Alluding to a famous scene from the Matrix trilogy of movies, the International Philosophy magazine Philosophy Now held an essay competition for college students some time ago. The topic of the essay being - Which pill would you choose? Why? To those unfamiliar with the movie, the protagonist in that particular scene is forced to face an existential dilemma when he has to make the choice between reality and illusion - symbolized here by the choice between taking the red pill (and thereby seeing reality as it truly is) or the blue pill (seeing reality as an illusion constructed by machines). This scene has since become the epitome of pop-culture references to the dichotomy between painful truth (reality, red pill) and blissful ignorance (illusion, blue pill).
Philosophy today, both as an academic pursuit and as evolutionary vocation lies in shambles because of such attempts at the simplification of dichotomies which appear to be binary opposites but in fact are adjacent factors in a complex dialectical. Chaos and order, Yin and Yang, sanity and insanity, atheism and religion, peace and violence are all perfect examples of these dialectical duals which present themselves as complicated noumenon - but due to the attempts to simplify philosophy have been de-centered and relegated to the margins of everyday intellectual pursuit. The fallacy which lies at the heart of every attempt to simplify philosophy is that the dialectical process is vacuous, infinite and recursive and therefore should be halted at any intellectual cost.
But the cost is tremendous because the resulting solution is unable to stand in the face of historical processes (which are intrinsically dialectical themselves, by the way). What we need instead, is a “third pill”, a tool which will help us see the illusion within reality itself. This is opposed to seeing the illusion behind reality (as being something apart from reality), which only facilitates a fast-food religious/spiritual experience of there being more to life than what appears but can never actually prove the reality of the illusion it claims exists. So what is this illusion that structures reality itself and how can we get an access to it? The answer is simply by not trying to simplify philosophy but realizing the true aim and objective of philosophy as being essentially a hermeneutic discipline which concerns itself with not the answers about reality and the world but the questions. In other words the philosopher’s job today is not to simplify (i.e. justify) the ways of the world and lay back and enjoy it as it unfolds but to question the very essence of the answers that are so commonly taken for granted.
Illusion is not some kind of phantasmal construction of the human psyche which provides a handle to reality as a sort of mechanism that gauges progress towards an perfectly ideal state (utopia) or regression towards dystopia; Illusion is that characteristic of reality which provides the framework for progress or regression by supporting reality from within. Illusion is what fills up the empty space (quite literally even in the Quantum physics sense) left by reality and creates a sense of innermost urgency within reality to manifest itself. This is perhaps a truer definition of utopia - something that arises out of true, innermost urgency rather than with a synthetic push of reality or illusion. The kind of urgency referred to here is no different from the urgency which one feels from holding back one’s urine for a long time. Utopia, then, could be equated with the feeling of release of long-repressed scatological urges. Philosophy therefore, should act as a laxative in this sense.
Illusion is what gives reality a sense of meaning and purpose, so much so in-fact that if we take illusion away from reality, reality in itself shall disintegrate. Lets go back to The Matrix for an example of how this happens: the reality for those who chose the red pill is a completely dystopian world waiting to be reorganized and reordered except that the only means left for reorganization is to return to the illusion (the virtual world of machines) and destroy it from within and without. What happens when this arduous task is finally achieved is beyond the purview of the movie but its not that hard to imagine that once mankind is freed from the clutches of an evil, deceiving demon (the machines), it would need another illusion (demon) to support its reality, which in this case might as well be the illusion of the capitalist utopia where more and more perverse desires to own “stuff” are not only endorsed but even required for progress.
In this sense, illusion is much like authority. Or, one is even forced to say that the only illusion ever is the illusion of authority (forced or consented). For they share a common defining bond which is that they both (illusion and authority) appear to be stronger when they are not explicitly expressed or immediately perceived as being themselves. For example, a parent who beats and physically abuses his/her children has less authority than the parent who just looks threateningly at their children to force them into submission. Likewise, an illusion that explicitly expresses itself as an illusion (like the utopian society all human progress seems to be chasing) is weaker than the illusion that actually presents itself forcefully as reality (the virtual world of machines which only a few get out of). The point is, the more repressed an illusion is, the stronger the reality it structures and to actually repress an illusion we need to complicate our philosophy of it as opposed to simplify it.
Much of today’s problems- terrorism, poverty, hunger, economic recession can be said to arise because of a simplification of our philosophy (or the gradual neglect of its complicated core objective) about ourselves. The blame could lie with liberal capitalism and its presumably “natural” appearance or it just might be the forces of the dialectical shaping history as such but the fact is, any more effort towards a simplified philosophy of anything would end up in the kind of paralyzing mess Physics is facing today. Where on the forefront of theoretical physics we have reached a point where describing the behaviors of physical systems by extracting out all the “illusion” that creates them has left us with many mathematical equations that work in theory but fail to correspond with reality. Therefore, it is my humble request to budding philosophers everywhere to let go of this hypnotic charm of simplicity that breeds intellectual inaction and delve head-first into the very core of philosophy itself, which was never meant to be a way to simplify the human condition but make it worse by asking insanely simple yet fundamental questions that have and will force us to evolve.
This is a response to an article published in the Times of India (dated: 26/november/2008) under "The Speaking Tree" section on the op-ed page entitled : We really Ought To Just Simplify Philosophy by Yaron Barzilay.