WHAT’S SO GREAT ABOUT REALITY?

Edsel Kreisler

Let us begin with a bit of recent cinematic history, and then a personal anecdote. In 1997 the movie “The Matrix” was released. The hero of this movie is a young man who works as a computer programmer by day, and moonlights as a computer hacker under the name “Neo”. In Neo’s clandestine world of cyber-adventure, rumors have long circulated about “Morpheus”, a near-mythical figure, a super-hacker of legendary exploits. Morpheus has come to be associated with a mysterious realm in cyberspace called “the Matrix”, which is whispered to be some sort of advanced virtual reality. Early in the movie, Neo and Morpheus meet:

MORPHEUS
Let me tell you why you are here. You have come because you know
something. What you know you can't explain but you feel it. You've
felt it your whole life, felt that something is wrong with the world.
You don't know what, but it's there like a splinter in your mind,
driving you mad. It is this feeling that brought you to me. Do you
know what I'm talking about?

NEO
The Matrix?

MORPHEUS
The Matrix is everywhere, it's all around us, here even in this room.
You can see it out your window or on your television. You feel it when
you go to work, or go to church or pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

NEO
What truth?

MORPHEUS
That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage,
kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison
for your mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is.
You have to see it for yourself.

Morpheus opens his hands. In the right is a red pill. In the left, a blue pill.

MORPHEUS
This is your last chance. After this, there is no going back. You
take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you
believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and I show
you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember that all I am offering is
the truth. Nothing more.

Neo accepts the red pill, and the Matrix is revealed to him. The Matrix, we learn, is the entire experienced world in which Neo had been living up to that moment. It comprises not only his immediate sense impressions, but all his beliefs and memories, his introspective and emotional states, everything that makes up his sense of self. All of this is a massive computer simulation fed by wires into the nerves and brain of Neo’s real organic body. This body is living but inert. It floats in a pool of nutrient goo and is kept alive by machines for the sole purpose of generating heat to power the master computers. Morpheus’s dubious gift to Neo is to break the computer’s control over Neo’s body and mind, and allow Neo to begin to experience the actual world through his actual bodily senses. A mixed blessing, as it turns out. The actual world into which Neo is reborn is an appalling place, a place of deprivation, danger and continual warfare against the machines. Neo never regrets his choice to swallow the red pill. But a question has now been bruited: In hindsight, did Neo make the best choice? Should he have swallowed the blue pill instead, to live out his life in what passed for ordinary existence?

Now the anecdote. Some time after the movie appeared, I had the opportunity to discuss Neo’s choice with the teenage son of friends. David was a bright, curious, and opinionated lad, a good representative of his peers. David and I had both seen the movie. David claimed that Neo had made the wrong choice. Better far, he maintained, to have taken the blue pill, to continue his computer-generated life, life in the Matrix, filled as it would be with expected pleasures and satisfactions, disappointments and grief, all of that, rather than to live a life of anxiety and want, with the likelihood of a quick and useless death in the ongoing war against the machines. At first I marked his response as adolescent contrariety, as an effort to confound his elders. I questioned him further. I emphasized to him that life in the Matrix was an illusion, that if he chose that computer-generated experience, he would never know real life, that his life would in effect have been thrown away inside a computer game. David dug in his heels. Why, he wanted to know, would anyone choose the poorer experience over the better? He drove home the point. “Look,” he said, “The whole idea is that you cannot tell the one experienced world from the other, as far as their real-ness goes. Each experience appears equally real. So why would anyone choose the poorer experience for the richer?”

At some point in the conversation I became aware that I was becoming upset with David. Why did he not see the truth of the matter, which was simply that a life, any life, lived in falsity and illusion was by its very nature less valuable to the person living it than a life lived in the light of reality? Why, in other words, did he not grasp the value of the real for its own sake? The conversation ended there. David was unrepentant. I was left wondering what sort of argument I had failed to give that might have brought him around to the truth.

The aim of this essay is to try to make some sense of the notion of the value of the real for its own sake, the value that David did not seem to appreciate.

To begin with, we may as well admit that David was right, so long as we portray the fictional scene exactly as he does. (In what follows, I will refer to David’s Chooser, rather than to Neo, as the agent in the pill-choosing situation, for reasons that appear anon.) It is critical to David’s argument that his Chooser of experiences has already lived in both worlds, inside and outside the Matrix. David’s Chooser already knows first-hand that the two worlds are indistinguishable with respect to their experienced realness. On this account, we are led to suppose further that the Chooser’s ontological commitments are identical in the two experiences. That is to say, the Chooser not only experiences both worlds as equally real, but all of his actions within each world are consistent with his belief that each is real. Given all this, whatever motives the Chooser may have for choosing one experience or one world over the other, those motives cannot include any reference to the realness of the world that is chosen. Any further reference to “the real”, beyond the supposed ontological commitments, is meaningless. If this is right, then, were we to be in the Chooser’s shoes, our choice of experiences becomes not unlike our choice of vacation plans: we will pick the hot tub and the wine cooler over the desert island every time.

In hindsight, it is evident that my disagreement with David was based on a misrepresentation of the events in the movie. When Morpheus presents Neo with the choice of pills, Neo knows nothing whatever about what lies in store for him. His entire experience to that point is of life inside the Matrix. So the question I put to David, whether Neo made the right choice, was not a choice available to Neo at that moment. (If you have seen the movie, you know that another character, an evil fellow, does choose life in the Matrix over actual life, and for exactly the reasons David gave.)

In spite of this confusion, in spite of the implausible way in which the issue has arisen, I am still vexed by the idea that the value of the real for its own sake can be so easily called into doubt. So let us begin again by considering what looks to be a central and uncontroversial case of valuing the real for its own sake, which is valuing the real as an object of knowledge. Consider the scientist, who with his instruments and theories seeks knowledge of what is real. The scientist may have practical aims in mind, in which case we will say that he values reality conditionally, as a means to some other end. But we do not hesitate to allow that for many scientists, the mere attainment of knowledge of reality is the ultimate goal of their scientific work.

There are others, too, the mystics, Romantics, spiritual voyagers of many kinds, who seek to know reality, but for whom the attainment of that knowledge has further, more deeply personal consequences. If the seeker’s quest reveals to him a deeper reality that is terrifying, unholy, inhuman, or perhaps lifeless, spiritless, pointless, then he will abhor it, and will attempt to fashion a life free of the illusion of anything better to come. If his quest reveals to him a reality of human perfection, redemption, salvation, divine bliss, then he will live a life under a different burden, or rather several burdens: the hope of being taken up into that better reality, the anxiety of his worthiness of it, and the terror of failure. The lives of all these seekers are profoundly altered as a result of their pursuit of the real. Regardless of the personal consequences of their searches, we are willing, I think, to allow that these too should be counted as cases of valuing the real for its own sake.

But here is the frustrating thing: this sort of valuing of reality by the scientist or the mystic does not seem responsive to our original vexation. Yes, we grant that these are cases of valuing the real for its own sake, but what we needed was a satisfying response to David's Chooser, and we still do not have that. Recall that David’s Chooser has already lived in two equally-real-seeming worlds, one of them genuine, the other a computer-generated simulacrum. The Chooser knows the distinction between the two, and still chooses the false reality as his mortal destiny. Here, raising the issue of what the Chooser knows about these two putative realities seems frivolous, since, by hypothesis, he knows everything about them that is relevant to his choice, including which one is the genuine reality. So throwing up the scientist or the mystic as a rebuttal to David’s Chooser as a demonstration of where the Chooser has gone wrong, misses the mark. David’s Chooser is simply not a seeker of knowledge, and he places no value on the knowledge of reality beyond what he already possesses.

How then are we to characterize David’s Chooser? Without a satisfactory description of his choice situation, we will not be able to criticize his choice. As we have already noted, David's Chooser faces the choice not between two experiences, but between to existences. His choice commits him not merely to experiencing the chosen reality, but to being incarnated in it as a living individual. Fleshing this out in recognizably human terms is a confusing business. I doubt whether, given the premises of the movie, we can describe such a choice situation without incurring charges of question-begging and conceptual incoherence. Perhaps the best course at this point, short of abandoning the entire project, is to view David's Chooser as an implausible example of another species of reality seeker. Our prototypical representative of this new type of seeker we will call Rex.

What Rex desires is not merely knowledge of a deeper, hidden reality, but more, he seeks to inhabit that reality as an active participant. He seeks to become a full-fledged individual, an embodied agent, within that reality itself. He seeks to become something, another kind of thing, that in the present moment he is not. In fact, what he seeks is simultaneously both an incarnation into a new reality, and an escape from, a ceasing to exist in, an old one. (I take it to be a conceptual truth that one can be incarnated in only one reality at a time.)

Before we go any further, we must put aside for the time being our skepticism of talk about multiple realities, be they higher, lower, deeper, hidden, or whatever. Our first temptation was surely to declare simply that there is by definition only a single reality (“Die Welt ist alles, was ist der Fall”), and that we must content ourselves with whatever science, epistemology and metaphysics can teach us about it. Suppressing this temptation, we shall allow that to Rex and his fellow travelers the notion of multiple realities causes no such skeptical discomfort. If Rex has false metaphysical beliefs, he nonetheless believes passionately, and that is all that is required to motivate his search for the truer, deeper reality.

But Rex so far is not even a character. We have only an abstract sketch of his interest in reality. If he is to interest us, we have to recognize some part of our own passion in him. And we do. In Rex and his kind, we encounter the seeker whose goal is to leave this reality, this life, behind, to pass beyond mortal existence into another realm. Rex is not a mystic: he is not in pursuit of knowledge. Neither is he the penitent who with clear eye seeks to transcend human desire by mortification of the flesh. For Rex it is not sufficient merely to suppress desire, since the dousing of desire and the obliteration of the ego does not free us from our fundamental mortality, to which we must inevitably return. Think instead of Isolde, who wishes to escape hateful Day, and sees death itself as the hopeful passage into a glorious world of Night and the arms of her beloved. Here we approach the main parade of pilgrims in Rex’s army, those seeking redemption, forgiveness, purification in an afterlife. Marching under their own banner, we meet those who seek return to an original state of apotheosized human perfection, a Garden of Eden. Still smaller contingents will content themselves with tickets to the Elysian Fields or similar lesser paradises. And bringing up the rear is Socrates, who wishes for nothing more than to shuffle off his mortal coil in order to regain his true and simple spiritual existence.

Now we are in a position to ask our central question of Rex and his kind: do they value the real for its own sake? Let us grant that in every case, what they are striving for is an existence that they conceive of as more real, we might say ontologically superior, to their mortal existence. It seems to me that the answer to our question is clearly “no”: these seekers do not value their sought-for reality for the sake of its realness. Rather, they value it for what it brings with it: redemption, transcendence, escape from suffering, heavenly bliss. They desire it not because it is real, or more real than their current allotment of that commodity, or even because it is the deepest, truest, highest reality. No: they desire it because, as a realized goal, it resolves some profound sense of incompleteness or sin or brokenness that is intrinsic to their mortal condition. And this priority of desire for the spiritual payload over the grounding reality is true even though, as Rex would certainly maintain, the moral or spiritual payload of the goal, that is, its transcendent content, is intrinsically, inseparably bound up with its being the supreme or fundamental reality.

This is a pessimistic outcome. Our best hope of responding the David’s Chooser, it seemed to me, was to identify one of Rex’s tribe as the standard-bearer for those who value the real for its own sake. Had we found that standard-bearer, we could have put him on exhibit as one who did not make the mistake that David’s Chooser has made. Our standard-bearer would value reality for its own sake, in the appropriate way. We could then work on mining the reasons and motivations of our standard-bearer as exemplary for all seekers of what lies beyond. And we could look forward with satisfaction to David’s resipiscence in the face of this new illumination. But if I am right, none of Rex’s kind can carry that standard. And this means that we still have no rebuttal to David’s Chooser who thumbs his nose at reality.

Well, not quite. We can always retort that the case of David’s Chooser is simply incoherent. A Hollywood screenplay premised on this sort of “reality tourism” is no more plausible than one based on time travel, and no sensible consequences can be drawn from it. Or we can reply that David’s Chooser simply has a defective moral compass: other things being equal, no intact moral sensibility will choose a life inside a computer-generated world over an actual life. David’s Chooser is a metaphysical sociopath. And the fact that we cannot provide arguments for that claim simply underlines the foundational nature of such moral intuitions.

But I for one am not content with such tactics, reasonable and fair though they may be. I have a fresh suggestion. I want to go back to the beginning and explore the roots of my original dysphoric reaction to David’s intransigence. As you recall, I wanted David to admit that a life, any life, lived in falsity and illusion was by its very nature less valuable to the person living it than a life lived in the light of reality. Now David, with a little more philosophical sophistication, might have responded by asking me to explain what I meant by that. What could I mean by the notion of a more or less valuable life to the person living it? Was perhaps the real problem here not the problem of David’s not valuing reality for its own sake, but rather, my having a confused idea about what it means to value a human life itself in such a way that it might have greater or lesser value to the person living it?

My answer to David’s hypothetical question is this: The value we place upon the life we lead is nothing more or less than the value we place upon the possibility of leading that life in the most genuine, authentic, fully human manner. The awareness of the possibility of greater authenticity in our life is coextensive with the awareness of the higher value we place upon that possibility. The fully authentic human life, whatever that turns out to be, is the life we seek, and among all the versions, all the stages, of our actual life, among those lived and those yet to be lived, that is the version of our life that we value most highly and seek most ardently. This fully authentic human life is identical to a life lived in the light of reality, and lived in the absence of falsity and illusion.

This extravagant claim needs to be defended, of course, but unfortunately time and circumstances militate against the satisfaction of that demand. Let us suffer to take the claim as given. We proceed to note that this claim about the perceived value of the possibility of a greater genuineness in our life makes no reference to reality itself as a separate component in the equation. No mention is made of different possible realities, be they higher or lower, visible or forever obscured, presently accessible or attainable only after death. Nor is it clear that any such reference is needed, nor even that room could be made for it.

If this is so, then, to the extent that we can speak at all of placing a value on reality itself as the something we are incarnated within, it follows that the value of that reality must be found within that reality, because that is the only place where the possibility of the attainment of the fully authentic human life, a life lived in the light of reality, can be actualized. Common locutions often and easily conflate the search for authenticity in leading a human life with the desire to become “more real”. This is metaphor, to be sure, and yet it suggests that the attempt to isolate “the real” from the real life being lived in it, is likely to lead only in circles.

My purpose in renegotiating my original dispute with David is to open up the possibility that David’s intransigence to my plea to value the real for its own sake was due not to youthful obstreperousness, but may in fact have disguised a deeper unease with the very metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that makes the film so entertaining. When David insisted that the reality quotient of the life chosen by his Chooser simply did not matter, he might have been heeding an intuition that in the end what mattered had little or nothing to do with that putative reality taken as a thing in itself, but rather, what mattered was what kind of life the Chooser was capable of living within whatever reality was selected. It was the lived life that mattered, not the metaphysical substrate on which it was deposited. Was this David’s deeper insight in his answer to my plea? I don’t know. Next time I see him, I will be sure to ask him.