Reality, the Matrix, and Rene Descartes

Get Real: What The Matrix and a Guy from the 17th Century Tell Us About Knowledge

By Adam Davis

The Matrix was released in March 1999 to international acclaim. In this thought-provoking action/drama, the world is not as it seems. Except for a small rebel faction, humans are housed within individually sealed vats, fed with nutrients, their body heat harvested for energy. Nefarious computers essentially control 'reality' and everything else. In their captivity, human brains are stimulated to make the person think they are walking, talking, eating, and so forth. The humans in the vats are completely unaware of this fact, and the computer-generated dream world in which their minds are captive is called the Matrix, begetting the film's title. The drama of the rebel faction against the computers continues throughout a very financially successful trilogy of films (don't worry, I won't spoil anything for you!).

But The Matrix is more than just an interesting way to kill two hours or to have fun with your kids trying to re-enact "bullet-time." In its theme and various plot twists, this movie brings to light one of the most central questions in modern philosophy: how do I know reality? Indeed, many people have wondered at one time or another how we can really know if we are a brain-in-a-vat, deceived by an evil genius, or existing in a computer-generated dream world. However, what most people do not know is that this question goes back to the early 17th century. The father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, also begat the "knowledge of reality" question. And, as we will quickly see, Descartes brought forth a very wicked child.

We must realize that the "knowledge of reality problem" is wholly modern. That is, it was not considered a problem until Descartes sired it and those following him nourished and raised it. You will not find Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Avicenna, or Thomas Aquinas, nor many other great thinkers over thousands of years, spending much time dealing with skepticism about reality. Yet, in his quest for a new philosophical foundation, Descartes threw off the influences of old in his zealous quest for indubitability.

Descartes began from a self-imposed position of hyperbolic doubt, and arrived at the rock bottom notion of his own thoughts. Since he could not doubt his thoughts, thinking detached from everything else became his new starting point. But Descartes quickly realized that this was a very difficult position from which to extricate himself, so he invoked a famously bad ontological argument for God. For Descartes, God not only offers to save man from sin, but also saves man from solipsism (solipsism is the view that only you/your thoughts exist).

Descartes essentially burned the entire philosophical house down and tried to build a new one. Two enduring aspects of this exercise are that Descartes doubted his senses (because they could deceive him) and postulated that an evil demon could be manipulating his thoughts. Since practically nobody thinks Descartes' argument for God works, or that even if it did work it would really help, the problem of advancing beyond thought/perceptual subjectivism remained. That is, given my own thoughts and/or subjective perceptions of the world, how can I be certain that I am not a brain-in-a-vat? How do I know that I am not just a thinking thing in the Matrix? Because I think my senses can be "wrong" about things, like sometimes I look at an oar in the water and it looks bent, then maybe they are deceiving me right now. How can I know the difference? It seems that we have no way to know for certain one way or the other. Thus, perhaps we are justified in being skeptical. We can see that Descartes not only burned down the house, but he and his followers could never rebuild it because they subsequently doubted the existence of the house they left in ashes. From here, it is not difficult to understand that the Matrix problem is really just a dressed-up version of Cartesian doubt with some Baudrillard sprinkled in.

Unfortunately for everyone subjected to Philosophy 101, but perhaps good for moviegoers, the modern project started by Descartes has been, more or less, accepted as gospel. And this is evident by just a cursory look at the field. Take the "mind-body problem," for instance. The literature dedicated to this issue is enormous, and seemingly profound questions are abundant. Are subjective perceptual experiences reducible to electrochemical brain states? How does an immaterial soul interact with a physical body? These questions are debated ad infinitum with no resolution in sight. And this is because no resolution is possible, to the mind-body and a host of other interrelated problems. The reason for this intractability is that the Cartesian project should have never gotten off the ground, its faulty premises should have never been accepted. To the extent that one accepts Descartes' starting point, one agrees to go down the proverbial rabbit hole.

The Cartesian project can only begin if we agree to throw our senses out the window. That is, only if we deny our senses can we have a starting point of thought and subjective perceptions. If we agree with this, then we just have our thoughts with no tether to anything in the external world whatsoever. But such a move is unnecessary and leads to absurdity. We do not even need to have a philosophical "starting point" because reality simply smacks us in the face.

It is plainly wrongheaded to think that our senses deceive us. What happens when I see a bent oar in the water is simply my eyesight delivering me an accurate connection to reality. We should note that our senses are not in the business of rendering judgment. It is the intellect that forms judgments about what sensation yields. And my intellect correctly judges that the oar looks bent. In which case the intellect judges truly by means of sensation. There is no deceit going on in this, or related situations. A heart doctor only knows what a bad heart sounds like because he has reference to a healthy heart. The only way to know if our senses are deceiving us would be to have reliable sense perception to some degree. But this is exactly what the Cartesian project seeks to deny.

Sensation is evident. I do not mean this in the way of a self-evident or analytically true proposition. What I mean is that sensation cannot be demonstrated because, it is, in principle, indemonstrable. Sensation is something that just is, it cannot be denied on pain of contradiction. This is not just a dogmatic assertion. Aristotle warns about those who seek demonstration of things that admit of none because they are simply evident to any sane person.
The Cartesian starting point from which brain-in-a-vat questions spring asks us to pretend we are insane. tweet
Knowing consists of three components: the knower, the object known, and the act of knowing. The Cartesian wants to begin by denying the first two. Of course, this is an impossible task. The Cartesian assumes a knower and object known and then asks for them to be demonstrated. What makes the Cartesian project even more futile is that evident rational principles like non-contradiction, law of excluded middle, and others are not subject to doubt or skepticism. Descartes himself famously did not subject these to his doubting. Contemporary skeptics also assume reliable reasoning faculties. But why should these not be doubted? It is because when these evident principles are doubted the skeptic finally saws through the tree branch they are sitting on. The jig is up.

I think a great option for a new Back to the Future installment would be to have the main characters go back in time and show Descartes the fruit his project would bear. They could show him that such hyperbolic doubt is artificial and harmful. They could show him that his project created infinitely more problems than it tried to solve. Descartes probably would recoil in horror at these revelations. But since Hollywood probably would not like a philosophical plot line, the only sensible thing we can do is refuse to accept the Cartesian project. We do not need to assume that man is just a thinking soulish substance in constant harmony with a separate physical substance. We do not need to assume that our knowledge of reality must start with the act of knowing without a knowing subject or object known. When we refuse to shake hands with Descartes, we can easily leave The Matrix on our movie screens and away from any legitimate discussions of reality.

Image Credit: Tobias_ET; untitled; Creative Commons
Image Credit: Frans Hals; "Portrait of Rene Descartes"; 1649; Public Domain

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Controversial-Issues  | God-Father  | Science-Creation

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Published 6-26-17