - because we can never really answer most of these questions conclusively - we choose to live as though one or another answer is correct. We choose to live in a little illusion - a small manufactured reality. 

I choose to believe that love is real, that human beings are intrinsically good, and that the purpose to life is in human relationship and growth.

I know that I don’t know if these answers are true - I know that, ultimately, I don’t know if I’m standing here and talking and you are here.

But we have to choose to live. We have to put aside the great doubts and live our lives. A little bit of illusion - wisely chosen - is a very good thing. 

So, let us choose our illusions well. Let us choose illusions that cause us to be generous and compassionate, loving and caring, just and kind, accepting and loving.

Let us choose to live with illusions that help to create a better life for ourselves and all beings.

May it be so.