Philosophy, Science Fiction and The Matrix

A couple of weeks ago as part of the Glasgow Science Festival, I had the opportunity to give a philosophical introduction of an outdoor screening of the sci-fi film The Matrix at the University of Glasgow (pictured above). Immediately beforehand, I also gave this impromptu interview in which I talk more generally about philosophy, science fiction and The Matrix.

Unfortunately, due to some technical problems on the night — or was it a glitch in the Matrix? — not all of the audience was able to hear my introduction, so I’ve included the (slightly edited) text of my introduction below. In it, I discuss the problem of external world scepticism and Robert Nozick’s ‘experience machine’ thought-experiment, both of which relate to central themes of the film. Comments welcome.

Introduction to The Matrix

I'd like to invite you to reflect on two philosophical questions that are raised by the film The Matrix. The first is: can we be sure that we're not in the Matrix?

Brains in Vats

The 18th century philosopher René Descartes considered a very similar question to this when he realised that he could doubt almost everything he thought he knew. Descartes reasoned that if he were dreaming, or being deceived by a malicious demon, everything would appear to him exactly the way it normally did, and yet the world might be completely different to the way that things seemed. In fact, the only thing Descartes found that he couldn't doubt was his own existence, because in order to do that he had to think, and if he was thinking, then he must exist. He made this realisation at the foundation of his philosophy, famously summed up by the phrase “cogito ergo sum”: I think therefore I exist. Other philosophers, however, have doubted even that.1

We know from our own experience that our senses — sight, hearing, smell, and so on — are unreliable, since we can be easily fooled by illusions, dreams, hallucinations, and the like. However, what if not just some, but all of your experiences were illusory? It seems at least plausible that such experiences could be created artificially by stimulating someone’s brain — with electrodes, for example. Those electrodes could be wired to a supercomputer which could be programmed to generate the exact patterns of electrical impulses that are normally produced by our sense organs and nervous system. It would seem to the unfortunate person whose brain was wired up in this way that she was experiencing everything normally, and yet all of her experiences would be nothing more than an illusion generated by the computer program, and not a reflection of the real world at all. Now imagine that the brain could be kept alive artificially outside of its body in a vat of nutrients, and you have what modern day philosophers like to call a ‘brain-in-a-vat’.

The Problem of Scepticism

This is just one example of a kind of scepticism—scepticism about the external world—but you can imagine others. Scepticism about other minds: perhaps everyone around you is not a thinking, living being like yourself, but a cleverly disguised robot that just looks like a human being. Scepticism about the past: perhaps the entire universe came into existence just five minutes ago, complete with traces and your memories of a past that never actually happened. Conspiracy theories work in much the same way, since any evidence you might have against the existence of the conspiracy might be misinformation created by the conspirators to throw you off the trail!

As Descartes realised, in each of these cases the problem is that any evidence you might take yourself to have that everything is as it appears to be is equally compatible with your being in the sceptical scenario. In the brain-in-a-vat case, for example, any experience that you can imagine to try and test whether or not you are a brain-in-a-vat could itself be an illusion generated by the computer program. Even worse, if the brain can't rule out the possibility that she’s really a brain-in-a-vat, and not in the real world, then you might wonder whether she can claim to know anything at all—except perhaps, like Descartes, that she exists.2 Note, however, that you could have evidence that you are a brain in a vat—something the filmmakers cleverly work into the plot of The Matrix.

At this point, you might be thinking that this kind of scenario seems sufficiently remote or unlikely that it’s of interest only to philosophers and sci-fi fans, and doesn’t threaten our knowledge of the world. But of course that’s exactly what the brain-in-a-vat would say, and yet all of her beliefs about the world are false! It seems only a matter of luck that we’re not in her predicament — if indeed that’s the case — and since we can't rule out being in a vat-world, you might then wonder whether we can claim to know anything at all. If that’s right, then it looks like we can’t be certain that we’re not brains-in-a-vat, or in the Matrix. Indeed, some scientists take seriously the possibility that the entire cosmos and everything in it, including us, could be part of a sophisticated computer simulation, and in the final part of the Matrix trilogy, the filmmakers hint that even the reality outside of the Matrix isn’t what it appears.

Nozick’s Experience Machine

The second question I want to invite you to consider is: given the choice, would you take the blue pill and live in the simulated world of the Matrix, or take the red pill and live in the real world?

Consider the following scenario. Imagine that, like some of the characters in the film, you’re given a choice of whether to live out the rest of your days in a simulated reality where you experience only good things and have a wonderful life. Alternatively, you could live your life in the real world with all of its flaws and imperfections, and no guarantee of happiness. Which would you choose? To make things easier, let's imagine that immediately after you made your choice, any traces of the decision would be wiped from your memory, so from that point on you would be completely unaware of whether you are living in a simulation or reality.

This scenario, or ‘thought experiment’, was posed by the philosopher Robert Nozick who argued that, while it might be fun to live in a simulated reality or ‘experience machine’ for a while, especially one that was programmed specifically to make you happy, given the choice most of us would prefer to take our chances in the real world. Why is that? Perhaps it demonstrates that we don’t care only about our own happiness, but it's important to us to live an authentic life in which we can genuinely engage with other people and make a difference to the world around us, even if it that means that we experience suffering. Or perhaps, without the ups and downs of life in the real world, we fear that happiness and pleasure would lose their meaning. In any case, it seems to matter to us whether or not we’re in the Matrix, even if we can’t be sure that we’re not.3

If you'd like to find out more about perception, illusions and the value of suffering, you can do so on the Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience’s website, or come to one of our talks at the Glasgow Science Festival. In the meantime, sit back, relax, and enjoy the film… and if you have the strange feeling that all of this has happened before, then watch out, you might just be in the Matrix!


1 The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, for example, held that the self had no persisting substance, and consisted merely of a bundle of properties.

2 One potential solution that has been advanced to this problem is that concepts can only relate to the things that causes us to form them. The concepts of ‘brains’ and ‘vats’ therefore refer to the things that we experience in our current world. Now, if we were brains in vats, then our concepts would refer not to the grey squishy matter we had in our heads, but those electrical signals that are generated by the computer program that gave us the illusion of brains and vats in our simulated reality. Since we’re definitely not one of those, then it’s false by definition that we are brains in vats, even if we’re unlucky enough to inhabit a vat-world! Indeed, according to the Hilary Putnam, who advanced a version of this theory known by philosophers as semantic externalism, we lack the concepts to even express the question ‘Am I a brain in a vat’ in a way that it could possibly be true, since in the worst case our concepts would refer to the electrical impulses generated by the computer program, and not to brains or vats in the ‘real’ world, to which we have no access. However, his solution is hardly a reassuring one.

3 Note that absolute certainty might not be required for knowledge, in which case we might be able to know that we’re not in the Matrix despite being unable to prove it. However, even in this case it looks like we still can’t be certain about whether we have knowledge or mere belief, since we might merely think that we know and yet be mistaken.

Post date: 03-Jul-2015 14:04:22