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Red Pill, Blue Pill

Many of you are probably familiar with The Matrix. Neo, the main character of this movie, lives in a virtual world. He believes that it is the real world, but his real body lives in a vat where it is fed nutrients and hallucinations of a world that exists only in a computer and in his mind. Inside this virtual world, Neo is led to a mysterious figure named Morpheus who shows him how to escape the hallucination known as the Matrix:

Morpheus: I imagine that right now you’re feeling a bit like Alice. Tumbling down the rabbit hole?
Neo: You could say that.

Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, or when go to church or when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind.… Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.
[In his left hand, Morpheus shows a blue pill.]
Morpheus: You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.
[A red pill is shown in his other hand.]
Morpheus: You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
[After a long pause, Neo begins to reach for the red pill]
Morpheus: Remember—all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.

Essays have been written about this compelling choice between the red pill and the blue pill. Neo must choose between world as he knows it, and learning the truth—essentially between comfort and knowledge of the truth.

The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear. (Herbert Agar)

The tension between truth and comfort has come up several times in discussions here. Truths exist which tend to make us unhappy. How much happiness will we sacrifice to know the truth? Speaking hypothetically:

  • You love ice cream, but it’s going to give you early heart disease, do want to know the truth so you can prolong your life, or do you just want to enjoy your ice cream while life lasts?
  • Some of your friends think you’re terribly boring. They only hang out with you because they like your mutual friends. Would you like to know their true feelings?
  • Your spouse is having an affair that you don’t know about, but you have an otherwise happy marriage. Would you prefer to know the truth, or would you choose to be blissfully ignorant?
  • Your child is going to die tomorrow from a sudden illness that the child doesn’t know about and that you can do nothing to prevent. Do you tell the child so they can spend their last hours knowing the truth, or do you want to spare your child the fear of impending death?
  • Your belief in a loving God and your hope for an afterlife comfort you, but you find little objective reason to justify your beliefs. Do you choose to believe just because you want it to be true?

I have a lot of faith in the truth. I believe that it is usually better to know the truth even if the truth will make us unhappy. I trust that the sorrow that comes from knowing the truth will usually not last long, that greater peace and happiness flow from knowing the truth. Further, leading willfully ignorant lives because we fear knowing the truth doesn’t appear to lead to true happiness.

On this blog, the tension between happiness and truth most often comes up in the context of religious beliefs. Some commenters seem to imply believing in a probably false religion which makes us happy is better than knowing the depressing truth. This is a personal choice, but there are reasons to believe that this strategy does not bring optimal happiness.

For one example, medical science has healed more of the sick than religious faith. Our relatively disease free lives are thanks to science, not religion. Medical science has been advanced by those who were willing to set aside religious beliefs when they contradicted evidence. We are all much better off because of those who defied religious injunctions against desecrating the bodies of the dead in order to learn human anatomy, because of the germ theory of disease instead of believing that disease is caused by spirits or demons as the Holy Scriptures teach, and because of the theory of evolution which permeates modern biology but contradicts the creation myth in Genesis. So you could say that we are as healthy as we are in spite of religion.

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. (George Bernard Shaw)

We are all faced with red pill/blue pill choices. It is our right to decide. I have chosen to err consistently on the side of truth unless there is a compelling reason to choose comfort. I hope that helps to explain why I am critical of what I see as false beliefs, why I can’t leave others’ religious beliefs alone. Truth for me is more important than personal discomfort.

So which do you choose: the blue pill… or the red pill?

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  1. mel said,

    August 3, 2007 @ 1:54 pm

    Red please.

    You want to live? Life is truth. The rest is just looking for a quicker path to death. The living dead are all around us and they appear to be quite content.

  2. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 3, 2007 @ 2:09 pm

    Morpheus: The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save.… You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

    Life begins when the veil is parted.

  3. cybr said,

    August 3, 2007 @ 2:59 pm

    I’ll be honest. I’m looking for the elusive purple pill. No, not that one ;)

  4. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 3, 2007 @ 3:09 pm

    Ah, yes. I think you’re looking for the pill of cognitive dissonance. I’ll warn you though, it’s more bitter going down than the red pill. :)

  5. mel said,

    August 3, 2007 @ 3:52 pm

    As a related aside … here’s the conclusion of Heinrich von Kleist’s On the Marionette Theatre:

    “Now, my excellent friend,” said my companion, “you are in possession of all you need to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”

    “Does that mean”, I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”

    “Of course”, he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”

    To which the translator adds:

    I think therefore I am. The theme of Kleist’s essay could be a continuation of that famous sentence, a continuation which might go like this: I think, therefore I am aware of myself, and if I am aware of myself I must know that I am a separate entity, aware of and therefore apart from my surroundings; but true knowledge must be complete, connected, indivisible; so separation into subject and object, self and surroundings means distance from knowledge, consequently uncertainty and doubt.

    Kleist’s essay pivots around a reference to the third chapter of the book of Genesis, the story of the Fall of Man, the discovery of that self-consciousness which establishes and perpetuates human isolation. But ‘discover’ implies a historical event. Kleist shares with Kafka (who once claimed he understood the Fall of Man better than anyone else) the insight that it is only our concept of time which makes us think of the Fall of Man as a historical event in the distant past. It is happening all the time. The biblical story is a mythical representation of constant human awareness of self and therefore of separation…

    According to Kleist there is no way back. Humans are now thinking animals, and the material of thought is knowledge. But knowledge, although the source of uncertainty when fragmentary … is also the vital substance of harmony when complete. So Kleist asserts that our only hope is to go forward to total knowledge.

    IOW — we must take the red pill if we will have hope of regaining grace. Acting otherwise … acting as if some magic will intercede … is just willful ignorance and death.

  6. mel said,

    August 3, 2007 @ 4:19 pm

    Actually … I think Kleist is saying that conscious thought is evidence that we already took the red pill. So I’ll modify — this choice is made and denial of this fact is denial of self and death.

  7. Kullervo said,

    August 5, 2007 @ 3:09 am

    I don’t think that Truth is as clear-cut, or even as knowable, as people make it out to be. It seems like red pill/blue pill thinking is a child of Modernism, and I’m not convinced that Modernism is the pinnacle, the end goal, “finally getting it right,” etc.

  8. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 5, 2007 @ 6:11 am


    I’m still digesting the stuff you posted. It’s rattling around in my head trying to find a place in my thinking.


    I agree. The truth is largely inaccessible to us. It’s a struggle to find what scraps of it we can, and even when we have some truth in hand, we’re never sure that it really is the truth. I don’t see the red pill/blue pill choice to be between truth and error. Perhaps my language here seems to say that, but I see it as a choice between the quest for truth and the quest for comfort.

    Just because we choose to seek out truth doesn’t mean that we’re going to find it. The same holds for comfort. To continue to use the Matrix, Neo chose the red pill and awoke to a greater knowledge of reality, but there was still a lot that he didn’t know. His thinking was still clouded by false ideas that he didn’t want to give up. The trilogy showed his continued quest to find out the real truth, beyond false prophecies and delusions. The Oracle tells him that he wasn’t ready for the truth because he had chosen to avoid it: temet nosce, know thyself.

    I don’t hope to ever come to the final truth of life, the universe, and everything. I look forward to striving for that goal.

  9. Green Oasis » Am I My Brother’s Keeper? said,

    August 6, 2007 @ 9:38 am

    [...] I should leave religious beliefs alone, that I should just live and let live. I’ve already highlighted one reason why I choose not to do that. My desire to do right by my brothers and sisters is another. My love and sense of responsibility [...]

  10. cybr said,

    August 8, 2007 @ 10:41 am

    Truth as we know it is still far fetched, theist and atheist alike.

    Luke: “You told me Darth Vader betrayed and murdered my father.”
    Ben: (Dead at this point of course) “Your father, Anakin, was seduced by the dark side of the Force-He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker, and became Darth Vader. When that happened, he betrayed everything that Anakin Skywalker believed in. The good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true…from a certain point of view.”
    Luke: “A certain point of view!”
    Ben: “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view.”

  11. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 8, 2007 @ 10:47 am

    Agreed. My only quibble is that it’s not justified, based on evidence, to put atheism and theism on par. Atheism may not be provable, but it is much more likely to be true than theism. Some forms of theism are even provably false.

  12. cybr said,

    August 8, 2007 @ 11:44 am

    Exactly! You’re more than happy to give atheisms a handicap and make theisms take four for a drop instead of two. That gives any form of atheism, especially naturalists, a twelve under when thiesms with no hope other then to play over and hope to get a shoe endorsement.

    Although I’ll admit, some seem like all they are doing is trying to sell shoes.

  13. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 8, 2007 @ 11:58 am

    :) It’s not me who puts theism at a disadvantage when looking at evidence. Blame the evidence. I think most atheists would be willing to believe in religious claims if presented with irrefutable, credible evidence. It’s just that there isn’t any.

  14. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 8, 2007 @ 11:59 am

    Unless you want to blame me for asking for evidence/seeking a sign. :P

  15. cybr said,

    August 8, 2007 @ 12:25 pm

    I think sign seeking is up for a whole other discussion ;)

  16. Green Oasis » Santa Claus Lives! said,

    October 1, 2007 @ 2:04 pm

    [...] reluctance to play along probably stems from my stance on that old question about which is better: happiness or truth? I would generally rather have the truth than be happy. But that’s a personal preference. [...]

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