Transcendence: a guide from The Matrix.Anja van Kralingen
One of the classics of contemporary cinema The Matrix addresses a timeless question. What in analytical psychology we would call an archetypal question. Simply: is this it?
Is this life, the world and this reality, fundamentally, essentially and absolutely real or not? If we conclude that it is fundamentally real, and furthermore that this is not only it but this is all there is to it, , then that is really that. The question is answered; and we can move on and get on with it (it presumably being, living in this reality, without the search for more).
We can treat the movie as an entertaining story and nothing more. Maybe also an opportunity for a dreadful method actor, Keanu Reeves, to redeem himself in the one role which he was born to play, Neo .
I would like to suggest however that this is not, in fact, the end of the story.
The Matrix is a modern archetypal myth. And myth, as we learn from Jung, is not a conscious construct but rather the spontaneous product of unconscious fantasy. More specifically fantasy material which has a universal, pre-conscious, structure.
We do not create myth rather we give expression to myth in our lives and our culture. At least that is the Jungian theory on which this analysis is based.
Quite a bit has been written about the mythological and religious motifs that are expressed in The Matrix movie, so I am not going to rehash these. If you would like to read more about the specific archetypal motifs a useful article can be accessed here http://matrixmythology.com/#TheMatrix or for a slightly more academic contextualisation of the movie in cinematic and literary themes read http://www.indigogroup.co.uk/foamycustard/fc045.htm.
I have created a workshop using The Matrix as the basis for an examination of the individuation process (the Jungian concept of realising the ultimate expression of your unique personality), this can be accessed for free here http://www.appliedjung.com/subscribe.
What is the central message of the movie?
Arguably the central message of the movie is that our perceived reality is an illusion. As Morpheus so eloquently puts it to Neo:
The Matrix is everywhere; it’s all around us, here even in this room. You can see it out of your window, or on your television. You feel it when you go to work, or go to church, or pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Whilst this is in itself a fascinating and provocative theme this post examines an alternative underlying theme, the theme of transcendence.
The ‘matrix’ can be seen as metaphor for the current reductive zeitgeist. The belief that our reality can only be explained in terms of material reality. That only what we can touch, see and measure in the realm of the physical world is fundamentally real.
We can refer to this way of viewing the world as a kind of gross (almost obscene) rationality. A world where reason is devoid of spirit and impoverished by its absence. Three devils of this intellectual impulse are Darwin, Dawkins and Dennet, who I juxtapose against a meaningful life in the post http://www.appliedjung.com/philosophically/darwin-dawkins-dennet-et-al-vs-a-meaningful-life.
Their selection is more by virtue of the criteria of their names creating a triple-barrel (and catchy) title for the blog than anything else . Although all three certainly fall squarely in the materialist camp. However they are of course only a very small representative of the enlightenment movement and the transcendence of the materialist religion. At the very least I would like to mention two more key figures in the form of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, amongst countless others, as partly responsible for the spiritual vacuum we currently find ourselves in.
Does traditional religion offer us a way out of our predicament?
Let me start off by defining my use of the term ‘traditional religion’. Firstly my own background is Roman Catholic so that is my default position and lens. I would say however that I am referring broadly to the Western Religious Tradition: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Quite possibly the Western Religious Tradition does offer a solution, specifically the possibility of our ultimate redemption. Certainly it would be nice to believe it does. God knows (if you’ll forgive the pun) I’d rather find myself resurrected in paradise after death than as dust trodden underfoot by the next evolutionary mutation in a Darwinian universe.
Does the traditional religious myth need to be ontologically and metaphysically true in order to be meaningful? I used to think so. But I have had a change of heart. I’m not so sure it matters anymore, for surely what will be will be. I think its profound significance is the fact that it gives us, or can give us, hope. It offers the possibility of redemption. It is a way for us to make what is otherwise unbearable, bearable. (Spoken like a true Catholic I think ).
However for the sake of argument and the purposes of this post I am going to point out two problems with this traditional position.
Two problems with traditional religion
Firstly and most obviously is the undeniable fact that traditional religion has lost its previously central role in our spiritual lives. For whatever reasons the church, synagogue or mosque no longer has its prior exclusivity on our metaphysical and spiritual orientations. This I think is an inevitable, and possibly positive, consequence of the global village and the ubiquitous access to information now afforded us.
However, perhaps more significantly, is the sense of disillusionment with traditional religion which has crept over the world in the last few centuries. And although exacerbated by modernism, cannot be solely attributed to it. Our traditional places of worship no longer hold the numinosoum (the spirit of the sacred as perceived by man, not the band ).
Furthermore, I suggest that, the rise in fundamentalism in some religious quarters is a compensation for the mainstream conscious position. However it proves, by its exception, the rule. And the rule today is undoubtedly secularism.
Then the second problem I want to highlight is what Rudolf Steiner referred to as spiritual materialism. That is when the spiritual world is described in terms analogous to the material world. When the description of the spiritual is a kind of refined materialism. Into which category I think much of traditional religious dogma falls.
I am obliged to concede at this point that whilst much of my interest is in the field of spirituality and many of my posts touch on the topic of religion, I am not of course a qualified theologian. So I make an unqualified acceptance of my standing corrected by a more informed theological position than mine.
However the purpose of this blog and my purpose as a street philosopher are to talk the language of every man, not the academic, and to work with concepts as they are presented to us within the realm of popular culture and common understanding.
Anyway with that in place let us return to our theme.
So I think that we are frequently given to interpret biblical concepts in the manner of refined materialism. Most particularly with respect to the afterlife, but also beyond that into many other areas of biblical and spiritual dogma.
For example: do you think heaven is a place? That it exists in some kind of transcendental geographical location? Or that God can be seen as you might see something in the material world? Or that your salvation has a time linked to it that it will happen someday, at some time?
Possibly you do, or if not you then a substantial portion of those who follow traditional religious instruction. And quite possibly this is true. Maybe the spiritual dimension spoken about biblically is or resembles in some strange way our physical reality.
Or maybe a more refined philosophical position would posit it as fundamentally incomprehensible to our finite minds. Yes maybe that’s it the ultimate defence. Divine reality like Kant’s reality in itself is unknowable in our current phenomenal consciousness.
Yes, maybe…although I’m not sure that position really has the power to allay our concerns or questions. It has the ring of the dogmatic about it which is part of the original problem with much religion, this idea that it is not for us to know.
Anyway let’s leave that argument there for the moment and move on.
What alternatives do we have?
We’ll probably quite a few . I will focus one though, one which I have been thinking about for some time; probably since the TSSC conference in Arizona in 2008.
That is to define spirit in a non traditional sense. Not as a way of being with any moral or religious associations but yet transcendent. Transcendent in the sense that consciousness (or thinking as I have come to think of it more recently) is a fundamental property of reality. Meaning, it is an irreducible property which cannot be explained through rational reductionism. That as Rene Descartes’ said ergo et sum (I think therefore I am). Now I realise that this is a profoundly unpopular stance in modern day philosophy because it leaves us with the Cartesian dilemma, nevertheless I hold to it.
My impression is that thinking is fundamentally a different thing from matter. Furthermore that thinking is where in our capacity for transcendence exists. A particularly good account of the spiritual dimension of thinking is to be found in Rudolf Steiner’s A Philosophy of Freedom.
Essentially, I believe, that thinking (spirit) as a functional dimension is not synonymous with the form from which it emerges (matter, in our case the brain). Whilst I am willing to accept that thinking emerges from brain function I do not believe it is inexorably tied to it.
By way of analogy consider the following example:
Is a story inexorably reducible to a particular medium? For example, an oral tradition, a book or even a movie. The obvious answer is no it is not. So what is it then? What is a story if not the medium from which it emerges?
To be honest I can’t answer my own question except to restate that it is not essentially linked to the medium in which it is delivered. And I think that is a good analogy of conscious thinking.
So in this regard I am sympathetic to the views of someone likeRay Kurzweil . For those who don’t know Kurzweil, he is a radical futurist and I suppose we could call him a radical optimist, although his utopian ideas about technology will no doubt not fall on receptive ears universally. For some what Kurzweil is suggesting is the very creation of the ‘matrix’.
A reality wherein our consciousness could be uploaded into a virtual space.
Nevertheless regardless of how naive, utopian, idealistic or downright wrong Kurzweil’s views may or may not be. He does offer as a conceivable possibility, a reality wherein a consciousness will be uncoupled from its biological organism.
Returning to our stated goal of transcendence.
Although Kurzweil suggests a form of physical transcendence, albeit contextualised within the material universe, a belief in this possibility as desirable is not the issue. What is at issue is the idea that it is possible.
If we accept this concept that our thinking mind is somehow qualitatively and functionally not the same as or reducible to our brains right there we have the indisputable evidence of our transcendence.
It is as though gross materialism pushed far enough runs into its opposite. An enantiodromia, to use a Jungian concept.
These are obviously just some preliminary thoughts and require much development and elaboration. However I do think the idea of our transcendent aspect as described above is an interesting one and worth further consideration.
I believe we can view the Matrix as a metaphor for the current age of the tyranny and monopoly of material reductionism on our consciousness. However you do it I urge you to resist being reduced to your component parts. For truly you are much more than that my friend, and if you believe nothing else I have said, believe that.
With love and blessings,