Rene Descartes and the movie The Matrix both have very similar views on the world. Descartes in his Meditations goes through his method of doubt in which he lets go of all the thoughts and beliefs he had previously accepted as false and true (Descartes, Meditation 1). He does this because he knows some of his beliefs must be wrong, as he had assumed some of them from childhood and did not know the things he knows now . He believes he can no longer identify which of his beliefs are true and which are not. During his method doubt Descartes rejects any of his beliefs in which he can detect error, in the possibility that he can find something that he can be absolutely certain of . Once he has found something that he can absolutely certain of, he suggest that he can then use it as a foundation to build a new system of beliefs of which he can be absolutely certain . The Matrix is similar to this in that it proclaims all that Neo had previously believed before he swallowed the red pill was false . Both Descartes and The Matrix questioned the existence of reality, and if we can be sure that we, as we know ourselves really exist . Both also ask the question of how can we know that what we know is really true ? What is reality, and how do we know that we are, or are not experiencing it?
The main features of this way of thinking area are; a) the idea that we have to search for knowledge about the world, about reality and that both knowledge about the world and reality are somehow remote to us; something we have to find and b) that we only ever have representations of the world, that it is not a reality itself but simply a representation and representations can always be wrong. We have an idea of what the world is and what it entails, but can we say with 100% certainty that we know?
Another feature of this way of thinking is that when we are dreaming; can we be sure that we are dreaming? After all sometimes we believe that we are awake. Who’s to say that the dream is not our reality or that we have ever even experienced ‘real’ reality at all? So what makes us think that there is a reality and that we are living in it and when we are dreaming we are simply that – dreaming? Descartes’ answer to this was the evil demon, which feeds us this perception of reality . Similarly, The Matrix proclaims that there are intelligent machines that farm the humans and program them to think that they are living in a world that is to them, reality . But really it is not reality at all, they are in fact in pods and have never experienced reality, never woken up to their real selves, they are just experiencing virtual programs . The central idea in The Matrix is that although the mind is dependant on the body (when the body dies, the mind does), it is separate from the body in an epistemological sense i.e. being able to be in the ‘world’ in your mind but the body is left behind in the desert of the real . If the ‘world’ is an illusory place and the mind can only travel there, would it not make more sense that a person only died if the mind were killed? Perhaps the matrix just couldn’t fathom how to work this into the story line.
There are other problems that this view gives rise to. For instance, for Descartes to doubt something, he is already assuming that there are things that cannot be doubted . This means contrary to what he proclaims he is not letting go of all his beliefs, for he believes there are things that cannot be doubted . Similarly, The Matrix has this notion of this world of assumed reality and then the ‘real’ world – the difference between the red and the blue pills . But why should Neo assume that the red pill would really show him the truth of reality? Does that not just clash with the concept of the movie – not knowing that the reality that you’re in is not in fact, ‘real’? After realising that all he believed about reality was false before, why would he believe that the red pill is reality? If all he has known is false then who is to assume anything he will come to know is ‘real’? Akin to this, Descartes with his evil demon argument has assumed that there are two different worlds – a world that is an illusion and the real world . But what makes him suggest this? What evidence is there for him to suggest that there are in fact differences between reality and illusion? What evidence is there for him to suggest that there is another world? His “I think therefore I am” statement – we can think and make decisions in dreams so that would mean you are you in your dream as you are in reality. Perhaps everything is reality; perhaps our dreams are reality that we cannot quite come to grips with. Or on the other hand perhaps nothing is reality – what is reality? For us to question the existence of it means either that we already are assuming that there exists such a thing as no reality. And for us to question reality leads me to believe that we do not know what reality is, thus we must not be in the world of reality. Or are we in reality and just think that there is an illusory place – such as when we sleep, but in fact everything that we experience, physically and mentally is as real as anything else? When I am dreaming, it is as real as anything else I do when I am awake, thus when I dream it is an unconsciousness reality.
In The Matrix the world is seen as not ‘real’, but why so? Yes perhaps it exists only in your head, but how does that make it not real? Who defines reality? My thoughts are real are they not? Most thoughts only exist in my head – why not go one step further and deem that an entire world could exist in my head if only I believed it were possible. When Morpheas welcomes Neo to ‘the desert of the real’, he is saying that it is real in contrast to the world that Neo had come from, he compares it to that world . So using this reasoning, there could perhaps be another alternate reality to the desert of the real, which they do not know exists yet because they have not experienced it. There could even be infinite alternative realities. Neo and company could only define themselves as real, against the illusion of the world, they needed that backdrop to be able to make sense of themselves (The Matrix, 2007). If they did not have that backdrop of illusory reality then they would not know what reality was. Neo and company began in the world, their doubts began in the world, and the world is a part of their reality because without the world they would not know what reality is. Both the Descartes’ evil demon and The Matrix are inconsistent arguments on different levels for the reasons I have given, but they give rise to the thought that at least some of our beliefs are false.
Aside from the issues that have been raised I think this argument can be quite persuasive. Why do we question the extent of reality if reality is all there is? The very fact that we question it gives rise to ideas that perhaps we have experienced something else. Something that lingers within us telling us that there is more. Why do we accept our dreams as an illusory experience? I for one have felt pain within a dream, and does that not say that it can be just as real an experience as ‘reality’ is? As humans, we search for meaning in our lives and we don’t want to think that we are here on earth to cruise through our lives, experiencing both immense pain and pleasure alike, just to die. What is the point of that? It does not make sense or have any reason to it, that we are not here as a part of a bigger picture, and frankly it feels much better to think that there is a means to all this. It is also persuasive because of the number of people who experience out of body experiences and astral travelling. Take the native Americans and their peyote plant for example, they ingest the plant and then (by their account) their soul leaves the body and they communicate in the astral world. This can be up to days at a time – their bodies still sitting stock-still around the camp. Psychologists and the like may have explanations for their experiences but what is of most importance is that the Native Americans experience the astral travel, and that experience makes it real to them no matter how much it can be explained away by science. If something is real to someone then it is real in its consequences. The same may be true for those ingesting LSD, who often have other world illusory experiences, but just because it can be explained as an effect of the drug, how does that make it any less real? If Neo woke an discovered he had just experienced an LSD trip, then that would not make his experience any less real to him. He still felt emotion, pain – everything he had experienced in reality. Perhaps it is a Westernised thing to try and distinguish between what’s ‘real’ and what’s ‘not’. Many cultures and religions practise astral travel and other out of body experiences and think nothing of it; it is all reality to them. In the end situations like the one in The Matrix appeal to us all on one level or another and we are persuaded by the idea because we want to be. I think perceptions of reality are all we will really have, because who lives in the moment – we are always thinking about what we are going to do next, tomorrow, next week, next month. We don’t live moment by moment therefore we ca possibly describe reality – I don’t think anyone knows what it is. There are just ideas about reality, nothing concrete or certain. We understand that we could wake up tomorrow and everything could be dramatically different.
Rene Descartes, Medititation 1(n.d.), accessed from School of Philosophy Unit Reader 2011, HPA 102, In search of the Truth: Mind Language, World.
The Matrix (2007),(DVD) Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc.
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