The memory of my philosophical journey goes back to when I was 5 years old. Here I started to reflect over, whether life is a dream. This philosophical question has always followed me: whether we sleep, whether we dream this long dream, which is life? Therefore my adolescence has always been accented by a strong wonder over life, and a strong longing after something inexpressible, after something that can´t be satisfied by explanations and interpretations - perhaps a longing after awakening. However, I was never lead to connect this with philosophy, and therefore I first started an actual education in philosophy quite late.
My professor in philosophy, the late David Favrholdt, was the first who drew my attention to The Matrix. He saw the connections between the film and Descartes´ speculations on the possibility of deception by dreams or an evil deceiver. He asked the question which Morpheus asks Neo in The Matrix: “What pill would you choose, the red or the blue? Is ignorance bliss, or is the truth worth knowing, no matter what? My experience and his was similar to those of philosophy professors and students around the world. Which pill would you choose? Why?
Or, asking the question rhetorical, as agent Smith would have done it, when the president in Aldous Huxley´s novel Brave New World, asks the main character Johannes: Would you rather be right than happy? This question is scary enough also a central question which the creator of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg, asks people (see my article Nonviolent Communication is an Instrument of Psychic Terror). As if being right equals being unhappy. Such rhetorical manipulation is typical for the so-called Sophists (teachers of rhetoric), who are the archetypal opposition to the philosopher.
The red pill is a new symbol of bold choice, and most people insist they would take it if they were in Neo´s shoes. If they take it they will major in philosophy, stay in Wonderland and “see how far down the rabbit hole goes.” If they take the blue pill they will return to their previous virtual reality and forget they had ever given thoughts to questions that matter and mysteries of the universe.
The Pill Scene
So, let´s presume we now take the red pill.
We almost all have an experience of, how our senses and thoughts can deceive us. Therefore the question about, whether life could be a dream or an illusion, also always has occupied Man, no matter what Matrix sophists like Agent Smith or Marshall Rosenberg smoothly say.
In the scriptless people´s religions, or in the world of the child, the dreams are episodes in the waking condition. To the poets - and in the various wisdom traditions in Western mysticism and in Eastern philosophy - it is not impossible, that the whole of the waking condition is a dream. As Shakespeare says in his play the Tempest: ”We are of the same matter as our dreams; our short life is encircled by a sleep.”
The spiritual practice can be said to consist partially of meditation, partially of Dream Yoga. Meditation and Dream Yoga are two sides of the same thing. If you nevertheless should try to discriminate, then you about meditation can say, that the three aspects of meditation are relaxfullness, awareness and heartfullness. These three aspects are trained through supporting exercises such as relaxation, Hara practice, as well as Tonglen practice (see the supporting exercises in my book Meditation as an Art of Life – a basic reader).
In Dream Yoga you can say, that the day practice of Dream Yoga consists - besides the continuous exercises of meditation - in understanding the nature of thought distortions; in seeing their illusory nature, in seeing how they create your reality; that is: to realize, that a lot of your waking life also has character of a dream (the night practice of Dream Yoga is about writing your dreams down, and practising in conditions of lucidity, as well as astrality, if such states should occur). – See my book A Dictionary of Thought Distortions, and my article What is Dream Yoga?
A lot of philosophers within European philosophy have also claimed, that life is a dream, or that the whole world is our own construction, created either by sensation or thinking. The best known examples are probably George Berkeley and René Descartes.
In European philosophy there namely is a strong tradition for only reckoning with two forms of cognition: sensation and thinking. Berkeley reckoned with sensation, whilst Descartes reckoned with thinking. Berkeley is famous for the sentence Esse est percipi, which means that being, or reality, consists in being perceived (to be is to be experienced). The absurdity in Berkeley´s assertion is swiftly seen: If a thing, or a human being for that matter, is not being perceived by the senses, then it does not exist. In accordance with Berkeley there therefore does not exist any sense-independent world. He ends in the so-called solipsism. That we will return to.
Descartes was also very dubious concerning how much we can trust our senses. Therefore also he took up the question Is life a dream? However, his intention with this was in his Meditations to develop a confident cognition-argument.
In his Meditations Descartes presents the problem approximately like this: I frequently dream during the night, and while I dream, I am convinced, that what I dream is real. But then it always happens, that I wake up and realize, that everything I dreamt was not real, but only an illusion. And then is it I think: is it possible, that what I now, while I am awake, believe is real, also is something, which only is being dreamt by me right now? If it is not the case, how shall I then determinate it?
Precisely because Descartes not even in dreams can doubt, that 2 plus 3 is 5, he leaves the dream-argument in his Meditations and goes in tackle with the question, whether he could be cheated by an evil demon concerning all cognition, also the mathematics. This radical skepticism leads him forward to the cogito-argument: Cogito ergo Sum (I think, therefore I exist). – Note that Descartes´ philosophical skepticism not is the same as scientific skepticism (about scientific skepticism: read my article My Work as a Paranormal Investigator)
In modern discussions about the reliability of our cognition you often meet a variation of Descartes´ argument of the evil demon. The argument is: some day surgery will have reached so far, that you will be able to operate the brain out of a human being and keep it alive by putting it in a jar with some nutrient substratum. At that time computer research perhaps will have reached so far, that you will be able to connect a computer with such a brain and feed it with all possible data – that is: supply us with an experiential ”virtual reality”, so that we think that we have a body, that we have a life and walk around in the world believing, that we can perceive our surroundings, whilst we in reality only is a brain laying in a jar. It is this main thesis the movie The Matrix is based on. In The Matrix though, there is also an evil demon, or evil demons, namely the machines which keep the humans´ in tanks linked to black cable wires that stimulates the virtual reality of the Matrix. Doing this the machines can use the human bodies as batteries that supply the machines with energy. This leads of course to questions of evil scientists, Sophists, etc. But we will let that rest for now, and continue with the thought that philosophy is the rebellion, the arguments against the brain-in-jar hypothesis. The rebels in the film can therefore be seen as philosophers.
As culture critic Slavoj Zizek suggest, The Matrix is a philosopher´s Rorschach inkblot test. Philosophers see their favoured philosophy in it: Existentialism, Marxism, feminism, Buddhism, nihilism, postmodernism. Name your philosophical ism and you can find it in The Matrix. Still, the film is not just some randomly generated inkblot but has a definite plan behind it and intentionally incorporates much that is philosophical. The Wachowski brothers, college dropout comic-book artists intrigued by the Big Questions, readily acknowledge that they have woven many philosophical themes and allusions into the fabric of the film. Personally, in this article on the film, I do not in every instance attempt or purport to convey the intended meaning of the writers and artists responsible for The Matrix. Rather, I will highlight the philosophical significance of the film, seen in relation to my own teaching Meditation as an Art of Life.
To paraphrase Trinity, it´s the questions that drive us. What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope? What is real? What is happiness? What is the mind? What is freedom, and do we have it? Is artificial intelligence possible? Answering these questions leads us to explore many of the major branches of philosophy including metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, and political philosophy. Despite the multitude of questions, there is but one imperative: WAKE UP!
People like popular culture; it is the common mythology of our time. Did you know that Aaliyah died before completing the sequel to The Matrix? Did you know W.V. Quine died less than a year before that? Many people know about pop star Aaliyah, while most people have never even heard of the great philosopher Quine. The intention with my Pop Culture Files is to bring the listener and reader from pop culture to philosophy. Willie Sutton was a criminal mastermind, a genius of sorts. Once asked, “Willie, why do you rob banks?” he replied straightforwardly, “Because that´s where the money is.” Why write about pop culture like The Matrix? Because that´s where the people are.
No one would object if we turned to the works of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare to raise philosophical questions. The Matrix does not belong to the list of Western classics, but nevertheless the film raises the same philosophical questions as the great works of literature. If philosophy could be found only in the writings of philosophers and were relevant only to the lives of professors, then it would be the dull and sterile discipline too many people mistakenly believe it to be. But philosophy is everywhere; it is relevant to and can illuminate everyone´s life; like the Matrix, “it is all around us.”
Unfortunately a lot of the Matrix agents I call the Matrix Sophists, have discovered that philosophers today are lost in their Universities, and have therefore taken over the area of philosophy.
After centuries of successful trading, the local gods and festivals could no longer satisfy the religious needs of the ancient Athenians. Their spiritual hunger was exacerbated by the stress of city life, by the constant threat of destruction, and by the grim vision of totalitarian Sparta: the vision of Greeks living without light or grace or humour, as though the gods had withdrawn from their world.
Into the crowded space of Periclean Athens came the wandering teachers, selling their “wisdom” to the bewildered populace. Any charlatan could make a killing, if enough people believed in him. Men like Gorgias and Protagoras, who wandered from house to house demanding fees for their instruction, preyed on the gullibility of a people made anxious by war.
To the young Plato, who observed their antics with outrage, these “Sophists” were a threat to the very soul of Athens. One alone among them seemed worthy of attention, and that one, the great Socrates whom Plato immortalised in his dialogues, was not a Sophist, but a true philosopher.
The philosopher, in Plato´s characterisation, awakens the spirit of inquiry. He helps his listeners to discover the truth, and it is they who bring forth, under his catalysing influence, the answer to life´s riddles. The philosopher is the midwife, and his duty is to help us to what we are – free and rational beings, who lack nothing that is required to understand our condition. The Sophist, by contrast, misleads us with cunning fallacies, takes advantage of our weakness, and offers himself as the solution to problems of which he himself is the cause.
There are many signs of the Sophists, but principal among these is that they are subjectivists and relativists. Their teachings are about how to get on in the world, and not about how to find the truth. Anything goes: not facts, but the best story wins. And the result is mumbo-jumbo, condescension and the taking of fees. The philosopher uses plain language, does not talk down to his audience, and never asks for payment. Such was Socrates, and in proposing him as an ideal, Plato defined the social status of the philosopher for centuries to come.
No one should doubt that sophistry is alive and well. My concept of The Matrix Conspiracy is permeated with it (see my articles The Matrix Conspiracy and The Four Philosophical Hindrances and Openings). We see it in the mix of postmodern intellectualism (constructivism), management culture, self-help and New Age – and in the two main methods of this mix: psychotherapy and coaching.
The Sophists are back with a vengeance, and are all the more to be feared, in that they come disguised as philosophers and scientists. For, in this time of helpless relativism and subjectivity, philosophy and science alone have stood against the tide, reminding us that those crucial distinctions on which life depends – between true and false, good and evil, right and wrong – are objective and binding. Philosophy and science have until now spoken with the accents of the academy and laboratory, and not with the voice of the fortune teller.
When Plato founded the first academy, and placed philosophy at the heart of it, he did so in order to protect the precious store of wisdom from the assaults of charlatans, to create a kind of temple to truth in the midst of falsehood, and to marginalise the Sophists who preyed on human confusion.
The Sophists were teachers of rhetoric, who against a fee, taught people how to persuade other people about their “truths”. Rhetoric, or sophistry, is the art of persuasion. Rather than giving reasons and presenting arguments to support conclusions, as Socrates did, then those who use sophistry are employing a battery of techniques, such as emphatic assertion, persuader words and emotive language, to convince the listener, or reader, that what they say or imply is true.
The Sophists taught their pupils how to win arguments by any means available; they were supposedly more interested in teaching ways of getting on in the world than ways of finding the truth, as Socrates did.
Therefore, any charlatan is welcome. And the use of thought distortions is seen as the best tool, when practicing the mantra of the management culture: “It is not facts, but the best story, that wins!” Very shortly formulated, then these new sophists try to convince people to take the blue pill. And they will use every possible rhetorical means. The main one is that the blue pill is a quick fix, and that the red pill is slow, outdated and will cause a lot of bad side effects.
So, my Pop Culture Files are not just for philosophers but for all of us who have ever had a “splinter in the eye, driving us mad.” And they are about convincing people to take the red pill instead. Therefore, let´s begin our journey down the rabbit hole.
A lot of so-called reductionists believe, that it is possible that we could be brains in a jar. There are computer scientists, who believe, that you can understand consciousness as ”soft-ware” and the brain as a ”hard disc”, and that you in a very few years will be able to decode a human being for the whole of its content of consciousness, immediately before it dies, and therewith ensure its soul an eternal life – admittedly on a discette, but what the hell, it is after all certainly always better than to pass into nothingness, and the discette will after all could be played again and again.
The Brain-in-jar Hypothesis says it in this way: existence, that which I, Morten Tolboll, calls reality, is an illusion, because the fact of the matter is this, that I haven´t got any body or any sense organs, but only am my brain, which is in a jar with a nutrient substratum, and which is connected to a computer, which provides me with experiences.
The problem is exactly the same as in Descartes´ Dream Hypothesis: existence, that which I, Morten Tolboll, calls reality, is a period, which after its end (that is to say: when I wake up from it) will be realized as illusory, in the same way as I realize a dream as illusory, when I wake up from it. That is to say: that, which I call ”reality”, is a dream, and that, which I call ”dream” (that is: the thing I am dealing with, when I am sleeping) is a dreamt dream.
Both the Brain-in-jar Hypothesis and the Dream Hypothesis are important in the ideology I call The Matrix Conspiracy (see my article The Matrix Conspiracy). An important pedagogy of The Matrix Conspiracy is namely subjectivism and relativism, which claim, that there doesn't exist any objective truth. Truth is something we create ourselves, either as individuals or as cultures, and since there doesn't exist any objective truth, there doesn´t exist any objective scale of truth. Everything is our own thought-construction.
Let us try to look at three logical problems, which the Dream Hypothesis runs into: The infinite regress, the solipsism, as well as the polarization-problem.
First the infinite regress:
I presuppose, that I - with the assertion about, that what, I now call reality, is a dream - believe, that it in principle is possible, that I wake up from it and realize, that it only was a dream. In that case I shall after all find myself situated in a new reality, which relates ifself to what I now call reality, as this relates itself to my nightly dreams. This ”new reality” you could then term ”the R-reality”.
When I wake up to the R-reality, I realize, that what, I till then called reality, only was a dream. But using the Dream Hypothesis (whatever argument I might have for it) I must already now conclude, that the R-reality also could be a dream, which I, if I some day wake up from it, shows ifself to be contained in a R-R-R-reality – and in this way I can keep on.
If I say, that reality is a dream, and therefore ought to be called ”dreamed reality”, yes then I can´t find any argument against, that it is a ”dreamed dreamed reality” or a ”dreamed dreamed dreamed reality” etc., indefinitely.
If you then take the solipsism:
Solipsism (of lat. Solus ipse, I alone), is the opinion, that I alone, and my states of consciousness, exist, or that I, and my states of consciousness, are the only things, which really can be realized. Everything else, for example other people´s consciousnesses and material things, which are claimed to be outside my consciousness, are problematic things.
The Dream Hypothesis can for example only be stated in first person. There are not two persons who can agree about it, because all other persons than the person, which put forward the Dream Hypothesis, ex hypothesi are dream phenomena in his dream. When I – in first person – analyses the eventual arguments against the Dream Hypothesis, I realize, that I don´t need to take them seriously, because they ex hypothesi only are dream phenomena, which can´t be compelling. But at the same time I realize, that all my arguments for the Dream Hypothesis for the same reason nor can be considered compelling. I have ended up in a self-contradiction.
And if you then finally take the polarization-problem:
Reality seems to be an Otherness, which determines and defines the world – that is: a negation-principle. Any concept, anything, is defined by its negation; that is to say: what it not is. A dream can in other words only be defined from what it not is. It is for example not reality. This logic seems to be impossible to get around. How can you altogether assert that life, or reality, is a dream, unless you know what a dream not is?
The Brain-in-jar Hypothesis runs into exactly the same logical problems.
To the common consciousness, or the common cognition - that is to say: sensation and thinking - life could very well be thought to be a dream. The wholeness could possible be sleeping. You could here very well imagine the validity of the above problems, but you end up in the three logical problems. It is precisely these logical anomalies, paradoxes and problems, which create Samsara´s wheel of eternal repeating up-cycles which is followed by eternal repeating down-cycles and vice versa (for example life and death, success and fiasco, joy and sorrow) – as well as the ignorance and the suffering when you are caught into this wheel, for example in the experience of nightmare and anxiety. All Jorge Luis Borges´ small stories are about these logical and philosophical problems. His stories are filled with mirrors, masks, endless series and regresses, labyrinths, doppelgängers, time, solipsisms and dreams (I have examined these logical and philosophical problems in my book A Dictionary of Thought Distortions, especially in the thought distortion I call Endless split of the thought).
As mentioned there is also within the wisdom traditions a lot of talk about, that life is a dream. The Chinese philosopher Chuang Tsi wrote for example:
”One time I dreamt, that I was a butter-fly. Pleased with my fortune I flew around and wasn´t thinking about anything else than being a butter-fly. About Chuang Tsi´s existence I suspected nothing. Then suddenly I awoked, and it stood clear to me, that I was Chuang Tsi. But now I just don´t know, whether I was Chuang Tsi, which dreamt that I was a butter-fly, or whether I am a butter-fly, which dreams, that it is Chuang Tsi. There is necessarily a difference in being Chuang Tsi and in being a butter-fly.”
At first Chuang Tsi´s text seems to be even more radical than Descartes. But what you can say, is, that there is a radical difference between Chuang Tsi and Descartes. Descartes and Berkeley reckoned namely, as before mentioned, only with two forms of cognition, sensation and thinking.
Chuang Tsi, as well as Medieval philosophers and a lot of Catholic philosophers in the present day, however speak about revelation as a third cognition-form. Some of our temporal existentialists speak about a type of being-cognition, which neither is due to sensation or thinking. And finally a couple of European mystics, as for example Plotin, Meister Eckhart and William Blake, have spoked about an occult cognition of God and higher powers, which reaches far beyond the areas of sensation and thinking. You could term it the wholeness-cognition. And in the East (for example Chuang Tsi) such a third cognition is well known (see my article Paranormal phenomena seen in connection with mystical experiences).
To this third form of cognition, life is not a dream, but the Good, the True and the Beautiful itself – reality. The path to this can be described as in the education novel: at home – the homeless - home. In the start, at home (if you not, through meditation and Dream Yoga, are working with the third cognition-form), the wholeness is sleeping. If you however start to work with this cognition, the education journey out in the world begins. The wholeness starts to dream. But the more realization trained, the more you realize the illusory aspect of the dream of the wholeness, and then the journey home starts. The wholeness begins to wake up, for finally, in the revelation, to be completely awake. You are home again (see my article The Hero´s Journey).
The truth in this awakenness - and which of course also is there hidden, both when the wholeness is dreaming and sleeping - is precisely the instance which creates the logical, and insoluble problems with theories which only work with two forms of cognition, sensation and thinking. This truth is reality, or the Otherness.
In the meditative development there exist some existential conditions, and some growth conditions and growth levels common to all mankind. This indicates a common core which in a remarkable equal way occur in all wisdom traditions.
This core constitutes a teaching, which not only looks at meditation as a form of visualizing training, but as something philosophical, an art of life which affects the human being as a wholeness; which means: the entire cognitional, ethical and existential reality of Man.
The great masters within the wisdom traditions have always communicated this teaching via philosophical counseling.
In philosophical counseling philosophy is understood as a way of life, where you strive after wisdom and happiness; that is to say: where you practise a certain realized and clarified way of life. In this it differs from the academical philosophy, where the work with philosophy is a purely theoretical activity, included the so-called practical philosophy.
Traditions where the concept of philosophy slides in one with a certain existential form of training and therapy, is both found in the East and in the West. From the East can be mentioned Indian and Buddhist philosophy, Taoism and Zen Buddhism. From the West can be mentioned Greek and Roman philosophy, and the whole tradition of mysticism within Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
A good introduction to this is Aldous Huxley´s book The Perennial Philosophy. A more academical introduction to the understanding of philosophy as a way of life, is found in Pierre Hadot´s Philosophy as a Way of Life - Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault.
Even though the modern concept of philosophical counseling primarily goes back to the Stoics and Socrates, then the great philosophers within all the different wisdom traditions always have sought to pass on an art of life of a more or less philosophical kind. They namely asked philosophical questions - that is: not in an intellectual way as in the academical philosophy, and not as that to repeat a mantra - no, they asked philosophical questions in a meditative-existential way, as the wordless silence within a strong, existential wonder. As Aristotle said, philosophy begins with wonder. We all know the wonder we can feel when we look at the stars, or when we are confronted with all the suffering in the world. This wonder fills us with a silence, in which all thoughts, explanations and interpretations withers away. It is in this silence we ask ourselves the great, philosophical questions, open inwards and outwards, without words, without evaluations.
The wordless silence within the existential wonder is the same as asking philosophical questions in a meditative-existential way. And it is this philosophical questioning which can be the beginning of a deep examination of Man and reality – a lifelong, philosophical voyage of discovery towards the Source of life: the Good, the True and the Beautiful.
However, most people lose this silence, and get satisfied with explanations and interpretations. That is the difference between the great philosophers and ordinary people. The great philosophers had a strong longing after something inexpressible, after something which couldn´t be satisfied by explanations and interpretations – perhaps a longing after awakening – or after realization. They stay in Wonderland, and with the whole of the body, with life and blood, with soul and spirit, with brain and with heart, they asked into, and were investigating themselves and life. They asked questions to everything, and were investigating it in a meditative way, as if it was something completely new. Simply because this philosophical questioning and inquiry itself constitutes an absolute central meditation technique, which opens the consciousness in towards the Source. In other words, they used philosophical questions as universal koans. All other spiritual exercises were in fact only used to support this.
The central core in using such supporting exercises in the right way is therefore the philosophical questioning and inquiry. It is the philosophical questioning and inquiry that in the end will open the consciousness in towards the Source. In all wisdom traditions you can find descriptions that show that the moment of enlightenment happens in this way, either alone, or in a dialogue with a master.
To ask philosophical questions in a meditative-existential way has nothing to do with those enquire techniques used in psychotherapy and coaching. It´s quite central that philosophical counseling is using philosophical questions, because such questions ask for what is common to all mankind, the universal - what you could call the essence of Man and reality. This is because that the Source, the essential in Man and in reality, precisely is something common to all mankind, or universal. In other words: philosophy directs itself towards the essence, and not towards the content. Psychotherapy and coaching are only able to ask for the personal (or the content), and therefore they can never open the consciousness in towards the Source (the essence).
Even though philosophical counseling gives answers to questions, then these answers aren´t conclusions to anything, as you for example see it in politics and religion. The answers are only tools for the questioner´s own self-inquiry.
Today we see a tendency to, that many meditation-teachers (and other spiritual counselors) have forgotten the philosophical aspects of the meditation process, and have made the merely supporting exercises (for example concentration, visualizing and so on) to the central aspect. For example, this is to be seen in the so popular confusion of spirituality and psychology/psychotherapy, where they believe, that realization and ethics are coming automatically through psychotherapy, and by sitting and concentrating on some kind of object, or by visualizing something. But when the philosophical aspects are left out you create breeding ground for a lot of different kinds of spiritual self-deceit. This is because an important part of the opening in towards the Source is the realization of what hinders this opening. Unless you know, for example the Ego´s, fundamental essence, you can´t recognise it, and it will deceive you to identify with it again and again. But when you realize the hindrances in you (for example through the question Who am I? as Ramana Maharshi did it) then it is the Source itself - the Good, the True and the Beautiful - that makes the realization possible. Therefore, you must discover just how far down the rabbit hole goes.
The wisdom traditions have always claimed, that the act of realization is one of the two most important ways in which the opening in towards the Source can happen. The other way is the ethical practice, the training of compassion and love. This aspect, which also is something philosophical, also seems to be lacking today.
Therefore, I will, in coming Pop Culture Files, continue my writings on The Matrix and other topics of pop culture. Because that´s where people are.
The Pop Culture Files