Jun 10, 2020
The fear from the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment has haunted scholars, thinkers, and the populace for decades. The idea of waking up one day and finding out that your whole life is just contained in a false reality constructed by someone else leads to an overwhelming existential crisis. The Matrix _trilogy was a well-known depiction of this concept – in a simulacrum of reality were human beings trapped to generate bioelectric power for the world dominated by robots. Neo, the protagonist of the _Matrix trilogy, was not able to wake up into reality until he met with Morpheus, an insurgent group leader against the rule of the Matrix. This knowledge of an outer world he acquired from Morpheus was key to his escape. In this essay, I will investigate the pattern of escaping a simulacrum in a literary and philosophical context and probe into the crucial method of escape – the seepage of transcendental knowledge – and its real-life relevance.
First, we have to examine the notion of the unreal regarding a simulated reality. A simulated reality (i.e. a simulacrum) is deemed unreal because, according to its definition, another layer of reality exists beyond it. As an example of a simulacrum, philosopher Slavoj Žižek developed in his book Welcome to the Desert of the Real the "ultimate American paranoiac fantasy" centered around a brain-in-a-vat scenario:
An individual living in a small idyllic Californian city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in a real-world, while all the people around him are eﬀectively actors and extras in a gigantic show (Žižek 385).
This fantasy he described was lively portrayed in the 1998 movie The Truman Show. Its protagonist Truman is the star of a reality show that telecasted his life since birth, but he was fully ignorant of the fictitious nature of his life. In the Truman Show and the Matrix, the simulator who constructed the simulacra are respectively the television program director and the Matrix supercomputer. Similar to gods, these entities possess full control over the reality that the subjects experience. And it is against their will to escape from those simulacra they constructed. Outside these simulacra were the reality composed of the television viewers and the post-apocalyptic Chicago.
From an omniscient perspective, we could easily distinguish the actual reality from the simulated reality of the television show in which Truman lived. Those who experience it, however, is incapable of acquiring this knowledge without the help from an external force. In a classic example, prisoners in Plato's Allegory of the Cave experiences a reality simulated by the puppet handlers. Plato, in the voice of Aristotle, uttered, "such men would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things" (Plato 193). To these prisoners, the shadow of the puppets cast on the wall comprises all the knowledge they have learned since birth. Therefore, the shadow was their reality. Jean Baudrillard opened his philosophical treatise Simulacra and Simulation with two quotes from the Ecclesiastes: "The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth - it is the truth which conceals that there is none" and "The simulacrum is true." (Baudrillard, 166). The former quote justifies the latter that, at the absence of certain knowledge, the simulacrum is the irrefutable reality. However, transcendental knowledge – knowledge from the outside – inevitably undermines and breaks the verisimilitude of a simulacrum.
A pattern exists among these escapes. First, the awareness that one is living in a false reality would lead to questioning the legitimacy of all the memories he or she has lived by. Then, this being would wonder the life outside this simulacrum out of curiosity. Eventually, this curiosity of the outside world and discomfort from being trapped would become an attempt to break through the layer of unreal into the real. Truman Burbank walks through this process and escaped from his namesake reality show. So is Neo, the protagonist of the Matrix trilogy, courageous enough to swallow the red pill and awake into the dystopic yet authentic world. Nevertheless, a premise exists before this process: these individuals have deemed the immediate layer of reality unreal. And to achieve this escape from the unreal to the real, one must obtain _transcendental knowledge. _
The term transcendental knowledge is borrowed from the theology discipline. In the context of our discussion, it is defined in several different ways. Comparing to general knowledge, transcendental knowledge provides an overarching explanation toward other kinds of knowledge. It is the mechanism behind some visible mechanisms, the theory that justifies many other theories. Synonymous with meta-knowledge, transcendental knowledge is the knowledge of the knowledge. And to a human individual, transcendental knowledge _is usually information that the individual "ought not to acquire" – knowledge that has been prohibited, censored or concealed due to the will of an exceedingly powerful body. Finally, _transcendental knowledge must come from an external source – an entity that does not belong to the immediate layer of reality that the conscious being experiences. It is commonly seen as an alien, a time traveler, an intruder, etc. who comprehends the mechanism of the simulator.
Now that we have constructed a theoretical structure to determine and analyze transcendental knowledge, let us demonstrate its use with examples. In The Matrix, Neo acquires transcendental knowledge _from Morpheus who has managed to escape from the simulated world. Morpheus informs him about the Matrix and post-apocalyptic world, so he can have the chance to mentally escape from the constraints and make that decision of swallowing the red pill. Similarly, in Peter Weir's _The Truman Show, the protagonist who gradually finds out that his life is under the surveillance of millions of audiences in a real-life show that began at his birth was at the aid of transcendental knowledge. _His first obvious contact with this knowledge is from Sylvia, his first love in college, who tells him that his reality is fake. She can reveal the underlying mechanism of his world – in other words, the backstory of the show's plot – behind important events in Truman's life. As an actor in the television show, she understands the fictitious nature of Truman's life as an entity outside that simulacrum. Yet Sylvia is not Truman's only source of _transcendental knowledge. The education Truman has received in his life is identical to that in the real (outside) world. He knows that it is unusual for a spotlight to drop from the sky and radios should not be reporting his behavior. This knowledge is inconsistent with Truman's experience of the world, which contributes to nudging his confidence into skepticism which propels him to fundamentally disprove the verisimilitude of his reality.
The seepage of transcendental knowledge is a crucial yet problematic means of escape. If perceived and comprehended correctly, transcendental knowledge _becomes the source of substantial evidence that supports the proof of the unreal. Conversely, it may be treated as mere absurdity or fantasy. From a psychological viewpoint, _transcendental knowledge can be used to dismantle the Skinner Box, an operant conditioning chamber that encloses an animal to reinforce a behavior. In the classic example, a mouse would frequently press a button if it receives food afterward. Human beings, on the other hand, would seldom adopt such simplistic conditioning and behave in the style of Pavlov's dog – salivate after hearing a bell sound – due to the possession of transcendental knowledge and the ability to comprehend it. Subjects would have known that it is according to the will of an experimenter to present food and ring the bell at the same time rather than a natural correlation. And those in a Skinner Box would unlearn the conditioned behavior after the mechanism of the box being explained.
Our investigation on the escape via obtaining transcendental knowledge renders high relevance to everyday life. We are all living in simulacra constructed by the press. The information we perceive is purposely directed, selected, or filtered to meet certain political goals. Scandals are often censored for the interest of some entities and to maintain a positive image. And may ideologies we form and rules we live by are under the influence of media. Baudrillard sees Disneyland as a simulated image of the American ideologies in his book Simulacra and Simulation, while Žižek points out in Welcome to the Desert of the Real that the Americans have long been living in the unreality of the capitalist consumerist society that was suddenly torn down as the 9/11 terrorist attack hit the country. Whether one is willing or not, transcendental knowledge is one of the successful means to penetrate through the layer of reality painted by the media. In Žižek's example, the sudden exposure to the 9/11 attack made us citizens understand that they do not live in "an island exempted from this kind of violence" (Žižek 389). Also, socialist countries like China have designated programs to censor certain information on its internet to maintain stability in public opinion to prevent large-scale protests that harm their social-economic development. Though it is good to be proud of one's country and feel safe, it is also important to realize that danger lurks beyond the optimistic image painted by governments. To escape from such simulacra, _transcendental knowledge _may prove to be useful. Such information can be acquired from international sources and even press coverage in rivalry counties. In the wake of Edward Snowden's global surveillance disclosures, mass censorship in the US media attempted to maintain the righteous image of the country. Meanwhile, Wikileaks, a non-profit publisher of leaked classified information, became a source of _transcendental knowledge _during that period. Crediting this source, activists and public protests emerged to raise the public awareness of this incident. Viewing information from multiple sources with various stance grants people a more holistic view of current events beyond the barricades created by mainstream media.
In conclusion, transcendental knowledge – knowledge regarding the mechanism of a simulacrum from an external source – is proven to be key to the escape from a simulated reality. After acquiring and comprehending such knowledge, subjects in a simulacrum would be able to disprove the verisimilitude of that layer of reality and attempt to mentally and physically transcend from it. In our everyday life, it is important to keep under careful observation information that has characteristics of transcendental knowledge to debunk unrealities. Maybe one day, you will wake up into a different world and be greeted by someone with "welcome to the oasis of the real."
Žižek, Slavoj. "Welcome to the Desert of the Real!" The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 101 no. 2, 2002, p. 385-389. Project MUSE
Plato, et al. The Republic of Plato. Basic Books, 2016.
Baudrillard, Jean. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings.