Is Reality Real?

Originally published in Mental Contagion 

The idea for this month’s column comes from an e-mail discussion with Eric “Butcher Boy” Hoffman (Omaha poet who wrote a column by that name in Mental Contagion). He said he was doing his column this month on “eXistenZ” and “The Matrix.” I said, “of course you will comment on the parallels in ‘The Matrix’ to Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of enlightenment, with a particular emphasis on lifting the veil of illusion (or maya).” Eric simply said “No, I’d never even considered that.” So, I guess it is left for me to write this column I had rather hoped to read. However, as I pause to read Butcher Boy’s manuscript, I see no reference whatsoever to “Matrix.” So, I will have to write on a slightly different subject.

Does Advanced Technology Lead to Enslavement, or at Least to Dehumanization?

This is a common theme in SF (Science Fiction) and it goes back a long way. From the minds of “genius” scientists spring forth every type of mutant monster, robot, computer, weapon, virus, genetic hybrid or what have you. There is an inherent fear in the human psyche of one of the very things that makes us human, our desire to create and tamper with nature. Yet, on the surface, Americans are uncritically obsessed with the newest and latest and we tend to think that there is opportunity for unlimited progress in every human endeavor. However, below this surface level of material optimism, lies the (culturally unconscious) fear of this very progress through technological advancement. In Jungian thought, this unconscious fear could be considered to compensate for the over-valued, one-sided conscious attitude toward progress and technology. In Jungian terms this fear is an aspect of the Shadow (which contains all the attitudes which the conscious mind rejects, but which still are a necessary component for a realistic approach to reality).

This fear of technology can be traced back to the anti-industrial movement of the Luddites, the various isolationist religious groups who reject technology as an interference with spirituality, or, in a way, even back to antiquity and the Greek conception of hubris (the arrogance of a human being who presumes to be able to act like a god). Hubris is always punished severely in the old Greek tragedies. Now, instead of fearing retribution from the gods, we instead fear retribution from our own creations (and, to the extent that our creations are extensions of ourselves, we fear ourselves – or, in Jungian terms again, our Shadow). Unfortunately, this fear is not just something which we see projected into, or “played” with in the arts, but it also confronts us in a very real way in the form of nuclear weapons, biological warfare, genetically-modified food, increasingly more advanced robots and computers, and a proliferation of communication and monitoring technology, all of which is quickly making possible dystopian worlds, like in Orwell’s 1984, or Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, or A Scanner Darkly

In “The Matrix” (which will be the focus of next month’s column) the feared technology is a group of AI (Artificial Intelligence) creations of humanity which turn on their creators and enslave them in a false reality. The created “game” (or matrix) is considered reality by those who are in it. There are only two levels, illusion (matrix), and reality. The transcendent moment is when Neo sees the matrix as it is: illusion and computer code. He is able to break free of the illusory reality and maintain what William Blake called “double vision,” or the ability to see two different realities at the same time.

In “eXistenZ” reality is not so clear and there is no clarifying double vision. Instead, there is a paranoid, claustrophobic feel, rather than a transcendent “hero with a thousand faces” script. Butcher Boy cites Pikul’s comment that upon returning to the supposed reality, that it “feels completely unreal.”  Butcher then goes on to write, “placed within this context, this feeling of ‘unreality’ is an insight from Pikul’s perspective,” (from the November issue of Mental Contagion). This insight (really a form of doubt) is achieved after the experience of a different reality. In returning back from game reality, real reality no longer seems as real. Is this because Pikul now finds himself nested within a maze of realities in which it is no longer possible to differentiate game and reality, or is it simply that this experience of the alternate, game reality has infected Pikul’s minds with a doubt which he had never even thought to consider before: can he trust his perceptions to tell him what true reality is? 

What repeatedly strikes me is that these issues and questions concerning reality are not new, nor are they simply an artifact of high technology. These same questions are asked and contemplated throughout the history of philosophy, back to the ancient Indian and Chinese texts. For instance, Chuang Tzu (a Taoist sage, 369?-286? B.C.E.) reports his dream that he was a butterfly zipping through the air. Then, however, he awakens and is perplexed: is he now an awakened Chuang Tzu who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or is he a sleeping butterfly who is now dreaming he is an awakened Chuang Tzu. There is a philosophical term for this problem, “egocentric dilemma,” which basically states that all of our experience with reality is mediated by our perceptions, however, it is realized that some perceptions are erroneous, therefore one can never truly know if what one perceives is reality or error.

Another example of the question of reality (which is also not mediated by technology) is in the current debate over Recovered Memory vs. False Memory Syndrome. Here the issue is whether an individual can repress (forget) a traumatic memory and then at a later time experience anamnesis to remember the previously forgotten event. A primary question is how can we determine the veracity of an internal perception (memory)? This is similar to the “egocentric dilemma,” but now the perception in question is coming from the internal, rather than the external environment. Now the dilemma is not a question of, “what is reality,” but rather, “who am I and what has happened in my life?” This debate is linked in with the larger question of does multiple personality disorder exist? In multiple personality, an individual has multiple centers of consciousness, which do not necessarily share memory with one another, in other words, there are multiple realities within the same physical brain and body. The world of a person with multiple personality could be very much like the world of “eXistenZ,” a difference being that each “character” would not have full access to the memories of the other “characters” in different game realities. What could be present is some form of “bleed through” from one reality to another.

Butcher Boy notes this phenomenon of “bleed through” in “eXistenZ.” This occurs when a repeated theme or object that recurs (contaminates?) in various levels of game or reality. For instance the associations of the dog and a gun, or the “strong anti-game theme.”  This concept of bleed through is commonly found in Freudian theory in discussions of the interactions between the unconscious and conscious realities. For instance the day residue in dreams refers to routine events of the day which find their way dreams. Also, there are the two levels of reality of the dream, the manifest (surface) content and the latent (hidden) content. In fact, bleed through is the only way that the conscious and unconscious can communicate. Freud considered dreams to be the “royal road” to the unconscious because of this bleed through of unconscious material into the dream consciousness. The unconscious could also bleed through in the form of what we now call Freudian slips, in which a person would inadvertently reveal a deeper truth or preoccupation through a linguistic mistake.

Butcher’s closing statement is this: “‘eXistenZ’ warns us that the further we inundate ourselves with alternate or virtual realities, the more effective technology assembles and organizes our lives, the more we lose touch with a sense of reality and with ourselves as human beings.” The strange thing is that I fully agree with this (justifiably?) paranoid position toward science and technology, but there is something in me that is, at the same time, unsettled by this statement. I think I would have agreed with it before considering the parallels in “The Matrix” and “eXistenZ” between advanced technology’s distortion of the perception of reality and the ancient sages’ question of “what is reality?”  In a way it may mean that, although we appear to lose touch with our humanity through technology, we may also come full circle and confront our basic human-ness in immediate and vivid ways which are beyond the wildest dreams and speculations of philosophers. Mind you, I am simply saying that technology is a double-edged sword, perhaps like the way to enlightenment, it is a razor’s edge. I am not sure if it is the nature of virtual realities to cause us to lose touch with our selves, per se. We have been very effective at losing touch with our selves even without the aid of technology. What technology does, however, is raise the cost of what could happen in an automated world in which we no longer know who we are. What I would like to ponder is whether there is a way to integrate our shadowy fear of technology with our uncritical drive toward innovation and manipulation of matter, in a way that we can confront ourselves and our fears and in the process transform ourselves so that we can better handle the responsibility of high technology. I would agree that, at this point in time, the rate of change of technology is outdistancing the rate of change of our consciousness. While this invokes the potential for great danger, it may also provide an incentive to change consciousness. This attempt at changing consciousness could possibly explain the number of recent movies and books dealing with these issues of technology, reality, and identity.

ConiunctionisDavid Kopacz