It’s A Funny Old World

Perceptions of the world turned upside down – more than once.  This edition published by Sphere Books 1972.

Perceptions of the world turned upside down – more than once. This edition published by Sphere Books 1972.

The way we see the world is strongly conditioned by how we expect it to be – or, at least, that’s the argument in some quarters.  Which calls into question how the average person would react if their world turned out to be something quite different to what it had seemed previously.

They would, most likely, try to make sense of it and fit the new concept into a framework with which they were already familiar, which might be easy or difficult depending on the circumstances.  In the 1998 comedy film The Truman Show, the main character expresses considerable surprise when he discovers that he has spent his entire life on the set of a reality television show, but we might expect anyone else to suffer something more like severe shock in such a situation.

However, as would only be expected, large numbers of people who are being deliberately kept in ignorance of the nature of reality around them might eventually realise that something’s not quite right, and consequently become restless.  You can’t fool all the people all the time, though the rulers of the strange moving city in Christopher Priest’s 1974 science fiction novel Inverted World try their best to do so.  The real world of the city is much more weird than the average inhabitant imagines.

We can envisage situations where people have been enclosed in a starship for many generations and end up – maybe intentionally – with a distorted view of reality.  It has often featured in science fiction.  In an episode of the original series of Star Trek from 1968, For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky, the Enterprise encounters an asteroid which is really a generation starship, whose occupants are unaware of the true nature of their world.  The ship’s controlling systems ensure the status quo by using implants that quickly terminate anyone who might discover the truth.

Several classic novels, such Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky from 1963, have followed this approach – when enough generations have lived and died in the same starship, they start believing that the ship comprises the entire universe.  Conversely, in Harry Harrison’s 1969 story Captive Universe, the Aztec inhabitants of an isolated valley ruled by priests are convinced that they are “on a planet called Earth, that goes around the sun – which is a burning ball of gas”.  Then one of them escapes and discovers the shocking truth: “Our valley is the world, there is nothing else.  We live inside a giant cave hollowed out of the rock…”  But since this is actually a generation starship, the real truth when he encounters it is, from his point of view, even stranger still.

So if we imagine a situation where everyone lives in ignorance of reality, and then one person becomes aware of the truth and tries to persuade others of it, might we expect them to shower that person with praise and gratitude?  Probably not – people get remarkably attached to their way of looking at the world, as has long been recognised by thinkers on the subject.

The Greek philosopher Plato, writing in The Republic in the fourth century BC, presented the Simile of the Cave.  Prisoners spend all their lives watching shadows in a cave, but one escapes and comes to understand that reality is so much more than those mere shadows.  He returns to try to persuade them of the truth, but they will have none of it.  They believe that he is seriously mistaken.  And if he was so bold as to try to drag them out of the cave to see the world as it really is, they would kill him.

That can be as true now as when Plato was writing – we cannot assume that people will always want their world view changed, or ever will.  The hero of Harrison’s novel realises this when asking what would happen if he returned to his valley and revealed the truth: “The priests would kill you at the temple.  The others would believe you possessed.”  Sometimes, ignorance can indeed be bliss.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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