by Dear Jon
September 10, 2002
Sort 170_Dear Jon-Get Real.
ACTUAL LETTER TO DEAR JON:
First the Allegory of the Cave and now the Matrix. Since our senses all seem to boil down to a bunch of electrical connections in our brains, how do we know if anything's real?
Ghost in the Machine
Back in the glory days of the Partial Observer when people read Dear Jon hoping for something funny, I would have responded by referring your letter to the “Religion/Philosophy Forum.” I now find myself answering at length for two reasons:
1. No one writes in the “Religion/Philosophy Forum” or any other “Forum” anyway.
2. No one else has written a letter asking for advice.
So, on the eve of the anniversary of the Attack on America, you are asking for advice on how to discover what is real. For this column today, laughter will not be real.
Another dead Greek-speaker did not speak of shadows dancing on the walls of a cave, but of an opaque reflection in a mirror. Even if we are looking at an opaque reflection, that there is a reflection must mean that there is a substance to be reflected. We are not merely the reflection; instead, our reflection is distorted so that we cannot fully comprehend what is real about ourselves. Descartes said something to the effect of “I think, therefore I am.” That you are self-reflective is evidence that you are real.
This speaks to your electrical synapses. The machines in “The Matrix” are able to manipulate electrical impulses in human brains, but the brains and bodies they manipulate are real, stored in tanks as battery cells. The human batteries are not pre-programmed into the cyber-world; rather, they participate self-reflectively in a cyber-world concocted through the manipulation of their sensory synapses. So Neo asks “What is the Matrix?” He is self-reflective, he is real, and he comes to an understanding of his authentic situation in relation to the Matrix.
As you stated, the “electrical connections” in the brain must have an essential reality, since it is along these channels that impulses of data travel, which we interpret as information regarding our environment. Let us suppose that our environment, and even the shape and color and texture of the brain itself, are fictions. Ultimately, what cannot be fiction is the motion of energy through a responsive, contained system. We think that this system is the “human body.” Even if that is a lie, even if it turns out we are individually wrapped chutes of fiber optic resembling a cross between brocolli and the inside of an old radio, the fact is that energy is moving through a contained system that self-reflectively signed a letter “Ghost in the Machine,” and another contained system that calls itself “Dear Jon” is responding self-reflectively.
There is now a connection between “Jon” and “Ghost” by virtue of the flow of communication along our sensory networks. That we have given ourselves aliases is further evidence of our self-reflection and self-containment. The connection between these aliases is not an illusion; we are interpreting the connection as a letter and response, but at the very least two contained systems have expended cooperative energy which produced the effect of a connection.
This communication has been effected along networks that have been cooperatively assembled through the communication of other self-contained units. Even if this computer monitor is as illusory as the fingers striking the fictional keyboard, in fact, both “Ghost” and I have agreed that the means of our connection would be through what we call “the Internet,” which I (and probably Ghost) had absolutely no part in constructing, but in which we self-reflectively participate.
We have established that energy is real. Motion is real (because impulses move through networks) dimension is real (because Dear Jon occupies a self-reflective “me” that Ghost does does not) personality is real (the self-reflection of a contained unit) and networks are real (by which one contained unit communicates with another). I am of the conviction, shared by billions of others, that these essential realities exist apart from and are pre-existent to the reality of what is material.
One might argue that energy depends on matter. The person questioning material reality is cornered into saying that they doubt the existence of the nerve endings channeling the information which they are interpreting as evidence to doubt the existence of the nerve endings. However, the answer to that problem is not that the energy or networks are unreal, but that how we perceive them operating in so-called “material” form is illusory.
In the end, though, it is too difficult to contend that matter is not real. If we have established the reality of energy, motion, dimension, personality, and networks, why ought we dismiss the material sphere in which these act and through which they operate? It is profoundly odd that all people in all cultures everywhere in time should find themselves unable to lift themselves off the ground so as not to fall again. In such a diverse mix of world-views, someone somewhere must have contended that such illusions as the inevitability of falling were not binding, and have proven it. We have no such record, except in myth and legend, and these speak of transcending what binds us rather than proving that the bonds are illusion. It seems reasonable to conclude that gravity, earth, space, light, water, land, and flesh with its birth, maturity and death, all of these commonly held in the experiences of the human family, are real.
Considering the murder of thousands a year ago, the holocaust 60 years ago, and other works of evil in history, it would be small comfort for us if matter and flesh are illusion. If flesh is an illusion, so is the pain inflicted on flesh. Ergo, the obvious solution to human suffering would be to transcend the illusions in order to banish suffering. This is not being done because it cannot be done; those who try are the tragic exceptions that prove the rule: There are some on the fringe of thought and religion who attempt to live as though human existence is an illusion; they either let their children die without medical care, or they kill themselves at the appearance of comets. As it is, the reality of flesh does not give us any excuse for the intolerable suffering humanity inflicts on humanity, but it does give us an explanation.
I am cutting against the grain of some of the philosophies of the Far East. I never claimed to be a Far Eastern philosopher. I do believe that such things as the mind’s manipulation of matter is possible, given precise focus and a great deal of sacrificial discipline. By accessing the extra-dimensional energies of the mind (the “spirit” in religious jargons), I believe that an ordinary person with extraordinary focus might be able to locate, recognize and utilize the spaces between and within matter. However, I am also very skeptical regarding claims about what some Buddhist Monks have been able to achieve.
The dead Greek-speaker I alluded to promises that one day, what is opaque will become transparent. He held the conviction, as do billions today, that the pre-existent Personality in Network wants to be fully revealed to the human race. My advice is, if you want to know what’s real, start with that Person.
As for the rest of you, Sort 171 will be an illusion on Friday unless I get letters.
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