The Man Who Learned to Love the Law

The Book of Onei is an antinomian dream grimoire, providing deceptive yet true information about the art of Oneiromancy or dream magic in the form of poetry, fantasy, and intentionally ambiguous instructions.

 

I closed my eyes on all I saw.

And when I opened them, I’d learned to love the Law.

I found the garden where the shadows grew,

And look, I brought some home for you.

 

I closed my mouth on all I’d said.

I traveled west and south, and glorified the dead,

To taste their waters and to know if they were mine,

Or something else I’d lose in time.

 

I took my hand from all I’d held,

And offered recompense to dreams that I had felled.

They said I bore no guilt at all,

But still they’ll watch me when I fall.

 

I closed my ears on all I’d heard.

The things I’d loved the most all died with just a word.

I kept them close to me for years,

Till they could be reborn as fears.

 

I took my mind from every scent

And none could ever find the places that I went.

The place in Avalon where Mordred grew.

And there was something there for you.

 

I’ve brought a chalice made of things I’d set aside.

I’ll share this cup with you, and you can be my bride.

We’ll drink the thunder and we’ll ride the rising night,

And you can help me learn to love the light.

 

– from the Book of Onei, Part III: The Powers of Onei

 

Image by Konstantin Makovsky
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The Spoon-Bender’s Trick

Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash

In the 1999 film The Matrix, Keanu Reeves plays a computer hacker named Neo who discovers that reality as we know it is only a computer simulation created by a machine race that uses human bodies for energy. People actually live in vats among the ruined cities of their dead civilization, while incorrectly believing themselves to be living ordinary human lives in the 1990s. A small band of rebels, led by a man named Morpheus, offer a select few such as Neo a choice – take the blue pill and go back to sleep, or take the red pill and find out what’s really going on. Neo takes the red pill and is schooled by Morpheus and a woman named Trinity in the nature of the Matrix and how to manipulate it with the mind in order to do battle against the machines.

The Matrix can be seen as a fantasy about Descartes’ hypothetical demon, the all-powerful creator of a false world. As Descartes pointed out, there is no way anyone can prove that our world is not merely an illusion created by such a demon and this raises serious doubts about the validity of all human knowledge. After all, what use is knowledge of a fake reality, created solely to deceive us? It can also be seen as a movie about Plato’s cave allegory, in which reality as it is perceived by most people is drastically distorted, with only an elite few seeing things as they really are. For that matter, it could be seen as a movie about Gnosticism, in which the world we live in is a false world created by a deluded God. In Gnostic Christianity, Christ’s mission is to free us from our false perceptions and lead us to true knowledge or gnosis. This is the mission Neo takes on after rising from the dead, making Neo a Gnostic Christ figure.

As interesting as these ideas may be, Neo’s attitude to reality seems strangely naïve to me. He begins his search for Morpheus because something doesn’t seem right – the world feels wrong, though he can’t put his finger on exactly why. All he knows is to look for Morpheus, subject of a rumor or an urban legend about a man who knows what’s behind the curtain. On one level, this itch to find out the “real truth” shows much more imagination and initiative than most of the prisoners of the Matrix ever show. Despite this fact, Neo is all too easily satisfied with the answers that Morpheus offers him. He refuses to accept what Morpheus is telling him at first, but only briefly. Morpheus makes a good point about definitions – how can you say that the world of the Matrix isn’t “real” when you have not yet defined your terms? – but doesn’t follow it up. His basic point is not that Neo’s definition of reality is unexamined, but that the Matrix is simply fake.

If the Matrix is fake, it follows that there is a Real World and that people need to be shown the truth. Neo accepts the falseness of the Matrix and the reality of the Real World because Morpheus shows him certain things – but perception is exactly the basis on which he previously accepted the Matrix as reality. If perception is inadequate for determining the reality of the Matrix, isn’t it equally inadequate for determining the reality of the Real World? Why should Neo assume that anything he has ever seen is “really real,” including the post-apocalyptic wasteland Morpheus tells him is the Real World? Conspiracy theorists seem to rely on a similar mix of skepticism and gullibility – they ask you to believe that whatever most people accept is actually false (which may well be the case) but that their particular bizarre theory is true (which is unlikely at best).

It never seems to occur to Neo that the whole thing could be a simulation, including Morpheus and his rebel band. It would be sensible of the machines to write a subroutine, in which troublesome prisoners could play out their messianic fantasies without causing any trouble in the main program. Or perhaps humans live in a computer simulation created by machines who also don’t realize they exist within a still larger simulation created by other entities of some kind. Reality could consist of layer upon layer of simulations, extending to infinity. Once you accept the premise that the world you previously thought was real is actually a simulation, which option seems more likely – that you have escaped the Matrix and are totally free, or that you are still trapped in another layer of the simulation?

Neo’s ability to blandly accept whatever he is shown may be the main thing holding him back from fulfilling his assigned role of Gnostic Christ. When he visits the Oracle, he meets a boy who can bend spoons with his mind. The boy tells him that the key to performing this little magic trick is to truly understand that there is no spoon. That requires a more profound mental shift, because the spoon-bender would have to perceive himself as the one real element in the equation – the real center of a false world.

This is similar to Descartes in one sense and virtually the opposite in another. Descartes was only using skepticism as a tool to establish the validity of realism. His “I think, therefore I am” is meant only as the first step in a chain of logic that would eventually affirm the real-ness of everything else in the familiar everyday world. The spoon-bender starts from the same place (he considers his own existence to be certain even if his perceptions of it may be false) but then refuses to affirm the reality of the world of perception. Instead he denies it – and resolves to bend it to his own will through his disbelief. After he dies or almost dies, Neo does the same. From that point on, his ability to shape the false reality of the Matrix is basically limitless. Neo’s miraculous power within the Matrix depends on his ability to disbelieve in it, while accepting his own reality without doubt or question. His approach is pragmatic, but arguably not very logical.

It is fortunate for Neo that he does not think too much about the implications of his experiences. The Agents can also re-shape the Matrix at will, just like he can. They have this power because they are nothing more than autonomous programs within the Matrix itself. Does Neo have any reason to assume he is human in the first place? Why would the machines ever have written the Matrix program in such a way that humans could re-write it at will simply by disbelieving in it? Couldn’t Neo just as easily be an autonomous program, perhaps a malfunctioning script? If Neo ever sat down to meditate on doubt like René Descartes, he might be forced to ask, “I think – but am I?”

The thread leading out of this labyrinth is supplied by Morpheus, although he doesn’t appear to follow it all the way to the end of the proverbial rabbit hole. Morpheus points out that Neo hasn’t defined what he means by “real” in the first place. As Morpheus says, everything you experience with any of your senses is ultimately an electrical signal in your own brain. Those signals are presumably interpreting some reality outside your brain, but you do not and cannot know anything definite about that reality. As Kant says, you experience only phenomena, not noumena.

Does this imply that Neo should become a solipsist, disbelieving in any reality outside the self? I don’t believe it does. The comments Morpheus makes in this conversation are similar to the ideas proposed by George Berkeley, who held that we have no logical basis for assuming the phenomena we perceive to be anything other than ideas in the mind. Despite this assertion, Berkeley did not argue for the unreality of our perceptions. Instead, he argued that the definition of reality ought to be based on direct perception – “to be is to be perceived”. This does not imply solipsism, because we consistently perceive people and other phenomena as being real.  We may not be able to know everything about any given phenomenon by looking at it (it could, for example, be a computer program or the creation of a demon) but it’s still real even so.

If reality is defined by what we perceive, then what we perceive is real – even if it changes. Neo’s lack of skepticism about the massive changes in his perception of reality are defensible from this perspective – he just accepts whatever he sees, makes whatever mental adjustments are necessary, and keeps going. After his temporary death, Neo finally claims his agency as one of those who can freely shape his own perceptions, thus re-writing the matrix at will. The spoon-bender’s trick is not to merely believe that the spoon is unreal, but to perceive it as unreal. In the fantasy world of The Matrix, that shift is perception is enough to bend the spoon – or to fly off into the sky as a super-human being.

Image by Alessio Lin on Unsmash

Sources

The Matrix, directed by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski, Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999.

Philosophy as Meditative Doubt by Stephen Palmquist, in The Tree of Philosophy, August 21, 2007, http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/tp4/top03.html.

Philosophy as Rational Dialogue by Stephen Palmquist, in The Tree of Philosophy, August 21, 2007, http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/tp4/top02.html.

Gnosticism by Edward Moore, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/gnostic/.

Philosophy as Transcendental Critique by Stephen Palmquist, in The Tree of Philosophy, August 21, 2007, http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/tp4/top03.html.

George Berkeley (1685—1753) by Daniel E. Flage, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/berkeley/#H4.

A Journey to Onei (4)

The Book of Onei is an antinomian dream grimoire, providing deceptive yet true information about the art of Oneiromancy or dream magic in the form of poetry, fantasy, and intentionally ambiguous instructions.

When my father told me about the Lords of the Earth, I was riding a bus along a lonely highway. No headlights passed us, and no stars shone. The sun had long set and was far from rising.

 

I couldn’t sleep, but something shimmered in the window in front of me like a reflected dream.  It was the ghost of my father – fainter this time, deader this time. I picked up our conversation where we’d left off, eager despite my own troubles to learn more of Onei.

 

“Are the Powers gods?” I asked him. He nodded silently, as if he respected my refusal to speak of anything personal.

 

“A god is a certain type of Power, but not all Powers are gods. Some are heroes and some are saints, some are ghosts and some are devils. The Powers of Onei are infinite in number. To hear the words of such a Power, you need only hold the entity in your mind each night until you receive an answer in your dreams – but be careful who you ask for such a favor. The most terrible by far are the Lords of the Earth.”

 

“And who are the Lords of the Earth?”

 

“The tyrants of dream. Rulers of what we can imagine, they rule the world. You won’t find them any safer to defy than these earthly powers you have so offended. Remember, son – most of what you will read in the Book of Onei does not exist at all. The secret is clothed in shadows; it wears lies like a veil.”

 

And yet I had crossed the Starry River and read the future in its constellations. I had crossed the Plain of Night on foot and heard the whispers, the dread conspiracies. I had gazed on the ruins of the City of Wisdom and laughed along with the birds who nest there. No one had ever thought to rebuild that place after the Sons of the Crow came down on Onei. No one ever will.

 

Now I stood here before the City of the Gods in the Plain of Day, one of the nations my father had assured me had never existed – not even in dream.

 

But had it existed before I came there?

 

No map of Onei is ever complete, nor even particularly useful.

 

Except the one you draw yourself.

 

– notes found in the handwritten original of the Book of Onei

 
Image by William Blake

The Ship of Stars

The Book of Onei is an antinomian dream grimoire, providing deceptive yet true information about the art of Oneiromancy or dream magic in the form of poetry, fantasy, and intentionally ambiguous instructions.

 

A flying ship gliding over an icy landscape.

You can use it to travel through Onei.

 

I walked across a plain of arctic ice

Beneath a sky of sharp and broken stars.

The world was flat and white, but shadowed scars

 

Lurked here and there across the frozen sea.

My heart was quiet, though the rising wind

Was howling like the devil’s pipes. My skin

 

Was burning, faintly. Out there, in the night,

I saw the Ship of Stars against the snow.

Her boards were creaking, and an eerie glow

 

Clung, soft as mist, to ropes and flapping sails.

I climbed aboard and stood before the wheel

And with a sound of steel on sharpened steel

 

Her prow jumped out across the plain of ice.

The fog came in, and with it came a thought-

“Tonight’s a night for flying.” What I sought

 

Could lie in wait across this winter waste.

The Ship of Stars rose up into the night

And floated through the fog. Our only light

 

Came dimly through the wall of mist- a glow

From somewhere far away. My restless will

Grew vast, expansive, but as calm and still

 

As all the leagues of sky through which we flew.

I felt as insubstantial as a ghost.

“It won’t be long,” I thought. “I’m getting close.”

 

– from the Book of Onei, Part II: The Lore of Onei

 

Image by Sidney Sime