The Believing Skeptic II: This Glorious Bubble of Being

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” John Milton, Paradise Lost

Neo probes the mirror.

The scene in the sci-fi flick The Matrix that sent a chill down my spine is the one where the protagonist Neo, having taken the “red pill,” pokes his finger into the mirror. The silvering sticks to his finger, then flows onto his hand, then spreads over his arm and eventually rushes down his screaming throat, signaling his jolting escape from an artificial existence and his rebirth into the world of reality.

How do we know the world around us is real? In the movie, the Matrix is a carefully constructed computerized reality into which the entire human race—with the exception of a few enlightened rebels—have been inserted since birth. While the idea seems far-fetched, might I suggest that each one of us lives in his or her own Matrix, his or her own heavily constructed reality?

Please don’t recoil from your screen just yet.

Of course there is a world “out there,” but here’s the catch: each of us only intersects with it from within a self-contained, semi-transparent bubble whose inner surface reflects back at us, like Neo’s mirror. The interesting part is that we ourselves are only secondarily responsible for the construction of these bubbles. Others—in fact, generations of others—have done most of the hard work of construction and over many centuries. But to the degree that we contribute, we lace into the inner surface of the bubble our own self-awareness, our interpretations and a near-constant valorizing of everything that touches the outer skin of our bubble.

“Valorizing” refers the relative value we place on the things out there with which we intersect. We do this all the time without being fully aware that it’s happening. As you are reading this, you are doing it this very second. Everything that comes our way passes some sort of interior test of value—does it mean anything to me? Is it important to me? Do I find this interesting? Do I find this useful? Do I find this good? Do I find this entertaining? Do I find this worthy of my attention, affection or desire?

William Blake’s “Dreamer”

An enormous amount of stimuli confront our bubble screens on a daily basis and a surprisingly low amount of those stimuli actually pass through the surface to make an impression on conscious thinking and interacting. On the other hand, an enormous amount of leftover stimuli filters through to the subconscious instead, were it lies in a great slagheap of impressions and non-sifted information that drifts into conscious thought every now and again. Much of it clutters our dreams.

But those things that actually pass through to conscious thought and interaction share some kind of exceptional quality that makes us take special notice of them. That level of worthiness is largely an internal determination based on many preferential factors that may or may not have anything to do with what we publicly declare is important. In other words, what we truly value and what we say we value may not be the same thing. In some cases, they might actually be polar opposites. And if there are such valorizing discrepancies (I suspect there are a lot more of these than many of us are either aware of or willing to admit) then there will also be dissonance in our reception of thoughts and ideas.

[I’m awkwardly aware that the last sentence should be the subject of another essay, but for now let’s leave it happily undeveloped.]

Back to bubbles. Is there an “objective” reality? Of course there is. There is certainly something out there that we touch, taste, hear, smell and see. And there are Others, those beings whom we encounter (provided everyone is not merely a figment of my imagination, which would be cool, but calamitous). And there’s a world of ideas and abstractions that have some sort of ethereal existence in minds and hearts. We go on about these abstractions, like love and liberty and loneliness, or create Objects inspired by them from which Meaning is supposed to emerge and merge.

However, none of us—emphasize NONE of us—knows anything outside the spheres that surround us. Our actual sum of knowledge is only as large as the exposure of the surface area of personal experience and interactivity—that includes everything read, heard, seen or absorbed in other ways. Certainly our spheres often intersect, sometimes with very large numbers of other people’s spheres and thereby give the impression that our shared knowledge is somehow Vast to the point of Absolute. But no matter how extensive the human network might be, or how far it stretches into the past, even the collected pool of this shared material is desperately limited stuff, and if only we had the courage and humility to admit to the limitation, we would probably get along with others a lot better than we do.

You might say this outlook on things is hopelessly postmodern and deconstructionist. First of all, I deplore the term “postmodern.” There is no more limp-wristed nomenclature than that which gains its essence from direct reference to what it is not. By this same rule, the United States would be called “The Post-Colonial Nation.” The Cosmos would be the Once-Chaotic. The New York Yankees would be The Not-Highlanders-Anymore.

While I would seriously hesitate to coin a term for an entire age, I would say that the sphere-approach to knowledge, which is nothing new, is merely “perspectival” and therefore accurately reflects the limited experience of individuals in the created order of things. Nor is it deconstructionist in any way. Rather, it bespeaks the intense, continuous creativity of the sentient person.

This very creativity is both blessing and curse in the world of our limited knowledge bubbles. Spend a few minutes reading the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.” Sometimes the force of an imaginative creation is so powerful it overtakes and overrules what our sensibilities (including common sense) would tell us is real. Ever find yourself behaving along the lines of a terrible misapprehension? When this is the order of the day, hour and minute for someone, we call it insanity (from the Latin for “unwhole.”) But we all know people whom we would not call insane who yet seem to behave according to their own highly idiosyncratic version of things. If we are honest, we are all probably a little insane from time to time.

Much more could be said of our spheroid (or choose your own geometric shape) existence, but I only wanted to lodge the point before getting to the heart of things. I’ll expound on the implications further both sooner and later, but it’s an important step to make prior to taking others.

In the meantime, I will blow some more vapor against my own bubble skin and write a word or two with my finger on the mirrored wall.