Reality Is Imagined

We must dispel immediately the notion that our mental environment is unique to each individual.

The curious interplay between our imagination and external reality gives credence to the argument that the struggles over the mental environment are the future of activism. By protecting our mental environment we change external reality more quickly than any number of direct actions. But to make such an argument in today's materialist, secular and scientific world requires the courage to imagine a different way of thinking.

Three hundred and seventy years ago, René Descartes sat down in a comfortable chair, with a candlestick on his table and his feet warmed by a fire. Closing his eyes, he gave free reign to his imagination. "What can I know for sure," he wondered, "if I doubt everything?"

Modern philosophy began in this moment, with Descartes leading us through a series of thought experiments in which the rejection of all dubious knowledge leads him to discover the only knowable fact, famously expressed as "cogito, ergo sum": I think, therefore I am. The freedom to imagine and to doubt all conventional wisdom and traditional truths was, thus, the first step in building our modern world-view.

The primacy of imagination in the construction of modern philosophy cannot be denied. A well-known criticism of Descartes' imagination experiment is that it divorced the mind from the body and drew a barrier between the internal world of thoughts and the external world of reality. This mind-body separation occurs in Descartes because of his will to accept only what is absolutely knowable. To prove that the mind makes mistakes and cannot be trusted, he utilizes his imagination to interact with and falsify external reality.

Take, for example, an odd moment where Descartes imagines robots walking the streets. Near the end of his Second Meditation he writes, "if I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I just happen to have done, I normally say that I see the men themselves... Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons? I judge that they are men. And so something which I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind." In this moment of uncanny apprehension, seeing a man but imagining him to be an automaton, Descartes asks for certainty and rejects the evidence of his eyes because it can be influenced by the wanderings of his mind.

But what if he had not asked for certainty, had set aside the principle of non-contradiction, and accepted that what he saw at first as men were later automatons and then men again. In other words, what if we affirmed the position that imagination is constitutive of reality, not as a corrupting force but as an indispensable aspect.

If only Descartes had known how to imagine with his eyes open. The power of our imagination is so great that, even without the aid of hallucinogenic drugs, we can choose to see things that are not present or change the color of an object that is (as Edmund Husserl documented phenomenologically). Likewise, Martin Heidegger writes in Being and Time that our moods color the world around us. For example, on a bad day it seems as if the world is darker, the trees are weeping and the clouds grimacing. But if we suddenly get some good news, the world lightens up and the clouds look more like smiling faces than menacing grimaces. Thus, if our moods are being artificially influenced – through advertising, for example – we can expect that our external reality will also be influenced. From the perspective of mental environmentalism the concern is not with the imagination’s impact on external reality but on external reality’s impact on imagination.

We must dispel immediately the notion that our mental environment is unique to each individual. Just as we share our natural environment, we also share our mental environment, which is crafted through the culture we consume – the television shows we watch, the websites we frequent and the symbols and concepts that comprise our thoughts. (Heidegger referred to this shared aspect as our “they-self”.) Thus, the mental environment is not something entirely within us but is instead something that is outside of our complete control and shared among a culture. The danger, and opportunity, here is obvious. If there is no strict division between my internal world and the external world and if I am not in complete control over my internal world then the way the world appears to me is contestable.

In other words, if we engage in an activism of mental environmentalism it need not be construed as a politics of solipsism, or an attempt to dodge the imperative of “direct action”. Instead, developing another way of thinking that places the role of imagination back into the forefront and denies the right of corporations to influence our mental environment may be the most effective strategy of cultural insurrection in the twenty-first century because it directly influences the manifestation of our natural environment.

Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley, CA and is currently writing a book about the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org