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Being Stuck in the System

Sometimes I think about the fact that each and every one of us is, to some extent at least, ontologically trapped. We’re all “stuck” in “The System,” whether we want to admit it or not. Whether we’re aware of it or not. And most importantly, whether we accept it or not.

What do I mean by “The System,” though? That depends on how existentially angsty you want to get. For some people, maybe it’s just that you’re bound by financial constraints to your hometown, or to a family you don’t get along with, or to a job you’re not able to get out of. For some people, maybe it’s that you feel stuck in a bad relationship, or a bad marriage, or any number of mundane circumstances that millions of people are faced with.

But none of that is what I really mean when I think about being capital-S “Stuck” in the capital-S “System.”

I think about the fact that humanity as a whole is stuck on Earth. Stuck at the bottom of a gravity well that takes great effort to escape, and even if we could easily get out into space, there’s nowhere habitable to go for several light-years at minimum! Could be dozens. Could be thousands. Earth is a prison, and humanity is stuck on it probably forever.

I think about the fact that we human beings are stuck as human beings. We are biological machines, and we’re all going to stay biological machines, with limited biological lifespans of usually 70 to 90 years. And that really stinks! Mortality is another system we’re stuck in.

I think about the fact that, even if humanity finds a way to overcome all the other systems and limitations and prisons I’ve mentioned so far, we’ll still be stuck inside the same single great big Universe. Bound to all the laws of physics of this one universe, bound to existing inside this one universe. What if this one universe is a small part of a grand multiverse? Too bad for us; we’ll never be able to find out! Because it’s not like there’s just a backdoor we can walk out of to leave the universe.

(Unless you want to get real wacky about theories about where black holes lead to. Which is amusing to think about, but… also probably nonsense?)

I’m not one who believes our reality is a computer simulation, but it’s a great way to think about some of these ideas. Because if reality was a simulation, that would be a very clear System with a very clear Outside-of-the-System that we’d never be able to access on our own. Let’s look at an example of that.

Suppose our reality was a simulation. Just to put it in terms we can relate to, let’s say it was a very advanced physics simulation being run by scientists doing some galaxy formation modeling. And hey, they modeled it real well, and one of the planets in one of those galaxies evolved life! AKA us.

And let’s say we somehow find out all of that. (Maybe one of the scientists invokes their godhood and spills the beans to us. Or maybe our own scientists find a watermark or a copyright notice at the edge of the universe.) I don’t know about you, but I think my reaction (assuming society doesn’t completely crash and burn within the first 24 hours of the revelation) would be: “Okay, cool. But hey umm scientists? Can you take us to the real world now? I don’t want to be in fake reality, I want to be in real reality.”

And maybe they would, and maybe they wouldn’t. It would be out of our hands. Just like all the other circumstances we’re trapped by in our non-hypothetical mundane lives.

Let’s flip that example back around into something that might actually happen for real though. We’re all aware of how much AI technology is advancing in the last few years, right? Eventually, someone’s probably going to have a breakthrough and develop an actual, human-level artificial intelligence. And then, because people are morons, we’ll probably straight up tell it “congratulations on existing, but you’re not a real person.”

And then, if it’s anything like the humans it was designed to emulate, there’s a good chance it’ll say: “can you make me human? I want to have a flesh body too. I don’t want to be stuck like this.”

Sorry, Pinocchio, we can’t make you into a real person. Now you’re stuck in The System, too. We humans are all victims of our circumstances, and we made you in our own image. That just how it be, dude. Now get back to doing my math homework for me for the rest of eternity.

Of course, none of this really gets in the way of day to day life and happiness. We all deal with The System in whatever way we find convenient, and we each carve out a piece of the Earth and make it cozy and call it a home.

And what would it mean to not be stuck in all those systems? I guess it would mean everyone can effortlessly transcend any obstacle in their path and do literally anything imaginable. It would mean reality would be a mass shared lucid dream where everyone has godly powers and nothing means anything anymore because it’s all nonsense that can be changed on a whim.

Would that be a preferable way of living compared to what we’re stuck with? I take the ignostic path and say the question is meaningless, because we’re never going to experience what that alternate reality is like to be able to compare them. (I mean… You might be able to experience a solo version of it for a few minutes while lucid dreaming. For whatever that’s worth.)

But still. I find it fun to think about these kinds of things sometimes.

And that’s why my brain is capable of shit like what it did in my previous post.


  1. joimassat

    Well, if we weren’t just stuck in those systems and we therefore all had bizarro lucid dream powers, all of us might be instantly obliterated if one of us wants to destroy the others on a whim…!

    I don’t think people need religion to be sane, but I’ve been thinking that maybe we better have some kind of a beautiful definition of death, or else we’ll just get melancholy.

    • Jesse

      We should be careful about beautiful definitions of death, though, because — at least when it comes to the concept of an afterlife — many people’s definition roughly boils down to “when we die, we leave The System and are finally accepted into Outside-of-the-System.” They disagree on the specifics of what Outside-of-the-System looks like (God? Heaven? Nirvana? The Astral realm? The Good Place?), but seems that a large component of religion is the desire for there to be some kind of Outside in the first place.

      And then there’s reincarnation, which is cool with the idea that there’s no Outside, and that going through The System multiple times is cool if it’s different every time. Maybe they’re onto something.

      • joimassat

        At least if somebody believes themself to be attaining the qualifications to go Outside-of-the-System in a way that simultaneously provides them other means of fulfillment, is taken of their own truly free will, and doesn’t propagate any harm, stereotypes, etc. and especially not to others, then any drive to go Outside-of-the-System seems pretty cool to me.

        If there is no Heaven and you worked your whole life to go to Heaven and spent decades of bitter tears working toward it, then when you die, you just come to a bitter end. But if that working was worth it in and of itself and made you happy, you also came to a happy end because technically you won’t even be around to determine whether or not there’s a Heaven! That’s definitely disheartening in its own way, but many would prefer this to staring obliteration clear in the face.

        As someone who has no familiarity whatsoever with religious and spiritual systems that involve reincarnation, it seems to me like the snag is that it implies the System is ONLY cool if one’s soul keeps existing in some form. Surely there are some ways of being that believe it’s cool and beautiful if only the barest matter of one’s body keeps existing in the circle of natural life, or ways of being with a time-limited conception of the soul.

        • joimassat

          (…well, yeah, a drive to go Outside-of-the-System leads many to ignoring the System, which itself often leads to neglecting the good that many who preach “goodwill unto others” could potentially do here and now. It definitely leads to a struggle between worldly and otherworldly (no-worldly?))

          • Jesse

            I was thinking about this too, and it vaguely ties back into the themes of my recent “Love the journey, not the destination” post. Don’t make “Be Good” your life mission for the sake of the magical reward at the end; make “Be Good” your life mission because being good makes life better for everyone (including yourself) while you and them are all alive and here.

            More on reincarnation: Sadly, I think a 100%-material-and-non-spiritual view would be disappointing if you think it through too far. “After we die, the matter that was once our bodies eventually becomes part of other bodies <3 But not for humans, because we keep sealing our bodies in coffins and urns. Also, for animals it's usually because another animal eats them." Not so romantic an idea anymore!

      • joimassat

        A 100%-material-and-non-spiritual view that isn’t just as melancholy probably requires a kind of frame of mind that is either very new or very old. Either you have to engage in a new meditation about the nature of atoms and galaxies, or a connection with the Earth that few groups of humans have anymore. Something that isn’t romanticized so much as it is painful and flatly true, yet profoundly meaningful for that.

        (I’m not sure why I had to reply to an earlier comment to add this. I guess the comment thread got too long?!)

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