By Tina Nguyen
“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” The Matrix is, as I like to put it, a marriage of cyberpunk and philosophical skepticism. You have a post-apocalyptic dystopia, protagonists who look like they hopped out of a Dracula reboot, and…a reality that isn’t real. The world of the Matrix is a virtual reality created and maintained by intelligent machines. Humans in the Matrix perceive of themselves as living regular, mundane lives; however, they are in fact suspended inside energy-harvesting pods, with their bodies being used as batteries while they “dream.” The big question, and the question that has philosophy professors referencing this movie in their lectures, is “Is this possible?” Can we live in a simulated reality without even knowing it? Are we in the Matrix right now?
Imagine that you, a human being, have been subjected to an operation by an evil scientist. Your brain has been removed from your body and placed in a vat of nutrients to keep it alive. The nerve endings of your brain have been connected to a computer that simulates experiences qualitatively identical to those that would occur in the real world, like raising your hand or seeing a tree. Everything you do is an illusion–you’re just a floating brain. This idea is known as the Brain in a Vat thought experiment, and its purpose is to question whether we can know for certain that our experiences are real. Sounds familiar, right? It’s a modernized version of René Descartes’ Evil Demon thought experiment, in which he offers the possibility of a clever, powerful demon deceiving him and making him experience illusory sensations when he, in actuality, has no body. All these scenarios seem pretty far-fetched, sure, but suspend your disbelief for a bit. What if any of them were true? A philosophical skeptic would say that, regardless of whether we’re humans in the Matrix, brains in vats, bodiless entities being deceived by an evil demon, or just normal humans living in our normal world, we wouldn’t be able to know for certain, merely based on our sensory perceptions, that our experiences are real. If you find this implausible, you aren’t alone. There are many thinkers (philosophical realists) who oppose the notion of skepticism. If you find yourself agreeing with the skeptic, however, then congrats! As a fellow believer in the plausibility of the Matrix, I welcome you to the club.
Now, let’s say we are in the Matrix. (Realists, bear with me.) We don’t know whether reality is actually reality, which is worrisome, because it might mean that we don’t know anything at all. We might not even be capable of knowing things, period. But Descartes has a solution! (Sort of.) His answer to the question of what he can know for certain does exist is (spoiler alert) Cogito ergo sum–I think, therefore I am. If thinking is happening, there has to be someone (namely me) that’s doing the thinking. Even if I have no idea whether reality exists as I know it, I can know that I exist. So there you have it. Solace in the Matrix: reality might not exist, but you sure do.
For more posts on philosophy, click here.