Do You Have ‘Reality Debt?’ It’s Time to Encounter Reality

Our devices are just tools, but people are the ‘profound other’

VR Bicycle
VR Bicycle (photo: Pixabay / CC0)

I learned from an ethics professor that a study was once conducted where people were asked about justice, right and wrong in relation to crimes. With one group of people, crimes were not described but simply called “crimes.” The members of that group maintained a relativistic view of morality and advocated leniency on the criminals. The other group, however, got vivid descriptions of crimes, and those people classified the crimes as objectively wrong and advocated for harsher punishments.

In my own experience, I find that people are generally relativistic in their morality. 

“It’s up to the individual.” 

“There is no real right and wrong.”

“It’s a matter of personal preference.”

“What’s true for you is true for you.”

“It’s wrong for you if you think it’s wrong.”

“It’s not wrong for them, so it’s okay.”

However, when I relate actual historical events like the holocaust (“Was that not really wrong, but we only think it’s wrong?”) or specific actions (“Is it intrinsically and objectively wrong to rape and murder innocent victims?”), people start to change their tune.

What’s the difference? Reality.

Why is our age increasingly relativistic when it comes to truth and morality? Reality debt.

When someone doesn’t get enough sleep for a number of nights in a row, they build up what I have heard called “sleep debt.”

A friend who works in the world of software engineering and is building a high level program at Franciscan University of Steubenville claims that, since software design has gone on for decades without any thought of virtue, the digital architecture of the world has a profound “ethical debt.”

The list of debts can go on and on, but as an educator and a father, it seems to me that one of the worst, if not the worst, is reality debt. A whole generation of children is being raised without interacting with reality or only encountering reality in limited and brief ways. Most of their experience has been screens and images of things. Their education is analyzed in terms of abstractions and quantitative data.

My search for truth has led me to the realist philosophy of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, but that philosophy is founded on the experience of reality. People cannot reason about reality without profound experiences of beautiful and ugly things, good and bad things, simple and complex things, personal and impersonal things, living and non-living things, and the whole world of things. Every great philosopher insists that wonder (not necessarily curiosity — that’s a different thing) is the beginning of philosophy. Curiosity says, “Why?” Wonder says, “Wow,” or nothing at all.

Encounter is a specifically human ability. Encounter cannot be programmed into a computer, but information can, just as wisdom cannot be stored on a hard-drive, but facts can. We are made for encounter with reality, not information about reality, and those encounters with the world and with each other are the only solid foundation for the life of the heart and mind. People who do not encounter reality are prone to diseases of the heart and mind. Look at the foolishness of relativism, the rates of depression and anxiety in society, the confusion about gender and sexuality, the lack of regard for the family and the dignity of human life, and the emotional neediness of so many young people.

Plato wrote his famous allegory of the cave, where people are chained to the floor and experience only shadows of reality, 400 years before the birth of Christ. Now, 2,000 years after the birth of Christ, humanity seems to be intent on constructing its own high-tech version of the cave. Even worse, this modern cave has the illusion of providing each person with his own individualized cave.

The artifact reveals the artist. The creation reveals the creator. Reality reveals God. Virtual reality, which doesn’t even deserve that name, reveals ourselves to us, and the picture isn’t pretty.

What does one do who hasn’t gotten a lot of sleep lately? Is there any way to make up for sleep debt? Just start sleeping.

What can software engineers do to address the ethical debt in technology? Start conversations with theologians and philosophers about ethics in the digital world, which my friend is trying to facilitate in his program and with a conference.

What can we do about reality debt? Start encountering reality. We can use our devices, if we have to, only as tools. We can spend time with people, the “profound other.” We can seek out beauty and silence. 

We can’t undo the damage that has been done. All we can do is change what we do today.