Friday, June 6, 2008

Neo-Mystical Idealism: the Interrelationship Between Belief, Truth, and Action

This post is concerned with what I will call Neo-Mystical Idealism (NMI) of the sort often hinted at - or even explicitly endorsed - in pop-spirituality/self-help books (e.g. The Way of the Peaceful Warrior), movies (ranging from fiction like The Matrix and The Waking Life to allegedly "factual" films like The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know), fantasy and sci-fi books (Philip K. Dick), video games, various other popular sources (the Planescape expansion for the game Dungeons & Dragons), new age spirituality, ancient mystical traditions, certain idiosyncratic philosophers (Anaxagoras, perhaps), literary figures (Jorge Luis Borges, on some interpretations?), and a few fringe theories of modern physics.

What I call NMI, broadly construed, is the belief that our thoughts, desires, beliefs, and/or intentions exert a direct, significant, formative influence on reality (and our ability to interact with it). Depending on the variant of NMI, this may be as subtle as influencing a random number generator toward a particular bias simply by willing it so, or it may be as drastic as the belief that reality simply is a dream constructed wholly by our own minds. I say "neo-mystical" due to its overwhelmingly mystical nature and its current prevalence in pop-culture, and I say "idealism" in reference to philosophical idealism where the world consists of mind-objects rather than "real" objects.

+ "Idealism" may be a bit of a misnomer, since it is not necessary to believe that nothing exists beyond what the mind perceives in order to accept NMI; but, it's the most relevant term I can think of.
+ Accepting the efficacy of prayer or magic rituals could be seen as embracing NMI, since they both consist in effecting results through extra-physical means. But I would prefer to exclude them from NMI-hood since both prayer and magic rituals seem to be an appeal toward an external power, whereas proponents of NMI seem to focus very much on the personal mind's power.

In The Matrix, those who have been awakened - that is, those who have been taken from out of the computer simulation and shown the real world - realize a fundamental truth about what they thought was reality. Reality does not actually work the way they had learned and placidly accepted all their live. Rather, there is an underlying substratum - in this case, a digital reality designed and maintained by artificial intelligences - which governs phenomenal appearances. This means that what were thought to be unbreakable rules of reality are actually subordinate to the rules of the simulation. If one is in the know, one can "hack" the system to do things which aren't supposed to be allowed: as Morpheus puts it, "Some rules can be bent. Others can be broken."

This all pertains to Neo-Mystical Idealism in that belief is inextricably intertwined with overcoming the rules of the fake reality. Time and time again, The Matrix stresses the power of the mind and the power of belief. One of the most memorable scenes occurs during a training program where Neo, the recently-awakened hero, receives his first genuine test: he must leap a vast distance from the roof of one building to another, in defiance of his firmly entrenched beliefs about the laws of gravity. Notably, Morpheus tells Neo the following just before he jumps across the gap himself: "You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind. " Morpheus sails across the humongous distance practically without effort, but when Neo jumps, he plummets like a rock; he did not successfully follow Morpheus' advice, but clung to his old beliefs and preconceptions about the functioning of the world. Hence, he failed.

From this and many other instances that emphasize belief, The Matrix conveys a pretty clear message: your beliefs are intensely related to your abilities (at least when one is in a computer simulation, at any rate). This message is, indeed, essentially the same as that handed down from so many other sources. Transcend the world of illusion (realize The Truth), and you will be able to do the previously unimaginable. This is one of the key components of NMI - it always requires a sort of "awakening" or "enlightenment" process.

There is a grain of truth in the lesson taught by NMI: false beliefs can easily inhibit our full potential. Certainly history abounds with examples where the "impossible" later turned out to be quite possible, and there resulted a dramatic shift in outlook to accommodate that change. In quite a few cases, it seems as though a belief (or lack of belief) hindered progress, as when it was thought (prior to 1954) that humans could not run a mile in less than four minutes. Yet, after an initial pioneering spirit showed that it was possible, suddenly many others followed suit, and improved upon his time.

So that seems pretty uncontroversial. However, there is a very big difference between being limited by a false belief and a belief creating or affecting reality. Beliefs do not and cannot create reality They can only accord or disaccord with it. Hence, while we should take from The Matrix the lesson that we should not grow complacent in our beliefs, this does not mean that NMI generally is true. If NMI were true, we ought to be able to find confirmation of it beyond the shaky pseudoscientific studies published in disreputable journals.

On the other hand, perhaps my belief that "Beliefs do not and cannot create reality" is itself a false belief? And perhaps I am limiting myself when I latch onto it so ferociously? And perhaps others do the same?

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