2. The Situation.

    Our brains are big enough that we can theorize about how brains work and what kind of epistemic situation we are in as perceiving organisms. We can paint a picture about how minds paint pictures, and grasp that a picture a mind paints is indeed a creative invention with survival value, rather than a transparent window on the world. The Situation is that even the picture about picture painting is an artifact hanging on the wall of the mind, and not (as we naturally think) an opening in that wall revealing a "real" world that is the proper subject of painting!

    All this tail-chasing makes the head spin, of course. The Situation is the very problem that our brains are big enough to think in circles. We are conscious of our consciousness, as opposed to simply being aware of the world. In this irrevocable self-awareness, we back paddle through metaphor to try to comprehend The Situation. Aware of awareness, we cannot think of experience simply in terms of the world. Now that we know about painting, so to speak, all scenes are suspect. The beautiful vista, examined closely, might turn out to be a clever backdrop, a trompe l'oeil. Plato described The Situation as like that of prisoners in a cave from birth, who know nothing of the outside world, but only experience shadows cast upon the cave walls by various objects from outside that are never themselves seen. Descartes described it in terms of a demon who could somehow falsify all the information coming into a brain through the nerves, creating the complete illusion of a body and a material world.

    Of course, this is all against common sense, which insists we can certainly tell the difference between a thing and a painting of it! The problem is that our metaphors (and our common sense) may already have deception built into them. The difference between the original and a copy, between fact and illusion is something we think we already know about. It is a distinction within our experience of the world already presumed to be real.

    Perhaps The Situation is like this. Imagine yourself inside a vast theatre set. As long as you aren't too careful, the illusion of a scene from the real world can be maintained. But eventually you may encounter some detail that is inconsistent-- the back side of a brick wall that is only boards leads you to look closely and see that the bricks are just paint on canvas. This is because only so much care has been invested in creating the illusion, and also because you know the difference between real bricks and fake bricks. But now imagine a Star Trek Holodeck illusion-- a complete world down to the last detail. Imagine further that you have never been outside the Holodeck, and have never been given any clue that there even is an outside. All your life you have grown up with and interacted with fictional parents and friends, teachers, associates and a cast of millions who have gone about their business and aged as you have in an environment that is totally consistent within, yet fake from an outside perspective. It is the only reality you know. But is it real?

    Even in this metaphor, of course, we are actually biased by our knowledge that Star Trek is a fictional story, and that even within the story the Holodeck is a fictional reality. So we are assuming a primary reality which is true (we go and turn on the TV, have dinner in front of it while watching the show, etc.) But suppose the true primary reality is that we really did grow up on a Holodeck, and the program running there (even at this moment) is your current experience. This experience includes the memory of making dinner in your holographic home, turning on your illusory TV to Star Trek, and all the ideas you have about Holodecks and primary and illusory realities. Now what? Pinch yourself? Perhaps your body too is a Holodeck illusion, and in the primary reality there is no such thing as bodies. Welcome to The Situation!

    Of course, there is so much to do and experience within the Hologram that we can spend a lifetime there without ever being concerned that it all might be a highly consistent illusion. Such is life! Even if the dream is a nightmare, it is fascinating! Without knowledge of anything else, with little or no memory of whatever "wakefulness" is, the illusion is near seamless and perfect.

     The Situation for the human brain/body is that it is a separate unit, a distinct playing piece in a playing space that seems to be a physical world of discrete objects, in a game that seems to be about survival. Survival means the genetic success of the species, echoed in the well-being of the individual and its extensions, as defined in the context of the game. That is, if the purposes of the individual (which may be merely the purposes of the species) are accomplished or furthered, it experiences this as pleasure. And if they are hindered, its experience is pain.

    Thus, to identify with the organism is by and large to be what is called in Game Theory a "rational player": one who takes the game seriously and plays in earnest to win. Another way to put this is that the player identifies with the playing piece, adopts the goal of winning, and accepts the rules and conditions of the game, as well as the principles of play that could lead to a win. In an ordinary game, say of Chess or Monopoly, the players may become quite involved in the game, but they never lose sight of the fact that it is just a game, and when the game is over they resume their real life. A person who thought he actually was a Chess knight, that could only move about in L-shaped jumps of three squares and was permanently obsessed by the moves and logic of Chess, would be crazy. Nevertheless, in life we do take the game so seriously that we think we are our body; we do identify with its purposes and limitations, and we are obsessed with the events and doings of the world defined by the game. We are only fitfully aware of a larger reality.

    Suppose we are not our bodies, but of a different nature than what is suggested by ordinary experience. Suppose we are more like actors who assume their characters while on stage, deliberately indulging and cultivating the illusion that they are those characters-- but never totally forgetting their true identities. And suppose that ordinary experience is actually a kind of hallucination which we have voluntarily cultivated by embracing the premises-- the script-- of the play so thoroughly that we have imaginatively entered into the drama and become, for all intents, characters within it. Suppose further that we are so wrapped up in this drama that we have even forgotten our off-stage identity as actors with another sort of life somewhere else. Then that is The Situation.

    And if so, how did this all come about? Well, to begin with the obvious, this is the ground state for a player in the drama of life. It is not a game to dabble at: life requires our full attention. As in any competitive sport, only those players who play in earnest are going to stay in the game. So, if you find yourself here, it's because you're a successful player. And basically that means you've agreed to momentarily forget about any other existence and get thoroughly caught up in this one. Astronomers reason that the universe has to be a certain way in order for us even to be here inquiring about how things are. The fact that we are here bears witness to the fact that the universe is indeed that particular way.

    The game-- the drama-- is only possible, meaningful, and interesting because we adopt the rules and agree to start somewhere, accepting the fantasy "world" generated by its premises. Logic has power only because we believe in the laws of deduction that enable us to leapfrog from one idea to another. What can be proven is only as reasonable as the initial assumptions. Similarly, in geometry one begins with certain axioms that cannot themselves be proven, but must simply be taken for granted in order to construct more elaborate theorems. We embrace the game, or the system, in other words, through an entirely voluntary gesture. All we need do is click our heels and say "yes, indeed, I do accept these rules and starting points", and before we know it we are swept into the world of that system. And this, I believe, is what we do here in the game of life. We are in The Situation because we have agreed to it. We have signed a contract of loyalty to the Corporation of Physical Existence, and now we are company men and women. We are the body living in the world because we have accepted the purposes and point of view of the body as a playing piece in the game of life on the playing field of the material and social world.

    It seems that once in Oz, however, it is not so easy to get back home. Once we enter a system, an entrapment occurs because a system or game is by nature closed upon itself and complete within itself. It's a kind of logical black hole. So, things got to be the way they are because at some point we voluntarily jumped (or perhaps slid) into a seemingly irreversible Situation.

    Imagine a life-sized Monopoly world where you go around buying and selling commodities and competing to build an empire. (Any resemblance to the so-called real world is not my fault!) The only permissible activities in this world, and the only things that exist in it, are those defined for the game of Monopoly. You cannot pick your nose because that is not defined in the rules of Monopoly. You also cannot rest, make love, go out to dinner or raise children, because these things have no place in the game. They simply do not exist in that world. Nor does there exist any larger world beyond the borders of the game, because that is not defined either. In truth, of course, you live in a larger world from which you momentarily enter or exit the world of Monopoly at will. But suppose you got stuck there and couldn't remember even that you had a real life. There is nothing in the game to remind you of it, no hints suggesting a world beyond. Every action in the game simply recycles you back into the game, like a dream from which you cannot awaken. It would be like becoming a part in a giant machine that just whirs on and on, following its inexorable rules.

    Monopoly is a crude example. Just as with the metaphor of growing up on a Holodeck, we can easily imagine more sophisticated "game worlds". The point is that every game defines a world, and every world is a product of some game. The limit of the game we are playing is the limit of the world we can perceive.

    Now, if the game or system is complex enough, there is a way out. The more complex the game or system, the more perfect and seamless the illusion of the game world. At the same time, the more complex the game or system, the more powerful it is in its own right. A system can ultimately be powerful enough to find the zipper and break out of itself. And the degree of power that is required seems to be the capacity to self-refer.

    Back to Monopoly. Ordinarily, you might draw a Community Chest card, for instance, that reads: "Pass Go and collect $200". It is an instruction about what lawful move to make next. It's by following one instruction after another that we remain in the game, because each instruction only points to the next, and never to anything outside of the game. But if Monopoly could self-refer, you might draw a strange Community Chest card that reads: "This Community Chest card says: `This Community chest card says: This...etc." You have suddenly entered an infinite hall of mirrors. Whatever the card finally says, it says it recursively an infinite number of times, one nested within the next in a way that cannot be written down let alone be carried out. Moreover, each reiteration proclaims that "This is a Community Chest card in the game of Monopoly!", not just an instruction about what to do next. There is information about the fact that the card is an element of a game, and so our attention is drawn to the fact that we are "trapped" in a game or system. Once we realise this, effectively we have already escaped from the system, because that awareness itself implies the existence of some world (or at least a bigger system) outside the one we are in. To be truly trapped is to be ignorant of imprisonment. Once we have found the zipper, we are out.

    So, the third answer to the question of how The Situation arose, is that while we consent to enter and identify with a game world-- namely, the physical cosmos in which we are playing out the game of survival-- this cosmos proves to be an evolving system. As part of it, biological organisms eventually reach a complexity permitting them to disengage from the identification. As organisms, we are able to wake up from the dream of organic existence at least enough to ask these questions about its nature.

    What the mind considers real and meaningful derives naturally and historically from values related to the body's well-being. This presents the apparent tradeoff that, either we are imprisoned within bodily experience with its ready-made world of meaning, or else we have the freedom of disengagement but are lost in the void of the meaninglessly arbitrary. Game suggests a different relationship, of voluntary play within apparently serious reality. The player consciously agrees to play in earnest, adopting the premises of the game, not in order to win but for sheer delight. This is the concept of lila-- divine play-- the creativity manifest in the burgeoning cosmos. Game is in essence a mathematical concept, and such play is the very nature of mathematics. It lends itself to serious application with powerful results; through mathematics we have gone to the moon. But it forever transcends any particular application, formulation, system, or concept. It remains inherently gratuitous, playful, and flexible, while full of the meaning we lend it. It shows us how to reconcile the desire to live in zestful freedom with the desire for truth.