meditations on metaphysics

Fun game: Count how many times I use the word "reality" in this post.

Right now I'm taking a class under the Literature and the Mind specialization called "The Meaning of Life." Kind of pretentious, I know, but we're not necessarily trying to answer the question; instead, we explore different facets of the experience of life, and what makes it worth living. The main focus of the class is the following two existential inquiries: What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be human?

Also pretty big questions, but I like this class because it places philosophical and psychological concepts in the context of stories and texts. We began with purely philosophical readings, from Darwin's "On Natural Selection" to Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, each of which offered a different perspective on existence. But this week we started Virginia Woolf's wonderfully complex To the Lighthouse, which is a work of fiction, and examines the idea of a table as a metaphysical problem.

Metaphysics, from my limited understanding, is the study of the nature of reality. Essentially, it explores what it means to "be," without the interference of human subjectivity. So, does the table exist outside of our own reality? In other words, "Think of a kitchen table when you're not there." How does the table behave? How do you know it's still there?

The Law of Thermodynamics, of course, states that the table is still there whether or not we are observing and processing its presence, but that's really only one angle of reality—the tangible part. The truth is that we create our own realities, which is both a lovely and dangerous thing. But I always wonder if human experience equates to reality, in the sense that while it is the only one we have ever known (thus, it has its obvious limitations), we are only species that has developed such a concept. Is scientific method the discovery of truths about a reality that already exists, or is it the creation of parameters that define our reality?

In the book, the husband, who is a metaphysicist, is intent on figuring out the nature of reality, whereas for his wife, an ever-accommodating idealist, life itself is her reality. So another question is, which perspective is more important, or more valid? Understanding the reason for being (analytical) or simply being (emotional)? Which half of the couple is actually the most in touch with reality?

The table also serves further significance: according to my professor, sitting down at the dinner table to eat together represents stillness and the preservation of eternity, a small slice of time compressed into a single moment and a single stage. It is within this space that a family or a group of strangers creates life, creates reality, creates meaning.

But I think the most interesting part of metaphysics is its fundamental purpose of being the intersection of philosophy and science. While a very significant part of our reality is composed of things derived from scientific exploration of the five senses (optical, olfactory, auditory, gustatory, tactile)(I had to google the scientific word for "taste"), it is largely arguable that our reality is only what we are able to mentally construct. It's also interesting that we consider some realities "wrong" (like mental illness). But I think that opens an entirely new can of worms.

We should understand that reality is an ever-shifting entity that relies entirely on perception, something that we are continuously working to sort out, which is a bit counterintuitive, consider it is usually used as a gold standard of fact. But in reality (ha), it is dangerously impressionistic, a wary reminder that our world is rarely as simple as we think.