Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Great Illusion

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
- Morpheus, The Matrix 

In the 1999 sci-fi classic The Matrix, the lead character (played masterfully by Keanu Reeves) harbours an unspoken suspicion: that what he considers reality is actually an illusion. He can't verbalize this let alone prove it, but it robs his life of meaning nonetheless. Scene after scene we see him wandering around like a drone, going through the motions joylessly, until eventually he meets people who confirm his suspicion and break him out of the Matrix.

I trust you know the rest: slow-motion bullet dodging, leaps of faith, and my personal favorite:

Special effects and action sequences aside, there's something about the Matrix that speaks to people on a deeper level. Intuitively, I think we know that the plot accurately describes our current situation here in "the real world."

Look around you: the majority of people you see are plugged into the Matrix and don't even suspect it.

This isn't a novel idea, either. Centuries before the Wachowski brothers made their masterpiece, philosophers from a wide range of traditions were saying the same thing: what you experience on a daily basis is not Reality but an elaborate illusion, a pale shadow of what is really "out there."

The illusion isn't manufactured by evil machines, though. It's your very own mind that puts it together.

Here's how it works.

The Simulation

Your senses scan Reality, collect information, and send their findings to your scumbag brain. From here the information is translated into a kind of composite sketch. What you sense and experience all around you isn't Reality but rather a simulation of Reality, a best guess crafted by your mind based on the details provided by your senses.

And as you probably know, your senses only detect a very small, very refined slice of what's actually out there.

To make matters worse, your unconscious mind filters out details it deems unimportant. The majority of what you sense doesn't officially "register" in your conscious mind.

Have you ever pulled into your driveway only to realize you don't remember a single detail of your drive home? You obeyed traffic lights and street signs, made turns, yielded, but don't remember a single thing. Clearly you were aware of all these things on some level or else you probably would've crashed.

So where did all that information go if you never became aware of it? No further than your unconscious mind. If this can happen while operating heavy machinery, you can bet it happens all the time without you noticing it.

It's also worth noting that the simulation you call "reality" isn't out there at all: it's in here, inside your head. You're just like Neo in his pod, Descartes' brain in a vat, or a prisoner in Plato's cave.

Unlike the Matrix, however, there's no escaping the mind's simulation. And that's a good thing! Without it, we'd have no way to make sense of our environment. On its own the simulation is mostly harmless. It's an image of Reality caught in your mind, which acts kind of like a fun-house mirror. The image is distorted and blurry, but it serves its purpose.

The Narrative

The simulation is only the first layer of this great illusion. The second layer is superimposed over the first, further distorting our already flawed perception of Reality.

I call the second layer the narrative and it's composed of all the stories we tell ourselves (and each other) about the simulation. Labels, opinions, judgments, and beliefs: none of these things exist in Reality.

Opinions don't nest in trees, only in our minds.

The narrative isn't a reflection of something real: it's our attempt to make sense of this dazzling show being put on by the brain.

It's a comforting fiction, but a fiction nonetheless.

So why does the narrative exist? Like the simulation, it serves a an important function. Labeling objects, people, and events allows us to sort through information quickly and efficiently.

But there's a nasty side-effect to the mind's labeling process. After a while, we get so used to the labels we stop reacting to the simulation altogether. In other words, we stop taking things as they are (or appear to be) and react to our labels instead. We become prisoners of our own minds, slaves to opinion, belief, and judgment.

Of all the labels we mistakenly accept as real, here are the most (potentially) harmful ones:
  • Past and future
  • Good and evil
  • Money
  • Government
  • Culture 
  • Religion
These are concepts, abstractions, and ideas that can't be found in the natural world. They exist in the human mind and in the shared space where minds connect, but no where else.

When we're fearful, anxious, jealous, angry, disappointed, and so on, we're not reacting to Reality, nor even to the mind's simulation of Reality: we're reacting to labels and the stories they tell.


Don't try to dodge bullets or fight off a dozen thugs by yourself. You're not really in the Matrix. The world you perceive isn't real but it's real enough to put you in the hospital. Also, don't disobey laws, dodge taxes, or give away all your money. Despite having no place in the material universe, the narrative still shapes and moulds our world in countless ways.

Your scumbag brain is awesome at a lot of things but most of all it excels at fooling you into believing its lies and delusions.

Each of us is in solitary confinement, trapped in a cell where we experience a personalized simulation of the cosmos further enhanced by a variety of useful but ultimately artificial labels. Over time we forget that these labels are fictional. We stop reacting to things as they are and react to the labels instead.

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Next time you find yourself depressed because something bad happened, or stressed because you're running out of time, or anxious to know your test score, remember: none of that shit is real.

/rant over
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