Do we perceive reality as it truly is?
Yesterday evening, I watched the long-awaited sequel to the Matrix trilogy, ‘The Matrix Resurrections’. And whilst it wasn’t an amazing film (I’m convinced nothing will ever be as groundbreaking as the original), I thoroughly enjoyed it. Most of the reviews thus far, however, haven’t been particularly positive. This is not entirely surprising given the sheer weight of expectation surrounding this fourth film.
But alas, this piece is not a review (if you’re after that a simple Google search will suffice). What I will say, though, is that I appreciated the way this sequel continued to raise philosophical questions like its predecessors: questions about our perceptions, the quest for truth, and the nature of ultimate reality, amongst other things. And, staying true to form, the film continued to raise these questions without necessarily providing clear-cut answers. Herein lies the power of the Matrix series: its openness to a multitude of interpretations (a theme which is hilariously touched on in the film). From being an allegory about the transgender experience to a critique of exploitative capitalism, the interpretations abound.
For myself, the most fascinating question(s) it raises are metaphysical in nature. A Facebook friend recently likened the entire series to Plato’s allegory of the cave but with “better effects”. I’m inclined to agree with this take (whilst acknowledging that it’s just one interpretation amongst many). At the heart of this interpretation lies the question: do we perceive reality as it truly is? Or, is what we perceive as ‘the real’ — through our physical senses — in fact an illusion?
Cue, metaphysical idealism. I’m not referring to ethical idealism, here. Rather, metaphysical idealism is the notion that mind precedes matter (as opposed to mind proceeding from matter). That is, the objective ground of reality is not material, but rather immaterial. What we perceive as the material world “out there” is, in essence, not actually material. Rather, it is a Greater Mind which lies at heart of reality. Some refer to this ‘mind’ as God, or consciousness, or spirit.
Now, at first glance, this idea may come across as the antithesis of our modern, scientific, materialist picture of the universe. None of that woo-woo “consciousness is everywhere” stuff, thanks. But, what is fascinating is that such a view has begun to make a resurgence of late amongst various scientists and philosophers (alongside its ‘cousin’ panpsychism). Why? Because a purely materialist or physicalist view has largely failed to provide a convincing account of human consciousness, which is the only thing we can really be sure exists (i.e. the fact that both you and I are subjects who experience the world). Philosopher David Chalmers dubbed this the hard problem of consciousness: how exactly can conscious experience arise out of non-sentient matter? Or, put differently, how exactly does the human brain generate consciousness?
Two scientist-philosophers whose work I’ve been engaging with of late have proposed forms of idealism which provide a compelling answer to this problem. Dr Bernardo Kastrup, the Executive Director of the Essentia Foundation, argues for an ‘analytic idealism’ whereby experience is fundamental to the universe. Kastrup writes that “this does not mean that reality is in your or our individual minds alone, but instead in a spatially unbound, transpersonal field of subjectivity of which we are segments.” Kastrup, in his (second) PhD thesis, argues for this via the post-enlightenment values of conceptual parsimony, coherence, internal logical consistency, explanatory power, and empirical adequacy. That is, that idealism is the most rational understanding of the nature of reality in light of what the sciences are continuing to reveal to us (particularly in the field of quantum mechanics). Our perception(s) of the universe is likened to that of a cosmic dashboard: what we perceive with our senses as material objects are actually more like icons on a dashboard. They point to objective reality but should not be confused with reality itself. Now, this does not mean we treat our perceptions as false. Rather, we treat them as symbolic icons which point to reality rather than confusing them as reality-itself. We take them seriously and symbolically, but not literally. Thus, what we perceive as matter is in fact consciousness viewed from a different (human, fallible) perspective.
Professor Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, argues for a slightly different form of idealism which he has dubbed ‘conscious realism’. Drawing on the findings of quantum mechanics as well as evolutionary game theory, Hoffman suggests that what we perceive as the objective world “out there” is, in fact, an adaptive illusion. Our ancestors evolved not to see reality as it is, but rather perceived reality in a way which increased evolutionary fitness (and consequently our ongoing survival as a species). In a similar vein to Kastrup, Hoffman uses the metaphor of a desktop interface to illustrate the relationship between our perceptions and the objective world:
There’s a metaphor that’s only been available to us in the past 30 or 40 years, and that’s the desktop interface. Suppose there’s a blue rectangular icon on the lower right corner of your computer’s desktop — does that mean that the file itself is blue and rectangular and lives in the lower right corner of your computer? Of course not. But those are the only things that can be asserted about anything on the desktop — it has color, position and shape. Those are the only categories available to you, and yet none of them are true about the file itself or anything in the computer. They couldn’t possibly be true. That’s an interesting thing. You could not form a true description of the innards of the computer if your entire view of reality was confined to the desktop. And yet the desktop is useful. That blue rectangular icon guides my behavior, and it hides a complex reality that I don’t need to know. That’s the key idea. Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviors. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be. If you had to spend all that time figuring it out, the tiger would eat you.
Rather than matter being fundamental, Hoffman suggests that objective reality consists of conscious agents all the way down. The most basic ingredients of our universe, thus, are conscious experiences. And, through precise mathematical modelling, this theory can account for the correlative relationship between mind and brain (i.e. complex neural networks).
In many ways, this exciting resurgence is not saying anything new to what notable philosophers and mystics have been saying for centuries: that the ontological ground of reality is consciousness itself. Except now, we’re utilizing the power of the scientific method to provide evidence for such a claim.
So, do we perceive reality as it truly is in normal waking consciousness? According to Kastrup, Hoffman, and others, the answer is “no”. Which, begs the question: can we ever perceive reality as it truly is? Or, to return to the Matrix, is there a red pill which can awaken us to the true nature of reality? Perhaps, here, is where we can heed the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us: those mystics and sages who’ve — time and time again — attested to an underlying-yet-all-pervading Benevolent Reality which can be encountered through direct experience.
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and spiritual giant of the 20th century, alluded to such a reality in his famous poem ‘Hagia Sophia’ (excerpt below). Could it be that this mystical encounter with the “mysterious Unity and Integrity” in all things is, in fact, the first-person experience of what Kastrup, Hoffman, and others are describing through third-person scientific language?
There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed
light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious
Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all. There is in all
things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a
fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and
flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being,
welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This
is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s
Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my
I am awakened, I am born again at the voice of this my Sister, sent
to me from the depths of the divine fecundity. I am like all mankind
awakening from all the dreams that ever were dreamed in all the
nights of the world. It is like the One Christ awakening in all the
separate selves that ever were separate and isolated and alone in
all the lands of the earth. It is like all minds coming back
together into awareness from all distractions, cross-purposes and
into unity of love.