« What is truth? » Despite appearances this is an answer, not to a question, admittedly, but to one of the last sentences that Jesus Christ pronounced: « You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice”
And the one who formulated this famous answer-question was Pontius Pilate. In my opinion, this governor of Judea during the first century, who had the great honor and the heavy task of being the official presiding over the trial of the most famous man in the world – and at least in all Judea then, was an intelligent man. His role as governor and his membership in the equestrian order, that is to say the order of the Roman knights, already suggest that this Roman citizen was an educated man, even an erudite one, and mostly intellectually capable of managing the affairs incumbent upon him in all the territory of Judea. But the intelligence I suppose in him is more subtle than that. In fact, unlike the impression of an empathetic and even kind character that can be left by the reading of the Gospels, Pilate was a provocative, tough, and even cruel man. And it is these personality traits that lead me to see in him this form of intelligence that is often found in a specific category of people: tyrants and torturers.
But even more, what makes me think he was smart is this answer-question. The answer first shows on one hand that he was quick-witted: Jesus’ assertion would have destabilized more than one, and on the other hand an advanced analytical mind: because the key element to understand Jesus’ sentence is indeed this « truth » that the latter mentions twice. Then the question, because I am convinced that as the Gospels convey it well, despite his rigid and intransigent management as one of the harshest governors that Judea has known, Pilate wavered. He did not only find himself facing Jesus but also facing his own existential questions, which every human being asks himself when he lets go and give free rein to this subtle intelligence that I believe we all possess – for better or for worse.
Indeed, I think his intelligence led him to ask this question so deep and yet so simple. Probably weary of his role and the reality in the field: recurrent opposition demonstrations by the Jewish people, followed by the violent and systematic repression of the Roman authority; most likely intrigued by the ancestral spirituality of men and women whom he doesn’t really mix with but from whom he observes daily, by necessity, both fervor and resignation. Pilate must certainly have been thirsty for more, he must have had the curiosity to discover something other than the cold and brutal reality which he lived in, even if this very reality was to his advantage.
However, the question that does interest me as I write this article, is not Pilate’s one, or not completely. His question which remains and will always remain universally relevant, I also asked it myself. And I deeply believe that I have found a response through the Bible and my Christian faith.
But today, I must ask myself a slightly different question. As if by a transposition mechanism, Pilate’s question is transformed, projected into a new frame of reference: a transposition from the time of the Roman Empire and Stoicism to the era of globalization and digital technology in which I live, transposition from Pilate’s role of Roman governor to my status as a mere citizen of a Western country, European in particular. In my context and with a specific focus on the period from 2020 until today, the question that resonates with me is rather: « What is reality? »
One might think that this is the last subject of the philosophy exam for high school diploma, but this is sincerely the question I have been asking myself for some time now.
It must be said that like Pilate, sometimes weary and often intrigued by our society and its values – or lack of values, by the tragic but cyclical events occurring in our world, I ask myself existential questions; questions about myself, about the people around me, or even about « fundamental » notions, such as reality. If I put quotation marks to fundamental, it is because in my opinion the recent technological advances, and the social issues that accompany them, have slightly cracked or at least shaken the rock that represents the concept of reality as a pre-reflective and irreducible experience or indisputable self-awareness, which some philosophers like René Descartes have defended.
Virtual reality, augmented reality, and lately metaverse, are words that today perhaps only make us think of fascinating video games, funny glasses having us looking like members of Daft Punk, or a new land of milk and honey for the giants of the web 2.0 industry. But in fact, it is about much more than that. These are the beginnings of what tomorrow will be an integral part of our everyday lives: work, leisure, shopping, … These new technologies offer an infinite number of possibilities, both likely to help us live better and worse, by analogy with the Internet and social networks today. And another analogy with the latter that can be deduced quite easily is the questioning of legal, social, economic, and political principles, among others. Because, if recently we have found ourselves dazed and helpless in front of leaks about manipulation during presidential elections from large data analysis companies via social networks, how will we react, for example, to electoral campaigns of candidates who will emotionally influence voters through virtual insecurity and racial violence completely made up in the metaverse? Or, if it is already so difficult for some parents to help the no-life their children have become, completely cut off from the world of the living and addicted to the virtual, what will happen to the parents who will undergo the first waves of « virtual re-births » – a kind of definitive and wanted artificial coma where the mind would leave the carnal world to remain only connected to the metaverse? And finally, if it is still so difficult to legislate regarding incitation to violence and harassment on social networks leading to crimes or suicides, what kind of legal puzzles will have to dissect our courts while dealing with murders committed in the real world but in reprisal for rapes committed in the metaverse? You may find I am pushing a little too far and that my fertile imagination is taking me into extreme sci-fi scenarios. On the contrary, I think I do not go far enough, and for two reasons. Firstly, writer Mark Twain could be quoted here, he said that « reality surpasses fiction, because fiction must contain plausibility, but not reality « . In other words, whatever we can imagine, reality free from the shackles that unconsciously restrains our minds is always able to surprise us, to make the wildest dreams or nightmares come true, and even, to go beyond them. Secondly, it is some famous authors of a genre that I like very much who can justify my attempt to glimpse a disturbing but probable future: George Orwell, René Barjavel and Aldous Huxley, among others, have written dystopian novels (also called anti-utopian) filled with fantasies that are sometimes naïve, but they are nonetheless considered today as prophets whose art has been able to warn us precisely against serious abuses of our society – unfortunately without us succeeding in avoiding all of them.
By the way, I do not even have to look so far to conceive that the notion of reality, as certain and tangible as it seems to us, is already questioned in our everyday lives. Actually, I ask the question wondering « what will happen to reality, to the proof by experience that what we are experiencing is real”. But already today, how do things stand for this reality of this world surrounding us and that we are supposed to capture through our screens more than ever multiplied? Indeed, at the dawn of this real-world technological revolution, another revolution that has lasted for several decades now – I think at least since 9/11 – is about to climax: the information revolution. And yet with the hindsight of the last two decades, I do not even know if we can really speak of a revolution and not simply of an evolution, Darwinian, mechanical, inevitable, brutal mutation of information in every sense. From the creation of the Axis of Evil in 2003, to the imbroglio on the anti-covid vaccines in 2021, by way of the subprime crisis in 2008 and the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013, we can see that now the action on information of only a handful of people, or even a single person sometimes, in a relatively limited and local way, is enough to profoundly transform the reality of hundreds of millions of others worldwide with a speed, intensity and dispersion that had never been observed before. Whether in the form of a vial of anthrax confirming the imminent threat, of a vaccine passport mandatory to access all or nearly all of what makes up social life, of a triple-A rating given to North American financial products despite their toxicity, or of a highly sensitive documents disclosure from US intelligence agencies, the flapping butterfly wings triggering tornados are there and more and more effective. With a certain polarization on the United States, globalization, ubiquity of media and the immediacy of Internet and social networks have made inevitable the evolution of the information system towards an information ecosystem, where information and their vectors are comparable to a community of interrelated beings acting in an environment governed by the might-makes-right principle: the mediatic, political and of course financial might.
I will at least speak for myself. When I look behind, when I think back to my reaction in front of this TV screen, alone, one afternoon I had returned earlier from middle school, when I remind myself that at first I thought it was a movie and not a TV news special looping scenes of panic, of blended dust and smoke, of crashing steel and glass, of planes and human bodies with uncommon and fatally horizontal or vertical trajectories; it is as if since that strange and yet so real day, I had finally entered a movie, a Hollywood blockbuster, with villains and heroes of course, a movie with an ending that we unfortunately suspect, yet a movie which as in The Matrix can sometimes abruptly change scenery or villains – however never heroes, at the occasion of a reprogramming by the cynic « architects », always thirsty for more power, or at the rare occasion of a flaw created by some rebels disenchanted to this reality that is forced into their minds and fighting in the name of truth.
Yes, when I look behind, I can only resolve to think that reality no longer exists or almost. What remains of it should be destroyed in the coming decades, if not years. I could tell myself that at least I have my feelings, my emotions, but even that I can no longer rely on it: more than my intellect what the new masters of the world, the lords of information, are chasing after today is my affect. The intellect does not sell, it makes you think, that is all, and even if you were taught to go in a given direction, it is far too dangerous and uncontrollable: from a thought comes an idea, from an idea an intention, from an intention an action. « What?! An action?! No, certainly not! It is necessary to influence but without setting in motion, to direct while paralyzing, to move without moving. Manipulating affect is perfect: it draws floods of tears, it makes laughter burst, it outrages, it soothes; yet all that, without moving anybody from his sofa, and especially, above all, without interrupting the streams of cash flowing directly or indirectly from our juicy washed brain. As I realize like the French 80s rock band Telephone, that « my reality has bedridden me » (« ma réalité m’a alité »), I try to wake up little by little, to get up, to throw myself with all my strength, guided by this one and only thing, like a bright star in a dark sky, the truth: the one I found in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the only one to have ever said « I am the way, the truth and the life ».