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“Pigs, geese, and cattle.
First find out that they are owned.
Then find out the whyness of it.”

– Charles Fort

More real than real?

More real than real?

We speak about “glitches in the matrix”, as that is the idiom of our age, surrounded as we are by smart technology that often seems to understand us better than we understand ourselves, but historically, mankind’s metaphysical luminaries, the sages, philosophers, and scientists, have long harbored the pernicious suspicion that the world we live in is illusory.  From the Upanishads to Schopenhauer to Roger Ebert’s deathbed declaration that “this is all a hoax” thinkers, philosophers and theologians have frequently come to the conclusion that our mortal existence is a front.  There is, of course, something deeply unnerving about the notion that our daily lives are meaningless (and in fact false), thus, without nuance, declaring reality to be illusory is the metaphysical equivalent of shouting “YOLO!”  The apparent malleability of our conscious reality has led many a wise man to conclude that it is all smoke and mirrors.  Yet things seem to work.  Gravity usually does what we expect.  In general, the universe seems to conform to a set of reasonably deducible rules (tear a physics graduate student away from his World of Warcraft game and he’ll agree).  After all, it would be an exercise in agony to get dressed if the coefficient of friction took on an arbitrary value every morning.  There would be an awful lot of unexpected chaffing.  Given that most of the time the world behaves quite predictably, those of us who are aficionados of the deep weird are left to wonder about the underlying meaning of the many aberrations reported (from badly behaved gods to religious revelations to time slips to living toads encased in ancient rocks).  There appear to be a set of rules that govern our perception of reality.  Occasionally, and forgive me for being a programmer by day (we all have our secret sins), a bug appears.  And those that are paying attention notice that something is not quite right.  And just like an error correcting algorithm, the skeptics descend to explain the anomaly away, the psychologists circle looking for pathologies, the scientists categorize, and something inside each of us looks to resolve the resulting cognitive dissonance engendered by an encounter with unreality.  And we forget.  We forget that throughout human history strangeness has persistently intruded.

We tend to focus on the big anomalies.  UFO’s, Bigfoot, sea monsters, aliens, and ghosts are the anomalist’s version of Fatima and Lourdes, the big spectacles (that are not actually beyond the realm of reason for most rational individuals) that might solidify the faith of the faithful, and cause the skeptic to question their skepticism.  We hope for the grand visitation observed by the multitudes for the same reason that the religiously devout hopes for a witnessed miracle, so that we may say “look, we were right all along, and here is the proof you’ve demanded.”  The message of Charles Hoy Fort, the father of modern anomalistics, seems to have been lost along the way, as he scrupulously combed the literature for inexplicable phenomena of an exceedingly mundane nature, unearthing volumes of thunderstones, flesh falls, blood rains, atmospheric disturbances and uncountable occurrences that were incuriously dismissed or tenuously explained away by the mainstream.  Fort waxed philosophical in paragraph upon paragraph about the compulsion of institutionalized science to blithely recategorize such phenomena as fully explicable outliers or alternatively, as misinterpretations, all in order to preserve the integrity of their model of reality.  There is nothing insidious or conspiratorial in such behavior, rather reflects our desire for the world to conform to some kind of reliable standard.  Reading Fort’s encyclopedic listings of bizarre phenomena and even more bizarre explanations offered for them by contemporaries, one gets the sense that we live in a whimsical universe, where the rules continuously change, reducing our existence to a never-ending episode of Ashton Kuchner’s Punk’d.  Most days you can function quite well by assuming your interactions with the world are authentic.  But then sometimes, Ashton is lurking in the background.

I must confess, and this will come as a shock to absolutely no one that’s read this far, that I regularly peruse a wide variety of social media platforms and online materials related to strange phenomena.  I’m a little too thin-skinned to be an engaged member of the Reddit community, which seems like linguistic gladiatorial combat on its better days, but in checking up on the usual suspect subreddits (r/AnomaliesUnleashed in particular), I ran across a personal posting that piqued my curiosity, headlined “I know now that I don’t exist” wherein by all appearances, an earnest, intelligent, and lucid sounding gentleman related a startlingly simple aberration, which led to serious existential vertigo.  A chorus of similar mundane “glitches” experienced by other folks, subsequently appeared in the comments.

Hi there, I would like to share my story that is both funny and terrifying. I’ve read many reports of alien encounters and ghosts and so on but they all have one thing in common. They are all complicated enough to make room for a reasonable doubt. It might have been a plane, a weather balloon, a simple coincidence or some rare natural phenomenon. Not this time. I got 2+2=5 and there is no room for any doubt, and that is just the beginning of the terrifying part. A quick introduction: I’m 28, man, living in Poland, completely healthy (no illnesses of any kind), working in marketing and living alone. Also, I am a man of reason, atheists and I choose logic over any superstition. The story: Last night, around 11.00, I was getting ready for the next day. I was packing for the gym that I visit right after work every other day. I had no alcohol, I wasn’t tired and what is most important I was concentrated and calm. I packed all the necessities in my bag and went to the kitchen to get bananas I had prepared for right after the workout. There were 4 bananas in one bunch. I had ripped 2 off and left 2 in the fridge. I packed the two I’ve taken and spend some more time watching YouTube videos. However, I got worried that the fruits will wither in my bag through the night so I took them out and put them back in the fridge and wrote myself a note that I left on the table saying ‘bananas’ to not forget them the next morning. Then I went to sleep. Right after I woke up and went through the bathroom routine I went to the kitchen and as I was remembering what I should do I took the bananas out and immediately and unmistakably noticed that they were again in a bunch, naturally connected. I have never before been so sure that it was an impossible error. I knew it in my guts and when I ripped them again, listening to the sound of them being torn, I knew that the yesterday’s act of doing it was erased. My mind was speeding to cross out all the possibilities and the last one was eliminated when I saw the piece of paper saying ‘bananas’ on the table. It was not a dream. 2 of the fruits were in my bag for good 10 minutes and now they were again a bunch, not glued, not taped, not placed next to each other, a holding bunch. I examined the fridge, there were no more fruits in the whole apartment. As I mentioned, I live alone, no outside involvement was possible as I would easily woke up if someone entered the apartment.  And now the most terrifying part begins. Immediately, and I mean IMMEDIATELY, after I was 100% positive that I encountered an error that had only one possible explanation (that I do not live in a real world) I began to feel that it is not important. I caught myself getting ready for work feeling easy and THAT was when a shiver crossed my spine. Something, some unknown force, a program encoded in my bones, wanted me to forget it, to ignore it and it is still so strong that I have trouble writing it. I have to force myself to endure what seems like a huge waste of time. Like I said, I am a man of reason and I don’t leave things unexplained, I don’t. I can lose hours pondering why someone did something or why something happened and I like it. I like to find answers and I know that if I ever spot something mysterious I would happily freak out but this time there is this ‘feeling’, not reason, not a voice of mine, an outside half-feeling half-thought that even thinking about it is tiring and that the incident is so minute that I should not spend a second more on it. During the day I found so easy to concentrate on work, I even forgot about it for most part of the day. However, when I was coming back from the gym, it hit me. I remembered that I have experienced similar glitches in the past but I ignored them all so easily because of that exact feeling. And THAT feeling is even more convincing than the glitch itself that we do not have any idea what we are or about the world we are in. It may be a computer, a dream, I don’t know. All I know for sure is that this is not real and even as I write it I feel it is of no importance. It is so not worth mentioning that I know the day after tomorrow I will forget, I will lose interest in it. I may even detest coming back to it, to this story. It’s stronger than me, but for now the image on the glitch that appeared in such funny circumstances stays with me like a face of murderer that slowly disappears into the oblivion. Let this story written against all odds be a memento for something that is soon to be gone (simon_2112, reddit.com/r/Glitch_in_the_Matrix).

The apologetic tone of brave “simon_2112” as he related his story gave me pause.  He genuinely seemed sorry to have to break it to us.  Now, perhaps simon_2112 is just pulling our leg, and if so, kudos on his writing skills and I imagine the novelization will be a work of art, but given the host of responses, his experience seems not uncommon.  And this started me thinking.  If the world we live in is illusory (and not in the facile “life is meaningless sense”), and that there is a “corrective” force at work, odds are there is a purpose to the illusion.  After all, if everything is truly illusion (turtles upon turtles all the way down), why would the universe exist at all?  If it is all illusion, and the illusion is actively maintained, said maintenance requires a motivation.  The conclusion that this inexorably leads to is that humans are somebody’s property and reality is a means of control.  Fort himself briefly remarked on the possibility that we are “owned” by some other mode of existence as an explanation for the rising tide of anomalies he found himself swamped by in his many years of research.

I think we’re property. I should say we belong to something: That once upon a time, this earth was No-man’s Land, that other worlds explored and colonized here, and fought among themselves for possession, but that now it’s owned by something: That something owns this earth—all others warned off. Nothing in our own times—perhaps—because I am thinking of certain notes I have—has ever appeared upon this earth, from somewhere else, so openly as Columbus landed upon San Salvador, or as Hudson sailed up his river. But as to surreptitious visits to this earth, in recent times, or as to emissaries, perhaps, from other worlds, or voyagers who have shown every indication of intent to evade and avoid, we shall have data as convincing as our data of oil or coal-burning aerial super-constructions. But, in this vast subject, I shall have to do considerable neglecting or disregarding, myself. I don’t see how I can, in this book, take up at all the subject of possible use of humanity to some other mode of existence, or the flattering notion that we can possibly be worth something (Fort, 1919, p157-158).

The Cliff Notes version of post-modernist social philosophy suggests that ideology is wholly encapsulating, its prime function being to maintain the boundaries of what it is possible to think, and thus it is exceedingly difficult to move outside one’s ideological containment.  An anthropology professor of mine once asked, quite sincerely, how one might escape the prison of ideology.  The only answer I could offer was the introduction of nonsense.  If meaning is a hall of mirrors, it is only through the shattering of these mirrors that one can ultimately find a pathway out.  Is this what our anomalies and “glitches in the matrix” represent?  Are these injections of anomalies a moment of ideology-piercing gestalt?  On rare occasions, the staged reality shines through, and we realize we are simply the magician on stage, creating a perceived reality of our own.  An old magician’s manual on misdirection in magic makes the poignant observation, “When you go on the stage you cease being yourself for a time. You become your idea of yourself as a magician. It is not you. It is someone else. There is no need to be frightened, excited, disturbed or nervous. You do not exist for the time being” (Fitzkee, 1935, p63).  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. This inevitably presents the problem of whether anything exists, including the supposed reality of our own awareness, a logical trap eloquently laid out by none other than American satirist and general smart-ass Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914 A.D.).

By the way, dear reader, did you ever happen to consider the possibility that you are a lunatic, and perhaps confined in an asylum? It seems to you that you are not—that you go with freedom where you will, and use a sweet reasonableness in all your works and ways; but to many a lunatic it seems that he is Rameses II, or the Holkar of Indore. Many a plunging maniac, ironed to the floor of a cell, believes himself the Goddess of Liberty careening gaily through the Ten Commandments in a chariot of gold. Of your own sanity and identity you have no evidence that is any better than he has of his. More accurately, I have none of mine; for anything I know, you do not exist, nor any one of all the things with which I think myself familiarly conscious. All may be fictions of my disordered imagination. I really know of but one reason for doubting that I am an inmate of an asylum for the insane—namely, the probability that there is nowhere any such thing as an asylum for the insane (Bierce, 1909, p293-294).

The response to Bierce’s loop of infinite doubt is not the disorientation of absolute relativism, rather when properly applied, suggestive of the primacy of conscious awareness as an assurance that we are not all lunatics, ghosts, or holograms.  This surpasses Descartes’ cogito ergo sum in that it recognizes that in a universe of perceptive relativism (where we cannot know for sure that we are not perceiving illusion), objectivism is impossible, but awareness is achievable.

The first of our modern values is that of relativism. It means that something exists only in relation to something else. It does not exist in itself; it exists because something outside reflects it. For example, tallness is relative. One is tall only in terms of another being. If John is eight feet in height and Mary is five feet in height, John is tall by comparison with Mary. Nevertheless, Mary at five feet is tall when compared with a pygmie of four feet. Similarly, existence in itself can be accepted or denied in terms of awareness. If you are known to me, you exist. If you are not known to me, then as far as I am concerned, you do not exist. The only explanation for the acceptance of such a theory, says the objectivist, is idealistic confusion in the thinker. Existence is a fact, not a relativistic dependent upon some observer’s awareness. We might argue as follows: “The existence of the ability to know is a fact. I know that I exist. Therefore, my existence is a fact” (Yourglich, 1954, p19).

Once you conclude that we are property, much of history becomes a lot more comprehensible.  As a species we have made horrendous and self-destructive choices for any creature that ever wished to be free, suggesting perhaps that we never actually made those choices, rather they were made for us, sewn into the fabric of an illusory world.  Author and geographer Jared Diamond made an observation in an aptly named article, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” that when given the choice between freedom with a limited population as hunter-gatherers, and uncontrolled population growth under tyranny as agriculturalists, we opted to settle down and start farming.  Or perhaps this was chosen as part of a script we were obligated to follow.

As population densities of hunter-gatherers slowly rose at the end of the ice ages, bands had to choose between feeding more mouths by taking the first steps toward agriculture, or else finding ways to limit growth. Some bands chose the former solution, unable to anticipate the evils of farming, and seduced by the transient abundance they enjoyed until population growth caught up with increased food production. Such bands outbred and then drove off or killed the bands that chose to remain hunter-gatherers, because a hundred malnourished farmers can still outfight one healthy hunter. It’s not that hunter-gatherers abandoned their life style, but that those sensible enough not to abandon it were forced out of all areas except the ones farmers didn’t want. At this point it’s instructive to recall the common complaint that archaeology is a luxury, concerned with the remote past, and offering no lessons for the present. Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny (Diamond, 1987, p67).

The abundance of inexplicable phenomena and the vehemence of those who seek to describe every anomaly as madness, misunderstanding, or malarkey suggests an inherent error-correcting mechanism to smooth over the rough edges where unreality bleeds through into our awareness.  Just because the world may be illusory it doesn’t mean that life is meaningless, it just makes it a lot more puzzling.  I would suggest you “fight the man”, but first you have to figure out who “the man” is.  Albert Camus posited, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion”.  On the bright side, if the world is illusory, perhaps like Neo, I actually know Kung Fu.

Bierce, Ambrose, 1842-1914. The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce v11. New York, 1909.
Diamond, Jared. “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discover Magazine, May 1987, pp. 64-66.
Fitzkee, Dariel. Misdirection for Magicians. San Francisco: D. Fitzkee, 1935.
Fort, Charles, 1874-1932. The Book of the Damned. New York, N. Y.: Ace Books, 1919.
Yourglich, Anita, 1923-. The Dynamics of Social Interaction. Washington: Public Affairs Press, 1954.