I recently watched The Matrix series again – some of my all-time favorite movies, if viewing frequency is any indication – and afterwards pondered some of the philosophical ramifications the films assert. Of course, after this many viewings it’s a little difficult to come up with anything really new. I did, however, come up with something contrary, which either means I’ve had enough time to really think the theories through or I’ve just seen the damn movies too many times.
The premise of the films, in case you live under a rock, is one where ‘reality’ is simply a brain-implanted software program designed to imprison the mind while the body is used as a battery to power a world conquered by machines. Aside from the science fiction, the film uses a Buddhist outlook – that reality is an illusion – to support its plot. Because everything we do to test what constitutes reality involves the use of our mind, everything we accept as evidence of the existence of reality could well be (and often is) false. This is the fundamental reason why humans make mistakes, not so much that we err in judgment, but that we err in perceiving what is, or is not, actually real.
For example, let’s say that you are involved in a fender-bender at an intersection. The police officer arriving on the scene has to contend with three factors: your version of what happened, the version presented by the other person you had the collision with, and the officer’s own perception of the accident as interpreted by both stories and the evidence at hand. A great deal of what is actually ‘real’ ends up being left out; the accident probably happened suddenly and most of the actions by the drivers were reflexive. There’s an obvious bias on the part of each driver in relating what events occurred and in what order, and the officer has his or her own interpretation of the events, the evidence (position of the cars, etc.) and any information provided by running a check on the driver’s licenses.
Any number of factors in this otherwise simple incident skew a true accounting of what actually happened. This is assuming, of course, the theory that all reality is an illusion isn’t taken to it’s extreme and the officer questions whether or not the accident happened at all, the drivers and evidence themselves being illusory. At what point does the officer, or anyone else, insist that certain ‘evidence’ of an event is indeed ‘real’, and ignore the undeniable possibility that everything they perceive could be a figment of the imagination?
Furthermore, and not touched on directly in the Matrix movies, at what point do we stop doubting our own existence, since self-perception is indeed a function of the mind, and accept what we think, feel and do as a valid part of this thing called reality?
Neo, the main character in the film, never questions the validity of his own existence. The way he perceives himself is called into question, certainly, but there is never any doubt that Neo himself, as an entity, exists. He thinks, and therefore he is – despite the fact that he might not be at all what he believes he is while he thinks it. Without doubt, he is. The Self is not naturally fooled into following the mind’s natural tendency to trip down the primrose path to self-existent denial. It is seemingly nonsensical to assert that the thinker does not exist, despite any and all reasoning in support of this notion or to its contrary – I know I exist because I am. Self-awareness, which has its root in something much deeper than cerebral thought, is the most basic evidence of reality we have.
The problem lies in drawing a line between cerebral assertions and inner truth. Meditation is one attempt at separation of the mind from what is ‘real’; a turning off of the thought process so that the Self can be perceived, uninhibited. The very act of perception is, unfortunately, a function of the mind – it is impossible to completely subdue the brain’s natural function of witnessing and interpreting everything that occurs. If the great masters of meditation could completely subdue the conscious mind, they wouldn’t have enough recall of the experience to write or teach anything about what happens when that state is achieved. Perception, and therefore memory, are purely mental functions, and in their absence nothing can be learned (cerebrally).
Some forms and practices of magik (or witchcraft, Wicca, Earth Magic, Paganism, etc.) take a step further by asserting that, since reality is an illusion, the will or beliefs of a person can change that illusion to their favor. Many established religions, including Christianity, also assert that ‘faith can move mountains’ and change the course of reality. Whether these rituals or beliefs are effectual is immaterial; the act of wanting to change one’s reality signifies a belief in that reality as existent, not a mere illusion, else the belief system is starting off on the wrong foot. Proclaiming an illusion as ‘real’ only serves to qualify it as real to the observer, not as the whole of reality itself.
So the question remains: at what point does the Self exist to the exclusion of all other things which may be part of the reality an individual perceives? In other words, what makes the Self ‘more real’ than perceived reality, and how does one go about understanding and quantifying the Self in the absence of cerebral function, the only known way of experiencing the Self apart from everything else we are (the conscious mind and its perception of the environment)?
To me, the absence of cerebral function indicates death – and yes, this would certainly liberate the Self from the blinding wall of human thought. Dying, however, is impractical for the purposes of enlightening the living, including the subject in question. While death is not a bad thing in and of itself, it does lend certain hindrances to further study of the condition of the Self in any sort of cerebral (learned) manner.
Perhaps, as some gurus have asserted, we can only learn of the Self in spiritual ways, because of our inability to completely shut down the mind and examine the Self as an entity standing alone. It is something beyond our grasp because our grasp is mental. This being the case, we may never truly ‘know’ what it is that separates the Self from all else we experience.
‘There is no spoon’ is an assumption, as much as ‘there is a spoon’ would be. There is simply no way to show otherwise, because there is no way to achieve distance from one’s reality without completely annihilating any hope of describing the Self, the one constant in an otherwise fluid and relative ‘reality’, in adequate cerebral terms.
Addressing the previously touched-upon notion of changing reality through force of will, faith is an assumption that the ‘reality’ we perceive is true, and also that the unseen parts of reality (the Self, God, and so forth) are equally real though we lack any way to quantify them in cerebral terms. ‘Faith is the belief in things not yet seen.’ Through faith we hold that the Creator’s will is dominant, that the Self exists as a real yet unquantifiable Thing, and that there are lessons learned on spiritual, rather than cerebral, levels. Concerning what we perceive and how that intersects with what we accept as reality, we can take the simple example of color identification: you and I see the hue of an object and agree that this hue, however we each perceive it, is the color ‘red’. We therefore communicate and agree (or, at the very least, discuss) what is or is not part of our shared reality, regardless of our individual perceptions.
‘There is no spoon’? At one end of the spectrum of possible answers is the assertion that there are, with certainty, many spoons; we use spoons most every day. At the other end, the question itself is an illusion and can be safely ignored as such. Both extremes are stated in ignorance; the truth, the real truth, lies in the gray area between the utter denial of all perception as reality and the acceptance of everything we perceive as such.
Reality could be the universe and everything we both can and cannot perceive, or the Self alone with its Creator, awash in a grand illusion conjured for our spiritual edification. In either case, for us, reality does indeed exist.