Most religions, mystical practices, and spiritual paths assume there's a truer reality than our everyday existence. Few people, though, think deeply about how it is possible to tell whether Reality X is more true than Reality Y -- assuming that both actually exist.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari does think about this sort of stuff, though. Today I read the Science Fiction chapter in his newest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
Harari notes that movies like The Truman Show and The Matrix show people trapped in an illusory reality that they have to struggle to get out of.
However, both movies -- despite their brilliance -- in the end recoil from the full implications of their scenarios. They assume that the humans trapped within the matrix have an authentic self that remains untouched by all the technological manipulations, and that beyond the matrix awaits an authentic reality that the heroes can access if they only try hard enough.
The matrix is just an artificial barrier separating your inner authentic self from the outer authentic world. After many trials and tribulations both heroes -- Neo in The Matrix and Truman in The Truman Show -- manage to transcend and escape the web of manipulations, discover their authentic selves, and reach the authentic promised land.
This is pretty much the basic plot line of the aforementioned religions, mystical practices, and spiritual paths. Something is preventing us from reaching "the authentic promised land." Original sin. Karmas. Maya. Worldly desires. Attachments. Etc. Etc.
What, though, if all of the ways to get out of the constricted box of illusion are just another form of the matrix? What if attempts to get out of the box we think we're trapped in just lead to a different sort of box? Harari goes on to say:
The current technological and scientific revolution implies not that authentic individuals and authentic realities can be manipulated by algorithms and TV cameras but rather than authenticity is a myth. People are afraid of being trapped inside a box, but they don't realize that they're already trapped inside a box -- their brain -- which is locked within the bigger box of human society with its myriad fictions.
When you escape the matrix the only thing you discover is a bigger matrix.
When the peasants and workers revolted against the tsar in 1917, they ended up with Stalin; when you begin to explore the manifold ways the world manipulates you, in the end you realize that your core identity is a complex illusion created by neural networks.
Then Harari talks about the common assumption that Life Will Be Really Great only if we can get outside of the box that we feel we're trapped in that limits our capacity to be happy, contented, satisfied, at peace. Since I've been to Fiji, and don't remember being much, if any, happier while i was there, I can relate to this passage.
People fear that if they're trapped inside a box, they will miss out on all the wonders of the world. As long as Neo is stuck inside the matrix and Truman is stuck inside the TV studio, they will never visit Fiji, Paris, or Machu Picchu.
But in truth, everything you will ever experience in life is within your own body and your own mind. Breaking out of the matrix or traveling to Fiji won't make any difference.
It's not that somewhere in your mind there is an iron chest with a big red warning sign that reads OPEN ONLY IN FIJI! and when you finally travel to the South Pacific you get to open the chest, and out come all kinds of special emotions and feelings that you can have only in Fiji.
And if you never visit Fiji in your life, then you missed these special feelings forever. No. Whatever you can feel in Fiji, you can feel anywhere in the world, even inside the matrix.
This is very much in line with what I said in a 2018 blog post, "Keep the feeling of religion, and discard the theology."
I don't believe in God. But I believe in the feelings that accompany belief.
So now that I've realized the falsity of religion, I've discarded the theological aspects of my former belief system and kept the positive feelings.
Here's some examples.
I used to enjoy the feeling that God was looking out for me, managing my life in such a way that even bad experiences were aimed at bettering my long-term salvation chances. This made me feel hopeful about the future, since I considered there was a trajectory to my life that would end with me becoming familiar with divinity, and maybe actually merging with it.
Now, I'm simply hopeful. The feeling is the same. I've just eliminated the crazy theological reasons I had for believing that the future would turn out fine.
Serving God (or a guru, for I was a member of an organization that believed the guru was God in human form) was another enjoyable feeling. Back in my true believing days I engaged in a lot of seva, as it was called, which is an Indian term for service, or volunteering.
Well, I still like to feel like what I'm doing is benefitting others.
But I've discarded the notion that there's some sort of special benefit to being of service to a supposedly Godly person or organization. This allows me to enjoy the sensation of "selfless service" without having that feeling rest on an imagined theological foundation.
People cling to religion because they like the good feelings that come with believing.
What I'm suggesting is that those feelings are separable from the theological framework, rituals, holy books, forms of worship, and other trappings of a religion.
In the same fashion, happiness is a feeling. But obviously there are many ways for someone to be happy. There isn't a single cause of happiness, just as there isn't a single cause of the good feelings that people enjoy from embracing religious beliefs.
You can give up religion and keep the feelings.
Even if those feelings are happening within a box, or matrix. Here's Harari's thoughts about that.
Perhaps we are all living inside a giant computer simulation, Matrix-style. That would contradict all our national, religious, and ideological stories. But our mental experiences would still be real. If it turns out that human history is an elaborate simulation run on a supercomputer by rat scientists from the planet Zircon, that would be rather embarrassing for Karl Marx and the Islamic State.
But those rat scientists would still have to answer for the Armenian genocide and for Auschwitz. How did they get that one past Zircon University's ethics committee? Even if the gas chambers were just electric signals in silicon chips, the experiences of pain, fear, and despair were not one iota less excruciating for that.
Pain is pain, fear is fear, and love is love -- even in the matrix.
It doesn't matter if the fear you feel is inspired by a collection of atoms in the outside world or by electrical signals manipulated by a computer. The fear is still real. So if you want to explore the reality of your mind, you can do that inside the matrix as well as outside it.
Harari is an ardent practitioner of meditation, Buddhist variety. I wrote about this in "How meditation helped Yuval Harari write 'Sapiens,' a terrific book."
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