What if everyone died?

There’s a particular conundrum I’ve been musing over but it’s hard to capture it in words. I guess I would say it comes down to this question: what is real?

For example, I’m sitting here at Starbucks. Is this Starbucks real? Well, I think the physical materials of the Starbucks are real; I think the wood of the table I’m writing on breaks down to molecules that are real, and from there to atoms, and presumably from there to quantum particles etc. I think those are all real physical elements (though I think there are some schools of philosophy and quantum theory that might dicker with even that seemingly obvious point of view. Let’s ignore them for now.)

What about the idea of Starbucks? The concept of Starbucks as an enjoyable coffee bistro, a place that welcomes both happy hipsters and urban professionals, a place that plays eclectic but inoffensive music, a locale with great coffee and astoundingly bland food… is that real? Obviously when I say, “I’m going to Starbucks,” no one questions its reality, but this idea of Starbucks is not really real in the same sense of the physical materials that make up an individual Starbucks store.

So how do we define reality? Let me approach this a little differently. What if everyone on earth died? What would be left? I think the Starbucks I am at would still be around (for a while) but the idea of it would be gone. In fact, all ideas would be gone. There would be no more communism, sexuality, chaos theory, social justice, individual rights, copyright protection, evolution and on and on. All ideas would be gone. We would just have stuff and time.

(I haven’t really said whether or not all animals or even all life on earth are gone with humanity in this scenario so maybe some of these ideas would survive in the minds of animals but, again, let’s ignore those issues.)

This unreality of ideas seems pretty obvious. However, most of the joys and miseries throughout history and the modern world are derived from these unreal ideas. For example, I was a big fan of Spider-Man as a kid. The sight of his red and blue costume excited me. But Spider-Man is not real. The Spider-Man comics are real, in so much as they are created from real materials (paper, ink etc.) but the idea of Spider-Man is completely held within the minds of humans.

I love music but, Jesus, what could be less real… sound waves in the air that create certain psychological perceptions when experienced by the human brain?

In some sense, a weight lifts off your shoulders when you realize this. None of the bullshit people are constantly yammering about – politics, culture, art theory, sex games, gender wars etc. – really exists. These are simply the ideas mankind has constructed and agreed to bicker over. If we are all wiped out by a radioactive space comet, these ideas will fade away… well, that’s not really correct; they can’t fade away because they were never there in the first place. Let’s put it this way: their impermanence will be revealed.

And yet these things, these ideas, actually feel more real, or at least more meaningful, than what actually is real (materials and time.) Again, these ideas are what provide most peoples’ joys and pains.

Even the idea I’m touting here, that ideas are not real, is not really real.

Ain’t that a motherfucker?

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