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Buddhism's answer to ‘The Social Dilemma’

The Netflix show essentially poses the question ‘what is real’? The philosophical answer is not to seek the truth, but to look past the illusion

The documentary explores the mind-bending effects of social media
The documentary explores the mind-bending effects of social media

Social media users have been grappling with the idea of multiple realities thanks to The Social Dilemma, the Netflix documentary on how algorithms manipulate our interaction with the virtual world. Former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris says in the concluding minutes: “If we don’t agree on what is truth or that there is such a thing as truth we’re toast…”. That should have metaphysicists rollicking. If we’re waiting for a solution to this dilemma, we might be here a while.

Plato began his inquiry in 375 BC with the allegory of the cave in The Republic. People bound by chains face a wall on which shadows are cast by objects in front of a fire behind them. They believe the shadows to be reality.

The entirety of Indic philosophy and western metaphysics is comprised of such theorising.

The Kena Upanishad calls Truth ‘that which cannot be expressed by speech but that by which speech is expressed’. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad offers elimination as inquiry: Neti neti, ‘not this not this’. Elsewhere it is Maya, illusion, a dream. The six theistic schools—Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Purva and Uttara Mimamsa—offer their own origination theories. The non-theistic schools—Buddhism, Jainism, Charvaka and Ajivika—developed entire systems that contribute to what we use as rational analysis and logic today. Aristotle thought reality as that which is what it is and which is not what it’s not. Sophists thought it relative. Correspondence Theory suggested it ought to match with fact. Coherence Theory finds it a place in a system of other beliefs. Semantic Theory looked at it through the inherent logic of words—what the Buddhists call ‘labelling’, which is a part of its ‘Dependent Arising’ philosophy, which understands the conditional nature of relative truth.

The only common ground on absolute reality is that it is unknowable and immutable. Here we all are, rattled by this slight parting of the Foucauldian curtain.

One of my teachers, Asha Pillai-Balsara of the World Centre for Creative Learning in Pune, a senior in Indian mind traditions, recently put our cohort through a thought exercise:

“Are you in the room or is the room in you?” she asked us to consider.

A seemingly obvious exercise. Of course, I am in the room, you think. Yet, you may touch an object and grab a cup of coffee to be sure.

How would you know though? When you dream you think you’re in it too.

I know, you think, because I see it, I touch it, because it occupies space, because by consensus we agree it is so, it serves a purpose. Thus, we generally agree on reality.

Yet you only know it as a series of images inside your head inverted via a lens in the occipital lobe. So how do you know it exists independent of your observation? Yeah, I freaked out like Bruce Willis realising he sees dead people by the end of that too.

It’s an age-old inquiry informing even our science. ‘Does a tree that falls on an island with no one to observe it still fall?’ is a thought experiment attributed to George Berkley in 1710. It evolved in various forms. Sound exists only when a sound wave is received by a listening device, the Scientific American noted in 1884. Without a listener, the tree falling does not make a sound. What of seeing?

In 1936, Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, told a gathering in Copenhagen that the path of an electron could only be determined if one determined the meaning of ‘to be’. It sparked thought on anti-realism, the idea that reality only exists if observed. Thomas Young’s Double Slit experiment, in which sunlight pass through two slits, resulted in the observation of interacting waves.

Taking this further, scientists distinguished between the determinism of classical physics, which tells you where a photon will land, and the non-determinism of quantum mechanics, which can only offer you some options. This lent us insight into randomness in nature.

Awareness of such essential illusoriness is the crux of all philosophy. The ability to navigate it regardless, is the crux of all Psychology.

We medicate those who fail to perceive reality as we collectively agree to know it. And we’re questioning those definitions every day. The further we seek, the wider the field of inquiry expands.

“It’s confusing because it’s simultaneous utopia and dystopia,” Tristan Harris says. This is why insight, in therapy and meditation alike, can be a lot to take. It leaves us questioning how we go through the motions. Where is the meaning?

Philosophical schools recommend a middle path, doing what you have to do.

“…The knowledgeable are then in agreement

In that extreme views are not to be held.

The mind will not get caught in

Either eternalism or nihilism.

The unfathomable limit of reality,

The middle limit, will be realized.”

- Sagarmatiparipraccha, verses 2.73 and 2.74 (translation

Much of the Bhagavad Gita is just this, urging Arjuna to know the truth and do what he has to regardless of the outcome.

The point is not to seek the truth, but to look past the illusion, thus freeing ourselves to act to the purpose at hand. This is living in the moment.

When we can’t even be sure of what we perceive, what purpose do our extremist views serve? What are we winning? All it takes to exit the illusion is awareness.

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