Which is more important, to know reality or to know yourself?

This distinction keeps coming up in the sources I have been reading (or listening to) and I’d like to hear some Mere O readers’ opinions on both sides.

Of course both are important, but I am wondering of one sort of “trumps” the other… perhaps another good question is “Which comes first?”  Supposing they are both equally important, still there is a question of order. Or perhaps one simply is more important.
Thanks for your thoughts.

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler


  1. I think first, one needs to answer, “When is ‘yourself’ not a subset of ‘reality’?” Only after “yourself” and “reality” are defined, can this question be answered, if at all.

    I’ve often asked something similar to this in discussions around creation vs. evolution. I will bring up the multi-million light-year distance to the stars and the fact that we can see them. A expected response is that God created the universe with the appearance of age.

    “What use would there be to have stars that couldn’t be seen? God did not create Adam as a fetus, he created him as an adult. Likewise, it is not novel to expect that the universe was also created with the appearance of age.”

    But it isn’t enough to just assume that there is an appearance of age, because the light from those galaxies isn’t just “light.” It conveys an actual history. When you look at the moon, what you see is what the moon looked like 2.2 seconds ago. You are seeing history. When you see a galaxy that is 2 million light-years away, you are seeing what that galaxy looked like 2 million years ago. So God didn’t only create with the appearance of age, but with the appearance of history.

    And then I ask, what if that history is “evolution?” That would certainly explain a lot.

    Creation and evolution, are then, not mutually exclusive events. One would not need to find evidence of creation, because there need be none, and, in fact, none is expected. Evidence for evolution is expected, because God built that in. Adam had a belly button. Perhaps nothing actually existed more than 6,000 years ago, but it will always appear as if it did.

    In a scientific context, then, Creationism, might be truth, but a useless truth.

    Back to the original question… What if I know some absolute truth, such as that we are all a part of a “matrix” and what we perceive is not really real? And if, unlike the movie, the matrix is perfect, and we cannot escape it, then what is the value of the knowledge of that truth? What if you are the only one in your matrix, and the others you see do not really exist? If this is true, it is a useless truth.

    You think, therefore you are. You cannot know whether your reality is absolute, but knowledge of the way it behaves is quite important, and knowledge of whether it’s really real in an absolute sense, really is not, is it?


  2. Do you take yourself to be apart from reality?

    Or did your question mean to imply an internal/external distinction? I.e., what should I work to know first, myself or the world “outside” myself?

    But then even that supposes a clear distinction between self and world, which I don’t think is a bad supposition, but it’s nature as supposition needs to be kept in mind and reflected upon.

    Anyway, if I had to choose (to answer your question), I’d go with “self” first. Why? It’s hard to escape the force of the Delphic command.


  3. You have to make a lot of assumptions to answer this question. Wasn’t there something said on this site about assumptions recently? :)

    1) By reality, you mean the physical world around us that we sense, limited to this universe, assuming that what modern science says about it is more or less true.

    2) By yourself, you mean your soul, free of whatever influences your physical being and its limitations has upon it.

    3) We’re all religious friends, and I don’t have to try and prove the existence of God to use him in the argument.

    4) Everything temporal(reality) will some day fade away.

    5) The soul is immortal

    1) God is neither part of reality, nor part of the self, although he is real and active in reality, he is not the thing itself, and transcends it, existing separate from it. Therefore you cannot say that reality is more important because it contains God. Also, if you think that you are the Eternal, while that might be a fallacy, the question would be silly since God is the most important thing, and knowing yourself would thus be important.

    2) Seeing that everything temporal will die, and the soul is immortal, the soul is not part of reality and can thusly be judged as a separate entity.

    Knowing the self, as it truly exists outside of the limitations of reality (your body, experiences, etc) is vastly more important than reality. This part of you will outlive galaxies, stars, planets, nations, and everything else you see around you (credit to Lewis here). Their only importance is to (hopefully) help you to find the Creator and be with him once they are all gone.

    The question, however, is not which is more important, but which is more important to know. I think that depends on your particular flavor of Christianity.

    If Calvinism is true (which I suspect it is not) then I submit that it is far more important to know the less important reality. The soul is already secured in this case, and will provide its joy to the Creator whether you know it or not. What is your concern then is to see the world around you as clearly as possible so that you might somehow provide some joy to God while you exist temporally.

    If some flavor of Arminianism is true (which I suspect it is) then I submit that knowing yourself truly is more important. So many people set up pretext for their actions in ways that quite brilliantly deceive even themselves. These things may very well put their souls in danger of damnation. Therefore, knowing yourself, even if only through the lens of reality, is more important than knowing reality itself.

    Think of it this way. The glasses on my face help me to know the world. They are a tool that I use to sense it. Reality is one of the tools we have for knowing ourselves (among other things). If I were unaware of the glasses (which I usually am), or misinformed about them, does that change reality? In the same way, if I have a misconception about some temporal thing (or even every temporal thing) does that change the soul that I am trying to feel out with it?

    The short of it, is that I think reality is a tool. It is a transient thing that touches all of us immortal beings. Studying a hammer down to the infinite detail will tell you nothing of the grandeur given by a cursory exam of the house built with it.



  4. makelovehappen June 15, 2007 at 1:19 pm

    When the dead are raised at the end of all things, will God judge individual selves or will He judge ‘reality’?

    The understanding of an external reality is a result of certain empirical faculties – seeing, tasting, touching -all things we are told faith is not of.

    The understanding of an internal reality involves priorities – who is your neighbor? What will you give in exchange for your soul? Who do you say Christ is?

    This question is important to understand because no one lives forever, and time is running out!


  5. Thank you, gentlemen, for your comments.

    Responses pending…

    In the meantime, does anyone who does not buy Al’s Assumption #3 have a comment to make? The immortality of the soul, which is a given for Christians and many other religious folk, seems to suggest an importance of knowing oneself. I wonder what someone who is agnostic to or simply does not believe the perdurance of the self after death would say.


  6. Warren, pressing me for a distinction the way you did is the right thing to do. A sub-question to my original question has to be, “Which is a better description of reality, the entire perceivable universe or it plus something more?”

    Perhaps correctly answering this question necessitates an answer to the later question (my first).

    You said, “You cannot know whether your reality is absolute,” and proposed a knowledge of “How it works” as an acceptable runner-up in terms of importance. But whence comes this pessimism? Surely it is conceivably possible that we are in a matrix and unaware of reality and utterly convinced by a perfect mask… But aren’t masks by nature not-real? And if we have a hankering for real reality, then won’t the mask, however precise, fail to live up to this criterion? And if we ever suspect the mask of being just a mask, even only for a moment, then we may demand that it prove itself, and, eventually, it will not be able to. The Matrix scenario does not seem to account for tenacious philosophers. Socrates didn’t just want the truth, he lusted after it.


  7. I take it that your use of “lust” to describe Socrates’ desire for truth is either (1) hyperbole or (2) accurate, and therefore cause for concern.

    If (1), then could you be more accurate?

    If (2), then since the one lusting cannot see straight, doesn’t this imply that Socrates was myopic and hence unclear about the nature of the reality he more than just wanted? Or perhaps you contest my claim that the one lusting cannot see straight.


  8. Thanks for the insightful comment. I like someone who cares about exactitude of words.

    Lust has at least two meanings. The first (more traditional) meaning relates to the seven capital sins, and means inordinate desire for carnal pleasure, especially pleasures associated with the organs of generation. (Paraphrasing the Roman Catholic definition).

    The second (less technical) meaning I take to be “extreme, burning desire,” “craving, longing” etc. This can be felt towards sex and pleasure as well as towards other things, power, truth, money, etc.

    The first obviously does not apply to Socrates desire for truth, since the hoped-for consummation of his desire does not involve the body much at all.

    The second applies to Socrates, I believe, in two ways. One, he deeply desired to know and experience and have the truth forever. In Phaedrus he tells his friend, (if you’ll permit the paraphrase): “Whenever I find someone able to make these distinctions and separate out each thing from all others, identifying it as it is, I follow straight in his footsteps as if he were a god.” And “Such a passionate love of arguments has overtaken me, Phaedrus, you knew you could bribe me to stay here with the mere promise of a speech (logos).”

    Two, he had a love of truth that bordered strangely on the sexual. No, that word is too loaded. Instead, call it “erotic.” He had EROS for truth. For Socrates, eros simply meant “desirous lack of something.” Socrates deeply lacked the truth, and he knew his lack. So was deeply moved in search of it.

    Whether Socrates could see straight all the time, I, like you, certainly question. He was much like a madman, and, if it weren’t for his extreme sensibility in other areas, in battle, in the management of his body, in the affable relationships with his friends, then I would be inclined to call him mad.

    It rather seems more likely that he was, at times, caught up in a kind of madness that he called the “love of truth” (“the eros of logos”). But perhaps this kind of giddy monomania is a prerequisite for finding that truth.


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