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The Tradeoff of Truth

December 8, 2019
- Surya Raman, Sudhang Varshney

“…What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life—that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

- Morepheus to Neo, The Matrix

You fumble with the front door key before stepping into the mellow yellow of your living room. Your kids aged 6 and 8 rush to greet you, and your spouse smiles, waiting patiently, so you can relish the spaghetti and red-wine together. It wasn’t a particularly rough day at work - it never really is. You stare absent-mindedly at your fat pay cheque before turning in for the night. None of this feels right. Life’s great, but, none of this feels right. You quickly reproach yourself for being an overthinking twerp, bordering on lunacy, and get on with your life. But nothing feels right. There is an itch you desperately want to scratch, but you can’t seem to figure out where to look for it. At times you blame your cushy, blissful life for your uneasiness. Everything is optimised to generate the maximal amount of contentment for you, yet things feel hollow and lifeless. You spend restless nights pondering if there is more to life than the facade you appraise it to be.

Such is the life we wish to critique through this editorial.

For those of you unfamiliar with the cultural meme ‘Blue pill vs Red pill’, made popular by the Keanu Reaves blockbuster The Matrix, the dilemma is quite straightforward. As it happens, you (living life as described above) stumble into a chance encounter with a shady looking mobster of sorts (we shall name him Morpheus). This prowler-of-the-night confirms your lifelong suspicion of things not being right. His strange mannerisms, cadence and their deviance from your robotic existence make you want to trust him. A deafening silence ensues as you’re made aware of the fact that you’ve been living in a make-believe simulation since birth. Your friends, your family, your job - all part of a grand deception. The real world is a laughably distant cry from the one you’ve known, and all you know about this difference, is that life ‘out there’, stinks. Things have worked out your way remarkably easily so far, but the same is not true for what awaits beyond the red pill.

And then, the choice. A life of blissful ignorance, easy ecstasy and no recollection whatsoever of this chance encounter, or a life of truth, knowledge and hardships. The blue pill, or the red pill. To return to the simulation would mean giving up on your only chance at knowing the truth, and waking up again with the same nagging suspicion everyday. It would also mean a life sans hardships. To ‘wake up’ from the blissful simulation would mean the eradication of the gnawing suspicion you’ve always lived with. And a chance at a full realisation of what is true.

To recalibrate this fictional dilemma to a more digestible scenario, imagine yourself to be in your 30s, blissful in a healthy and happy relationship with the love of your life, your college sweetheart. Or if that’s too much of a good thing, take a nice reel life Bollywood couple who have had it made. Both of you love each other to death, and feel secure about what you have; you know no matter what, your significant other will be the rock you can always fall back on. Morpheus - this time dressed in a pink sparkling gown and donning delicate wings - hovers to you and opens his left hand ( gloved in glorious white mittens ), offering you a “red pill” (the truth) - your sweetheart loves another, and has been lying to you everyday for the last 15 years. This news devastates you to the core of your fragile heart, and let’s say you know - with certainty - the fact that you will never be able to trust anyone ever again if you have to live with this knowledge. Morpheus then opens his right hand, and reveals a “blue pill”, which you can take to obliviate any memory of hallucinations involving a sunglasses-wearing-fairy, and life goes on merrily till eternity. You marry and die snuggled in your spouse’s arms, in a warm, comfortable bed. You never find out about your partner’s betrayal.

The choice Neo ( Keanu Reeves ) makes (and the choice most of us knowledge-seeking, truth-starved philosophers, artists and scientists here at Roorkee are likely to make) is perhaps, the red pill. One need not be an artist or a scientist for this; humans across the world seem to have embedded in them an innate thirst for truth. Plato, Dostoevsky, Einstein and innumerable other intellectuals over the ages have shown a frenzied fervour, an almost unparalleled zeal for knowledge and the truth. When posed with the aforementioned nightmarish choice, one tends to follow these paths set for humanity - these paths that lead to the truth. What is perhaps most intriguing about this decision is the baffling ignorance of the hardships that are guaranteed to follow. Does one simply not care about those? Are we truly a species that lusts only after knowledge, and has overcome the shackles of pain that should seemingly deter us?

The value of knowledge and truth has been a central topic in philosophy - particularly epistemology (which deals with the theory of knowledge). At the outset, we make it clear that this editorial does not aim to question what must be considered true. Instead, this article aims to deal only with the value of that which is considered true.

An evident reason as to why remarkably talented intellectuals showcase(d) a maniacal lust for the quintessential apple of knowledge, can be attributed to the fact that ‘Truth helps humans see the world as it is, sans prejudice or bias, and hence helps one act rationally.’ This statement is termed as a fact for pragmatic reasons. To illustrate, consider an individual X, hailing from a middle-class Indian family, who wishes to apply for music school abroad. In the event where he assumes his family to be opulent and wealthy ( maybe because of an Oedipal mother who kept him in the dark ), his dreams are bound to be shattered, for he shall find out the true nature of things too late. However, if he’s privy to his family’s financial status before applying, X is more likely to work harder, and in a way that bags him a scholarship to the same school. It is easy to see how knowing the truth, however bitter, helped X act rationally, and eventually succeed in attaining his initial goal. This example also illustrates why one would want to act rationally.

There is however, more to valuing truth than just the associated pragmatic value. Often one comes across abstract research in fields like physics and mathematics - research with seemingly no practical applications. To put it another way, research in the basic sciences often seems to be curiosity driven, as opposed to application driven. As a society, we applaud, honour, and reward individuals who are passionately curious. In some sense, we regard our hunger for truth as a moral virtue. However, once one acknowledges the fact that humanity collectively values truth for truth’s sake, and not simply for viable solutions and pragmatic applications, one comes across a slippery slope trying to explain the existence of the same.


As is the case with most human characteristics, an explanation of this gusto and ardour inevitably involves evolution. Back in the day (way back in the day), curiosity was a necessity for survival. Humans had to know which fruit was poisonous and which wasn’t, had to know how to avoid manhunters, and a plethora of other diverse truths to survive in a hostile world. Nutrition and sexual reproduction became foundational necessities for the species to survive and proliferate, and as the species evolved, the brain evolved to activate pleasure centres whenever these necessities were satiated. One could draw a parallel here with our need to be curious, to explain the uneasiness one feels when faced with the unknown, and the subsequent calm and bliss that serves to electrify, once the unknown is fully understood. In his book ‘Why? What Makes Us Curious’, Israeli astrophysicist Mario Livio talks of the same. He explains the uneasiness associated with being unable to grasp a concept or not knowing a truth, as a ‘fear’ of sorts. Wading through the subject and making oneself aware of the truth turns out to be the only way to activate those pleasure centres, and subsequently lose that fear.

The last few paragraphs have perhaps been a little abstract; however, dealing with Neo’s choice requires us to be armed with this discussion. The truth presented in the dilemma that this editorial posed initially, was a truth about the fundamental nature of reality. Clearly, waking up from the simulation serves to offer no practical benefits. Any and all of Neo’s (or your) needs, wants, ambitions and goals are satiated and satisfied thoroughly. No additional pragmatic benefits are offered by the red pill. The reason why one would want to choose the pill of truth then, would be for truth’s sake. Evolutionary reasons demand that you be curious, and can similarly be used to account for the picture of an uneasy life in the simulation. The only unaccounted problem here being that of hardship, of pain.

The dilemma merely states the existence of a harsh reality, a cruel world; details are cleverly omitted from the choice. Consider a case where a starry-eyed, curious undergraduate Sam is offered a similar choice. He is told that if he chooses to ingest a certain pill, by the age of 35, he would have significantly helped with the development of the Standard Model of Physics that physicists across the world drool over. Moreover, Sam would then have a much better understanding of the fundamental nature of reality than most human beings. However, he is also told that if he chooses to ingest this pill, his future spouse is bound to cheat on him, and his son is bound to take his own life with infallible certainty. In this scenario, the harshness of reality is described in gory detail. One would expect lesser people to reach out for the red pill now. However, assuming a sizable number of people do reach out for the red pill (maybe you, as you read this, feel the same way), the question why becomes of paramount importance. Why on earth would anyone lust after the truth even in the face of inevitable death, destruction and grief?

It is here that we encounter the concept of known and unknown pain. In this more descriptive dilemma, the pain is emotional suffering, grief, and a plethora of mental disorders that are bound to plague Sam. However, Sam being the starry-eyed brazen intellectual that he is, chooses the red pill anyway. ‘Sure all that stuff is bound to be pretty messed up, but I’ll get over it I’m sure. This is a one time opportunity at knowing the truth! Surely I can go through a few bouts of grief for that’.

Sam, in his own way, makes sense. But what is vital to note here, is his certainty and willingness when it comes to dealing with previously inexperienced pain. Even if the parameters were tweaked, and Sam was told that he’d certainly suffer for the rest of his life, starry-eyed Sam would still make the same choice. Sam, in his 20 odd years of existence, has perhaps never encountered death or any other major form of grief or suffering. It would hence be logical to say that Sam chooses the red pill without being completely informed of the experiential impact of that choice. If instead of a cheating spouse and a dead son, Sam is told that he’s bound to be whipped with a bullwhip in a public square everyday for a decade, Sam is perhaps more likely to gladly ingest the blue pill. Our undergraduate Sam is certain to relate with physical pain.

* At this point, the authors would like to make it clear that it is not the intention of this editorial to undermine any individual’s suffering of any form. The intention was to make clear, the notion of experiential pain.

Of course, given that we live in the real world (which is a terrible rabbit hole to go down; the authors advise you to not give that assumption too much thought), we are well aware of the vague hardships the initial dilemma referred to. Armed with this knowledge, it is easy to make the claim that one can wade through reality and eventually find peace, however hard and arduous the path may be. Riding on that claim, it is then not surprising to see why most humans posed with this dilemma would inevitably ingest the red pill. Sure the blue pill will ensure that you forget about the existence of any form of truth, but in that moment, humans being humans are bound to forget about ‘known and unknown pain’, forget about the implications of the blue pill, and simply be overwhelmed by the notion of a truth. Neo (or us, living in a simulation *coughs*) hence forgets about the peace of the blue pill and doesn’t consider the worst possible scenario that the red pill could land him in. In that moment, all he cares about is the truth - and one wonders if humans are somehow destined to suffer that way. Is knowing the truth truly worth a life of hardship and pain, with only the possibility of respite? Is it not better to simply smoke away your days while peacefully playing a game of poker with your friends, waiting for the bacon to be served? And what are we to do with this truth, when all of us are doomed in this infinite, meaningless void of a universe, which doesn’t care about us anyway?

Perhaps the pursuit of truth may never really prove to be worthy of suffering; however, it is what helped our species survive, proliferate, and eventually dominate as the most powerful to be found on earth. But why does every species want to increase in number? What drives this pursuit of expansion that we attribute to life as a biological need?

A convincing answer to such questions is still hidden ( if it does ,in fact, exist ) from us, but our profoundly human desire to explore is bound to keep mankind in pursuit of a satisfying resolution.








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