This essay is part of a series called The Big Ideas, in which the writers answer a single question: What is reality? You can read more by visiting The Big Ideas series page.
What is the universe made of? Is there an infinite or simply contingent reality? Are we part of the infinite sea of things, or are we isolated beings with nothing to connect us? Is there a God, or are we abandoned in the void of the universe?
The best answers to these puzzles come from those that frame the way we can experience them. Plato showed us with his allegory of the cave that we experience the world through the inadequate instruments of our senses. An Indian folk tale gave us the image of blind people touching an elephant and trying to discern what it looks like. For one it is a rope, for another a wall, for a third the branch of a tree.
Artist David Hammons presented an intriguing view of reality in 1983 when snow globes sold on a New York sidewalk. Were snowballs an idea, a value, a part of nature, a social construction, a dream?
Perhaps the ultimate architects of reality are our parents. In my next novel, “The Last Gift of Master Artists,” I quote something my mother once told me: “It’s not who you are that makes the world respect you, but the power behind you.” In our time, takeover wars occur because no power is behind vulnerable nations.
In a story my mother often told me, all the birds in the world are invited to heaven for a feast. A tortoise can join them because the birds have lent him their feathers. Before leaving, the tortoise claims the name “All of you” and appropriates the feast intended for all. His doom comes when the birds claim his feathers, and he plunges into a difficult spot. His fragmented shell symbolizes what happens when we try to usurp the world’s resources for ourselves.
We are all victims of the limited perception and limited science of our time. We don’t know what life is. We do not know what death is. We do not fully know what consciousness is. Being alive, being conscious, is one of the greatest mysteries in the universe. But we are not exempt from the universe and its laws.
One big implication of this truth is climate change. We cannot degrade our environment without degrading our lives. The law of cause and effect is as true in our morality as it is in the grand universe. A faulty sense of reality makes us think that we can escape the consequences of the changes we have put in place.
However, each of us assumes that our own perception of reality is universal, and some claim to determine it. If we have power, we force the consequences of that perception on others. This is how we have created the mess that is our world.
For centuries, people have assumed that because they had guns, they were superior to those without. They then proceeded to conquer those without weapons or whose weapons were inferior. We believe that power is proof of a superior understanding of reality. This deeply illogical thinking is at the root of racism, fascism, inquisitions, slavery, genocide, and injustice of all kinds.
Those in the past who thought they owned reality and sought to dominate the human race rose for a while, ruled a part of the world for a while, and sank back into the dust. In the end, reality defeats all empires.
This is at the heart of our ignorance. We act but we do not know the consequences of our actions. We do not know what acts on us. We do not know the infinite web of things, the infinite links. The idea that the universe is random gives rise to the paradox of a meaningless world in which we are building civilizations and living destinies. This is also illogical. Why should we care about anything in a world that is random? Isn’t such a perception at war with reality?
As in my mother’s version of the turtle story, humanity is part of a reality in which we all rise together and we all fall when we act against the interests of our survival.
That is why the first true human civilization will have to be a universal civilization. Either we are all in this human story together or there will be no story at all. The first true human civilization will grasp the interconnectedness of all things. You will know that where there is injustice there can be no peace. It will aim at the welfare of all peoples.
If we don’t change our perspective, we will never achieve a revolution in our understanding of reality. Only then will we finally begin to create a world worthy of the magical nature of consciousness and the exalted quality of life. A greater grasp of reality will determine what kind of future we have, and whether we have a future or not.
Ben Okri is a Nigerian poet and novelist. He received the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1991 for his novel “The Famished Road.”