Virtualization 5.0: Resisting the bliss of ignorance

Closing thoughts – Resisting the Bliss of ignorance

There’s a scene in the film The Matrix that resonates strongly with me. If you haven’t seen it, the film is famous for its crazy gravity-defying fight scenes, and equally, for the way it popularized the aeons-old philosophical idea of radical scepticism and made it understandable, perhaps disturbingly so. The film made us question reality like Descartes once did. Is anything we see truly real? In this film’s setting, the answer is no: the world most people know is a fantasy concocted by a malevolent robot civilization, designed to deceive and placate us into being unwitting cattle that is harvested for energy.

Fighting against the killer robots is a plucky band of protagonists. They’ve all been “unplugged” from the Matrix and want to save humanity from this awful fate. Since this is a Hollywood blockbuster, you know they’re going to win, and it’s true, they do achieve a kind of victory before the film (and the trilogy it spawned) wraps up. What I found most interesting along the way though, was the traitor among them. A man named “Cypher” who, unplugged from the Matrix world, now lives a shitty, stressful existence that includes subsisting on a porridge-like gruel. See, Cypher is like that part of me I opened this discussion with; ready to get lost in the fantasy, rather than deal with reality. He wants to be plugged back into the Matrix. He wants to forget.

So, he plugs back into the Matrix for a moment and meets with the bad robots to discuss how to get what he wants. He’s sitting in a lush restaurant, speaking with the big bad AI as a lady strums a harp, and what he says is so stupidly simple, and yet such an unforgettable moment to me.

Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?

[Takes a bite of steak]

Cypher: Ignorance is bliss.

I don’t say all this because I’m an unhappily sober undergraduate who’d rather be playing games and thus, decided to write about them as a distance second place. I say it because there’s something genuinely profound in my self-indulgent desires here that I think needs to be addressed.

If you think about it, what I’m really saying here is that instead of writing this and doing my part to be a constructive member of society who contributes their ideas for the betterment of all, I’d much rather the quiet life of a social parasite. That kind of phrasing makes the idea more damning, perhaps, but also more real; more accurate.

Maybe it’s projection, but I think a great many people aren’t too different. I think Cypher represents so many of us. It’s hard to view us as conscientious practitioners of sustainability when something as stupid as convenience drives so much of our problematic behaviour. Single-use plastic, cheeseburgers, and the personal car – I think many people would rather see the world burn than give these daily conveniences or indulgences up, even if they’re the ones accelerating our downfall. It’s poetic, I think, that Cypher seems to be ready to sell the entirety of humanity out over some steak. All these years later after a film from 1999, with our growing awareness of the link between beef consumption and climate change, our traitor Cypher here is basically your average Western consumer. We’re the villains, and if I’m frank, I’m not sure we really care that much.

Ignorance is bliss.

It’s painfully obvious to say, but maybe needs to be said regardless: We generally seem to prefer to meet our own needs and desires right now, than we care about future generations, or even other people alive today. This is, arguably, a bleak or pessimistic view of humanity, and yet, perhaps it’s a realistic one too. Importantly, this kind of perspective is often missing from how we think about, how we communicate, and how we practice sustainability.

We often go into this whole thing with some huge assumptions. Firstly, we assume that humans are worth saving from annihilation. Secondly, we assume that humans do indeed want to be saved, and will do what’s required, if only we communicate it the right way, motivate them the right way, design society the right way, and so on. This article is an excellent example, because it suggests that redesigning society towards a more virtualized existence would provide a way to reduce natural resource consumption, and thus maybe promote the longevity of our species. It assumes, as a starting point, that doing so is a good idea.

We assume that people don’t do the right thing now because they’re not sufficiently empowered, educated, or motivated. But what if, in addition to all that being true, there’s also this more basic problem? What if, at least some of us are perfectly willing to see our species end because the alternative, saving ourselves, is a real grind, a lot of hard work, and takes a lot of sacrifices? What if we’re genuinely happy just saying “fuck it, rather die”? This is an idea similar to “The Fall” mentioned earlier. How do we want to spend our time? If we’re not chasing immortality, then at what point is it acceptable for us to give in; to our desires, to our apathy, or to other things.

It’s not like this would ever be an overtly stated position for us; we’re not about to enshrine defeatism into a Universal Declaration at the UN. But maybe, just maybe, we signal that collective surrender through other channels. Maybe the way we act, and indeed the way we don’t act, represents those interests. Almost like another school of thought about sustainability – one that you won’t ever see raised at the UN, in academic journals, or in mainstream discussions – a philosophy that is only ever in the background as a common thread between many different societal failings.

What if this helps explain where we’re at right now as a society? It’s an obvious, well-trodden answer to explain the ills of our world on human apathy and indifference, and yet perhaps it’s because it has become so cliché that we have become numb to the truth of this reality? Is the biggest conflict of sustainability one between believers and non-believers; between say, science advocates and science deniers? Or is perhaps the biggest battle right now the one driven by these often-unspoken selfish desires we all have? A battle between the people who care, and the people who honestly just don’t. Importantly, sometimes, each of us can play both roles – hero one moment, and villain the next.

This is a largely philosophical point about human world views, attitudes, beliefs, and so on. It is ultimately a deeply philosophical question: to what extent should humans indulge their desires, and at what cost?

I mention it in closing because other, future work in this project will have to focus in more detail on the challenge of communicating sustainability, a topic I only briefly touched upon here. Often, in sustainability communication, we focus on human psychology and this underlying philosophical problem goes unaddressed. For example, we might focus on the ways that humans best respond psychologically to new information. This might help us communicate more effectively, and it might even engender the types of responses we want, but it doesn’t directly address the underlying question of how much we should be manipulating behaviours.

There is an ethical question here that recurs throughout my writing, about the extent to which we should resist the allure of blissful ignorance. How best should we spend our time? And how harshly should we judge the traitors, the Cyphers, amongst us?

Going deeper with philosophy

The discipline of philosophy is rich with ideas of use to sustainability, and much common ground is shared between them.

Discussions about how we should act; what is right, what is moral, and what is just – these are the philosophical domain of ethics. Ethical discussions, assumptions, and beliefs underpin much of our society; from how we structure it politically and legally, to what we consider socially acceptable.

The scientific method, a crucial tool for understanding environmental and other problems, is grounded in philosophical ideas too – a mixture of rationality, empiricism, and the logic of induction. These ideas belong to the philosophical domain known as epistemology – essentially, the study of knowledge.


Logic

Note that between the concepts of rationality and empiricism, there is a separation of mental and sensory faculties (the mind and the body, more simply). This is discussed in the next section on dualism.

Ethics and knowledge are just two examples. Big ideas too, like how we should think about death, immortality, annihilation and existential risk are all clearly relevant now too, as we face down a multitude of threats. 

Dualism

The dichotomy of “human” and “nature” mentioned earlier (metabolic rift) is echoed in philosophical ideas. Cartesian dualism, which takes its name from the ideas of French philosophe Rene Descartes, introduces the idea that the human mind is different from the human body; that they are two distinct and separable entities. It is also sometimes referred to as mind-body dualism.

The mind, in this idea, is often viewed as non-physical; something that cannot be reduced to explanations that rely on neurobiology (the science of the mind) and physics (the science of basic reality – how things work at every level from atomic to cosmological). This specific claim about the non-physicality of the human mind is referred to in philosophy as property dualism.

It can be argued that Cartesian dualism and property dualism have contributed to our separation from nature. We often view the human mind as the prime point of separation between us and “animals”. It is human ingenuity, adaptability, intelligence, willpower, and genius that we often feel makes us unique. From the perspective of property dualism, the difference is also not just one of “human versus natural”, therefore, but also “mental versus physical”. This model suggests that our anthropocentric bias is partly driven by a belief in a type of human non-physicality. This might explain, for example, our collective reluctance to come to grips with the very physical impacts and constraints of our world, and the very physical consequences of our actions.

ExistComic1
ExistComic
A comic about dualism, from Mohler, 2019[1].

Sustainability and your mental health

First published: February 25, 2018 for Woroni[2]. Reworked in 2019 for The Grass Ceiling.

I’m a student of sustainability who has come dangerously close to withdrawing from university – because, in part, what I’m studying can literally drive one crazy.

The first time I studied a tertiary course was at the University of Wollongong. As a promising student with a high ATAR, I’d just enrolled in a special “Dean’s Scholars” Arts degree complete with a hefty scholarship, where I was free to build my entire program however I wanted.

I chose philosophy, and nothing else. For two and half years, I did four philosophy courses every semester, gazing daily into an abyss of endless questions – many of which were impossible to answer. Eventually, as you might imagine, this decision of mine to dwell endlessly on serious topics messed me up badly.

The existentialists

In high school, I’d been a huge fan of the philosophy of existentialism. And as it turns out, it was studying this topic at university that led to a breakdown and my eventual withdrawal. The existentialists ask some of the biggest questions we can. Albert Camus, my favourite existentialist, dealt at length with one very big question. ‘There is only one really serious philosophical problem,’ Camus argued, ‘and that is suicide. Deciding whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that’. To understand why he thought this, it helps to know that Camus saw life as absurd; without meaning or hope of any deeper understanding. It sounds pessimistic, even nihilistic, but there was a life-affirming quality: if life is truly absurd, shouldn’t we simply enjoy the ride? Regardless of where one lands on these issues, there is a cost for those who dwell too long on them. It’s not healthy to go around every day questioning whether life is worth living.

My problem with sustainability

Upon returning to university to study sustainability, I’ve exposed myself to the same dreadful abyss of ideas that broke me all those years ago. Studying sustainability can be a relentlessly and brutally depressing undertaking. Whereas other subjects might stress their students out with too much work, sustainability can sap its students of a will to survive; because we continue to fight in a battle that we are taught may be futile. The enormity of our challenge is daunting. We are constantly subjected to seemingly impossible problems where our existence as a species is at stake. And outside of classes, we are met with a disheartening wall of indifference and apathy when we try to speak of the horrors we’ve witnessed and the need for unprecedented change. At best, we are met with tokenism and the smallest shreds of progress.

How wouldn’t this affect our mental health?!

What I’ve discovered is that sustainability asks the same question suicide does, but on a species level. Sustainability, however, is not of the same philosophical nature that Camus was. In all my studies, I haven’t once seen a scholar question sustainability’s fundamental premise: that humanity is worth saving. It is a given, in every case, that it is worth saving. The profound realisation for me has been in understanding that we are all, to one extent or another, engaged in the conflict Camus described: between a futile endeavour (achieving sustainability) and simply enjoying the ride. Perhaps more subtly, we are engaged in a conflict between where our focus should lie.

As sustainability students, we are taught to fight against our seemingly inevitable demise. We are also taught to consider “business as usual” – enjoying the ride without a care for its inevitably gloomy and fatal end – as the enemy. To evoke Camus’ allegory of Sisyphus, we are taught to push that rock up the hill, and never question whether this is where our energy should be focused.

For me, engaging in that battle sometimes makes me deeply unhappy, because it all feels so futile at times. It’s like I’m wasting my time on a futile task when I could be appreciating other things more. But these binaries are just borne of frustration – there is a middle ground between the two that I’m learning to discover with the support and love of friends. For me, the middle ground is a space where we fight for the greater cause while appreciating that other things in life may matter just as much in the end.

Unlike in philosophy, sustainability has never broached the fundamental conversation about what we’re doing, and why. Sustainability has no Camus. In a very real and problematic sense, we’re not equipped to deal with the feelings we’re inevitably going to encounter because our courses never address them, or the things that cause them.

The Fall

There is a moment in the show The West Wing when a character recounts a memorable scene from his favourite movie, The Lion in Winter. Three men are locked in a dungeon, about to be executed. One of the men, Richard, tells his brothers not to cower – but to take it like men. One of the other men cannot fathom this. ‘You fool!’ he says, ‘As if it matters how a man falls down?!’.

Richard’s reply is something worth remembering in dark times: ’When the fall is all that’s left, it matters a great deal’.

We are potentially in our own species-level fall right now. And yet, even if all hope for survival is lost, I’d argue that things still matter. How we go out – that matters. It’s okay to go out fighting, despite the odds of success, like our sustainability lecturers beg us to do. It’s okay for us to resist what might be inevitable. There’s profound courage and nobility in that.

But we need to have that conversation. We need to ask what sustainability is: an exercise in ensuring our survival? Or an exercise in dying well? In this time of uncertainty, is it not potentially both? Reflect on that. On how, considering both possibilities, you might want to best use your time.

Finding a way forward

When it comes to sustainability, I would advise you all to be careful how long your own stare lingers. Don’t delve too deeply into serious topics, such as those explored in this column, without making sure you have other avenues open. There is a kind of madness that will find you if you narrow in on existential questions too much. Study other things. I recommend studying the arts, in particular –  as it can heal your soul, and give you ways to express feelings that otherwise might remain invisible.

Study poetry, or French, or basket-weaving, or cake decorating memes – whatever makes you happy. Not only can the arts play an important role in communicating sustainability, but it can help you find new paths to happiness you may not have otherwise.  It may just be the case that this is all that matters in the end; finding your own happiness on the way down.


Footnotes

[1] Mohler, C. (2019). Captain Metaphysics and the Ghost in the Machine. Retrieved from Existential Comics: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/47

[2] Blood, N. (2018, February 25). Sustainability and Your Mental Health. Woroni.