Modern philosophy and science are based on the idea that the world of appearances is an illusion that both reveals and conceals an underlying reality. In many instances, this idea has also been attached to mystical systems of thought, as in some Eastern philosophies that view reality as a play of fictions manifested by a universal mind. In the West, it has been the intellectual undergirding for rationalism and empiricism, which have given rise to modern science and social science.
Today, not surprisingly, this idea is the dominant element in most fields of thought. In the social sciences, for example, psychoanalysis sees our conscious ideas as disguises that hide our true fears and desires. The sociologist Erving Goffman, who helped shape contemporary role theory and the study of social interaction, went further and viewed the self as an illusion in which we mistake the role we play for a substantive personal identity. Still other sociologists and social critics describe moral systems as social constructions — fictions — that pretend to be objective realities, an idea which was expressed by the title of a famous book (famous in academia, at least) from the 1960s: The Social Construction of Reality.*
In the natural sciences, physics views the materiality of the world as a kind of mirage and describes microscopic and macroscopic realms in which nature loses many of the characteristics it has in the Newtonian world of everyday existence. For their part, the life sciences see the apparently simple world of plants and animals as a complex system of cells and chemical interactions, which are hidden from our everyday view.
In effect, these philosophies and disciplines assert that matter, life, society, cultural creations and mind aren’t what they appear to be. Typically, they claim that there is a true reality “below” the surface, which consists of underlying components — such as atoms, genes, narrative elements and drives — as well as underlying “mechanisms” or rules, which generate the surface structure of reality. When we see only the surface, they say, we are victims of a kind of simulation confusion, taken in by false appearances.
The false appearances described by these philosophies fall into one of three categories. First, there are the false appearances of nature, which trick us because of our limited senses and knowledge. Second, there are the self-deceptions of the mind, the unconscious cover-ups that are described as forms of repression or defense. And third, there are the cover-ups of deliberately manipulated appearances and outright lies, such as those produced by politicians and con artists, and by the creators of deceptive simulations (as well as by the creators of more benign simulations intended to entertain.)
Whatever category they fall into, these philosophies typically offer the same prescription: we should look beneath appearances to discover the way things work, so we can control the world and not be controlled by it. The quest to expose illusions becomes an effort to extend rational, conscious, control in the face of the obduracy of the physical world, the irrational fears of the unconscious, and the corrupt machinations of society’s deceivers, particularly those in power.
Collectively, these views make up what is often referred to as modernism: the belief that we can know the world; that we can use our knowledge to critique and analyze the way things are; and that we can create a better world, as a result. For modernism, knowledge bequeaths power, and when knowledge is guided by reason it can give us the power to create a world that is more humane. The physical and social sciences, Marxism, liberalism and most forms of psychotherapy, are based on this essentially modernist approach.
But in our own day, the ideas of modernism are being given a new postmodern twist, with the growing importance of a set of theories that explicitly describe many elements of the world not merely as deceptive appearances but as simulations. These theories usually have one or more of a number of basic elements. In one variation, represented by antifoundationalist philosophies, they claim that our belief that we can know reality is an illusion. In another, they describe the self, society or reality as a fiction, and use high-tech simulations, such as holography, computer games and virtual realities, as a model or metaphor to describe them. In their most extreme form, they may deny that there is any underlying reality at all — its just fiction as far as the eye can see, and farther.
Some of these theories of postmodernism then take an additional step, arguing that since life (or much of life) is a fiction or since fiction is all we can know, we should join in the drama ourselves and live a life of play. In effect, they recommend that we treat life as a symbolic arena for the acting out of fantasies. In place of merely discovering that reality is a construction, they would have us consciously take over the process of creating it, inventing selves, subcultures and alternative “realities,” as forms of social experimentation.
One of the places we can find these postmodern philosophies is in speculative physics, where physical reality is described as something that looks a lot like a simulation. An example can be seen in the work of the English physicist David Bohm, cofounder of a theory that holds, as one book describes it, that “the brain is a hologram, interpreting a holographic universe.” Referring to Bohm’s philosophy, the book says: “If the nature of reality is itself holographic, and the brain operates holographically, then the world is indeed, as the Eastern religions have said, maya, a magic show. Its concreteness is an illusion…. What we normally see…is rather like watching a movie.”
Another variation on these postmodern ideas can be found in all the science fiction on television and in movies, which use the insights and speculations of physics and the technologies of computer animation and special effects, to portray a universe in which the physical world behaves a lot like a virtual reality. In the virtual universe imagined by the various Star Treks, characters travel in time; they jump vast distances by traveling through wormholes and are transformed into other shapes or into beings without physical existence. In effect, time, space, matter and causality are still portrayed as frames of existence, but the frame can be escaped and manipulated.
This portrait of a malleable universe finds its ultimate expression in all those advanced beings in Star Trek, who are no longer limited by the physical universe, but use it as medium that can be shaped for their own ends. These characters are the culture of postmodernism’s ideal model for our relationship to physical reality, in which humanity appropriates all the possibilities offered by the world, and controls them, in place of being controlled by them, turning the objective world into a kind of computer game.
Still another expression of these ideas can be seen in the poststructuralist view that texts are a mere play of appearances, which can only create the illusion that they refer to some underlying meaning or objective reality. For the poststructuralist Roland Barthes, the text that claims to open a window onto the world is false. In reality, the text is merely a play of signs, a surface without depth, which is there to be explored, toyed with, and expanded on, in the act of reading.
For some of poststructuralism’s high-tech successors in postmodernism, electronic images and simulations replace the text as the primary focus of attention. But these, along with the self and reality, end up being described a lot like Barthian texts, as merely a surface and play of fictions, which no longer refer to any underlying reality.
A particularly noteworthy version of these ideas is the postmodern philosophy of Jean Baudrillard, who claimed that contemporary society is now all simulation, although, unlike some other philosophers of postmodernism, this is not a state of affairs he finds particularly appealing. The simulations of this society, which are exemplified in such American creations as television and Disney World, are representations that no longer represent anything — they are a self-generating realm of images, an endless surface with no underlying reality.
One note. Perhaps we should distinguish between theories that describe society as becoming postmodern and theories that are themselves an expression of postmodernism. Sherry Turkle’s ideas, for example, devalues the idea of reality in a way that makes it an example of postmodernism, not merely a commentary on it. Often, writers will embody both of these positions.