Are We Losing Our Ability to Know What’s Real?

Photo by Cas, Flickr Commons

Let’s start by posing the question, “What is reality?”

Believe it or not, this question has been pondered for quite a long time. Arguably, the two heavyweights on the issue are Plato and Aristotle.

If you’ve seen the Matrix then you are familiar with Plato. In the movie, Neo discovers that reality is more than he can experience with his senses. In fact, his senses are deceiving him (technically, he finds out he had no senses). He is a prisoner in the “matrix” or a computer simulation, and the “real” reality is out there.

Plato’s famous explanation for this was the “Allegory of the Cave” where he described humanity as chained in a cave where they experienced reality as images projected on the back of the wall caused by the light projected from the cave opening. Consequently, reality was two-dimensional and not fully real (like the computer simulation).

He argued that through philosophy (the red pill in the Matrix) one could be set free to walk outside the cave and discover the full reality that goes beyond our senses.

This is a HUGE oversimplification and Bryan Y, if you are reading this, feel free to elaborate how I got it wrong in the comments below.

Justin Martyr, who lived in the second century, taught Plato’s philosophy, and when he became a Christian, he noticed how much of Plato sounded like Jesus. For example, in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “The truth shall set you free” which sounded a lot like taking the red pill. And Jesus spoke about the reality of a Kingdom and a Heaven that wasn’t here but somewhere close, like Plato’s reality located outside the cave.

Justin Martyr connected the teachings of Jesus with Plato and came up with Christian Philosophy. And it DOMINATED Christian thought for centuries and gave us, among other things, the doctrine of the Trinity.

But that’s another blog post.

Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, broke from his mentor and essentially argued that reality is fully experienced here, with our five senses. Period. Game over. (I know, Bryan, go ahead and leave your comments below).

You can see the two ideas embodied in this artwork by Raphael. Plato points to a reality up there somewhere. Aristotle has his hand pushing downward toward the earth.

Image result for plato and aristotle

Much later, other Christians will emphasize Aristotle, feeling that his approach was more reasonable. In fact, reason and logic will dominate their approach to faith and they will form a very popular medieval movement known as Scholasticism.

Over the centuries, Christian thinkers have vacillated between these two great ways of seeing reality, and some, like Augustine, tried to combine the two.

Today, however, this age-old argument has taken on a new dimension that has made it even more complex. I’m, of course, talking about technology.

The transcendent truth of Plato can now be literally presented in a cave with a projector and we can watch Keanu Reeves get sucked down his throat and emerge in a goo-filled egg with creepy wires stuck to his body. And we think, “Ah, he is now in the real world!” And we do so blissfully blinded to the fact that we are watching a MOVIE!

But the line between here and out there somewhere is becoming even more blurred. When the movie is over, we walk out of the theater and the daylight reminds us that it WAS just a movie and it never really happened and I don’t need to be afraid of that guy over there in the dark suit and sunglasses staring at me.

But instead of a movie, what if the medium was a computer game? Are we getting closer to an alternate reality? What I mean is, if you are playing a character and something happens to you in the game, did it really happen to you?

Let’s get more specific. If you kill something in the game, have you committed murder? Most people would say, “No, it’s just a game.”

What if you had sex? Have you committed fornication? Adultery? What would your spouse think? Hmmmm.

Let’s flip this around. If you saw a video or a picture or heard an audio of someone you were very familiar with, are you absolutely sure that that REALLY happened?

If you want a prime example of what I mean by this, watch this video produced by the geniuses at Radiolab at a site entitled, Future of Fake News. It’ll only take a couple of minutes.

I’ll wait….

So what did you think? I know, it was pretty obvious it was a fake. But still, it won’t be long before these kinds of things will be far more convincing. When that happens, it’s going to be even more difficult to know what’s real and what’s not. Who is telling the truth? And who is lying? What is real? What is imaginary? And does it even matter, anymore?

In my upper level class this semester we are reading through a 1985 classic written by Neil Postman entitled, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I blame Travis Frampton for pointing me to this very disturbing tome.

Postman’s thesis is that TV is destroying out nation. But not for the reasons you typically hear, i.e., all the gratuitous sex and violence and stuff. No, Postman complains that this problem began way back at the invention of the photograph, which started our culture down a slippery slope of becoming more visual in the way that we determine truth.

Check out this quote:

If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude. I suspect, for example, that the dishonor that now shrouds Richard Nixon results not from the fact that he lied but that on television he looked like a liar. Which, if true, should bring no comfort to anyone, not even veteran Nixon-haters. For the alternative possibilities are that one may look like a liar but be telling the truth; or even worse, look like a truth-teller but in fact be lying (italics mine, p. 102).

I don’t know about you, but after I read this and underlined it and wrote a few expletives in the margin of my book, I set it down for a while to mull over.

You really need to read this book.

Postman doesn’t really offer a solution (except a vague nod to education). But he does hearken back to a day when our culture was dominated by what he called the “typographical mind.” Essentially, in the good-ol’-days, people gathered all their information about the world mostly through reading because, well, there wasn’t anything else to do.

This created a highly literate population, possibly the most well-read nation on the planet for a time. In addition, this obsession with reading produced a people with a mindset that was far more analytical and critical and deep.

To illustrate, he tells the story of a Lincoln/Douglas debate that got off to a late start. After Douglas’s three hour speech (which he read from a manuscript) it was nearing 5pm and people were getting hungry. Lincoln wisely stood and said, essentially, “I tell you what. I have about a three hour speech, and then we each have a rebuttal which means this thing could go another five hours. How about you all go home and get a bite to eat, and then come back and we’ll start up again.”

And they did!

“Who does that?” Postman asked. Answer: people who have minds that have been trained to follow complex discourses because they are readers.

He then asks, could this happen today?

His simple (and obvious) answer is “no.”

For many, reality has now become what they want to believe about the shadows projected on the back of the wall. And they could care less about walking outside.



4 Replies to “Are We Losing Our Ability to Know What’s Real?”

  1. Thanks for post! The fearful thing to me is that there is someone who is doing the projecting (computers programing the matrix). Social discourse will tell us that one set of projections assigns you one subgroup while another assigns you to the opposite. We then use those labels (conservative, liberal, racist, socialist) to categorize, simplify, and attack. All because someone behind the scenes is selling information and telling you that theirs is the information you should believe.

    Postman when talking about computers being the technology of the future says,

    “Most important fact about computers and what they mean tour our lives is that we learn about all of this from television. Television achieved the status of “meta-medium”–an instrument that directs not only our knowledge of the world, but our knowledge of ways of knowing as well.”

    Even more so now with the increase of audience size and speed of transition that social media brings, those doing the projection wield enormous power that constantly have me contemplating Huxley and A Brave New World.

    While I do not want to live fearful of the future I often find myself concerned and unable to stomach any kind of news media.


    1. I share your concerns, Joel. I think a part of the solution, especially as we both share a responsibility to train up the next generation, is to make sure they are wise. Get them reading! Thanks for the comment.


  2. Thought provoking stuff!

    By the way, I blame Travis Frampton for things, too. Mostly for my inability to read the Old Testament without seeing the Exile on every page. But that’s probably not a bad thing.

    Turning the TV off now…


    1. Hey Chris! As I was going through Postman I actually felt guilty every time I turned the TV on. And I don’t have time to go into all the other ways Frampton has ruined me! Hope Rauschenbusch is still on the wall.


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