Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reality, Religion, & Identity: How LOST, Inception, The Matrix Trilogy, and Fight Club Prove or Disprove Their Existence

There have been few moments in my life where I have been left speechless by either a piece of visual media or a piece of literature; there have been even fewer moments where, upon finishing the watching of a film or television show, or the reading of a novel, my mind explodes with activity, causing me to reexamine the way I look at the world--even to reestablish my own perception of self and of reality.  Until recently, the only times that those experiences had occurred were throughout the six seasons of LOST, after watching the movie Fight Club, and with each of the three movies that comprise the Matrix Trilogy.  Perhaps completing my own personal trilogy of cerebral films is the movie Inception.

I saw Inception a few weeks ago as part of a master plan to avoid traffic.  Seriously.  I had a ticket for the Goo Goo Dolls show out at Jones Beach and was stoked...until I realized that the show was at seven o'clock.  On a Friday night.  In July.  In Long Island.  At Jones Beach.  "Big deal?" you might ask.  Not if you live in Staten Island and the show is in Wantagh.  That's the Staten Island Expressway, the Belt Parkway, and the Southern State Parkway standing between me and my show--at the height of rush hour!  To misuse an oft-misused maxim:

entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem

Thus I decided that if the problem was the traffic (and it was) then the simplest solution (which, ergo, would be the correct one) would be to avoid it.  I decided to leave the house around one o'clock (Heather was taking a half-day at work) and I would head out to Long Island to kill some time before the concert.  I figured I would read somewhere for the few hours until the concert started...but then I realized I'd need to find a place to eat.  I thought of the Roosevelt Field mall and, as luck would have it, it proved to be a short drive away from Jones Beach.  My plans seemed settled but then I began to wonder whether a) I would really want to read for six hours straight and b) I could avoid the temptation of window shopping at the mall.  I figured there would be a movie theater there (there was) and that it would probably be playing Inception (it wasn't).  Perturbed by this (and filled with a sense of purpose...of questing, if you will) I set out to find a movie theater in relative proximity to the beach that would be playing Inception at a time that would work with my itinerary for the day.  As luck would have it, I found a theater in Levittown playing Inception at 2:30.  I was thrilled; my plan was set.

I left the house at ten to one to embark upon what would be, according to Mapquest, a fifty minute drive.  Show starts at 2:30, I'm leaving at 12:50...that leaves me with an additional fifty minutes to account for traffic.  I got onto the Staten Island Expressway and then the Belt Parkway...and there I sat.  Ten minutes went by.  Then fifteen.  Twenty minutes in I realized that not only would I not be seeing Inception but that the entire plan that I had concocted was for naught.  Then, miraculously, at Ocean Parkway, the highway opened up and I thought maybe...just maybe...I might make it.  I wound up arriving at the movie theater at 2:06 and enjoyed the lunch I had brought in the car after purchasing my ticket and waiting for the 2:30 beginning of the film.

Now, this entry is not meant to be a review of Inception, or of any of the other movies/shows that will be referenced, nor is it meant to serve as a spoiler for anyone who has not yet seen the movie.  Instead, it will utilize the films to discuss three things that have challenged--indeed plagued--my mind for years: the issues of religion, reality, and self.  I'll start with religion as it will likely be the most controversial of the three.

Some background information is necessary before I proceed with my discussion of religion.  I was raised as a Roman Catholic and I have received all of the sacraments a layperson would want to receive (baptism, first communion, confirmation, reconciliation, and marriage), and I am still a practicing Catholic today.  It is important for me to lay that all out upfront because much of what I will say will seem contradictory to my religious beliefs and affiliation with the church; like all relationships, though, it is that conflict that has served to strengthen my understanding and connection to the entities involved.

Part of my battle with religion stems from the issue that is central to the show LOST: being a man of faith versus being a man of science.  I align myself with both, which, I suppose, would be the first contradiction.  LOST, at its fundamental core, is essentially about Jack Shephard's battle with just this issue (it is also about issues with identity--something that we'll cover later on in the post).  Jack begins as a staunch man of science--always at odds with John Locke, the man of faith.  By the end of the series, though, Jack has found that he has let go of his need for empirical answers and accepts his fate via his conversion to a man of faith.  John Locke, on the other hand, goes from being a man of faith to...well...a demonic pillar of black smoke.  Yeah...that's LOST for you!

But I digress.  Growing up, I went to church and attended CCD classes until I made my First Communion.  My relationship with religion was typical of most children I suppose: nothing really visceral in terms of emotions towards God, just a knowledge that he was out there and that I should pray with regularity.  After I made my communion, though, I found that my "religion" classes were being replaced with math and reading classes (I still, almost twenty years later, have no idea why this happened).  I was therefore being kept an additional half hour at school to do an unnecessary amount of additional work.  I balked to my Mom and was given the opportunity to stop attending CCD.  I did and was a happy camper. 

Over the next few years I began attending church less frequently.  Finally, after I began working at a local deli, I reached my first point of separation from both the church and religion.  I was perturbed deeply by the apparent hypocrisy that I saw in the people of my neighborhood.  I would be working on a Saturday night and see kids my age and younger coming in to buy Visine because they were so stoned out of their brains that they wouldn't be able to go home without their bloodshot eyes being noticed.  These same kids were going "back weeds" (a Gerritsen Beach colloquialism) to keg parties and engaging in, if the rumors were true, activities that would have made Bacchus blush (or fist pump if he was at the Shaw (proper pronunciation of the word "Shore" for New Jerseyians as well as Staten and Long Islanders)).  These very same people would come into the store the next morning and make a point to note that they were on their way to church.  During the week they would also cross themselves reverently or fervently as the bus we were on passed in front of the church.

I had chosen a different path from the majority of my peers.  I never smoked cigarettes, never even tried them, nor did I drink or do drugs.  My focus was on school and keeping myself clean.  As a result, I was ostracized from the clique that the bulk of my peers adhered to and I felt like an outsider in my own home neighborhood.  When I saw how hard I was working to stay on the "right" path and how hard I worked to keep myself "right" with God...and then watched how the people around me acted in the darkness and then so easily traipsed into the light, as if there was nothing wrong with the dichotomy of their appalled me.  When I would be at church, I would look at the people around me and found myself disgusted by them (or more specifically by what they did); my church had lost its holiness for me because I felt like I was attending mass with a bunch of two-faced rats. 

I decided that I could have a better relationship with God on my own than in the presence of these pretenders.  Perhaps it was a result of my low self-esteem--that my way of getting back at them for exiling me was to feel better than them and, consequently, to judge them unconsciously; I didn't want to surround myself with people of their ilk.  And so I stopped going to church. 

I still prayed every night and found that my belief in God had strengthened as my relationship with organized religion began to fade.  Things remained this way until my Upper Sophomore semester of college.  By then, I hadn't thought much about religion at all; I prayed directly to God and was content in my relationship.  Then I had Professor Epstein for my "Great Works of Literature" course.  This was a woman with very deep, bitter issues with her identity, with religion, and with sexuality.  She was a misandrist who declared herself a feminist (which is a misnomer as feminism does not imply implicitly a hatred of men).

To sum up briefly what occurred during that semester: we were forced to read portions of the major religious texts of the world, including the Bible, the Qur'an, and the Bhagavad Gita, and then "discuss" them in class.  This discussion, though, was merely an opportunity for Professor Epstein to spew her own hatred about religion and, effectively, to ridicule anyone's beliefs were they brave enough to announce them publicly.  I must admit that, when she did this with the Bible, I did not speak up in its defense; I suppose it was my moment of moonlighting as Peter in the garden, in a way.  Others argued vociferously for the validity of the Bible as a holy text and not simply as the writing of man but I sat back and said nothing.  I found, though, to my surprise, that I felt incredibly uncomfortable and it forced me, for the first time, to examine my relationship with Christianity and with the Bible itself.

The moment that changed everything for me came when we were forced to read Genesis and Job from the Old Testament.  It wasn't the fact that we had to read it but rather the approach that we were forced to take: we had to treat the Bible as a piece of literature and not as holy scripture.  As such, God became a character in a book, as did Adam, Eve, Job, and all of the other biblical figures.  We analyzed the sections for literary elements, for inconsistencies, and, most impactful of all, for intent.  For the first time I saw the Bible not as a book of God's creation but rather as something man-made with very practical purposes for its design.  The same occurred when we read the Qur'an. 

Ultimately, the experience left me thinking upon the nature of the Bible and the Qur'an, as well as the religions that they served to guide.  It made me question the validity of my religion as a holy entity and to wonder whether or not "the Word" was actually "the Word."  Suddenly, I began to see the practical sense that the Bible made; it served not only as a moral code as dictated by an omnipotent being but also as a moral code that could be used by a governing body of men; it functioned as much as a societal control as it did as a guideline for how to live to save one's soul from eternal damnation. 

The more I thought about it, the deeper I fell into the abyss of logic.  Why only ten commandments (or two, if you believe George Carlin, or fifteen, if you're a fan of The History of the World: Part I?)  Why those ten, in particular?  The logical answer is that those edicts served best the purpose of maintaining order and civility in ancient civilizations.  It didn't just make things illegal--it made them immoral.  By tugging at the heartstrings of people, they effectively guilted them into not committing those acts.  Whether the Bible is the "Word" of God or not, it was still written down by men and, consequently, has been indelibly impressed with their (our) influence.  Why else would the Bible be so misogynistic towards women, for example?

The Qur'an takes it a step further, specifying some truly eyebrow-raising things.  In Verse 228 of the online version found at, the following passage specifies how long a woman must wait to remarry:

And divorced women shall wait (as regards their marriage) for three menstrual periods, and it is not lawful for them to conceal what Allâh has created in their wombs, if they believe in Allâh and the Last Day. And their husbands have the better right to take them back in that period, if they wish for reconciliation. And they (women) have rights (over their husbands as regards living expenses) similar (to those of their husbands) over them (as regards obedience and respect) to what is reasonable, but men have a degree (of responsibility) over them. And Allâh is All-Mighty, All-Wise.

There's also an extensive section that describes, in detail, how dowries are to be distributed and what procedures are to be followed with regards to marriage.  The logical question to ask, both in the Christian and the Islamic cases, is: would an all-powerful, all-knowing entity, with the ability to create the universe and life itself, deign it necessary to describe, specifically, legal matters regarding codes of conduct or how long a divorced woman must wait to remarry?  Obviously, the likelihood is that these aspects were written by men as a means of social control and not as a divine directive meant to steer the herd along a path of peacefulness and serenity.
Roman Catholicism, in particular, succumbs quickly to the rigors of a test of logic when scrutinized, particularly its history during the middle part of the last two thousand years.  Indulgences are perhaps the best example that can be used to demote the religion from a holy practice to a very practical human enterprise.  It can be argued either way whether or not there is an afterlife...but to offer guidelines for how to reach said great beyond (ways that ironically also ensure a peaceful lifestyle that serves to sustain the health and livelihood of the society as a whole) and, worse, to offer then a way of buying your way becomes an affront to the left hemisphere of the brain.  Can you imagine what those indulgences would be like today?  I can't help but picture Vince, the ShamWow guy hawking them on some cheesy infomercial on network cable.
Speak with any agnostic or atheist about religion and they will argue against it using logic and reason--the two worst enemies it has.  The great philosopher Ned Apoleoni is just one of many such individuals who are capable of dismantling a religious argument by pointing out the inherent logical flaws that come with belief not in God but rather in a religious text such as the Bible or the Qur'an.  Science and logic can both be used to point out loopholes or blatant contradictions between what can be defined concretely and empirically and what is chalked up to divine will and intervention.
So if such religious texts are so easily deconstructed and are provable as the works of man...then why do so many people still believe in them?  The answer is the same reason they believe in an unseeable entity thought to have created the universe and that interacts with their lives in esoteric ways:

Ignoring Faith for a moment, I would argue that the purpose of religion is control.  Organized religion, as a whole, serves as a means of controlling morally (and otherwise) a large quantity of people.  From an individual standpoint, religion offers each of us a sense of control over our lives and our destinies (if we choose to do so) or an opportunity to leave it up to God.  When we are in trouble we can ask a divine entity to intercede on our behalf.  We can ask for strength, for guidance, for any number of things.  Ultimately, though, what gives religion its strength is Faith.  A church, or a mosque, or a temple, is just another building unless you believe that it is holy; your faith determines whether or not you believe.  Therefore, with regards to the Bible, the Qur'an, or the menu at White Castle, whether or not each of those is holy is determined entirely upon the individual; its level of spiritual significance--its status as unction--exists entirely in the eye of the believer.

What matters is the level of faith that one brings to one's religion; Faith is a release of the controls and confines of logic and reason.  Faith says that in spite of the undeniable proof of science or mathematics I believe in X or Y because I do; nothing more needs to be said.  Even the agnostic or atheist has nothing to say that can prove that that person is wrong in the face of such an argument.

Ultimately, I would argue that the myriad religions in existence today are all, by simple consequence, irrelevant; they are different flavors of the same dish.  None of them can be "right" because all of them would have to be correct.  If you break each religion down to its core, they all have the same elements, going back to the polytheistic days of the Greeks, Mayans, and other ancient peoples: a cosmology or creation story; a moral code or series of governing laws; a multitude of stories or parables that serve as moral guidelines and usually as warnings for those who would repeat the actions depicted therein; a series of important figures that are emblematic of the errors and successes of the people in those stories; the threat of a violent ending for the world--particularly for those who fail to follow the guidelines; and a promise of an afterlife and of redemption for those who do follow the rules.  Any other variations or things left out are like spices that serve to alter the flavor of the dish of religion, which, at its core, is simply the existence of an omnipotent being or presence responsible for the creation of life and the universe and the myriad ways in which we interact on a daily basis with said being.

Ultimately, I found my way back to my faith through my fateful interactions with two religious men: Monsignor Fahy at Resurrection Church and Father Morris at Blessed Sacrament.  The first helped me to see that the questions that I had about my religion were not only healthy but integral to the development of my spiritual identity because they forced me to examine my beliefs.  The second helped me to develop a stronger interest in my religion (Roman Catholicism) and drew me back into the church.  I enjoy attending mass because I attribute Blessed Sacrament (and all churches, as is my wont) with a level of holiness and because it gives me serenity when I am there.  This is ironic as, given the misanthropic attitudes I have developed in my old age, one would think that I would shun being surrounded by people in an enclosed space.  Finally, though, I have found peace with regards to my fellow parishioners and realize that it is not my place to judge them and their attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs as they have no bearing on my own.

So, with all of that said, let's finally dive into the connections to the Matrix. 

The Matrix (referring to each movie in the trilogy it comprises) blew me away when I first saw it because of its saturation with elements of religion, philosophy, and other metaphysical and metacognitive issues.  I have always seen it as being highly allegorical with regards to Christianity but it can be argued, without much effort, that it also represents other belief systems.  To delve into even one would take up far too much of my precious little space and time on this entry and so I will offer only this link that holds a number of essays that speak to some of the various interpretations out there:

(Why there are essays that identify the Matrix as a religious trilogy being hosted on an atheism page is quite confusing!)


So what is the point of bringing up the Matrix if I am not going to identify the importance of religion in the films?  It is simple: I am going to explore the importance of the connection between religion and reality in the film.  Using a Christian lens through which to view the Matrix, it becomes clear right away that Neo (anagram for "One") is the Christ figure in the film.  He is the chosen one (Messiah) who has been prophesied to free the people from the bondage of the machines that control them by forcing them to be plugged into the Matrix (an alternate reality).  He does so by sacrificing himself (as Christ does in the Christian Bible) and being born again (more than once if I remember correctly).  He fights against Smith (the Antichrist) and provides salvation for the people of Zion by allowing himself to be assimilated, thereby negating the existence of Smith (the Alpha and the Omega canceling each other out).

In the Matrix films, the importance of the religious analogues transcends the "true" reality and enters into that of the Matrix itself, thereby existing in both levels--the actual and the fabricated.  This is where it gets interesting.  The reality that one experiences when one is plugged in to the Matrix is akin to being in a dream (something that Inception explores deeply) or, it can be argued, in a coma.  In either case, religion and the presence of God become irrelevant; they appear to exist only on the superficial level of reality that we inhabit when we are awake.  Inception never touches upon the issues of God and religion, again, because they have no bearing on the dreamer or the man in the coma.  I would argue that there is a correlation between the two--that dreaming is a dimmer switch whereas a coma is simply an on-off switch; the deeper one dreams, the more that dream resembles a coma-like state.  We see in Inception that, eventually, if one goes deep enough, one will reach Limbo, which is arguably the same as being in a coma: time moves differently and one loses one's grip on what is real (thus the need for totems in the film).

In the reality that we perceive we exist in, we concern ourselves with issues of life, death, and life beyond-death.  We localize ourselves in relation to God and rely on the Supreme Being in all three issues: He (or She or It) gave us life, will bring us death, and will deliver us to a life thereafter.  In a coma (or a dream), all three of those issues become irrelevant because that reality is not real.  A man falls into a coma and during that time his body is resting in a hospital bed.  A month passes by and on the thirty-first day (let's imagine it was April, June, September, or November to keep it simple) the man awakens...wholly confused.  Why?  Because in his coma perhaps fifty years have passed.  The reality that he found himself in, even if, at first, he knew was a false one, would eventually become his default existence.  When he would then awaken he would be forced to face the fact that what he thought was real was, in fact, not and that now he was in reality.  But what if he couldn't accept that (much like Mal in Inception)?  What if he kept falling down the proverbial mental rabbit hole and found himself incapable of grasping onto anything that would ground him in "reality"?  Christopher Nolan addresses this issue with the use of totems--objects that are known intimately by their owners and which, through that knowledge, allow the holder to determine whether he or she is awake or dreaming.

The question is maddening: what is real?  If you think about it too much you run the risk of becoming lost in it, thereby losing your grip on reality and thereby defeating the purpose of asking the question in the first place.  But is a question worth asking because it strikes at the core of what makes us human.  We are separated from all other species by our consciousnesses; we think, therefore we are...or so we think...we are...nevermind.  All of this is predicated on the idea that there is one universe, that we are special, that we have a unique purpose to fulfill, and that there is a God and an afterlife.  Religion says that God(s) created man but evolution speaks to the contrary, thus eliminating God from the equation.  God's creation of man, though, provides a reason for life and an ultimate purpose for man (redemption, in Christianity) whereas evolution dissolves completely both of those things.  If we evolved from primates, who evolved from something else, and so on and so forth...then what is the point?  It would become mathematical; life itself is the product of chance or probability with no ultimate purpose.  Then again, God can coexist with evolution if one looks at it this way: God created the first spark of life (something that evolution cannot account for) and therein laid the foundation or blueprint for evolution.  Therefore, even if we evolved from an inferior species (from an intellectual perspective), then it must be because it is part of the master plan and that our very existence affirms the fact that we are moving towards our ultimate goal--the purpose of said blueprint.

Heady stuff man.

Personally, I believe that that is the case (God created evolution, if you will) and that we are working our way towards an existence of pure consciousness.  This belief has been influenced not by some great thinker or piece of literature but instead by Mighty Max.  Yup.  That Mighty Max.  There was an episode called "Zygote Music" in which Professor Zygote (a villain hell-bent on taking evolution to its maximum capacity) has evolved himself into a being of pure thought (or consciousness, for my purposes) and then into, as Virgil says, "...the infinite--beyond such primitive concepts as good and evil."  I believe that, eventually, we too will evolve into beings of pure thought or consciousness, shedding ourselves of bodies and existing only as energy.  Though this will ruffle some feathers, I believe that one possibility, too, is that we, ourselves, will evolve into "God" and will ultimately reach an eternal, omnipotent state (assuming we don't nuke ourselves out of existence first) and, as the universe winds itself down, perhaps in the "Big Crunch," we will find a way to reverse the process and, in the precise moment of returning to a singularity, we will bring forth the "Big Bang" and thus repeat the cycle of life by bringing about our own existence.


By the way--for anyone who would be interested, here are two links to the Mighty Max episode on Youtube (it's broken into two parts, each one roughly ten minutes in length).  The parts about evolution, specifically, are around the five-minute and nine-minute marks in the second link.

Part One:

Part Two:

Anyway, getting back to the matter at hand: for the dreamer or the person in a coma...which reality is "reality"?  Is it the place where their physical bodies lay or where their consciousnesses are awake (presumably in the dreamscape or coma...scape)?  Like both The Matrix and Inception, there is a reality within a reality (and an infinite number of subrealities in the dream scenario until one reaches the Limbo or coma level where one loses all sense of what is "real"--of whatever had been anchoring them to the present, "real" world), which makes it more difficult for the individual to determine which is their actual reality, or, to make it easier to explain, the "upper-most level" of their reality, meaning that they cannot remove themselves any further from their dream.  This, of course, presumes that we aren't all dreaming right now...

(Cue thunderclaps and flashes of lightning)

The determination of reality therefore comes down to the battle between perception, experience, and belief.  We see the world around us and, therefore, we perceive that it is real and that we are existing solely in this plane.  Unfortunately, the coma patient, the dreamer, and the insane person all do that very same thing; for each of them, their perception tells them that their comatose state, their dream, and their insanity are normal, concrete realities.  Perception, alone, then is not enough to determine what is real.  Experience (such as Cobb spinning the top in Inception) is a vital component of the equation but it, too, cannot definitively tell us what is real by itself; experience comes from the past and therefore, by itself, has no relevance in the present or future.

Ultimately, in order to ascertain whether one's existence is based in "reality," one requires a combination of perception and experience.  First, one must be able to draw conclusions about one's whereabouts (as opposed to being completely unconscious, floating in a black abyss of cerebral nothingness).  Then, one must be able to use one's knowledge of said environment to determine whether or not it is real, imagined, dreamed, or otherwise concocted.  A fair example would be you standing in your kitchen.  You know it is your kitchen both from your perception (you see a sink, a table, a refrigerator) and from your experience (you see a certain design on the placemats, you recognize the location of the coffeemaker)...but is it "real"?  There are a few ways of determining this, one of which is central to the premise of Inception: can you remember how you arrived in the kitchen?  Do you recall what occurred before you arrived?  If the answer is yes, then that should lend some credence to it being real.  If you cannot...well then you just might be dreaming.

Another approach would be to interact with the environment.  Your perception tells you what you are doing (turning on a faucet) and your experience tells you what you should expect (the water to run down into the drain).  But what if the water instead runs towards the ceiling?  You can be pretty certain, then, that you are not in the uppermost realm of your reality.

But what about belief?  For that, we must wait until the conclusion.

Emotions are an interesting factor in this equation as well.  In many cases, people have had dreams that were so vivid that they seemed real.  They might have had a conversation with a deceased loved one, or perhaps they engaged in sexual intercourse either with a succubus or phantasmagorical manifestation of a suppressed erotic desire for a girl at Starbucks who wrote a message for you on a cup and you had to wait until you drank your beverage before you could see that it was actually her name and phone number (very specific reference to see who is reading this blog!)  Regardless, upon waking they might have a fading recollection that they could actually feel things in the dream...but I would argue that the fervency of the emotions felt could identify whether it was a dream or reality.  The science behind what makes sex feel good can be explained, down to the very nerves and cell receptors, but the reality of that ecstasy can never be described in such a way that another person would be able to feel the exact sensations and emotions.  The reason for this can be ascribed to said emotions that are involved.  Emotions can be explained away as electrical impulses or chemical secretions in the brain but, ultimately, there is an intangible element that is beyond description that is the key to those emotions.  You know when you are feeling them but you cannot describe adequately what happens to you on a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual level.  Therefore, the strength of the emotions that you feel might possibly help you to determine whether you are experiencing reality (except for teenagers...they are in a reality all their own, especially when it comes to love and emotions).

In all of this discussion about reality we have yet to touch upon perhaps the most important aspect of this: who is the person in question?  What is his or her identity?  What is identity?  This, too, is a dangerous line of questioning to embark upon.  Who are you?  How do you know who you are?  How do you know you're you, to begin with?  We put so much time and effort into crafting the physical façades that we offer that rarely do we question who we truly are deep down.  Of course, some people do; these are the self-reflective types--those seeking self-actualization on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  They've got everything else sorted out and thus they can tend to their most personal question of self.

Of course, the very nature of a single "self" is irreconcilable.  Think about it: how many different selves do you have?  Do you behave the same way in front of your kids or parents as you do in front if your friends or coworkers?  What about on the subway versus at a fancy restaurant?  Billy Joel says it best in his song, "The Stranger."  The lyrics can be found here:

So at the very onset of this discussion of identity, we have proven that it is impossible to develop a single sense of self...but let's take the corporeal frame.  You've got only one of those, right?  You could then argue that that is your identity--your physical self--and that your personality or consciousness is indelibly linked to that body.  But what about transgender people?  Male body, female mind and vice versa.  Again, the "identity" is rendered impotent.  And what about cosmetic surgery?  Is the pre-surgery or post-surgery body the "true" one?  For argument's sake, though, let's say that it is possible to craft a single identity--one that comprises the multitude of personality changes that we go through, as well as the totality of our physical appearance.  Would that then be our identity?  It would be, if and only if, we existed in a single universe.

But do we?

Modern astrophysics and quantum physics are leaning more towards the idea of a multiverse (or parallel universes) and the existence of upward of eleven dimensions.  Let's examine what that would do to the concepts of religion, reality, and identity.

As it is, my personal concept of religion is tied up with the heritage aspect of my identity; I align myself with my Irish heritage more so than with my Polish, German, Dutch, and Viking roots.  Said aligninment is thus arbitrary, thereby making my own sense of self false and thus negating the validity of my religion.  But that's just this me.  What if there are multiple versions of "me" coexisting simultaneously in parallel worlds?  What if in one realm I'm wearing a red shirt and in another black?  Which me would be the "real" me?  Is it all relative, meaning that, in each individual universe or dimension, that me is the "real" me for that me?  What would it mean if we were somehow to meet up and coexist on the same plane at the same time?  What if one of me is dead while another is alive?  What is death for that matter?  Is it the end of reality or simply the beginning of another one?

Religion relies on the idea that there is one universe, created by God, and that he is the all-seeing and all-knowing ruler of all that exists.  But what if there are an infinite number of unique universes created by an infinite number of unique deities?  Which "God" would be the "real God"?  There can be only one, by definition, but the hypothetical existence of even a single other God would cancel out the identity of the "one true God."  Also, right now we believe that God exists beyond the boundaries of our universe.  By definition, there can be nothing beyond the boundaries of our universe because it is infinite and eternal; there is nothing beyond.  By definition, then, God could be the very universe itself as it appears to be infinite and eternal.  But what if there were multiple universes?  Surely they would all have to exist somewhere and, consequently, beyond that space must also lie nothing.  If God were to exist in a place that cannot possibly exist, that would make him undefined and would thus undefine his existence.

So if God and reality are relative to the universe or the dimension that the believer is in, but that very believer can have any number of parallel (and different) versions of himself or herself coexisting in the multiverse...then is it possible to determine which one is "real"?  Is it possible to conclude upon a single, absolute reality?  And what of the soul?  What if some versions have a soul and some do not?  What does that say about its existence or relevance?   As it stands now--our soul is what moves on after we die...but to where does it go?

Death, by definition, is the end of life...but what does that really mean?  Obviously there is a physical death that occurs where the body ceases to operate...but what happens to our consciousnesses?  Do they move on to other bodies or perhaps to another place?  What if the afterlife (heaven or hell, if you will) exists entirely within the confines of the mind, meaning that, when the body dies, the mind turns inward on itself and creates its own world, much like Cobb and Mal do in Inception.  If the mind is still active, though, wouldn't that imply that it is alive and thus not dead?

If death, therefore, is simply another form of life, does it even exist?  What then is life?  Is life a physical existence in reality whereas death is purely an existence of consciousness, sort of like becoming one with the Force in Star Wars?

With myriad identities existing in coexistence in shared realities, none of which can be identified as the absolute identity existing in an absolute reality...isn't it all relative then?  The very nature of "reality"--of a single, identifiable plane of existence, could not exist in the multiverse setting; reality would be determined by the individual and could exist solely for that person.  Surely those realities would be shared by other people (that would be their experience) but what about their perceptions?  The fact that they see the very same things that you see differently than you do also destroys the concept of reality.  If I see a purple pair of scissors and my Mom sees that pair as orange, which of us is right?  (The specific answer is me: it's a long story.)  The general answer is that neither of us are correct and both of us are.

And now we arrive at the conclusion, brought to us courtesy of Inception and Fight Club.


At the end of Inception, the question of whether Cobb is dreaming or is back in "reality" is irrelevant; what is important is the fact that he has found the contentment and peace that had been eluding him to that point--he finally managed to be with his children.  "Where" his reality is (whether he is in what we would consider reality, whether he is in a dream, or whether he is in Limbo) is also of no consequence; again, it is that he has found (or perhaps created) that reality that matters.

It also does not matter whether his totem falls because he believes that he is happy and that he is existing in reality.  He kept trying to keep himself grounded to "reality" by conjuring up the image of Mal from his subconscious (as seeing her would indicate that he was dreaming) and, in the end, he managed to rid himself of her shade.  Whether doing so allowed him to return to reality or simply to exist in happiness in Limbo (as he had done with her earlier) does not matter; it is his belief--not his perception or experience that has created his reality for himHis perception could tell him whether or not he is in Limbo (particularly if he finds that he has the ability to create there) and his experience could tell him whether or not he was dreaming (by seeing whether or not the top would fall over or keep spinning).  Ultimately, though, it is neither of those things that matter to him; only his belief that he has found happiness affects what is real to him.

So how does this relate to us--to our reality?  We are all like Cobb.  WE create our OWN realities and are in control over whether or not we find our own contentment and peace; we determine how we live and how we exist.  We are the masters of our fates--we are the captains of our souls.  We are Jack's cold sweat...his raging bile duct...his completely lack of surprise...we are Jack.  We are also Jack's wasted life...if we choose to be.

To perpetuate the Fight Club reference: we are Jack but the question remains--are we The Narrator or are we Tyler Durden?  The answer is: yes.

In Inception, we are told that, in a dream, you can't remember how you got to where you are.  You find yourself in a diner.  You find yourself with a friend.  You find yourself in your childhood.  Regardless of where you find yourself, in a dream, you can never recall where the dream began; we always find ourselves in the middle of a dream. 

Think about us.  Do we, as humans, have a definite explanation for how we got here? 


Do we know whether it was God or a chance cosmic occurrence that brought about our existence?


For all of the power that our collective consciousness can generate, for all of the theorems and postulations that we can create regarding the history of the universe and of ourselves, we cannot trace our origin back to a single point--to its beginning--whether it is how we came to be on earth or how the universe itself came to be.  It's almost as if we were placed in the middle of a dream and thus we must ask ourselves:

Are we dreaming?

If we learn anything from the endings of The Matrix: Revolutions, Fight Club, and Inception, we can conclude that the only true answer--the only one with any bearing--is simply another question:

Does it matter?

I'd like to think that it doesn't.