Reality: too obvious to be true

Banksy and Baudrillard

untitled (Banksy and Baudrillard) (detail)

Nothing is wholly obvious without becoming enigmatic. Reality itself is too obvious to be true. (Jean Baudrillard)

In hand, a bunch of diverse quotations, most of them having at least some bearing on the nature of reality. The Baudrillard piece seems to have appointed itself chief amongst them, but Einstein can be heard muttering in the background.

Not unexpectedly – given the two words, ‘obvious’ and ‘enigmatic’ – Google Images quickly finds a picture/text version of the Baudrillard quote. But more interesting by far, I think, is this Banksy art piece with which it is teamed up on the Particulate Matters blog.

Clearly, both Banksy and “cosmicdebris” (proprietor of Particulate Matters) are saying something about the teachings of the Christian Church – particularly, it seems, in relation to the indoctrination of children. Look elsewhere on the Particulate Matters blog and you will find links to other ‘indoctrination’ stories: for example, Monsanto indoctrinating kids at the zoo.

Actually, I’m inclined to suspect that indoctrination is integral to every aspect of living – and that everyone is routinely doing it and/or having it done to them. And it wouldn’t necessarily qualify as either brainwashing or catechism. Let’s put it more simply: we’re all inclined to push our ideas on others – and we call it marketing, persuasion, instruction, education, or teaching.

Be that all as it may, it is not really the main point of my post.

A few months ago, on |cross-ties| – the blog of “The Other” – there was a bit of back-and-forth about the nature of reality. A piece titled Taking a cycle trip led one reader to discuss Derrida’s ideas, noting that in language there is a gap between words and things. I would take this further, asserting that there is a gap between what we perceive and what is actually the case.

A similar gap yawns between the words of every witness and the occurrences they describe – what we thought we saw, the way it seems to us, what we believe to be true, and everything that is ‘obvious’. (And, by the way, since it’s that obvious, why can’t everyone see it our way?)

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus begins with the proposition that “the world is everything that is the case” and ends by reminding us that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Wittgenstein isn’t saying there’s stuff we can choose not to talk about; he’s actually pointing out that there are some things nobody can put into words.

Albert Einstein asserts that “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Elsewhere, he declares, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking.” He is not saying that nothing is real; what he means is that everything we experience as real is invented. “The human mind has first to construct forms, independently, before we can find them in things.” (Albert Einstein Essays in Science (1934), p27)

The way science talks about reality and truth is sounding more and more like the words of the ancient religions. For example, Geshe Rabten Rinpoche, a notable teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, says: “The ultimate truth of all conventional truths is their being void of inherent existence. Conventional truths, ie empirical phenomena, exist dependently upon causal conditions, parts and imputation; they have absolutely no existence apart from these conditioning factors.”

But “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true,” wrote Francis Bacon (1560-1626). Called the creator of empiricism, “[Bacon] established and popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method.” (GoodReads)

Ultimately, then, as Baudrillard says, whatever seems obvious is, in reality, the superficial manifestation of a profound mystery: the deeper you go into it, the less you are able to say about it.

In Poetry: This Death Is Incomplete (part one of an essay on poetry and death), Amy King talks about “spinning yarns to name things and claim power over them” – which, she reminds us, is not a new concept. In explication, King points us to Alice Notley’s The Book of Lies. The opening lines are especially apt: “Do you believe this stuff or is it a story? I believe every fucking word, but it is a story.”


An ever-changing draft of this piece has been in my editor for months. There’s so much more I want to say, but it is long past time I got something posted. 


The truth lies elsewhere

Epimenides-poetIn philosophy and logic, the liar paradox or liar’s paradox … is the statement “this sentence is false.” Trying to assign to this statement a classical binary truth value leads to a contradiction … (Wikipedia)

The Epimenides paradox (circa 600 BC) has been suggested as an example of the liar paradox, but they are not logically equivalent. The semi-mythical seer Epimenides, a Cretan, reportedly stated that “The Cretans are always liars.” (ibid)

St Paul, writing to Titus in Crete, reminds him: “One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, The Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.” (Titus 1:12, KJV)

St Jerome, in a Homily on Psalm 115 (in protestant versions, Psalm 116), further compounds the issue:

I said in my alarm, “Every man is a liar!” [Psalm 116:11] The Hebrew text varies a little: I said in my alarm, “Every man is a lie!” for the meaning of the word ZECAM is lie. … There is no truth in our substance; there is only shadow and in a certain sense a lie – | I mean in our corporeal being, not in the soul. (The Homilies of Saint Jerome, Volume 1, pp293-4)

It is one thing to devise sentences that illustrate mathematical or logical principles. But “classical binary truth values” do not provide a complete understanding of the way things work – and that’s something a writer needs to learn.

Our lives are based on what is reasonable and common sense; truth is apt to be neither. (Christmas Humphreys)

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I will meet you there. (Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī)

Nothing but lies comes out of my mouth. There I’ve done it again. (I keep saying it’s a Zen saying, but I’ve not managed to find it anywhere since I first found it, many years ago.)

Ex nihilo omnia fiunt – everything from nothing





Everything is nothing with a twist. (Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse Five)

On the surface, Kurt Vonnegut’s tricky little aphorism seems simple.

Mapping “zero” onto the “ensō” of Zen, the possibilities are endless.

I’m a fan of ex nihilo omnia fiunt … and I love this juicy brush-stroke.


PS: I’ve no idea whose it is – the ensō, I mean. 

PPS: Using Google Images, I found the following link: , but it doesn’t attribute the image. 

Circles and spheres

Quid ergo deus est? Ut ita dixerim, circulus spiritalis, cuius centrum est ubique circumferentia nusquam.

Deus est circulus cuius centrum est ubique, cuis circumferentia vero nusquam.

(God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.)  

Calligraphy by Kanjuro Shibata XX; Ensō ca. 2000

Calligraphy by Kanjuro Shibata XX; Ensō ca. 2000

Various versions and reformulations of this text are to be found scattered in a variety of places on the Internet. Unsurprisingly, we also find a range of attributions, including Empedocles (a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher), Blaise Pascal, Voltaire, and an anonymous 12th century work titled The Book of the Twenty-four Philosophers.

There’s an interesting piece on the subject in 1000 ways of celebrating the human spirit — which its author calls a “meta-blog bringing together several niche blogs”.

The meta-blog suggests: “Here is
one definition that defies that
indefinab[i]lity AND manage[s] to capture the essence of the combined immanence and transcendence of the theological position known as panentheism.”

Another site — — cites a 12th century theologian, Alain de Lille, who borrowed from the Corpus Hermeticum of the 3rd Century [sic]: “God is an intelligible sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” And there’s a nicely-expressed passage from an itinerant Catholic priest, Giordano Bruno: “We can assert with certainty that the universe is all centre, or that the centre of the universe is everywhere and its circumference is nowhere.”

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is a sentence composed by Noam Chomsky in 1957 as an example of a sentence with correct grammar (logical form) but semantics that are nonsensical. (Wikipedia article)

Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation. (Avram Noam Chomsky)

… to be continued

Mathematical twist

[The stork’s] life is an unconscious algebra, balancing equations between energy opportunity and energy expenditure. (Ian McDonald, in The Dervish House

When I read these words (on the second page of my latest library book), I realised that, on the previous page there’d been a mathematical twist; I turned back for another look: “There is a mathematics to the wheeling flock, a complex beauty spun out of simple impulses and algorithms.” My interest was certainly piqued.

Cory Doctorow read Ian McDonald’s new novel back in July. “I know,” his review says, “what to expect from Ian McDonald: broad vistas, intricately imagined futures, poetic language that transports and delights, a blend of mysticism and science that thrills and moves.”

McDonald, Ian. 2010. The dervish house. Amherst, NY: Pyr (Prometheus Books)