Monday, January 11, 2010

All in your head

How can one tell if The Matrix is based on reality? (Assume for the sake of simplicity that there is indeed some objective reality.) It's a trick question, of course - the genius of the movie is that there is no way to tell if we are free-standing individual beings interacting in the physical world...or merely brains hooked up to electrodes that simulate such an environment.

The more interesting question is how you would behave if you discovered the latter were actually the case. What if someone provided irrefutable proof that your perceptions of reality were no more than electrical impulses fed into a brain in a vat. Would it change how you live your life? Should it?

As you may have guessed, this is more than a theoretical exercise. Everything that you perceive as reality is, in point of fact, simply your brain processing electrical impulses. Whether or not such impulses are (as we assume) triggered by external stimuli is beside the point.

Beside the point?!? Really? How can that be? Surely it matters whether our family and friends are flesh and blood or mere wisps of imagination...doesn't it?

To answer this, let's go deeper. When we talk of family, for example, exactly what do we mean? Do we mean the physical incarnation of our wife and children? While this seems logical at first blush, it is easily falsified--consider the common lament of those with relatives who suffer from Alzheimer's: "It's not him/her anymore." So clearly there is something we mean besides the physical. But what?

What we refer to, of course, is this nebulous visage of the self--the thing that makes them "who they are." But as we have discussed ad nauseum in this blog, the concept of self makes sense only if one is prepared to accept some sort of duality--i.e., something beyond the physical, a stance riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies (which of your "selves" through the years is the true you? what of those with mental illness/brain damage?).

So again, who do we mean? The answer, as we see it, is that this concept of self is purely illusory; said a different way, the "person" we refer to when we speak of our wife is simply a construct in our own mind. That is not to say that there is not a physical manifestation of her, nor that others do not have a similar construct of this individual known as "our wife" in their own minds. But the concept that there is some independent entity--some "self" underlying the physical--is simply not true.

As Krishnamurti put it:

"There is fear in relationship, because in relationship we have created the image of you and me. The man and the woman each has an image of the other, a picture, a symbol, put together by time, of many days, many years, or an hour. And their relationship is between these two images. Look into it and you will see the actuality of it. We cling to the picture, to the image, and we are frightened of losing that image."

Indeed, the more one tries to pin down the "self" the more difficult it becomes--the best we can tell, what people refer to when they talk of "someone" is more or less some conglomeration of that individual's life experiences, coupled with genetic tendencies. We mash this together into an image of "who" they are, then convince ourselves this "self" actually exists. We do not notice the contradictions when we utter such statements as "he's really changed," or "she used to be much less anxious." In effect, we want to have it both ways--we want the comfort of believing there is some self independent of the physical, but also that this self can morph over time. When one thinks about this for any period of is an incredibly fantastic assumption.

The main reason we believe it, of course, is that the illusion of our own self is so powerful. Indeed, we consider the feeling of self to be the most persistent and vexing aspect of human life--no matter how often we rationally tell ourselves that "we" do not exist, we cannot escape the feeling, deep down, that we actually do.

As Alexander Waugh put it in a recent review of a book on time: "we seem to understand time when we are reading about it, but as soon as we put the book down we are unable to explain it." Much the same could be said of the absurd...


  1. Thanks for that. Its very interesting to think about when we worry about the well-being of someone, even "ourselves" - the person we will be tomorrow night. He is not here; he is not me. What if an EXACT replica of me were created from other material in the other room. I would not even know he existed. Or, if I did, would I worry about HIS well-being tomorrow, or now, in the same why as my own? Isn't he me? Are you sure? Why is the me of tomorrow night made out of these particular molecules more worthy of my concern than the me of tomorrow night made out of those particular molecules. A human being is just stuff happening, or an event, not an identity. As you say, there is no external agent controlling the stuff that is happening.

  2. Wow, I just had another weird experience about identity. I had intended to post this link ( because my discussion of a replica was not my own original idea, but I forgot. Then I was going to post it just by itself as a separate post. Then I thought something along the lines of "Oh, they might think it is someone else posting the link, and then that will make me look stupid because the second poster will be saying to the first poster (me) 'look jackass your idea is nothing new' and that would be bad because I dont want to look stupid. Oh, but maybe I can identify myself with the second poster and look like the one who knew it wasn't an original idea." Then I was like "Wait a minute, who am I again?"

  3. Most of my life is wasted on what everything 'means' about 'me'.

  4. I am fond of Schopenhauer's viewpoint:

    The emptiness of existence finds its expression in the whole form of existence, in the infiniteness of Time and Space as opposed to the finiteness of the individual in both; in the fleeting present as the only manner of real existence; in the dependence and relativity of all things; in constantly becoming without being; in continually wishing without being satisfied; in an incessant thwarting of one’s efforts, which go to make up life, until victory is won. Time, and the transitoriness of all things, are merely the form under which the will to live, which as the thing-in-itself is imperishable, has revealed to time the futility of all efforts. Time is that by which at every moment all things become as nothing in our hands, and thereby lose all their true value.What has been exists no more; and exists just as little as that which has never been. But everything that exists "has been" in the next moment. Hence something belonging to the present, however unimportant it may be, is superior to something important belonging to the past; this is because the former is a reality and related to the latter as something is to nothing. Of every event in our life it is only for a moment that we can say that it is; after that we must say for ever that it was. Every evening makes us poorer by a day.
    Reflections of the nature of those above may, indeed, establish the belief that to enjoy the present, and to make this the purpose of one’s life, is the greatest wisdom; since it is the present alone that is real, everything else being only the play of thought. But such a purpose might just as well be called the greatest folly, for that which in the next moment exists no more, and vanishes as completely as a dream, can never be worth a serious effort. Our existence is based solely on the ever-fleeting present.

  5. Douglas, what makes now now?