Preferring the real to the artificial-illusory

The Catechism concludes its description of pornography with the claim that [i]t immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. Though this seemed like exaggeration when written (@1992) it has proved to be an insight that was a generation before its time. We can now simply notice that pornography makes one lose interest in actual women, whom the porn user increasingly relates to as ersatz versions of virtual women (or, increasingly, as ersatz robots).

The problem here is an ancient one about why one should prefer reality in the face of pleasant illusions. The question is raised first in the Odyssey’s myth of the gates of horn and ivory and gets its most celebrated treatment in Aeneid VI 893–898. The preference for the real over the apparent is canonical in  philosophy after Plato at least until Nietzsche, who raises the question why one should prefer truth to deception.

So why prefer reality?

In one sense, the question gets answered before it’s asked, since raising the question requires looking for the answer among things that really are and not among things that are merely apparent but convincing.

But what if the merely apparent fits more of our criteria for what is fulfilling? Fulfillment is roughly indexed by enjoyment, so isn’t a pleasant appearance more preferable than a painful reality? If all our questioning seeks reality, but reality is less fulfilling, then why not just give up on the questioning? Within the artificially constructed pleasure-matrix we will dogmatically declare philosophy pointless and out of bounds, and then stop worrying and enjoy our lives.

The question therefore shifts to whether a natural desire is of itself a source of fulfillment, or whether at least some natural desires are without fulfillment or, in the earlier way of putting it, whether natural desire is in vain. We can’t help but want to live according to how things really are, but what assurance do we have that it will be fulfilling? If artificially constructed worlds are more fulfilling, why not live in them?

The decisive difference is in the infinite gulf between the natural and the artificial object, which gives rise to an order of art to nature. Natural objects always have more reality than is specified while artificial things do not. No matter how complex we make an artificial world it is given all at once, and there can be no logical connection to anything not given. For example, there is no fact of the matter about whether Hamlet is right or left handed since the play tells us nothing. But the real world is not like this: Newtonian physics, for example, is logically connected to Relativity so far as the latter is a limitation or critique of the former, and this occurs precisely because any artificial construction in them is only a tool for understanding the way things are.

And so even if natural desires were in vain we could not use artificial constructions as substitutes for them since art is a tool that reason uses to discover the way things are. Seen from this angle the matrix would have a fundamental aesthetic problem. It would be bad art.

The enjoyment of art is fundamentally the enjoyment of insight, which is why only rational beings create it. This is not some stupid claim that art is a tool of science or a handmaid to formal logic, but rather the claim that we can only see how things are with a plurality tools, and the scientific-logical ones constitute one dimension of the approach and art constitutes another. We should throw out a pleasant artistic representation that takes us further from reality for exactly the same reason that we would throw out a pleasant theory that did the same thing. Any enjoyment we take in it would make us even more wary of it.

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