The concept of reality, boundaries and understanding of the physical world and the realm of ideas is nothing new. It has troubled human thinkers almost since the beginning of time. Famously, Greek philosopher Plato writes the Parable of the Cave around 360 B.C., describing the idea that people do not have a clear concept of reality. He states in dialogue that what we perceive and understand as physical is vague and distorted; it is rather impossible to ever really get to know our world as it is. Plato advocates the world of ideas against physical reality, suggesting that abstract notions can be (if the philosopher rises to the challenge of comprehending them) more real than objects of tangible form. Later on (or earlier, as the taxonomy of his works is somehow controversial), Plato goes on to propose an ideal form of Republic, which is a utopian narration and a fine example of abstract philosophical thought. In his writings, he goes as far as suggesting strict boundaries between the more and less enlightened members of the public (and a severe constraint of the rights of the less gifted members of society). This is not suggesting radical social change; it’s merely discussing the cultural impact of different distinctions of reality and truth.
Plato’s logic has been immensely influential to Western thinking. His proposed ideas have been carried through centuries, impregnating the minds of modern philosophers, artists, and creators. He has also heavily influenced science and popular culture.
Have you ever read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for your own pleasure or to entertain your favorite niece? Would you have thought that the roots of Lewis Carroll’s thought lie deep in ancient Greek philosophy? Indeed, Alice is one of the most intriguing adaptations of platonic idealism. The young girl descends into a world where nothing is obvious, stable or standard. White rabbits run about being late for imaginary appointments, babies turn into pigs and cats disappear into thin air. All of this is going on while Alice tries to comprehend the authenticity of reality in her surroundings.
The bizarre discussions between Alice and the Cheshire Cat are legendary, maintaining their freshness despite being composed in 1865:
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “otherwise you wouldn’t have come here.”
This ‘mad’ world is swallowing Alice, making her (and the reader) question their understanding of reality every step of the way.
Alice, beyond all of the numerous theatrical adaptations, has influenced artists to produce many darker and more grim versions of this powerful story. An interesting example is the EA video game, American McGee’s Alice. It is an upside-down dystopia, where awful things have happened, and everything gets worse with every button you press. Walking through dark, bloodstained corridors where you never know who you can trust, everything you thought you understood is completely twisted and terrifying. The player explores the limits of human understanding with the certainty that what is seen by the eye and what truly exists can be two very different stories.
Another intriguing example of how the story of Alice has created an influential cultural milestone can be read in Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland, a frantic descent into the deep corners of the author’s mind. Combined with underground graphic aesthetics, providing a stimulating historical approach of the English Northeast, this is a truly wild interpretation of the classic story. And so we continue on our journey of exploring reality and the limits of human understanding.
Produced in 1999, written and directed by the Wachowski Brothers, The Matrix created a radical new approach on the philosophical discussion of what is real and what is obscure. In a century where science and technology become immensely dominant, there is endless potential in experimenting with reality in laboratories through computer algorithms. Humanity is stronger than ever before but at the same time it remains vulnerable to the dangerous surroundings of its cold, industrial world.
The recognition that science can produce life and that technology can simulate reality takes the platonic ideas a step further. These harsh realities begin inducing more fear in humanity. The Matrix intensifies our collective uncertainty in regards to our motives, our acts and our wishes. In the film, the motives of the people around us rise like a dark cloud and reveal themselves as dangers that we need to overcome. By theorizing our fear and understanding ourselves – since everything else is a subjective construction – one man truly sees the world for what it is.
Besides the occasional – and neurologically explainable – déjà vu, I wouldn’t say that there is a lot of proof about an actual cinematic matrix where everyone is tied up and projected a distorted version of an ideal reality. On the other hand, this story has been re-created almost word-for-word from 360 B.C. onward, so there may be some truth that lies within the story. Maybe what The Matrix is all about is our individually clouded perception of the world and reality. Maybe the shadows we see are sketched by our own troubled and fearful deficiencies. We are all connected, afterall.
If philosophy, art and creative processes have proved one thing throughout the centuries, it is that they are forged from deep-rooted human fears, longings and questions. The Allegory of the Cave has been returning in human thought in one form or another for a very long time. Even if the riddle cannot be solved, it is worth questioning our reality.
The distorting ability of the human mind (and the potential for creating versions of truth and believing them to be fact) has been acknowledged in psychology since the beginning of the 20th century. Furthermore, the ability of the observer to influence the outcomes of the observation is a scientifically recognized and deeply troubling phenomenon. It is studied in quantum physics and has permanently shifted our understanding of the material world.
The “Observer Effect” is a scientific term, referring to the widely accepted fact that whoever observes an experiment irrevocably affects the outcome of this experiment. The analysis of this phenomenon goes as far as to suggest that without the observer, the observing object does not exist. This breakthrough in scientific thought leads to the conclusion that the universe doesn’t exist without us observing it, creating it at the same time that we recognize it. This puts the individual in a place of tremendous responsibility. It is a shift from the platonic notion of ideas being imposed upon us to the concept of us projecting our reality to the world.
Whether you prefer philosophy to hard-wired science, life is the ultimate adventure and we have an obligation to live it to the fullest. Complex theories are there to entertain and give food for thought in a search for answers. These discoveries may not be the same for everyone, but those with an inquiring mind can find the path of exploration for themselves. Look within and recognize that we are absolutely connected with the universe that surrounds us. Dive deep and plug in.