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Neo’s Choice: Truth versus Happiness in Fear and Trembling

by Joel McCrum

In the recent film The Matrix Neo, the protagonist, is offered a choice between what is revealed to be everyday life’s placating illusions, or the austere truth of an otherworldly ‘reality’. In the movie this choice provokes relatively little thought on his part, doubtless due to confidence in his ability to save the world and thereby rid the truth of its unpleasantness. It seems, however, that this approach merely skirts an issue that deserves more serious attention. I have found it necessary to examine how I would react if given such a choice, while noting that I certainly do not qualify as an action hero, and thus my chances of saving the world must be viewed as negligible.

At first blush, this situation suggests itself as a version of the Platonic cave allegory. Neo is invited to escape the deceptions of the ‘cave’ in favour of the true world, and in so doing becomes a philosopher. No matter that this real world is bleak and unpleasant; it is befitting of one who loves the sight of the truth. The implication is that those possessing the mettle of a philosopher will be willing to accept the gambit, while those less inclined to such elevated ends will content themselves with the happy lies of the everyday world.

Such an interpretation, however, suffers from an overly literal interpretation of Plato and lacks insight into his concept of philosophy. The distinction between the cave and the outside world is of visible versus intelligible realms. Plato would regard both ‘realities’ as equally flawed, as they both possess the falsifications inherent in the visible realm. Beyond the cave lies neither a pleasant or unpleasant ‘alternate reality’, but a purely intellectable realm of forms (e?d?s) that are inherently good. Both ‘realities’ are mere opinions, while the truth lies with the forms, for which no pill is available.

It is important to dispel this rather inviting misconception, as few intelligent people would pass up the chance to transcend the human condition, regardless of the acerbic nature of the resulting world. The red pill truly does “offer nothing but truth”, a sobering thought in relation to the incipient dialectic between truth and meaning. As Nietzsche inquires, “must your truth be so salty that it can no longer even quench thirst”? To the timocrat and the utilitarian alike, acceptance of the offer could only be explained as asceticism. How, then, can one consider the question meaningful, or even problematic? I contend that the meaning in such a question can be found in being ‘called out’ by a higher figure, and being forced to make a decision in ‘fear and trembling’’. For a prototypical example, one might look to Søren Kierkegaard’s treatise of the same title, and his consideration of the Biblical Abraham as a ‘knight of faith’.

Kierkegaard finds himself fascinated with God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son. In the ‘Exordium’ to the text, Kierkegaard attempts to work out rational explanations for Abraham’s actions, but ultimately fails. Instead, he suggests that Abraham enters a special relationship with God as a result of his being ‘called out’, thus rendering himself unintelligible to other people and their morality. A normal person acts in accordance with either will or duty, while a select few renounce their will for duty’s sake. But a ‘knight of faith’, like Abraham, renounces both will and duty, and is therefore incomprehensible in terms of rational morality. The hallmark of the ‘knight of faith’ is that he is called out by a higher power, and is forced to make a choice in ‘fear and trembling’.

The choice offered to Neo in The Matrix might be viewed similarly. He is clearly called out by a greater power, and is offered a choice from which there is no escape. Envisioning myself in a similar situation, I realise immediately the intensity of the fear and trembling that Kierkegaard speaks of. It is neither fear of retribution from Abraham’s vengeful God nor the horrible thought of sacrificing one’s only son. Rather, it is to be found in the realisation that one defines one’s very self in the act of choosing, and that to choose falsely is to falsify one’s entire existence.

In imagining being called out in like fashion, I also begin to realise the futility of a purely calculative approach that arrives at a yes or no answer to the question posed. Any response must be qualified to account for the unpredictability inherent in the crucial moment, which takes place beyond the ken of universal morality. Thus the remainder of this essay can at best serve as Kierkegaard’s Exordium does; it must ultimately fail. Such a caveat must not be viewed as a method of evading the issue, but rather a necessary warning to those who would believe that theory is sufficient to comprehend a decision of this magnitude. This does not render the following consideration moot, however. On the contrary, a rational appropriation of this problem is a necessary step towards understanding of the dilemma. Only with this knowledge can one appreciate the absurdity inherent in the choice, and the terror associated with it.

In considering the problem from a rational perspective, two separate issues present themselves. The first is the epistemological problem grounded in one’s trust of Morpheus and his description of the pills he offers you. Perhaps Morpheus is simply trying to sell a lifetime of unhappiness – a philosophical drug pusher. Clearly one has no objective means of verifying what ‘the truth’ is, especially considering that the 20th century life that was treated as reality has been suggested to be false. There is an equal chance that one might be leaving the truth behind in the 20th century, and entering a fabricated world of unmitigated pain. It should be noted that this epistemological question also confronts Abraham, who must judge whether the voice he hears is truly God. Many would suggest that if a voice commands him to kill his son, Abraham could be positive only that it is not God. While in both cases there is very little evidence available to them, neither Abraham nor Neo can abstain from pronouncing their judgement on this issue, as it is implicit in the choice that they must make.

Given that the epistemological issue is resolved to my satisfaction, there remains a metaphysical question of equal import in weighing the truth against private happiness. It must be noted here that forfeiting one’s private happiness is not merely selfsacrifice, but actually involves the renunciation of a duty, as even Kant agrees that we have a duty to make ourselves happy, if possible. To consider sacrificing happiness for truth, one must raise some serious questions about the nature of the supposed truth. “Perhaps no one has been sufficiently ‘truthful’ about ‘truthfulness’,” says Nietzsche. Here the tension between truth and meaning surfaces, to be ultimately resolved only in the act of choosing. The choice of blissful ignorance disavows the offer of truth as devoid of meaning, while the acceptance of the supposed ‘truth’ suggests a perception of some associated meaning. Regardless, any meaning would be of a private sort, as one presumably could not communicate their new-found truth to others. With respect to this issue, Abraham is torn between his duty to God and his love for his son. Once again, this issue can only be resolved by the choice he makes, and even this choice cannot truly be understood by an observer.

From the above consideration, it is clear that a rational, pragmatic approach to this problem is of limited value. One’s everyday experience is of no use, as the choice transcends one’s experience. However, based only on rational consideration, I would clearly opt against the truth that Morpheus peddles. From the above, it seems that choosing the red pill can only be viewed as a most desperate gamble with a limited ‘philosophical’ payoff. However, this is the same reasoning that suggests that Abraham’s dilemma is not problematic, as he already knows that killing his son is immoral, and that God must simply be testing him. It is clearly not sufficient to understand either problem, and it must inevitably fall short.

What this reasoned approach fails to appreciate is the experiential force of having to choose, and being defined by one’s choice. This existential angst, Kierkegaard’s ‘fear and trembling’, will ultimately be responsible for the choice that one makes. For Abraham, it results in a choice contrary to his will and duty. Indeed, as Kierkegaard discovered in writing his Exordium, the choice remains contrary to any rational appropriation. The result is that even God cannot understand Abraham, as understanding implies rational comprehension.

The same applies for my choice of truth versus happiness. I have just written that my answer would be an emphatic refusal of truth on Morpheus’ terms – I would swallow the blue pill. But this rational decision would be useless in the actual situation. For, while it is laudable to consider such questions in an essay, ultimately one must consider the process as somewhat reversed. Writing an essay presumes that I am responsible for the choice I make. But to an equal or greater degree it is the choice that defines me. No amount of pontification, meditation, or thought will allow me to experience the urgency and trepidation of one who is truly forced to choose. My choice, then is but a guess. Anyone who cannot see why this rider must be added to my answer underestimates the intensity of having to choose, the seriousness inherent in the choice. They ignore the fear and trembling, and in doing so, annul the significance of the choice.

© Joel McCrum

Joel McCrum is from Edmonton and studies biochemistry at the University of Alberta. He says he occasionally finds time to trade tumour viruses and western blots for truth and being.

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