What is it for something to be real? Let’s go even bigger and ask, What is reality? Presumably something is real when it has reality, but what does that even mean? Are we just tripping over terms but getting no closer to genuine insight and understanding?
Not surprisingly, we’re not the first to ask these questions. They have fascinated, inspired, and flummoxed seekers just like us for thousands of years.
You’d think that with so much philosophical activity we’d be closer to having some answers by now.
Well, in fact we do.
My diagram collects what can be regarded as the deepest insights and greatest discoveries of our species over the millenniums, what we might call revelations of reality and our place in it. When modern science got in the game, a newly awakened and somewhat arrogant rationalism made the mistake of judging all other (presumably competing) philosophies to be products of ignorance and superstition, pushing them to the side and leaving them in the past as it advanced.
One arch-concept of premodern philosophy that empirical science tossed aside was named the Great Chain of Being, which classified reality into a vertical hierarchy of distinct levels or “links” of existence. And since chains don’t stand vertically on their own, a background assumption of this arch-concept was that everything hangs from above.
At the top of the Great Chain of Being was Spirit: absolute, unconditioned, without beginning, and eternal. All the other links of the Chain hung down, descended, or “emanated” from that fixed point of Spirit. Personify Spirit as a god – or name it God and give it a personality – and you can appreciate how useful this arch-concept was for decoding mythology and generating religious orthodoxies.
Some traditions saw in the Great Chain a way to explain existence as a tragic “fall” from pure Spirit, finally hitting rock bottom with matter and setting the whole thing up as a dualism of Spirit versus Matter. Humans were supposed to be at the center of this cosmic war of Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, pulled downward by mortality and sin, but also lifted upward and maybe eventually saved through the mediation of the Savior and his Church.
Today, thankfully, more of us are able to think without the mind-control of some orthodoxy telling us what we should believe. Also fortunately, even science is coming to its own holistic model of reality, now that it’s had some time outside the premodern algorithm of Chain-thinking and is starting to see the shortcomings of its own orthodoxy of reductionist materialism.
Interestingly enough, the very arch-concept we’ve been considering is coming back in vogue; except that, in the scientific perspective, the background analogy of a Great Chain is replaced by a Great Ladder or Great Tree. Importantly, ladders and trees can stand vertically without needing to hang or be suspended from sky hooks.
One of the cultural revolutions in the West that was initiated by discoveries of modern science and softened its earlier obsession with clocks and machines, centered on the idea of everything unfolding according to an evolutionary process.
An organismic model (e.g., a Great Tree) allows us to contemplate reality in terms of an evolving complexity of forms, dynamic relationships, emergent capacities, and adaptive change inside still larger ecosystems. By simply exchanging the hanging Chain of Being for a growing Tree of Being, essential parts of the older model can be preserved, even as the newer model literally expands our understanding of reality.
A fuller picture offers four distinct lenses on reality, seeing it in terms of transformation, of manifestation, of participation, and of communion. Concepts of reality as contemplated through these four lenses are, respectively, Ground, Matrix, Manifold, and Universe. Let’s take them in that order.
The continuum of existence has emerged and evolved “upwards” from a quantum Ground of energy, through matter (crystallized energy), life (organic matter), mind (sentient life), ego (self-conscious mind), and ultimately into spirit (transpersonal ego). Each transformation of energy has added a new dimension of complexity to the growing order of existence, not by “stacking” on top of what’s underneath, but by incorporating the lower forms into its own “superform.”
Importantly, the quantum Ground is not “down there” at the bottom of things, but within, as the substance in all forms of existence. Quite simply, without energy nothing exists.
The lens on reality as Matrix enables us to see each existing form as a manifestation of Being. As a human being, for example, you are technically “a human manifestation of Being,” just as there are rock manifestations of Being (or rock beings: rocks), cloud manifestations of Being (cloud beings: clouds), dog manifestations of Being (dog beings: dogs), and so forth. The uppercase Being refers to the power-to-be in everything that exists, manifesting as this being, that being, and you as a human being. True enough, each is also a form of energy; but as a manifestation of the Matrix, our focus has shifted to its distinct expression rather than its essential substance (as a transformation of the Ground).
Shifting our perspective once again, we can understand reality in relational terms. Everything that exists is not only a transformation of the Ground and a manifestation of the Matrix, but it also participates in a network of relationships. Manifold, as a noun, refers to something with “many folds” or features, each situated among, related to, and interacting with the rest. Every existing thing participates in the Manifold of beings, supported in its web or system of relationships. You, once again, do not stand in some vacuum of isolation but are connected in countless ways to everything around you, in a participative reality.
The “web of life” in Native American spirituality and the “net of gems” (Indra’s Net) in Hindu spirituality are cultural nicknames for this Manifold of beings.
In a way, our progression from substance, through expression, and into relationship has prepared us for a final ascent of reality, now as a harmony of the many, a higher wholeness formed – in the ultimate and most complex transformation of energy – as individual egos join in transpersonal fellowship, a communion in spirit. Even though we commonly use “universe” and “cosmos” interchangeably in speaking of the totality of things, the term Universe (“turning as/into one”) connotes something more.
This is not “more” in the sense of an addition to what’s already there, but indicates a qualitatively upward shift in consciousness. Instead of each individual ego bringing his or her spirit to the meeting, their mutual freedom and willingness to transcend personal identity for a higher wholeness, together-as-One, gives rise to Spirit as what moves between and among them in transpersonal communion.
What the premodern Chain of Being regarded as the Most Real, First Cause of creation, is here understood to be the culminating apotheosis of reality. As the human personality with its self-conscious ego is the second most complex phenomenon in reality, the transpersonal communion among egos – their communal Spirit – is highest.
Contemplating it all mythologically as God’s creation develops on a poetic intuition, which discerns a calling in the heart of the Universe to intentional fellowship and spiritual communion. This is perhaps the most valuable legacy of biblical theism.
So, what is it for something to be real? Even bigger, What is reality?
Well, there you have it.