Thomas blows up photographs in Blow-Up to search for truth. I blow up cities with thermonuclear weapons in Civilization VI to achieve a cultural victory. We are not the same. When a pile of white blob emerges in the blown up version of his paparazzi shots of a tryst, Thomas jumps to a narrative in which the man was shot, and identifies the white blob as his corpse. An opportunity to direct a detective story. An opportunity to infuse his photography with justice. He just couldn’t pass it up. Thus he embarks on a pursuit for truth, and returns to the “crime scene” to discover the body — except he didn't bring his camera. When he returns for a second time, the body is gone, the grass fresh and clean, and no murder is to be seen.

The blown up photo could be depicting pixelated noise, and his witnessing of the body could be mere hallucination. Without objective, factual proof, it could be that there was never a murder, and everything was in his head.

Perhaps it was just in his head: Thomas’s mind invents the drama in a search for meaning. He’s been seeing what he wants to see. Wouldn’t it make a good story if the elegant woman in the park who seems to be having an affair with the middle-aged man is actually part of a assassination scheme? Wouldn’t it be heroic if he documents the murder and finds critical evidence? All too exciting. While that excitement might stem from a nonexistent mystery, an invention of his mind, I'd say it no longer matters for Thomas in light of his newfound conviction.

I recently rewatched Blade Runner: 2049, and an analysis piece has the following to say about the film’s grand reveal, through which the main character realizes he is not as special as he thought:

“K realizes that his memory of a wooden horse didn’t belong to him after all. It means he is not Rachael’s child, that he’s not a miracle, not special after all, but it no longer matters. The moment K thinks he is more and wants to be more, he becomes more. His perception is reality. It reprograms him.”

— Priscilla Page, The Poetry Of Blade Runner 2049
Similarly, for Thomas, the perception that he is after something righteous is enough. Enough to change him. Enough to reprogram him to focus on blown up pixels and find bodies in the park.

But is perception reality? Our knowledge of reality is grounded in our perception, so what if there is no material reality beyond our perception? That’s what Blow-Up led me to think about. Maybe there is no underlying reality, and the conscious experience, the collective physical processes in the brain, is the only thing that exists. Maybe perception itself only occurs locally in the brain — sort of like we are tricked to believe that our senses are perceiving, when it's nothing more than a probe stimulating different areas of our brain. Maybe the man lives only in his head.

It’s an argument for self-sufficiency through a conscious disconnection from the rest of the world. Growing up is becoming more disillusioned with the world. Every spike of anger and splash of tears that amounted to nothing; every idol that turned out to be a fraud; every relationship that withered in misunderstanding. Such waste. The room I stand in could be one from which someone threw themselves out of the window. The woven lamp shade on my desk could be made by emaciated kids in dim, oily factories. The goals I have I may never be able to accomplish. There is so much happening all the time, past and present and future, that you will never know, so why bother trying, why bother finding out, and risking concerning yourself with problems that you cannot sense, touch, feel, see, or impact your directly lived experience.

Sometimes, I think that if I were to die right now, right this second, I would be fine with that. I would be happy with how my life has been. I’m grateful for and feel fortunate to have had the experiences, company, and memories, mistakes, regrets, and pain that led me here. I’ve made peace with everything that has ever happened, everything that hasn't ever happened. Everything that I don’t have, and everything that I haven’t seen. A part of that peace, I think, comes from viewing the world as contained in my head: if the world only exists insofar as consciousness exists, then after consciousness goes, the entire world vanishes. After me, the flood.

A chinese Chengyu that I really like is 胸有丘壑. It describes a state of deep understanding of something, but literally translates to having the mountains and valleys in one’s heart. Indeed, if you hold the mountains and valleys in your heart, what matters with the outside? 若是心中有丘壑,外面的世界怎样又如何呢? The ultimate joy of life should not depend on those external forces: applause, vanity, greed, desire, fame. At some point, one has to return to an inner tranquility, peace with oneself. So I should not get too caught up in the volatile chaotic things that I cannot control.

The world is not bigger than my head. If I do something, it would be because I enjoy doing it in the present — not the illusory, intangible promise of more, not as an investment that might pay off in some inexplicable, unforeseeable way. If loneliness strikes, it wouldn’t be able to take me because, at the very least, I’ll still have myself. I know how much I’m worth. I know how much the world contained in my head is worth. It’s comforting to think that way.

I’m not arguing for living an egotistical life. After all, it was King Louis XV who proclaimed “après moi, le déluge,” not me. The unobserved world, albeit unknown, interacts with the perceived reality. It's impossible to know whether we are living in a world that’s purely in our heads. Or, in fact, they can be interpreted as fundamentally interchangeable — John Searle has said that “when it comes to consciousness, the appearance is the reality.” Even if there is no underlying phenomenal reality, to perceive the world that exists only in one’s head is exactly like to experience the underlying reality.

Regardless of whether the outside world exists, we hold a biochemical representation of a world in our heads — the purpose of our perception of an outside world is to help us adjust and survive inside it. “The man lives only in his head” is a claim that’s impossible to disprove. To me, it’s more or less just rhetoric, a mental device to help me through rough times. Some times, I’ll believe everything’s just in my head; other times, I’ll treat the underlying reality as a guide to life. No matter though, I live on, in both worlds. Just as Thomas lives on in the end of the film, as he picks up the tennis ball and participates in the pantomime world.