Attacks on Science and Reality

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Discuss reality and truth in reference to one or two of the texts from the module.

In his article, "Postmodern" Attacks on Science and Reality, Victor Stenger states “Recent trends in some academic circles have called into question conventional notions of truth and reality.” While perhaps not a direct reference to the two texts that will be explored in the course of this essay, it is certainly relevant to some of the themes inherent within them. The concepts of truth and reality are inextricably linked; they are two themes that remain contentious in today’s society because they can never be absolutely defined or labelled. Our society needs to categorise in order to understand, so we invent vague definitions for concepts that we do not or cannot fully comprehend.

A very general definition of ‘truth’ is something that “is considered to be the supreme reality and to have the ultimate meaning and value of existence” and an equally general definition of ‘reality’ is “the totality of all things possessing actuality, existence, or essence”. While these definitions may seem to make sense on a very broad basis, they immediately become more complex once one attempts to make a more specific description of the two concepts. One main difficulty in accepting these definitions is that humans do not share one brain or one perception; therefore the concept of reality is inherently subjective. This idea is very much in agreement with the basic premise of postmodernism, which is that, unlike modernism, which laments our innate inconsistencies; postmodernism embraces the idea that reality is laced with fragmentation and incoherence. “Postmodern art (and thought) favours reflexivity and self-consciousness, fragmentation and discontinuity (especially in narrative structures), ambiguity, simultaneity, and an emphasis on the de-structured, de-centred, de-humanized subject.” If we look at the themes of reality and truth in reference to Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Simulacra and Simulations by Jean Baudrillard, the reasons for this blurring of some of our defined structures of thought become clearer.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, the central character, Billy, is “unstuck in time”. As a result of this, the narrative is non-linear and fragmented, the effect of which helps to illustrate the nature of memory. Humans do not remember things in chronological order – we remember fragments and these fragments of memory can be triggered by anything. However, despite the volatile nature of our memories, we still trust them almost absolutely as accurate representations of what has happened to us in the past. Our own minds manipulate truth. When Billy time-travels to Tralfamadore, the Tralfamadorians explain to Billy their perception of time; how its entire sweep exists for them simultaneously in the fourth dimension. When someone dies, he is only dead in one particular moment in time and is quite happily living somewhere else in the spectrum of time. Tralfamadorians prefer to look at life’s nicer moments. This rings uncomfortably close to home for the reader – how many times has one been watching something terrible on the news and, becoming uneasy, simply changed the channel to a blithe American sitcom? We are aware that truth and reality exist somewhere in the world, but it makes us uncomfortable so we simply concentrate on things that are not as unpleasant in order to allow us to believe the world is a nicer place than it appears. Our own minds manipulate truth.

The question of reality is most prominently addressed in the way in which Billy time travels. The first time, he is involved in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and sees the entirety of his life just before he is taken prisoner. In The Reality of Repressed Memories, Elizabeth Loftus looks at the effect that trauma can have upon the ability of the brain to remember – if an experience is too traumatic to deal with, the human mind can undergo a psychological shift in order to cope. Therefore, it is possible that Billy’s first time-travel was sparked by the trauma of being involved in a war and being captured. We can never be sure whether Billy actually travelled through time or whether his mind simply created a different reality for him to live in after rejecting the actuality of his circumstances. Our own minds manipulate reality. The second incidence of time travelling was after Billy received a shot of morphine for his breakdown. As morphine is obviously a drug that induces a different perception of reality, this keeps in with the theory that Billy’s mind is manipulating his supposed experiences.

Perhaps the most important event is when Billy is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians. They explain to him their perception of time; that past, present and future exist simultaneously in a fourth dimension – this questions the concept of both reality and truth. If truth is the supreme reality and has the ultimate meaning and value of existence, why is Billy’s truth so fragmented? His memories are as fallible as anyone else’s – perhaps moreso, as his experiences have left him in an arguable state of mental instability. If reality is indeed the “totality of all things possessing actuality, existence, or essence”, then this fourth dimension sounds like the epitome of reality. If this is the case, what sort of reality does our planet live in? No one believed Billy when he returns and eventually reveals his experiences because humans are not prepared to accept that alternate realities exist – therefore, other human beings also have the ability to manipulate reality.

In Simulacra and Simulations, Baudrillard opens with a quote from Ecclesiastes – “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” With this article, Baudrillard discusses the existence of the simulacrum and society’s progression into what he terms the ‘hyperreal’. Reality itself is questioned, though in a different way than in Slaughterhouse-Five. Slaughterhouse-Five uses the manipulation of time and memory to illustrate the insubstantial nature of reality and truth, where Baudrillard attributes this nature to something completely different. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest, “It is now impossible to isolate the process of the real, or to prove the real.”

Baudrillard concentrates mainly on the idea of the hyperreal – society “bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.” This idea is further explored, through making a point about ‘reality’ itself. The only way humans know how to determine what is real is through what they determine as unreal. Reality is the absence of fantasy. “It is always a question of proving the real by the imaginary; proving truth by scandal; proving the law by transgression…” The quandary we are then faced with is how to define what is unreal. If real can only be defined by what is unreal, then it would logically follow that, without the existence of some sort of reality, it is also impossible for fantasy to exist. Simulacrum, simply put, is an image or a representation – Baudrillard states that our entire world is now a simulacrum. We exist in a society of images and these images no longer even mask reality – they have become their own reality. It is a common conception that truth and reality are inextricably linked – one cannot exist without the other because what is real is true and what is unreal is untrue. Baudrillard’s point is that truth and reality no longer exist as pure forms in our society because they have gone past the point of even just being distorted. “One can live with the idea of a distorted truth”. It is this new hyperreality that we cannot comfortably comprehend.

Positivism is a theory that essentially asserts that there is an objective and observable reality – things exist because you can see them. Reality is measurable and predictable, for instance, what is proven by science is real, however Dr. Mary Klages, a professor at the University of Colorado, states that “In postmodern societies, anything which is not able to be translated into a form recognizable and storable by a computer -- i.e. anything that's not digitizable -- will cease to be knowledge.” This digitising of knowledge perhaps epitomises Baudrillard’s assertion that there no longer exists a true reality. If knowledge and reality are no longer what you can see, but are simply digitally stored, that means that reality can be shifted and manipulated along with the technical progression of society, which means that reality is unstable. If reality is what is true, and reality is not a constant, then the logical conclusion would be that truth is also not a constant – this theory could uproot our society’s basic foundation; most prominently the law enforcement system. If justice is the discovery of truth, but truth can be manipulated, we have no justice.

The theory of positivism, while held by many people today, is not necessarily as relevant as it perhaps once was. Today, we are constantly bombarded with images – computer generated images, trick photography, images constructed to sell products, images constructed to make a political point – our world has become a world of images; images which do not necessarily represent the truth. No longer is a photograph a captured moment of truth or reality, because we can never be sure whether the ‘reality’ is staged, whether the people in them have been airbrushed, whether one person’s head has been superimposed on someone else’s body – the point is that reality is no longer something that is easily definable – if it ever was. “What society seeks through production, and overproduction, is the restoration of the real which escapes it.” Slaughterhouse-Five illustrates how supposed reality and truth can be manipulated through our own minds and through the minds of others, and Simulacra and Simulations depicts how reality no longer even exists, but instead is its own simulacrum.

In conclusion, it is evident that a specific and resolute definition of either truth or reality is an impossibility. Slaughterhouse-Five illustrates how truth and reality can be manipulated by the human brain as well as by the perceptions of other people and Simulacra and Simulations portrays our world as a world without any kind of reality. Its reality lies within its complete lack of reality. While this may perhaps sound a little dire, the evidence lies in the world of images that surrounds us. Our reality lies in our lack of reality and the images that constantly bombard us are no longer even masking the lack of reality, but are the reality. Our entire world is a simulacrum and because of this, reality and truth no longer exist to us in the way in which we assume they do. Of course, none of this is necessarily true.