What is real?
This is one of the most fundamental questions of philosophy. The french philosopher René Descartes tried to answer this question with his famous “Cogito, Ergo Sum”: I think, therefore I am. In this, he is right: we are thinking beings, and the very fact that we are thinking means we are real, we exist.
But what else is real? Well, what do we notice outside ourselves? We notice objects, i.e. things, and we notice subjects, i.e. people. Things are the stuff of the physical world, the set of things governed by the laws of physics and the proper domain of science. People are the stuff of the relational world, the other beings with whom we interact. But which is primary?
Science points out that people, as well as things, are governed by the laws of physics. Psychology and the other medical sciences investigate how human brains work. This has led to a certain view, a view that all things are really just objects, our selves and our brains too, and all that makes us personal is really just a complex interaction of impersonal things, physical processes in our brain. In this view, things are primary, not people.
But there is another view, a view held by almost every human being. This view is that people are something special, different from things, unique. You cannot have a genuine relationship with a thing, dolls notwithstanding. But people are beings with whom it is possible to have relationships. It is in such relationships that the things most precious in life are found: truth, meaning, and love. In this view, people are primary, not things.
So which view is right? Is human intuition correct that truth, meaning and love are real and important? Or are they illusions, arising by chance and natural selection out of impersonal biomechanical physical processes?
Note that this question is not about whether “meaning” is magic ghost-stuff you can’t see, floating about. Consider a billboard or a road sign. It has meaning. yet it is entirely made up of physical stuff: metal, wood, plastic, paper, ink. There is no special “meaning” ghost-paint that’s used to make the sign. Yet it has meaning none the less: in fact, the meaning is exactly why the sign is there.
Similarly, there is no doubt that human behaviour is governed and affected by physical factors such as the state of the human brain. We don’t need to know about serotonin and dopamine to recognize this: a hard bump on the head will do. On the other hand, it is next to impossible to find someone who does not believe in the real existence of truth, meaning, and love. Even those who say they believe only in a material universe act as if truth, meaning and love are real and important.
So what’s true?
Another way to look at this question is this: what came first, the physical universe, or the person? Does person-hood arise randomly out of the biomechanical processes of a pre-existing physical universe? Or does the physical universe originate in the actions of a person — God? In other words, does God, creator of the universe, exist? Is there a reason beyond survival-of-the-fittest that we are relational beings? Were we made by God to relate to him and to each other?
Here is where many philosophers, including Descartes, run off the rails. They try to prove God’s existence by logic. But we’re talking about persons and relationships here. Such are not matters of logic and proof. How do persons make themselves known to others? They introduce themselves, of course! So did God introduce himself?
The Good News (“Gospel”) of Christianity says Yes. Not only does God exist, he wants a relationship with us. He introduced himself to human beings in the person of Jesus. Jesus not only taught much about truth, meaning and love, he showed us. But he showed us in a way unmistakably genuine, a way simultaneously human and divine. Like us, he ate, suffered and felt pain, and got tired. Unlike us, he walked on water, healed the sick with a word or a touch, raised the dead, and fed thousands with a handful of food. Unlike most typical human heroes (and some other religious leaders in history), he did not grab power to lead his forces to bloody victory. Instead, he avoided human power, choosing to show love instead. After being falsely accused, tortured, executed, and buried, he rose again to new life: a victory indeed, not a bloody victory, but a victory over bloody death itself. And he did not stop there: he founded the Church and empowered it with his Spirit, so that human beings can have a genuine relationship with God, sharing in Jesus’ resurrection and new life. Here is the real thing! This is God introducing himself to people. God is real, the personal exists beyond the physical, and the idea that we are merely the product of random physical processes is mistaken. God himself has come into the world to show us that relationship, not physics, is primary. This means that the intuition that is common to almost all human beings, the intuition that truth, meaning and love are real and vitally important, is correct!
What should we do about this?
Accept and embrace God’s self-introduction. Learn about Jesus and get to know him. Pray. Learn to develop a relationship with him. It is possible: the saints show how. Learn what the Christian church teaches, and live it. Keep in mind that other Christians are learning too; you wouldn’t dismiss medicine because you visited the hospital and found sick people: medicine is exactly why they are there. Do not dismiss Christianity simply because you visited a church and found imperfect people: they, too, are there to become better. So can it be for you. Jesus is true and meaningful, and he loves you. Embrace this love, enter into relationship with God, and become the person you were meant to be.