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How to Build a Universe: Philip K. Dick on Reality, Media Manipulation, and Human Heroism


“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Philip K. Dick is as well-known today for his era-defining science fiction as he is for the series of unusual experiences he had in the spring of 1974, which he dubbed his “exegesis”. Occupying the intersection of the scientific, the philosophical, and the mystical, the exegesis shaped Dick’s work for the remainder of his life as he contemplated the grandest and most granular building blocks of existence.

In a 1978 speech titled “How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” found in the altogether mind-bending 1995 anthology The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings (public library), Dick turns his exegesis-driven inquiry to the nature of reality, the mechanisms of media manipulation, and the most steadfast — the only — defense we have against the indignities of manufactured pseudo-reality.

He begins at the very beginning, by examining what reality actually is:

It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question “What is reality?”, to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.

But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. . . . So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later.

This, however, is where things get particularly interesting: Dick argues that reality becomes less real the moment we begin discussing it, for the discussion itself precipitates a dynamic manufacturing of what we perceive to be real, rather than a static contemplation of what is, producing a series of “pseudo-realities” that in turn produce pseudo-humans:

As soon as you begin to ask what is ultimately real, you right away begin talk nonsense. Zeno proved that motion was impossible (actually he only imagined that he had proved this; what he lacked was what technically is called the “theory of limits”). David Hume, the greatest skeptic of them all, once remarked that after a gathering of skeptics met to proclaim the veracity of skepticism as a philosophy, all of the members of the gathering nonetheless left by the door rather than the window. I see Hume’s point. It was all just talk. The solemn philosophers weren’t taking what they said seriously.

But I consider that the matter of defining what is real — that is a serious topic, even a vital topic. And in there somewhere is the other topic, the definition of the authentic human. Because the bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly, spurious humans — as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides. My two topics are really one topic; they unite at this point. Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland.

In a statement with which Mark Twain would enthusiastically nod in agreement and George Orwell would second, Dick admonishes against the way media manipulators deliberately create pseudo-realities by engineering words:

The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.

Ultimately, the only antidote to reality-manipulation is good old-fashioned human heroism, that timeless vaccine of courage and resistance, of freedom from fear, of tirelessly enacting “the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer” — in other words, of moral wisdom:

The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.

The rest of The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings is full of similarly soul-stirring, neuron-stimulating meditations on the burdens and blessings of being human — highly recommended.

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