Sunday, January 28, 2007
One of my favourite films is the Matrix. Not Matrix Reloaded, or Matrix Revolutions - which are just glorified cowboy movies with special effects and philosophy - but the original Matrix.
What I like is the theme of the movie, that the world is a computer-generated illusion.
At one point the character Morpheus speaks to Keanu Reeves‘ Neo, after he has been released from the controlling power of the machines. He shows him the battered landscape of a post-apocalyptic world, beneath a boiling sky. “Welcome to the desert of the real,” he says.
It’s a great line, spoken with relish by Laurence Fishburne, who plays Morpheus.
When I saw the movie for the first time it struck me that it was an allegory of the state we live in.
How do we know what it real and what is not?
Contemporary neuroscience tells us that what we perceive as real is only a three-dimensional hologram happening in the brain. It is a perception of reality, not reality itself.
This is made more complicated by the fact that this secondary perception - this perception of perception - is filtered through ever more evolved and remote processes: such as language, such as culture, such as art, through the beliefs we share and the conceptual baggage we accumulate to interpret it all.
“Conceptual baggage.” That’s a good phrase. It brings to mind a perpetual tourist on a never-ending journey to a nonexistent package holiday, getting to yet another transit point during yet another change of transportation, dragging along a trolley full of the accumulated baggage of his compulsively acquired souvenir-collection. Which is how I sometimes feel about myself. Always on a journey, never arriving anywhere.
Meanwhile there’s ever increasing volumes of pointlessness to contend with. Like TV for instance.
Most of us in the modern world have been brought up with TV. We spend large amounts of our day sitting in front of the box watching those flickering two-dimensional images of people pretending to be someone else. And that applies to newsreaders and politicians as much as it does to actors.
It is TV that explains our world to us. It is TV that reflects our sense of being. We live our lives as stars of our own on-going reality TV soap-opera, providing our own story-lines and our own themes while striking up endless dramatic poses for the omnipresent camera of the mind. Laughing at our own jokes. Nodding sagely at our own observations.
Big Brother is watching us, even as we‘re watching Big Brother. But who is Big Brother really? We all are.
Even the news is just a branch of the entertainment industry these days, and our politicians spend more time spinning reality to make it look like something else than they do getting on with the job.
Just one more layer to add to the shifting, interweaving web of misperception and misrepresentation that makes up our sense of being.
Strip it all away, and what is there left? Maybe none of it exists. Maybe it’s all an illusion.
This is basically the Buddhist position. The world is Maya - illusion. Attachment brings suffering. The aim of life is to disengage from the cycle of birth and rebirth, to attain enlightenment. Even the soul does not really exist. At the heart of the Buddhist universe lies emptiness, the void.
But, you wonder, why emptiness? Why not fullness?
And while the world may not be exactly as we perceive it, isn’t it just as crazy to say that it doesn’t exist at all?
I went for a walk in the woods this evening, just to clear my head before finishing off this piece.
There was a fat, yellow moon low on the horizon, like a pat of butter on the infinite blue plate of the sky. Birds singing their evening prayers. Trees rustling in the breeze. A few rabbits bobbing through the undergrowth.
An illusion, maybe. But a very nice illusion.