What is Real? (2): Morpheus, Dumbledore and Screwtape Agree

By January 23, 20122 Comments

What is real?

When skeptics say that God is not real, they are usually arguing from sensory experience: they haven’t seen or experienced God, therefore, God might be a nice idea, but he is an imaginary one.

This method of investigation is rooted in a worldview against which C.S. Lewis struggled for most of his life: naturalistic materialism.  This worldview limits the real to what can be observed by the senses: as the phrase goes, “seeing is believing”.

The reason Lewis pushed back against this worldview was not because he disdained the senses or the scientific method.  His critiques were rooted in the conviction that while naturalistic observation can tell us about part of reality, it is inadequate to give us the whole picture.

In other words, sense and science can give us one layer of reality, but it takes other kinds of language to get at the deeper layers: art, music, literature, mythology, theology.

Is art real?  Is music real? Is story real? Is myth real? Is theology real?

To quote the inimitable Morpheus: “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

Or to quote Dumblebore, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (skip to 4:34)

Lewis wanted his readers to ask themselves what they meant when they use the word “real”: had they fallen into reductionism?

Reductionism was the air most people breathed, and Lewis draws our attention to it intriguingly in the first of The Screwtape Letters.  The older demon (Screwtape) begins his correspondence by cautioning Wormwood against allowing his patient to withdraw his attention “from the stream of immediate sense experiences.”  Instead, he writes, “Your business is to fix his attention on the stream.  Teach him to call this ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real’.”

In other words, the best way to keep a person from God is to keep them believing that only concrete things like a newspaper or a cup of tea can be classified as real, to get them to say, “I have no time to think about spiritual matters; it’s time to eat lunch.”

What is real?  The stream of immediate sense experiences?  Or is there a deeper layer beyond that stream, a deeper reality?

Next: What is a kiss? What is a star? What is a man?


  • K says:

    in terms of sensual experience, or deductive reasoning through naturalistic materialism, it’s interesting to think about the psychology of schizophrenia and multiple-personality disorder and how it aligns with what C.S. Lewis talks about (which is phenomenal, by the way). but how does one justify another person’s reality, when a person with schizophrenia defines “their reality” as, well, real – where naturalistic materialism is the foundation of their understanding of “experience.” in this person(s) case, does someone else define their reality (i.e., doctors, psychologists, family members, etc.) or does reality spawn from their mind, of which is defined through naturalistic deduction, or experience, or whatever you want to call it.

    i feel like the concept of “reality” has been lost in this post-modern age. i hate the concept of relativism, but i can’t seem to get my mind away from it. i believe in absolutism, but i can’t get around the idea that our universe is governed by relativistic laws. if experience is the description, or deeper level of understanding of “absolute” reality (and Being), then i think we need a new word for “real”. i think we need a new word that describes something beyond our comprehension that can adequately elaborate how beautiful, and mysterious, our God is.

    • mm PJustin says:

      thanks for taking the time to comment Kev! Great thoughts. I think that we probably need to differentiate reality as it is, and reality as it is experienced by individuals. we don’t get to define reality for ourselves or anyone else any more than the characters in a story get to define the elements of the story they are living in. yet we can begin to discern and apprehend true things about the story, even though our perspective will be necessarily skewed. to quote Lewis again:“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.” But i agree that we need new categories and conceptions to account for what is really out THERE.

Leave a Reply