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Irreconcilable Differences

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You may be acquainted with Matrix I — the movie that brilliantly concretized an abstraction which, until then, philosophy professors had had for centuries to explain with mere words: the genuine possibility, a metaphysical inevitability for each of us (though some deny it), that the world we perceive is wholly illusory.

In Matrix I, the real world is a desolate, ravaged place. The sun is history — it’s been extinguished. Apart from a motley band of rebels, most people spend their entire lives in “pods,” immobile. The evil aliens who control the world sustain them only to draw nourishment from the kind of battery charge that the human life current provides.

The aliens understand that the human animal cannot subsist without some sense of society and purpose. So they provide it — the sense, that is — via a plug physically inserted into the brain of each pod’s inhabitant. Through these plugs, the humans’ brains are all connected to a central computer.

From that point, of course, the mechanism of illusion is straightforward. You’re no doubt aware that all brain activity is electrical, including the signals from the five physical senses on which all our perceptions of the material world are based. The aliens simply do essentially the same thing you do in your morning shower when you pull the thingie to switch the water from the bath faucet to the shower head. They divert the brain’s connections from the five senses to the false sensory signals generated by the computer. Thus is wrought a completely synthetic reality.

The humans have no way to know it, but the truth, as one character informs another, is that “you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.” (Script here.)

How this works as an allegory for our actual condition in this “information age” of ours hardly bears mentioning. You know it already. Funny man Jon Stewart is suddenly everyone’s darling because he merely alluded to our condition on CNN’s Crossfire last October. There was no need to spell it out:

JON STEWART: I made a special effort to come on the show today, because I have privately, amongst my friends and also in occasional newspapers and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad.


PAUL BEGALA: We have noticed.

STEWART: And I wanted to — I felt that that wasn’t fair and I should come here and tell you that I don’t — it’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America.


TUCKER CARLSON: But in its defense…


STEWART: So I wanted to come here today and say…


STEWART: Here’s just what I wanted to tell you guys.




STEWART: Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America.



STEWART: And come work for us, because we, as the people…

CARLSON: How do you pay?

STEWART: The people — not well.


BEGALA: Better than CNN, I’m sure.

STEWART: But you can sleep at night.


STEWART: See, the thing is, we need your help. Right now, you’re helping the politicians and the corporations. And we’re left out there to mow our lawns. [Excerpted from transcript of Oct. 15 Crossfire.]

I’ve been constructing my very important and logically airtight arguments about the failures of public debate, about delusion, about cultural pollution and the imminent end of everything.

This guy Stewart just has to say “Stop hurting America.” Everyone knew.

The phrase itself has swept America and is now part of our lexicon. (Google it and see for yourself.)

But the problem is deeper and darker than the news media’s false portrayal of the world. The reality is bleaker even than the sunless Matrix world. It’s something that renders polemics pointless, something that should shut us all up.

The Matrix‘s slaves, after all, enjoy an unhampered ability to communicate with each other, just like in the (apparent) world outside the movie theatre. How this works is that the Matrix computer not only generates the inputs to each person’s brain, but also receives the brain’s outputs — for example, a person’s neural commands to his legs, arms and vocal chords. And the computer then generates everyone’s subsequent brain inputs accordingly.

So when a person “says” something, he “hears” himself say it. And everyone around him also hears it. Everyone hears the same thing.

The point is, there is a single and unique simulated world for everybody.

That’s why the Matrix allegory is really too cheerful. There are no “separate realities”! Even Bush and Kerry supporters hear the same thing.

In our real world, by contrast, we are divided into innumerable reality blocs. We might call them opinion blocs. And the information boundaries between these blocs are impregnable.

Allow me to expose myself here, for the public interest. Taking myself as an example,
it’s practically inconceivable that anything would lead me to change my mind about an opinion I’ve already developed.

And I assure you I’m exceptionally open-minded.

You, dear reader, are the same way. If you got an opinion, it ain’t gonna change.

So. This certainly raises uncomfortable questions about what we’re doing here. And about communication in general.

Besides the opinions I already hold, my general opinions are often applicable to a brand new issue I’ve never heard of before. So I’m quite capable of having an inflexible opinion instantly when an issue arises for the first time.

My own particular opinion bloc, since we’re on the subject, has an estimated size which I confess is not especially large. As I’ve become more realistic about the world’s separate realities, it’s begun to dawn on me that its population may not significantly exceed one.

Which, certainly, does not make overturning my views any less unthinkable.

I’m not talking about an inability to recognize error. Everyone makes mistakes, and virtually any ass knows he’s no exception. I am talking about the inflexibility of developed opinions — the same inflexibility you yourself share (though most people enjoy the validation of a more populous bloc).

I sometimes look back on things I wrote some time ago — for example, my September 1, 2002 letter to my diplomacy school students, or the one from the year before (just before 9/11) to my Tsinghua students — and I think, this is just so right. It’s wondrous how the passage of time has left my conviction totally undiminished.

That 2002 letter, for example, says that “the most potent threat to freedom, democracy and other fundamental American values” is

unbridled corporate power and the way it corrupts politics, news reporting, and (via the entertainment media) the culture at large. This worsening problem is probably best appreciated and most often criticized by commentators within the U.S. itself, but it seems only radical solutions could address the problem, and none is under serious consideration.

Isn’t that just too true? No radical reform is on the agenda. No reform under discussion could credibly address our polity’s core problems. Our news is manipulated. Our democracy is on its way to being extinguished, like the Matrix‘s sun. And nothing is being done. (“Stop hurting America,” though touching, won’t work.)

But I understand these feelings of mine cannot breach the confines of my private opinion bloc.

This disconnectedness between people’s opinions was of course a national obsession for a while in 2004, as millions pondered how their fellow citizens could have re-elected a president they perceived as plainly dishonest and dangerous.

Communication, as we know, is fundamental to society. We must establish the wiring, we must link up our pods. And some blocs are talking about it. But has news of the issue surfaced within the dominant blocs?


Further observations on our disconnectedness

The potentially interesting topic of whistle-blowing drew me for a second visit last November to the Toronto Debating Society. Whistle-blowing, fundamentally, is about exposing truth — but some personal exchanges I had with participants after the debate illustrate our culture’s delusion problem.

One person, a mother in her 40’s, told me how she’d been a “whistle-blower” herself. She’d become aware of some kind of fraud taking place in a corporation she’d begun working for shortly before. She’d been pressured to sign some documents and felt personally implicated. And, she told me with evident emotion, she’d spoken up — presented the facts to senior officers of the corporation — and had subsequently been threatened and intimidated. She’d then decided not to be involved any longer, and had tendered her resignation.

“Was the crime stopped?” I asked her.

“Uhhhh …. I really can’t say for sure.”

That, dear readers, is not whistle-blowing. It is self-delusion. The lady has transformed what appears to be one of the significant experiences of her lifetime — from the truth, that she caved in, into a memory of an act of courage.

Remarkably, a second participant whom I spoke with at the same event exhibited exactly the same kind of self-delusion. In his case the “whistle-blower” was his father. That man had become outraged upon discovering that a major American corporation’s prospective business operations in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), operations he’d supported in his capacity as a lawyer, were grossly exploitative. His “whistle-blowing” consisted of getting drunk and loudly denouncing the lot of them at an executive meeting — an act which got him fired on the spot.

The person telling me the story was proud of his father for what he’d done. He wanted to tell me, however, that his father himself considered the act questionable because he’d violated the ethical obligation of client confidentiality. So, his point was, the rightness of whistle-blowing was sometimes difficult to assess.

That case isn’t difficult at all, I said. It’s easy.

“Well, I don’t want to discuss it,” he said. The point, he maintained, is that whistle-blowing is not a “panacea.”

This same person was later kindly urging me to join the society, and I confided what it is that limits my enjoyment of the club’s activity. His response there too is telling.

My problem with “debating” is that typically you’re arguing a position that does not reflect your own beliefs. It’s just a game. That’s fine if you like that sort of thing, but personally I don’t get much of a kick out of promoting some arbitrary position that I don’t believe in. My sincere beliefs already meet with enough disagreement. I hardly need to pursue additional, artificial arguments.

But the man was against the idea of debates in which participants would debate their actual beliefs. Why? He said the problem would be that people would get carried away by their emotions, and that in consequence their arguments would be irrational.

Well. Doesn’t that just say it all?

How could our differences be anything but irreconcilable when we can’t discuss them rationally?

The man’s spontaneous remark contains a great truth.

How widespread is this phenomenon? How many of us can’t or won’t frankly face the truth? 50%? 80%? How does the incidence of this disease vary across cultures? Is it more or less pronounced in ours?

And … how about yourself?


Communication Occurs in U.S. Senate

Our disconnectedness turns out not to be absolute.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was going to vote, April 19, on President Bush’s nomination of John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. The panel’s 10 Republicans were expected to unanimously support the nomination, a move that would have sent the nomination to the Senate floor.

But then communication happened.

In the course of a two-hour meeting of committee members in which two Democratic senators spoke against Bolton, one of the Republican senators listened … and heard. He then “stunned” his colleagues, according to the New York Times, by changing his mind about supporting Bolton without further review.

The Times reports the reaction to this singular event by another Republican on the panel who had also had misgivings about Bolton:

The second Republican … did not make his views known at the hearing, but told reporters later that he was glad that the vote had been postponed.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen, in a setting like this, a senator changing his mind as a result of what other senators said,” [he] said. “The process worked. It’s kind of refreshing.” [“Senate Panel Postpones Vote on U.N. Nominee,” New York Times, April 20, 2005.]


A Thesis Undermined

(May 2, 2005)

I come before you penitent and humbled.

I was wrong.

Wrong, wrong, wretchedly wrong.

It began just like any other difference. Victor Plenty posted a comment (below) claiming that something in my piece was wrong — some minor detail involving the movie, Matrix. Hardly anything remarkable there.

But then….

Ever since this hit me, a scene from another movie has been replaying in my mind:

You know what I’ve seen? I’ve seen killers walk free because the eyewitness was an alcoholic. I’ve seen sex offenders that couldn’t be touched because the victim was a call girl. Credibility– It’s the only currency that means anything on this kind of playing field. Dean’s got the tape, and he’s gonna come out with it; and when he does, I want his credibility. I want people to know he’s lying before they hear what he says.

Jon Voight’s bloodless spymaster was explaining the way the world works to his team (in Enemy of the State), but now it’s as if he was whispering those words into my ear as a warning to me.

To continue.

Plenty went on to defend his claim. There too, of course, nothing out of the ordinary.

Except that…. Well, he was somewhat persuasive. References to the script and all that. And….


This is beyond anything observed in the U.S. Senate. With the Bolton matter, a senator was willing to postpone a vote pending further review.

In this matter, however, my difference with Plenty has been entirely reconciled.


I apologize to everyone for the inconvenience.

This is, obviously, bad news from my personal point of view.

But there’s a bright side. Humanity’s prospects have considerably improved.

Related: Delusion Carries Bush (Nov. 3, 2004)

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About urielw

  • jadester

    as Neo would say, “woah”
    i think you hit the nail on the head. The real funny thing is, you’d probably find, most people realise this, even if they wouldn’t necessarily have put it the same way, or indeed used The Matrix to illustrate their point.
    Also, you might want to swap “aliens” with “man-made robots”. Perhaps some of the first film’s genius lay with that premise – humanity became enslaved by its own creations

  • Uriel

    Thanks for this, but ……

    >you might want to swap “aliens” with “man-made robots”. Perhaps some of the first film’s genius lay with that premise – humanity became enslaved by its own creations


    I don’t believe Mr. Smith et al. were humanity’s own creations.

  • Victor Plenty

    You weren’t paying attention, then, Uriel.

    It’s okay, though. I’d rather see your good heavy duty philosophizing and political analysis derived from the Matrix, rather than see someone who gets every nit-picky detail in the film’s mythology correct, without being able to apply the ideas to anything of practical value.

  • Shark

    Hmmm. I’m wondering if this couldn’t have been:

    a) edited
    b) broken up into 2 or 3 different essays
    c) a little less obtuse..

    Either way, I do like the way you take your brain out and play with it in public. We need a lot more of that here at Blogcritics — assuming most participants actually have a brain…

    re: Debate, arguments, convincing one’s ‘audience’, etc.

    So many times — when challenged to produce ‘facts’ or ‘logic’ on this site — I’ve had to restate my opinion that they’re all just opinions dressed up as truisms, facts are bullshit, everything is relative, and logic is some pendant’s way of saying he can add.

    But enough about me; Tristan Tzara said it best: (and it’s my favorite quote)

    “Philosophy is the question: from which side shall we look at life, God, the idea or other phenomena. Everything one looks at is false. I do not consider the relative result more important than the choice between cake and cherries after dinner. The system of quickly looking at the other side of a thing in order to impose your opinion indirectly is called dialectics, in other words, haggling over the spirit of french fries while dancing method around it.”

    re: the matrix, a feeling of isolation, lack of communication, etc.

    Apropos of nada, I thought I might also mention my theory called “Shark’s Fourteen Million Theory” — which says that:

    WHATEVER I’m thinking, feeling, and/or doing at the moment is being felt, thought, and/or done by at least 14 million other people at THIS EXACT MOMENT.

    It’s true: I can prove it with a paper and a pencil.

    But its most important value:

    When I hear imaginary blackboots kicking down my door, and I smell imaginary book burnings just outside my cell, It helps me get through the day.

    Use it if ya like.

  • Uriel

    >You weren’t paying attention, then, Uriel. It’s okay, though.

    And some are so imbued with their own infallibility, they find it more expedient to grant (unsolicited) dispensation than to attempt reconciliation with those who differ.

  • Victor Plenty

    It’s not a question of “infallibility,” dude. It’s a simple empirical question. The text upon which you base your ruminations (i.e., The Matrix) is readily available for scrutiny so we can resolve any difference of opinion regarding its contents.

    If you will examine more carefully the statements made in the film, you will find multiple places where both Agent Smith and Morpheus explain that the entire machine civilization was created by humans. Thus the conflict in the film is not an alien invasion, as you claim in your original post. It is a conflict between humans as creators and the intelligent machines they have created.

    So, in brief, you weren’t paying attention.

    That’s a simple statement of fact, not an insult, as you seem to have taken it. No offense to you was intended, Uriel, and you are making extra unnecessary work for yourself and everyone else by laboring so intensely to find cause for offense.

    It would be so much simpler and more graceful for you to just admit you made a mistake, and accept the compliment I clearly intended as the main point of my prior comment.

    Have a nice day.

  • Uriel

    You’re leaving it up to me to substantiate your claim that I’m wrong?

    Who are you?

  • http:/ Victor Plenty

    I’m your worst nightmare, or your best friend. Take your pick.

    I’m someone who pays attention when he watches movies, among other things.

    For example, I’m someone with other things to do on a Saturday morning, so I’m going away now. I’ll catch up with you later and explain why you’re wrong, if you haven’t yet mustered the effort to learn why on your own by the time I get back.

    Have a nice day.

  • Uriel

    >I’m your worst nightmare, or your best friend. Take your pick.

    This, I’m guessing, is a guy who watches a lotta movies.

  • Victor Plenty

    Nah, I don’t watch movies all that often. Maybe that’s why I’m sometimes able to accurately remember what happens in them.

    The mistake you’re making here, Uriel, is treating your friends as if they were enemies.

    Both Jadester and I complimented you on your philosophical efforts here. We both are quite friendly to your aims when we recommend a change to your post that would make it more factually accurate.

    Why? Because the InterWeb is swarming with literally millions of Matrix fans. Many of these will stop taking your erudite pronouncements seriously once they see you talking about these “aliens” which exist only in your own imagination, because they are never once mentioned in even a single line of the film’s dialogue.

    I verified this fact by doing a simple text search in one of the many copies of the screenplay which are available online and easily found through Google. (You have heard of Google, right?)

    If you bother to check any of these sites you can easily find where Morpheus explains how humans created a race of intelligent machines. Just do a search on the word “birth” to find that part. Agent Smith also describes the transition from the human civilization to the machine civilization. Search for the word “dinosaur” to find that part.

    You’re welcome.

  • Uriel

    >Just do a search on the word “birth”


    Damn damn damn.

    This upends my entire thesis.

  • shockwave

    The whole discussion is a sham to lend credence to the original essay, no?

    If not, well, it seems that way. (Perhaps God is way too fond of irony.)

    Anyway, Matrix minutia aside, the article was excellent. And the comment about the imaginary jackboots was perhaps the most telling. Don’t forget that real people get really killed over these imaginary ideas. That’s why we tend to think of closed mindedness as a bad thing. An opinion is one thing, a shibboleth is something else. When your self image starts to become indistinguishable from your opinions and you start to think that a different opinion is a personal assault then it becomes easier to react violently to someone you disagree with. Societies who indulge in this kind of thinking usually wind up violent, imperialist, and doomed.

    Any idea where I’m going with this?

  • Dave Nalle

    Shark:”When I hear imaginary blackboots kicking down my door, and I smell imaginary book burnings just outside my cell, It helps me get through the day.”

    It astounds me that you’re so aware that you live in a delusional world, yet embrace and literally trumpet the fruits of your self-deception.

    I’m working on an essay about this. Can I use you as my poster-child?


  • Mark Saleski

    it astounds me that you can fit the word ‘delusional’ in such a high percentage of your comments.


  • Victor Plenty

    Another mistake, Uriel. The sun was never “extinguished” in the story. Morpheus explains that the humans “scorched the sky,” effectively blocking the sun’s light from reaching the surface of the earth. However, the sun is still up there.

    (Nevermind that this is almost as absurd as the bizarre and ridiculous claim about the machines being able to use humans as a “power source” — at the moment we’re discussing the details of the story’s premise and it would do no good to complicate our discussion further by debating its plausibility.)

    All you are proving here, Uriel, is how difficult it is for anyone to communicate with you. But that’s no philosophical feat, because you could also choose not to be so deliberately obtuse and humorless in your approach to the discussion.

  • Uriel

    I still don’t see how the sun wasn’t extinguished.

    But now that my argument has been extinguished (see Addendum above) I can hardly even think about the sun.

    I had an exam for my students with questions about The Matrix. (Actually, I was the alien there, in China.) I hope I didn’t set them on any wrong paths….

  • Victor Plenty

    Well, I’ll admit my case here is not as strong as it was in the question of aliens vs. intelligent machines built by humans. I don’t recall any lines of dialogue in the film explicitly stating that the sun is still up there.

    My impression is based on the visuals in the scene where Morpheus tells Neo: “welcome to the desert of the real.” In that simulation of the planet’s surface, there is no direct sunlight, true. The entire sky is permanently shrouded in dark clouds, like the sky in the heaviest part of a severe thunderstorm.

    However, there does seem to be some light up there, enough to keep the surface from being completely dark. This indicates to me that the sun was merely blocked by clouds, rather than extinguished.

    Not that any of this is all that important, really. I don’t think these details have any effect at all on the substance of your thesis. They negatively affect only the superficial persuasiveness, rather than the inherent worthiness of your argument.

  • gonzo marx

    see the third movie, the sun is there..they rise above the clouds for a few seconds (Trinity and Neo, that is)

    other than some minor factual corrections which Victor has supplied the original Article gives much food for Thought…

    personally, i do tend to disagree that it is impossible to break out of formned Opinions…but i do recognize just how difficult that can be

    it is also patently obvious that such blind obedience to one’s inner Views fuels the fire of discontent between the “Red” and “Blue” gangs in american politics at this time…

    but i digress…

    thanx for the Read..”Angel of Fire”