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Theory of Reality Relativity

Brian Roizen

For thousands of years, scientists, writers, and philosophers have been trying to understand the limitations of reality in the context of the physical world. As technology advances, so does our understanding of these limitations. The genre of Science Fiction is not constricted to physical limitations, since anything is possible in the future. “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam” (Fred Pohl). In much the same manner the science fiction movies The Matrix, Blade Runner, The Truman Show, and The Thirteenth Floor predict not the technological advancements, but question the concept of reality.

As technology progresses, it also brings forth the eminent question: what is reality? The gap between appearances and reality is remarkably minute in Blade Runner.

The theatrical release of Blade Runner in 1982 presaged the era of digital photo editing that is so frequently done in the America of 2006. While only the Tyrell Corporation was able to manipulate pictures in Blade Runner, nowadays, any layperson with a copy of Adobe Photoshop can perform image alteration and editing. The Tyrell Corporation uses counterfeit photos as a means of giving an artificial familial history. Despite being fake, the photographs are still used as proof and comfort by another “fake” human, the Replicant. These photographs are just one way that the Tyrell Corporation is able to control reality. Memory and sight are the keys to uncovering the mystery of reality. Seeing, an input, gets recorded in the cerebral cortex – the memory part of the brain. When photographs are altered, the Tyrell Corporation changes what the eyes can see, but by altering the memory, the Tyrell Corporation changes what the eyes have seen. Through memory mapping, the Tyrell Corporation can not only alter memories, but also implant predisposed memories. Rachel, the prototype of a new kind of replicant, is unconscious of her own true identity. Rachel believes she is human, until Deckard tells her that she has “implants! Those aren't your memories. They're somebody else's. They're Tyrell's niece's”. In what kind of reality could Rachel possibly be living in, if she has neither her own eyes nor her own memory? Truman Burbank on the other hand has both of the things Rachel lacks. As Christof tells us, while “the world he inhabits is counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards.  It's not always Shakespeare but it's genuine. That's how he can support an entire channel”. The Truman Show clearly shows the evolution of modern television, and the moral dilemmas that are incurred in the technological process. The Truman Show is really just an advanced reality television show that was made because people became “tired of watching actors give [them] phony emotions, [and became] bored with pyrotechnics and special effects”. Furthermore, Truman is “the first child to have been legally adopted by a corporation”.  The corporation is not interested in the true welfare of Truman, but rather in making profits. In order to insure the long-term success of The Truman Show, Christof, the creator of the show, must constantly manipulate Truman’s reality using technology.  After a big movie light falls from the sky, Truman begins wondering about the true origins of the light, however the radio forces a false reality onto Truman. In Truman’s reality, history is controlled by the creator of his world, a concept very similar to that in 1984 where Big Brother controls history. Furthermore, when Truman wishes to fly to the Figi islands, he is immediately led to believe that his false reality is truly the best place to live – just another manipulation to keep Truman in the artificial world of The Truman Show. Truman also has to live with a childhood traumatic experience, in which the sea takes the life of his father. Consequently, his explorative passion is yet again curbed by the manipulative Christof.  Just like the radio, the newspaper is another form of media in control of history and consequently reality. One day, the headline reads “Who needs Europe”, another type of controlling force intended to curb the explorative desire of Truman. After Truman sees his strangely living father ushered away by police, the newspaper again tries to alter the truth with the headline “Crackdown on Homeless”. Even Truman’s own mother hides the truth from Truman! She does this because she is not really Truman’s mother, but a paid professional actress. Likewise, Truman notices that his wife Meryl is crossing her fingers in his wedding picture – the supposed “happiest day of her life”. The Truman Show tries to assert perfection to cover up for harshness of reality. Marlon asks Truman to “Look at that sunset, Truman, it’s perfect… That's the Big Guy. What a paintbrush he's got”. Marlon is clearly making a reference to God, the presumed creator of true reality, however, Christof, the creator of the Truman Show, is not a real God, and is thus only capable of creating a false reality. When Truman is looking at a family album, he notices that the photo of him at Mount Rushmore is fabricated since the mountain in the picture “is so small”. Lastly, while at the travel agency, Truman reads a poster that shows an airplane being struck by lightning. The caption on this poster reads “It could happen to you”. What kind of a travel agency would advertise against the very thing it was trying to sell? Clearly the agency is being manipulated to keep Truman from entering the real world.

            Advancements in technology also allow for reality to be relative. Reality can be defined to be any data that agrees with a person's perceptions, way of thinking and education. Simply put, reality is what is. The gaming industry has always been pushing forward games that are more advanced; better graphics and more realistic games become more and more appealing to consumers. What happens when a virtual reality game is created that rivals the real world in terms of graphics and reality? Such is the case in The Thirteenth Floor, where the technology makes the virtual reality so believable and real that the people inside it cannot differentiate between the real and virtual. In fact, Douglas tells Whitney that the people “are as real as you and me”. The irony is astounding, as both Douglas and Whitney are from simulated worlds as well. These people are “electronic simulated characters … [who] are modeled after us”. Everybody in this false world lives in a relative reality because of the lack of veracity of the true reality. This reality is broken when one of the simulated characters finds out that “the world’s a sham”. After taking a drive out of Los Angeles, Ashton discovers that nothing outside of the city exists. In the end, he turned out to be “just a bunch of electronic circuits”. Ashton would agree with Fuller’s statement, “ignorance is bliss… I wish I had never uncovered the awful truth”. If Fuller and Ashton had never discovered that they were living in simulated worlds, perhaps falseness would simply have been reality. On the other hand, Jane is supposed to be real (not from a simulated world), but the simulated world becomes her reality when she falls in love with Douglas. Jane reveals that Douglass is “more real to [her] than anything [she has] ever known”.  While humans are the architects of the virtual world in The Thirteenth Floor, machines are the creators of a false reality in The Matrix. Billions of people live in blissful ignorance of the “real” world. After humans blotted out the sky, the machines needed a new source of energy. The machines soon discovered that “The human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120-volt battery and over 25,000 B.T.U.'s of body heat”. Thus the machines created the matrix, a virtual reality world where energy could be harvested from unsuspecting human hosts. Not all humans, however, are in the prison world of the matrix. Those who have been freed still question “what is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about your senses, what you feel, taste, smell, or see, then all you're talking about are electrical signals interpreted by your brain”. If reality stems from electrical signals determined by individualistic senses, then reality must be relative since people react differently even given identical experiences. Cypher, who has had more of less the same experiences as the other members of the Nebakanezer crew, ends up choosing the matrix rather than the real world. While eating a steak in the matrix world, Cypher tells an agent  “I know that this steak doesn't exist. I know when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, do you know what I've realized? Ignorance is bliss”. Cypher chooses the matrix because it is more real to him than the real world ever was. Christof’s beliefs are in accordance with those of Cypher, since Christof says that the real world “is the sick place. Seahaven is the way the world should be… ultimately, Truman prefers his cell”. Who is Christof to say what another human being prefers? If human rights are to be taken into account, should not Truman at least have the choice of which world he wants to live in? When asked why Truman has not discovered the true nature of his reality, Christof replies, “we accept the reality of the world with which we're presented”. Those who are under the control of anything or anybody, accept the reality presented, as natural and real, while these same people do not have the propensity to accept the “real” world. If an e is added to the word Truman, the outcome is “true man”. While Truman does not want to live in a fake world, there are others who are perfectly willing and able to do so. Meryl tells an interviewer, “there is no difference between a private life and a public life.  My--my life is my life, is The Truman Show.  The Truman Show is...a lifestyle.  It's a noble life.  It is...a truly blessed life”. Meryl, just like Cypher, prefers the counterfeit world.

False realities beg the viewer to ask the essential question, what is the meaning of life? Is the purpose of human existence merely to generate 120 volts for a more intelligent species? Are we just acting out our parts in a giant virtual reality game, or are we just a large-scale reality television channel? Perhaps these Science Fiction movies are really just testing Immanuel Kant’s second categorical imperative - never use human beings as a means to an end. Reality on the other hand, does not treat humans as a means, but is the means. Reality is whatever we believe to be real, and therefore when we discover that we are not living in a real world, we struggle to live in a different world, which may be no more real than our previous petty existence. Reality is simply what exists.

© 2006 Philosophy Paradise