by Christopher Grau
The Matrix1 raises many familiar philosophical problems in such fascinating new ways that, in a surprising reversal, students all over the country are assigning it to their philosophy professors. Having done our homework, we'd like to explore two questions raised in Christopher Grau's three essays on the film. Grau points out that The Matrix dramatizesRen‚ Descartes' worry that, since all we ever experience is our own inner mental states, we might, for all we could tell, be living in an illusion created by a malicious demon. In that case most of our beliefs about reality would be false. That leads Grau to question the rationality of Cypher's choice to live in an illusory world of pleasant private experiences, rather than facing painful reality.We think that The Matrix 's account of our situation is even more disturbing than these options suggest. The Matrix is a vivid illustration of Descartes' additional mind blowing claim that we could never be in direct touch with the real world (if there is one) because we are, in fact, all brains in vats. So in choosing to return from the "real world" to the Matrix world, Cypher is just choosingbetween two systematic sets of appearances. To counter these disturbing ideas we have to rethink what we mean by experience, illusion, and our contact with the real world. Only then will we be in a position to take up Grau's question as to why we feel it is somehow morally better to face the truth than to live in an illusory world that makes us feel good.
B. Brain-in-a-Vat Skepticism
Before breaking out of the Matrix, Neo's life was not what he thought it was. It was a lie. Morpheus described it as a "dreamworld," but unlike a dream, this world was not the creation of Neo's mind. The truth is more sinister: the world was a creation of the artificially intelligent computers that have taken over the Earth and have subjugated mankind in the process. These creatureshave fed Neo a simulation that he couldn't possibly help but take as the real thing. What's worse, it isn't clear how any of us can know with certainty that we are not in a position similar to Neo before his "rebirth." Our ordinary confidence in our ability to reason and our natural tendency to trust the deliverances of our senses can both come to seem rather naive once we confront this possibilityof deception.
The philosopher Rene Descartes suggested a similar worry: the frightening possibility that all of one's experiences might be the result of a powerful outside force, a "malicious demon."
Many contemporary philosophers have discussed a similar skeptical dilemma that is a bit closer to the scenario described in The Matrix. It has come to be known as the "brain in a vat" hypothesis,and one powerful formulation of the idea is presented by the philosopher Jonathan Dancy:
If you cannot know whether you are in the real world or in the word of a computer simulation, you cannot be sure that your beliefs about the world are true. And, what was even more frightening to Descartes, in this kind of scenario it seems that your ability to reason is no safer than the deliverances of thesenses: the evil demon or malicious scientist could be ensuring that your reasoning is just as flawed as your perceptions.
Descartes' own way out of his evil demon skepticism was to first argue that one cannot genuinely doubt the existence of oneself. Thus Descartes' most famous line: "I think, therefore I am.")
While Descartes' argument for the existence of the self has been tremendouslyinfluential and is still actively debated, few philosophers have followed him in accepting his particular theistic solution to skepticism about the external world.
One of the more interesting contemporary challenges to this kind of skeptical scenario has come from the philosopher Hilary Putnam. His point is not so much to defend our ordinary claims to knowledge as to question whether the "brain in a...