The Perceived and the Absolute Realities
We’re probably being tricked to believe the world around us. But how?
We like to think that our surroundings are honest with us: that what we see, is what there is to see. In other words, we like to think that our ‘perceived reality’ (where our life is situated) is the same as our ‘absolute reality’ (where our existence is situated). But there really is no philosophical reason for it to be so. As we shall see, there certainly are scenarios in which they mean different things. Still, in most everyday scenarios, the two realities appear the same. This suggests that although they’re different concepts, they may be connected. In this exploration, I’ll look at some popular thriller films to understand the different forms this connection can take.
The Matrix — a hierarchical structure
The film presents a dystopian future where humans and computers are at war. As a distraction and an energy source, computers have trapped most humans in an artificial simulation, called the Matrix. Thus, there are clearly two different realities: the perceived reality is the matrix; the absolute reality is the warring world. Further, we can see how the perceived reality is nested within the absolute reality, in a hierarchical structure. The Matrix is a completely different illusionary world, which exists within the ground reality of the war between humans and computers.
In the Matrix, the idea of a simulation is used to nest the perceived reality within the absolute reality. There are likely to be other ways to achieve the same. For example, the film Inception uses dreams. I’m sure there are others that use optical and perspective-based illusions to construct perceived realities within an absolute reality. Whatever may the method of interlinking be, we have seen that the perceived reality may be nested within an absolute reality.
Harry Potter — a parallel structure
In the Harry Potter series, there are two main kinds of people: muggles and wizards. The muggles live in a different kind of world to the wizards. Their world is all the same, except that the muggles have a superficial and incorrect understanding of magic. Consequently, they dismiss and disapprove of magic. For them, therefore, the perceived reality is the world with electric toasters, and no magic. The absolute reality however is a world with magic, and no real use for electric toasters. Thus, the perceived reality can be said to exist alongside the absolute reality. The structure is therefore parallel here.
Shutter Island — an undeterminable structure
In this film, reality is understood through the existence of two equally plausible interpretations of the film’s plot.
(1) The protagonist is called Teddy and he is a former US Marshal conducting an investigation on Shutter Island. He discovers that instead of a mental hospital, this is a research facility where they attempt to fundamentally alter the human mind. He further realises that he’s repeatedly being lied to and that he himself is being made the lab rat of an experiment.
(2) The protagonist is called Andrew Laeddis and is a madman who killed his wife. To escape this harsh truth, he has constructed an elaborate mental structure (the US Marshal story). The doctors at the hospital are trying to make him aware of the truth and thereby bring him back to reality.
In both these interpretations, the perceived reality is the same — that the protagonist is a US marshal on an investigation. They differ, however, in the understanding of what the truth (or the absolute reality) is. In the first interpretation, it is an elaborate experiment; in the second, it is an attempt to bring a madman back to reality. As a result of this lack of clarity in the absolute reality, the protagonist is unable to verify whether his perceived reality is the same as the absolute reality. He does not know whether his surroundings are lying to him, or telling him the truth. Consequently, the relationship between the perceived and the absolute reality is blurred here.
Through this exploration of films, I conclude that there are multiple ways in which the perceived reality can be distinct from yet connected to the absolute reality. The connection may be hierarchical, parallel or even undeterminable. Thus, even if we are living a lie, it could be any of multiple different kinds of lies or just an illusion of a lie. This is a further complication for those determined to discover the absolute reality (the truth). Not only do they not know who’s lying to them (if anyone), they also don’t know what kind of a lie it is.
My exploration has left me with more questions than answers — each of which could be elaborate explorations in themselves. I will just list them out below for the curious readers, and my own future self:
1. Is there such a thing as an absolute reality? Even the “absolute reality” in the films were still just settings of these fiction films. Perhaps it is all just a nested series of perceived realities. Or perhaps it’s a parallel of countless different perceived realities (each of the different conscious beings).
2. Do most people prefer to live in the absolute reality? Well, most people wish to live in the more comfortable place. Since we choose (consciously, or unconsciously) what our perceived reality is, it will probably be more suited to us than the absolute reality, which is the same for everyone & everything. In some sense, Morpheus (from The Matrix) is right to refer to the absolute reality as this harsh place, the “desert of the real”. So perhaps most people would rather live in their perceived realities only.
3. Does the identity of a character affect which reality it ultimately deems true, and adopts? What about personality? Neo chose the warring world; Cypher went to the extent of betrayal to be brainwashed and sent back into the Matrix. Why? Perhaps dissatisfied rebels choose the absolute reality (in the hope of something better and more truthful) and those living happy lives choose the illusion — the perceived reality.
4. When forced, what is the transition from one reality to another like? The Muggle prime minister was utterly confused, shocked, and even fearful when he interacted with wizards. Hermione took it better. Does this too depend on the traits of the character?
5. What methods do agents outside employ to make us believe in a false perceived reality? The computers in The Matrix have literally placed humans in incubator-like chambers, where their brains are electrically manipulated. In Harry Potter, they attempt to hide the wizarding world from the muggles, but when they can’t, they cook up false explanations and manipulate their memories. In Shutter Island, they do it through an elaborate series of lies and psychological manipulation. How comprehensive is this list so far?