The Red Pill for Philosophers and Scientists

On the Possibility of Living in Truth for Those Who Hold Truth as an Ideal

“The Red Pill” has become a pervasive metaphor since the 1999 film The Matrix, in which the protagonist is offered a choice between taking a red pill and a blue pill. The red pill has come to signify difficult and unpleasant truths, while the blue pill has come to signify the comfortable and comforting lies with which most people are pacified.

There is a relationship between the idea of the red pill and Vaclav Havel’s conception of “living in truth.” An individual may not be able to change a dishonest society, but one can still choose to live in truth in the midst of a dishonest society simply by refusing to go along with the lies that others are willing to tolerate. There is a cost — often a high cost — to living in truth, but it is always an option for us, even if it is a difficult path to walk. “Taking the red pill” is in many contexts essentially the idea that one is living in truth, that is say, that one has recognized and acknowledged the unpleasant truths that others try not to see, and one thus lives in the full consciousness of that knowledge.

Havel’s conception of living in truth had a further implication, and that is the idea of a parallel polis: that the extant social order is so corrupt that it is beyond reform, so that the only option left for those who have chosen to live in truth is to opt out of the extant social order and create a parallel social order, a parallel polis, in which the false and failed social order is simply ignored, and one lives and acts as though living in a parallel society in which one is not forced to assent to lies — the parallel polis is a society in which all live in truth.

While Havel’s concept of living in truth remains an inspiration, the parallel polis never grew to a scope at which it had to be reckoned with (i.e., it never became a power in its own right), and, after the Iron Curtain fell, the institutions of civil society in regions where the parallel polis seemed to be the only option for those living in truth mostly retained their legitimacy and transitioned to remain viable under a new political dispensation. In many nation-states formerly behind the Iron Curtain, the only institutions that were permanently and irretrievably forsaken were the ruling communist parties in these states and the secret police apparatus of each.

In other words, the compromised institutions of state, education, industry, and so on, were reformed and are now largely considered to be institutions in good standing, their past collusion with communist dictatorship notwithstanding. This is an important and a sobering lesson for us today. We can live in truth at our own expense, but the initiative to create a parallel society is not likely to be successful, because institutions have an enormous weight of social inertia behind them — so much that even profoundly corrupt institutions are more likely to be salvaged than to be junked.

This, then, is one “red pill” for scientists and philosophers who wish to live in truth (and, hopefully, the majority of scientists and philosophers do want to live in truth) but who also wish to be in the good graces of institutions that are in a position to grant status, opportunities, career advancement, and remuneration. Moreover, when it comes to the lifework of scientists and philosophers, institutions not only confer benefits upon the individual, but also confer benefits upon the ideas of individuals, so that a well-placed individual is in a position for their ideas to be transformed into a scientific research program with institutional backing, meaning that these ideas will transcend the life of the individual and will become a social and cultural legacy. That is a powerful inducement to cooperate with institutions, no matter how corrupt they are.

There are, however, many red pills, including many red pills for philosophers and scientists contemplating life-altering choices. There are many red pills, recognized in different communities, as each community has its bête noir and its forbidden fruit and its unspeakable realities that inevitably attract the curious no less than the malevolent. And because the red pill has become such a pervasive metaphor, there is predictably a reaction against it, as in any social milieu there will be decent people and jackasses alike on both sides of every issue. Thus there are decent people who refuse whatever red pill is offered, and bad actors who see the same red pill as an opportunity, which they eagerly embrace. Thus it quite easy to tar with the same brush all those who have taken the red pill as deluded opportunists who believe themselves to have grasped a Truth that others have not the courage to see.

The most painful red pill that philosophers and scientists have to swallow is this: no one is on your side. You have no side, other than other scholars, and many of those other scholars will be your rivals who are invested in scientific research programs you may consider pointless or harmless at best, or pernicious and malign at worst. It’s like the old Quaker saying: everyone is queer except me and thee, and sometimes I think thee is queer.

The rivalry for funding alternative scientific research programs means that scholars who might agree in principle that science should be funded, cannot agree on who exactly should receive this funding. If it were my call to make (and it’s not; I am utterly powerless), I would require that ten percent of every large grant for research (everything over some given dollar amount — say, a million dollars) go to adversarial research. Someone would have to be put in charge of funneling money to the scientific rivals of grantees, including those (especially those) whom the grantees sincerely believe to be mistaken, if not mentally defective.

If it is mostly true that scientists have no allies and are well and truly alone, it is indubitably true for philosophers. If you think that someone is on your side, you are deluded, plain and simple. No one is. You have no tribe; you have no people. As a philosopher you are a wanderer in the wilderness, and you cannot return to society from the wilderness without compromising yourself. Philosophy’s entanglements with power have not been to its credit. Plato’s mission to Dionysius of Syracuse, Aristotle’s education of Alexander the Great, and Seneca’s tutelage of Nero all speak to an admirable desire to have a beneficent influence, but it could be argued that the least effective of these and such efforts were also the least harmful.

Since the nineteenth century philosophers have been transforming themselves into academics, and have gained a measure of bourgeois respectability by this path. Many philosophers today get married, have families, and own a comfortable house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and a reasonably new car in the driveway. This is all well and good for personal fulfillment, but philosophy is not about personal fulfillment.

Perhaps the historical dialectic between being an isolated eccentric and being a respectable bourgeois citizen is the philosopher’s version of departure and return, for we have been here before. Once universities began to be founded in western Europe, at a time when no distinction was made between philosophers and scientists, philosophers were at the center of this development, and philosophy was ensconced within university institutions for hundreds of years, until the scientific revolution and modernization so transformed the landscape of thought that the whole tradition of professional medieval philosophy — Scholasticism, as it is usually called — was largely abandoned. Much of the logical work of late medieval philosophy only came into wide recognition again in the twentieth century, so completely was it disregarded after Descartes.

This same early modern period dominated by Descartes and the epistemic turn in philosophy was a time of great social turmoil in which philosopher’s lives were on the line with each pronouncement. A book or a pamphlet could result in a literal death sentence. During the sixteenth century, pretty much every western European philosopher spent some part of their life in Holland, because the Netherlands at this time was wealthy from their seaborne trading empire and they were tolerant, meaning that they allowed philosophers to live mostly unmolested, even if they wrote unorthodox books — a rare thing in early modern Europe. Spinoza is perhaps the most obvious example of this, although Descartes, Locke, and Hobbes were also part of this philosophical diaspora.

Spinoza, enjoying the quiet life in Holland, received a letter from I. Lewis Fabritius, Professor of the Academy of Heidelberg, and Councillor of the Elector Palatine, offering him a professorship at the University of Heidelberg, saying: “You will have the most ample freedom in philosophical teaching, which the prince is confident you will not misuse, to disturb the religion publicly established.” Spinoza replied with a letter that is a classic, hopefully known to all philosophers: “…I do not know the limits, within which the freedom of my philosophical teaching would be confined, if I am to avoid all appearance of disturbing the publicly established religion. Religious quarrels do not arise so much from ardent zeal for religion, as from men’s various dispositions and love of contradiction, which causes them to habitually distort and condemn everything, however rightly it may have been said.” This was true in Spinoza’s time, and it remains true in our time.

Spinoza knew he had to be cautious. Even sheltering in the Netherlands, he was several times under threat. He wrote that he long deliberated over the offer, and we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of this claim. We know that Spinoza was a thoughtful man, and he probably thought through all the advantages and disadvantages of accepting the position, ultimately deciding against it. Others might have decided differently; there are no right or wrong answers to questions like this. One chooses a path, and makes the best of it that one can.

There may well be further departures and future returns for philosophers and scientists as historical circumstances temporarily push them toward the center of events, and then the shifting currents of history push them away from the center to the outer periphery again. Whatever the currents portend, whichever way the wind may blow, for scientists and philosophers, life must be a cautious and continuous negotiation with the powers that be, and by “the powers that be” I do not mean only political regimes, their enforcers and their office holders, but also custom, tradition, social mores, and the tendency of the mob to riot when they are exposed to anything that lies outside their competence. Taking some public stance on a controversial issue is mostly foolhardy, especially if it gets one killed and therefore marks a sudden end to one’s research. Philosophers and scientists need to keep themselves alive, but they also need to avoid needless entanglement with institutions that can only compromise them. This is not an easy balancing act, but it is the highwire act demanded by those who would hold truth as their ideal.

Vaclav Havel

One Man Think Tank