The Real Matrix and How to Escape It

hacker screen

The subject of the film, The Matrix came up in the comments of Yakaru’s blog, Spirituality is No Excuse lately, and it inspired me to write about something I’ve meant to approach for a while – the real Matrix. I’ve ignored The Matrix at least twice while family members watched it. I’m a realist and can’t bear fantasy nonsense (unless it’s tongue in cheek).

The Matrix falls into the common category of interesting sci-fi idea made ridiculous for the sake of cheap gasps and special effects, the interesting idea being that we might be living in a virtual reality, and the cheap gasps coming from the idea that if we broke that illusion we’d have magical powers, kung-fu-type slo-mo fighting skills, etc. Flying slo-mo martial arts, of course, is an earlier cheap-gasps distortion of actual kung fu (a cultural misrepresentation to add to all the others).

The Matrix, even among its type, is probably particularly damaging culturally, because it deepens people’s delusions about a bunch of supernatural New-Age memes, by providing a hand-waving sort of explanation for them: some people are psychic, or can survive death, or can channel other beings, or can astral plane, for the same reason actual martial-arts masters can slow time down or levitate, because what they’re doing is “tapping into the Matrix”. There are a lot of such deluded people out there; the weird part of YouTube seems to be a favourite haunt.

The film’s idea of a programmed virtual reality has now become distorted again in these people’s minds from an evil plan of actual physical people (or machines, I don’t care) to enslave others (or something: as I say, I was trying to ignore it) into the pseudo-scientific idea of a hidden “spritual reality”, the source of all manner of abilities humans would like to have. People are persuaded that the film is some kind of allegory illustrating our actual condition in this life (some, of course, have a different take, that we’re actually asleep somewhere, like brains in a vat).

The delusion resonates with and amplifies the Law of Attraction garbage, because it says we just have to see through the illusory programming to be able to do anything, absolutely anything, be anything we want, from becoming a president or a superstar to jumping off buildings and flying, live forever, instead of what real, actual biology and physics unfortunately demand.

However, we can see this film as an extreme example of a broader category of fantasy – and even of fiction in its entirety – and the problem stems from the vast amount of similar stories in our culture, introducing the susceptible to belief in everything from ghosts to alien visitation.

The Real Matrix

Of course, one can argue that it’s all just a bit of fun, and I’m a boring old twat somewhere on the autistic spectrum and should lighten up. Maybe, but this is the thing: there’s an actual Matrix and, ironically, it’s exactly the river of twaddle pouring out of the entertainment industry! It’s real, and it’s deployed by people for the purpose of extracting money from us.

And worse. As Adam Curtis documents so well, it’s been used as a method of political manipulation since the ’50s to disempower us, to manage us politically (probably from a genuine desire to construct a peaceful society, as a matter of pleasant-ish fact). Freud’s discovery of the unconscious opened a Pandora’s Box of psychological tools that they (the social engineers of the time) thought might keep everyone genuinely satisfied and happy, and it does, but at a cost so enormous it’s hard to overstate, to our social engagement, to our peace and security, to the survival probability of the planet. The consumer revolution was born.

This real Matrix is now on steroids. Its ubiquity, its penetration into our lives through social media and its trivial or deliberately fictitious content are rapidly trapping us in our “post-truth” world. All media are becoming subsumed by the Internet, and consolidated with robotic manufacturing and delivery systems. The power of presenting individualised misinfomation through algorighms is now well known and therefore used by those with the means, from Putin’s Russia to the political manipulations of the Brexit campaign.

But in a sense, we’ve always been doing this to ourselves, bringing our children up on fairytales, filling their heads with more nonsense than is good for them. We say we do it for the moral lessons the stories convey, but it seems a weak argument, or at least over-played, and more likely we just enjoy the excitement of relating and hearing a scary tale, which either turns out alright in the end or implies the sub-text: the monster isn’t real, so you can now sleep soundly. Either way, we are alarmed, then comforted, appealing in the same way music does, by establishing tension only to dissolve it again in harmonic resolution.

Engaging our emotions does help fix important lessons in our minds, so, rather than telling a little girl not to wander off into the forest alone, or not to trust the outward appearence of things, we instead make her experience vicariously the terror of Little Red Ridinghood facing a deceitful wolf who’s already eaten her grandmother. No doubt this kind of storytelling has other psychological benefits, too, but we need to wake up at some point. We need to put away childish things. To quote Stewart Lee:

‘Have you read the new Harry Potter book, Stew? It’s good, have you read it?’

No, I haven’t read it, because I’m a forty-year-old man.

As adults, we need to stop endlessly entertaining ourselves with the fake scary questions, because we’re ultimately doing it to avoid dealing with the real scary ones. The dangers of over-indulgence are great, because the Real Matrix is seeking to dumb you down, keep you distracted with the latest blockbuster bullshit, confuse you enough to take away your hard-won democratic franchise. If you wake up too late, you could find you’re living in a post-Brexit Britain, or a Trumpian dystopia, or a Third World War.

The sickest deceit was to persuade us that we were empowered by social media, engaging more with politics when we ranted and petitioned on Facebook and Twitter, only to find we were being corralled into digital pens, preaching to the converted, wasting our breath. Lee again:

I hate Twitter. It’s like a state surveillance agency staffed by gullible volunteers.

The fairytale, the fantasy novel, the heroic movie, almost all the mythic tales have perhaps two central motifs. One is the inexhaustible power of positivity, the resolution of distress or oppression and the establishment of a happy ending. That has merit in moderation; it helps us to hope and strive for a better future, but, in excess, it engenders unreal expectations of life, feeding the modern obsession with self, wanton consumption, shallow measures of success, unhelpful levels of competitiveness, the presentation of skewed versions of ourselves and accompanying toxic shame and self-hatred if we ever contemplate our own realities.

The other, closely related, motif is the unreal binary condition of good or bad, of goodies and baddies and the fight between them, with ourselves always identified as the good, when we’re all much more complex than that. The pervasiveness of this meme may be much worse than the first, leading to everything from our failure to appreciate other people’s perspective in our private squabbles, through racism and other forms of prejudice, to political oppression, war and genocide.

The two actually coincide in an unhealthy relationship: not only is there some mythic holy grail we semi-consciously imagine we’re striving for all the time, but we have to beat everyone else to it. Or a more extreme version: our unrealistic optimism as a “positive thinker” relies on vanquishing all the bastards trying to grind us down. Or worse: we expect to build the perfect society once all the degenerates have been wiped out.

Right now, the real Matrix is reinforcing dreams of redemption and/or conquest in developing minds. One is in her room, sparkly and painted, emulating the immaculate public persona of a celebrity singer, another is waiting to graduate from mindlessly slaughtering enemy-shaped pixels to mindlessly slaughtering enemy-shaped people.

We’re all being programmed to want what someone else wants us to want. The Matrix wants you to feel so that you don’t think, which is why everyone is ranting endlessly on social media. Thinking, being a realist, is the only way out of the Matrix. Unfortunately, that’s harder than choosing the right pill (although, from what I remember, it’s a lot less noisy and dangerous). We can do all sorts to improve our thinking, including studying critical thinking, logic, psychology, history and philosophy. We can also watch fewer of that kind of movie (or watch them with critical detachment). We can reduce our social media exposure, and we can engage with science, non-fiction (it’s a thing) and other forms of education.

A Word of Warning

Because we are hard-wired to feel very quickly and think very badly, and because these memes of fighting against oppression are ingrained in us so deeply, it’s easy to trip yourself up with the knowledge of the Matrix once you’re aware of it, imagining that the perpetrator of this terrible crime against truth and freedom is some one or some group – the Rothschilds is a common target, or the Left or the Right, the Illuminati, or the Jews. It’s almost certainly not these, not an orchestrated evil entity, but a very mixed bag of people all over the world just acting in their own interests. This forms a vast ad-hoc system with probably no centre and no evil genius at the top. Certainly there will be some who know what they’re doing and just don’t give a shit, and we can expect they’ll be concentrated in the multinationals, the energy and food companies we rely on most, the retail giants, and in Hollywood, the churches, Silicon Valley. Power corrupts, and scum rises.

But our too-quick thinking styles lead the unwary to imagine all manner of paranoic nonsense: the global governments are working together to enslave the rest of us, or intend to wipe nine tenths of us out; 9-11 was an inside job; the US Government has a secret pact with aliens, or is at war with aliens – conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory. One of them, of course, is “we’re living in the Matrix, like in the movie”, meaning something very different from what’s actually happening. It seems unlikely to be mere coincidence that people now seriously discuss the possibility that the universe is virtual, created by a superior being inside its computer simulation, which has gained more traction than a fair assessment of its likelihood warrants.

But we shouldn’t forget that our messy human version of a Matrix is being constructed around us, and we support it, because we want the cheap products and the easy life and the fun and games with which it buys our political irrelevance. We watch our amusing cat videos, and, like our pet cats are infantilized, we infantilize ourselves, extend our childhoods. Some even fondly await a digital paradise of endless playtime in their virtual worlds. The fate of the real world, meanwhile, is in the hands of those who remain awake.

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Natural Consciousness: (Part 1) Emptiness

I promised myself a while back I’d deal with the issue of consciousness. Writing something as comprehensive as I intended proved to be too great a task to complete in one go. Meanwhile, I decided to try to write shorter posts generally, and try to do so more frequently. So, when a particular reflection on consciousness came to mind, the obvious thing to do was to write about that, perhaps beginning a series.

The series will, I hope, shed a little light on the perennial question of the hard problem of consciousness, obviously from the point of view of philosophical naturalism and materialism.

Meditation on Awareness

I want to begin with a personal reflection, something I believe I’ve learned from my admittedly undisciplined and sporadic meditation practice over the years.

Meditation is presumably the oldest method of investigation of consciousness, to which humanity has added through the ages techniques of philosophy, psychology and neuro-science. Once the human lineage gained the language skills and sufficient awareness of ourselves to conceptualise the question, we must have begun to wonder what this curious thing was that differentiates wakefulness from sleep, and by which we know the things we know.

One of the commonest concerns for the meditator has been the question, “Who am I?” There is a particular form of it that advocates asking oneself that question repeatedly and considering the answers that occur to us, but a whole range of less literal approaches have as their goal the discovery of the nature of the self.

Thoughts and feelings come and go. These are facts we observe. But who is the observer? An obvious way to attempt to identify the self is to eliminate thoughts and feelings. If there are thoughts and feelings and the self, and the self is somewhat obscure, taking away the thoughts and feelings should leave just the self, which might be revealed a little more clearly. Remove the contents of consciousness, and “pure consciousness” can be all that remains. So we just have to stop experiencing. Meditation techniques of this type are designed to still the mind so that, after lots of practice, one can cease thinking and feeling completely and just be one’s pure consciousness.

Of course, this idea of removing the contents of consciousness assumes something will remain, i.e. that the self can be aware without being aware of anything. And it seems to imply that the self can still somehow observe itself.

One important thing to note is that the above describes two different things, the nature of consciousness and the nature of the self, and the unconsidered identification of the two masks an important assumption: that the self is a conscious subject. This appears to explain both things, who we are and what the nature of consciousness is. We posit the “self” and equate it with the (somewhat mysterious) locus where impressions are witnessed. We explain the process of being conscious as the delivery of impressions to this particular entity we call the self. A great many will be so accustomed to this extremely widespread belief, and it will seem to be so true to their experience, that they will have no idea what this paragraph could possibly be implying. However, the philosophical problem this suffers from is that each phenomenon, the nature of which we don’t know, is “explained” by reference to the other, which is equally unknown.

Anyway, the main concern of the current post is the question of what remains when you take away all the contents from consciousness.

Meditation is hard, particularly at first. It takes a lot of practice to even get little gaps in our thinking. In many traditions, effort is put into removing all distractions, both from outside the body and within. Since we experience feelings and perceptions as well as thoughts, we do not want aches and pains, or itches, or interruption by the neighbours.

A lot of my influence was from Yoga doctrines, and from this I gained the impression that the search would reveal to me my Self, the observer who was experiencing things. The space in between the experiences were where this secret lay. Experiencing pure awareness – awareness without being aware of anything – was often suggested to be one of the most important sources of wisdom, giving insight into the nature of reality itself. The mysterious entity encountered was described as being “God Consciousness” or “Universal Consciousness”. This, the yoga books declared, was the truth of who I am, a divine self that is free – if only I knew it – of the body, and of the mind, indeed of all constraints and contingencies, and one with the Universe. Although Hinduism is the basis of yoga philosophy, there are also intimations of this Universal singularity or Oneness in Buddhist philosophy.

The experience of ultimate reality in meditation is often described as the dissolution of the habitual distinction we make between self and the rest of the universe. Samadhi is the contemplation of an object to the point where self and object are supposed to be recognised as indivisible, and this concentration, or “one-pointed awareness”, is often used as a precursor to “pure awareness”. Focusing on one object – a candle flame, a sound, etc. – accustoms the mind to very low levels of stimulation without being distracted, which is required if we intend to remove all contents of consciousness and leave just the “witness”, the contemplation without any object, the mysterious Divine Emptiness, or Self, or Reality, or Buddha Nature, or Godhead. (Here, words become little morsels of greenery. It’s not my fault. I didn’t come up with them.)

So, what do we find?

Well, this has to be a subjective matter, of course, but what I found, I’m pretty convinced, was that apart from experience of something there is probably just no experience. There are two states: conscious-of-something and unconscious. There is not consciousness of nothing, nor consciousness of the self. And nothing I experienced gave me any reason to conclude that I, the object of my meditation, or all the universe were the same, though imagination will easily persuade us of all manner of things that may fly in the face of empirical testing or careful reasoning. (This is not to pre-judge that everthing may be one in the sense that it all belongs to the same process of universal inflation. That’s a very different, non-magical concept.)

Now, I admit I’m not an expert meditator. I haven’t meditated for days, or even hours at a time, or at the feet of a guru in a monastery, and my moments of contemplative silence were relatively brief. Nevertheless, I practised a fair bit and I was serious about the practice I did. I read a good deal, and thought and wrote my own notes about these ideas. I believe I achieved many of the states of awareness described in the literature, including those in question, and I have some confidence that I made sound judgements about what happened – not at the time; at the time, I largely accepted the doctrine – but later, gradually, and with the help of discussions with philosophical naturalists.

My view now accommodates everything I’ve read about meditation if allowance is made for cognitive biases and cultural expectations. As I saw through the assumptions I once held as true, I recognised descriptions of the traditional view as self-contradictory. Take this, for example, from Daido Roshi:

In absolute samadhi, in complete falling away of body and mind, there is no reflection and no recollection. In a sense, there is no ‘experience’ because there is a complete merging of subject and object, or a perfect recognition of already existing non-separation. There is no way of describing what is or was going on.

No experience? No reflection? How, then, can “perfect recognition of already existing non-separation” be possible? How does one recognise without reflection or even experience? This is word-salad. It appears simply to be wishful thinking. The “already existing non-separation” is an ideological position, and its “perfect recognition” is an interpretation of the events of the meditation session to support that belief. The contradictory nature of the statements can be taken as evidence that this interpretation is likely to be wrong. The last sentence is a kicker: the whole passage describes what the writer believes was going on, ending with the assertion that there is no way of describing what was going on.

Parts are consistent, and revealing. If there was “no experience”, then logic dictates there is “no way of describing what was going on”, other than to say that precisely nothing was going on as far as consciousness is concerned. The more ideologically-inclined meditator (as I used to be) tends to wake from nothing and require it to have been something…and something very special.

It’s an easy mistake to make, especially given the meditator’s task of combining concentration with emotional equanimity and effortlessness. The error may be compounded by the close association between the two similar conditions of concentration on a single thing for an extended period of time and attempting to witness emptiness.

During the practice of concentration on an object, one gets tired. The brain doesn’t respond well to very little stimulation over a long period. If, for repeated moments, the function of consciousness stops (that is, you fall asleep and wake again), you will not notice being unconscious (that’s the definition!). However, you will note the passage of time after the unconscious interlude (because the brain monitors the passage of time unconsciously, which is how you tend to know you’ve been asleep if you nod off in a chair). It is therefore easy to see how one might conflate the two conditions (very quietly focused on one thing and being unconscious), interpreting them in combination as the supposed active condition of being aware of nothing (as opposed to not being aware of anything).

The last sentence reinforces the tremendous usefulness of logical analysis of statements. If we can accept that “being aware of nothing” is literally equivalent to “not being aware of anything” – if we can not in all honesty separate them grammatically – we may at least suspect that they may be identical phenomenologically and ontologically.

This practice of reading statements carefully and analysing their logical consistency or inconsistency has become much more natural to me over the last decade. Pseudo-science screams its irrationality at me through its impossible grammar, as do religious and fantastical philosophies (in which I would include much of Buddhism, despite its very useful psychological prescription for the relief of suffering).

History attests to the fact that spending your life in a garden trying not to try to experience non-experience (combined with listening to your masters tell you what you’re experiencing) often leads to the twin conditions of deep confusion and skill at manipulating the meanings of words, giving those who don’t listen properly, including yourself, the impression of sublime clarity. Such philosophers, of course, pretend to make a virtue of their impossible grammar: don’t look at my finger, they say, referring to their circular reasoning, but towards where I’m trying to point. They will (rightly) say that there is no describing the experience they’re pointing at, and (wrongly) that this explains their self-contradictory description.

I might be expected to celebrate Buddhism’s assertion that the self is an illusion, but I’m not sure this is particularly helpful given all the other stuff it asserts, such as that we have past lives and the ultimate goal of life is to cease being reincarnated, that meditation brings all manner of supernatural powers, or that the universe is inhabited by spirits and demons. If the historical Buddha happened to say something that is in accord with modern philosophy and scientific investigation, it might just be by accident.

It does, however, fit with the mathematics of my experience: if one takes contents away from contents + self, and nothing remains, then self = nothing. Witnessing necessarily involves an object. All talk of “the witness” in this metaphysical context may be utter nonsense. Of course, something is certainly witnessing. I hope to delve a little more into what we might reasonably consider that to be in future posts.

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Indicative Votes

The British Parliament had their first round of indicative voting the other day and rejected all options on the ballot paper. They don’t want any kind of Brexit at all if possible.

The problem is, the question put to the people in 2016 was too stark. There were no options for us at that time. It was just a binary choice: shall we commit suicide as a Nation or not?

So, of course, the indicative votes finally make it very stark indeed. Faced with the various options – shotgun, garroting, guillotine, jump off Beachy Head, etc., the MPs were reluctant to advocate any. Naturally, the best of the losers were “ask again” and “induce a longish coma”.

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The Limits of Discussion

Sorry There Weren’t Any More Jokes

I said in passing last time that I was depressed. There were more personal reasons for my depression than the (very depressing) Brexit and global warming, but I didn’t want to write about the other issues.

Those other subjects have been simmering in the background since. I’ve not been sure whether to blog about them, or whether to blog again. Talking about our personal problems in public risks exposing more of ourselves – and others – than we find comfortable later. It can also suggest we think we’re more interesting than we actually are.

I don’t have pretensions to be particularly interesting or special or important, but I did start this blog with the intention of exploring some of my inner stuff and sharing it, in the belief that the facts of our lives – any of us – can be useful to others. I’m attempting to touch on those other issues now for that reason, and because I need to get them outside of my head, although I’m still not sure if I’ll get to the end of this and publish it.

The subject matter here has meandered a fair bit, but lately got fairly heavily into religion, criticising various Christian works. Two long discussions have ended with me questioning what the point of it all is. Continue reading

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Messy Brexit and a Hotter New Year

Well done, you’ve survived another year, and so have I, even despite Christmas excess. The occasional discomfort in the upper torso was just indigestion, probably.

At the end of December, or when we can be bothered to get round to it, we talk about the year that’s been, don’t we? We chew the fat, put the world to rights. We look forward to various satirical reviews of the year on TV or sucked from our favourite social-media teat. I try to avoid TV and all unsolicited content now. My name is John and I’m a recovering Facebook user. So far I’ve been clean for about four months, and that little slip was only because there was a wedding. I could delete my account any time if I wanted to. Continue reading

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Do We Have Free Will?

I remember as a child reading something about “the will” and thinking how odd it was that philosophers talked about it like they might talk about an object. The will? Don’t we just do stuff? I haven’t thought a lot about “the question of free will” (whether we have it) since.

I had realised that I can’t cheat inevitability. I can’t choose an option that isn’t the one I’m going to choose: that’s just changing my mind to whatever I’m going to choose. But I accepted subconsciously, as most of us do, the idea that I’m a free agent. Even when I accepted materialism and started to think of humans as biological machines, it took a while to revisit the question of free will. Machines don’t generally have it, after all.

Last winter, I happened upon a website that made it pretty clear (after engaging in a couple of discussions about free will elsewhere online in which I was sceptically agnostic about it). I was surprised to find myself persuaded fairly quickly that we probably don’t have free will – and from an almost purely philosophical argument, which I often doubt in relation to ontological matters.

I hesitated to write about it to give myself time to mull it over and do more research. It’s time to share my thoughts now. As usual, one of my motivations is to stimulate discussion, so please chip in if you like, pro or con.

If we don’t have free will, it would have some very challenging, but positive, implications for our moral and political questions (despite most people being horrified by the idea).

And that last point is vitally important. If you read this and begin to be persuaded that free will might be an illusion, do not jump to conclusions about what that means, especially negative ones: these are very likely to be mistaken. Give it time and read about why having no free will (and understanding that properly) would be good for humanity.

Continue reading

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Lettersquash is Ten!

Wow, that’s amazing, I’ve been doing this blogging malarkey for a freaking decade! I thought I’d interrupt my work on another post to celebrate this entirely arbitrary fact. Yay!

It’s arbitrary, of course, because apes might not have had eight fingers and two thumbs, so we’d not use the decimal system and ten wouldn’t be a round number. I know, this blog blows your mind sometimes. 😉 Continue reading

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Thirty-four Strange Questions: Part 2 (18-34)

I’m continuing where I left off in my mostly-chapter-titles book review of Roger Carswell’s Christian apologetics, Before You Say “I Don’t Believe”. In Part 1, I introduced the next question:

(18) Have you ever wondered why, unlike other leaders, Jesus’ name is used as a swear word?

Continue reading

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Thirty-four Strange Questions: Part 1 (1-17)

This is a review of the book, Before You Say “I Don’t Believe” by Roger Carswell. I’m doing it in two parts to keep the chunks down a bit. Luckily, while I’m failing to make much progress on the difficult questions facing humanity, leaving my drafts folder in a mess, there are always easier questions, like the thirty-four on Christianity that follow. Continue reading

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Wild-camping Blog Followers…

Hi, this is just a quick note to followers who came to this blog ( for the wild-camping articles. Since I split the blog and moved that content (the camping posts) to a new blog (, you will now not get the usual email notification when I post there. There has been at least one new post recently there, which you may have missed. You will only get notified when I post here (hence this post!), which is now only about philosophy, science, religion, etc.

So, if you still want to follow my wild-camping posts, just go to that link and click the “Follow” button at the bottom right (it often only appears on the page if you scroll upwards for a moment). I’m still called “lettersquash” there, by the way.

If you want to unsubscribe from this blog, just up-scroll here to find the “Un-follow” or “Following” button (or via your email notification). Of course, if you want to follow both of my blogs, you’re very welcome!

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