In the 1999 film The Matrix, Keanu Reeves plays a computer hacker named Neo who discovers that reality as we know it is only a computer simulation created by a machine race that uses human bodies for energy. People actually live in vats among the ruined cities of their dead civilization, while incorrectly believing themselves to be living ordinary human lives in the 1990s. A small band of rebels, led by a man named Morpheus, offer a select few such as Neo a choice – take the blue pill and go back to sleep, or take the red pill and find out what’s really going on. Neo takes the red pill and is schooled by Morpheus and a woman named Trinity in the nature of the Matrix and how to manipulate it with the mind in order to do battle against the machines.
The Matrix can be seen as a fantasy about Descartes’ hypothetical demon, the all-powerful creator of a false world. As Descartes pointed out, there is no way anyone can prove that our world is not merely an illusion created by such a demon and this raises serious doubts about the validity of all human knowledge. After all, what use is knowledge of a fake reality, created solely to deceive us? It can also be seen as a movie about Plato’s cave allegory, in which reality as it is perceived by most people is drastically distorted, with only an elite few seeing things as they really are. For that matter, it could be seen as a movie about Gnosticism, in which the world we live in is a false world created by a deluded God. In Gnostic Christianity, Christ’s mission is to free us from our false perceptions and lead us to true knowledge or gnosis. This is the mission Neo takes on after rising from the dead, making Neo a Gnostic Christ figure.
As interesting as these ideas may be, Neo’s attitude to reality seems strangely naïve to me. He begins his search for Morpheus because something doesn’t seem right – the world feels wrong, though he can’t put his finger on exactly why. All he knows is to look for Morpheus, subject of a rumor or an urban legend about a man who knows what’s behind the curtain. On one level, this itch to find out the “real truth” shows much more imagination and initiative than most of the prisoners of the Matrix ever show. Despite this fact, Neo is all too easily satisfied with the answers that Morpheus offers him. He refuses to accept what Morpheus is telling him at first, but only briefly. Morpheus makes a good point about definitions – how can you say that the world of the Matrix isn’t “real” when you have not yet defined your terms? – but doesn’t follow it up. His basic point is not that Neo’s definition of reality is unexamined, but that the Matrix is simply fake.
If the Matrix is fake, it follows that there is a Real World and that people need to be shown the truth. Neo accepts the falseness of the Matrix and the reality of the Real World because Morpheus shows him certain things – but perception is exactly the basis on which he previously accepted the Matrix as reality. If perception is inadequate for determining the reality of the Matrix, isn’t it equally inadequate for determining the reality of the Real World? Why should Neo assume that anything he has ever seen is “really real,” including the post-apocalyptic wasteland Morpheus tells him is the Real World? Conspiracy theorists seem to rely on a similar mix of skepticism and gullibility – they ask you to believe that whatever most people accept is actually false (which may well be the case) but that their particular bizarre theory is true (which is unlikely at best).
It never seems to occur to Neo that the whole thing could be a simulation, including Morpheus and his rebel band. It would be sensible of the machines to write a subroutine, in which troublesome prisoners could play out their messianic fantasies without causing any trouble in the main program. Or perhaps humans live in a computer simulation created by machines who also don’t realize they exist within a still larger simulation created by other entities of some kind. Reality could consist of layer upon layer of simulations, extending to infinity. Once you accept the premise that the world you previously thought was real is actually a simulation, which option seems more likely – that you have escaped the Matrix and are totally free, or that you are still trapped in another layer of the simulation?
Neo’s ability to blandly accept whatever he is shown may be the main thing holding him back from fulfilling his assigned role of Gnostic Christ. When he visits the Oracle, he meets a boy who can bend spoons with his mind. The boy tells him that the key to performing this little magic trick is to truly understand that there is no spoon. That requires a more profound mental shift, because the spoon-bender would have to perceive himself as the one real element in the equation – the real center of a false world.
This is similar to Descartes in one sense and virtually the opposite in another. Descartes was only using skepticism as a tool to establish the validity of realism. His “I think, therefore I am” is meant only as the first step in a chain of logic that would eventually affirm the real-ness of everything else in the familiar everyday world. The spoon-bender starts from the same place (he considers his own existence to be certain even if his perceptions of it may be false) but then refuses to affirm the reality of the world of perception. Instead he denies it – and resolves to bend it to his own will through his disbelief. After he dies or almost dies, Neo does the same. From that point on, his ability to shape the false reality of the Matrix is basically limitless. Neo’s miraculous power within the Matrix depends on his ability to disbelieve in it, while accepting his own reality without doubt or question. His approach is pragmatic, but arguably not very logical.
It is fortunate for Neo that he does not think too much about the implications of his experiences. The Agents can also re-shape the Matrix at will, just like he can. They have this power because they are nothing more than autonomous programs within the Matrix itself. Does Neo have any reason to assume he is human in the first place? Why would the machines ever have written the Matrix program in such a way that humans could re-write it at will simply by disbelieving in it? Couldn’t Neo just as easily be an autonomous program, perhaps a malfunctioning script? If Neo ever sat down to meditate on doubt like René Descartes, he might be forced to ask, “I think – but am I?”
The thread leading out of this labyrinth is supplied by Morpheus, although he doesn’t appear to follow it all the way to the end of the proverbial rabbit hole. Morpheus points out that Neo hasn’t defined what he means by “real” in the first place. As Morpheus says, everything you experience with any of your senses is ultimately an electrical signal in your own brain. Those signals are presumably interpreting some reality outside your brain, but you do not and cannot know anything definite about that reality. As Kant says, you experience only phenomena, not noumena.
Does this imply that Neo should become a solipsist, disbelieving in any reality outside the self? I don’t believe it does. The comments Morpheus makes in this conversation are similar to the ideas proposed by George Berkeley, who held that we have no logical basis for assuming the phenomena we perceive to be anything other than ideas in the mind. Despite this assertion, Berkeley did not argue for the unreality of our perceptions. Instead, he argued that the definition of reality ought to be based on direct perception – “to be is to be perceived”. This does not imply solipsism, because we consistently perceive people and other phenomena as being real. We may not be able to know everything about any given phenomenon by looking at it (it could, for example, be a computer program or the creation of a demon) but it’s still real even so.
If reality is defined by what we perceive, then what we perceive is real – even if it changes. Neo’s lack of skepticism about the massive changes in his perception of reality are defensible from this perspective – he just accepts whatever he sees, makes whatever mental adjustments are necessary, and keeps going. After his temporary death, Neo finally claims his agency as one of those who can freely shape his own perceptions, thus re-writing the matrix at will. The spoon-bender’s trick is not to merely believe that the spoon is unreal, but to perceive it as unreal. In the fantasy world of The Matrix, that shift is perception is enough to bend the spoon – or to fly off into the sky as a super-human being.
Image by Alessio Lin on Unsmash
The Matrix, directed by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski, Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999.
Philosophy as Meditative Doubt by Stephen Palmquist, in The Tree of Philosophy, August 21, 2007, http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/tp4/top03.html.
Philosophy as Rational Dialogue by Stephen Palmquist, in The Tree of Philosophy, August 21, 2007, http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/tp4/top02.html.
Gnosticism by Edward Moore, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/gnostic/.
Philosophy as Transcendental Critique by Stephen Palmquist, in The Tree of Philosophy, August 21, 2007, http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/tp4/top03.html.
George Berkeley (1685—1753) by Daniel E. Flage, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/berkeley/#H4.