What's so bad about living in the Matrix by James Prior
There's a natural, simple thought that the movie The Matrix encourages. This is that there's something bad about being inside the Matrix. That is, there's an important respect in which people inside the Matrix are worse off than people outside it. Of course, most people inside the Matrix are ignorant of the fact that they're in this bad situation. They falsely believe they're in the good situation. Despite that, they are still worse off than people who really are in the good situation.
I said this is a natural, simple thought. When we look more closely, though, this natural, simple thought starts to get very complicated and unclear. Many questions arise.
First question: Who is the Matrix supposed to be bad for? Is life inside the Matrix only bad for people like Trinity and Neo who have experienced life outside? Or is it also bad for all the ordinary Joes who've never been outside, and have no clue that their present lives are rife with illusion? The movie does seem to suggest that there's something bad about life in the Matrix even for these ordinary Joes. It may be difficult to face up to the grim realities outside the Matrix, but the movie does present this as a choice worth making. It encourages the viewer to sympathize with Neo's choice to take the red pill. The character Cypher who chooses to reinsert himself into the Matrix is not portrayed very sympathetically. And at the end of the movie, Neo seems to be embarking on a crusade to free more people from the Matrix.
What do you think? If you had the power to free people from the Matrix, would you use that power? We can assume that these people's minds are "ready," that is, they can survive being extracted from the Matrix without going insane. But let's suppose that once you freed them, they did not have the option of going back. Do you think they'd be better off outside? Would you free them? Do you think they'd thank you?
Or do you side with Cypher? Do you think that life inside the Matrix isn't all that bad-especially if your enjoyment of it isn't spoiled by the knowledge that it's all a machine-managed construct?
Second question: Does it matter who's running the Matrix, and why? In the movie, the machines are using the Matrix to keep us docile so that they can use us as a source of energy. In effect, we're their cattle. But what if we weren't at war with the machines? What if the machines' purposes were purely benevolent and philanthropic? What if they created the Matrix because they thought that our lives would be more pleasant in that virtual world than in the harsher real world? (Iakovos Vasiliou discusses a scenario like this in his essay.) Or what if we defeated the machines, took over the Matrix machinery ourselves, and then chose to plug ourselves back in because life inside was more fun? Would these differences make a difference to whether you regard life inside the Matrix as bad? Or to how bad you regard it?
In his third essay, Christopher Grau discusses Robert Nozick's "experience machine." Nozick thinks that there are things we value in life that we'd be losing out on if we plugged into an experience machine. He thinks there are things we lose out on even if the operators' intentions are benevolent and we plug in of our own free choice. Do you think that's right? Would you say the same thing about the Matrix?
Our answers to these questions will be useful guides as we try to determine what it is about the movie's version of the Matrix that makes us squeamish.
In order to figure out what's so bad about being in the Matrix, it will help to do some conceptual ground-clearing.
When they think about scenarios like the Matrix, some people have the thought:
If in every respect it seems to you that you're in the good situation, doesn't that make it true-at least, true for you-that you are in the good situation?
This line of thought is never fully endorsed in the movie, but the characters do sometimes flirt with it. Consider the conversation Neo and Morpheus have in the Construct:
Neo: This isn't real...
Morpheus: What is "real"? How do you define "real"? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then "real" is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain...
Consider Cypher's final conversation with Trinity:
Cypher: ...If I had to choose between that and the Matrix...I choose the Matrix.
Trinity: The Matrix isn't real.
Cypher: I disagree, Trinity. I think the Matrix can be more real than this world...
Are the claims that Morpheus and Cypher are making here right? Is the world that Trinity and Cypher experience and seem to interact with when they're inside the Matrix just as real (or more real?) than the world outside?
The standard view is "no," the Matrix world is in some important sense less real. As Morpheus goes on to say, the Matrix is "a dream world." The characters are just experiencing a "neural interactive simulation" of eating steak, jumping between buildings, dodging bullets, and so on. As Neo says when he's on the way to visit the Oracle, "I have these memories from my life. None of them happened." In fact, he never has eaten steak, and never will. It just seems to him that he has.
And presumably that's how things would be even if no one ever discovered that it was so; even if no one ever figured out that the Matrix was just a "dream world."
Philosophers would express this standard view by saying that facts like:
Some people get uneasy with this talk about "objective facts." They say:
Well, what's true for me might be different than what's true for you. When I'm in the Matrix it really is true for me that I'm eating steak and so on. That might not be true for you, but it is true for me.
Let's try to figure out what this means.
Some of the time, people use expressions like "true for me" in a way that doesn't conflict with the view that the facts in question are objective.
For instance, all that some people mean by saying that something is "true for them" is that they believe it to be true. When you're in the Matrix you do believe that you're eating steak; so in this sense it will be "true for you" that you're eating steak. And what you believe to be true will often be different from what I believe to be true; so in this sense something could be "true for you" but "false for me." When a philosopher says that it's an objective fact whether or not you've ever eaten steak, she's not disputing any of this. She accepts that you and I may disagree about whether you've ever eaten steak. She's not even claiming to know who's right. She may be ignorant or mistaken about your past dietary habits, and she knows this. You may have better evidence than she, and she knows this too. All she's claiming is that there is a fact of the matter about whether you've eaten steak-regardless of whether you or she or anybody else knows what that fact is, or has any beliefs about it. And this fact is an objective one. If it happens to be true that you've eaten steak, then it's true, period. It's not "true for you" but "false for me." What you and I believe, and who's got better evidence for their belief, are further separate questions.
Usually when two people disagree about some matter, they agree that the fact they're disputing is an objective one. They agree that one of them is right and the other wrong. They just disagree about who. For some matters, like ethical and artistic matters, this is less clear. It is philosophically controversial whether ethical and artistic truths are objective, and whether the same truths hold for everyone. But for our present discussion, we can set those controversies aside, and just concentrate on more prosaic and mundane matters, like whether you've ever eaten steak, whether your eyes have ever been open, and so on. For matters of this sort, we'd expect there to be only one single common truth, not one truth for you and a different truth for me.
Now, sometimes we speak incompletely. For example, we'll say that a kitchen gadget is useful, when we really mean that it's useful for certain purposes. It may be useful for cutting hard-boiled eggs but useless for cutting tomatoes or cheese. We'll say that the cut of certain suits makes them fit better, when we really mean that it makes them fit certain people better. It doesn't make them fit people with unusual body shapes better. And so on. In cases like this, if one way of completing the claim is natural when we're talking about you, and another way when we're talking about me, then we might be tempted to talk of the claim's being "true for you" but "false for me." For instance, suppose you're cutting eggs for a salad and I'm cutting the tomatoes. We're each using the same kitchen gadget, you with good results and me with frustrating results. If you say "This kitchen gadget is useful," I might respond "That may be true for you, but it's not true for me." There's no conflict here with the view that facts about usefulness are objective. Really there are several facts here:
So the ways of talking about things being "true for me" etc. that we've considered so far don't conflict with the view that the facts we're dealing with are objective.
People who dislike objective facts want to say something stronger. They want to say it really is true for the characters inside the Matrix that they've eaten steak. They're not just making a claim about what those characters think is true. When those characters think to themselves, "I've eaten steak hundreds of times, and so has my friend Neo," what they're thinking really is supposed to be true. At least for them. For Neo and Trinity and others it may not be true.
One way to flesh this idea out is with a philosophical theory called verificationism. (Sometimes this theory is called anti-realism.) If you're a verificationist about certain kinds of fact, then you reject the idea that those facts are objective. For example, a verificationist about height would say that how tall you are depends on what evidence there is about how tall you are. It's impossible for all the evidence to point one way, but the facts about your height to be otherwise. The facts have to be constrained by the evidence. Sure, the verificationist will say, people sometimes make mistakes about their height. They sometimes have false beliefs. But those mistakes have to be in principle discoverable and correctable. It doesn't make sense to talk about a situation where everybody is permanently and irremediably mistaken about your height, where the "real facts" are so well-concealed that no one will be able to ferret them out. If the "real facts" are so well-concealed, says the verificationist, then they cease being facts at all. The only height you can have is a height that it's in principle discoverable or verifiable that you have. (Hence the name "verificationism.")
When we're discussing the Matrix and examples like it in my undergraduate classes, and students start talking about things being "true for" them, but "false for" other people, they're usually trying to sign onto some kind of verificationism. They'll say things like this:
If all my evidence says that there is a tall mountain there, then in my personal picture of the world there is a tall mountain there. That's all it can mean, for me, to say that there's a tall mountain there. The mountain really is there, for me, so long as it appears real, and fits my conception of a tall mountain.
I'm always surprised to hear students voicing approval for this view. It's a pretty strange conception of reality. Some philosophers do defend the view. But I'd be really surprised if 30% of my university students really did think this is the way the world is. As a group, they don't usually tend to hold strange conceptions of reality; I don't find 30% of them believing in astrology or body-snatching aliens, for instance.
Mount Everest is 8,850 meters tall. Most of us think that Mt. Everest had this height well before there were any human beings, and that it would still have this height even if no human beings or other thinking subjects had ever existed. But it's not clear that a verificationist is entitled to say things like that. If there had never been any thinking subjects, then there wouldn't have been anybody who could have had evidence that Mt. Everest existed. So according to the verificationist, then, there wouldn't have been anybody for whom it was true that Mt. Everest is 8,850 m tall. It looks like the verificationist has to deny that Mt. Everest would still have been 8,850 m tall, even in situations where no thinking subjects had ever existed. This is what makes verificationism such a strange view.
Perhaps the verificationist will respond: Granted, in the situation we're envisaging, nobody actually has evidence that Mt. Everest is 8850 m tall. But the evidence is still available. (Mt. Everest will cast shadows of certain lengths at certain times of the day, and so on.) And if people had existed, they could have gathered and used that evidence. Maybe that's enough to make it true that Mt. Everest is still 8,850 m tall in the situation we're envisaging.
Things get tricky here. For instance, it's not clear that the verificationist is entitled to say that Mt. Everest would still cast those shadows, even if no observers had existed. But rather than pursuing these tricky details, let's instead think about examples where the relevant evidence isn't even available.
The usual varieties of verificationism say that for there to be a 8,850 m tall mountain, it has to be publicly verifiable that the mountain exists and is 8,850 m tall. That is, there has to be evidence that somebody somewhere could acquire that demonstrates that it is 8,850 m tall. A different version of the view would focus instead on what I myself am able to verify. This view might say that it's "true for me" that the mountain is 8,850 m tall only if I could verify that it's 8,850 m tall. It'd be "true for you" that it's 8,850 m tall only if you could verify that it's 8,850 m tall. And so on. We can call this second version of the view "personal verificationism," since it says that what's true-well, true for me-always depends on what I myself would be able to verify. If there's some fact that will forever be concealed from me, then it's not really a fact; at least, not a fact "for me." It may be a fact for other people, but that's a separate issue.
When professional philosophers discuss verificationism, they usually have the public version in mind. And the two versions do share many of the same features-and problems. However, I'm just going to talk about the personal version of the view. I think that people who aren't professional philosophers, like the students in my undergraduate classes, usually find the personal version more natural and attractive.
What does it mean to say that certain evidence is "available" or "unavailable"? One way of drawing this line would make it turn on whether you can obtain the evidence through your own active efforts: e.g., are there tests you can run that would give you the evidence you need? Or you might have a more liberal conception of what it is for evidence to be "available." On this more liberal conception, evidence will count as "available" even if it could just happen to fall into your lap, by chance. It doesn't have to be in your power to make the evidence appear.
Let's think about someone for whom evidence is unavailable even on this more liberal conception of "available." Suppose there's a character in The Matrix that it's impossible for Morpheus to "waken." Maybe this character believes in the "dream world" too strongly, and would just go insane and die if the "dream" ever started to unravel. Let's call this character Jeremy. According to the standard view, Jeremy has many false beliefs about his surroundings. He believes that he goes to work everyday on the 40th floor of an office building, that the sun streams into his office most mornings, that he often eats steak for dinner, and so on. All of these beliefs are false. In fact, there are no office buildings anymore; Jeremy has never seen the sun; he's never eaten steak; and he's spent his entire life in a small pod. But these are facts that Jeremy will never know. What's more, he's incapable of knowing them. If Morpheus told Jeremy the truth, Jeremy wouldn't believe him; and if Morpheus tried to show Jeremy the truth, Jeremy would go insane and die. So there are many truths about Jeremy's life that Jeremy will never be able to know.
That's what the standard view says. According to the verificationist, though, if it's impossible for Jeremy to know something, then that thing can't really be a "truth" about Jeremy's life. At least, it won't be a truth for Jeremy. What's true for Jeremy is that he really does work on the 40th floor of an office building, and so on. And this doesn't just mean that Jeremy thinks he works on the 40th floor etc. It means it really is a fact-a fact for Jeremy-that he works on the 40th floor of an office building. It may not be true for Morpheus that Jeremy works on the 40th floor of an office building, but it is true for Jeremy.
What do you think? Does that sound plausible to you?
Let's think about the comings and goings of people in the past. According to the standard view, on a given evening in the past, these people will either have been at a party in New York, or they won't have been there. Suppose they were there. But today only a little bit of evidence remains that they were there. Suppose you have it in your power to destroy that evidence, and manufacture evidence that they were elsewhere. Would you then have it in your power to change the past? That is what the character O'Brien in George Orwell's novel 1984 thinks:
An oblong slip of newspaper had appeared between O'Brien's fingers. For perhaps five seconds it was within the angle of Winston's vision... It was another copy of the photograph of Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford at the party function in New York, which he had chanced upon eleven years ago and promptly destroyed. For only an instant it was before his eyes, then it was out of sight again...
"It exists!" he cried.
"No," said O'Brien.
He stepped across the room. There was a memory hole in the opposite wall. O'Brien lifted the grating. Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air; it was vanishing in a flash of flame. O'Brien turned away from the wall.
"Ashes," he said. "Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed."
"But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it."...
O'Brien was looking down at him speculatively. More than ever he had the air of a teacher taking pains with a wayward but promising child.
"There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past," he said. "Repeat it, if you please."
"'Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,'" repeated Winston obediently.
"'Who controls the present controls the past,'" said O'Brien, nodding his head with slow approval. "Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence?... Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening?"
"Then where does the past exist, if at all?"
"In records. It is written down."
"In records. And-?"
"In the mind. In human memories."
"In memory. Very well, then. We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not?"
Now, presumably O'Brien knows he's tampered with the evidence. So perhaps he can't change what's true for him about the past. But on the verificationist view, it does seem like he'd be able to change the past for other people.
What do you think? Does that sound plausible? Winston eventually comes to accept this view of reality. But to the reader it's supposed to sound like a lie.
What if the machines in The Matrix said to Neo and Morpheus, "Hey, why do you keep harping about this war between humans and machines? It never happened. At least, for all these people in their pods we're making it true that it never happened. Once we've removed every shred of evidence, and made it impossible for them to verify that there was a war between humans and machines, then we really will have changed the past for those people. They won't be deceived. Their past really will have happened the way it seems to them." Does that sound convincing? Or does it too sound like a lie?
What about facts for which there's simply no evidence either way? Morpheus says they don't know who struck first in the war between humans and machines. Maybe it's not important. And maybe the machines don't know either. Maybe all the evidence is lost. But presumably one of us did strike first. Presumably there is a fact about this, even if there's no evidence remaining. The verificationist has to deny this.
I hope all of this will make verificationism sound somewhat implausible to you. They aren't meant to be conclusive considerations. Philosophical discussions of verificationism get very complicated. The verificationist has to overcome many technical difficulties: e.g., how to draw the line between evidence that's available and evidence that's not. How to explain when evidence enables us to verify a hypothesis and when it doesn't. Whether verificationism itself is something we can verify. We can't go into these issues. If you're still inclined towards verificationism, I hope you'll at least grant that the view does go against our common-sense conception of reality, and that as a result it requires careful supporting argument. If you're going to hold the view in good intellectual conscience, there are a lot of difficulties and objections that need to be overcome.
I propose we set verificationism aside at this point; and see whether doing so helps us get any closer to determining what it is about the Matrix that makes it seem bad.
So now we'll say it is an objective fact whether you work on the 40th floor of an office building. We'll grant that it can seem to you in every respect that you're in "the good" situation (outside the Matrix), without it's thereby being true that you're in that situation.
OK. But this doesn't yet tell us why being inside the Matrix should be bad. Why is it important to really be in the situation we're calling "good"? Why isn't it good enough for us that we seem to be in the "good" situation? Isn't the experience or illusion of being in the good situation already pretty good? Why should it make our lives any better to really be there? (Especially if, as in the movie, the way the real "good" situation is is much less pleasant than the way things seem to be in the so-called "bad" situation.)
As Cypher says:
You know, I know that this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?... Ignorance is bliss.
Would it really make Cypher's life any better if he were really eating steak? Is it really eating steak that we value, or just the experience of eating steak? Wouldn't most people be satisfied with the experience-especially if it's indistinguishable from the real activity? Recall our friend Jeremy who spends his whole life inside the Matrix. How much is he missing out on, just because he never really gets to eat a steak? We're granting that there are truths about Jeremy's life that he'll never be able to know. But it's not obvious yet that any of them are truths he cares about. Perhaps the only things that Jeremy, and most of us, really care about are what kinds of experiences we're going to have, now and in the future. As Cypher recognizes, people who are stuck in the Matrix can still do pretty well by that score.
As we saw before, Nozick thinks that most of us wouldn't choose to spend the rest of our lives plugged into an "experience machine." He thinks there are things we value in life over and above what experiences we have. For instance, we value doing certain things, and not merely having the illusion or experience of doing them.
I agree with Nozick. For some matters, I think we genuinely do care about more than just what experiences we end up having. It would be implausible to claim this is always so. With regard to eating steak, the experience probably is all that we really value. But I think we feel differently about other matters. I'm going to try to persuade you that this is so, too.
Notice that what we're talking about here is the question: What do we actually value? Not the question: What should we value? Some readers may be willing to concede that we should care about more than our own experiences. (It's so selfish!) But it may appear that, as a matter of fact, our own experiences are all we really do care about-at least most of us. I'm going to argue that this isn't so. Most of us do in fact care about more than just what experiences we end up having.
There's a widely-held picture of human motivation that makes it difficult to see this. That picture goes like this. Ultimately, it says, everyone always acts for selfish motives. Whenever we do something on purpose, it's our own purpose that we're trying to achieve. We're always pursuing our own ends, and trying to satisfy our own desires. All that any of us are really after in life is getting more pleasant experiences for himself, and avoiding painful ones. Sometimes it may seem that we're doing things for other people's sake. For instance, we give money to charity, we buy presents for our children, we make sacrifices to please our spouses. But if you look closer, you'll see that even in cases like these, we're still always acting for selfish motives. We only do such things because it makes us feel good and noble to do them, and we like feeling noble. Or we do them because when people we care about are happy, that makes us happy too, and ultimately what we're after is that happiness for ourselves. Hence, since the only aim we have in life is just to have pleasant experiences, Nozick's experience machine gives us everything we want, and it would be foolish not to plug into it.
Now, I grant that some people may be as selfish as this picture says. But I doubt that many people are. The picture rests on two confusions, and once we clear those confusions up, I think there's no longer reason to believe that the only thing that any of us ever aims for in life is to have pleasant experiences.
The first confusion is to equate "pursuing our own ends, and trying to satisfy our own desires" with "acting for a selfish motive." To call a motive or aim "selfish" isn't just to say that it's a motive or aim that I have. It says more than that. It says something about the kind of motive it is. If my motive is to make me better off, then my motive is a selfish one. If my motive is to make you better off, then my motive is not selfish. From the mere fact that I'm pursuing one of my motives, it doesn't follow that my motive is of the first sort, rather than the second.
Ah, you'll say, but if my aim is to make you better off, then when I achieve that aim, I'll feel good. And this good feeling is really what I'll have been trying to obtain all along.
This is the second confusion. It's true that often when we get what we want (though sadly not always), we feel good. It's easy to make the mistake of thinking that what we really wanted was that good feeling. But let's think about this a bit harder. Why should making someone else better off give me a good feeling? And how do I know that it will have that effect?
Consider two stories. In story A, you go to visit the Oracle, and in her waiting room you see a boy bending spoons and a girl levitating blocks. You feel this inexplicable and unpleasant itch. Someone suggests as a hypothesis that the itch would go away if you gave the girl a spoon too. So you do so, and your itch goes away.
In story B, you walk into the same room, and you don't like the fact that the girl has no spoon. You would like her to have a spoon too. So you take a spoon and give it to the girl, and you feel pleased with the result.
In story A, your aim was to make yourself feel better, and giving the spoon to the girl was just a means to that end. It took experience and guesswork to figure out what would make you feel better in that way. In story B, on the other hand, no guesswork or experience seemed to be necessary. Here you were in a position to straightforwardly predict what would bring you pleasure. You could predict that because you had an aim other than making yourself feel better, you knew what that aim was, and usually you feel pleased when you get what you want. Your aim was to give a spoon to the girl. Your feeling of pleasure was a consequence or side-effect of achieving that aim. The pleasure is not what you were primarily aiming at; rather, it came about because you achieved what you were primarily aiming at. Don't mistake what you're aiming at with what happens as a result of your getting what you're aiming at.
Most often, when we do things to make other people better off, we're in a situation like the one in story B. Our pleasure isn't some unexplained effect of our actions, and what we're primarily trying to achieve. Our pleasure comes about because we got what we were primarily trying to achieve; and this makes it understandable why it should come about when it does.
Once we're straight about this, I think there's no argument left that the only thing anyone ever aims for in life is to have pleasant experiences. Some people do aim for that, some of the time. But many cases of giving to charity, making sacrifices for one's spouse, and so on, are not done for the pleasure they bring to oneself. There's something else that one is after, and pleasure is just a pleasant side-effect that sometimes comes along with getting the other things one is after.
Nozick said that most of us do value more than our own experiences, that there are things that we value that we'd miss out on if we plugged into the Matrix. I think Nozick is right. He's right about me, and he's probably right about you, too. We can easily find out. I've devised a little thought-experiment as a test.
Suppose I demonstrate to you that your friends and I are very good at keeping secrets. For instance, one day when Trinity isn't around, we all make lots of fun of her. We read her journal out loud and laugh really hard. We do ridiculous impersonations of her. And so on. It's hilarious. But of course we only do this behind Trinity's back. When she shows up, nobody giggles or snickers or anything like that. You're completely confident that we'll be able to keep our ridicule a secret from Trinity. She'll never know about it.
Suppose I also demonstrate to you that I am a powerful hypnotist. I can make people forget things, and once forgotten they never remember them. You're convinced that I have this power.
Now that you know all of that, I offer you a choice. Option 1 is I deposit $10 in your bank account, but then your friends and I will make fun of you behind your back, the way we made fun of Trinity. If you choose this option, then I will immediately use my hypnotic powers to make you forget about making the choice, being teased, and all that. From your point of view, it will seem that the bank made an error and now you have $10 more in your account than you had before. So in terms of what experiences you will have, this option has no downside. You won't even have to suffer from the expectation of being secretly teased, because I'll make you forget the whole arrangement as soon as you make your choice.
Option 2 is we keep things as they are. I pay you nothing, and your friends are no more or less likely to make fun of you behind your back than they were before.
So which would you choose?
When I offer my students this choice, I find that at least 95% of them choose Option 2. They think that the teasing would be a bad thing, even though they'd never know it was going on.
If the teasing doesn't seem so bad, then change the example. Say that in Option 1, your lover is cheating on you, but you never know about it. Or say that we're torturing your mother, but you never know about it. In every version, your experiences are smooth and untroubled, plus you get a little extra money. Which option would you choose?
If you find Option 2 more attractive, then that's support for Nozick's claim. The experience machine wouldn't give you everything you value. Option 1 gives you no experiences of being teased. It gives you no evidence that your lover is cheating on you, or that your mother is being tortured. But you don't just want to have experiences of things going well for yourself and your mother. You value really not being teased, really having a faithful lover, and really having an untortured mother.
Now, we do have to compare what we'd get by plugging into the experience machine to what we'd get if we don't plug in. I've only been arguing that we'd miss out on some things we'd value if we plugged in. I haven't said that it would never be reasonable to plug in. In some cases, the good of being plugged in could outweigh the bad. If the real world is miserable and nasty enough, it may make sense to plug in. Perhaps for Cypher, the real world is too nasty. All I'm saying is that plugging in won't give us everything we want. Our experiences aren't all that we value. So there is some bad to plugging in. There may also be some good to plugging in. Dreams and immersive role-playing do give us some of the things we value in life. I'm just saying they don't give us everything. Some aspects of how the world really is are important to us.
I haven't been able to say yet how important, though. It's hard to know what the right balance point is. How bad does the real world have to be, before it makes sense to make Cypher's choice, and plug back into the blissful experience machine? This is a hard question. In part, it will depend on whether the Matrix or the experience machine involve any hidden costs. And this is something we haven't yet settled.
Before we can determine what are the major costs of living inside the Matrix, we have to confront one last complication.
We said that for most people inside the Matrix, the experience of eating steak may be enough. We said they probably don't care about whether they've ever really eaten steak. Let's pause over this for a moment. What do these characters mean by "eating steak"?
Suppose you grew up with a friend you called "Jiro." You didn't realize it, but that isn't really your friend's name, at least not the name his parents gave him. His name is really "Takeshi." "Jiro" is his uncle's name. But you got the names mixed up when you were little, and no one bothered to correct you. So all your life you've been saying "Jiro" to talk about Takeshi. Isn't it plausible then that in your mouth, "Jiro" now means Takeshi?
Similarly, Jeremy has grown up inside the Matrix program, and on various occasions he's interacted in certain ways with other parts of the Matrix program, ways he described as "eating steak." Now perhaps all he means by "eating steak" is just interacting in those certain way with the Matrix. He's done that many times. So perhaps he really has managed to eat steak on many occasions. At least, he's managed to do what he calls "eating steak." It's not clear that there's anything more that Jeremy would like to be doing, but isn't. Is there?
The philosophical issues here are fascinating, but they get complicated really fast. I myself think that for some of Jeremy's concepts, the story we just sketched may be right.
Interestingly, this doesn't seem to be the movie's own attitude. Recall what Cypher says:
You know, I know that this steak doesn't exist.
And when Morpheus and Neo are fighting in the sparring program, Morpheus asks:
Do you think that's air you're breathing?
Cypher and Morpheus are both rejecting the view that the Matrix simulations really provide what they mean by "steak" and "air." That is, they're rejecting the view that all they mean by "steak" and "air" is interacting in certain ways with the Matrix program.
As I said, the philosophical issues here can get really complicated. One way to avoid these difficulties is to concentrate on what would be bad about living in the Matrix for the first generation of Matrix inductees: people who grew up outside the Matrix, and have just been freshly plugged in. Presumably what they mean by "eating steak" has to do with cow flesh, not with patterns in the Matrix simulation. Presumably what they mean by "air" is made up of nitrogen and oxygen, not 1s and 0s.
I want to try a different strategy. We can suppose we're talking about people who have spent all their lives so far inside the Matrix. I want to try to find something we value that goes beyond what experiences we're having, and where we can agree that the people inside the Matrix really would value that same thing. They wouldn't just value having some Matrix substitute. And yet this will be something that people inside the Matrix don't have. They only seem to have it.
If we can find something like that, then we'll have found something that really does deserve the name of "what's bad about living in the Matrix."
I can think of three possibilities.
The first has to do with certain kinds of scientific knowledge. I'd guess that physicists in the Matrix have some fundamentally false beliefs about the underlying make-up of their world, what the "laws of nature" are, and so on. For some people, figuring such matters out is important. They value learning the truth about those matters. But not everybody feels that way. For your average non-physicist, the possibility that we're mistaken about questions like these isn't going to provoke existential anxiety, or set them off on a crusade like the one Neo undertakes at the end of the movie.
The second candidate for being what's bad about living in the Matrix has to do with interpersonal relationships. One thing we place a lot of value on in life are our interactions with other people. Most of us want our friends' feelings to be genuine. For instance, it would be bad if the person who acts like your best friend really despises you. Even if you never found out about it. Most of us also want the important people in our lives to be real. We don't want them to be programming constructs, like Mouse's "Woman in Red." Perhaps for some people, programming constructs are enough. They may not care whether their friends and lovers really have an inner life of their own, and have their own thoughts and emotions, and genuine feelings towards them. It would be enough if their friends and lovers acted the their parts well. I think that for most of us, though, this would not be enough. Most of us really would like to have the real thing. It would suck if the children you devote so much love and attention to are really just parts of a computer program, and don't have any capacity to benefit from, or to appreciate, your efforts.
Here's another thought-experiment. Suppose that tomorrow we're going to wipe your memory clean and ship you off to a new colony. You'll be able to live a decent life there; you just won't have any memory of your past. Nor do you get to take any of your money or personal belongings along with you. But today, before we wipe your memory clean, we allow you to spend the money you have left to arrange a nice life for yourself in the new colony. For instance, if you spend $1,000 we'll set it up so that the apartment you get there doesn't have cockroaches. And so on. How would you spend your money?
What if there were two options on the menu. If you choose Option 1, you'll get an extremely realistic set of friends and lovers in the new colony. You won't be able to distinguish them from the real thing. But really they'll just be empty shells animated by a (non-intelligent) computer program. They won't have any inner life of their own. (In the terminology of role-playing games, they'll be NPCs.) You know this now, but when you get to the colony you will have forgotten it. If you choose Option 2, you get friends and lovers who are real people.
Most people I know would choose Option 2, even if it were somewhat more expensive, and so kept them from buying other nice things for their new life. E.g., they'd choose Option 2 even if it meant they'd have to put up with more cockroaches.
So one thing that many of us value in life is that the other people we form emotional attachments to are real people, and that they care about us in the ways they seem to. In Nozick's experience machine, this seems to be lacking. His experience machine sounds like a one-person Matrix. You just get to enjoy your own experience script. You don't get to interact with other people. (See the discussion of "solitary Matrices" in Richard Hanley's essay.)
In the real Matrix, on the other hand, it seems like people do get to interact with many other real human beings. So a lack of interpersonal relationships may be a bad thing about Nozick's machine, but it doesn't seem to be a bad thing about the Matrix we see in the movie.
I think our third candidate for what's bad about living in the Matrix is more apt. In the movie, humans in the Matrix are all slaves. They're not in charge of their own lives. They may be contented slaves, unaware of their chains, but they're slaves nonetheless. They have only a very limited ability to shape their own futures. As Morpheus puts it:
What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world, built to keep us under control...
Now-to me anyway-the most disturbing thing about this isn't that the machines are farming us for energy. We're not told enough about how the energy-farming works to make it seem very bad. Perhaps the machines are only taking energy we were making no use of, anyway. Perhaps the machines ensure that-except for the rare occasions when an Agent takes over your body and gets it killed-we live longer and healthier lives in the Matrix energy-farm than we would in the wild.
No, what seems awful about our enslavement in the Matrix is rather that we have so little control over our futures. According to Agent Smith, the Matrix was designed to simulate the end of the 20th century, because the machines have found that keeps their energy-farm running smoothly. Generations of us have now lived out their lives in the Matrix. So generations of us have all experienced life in this simulated end-of-the-20th-century. What happens when the simulation gets up to 2003? Do the machines erase our memories and reset everything back to 1980? The movie doesn't say. But presumably they do something like that. This means there are real limits to how much we can accomplish. If your ambitions in the Matrix are relatively small-scale, like opening a restaurant or becoming a famous actor, then you may very well be able to achieve them. But if your ambitions are larger-e.g., introducing some long-term social change-then whatever progress you make towards that goal will be wiped out when the simulation gets reset. Any long-term efforts of this sort would be an exercise an futility.
And what if our ambitions don't please the farmers? For instance, what if we are computer scientists working to create artificial intelligence? The machines would probably find it easiest to just keep sabotaging our attempts. After all, they wouldn't want us to re-enact the war between humans and machines, inside the Matrix. That would be bad for their crops. And they certainly wouldn't want us to create benevolent AIs, AIs who would figure out about the Matrix and fight on our side. So the machines will tinker with our history, and see to it that grand, noble ambitions of this sort never get realized.
Of course, they'll also see to it that none of our grander baser ambitions get realized, either. They probably just disconnect or reprogram anyone who's hatching plans for mass genocide.
But if given the choice, I think most of us would like humans to be in charge of our own destiny. We don't want our long-term efforts to be futile. We don't want to be living out someone else's plan for our lives. Sure, there will always be some limits to what we can do. Very likely we'll never be able to vacation in the center of the sun. But we'd like to have as much control over our destiny as we can. We don't want other intelligent agents deciding such things for us. Especially when those agents' first priority is how well their energy-farms are doing; that may not correlate well with how well-off our lives and society are.
So it seems rotten if the machines control our fates and our civilization. One thing we place a lot of value on is being in charge of our own lives, not being someone else's slave or plaything. We want to be politically free.
And plausibly, what people mean by "political freedom" and "being in charge of our own lives" is the same inside the Matrix as outside it. We're not indifferent between the real thing and some Matrix simulation of it. We want to have the real thing. When we're inside the Matrix, we haven't got it. We just don't realize that we haven't got it.
So I think this is the best answer about what's so bad about living in the Matrix.
For me, at least, it's a surprising answer. The Matrix raises so many interesting metaphysical and epistemological issues. If you're of a philosophical bent, like me, then those issues will be intellectually compelling. But there's a difference between what we find intellectually compelling and what we place the most value on in life. Intellectual matters will be only one value among many. For most of us, the worst thing about living in the Matrix would not be something metaphysical or epistemological. Rather, the worst thing would be something political. It would be the fact that Life in the Matrix is a kind of Slavery, of the sort of we've discussed.
I think that is what's really bad about living in the Matrix we see in the movie. That is what motivates Neo and Morpheus and Trinity to fight the machines, and try to free everyone they can.
If the Matrix weren't a kind of enslavement-and it still involved interacting with other real people-then maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all.
James PryorThe Matrix as metaphysics by David Chalmers
I. Brains in Vats
The Matrix presents a version of an old philosophical fable: the brain in a vat. A disembodied brain is floating in a vat, inside a scientist's laboratory. The scientist has arranged that the brain will be stimulated with the same sort of inputs that a normal embodied brain receives. To do this, the brain is connected to a giant computer simulation of a world. The simulation determines which inputs the brain receives. When the brain produces outputs, these are fed back into the simulation. The internal state of the brain is just like that of a normal brain, despite the fact that it lacks a body. From the brain's point of view, things seem very much as they seem to you and me.
The brain is massively deluded, it seems. It has all sorts of false beliefs about the world. It believes that it has a body, but it has no body. It believes that it is walking outside in the sunlight, but in fact it is inside a dark lab. It believes it is one place, when in fact it may be somewhere quite different. Perhaps it thinks it is in Tucson, when it is actually in Australia, or even in outer space.
Neo's situation at the beginning of The Matrix is something like this. He thinks that he lives in a city, he thinks that he has hair, he thinks it is 1999, and he thinks that it is sunny outside. In reality, he is floating in space, he has no hair, the year is around 2199, and the world has been darkened by war. There are a few small differences from the vat scenario above: Neo's brain is located in a body, and the computer simulation is controlled by machines rather than by a scientist. But the essential details are much the same. In effect, Neo is a brain in a vat.
Let's say that a matrix (lower-case "m") is an artificially-designed computer simulation of a world. So the Matrix in the movie is one example of a matrix. And let's say that someone is envatted, or that they are in a matrix, if they have a cognitive system which receives its inputs from and sends its outputs to a matrix. Then the brain at the beginning is envatted, and so is Neo.
We can imagine that a matrix simulates the entire physics of a world, keeping track of every last particle throughout space and time. (Later, we will look at ways in which this set-up might be varied.) An envatted being will be associated with a particular simulated body. A connection is arranged so that whenever this body receives sensory inputs inside the simulation, the envatted cognitive system will receive sensory inputs of the same sort. When the envatted cognitive system produces motor outputs, corresponding outputs will be fed to the motor organs of the simulated body.
When the possibility of a matrix is raised, a question immediately follows. How do I know that I am not in a matrix? After all, there could be a brain in a vat structured exactly like my brain, hooked up to a matrix, with experiences indistinguishable from those I am having now. From the inside, there is no way to tell for sure that I am not in the situation of the brain in a vat. So it seems that there is no way to know for sure that I am not in a matrix.
Let us call the hypothesis that I am in a matrix and have always been in a matrix the Matrix Hypothesis. Equivalently, the Matrix Hypothesis says that I am envatted and have always been envatted. This is not quite equivalent to the hypothesis that I am in the Matrix, as the Matrix is just one specific version of a matrix. And for now, I will ignore the complication that people sometimes travel back and forth between the Matrix and the external world. These issues aside, we can think of the Matrix Hypothesis informally as saying that I am in the same sort of situation as people who have always been in the Matrix.
The Matrix Hypothesis is one that we should take seriously. As Nick Bostrom has suggested, it is not out of the question that in the history of the universe, technology will evolve that will allow beings to create computer simulations of entire worlds. There may well be vast numbers of such computer simulations, compared to just one real world. If so, there may well be many more beings who are in a matrix than beings who are not. Given all this, one might even infer that it is more likely that we are in a matrix than that we are not. Whether this is right or not, it certainly seems that we cannot be certain that we are not in a matrix.
Serious consequences seem to follow. My envatted counterpart seems to be massively deluded. It thinks it is in Tucson; it thinks it is sitting at a desk writing an article; it thinks it has a body. But on the face of it, all of these beliefs are false. Likewise, it seems that if I am envatted, my own corresponding beliefs are false. If I am envatted, I am not really in Tucson, I am not really sitting at a desk, and I may not even have a body. So if I don't know that I am not envatted, then I don't know that I am in Tucson, I don't know that I am sitting at a desk, and I don't know that I have a body.
The Matrix Hypothesis threatens to undercut almost everything I know. It seems to be a skeptical hypothesis: a hypothesis that I cannot rule out, and one that would falsify most of my beliefs if it were true. Where there is a skeptical hypothesis, it looks like none of these beliefs count as genuine knowledge. Of course the beliefs might be true - I might be lucky, and not be envatted - but I can't rule out the possibility that they are false. So a skeptical hypothesis leads to skepticism about these beliefs: I believe these things, but I do not know them.
To sum up the reasoning: I don't know that I'm not in a matrix. If I'm in a matrix, I'm probably not in Tucson. So if I don't know that I'm not in a matrix, then I don't know that I'm in Tucson. The same goes for almost everything else I think I know about the external world.
II. Envatment Reconsidered
This is a standard way of thinking about the vat scenario. It seems that this view is also endorsed by the people who created The Matrix . On the DVD case for the movie, one sees the following:
Perception: Our day-in, day-out world is real.
Reality: That world is a hoax, an elaborate deception spun by all-powerful machines that control us. Whoa.
I think this view is not quite right. I think that even if I am in a matrix, my world is perfectly real. A brain in a vat is not massively deluded (at least if it has always been in the vat). Neo does not have massively false beliefs about the external world. Instead, envatted beings have largely correct beliefs about their world. If so, the Matrix Hypothesis is not a skeptical hypothesis, and its possibility does not undercut everything that I think I know.
Philosophers have held this sort of view before. The 18th-century Irish philosopher George Berkeley held, in effect, that appearance is reality. (Recall Morpheus: "What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.") If this is right, then the world perceived by envatted beings is perfectly real: they have all the right appearances, and appearance is reality. So on this view, even envatted beings have true beliefs about the world.
I have recently found myself embracing a similar conclusion, though for quite different reasons. I don't find the view that appearance is reality plausible, so I don't endorse Berkeley's reasoning. And until recently, it has seemed quite obvious to me that brains in vats would have massively false beliefs. But I now think there is a line of reasoning that shows that this is wrong.
I still think I cannot rule out the hypothesis that I am in a matrix. But I think that even I am in a matrix, I am still in Tucson, I am still sitting at my desk, and so on. So the hypothesis that I am in a matrix is not a skeptical hypothesis. The same goes for Neo. At the beginning of the film, if he thinks "I have hair", he is correct. If he thinks "It is sunny outside", he is correct. And the same goes, of course, for the original brain in a vat. When it thinks "I have a body", it is correct. When it thinks "I am walking", it is correct.
This view may seem very counterintuitive at first. Initially, it seemed quite counterintuitive to me. So I'll now present the line of reasoning that has convinced me that it is correct.
III. The Metaphysical Hypothesis
I will argue that the hypothesis that I am envatted is not a skeptical hypothesis, but a metaphysical hypothesis. That is, it is a hypothesis about the underlying nature of reality.
Where physics is concerned with the microscopic processes that underlie macroscopic reality, metaphysics is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality. A metaphysical hypothesis might make a claim about the reality that underlies physics itself. Alternatively, it might say something about the nature of our minds, or the creation of our world.
I think the Matrix Hypothesis should be regarded as a metaphysical hypothesis with all three of these elements. It makes a claim about the reality underlying physics, about the nature of our minds, and about the creation of the world.
In particular, I think the Matrix Hypothesis is equivalent to a version of the following three-part Metaphysical Hypothesis. First, physical processes are fundamentally computational. Second, our cognitive systems are separate from physical processes, but interact with these processes. Third, physical reality was created by beings outside physical space-time.
Importantly, nothing about this Metaphysical Hypothesis is skeptical. The Metaphysical Hypothesis here tells us about the processes underlying our ordinary reality, but it does not entail that this reality does not exist. We still have bodies, and there are still chairs and tables: it's just that their fundamental nature is a bit different from what we may have thought. In this manner, the Metaphysical Hypothesis is analogous to a physical hypotheses, such as one involving quantum mechanics. Both the physical hypothesis and the Metaphysical Hypothesis tells us about the processes underlying chairs. They do not entail that there are no chairs. Rather, they tell us what chairs are really like.
I will make the case by introducing each of the three parts of the Metaphysical Hypothesis separately. I will suggest that each of them is coherent, and cannot be conclusively ruled out. And I will suggest that none of them is a skeptical hypothesis: even if they are true, most of our ordinary beliefs are still correct. The same goes for a combination of all three hypothesis. I will then argue that the Matrix Hypothesis hypothesis is equivalent to this combination.
(1) The Creation Hypothesis
The Creation Hypothesis says: Physical space-time and its contents were created by beings outside physical space-time.
This is a familiar hypothesis. A version of it is believed by many people in our society, and perhaps by the majority of the people in the world. If one believes that God created the world, and if one believes that God is outside physical space-time, then one believes the Creation Hypothesis. One needn't believe in God to believe the Creation Hypothesis, though. Perhaps our world was created by a relatively ordinary being in the "next universe up", using the latest world-making technology in that universe. If so, the Creation Hypothesis is true.
I don't know whether the Creation Hypothesis is true. But I don't know for certain that it is false. The hypothesis is clearly coherent, and I cannot conclusively rule it out.
The Creation Hypothesis is not a skeptical hypothesis. Even if it is true, most of my ordinary beliefs are still true. I still have hands, I am still in Tucson, and so on. Perhaps a few of my beliefs will turn out false: if I am an atheist, for example, or if I believe all reality started with the Big Bang. But most of my everyday beliefs about the external world will remain intact.
(2) The Computational Hypothesis
The Computational Hypothesis says: Microphysical processes throughout space-time are constituted by underlying computational processes.
The Computational Hypothesis says that physics as we know it not the fundamental level of reality. Just as chemical processes underlie biological processes, and microphysical processes underlie chemical processes, something underlies microphysical processes. Underneath the level of quarks and electrons and photons is a further level: the level of bits. These bits are governed by a computational algorithm, which at a higher-level produces the processes that we think of as fundamental particles, forces, and so on.
The Computational Hypothesis is not as widely believed as the Creation Hypothesis, but some people take it seriously. Most famously, Ed Fredkin has postulated that the universe is at bottom some sort of computer. More recently, Stephen Wolfram has taken up the idea in his book A New Kind of Science, suggesting that at the fundamental level, physical reality may be a sort of cellular automata, with interacting bits governed by simple rules. And some physicists have looked into the possibility that the laws of physics might be formulated computationally, or could be seen as the consequence of certain computational principles.
One might worry that pure bits could not be the fundamental level of reality: a bit is just a 0 or a 1, and reality can't really be zeroes and ones. Or perhaps a bit is just a "pure difference" between two basic states, and there can't be a reality made up of pure differences. Rather, bits always have to be implemented by more basic states, such as voltages in a normal computer.
I don't know whether this objection is right. I don't think it's completely out of the question that there could be a universe of "pure bits". But this doesn't matter for present purposes. We can suppose that the computational level is itself constituted by an even more fundamental level, at which the computational processes are implemented. It doesn't matter for present purposes what that more fundamental level is. All that matters is that microphysical processes are constituted by computational processes, which are themselves constituted by more basic processes. From now on I will regard the Computational Hypothesis as saying this.
I don't know whether the Computational Hypothesis is correct. But again, I don't know that it is false. The hypothesis is coherent, if speculative, and I cannot conclusively rule it out.
The Computational Hypothesis is not a skeptical hypothesis. If it is true, there are still electrons and protons. On this picture, electrons and protons will be analogous to molecules: they are made up of something more basic, but they still exist. Similarly, if the Computational Hypothesis is true, there are still tables and chairs, and macroscopic reality still exists. It just turns out that their fundamental reality is a little different from what we thought.
The situation here is analogous to that with quantum mechanics or relativity. These may lead us to revise a few "metaphysical" beliefs about the external world: that the world is made of classical particles, or that there is absolute time. But most of our ordinary beliefs are left intact. Likewise, accepting the Computational Hypothesis may lead us to revise a few metaphysical beliefs: that electrons and protons are fundamental, for example. But most of our ordinary beliefs are unaffected.
(3) The Mind-Body Hypothesis
The Mind-Body Hypothesis says: My mind is (and has always been) constituted by processes outside physical space-time, and receives its perceptual inputs from and sends its outputs to processes in physical space-time.
The Mind-Body Hypothesis is also quite familiar, and quite widely believed. Descartes believed something like this: on his view, we have nonphysical minds that interact with our physical bodies. The hypothesis is less widely believed today than in Descartes' time, but there are still many people who accept the Mind-Body Hypothesis.
Whether or not the Mind-Body Hypothesis is true, it is certainly coherent. Even if contemporary science tends to suggest that the hypothesis is false, we cannot rule it out conclusively.
The Mind-Body Hypothesis is not a skeptical hypothesis. Even if my mind is outside physical space-time, I still have a body, I am still in Tucson, and so on. At most, accepting this hypothesis would make us revise a few metaphysical beliefs about our minds. Our ordinary beliefs about external reality will remain largely intact.
(4) The Metaphysical Hypothesis
We can now put these hypotheses together. First we can consider the Combination Hypothesis, which combines all three. It says that physical space-time and its contents were created by beings outside physical space-time, that microphysical processes are constituted by computational processes, and that our minds are outside physical space-time but interact with it.
As with the hypotheses taken individually, the Combination Hypothesis is coherent, and we cannot conclusively rule it out. And like the hypotheses taken individually, it is not a skeptical hypothesis. Accepting it might lead us to revise a few of our beliefs, but it would leave most of them intact.
Finally, we can consider the Metaphysical Hypothesis (with a capital M). Like the Combination Hypothesis, this combines the Creation Hypothesis, the Computational Hypothesis, and the Mind-Body Hypothesis. It also adds the following more specific claim: the computational processes underlying physical space-time were designed by the creators as a computer simulation of a world.
(It may also be useful to think of the Metaphysical Hypothesis as saying that the computational processes constituting physical space-time are part of a broader domain, and that the creators and my cognitive system are also located within this domain. This addition is not strictly necessary for what follows, but it matches up with the most common way of thinking about the Matrix Hypothesis.)
The Metaphysical Hypothesis is a slightly more specific version of the Combination Hypothesis, in that in specifies some relations between the various parts of the hypothesis. Again, the Metaphysical Hypothesis is a coherent hypothesis, and we cannot conclusively rule it out. And again, it is not a skeptical hypothesis. Even if we accept it, most of our ordinary beliefs about the external world will be left intact.
IV. The Matrix Hypothesis as a Metaphysical Hypothesis
Recall that the Matrix Hypothesis says: I have (and have always had) a cognitive system that receives its inputs from and sends its outputs to an artificially-designed computer simulation of a world.
I will argue that the Matrix Hypothesis is equivalent to the Metaphysical Hypothesis, in the following sense: if I accept the Metaphysical Hypothesis, I should accept the Matrix Hypothesis, and if I accept the Matrix Hypothesis, I should accept the Metaphysical Hypothesis. That is, the two hypotheses imply each other, where this means that if one accepts the one, one should accept the other.
Take the first direction first, from the Metaphysical Hypothesis to the Matrix Hypothesis. The Mind-Body Hypothesis implies that I have (and have always had) an isolated cognitive system which receives its inputs from and sends its outputs to processes in physical space-time. In conjunction with the Computational Hypothesis, this implies that my cognitive system receives inputs from and sends outputs to the computational processes that constitute physical space-time. The Creation Hypothesis (along with the rest of the Metaphysical Hypothesis) implies that these processes were artificially designed to simulate a world. It follows that I have (and have always had) an isolated cognitive system that receives its inputs from and sends its outputs to an artificially-designed computer simulation of a world. This is just the Matrix Hypothesis. So the Metaphysical Hypothesis implies the Matrix Hypothesis.
The other direction is closely related. To put it informally: If I accept the Matrix Hypothesis, I accept that what underlies apparent reality is just as the Metaphysical Hypothesis specifies. There is a domain containing my cognitive system, causally interacting with a computer simulation of physical-space time, which was created by other beings in that domain. This is just what has to obtain in order for the Metaphysical Hypothesis to obtain. If one accepts this, one should accept the Creation Hypothesis, the Computational Hypothesis, the Mind-Body Hypothesis, and the relevant relations among these.
This may be a little clearer through a picture. Here is the shape of the world according to the Matrix Hypothesis.
At the fundamental level, this picture of the shape of the world is exactly the same as the picture of the Metaphysical Hypothesis given above. So if one accepts that the world is as it is according to the Matrix Hypothesis, one should accept that it is as it is according to the Metaphysical Hypothesis.
One might make various objections. For example, one might object that the Matrix Hypothesis implies that a computer simulation of physical processes exists, but (unlike the Metaphysical Hypothesis) it does not imply that the physical processes themselves exist. I will discuss this and other objections in later sections. For now, though, I take it that there is a strong case that the Matrix Hypothesis implies the Metaphysical Hypothesis, and vice versa.
V. Life in the Matrix
If this is right, it follows that the Matrix Hypothesis is not a skeptical hypothesis. If I accept it, I should not infer that the external world does not exist, or that I have no body, or that there are no tables and chairs, or that I am not in Tucson. Rather, I should infer that the physical world is constituted by computations beneath the microphysical level. There are still tables, chairs, and bodies: these are made up fundamentally of bits, and of whatever constitutes these bits. This world was created by other beings, but is still perfectly real. My mind is separate from physical processes, and interacts with them. My mind may not have been created by these beings, and it may not be made up of bits, but it still interacts with these bits.
The result is a complex picture of the fundamental nature of reality. The picture is strange and surprising, perhaps, but it is a picture of a full-blooded external world. If we are in a matrix, this is simply the way that the world is.
We can think of the Matrix Hypothesis as a creation myth for the information age. If it is correct, then the physical world was created, just not necessarily by gods. Underlying the physical world is a giant computation, and creators created this world by implementing this computation. And our minds lie outside this physical structure, with an independent nature that interacts with this structure.
Many of the same issues that arise with standard creation myths arise here. When was the world created? Strictly speaking, it was not created within our time at all. When did history begin? The creators might have started the simulation in 4004 BC (or in 1999) with the fossil record intact, but it would have been much easier for them to start the simulation at the Big Bang and let things run their course from there. When do our nonphysical minds start to exist? It depends on just when new envatted cognitive systems are attached to the simulation (perhaps at the time of conception within the matrix, or perhaps at time of birth?). Is there life after death? It depends on just what happens to the envatted systems once their simulated bodies die. How do mind and body interact? By causal links that are outside physical space and time.
Even if we not in a matrix, we can extend a version of this reasoning to other beings who are in a matrix. If they discover their situation, and come to accept that they are in a matrix, they should not reject their ordinary beliefs about the external world. At most, they should come to revise their beliefs about the underlying nature of their world: they should come to accept that external objects are made of bits, and so on. These beings are not massively deluded: most of their ordinary beliefs about their world are correct.
There are a few qualifications here. One may worry about beliefs about other people's minds. I believe that my friends are conscious. If I am in a matrix, is this correct? In the Matrix depicted in the movie, these beliefs are mostly fine. This is a multi-vat matrix: for each of my perceived friends, there is an envatted being in the external reality, who is presumably conscious like me. The exception might be beings such as Agent Smith, who are not envatted, but are entirely computational. Whether these beings are conscious depends on whether computation is enough for consciousness. I will remain neutral on that issue here. We could circumvent this issue by building into the Matrix Hypothesis the requirement that all the beings we perceive are envatted. But even if we do not build in this requirement, we are not much worse off than in the actual world, where there is a legitimate issue about whether other beings are conscious, quite independently of whether we are in a matrix.
One might also worry about beliefs about the distant past, and about the far future. These will be unthreatened as long as the computer simulation covers all of space-time, from the Big Bang until the end of the universe. This is built into the Metaphysical Hypothesis, and we can stipulate that it is built into the Matrix Hypothesis too, by requiring that the computer simulation be a simulation of an entire world. There may be other simulations that start in the recent past (perhaps the Matrix in the movie is like this), and there may be others that only last for a short while. In these cases, the envatted beings will have false beliefs about the past and/or the future in their worlds. But as long as the simulation covers the lifespan of these beings, it is plausible that they will have mostly correct beliefs about the current state of their environment.
There may be some respects in which the beings in a matrix are deceived. It may be that the creators of the matrix control and interfere with much of what happens in the simulated world. (The Matrix in the movie may be like this, though the extent of the creators' control is not quite clear.) If so, then these beings may have much less control over what happens than they think. But the same goes if there is an interfering god in a non-matrix world. And the Matrix Hypothesis does not imply that the creators interfere with the world, though it leaves the possibility open. At worst, the Matrix Hypothesis is no more skeptical in this respect than the Creation Hypothesis in a non-matrix world.
The inhabitants of a matrix may also be deceived in that reality is much bigger than they think. They might think their physical universe is all there is, when in fact there is much more in the world, including beings and objects that they can never possibly see. But again, this sort of worry can arise equally in a non-matrix world. For example, cosmologists seriously entertain the hypothesis that our universe may stem from a black hole in the "next universe up", and that in reality there may be a whole tree of universes. If so, the world is also much bigger than we think, and there may be beings and objects that we can never possibly see. But either way, the world that we see is perfectly real.
Importantly, none of these sources of skepticism - about other minds, the past and the future, about our control over the world, and about the extent of the world - casts doubt on our belief in the reality of the world that we perceive. None of them leads us to doubt the existence of external objects such as tables and chairs, in the way that the vat hypothesis is supposed to do. And none of these worries is especially tied to the matrix scenario. One can raise doubts about whether other minds exist, whether the past and the future exist, and whether we have control over our worlds quite independently of whether we are in a matrix. If this is right, then the Matrix Hypothesis does not raise the distinctive skeptical issues that it is often taken to raise.
I suggested before that it is not out of the question that we really are in a matrix. One might have thought that this is a worrying conclusion. But if I am right, it is not nearly as worrying as one might have thought. Even if we are in such a matrix, our world is no less real than we thought it was. It just has a surprising fundamental nature.
VI. Objection: Simulation is not Reality
(This slightly technical section can be skipped without too much loss.)
A common line of objection is that a simulation is not the same as reality. The Matrix Hypothesis implies only that a simulation of physical processes exists. By contrast, the Metaphysical Hypothesis implies that physical processes really exist (they are explicitly mentioned in the Computational Hypothesis and elsewhere). If so, then the Matrix Hypothesis cannot imply the Metaphysical Hypothesis. On this view, if I am in a matrix, then physical processes do not really exist.
In response: My argument does not require the general assumption that simulation is the same as reality. The argument works quite differently. But the objection helps us to flesh out the informal argument that the Matrix Hypothesis implies the Metaphysical Hypothesis.
Because the Computational Hypothesis is coherent, it is clearly possible that a computational level underlies real physical processes, and it is possible that the computations here are implemented by further processes in turn. So there is some sort of computational system that could yield reality here. But here, the objector will hold that not all computational systems are created equal. To say that some computational systems will yield real physical processes in this role is not to say that they all do. Perhaps some of them are merely simulations. If so, then the Matrix Hypothesis may not yield reality.
To rebut this objection, we can appeal to two principles. First, any abstract computation that could be used to simulate physical space-time is such that it could turn out to underlie real physical processes. Second, given an abstract computation that could underlie physical processes, the precise way in which it is implemented is irrelevant to whether it does underlie physical processes. In particular, the fact that the implementation was designed as a simulation is irrelevant. The conclusion then follows directly.
On the first point: let us think of abstract computations in purely formal terms, abstracting away from their manner of implementation. For an abstract computation to qualify as a simulation of physical reality, it must have computational elements that correspond to every particle in reality (likewise for fields, waves, or whatever is fundamental), dynamically evolving in a way that corresponds to the particle's evolution. But then, it is guaranteed that the computation will have a rich enough causal structure that it could in principle underlie physics in our world. Any computation will do, as long as it has enough detail to correspond to the fine details of physical processes.
On the second point: given an abstract computation that could underlie physical reality, it does not matter how the computation is implemented. We can imagine discovering that some computational level underlies the level of atoms and electrons. Once we have discovered this, it is possible that this computational level is implemented by more basic processes. There are many hypotheses about what the underlying processes could be, but none of them is especially privileged, and none of them would lead us to reject the hypothesis that the computational level constitutes physical processes. That is, the Computational Hypothesis is implementation-independent: as long as we have the right sort of abstract computation, the manner of implementation does not matter.
In particular, it is irrelevant whether or not these implementing processes were artificially created, and it is irrelevant whether they were intended as a simulation. What matters is the intrinsic nature of the processes, not their origin. And what matters about this intrinsic nature is simply that they are arranged in such a way to implement the right sort of computation. If so, the fact that the implementation originated as a simulation is irrelevant to whether it can constitute physical reality.
There is one further constraint on the implementing processes: they must be connected to our experiences in the right sort of way. That is when we have an experience of an object, the processes underlying the simulation of that object must be causally connected in the right sort of way to our experiences. If this is not the case, then there will be no reason to think that these computational processes underlie the physical processes that we perceive. If there is an isolated computer simulation to which nobody is connected in this way, we should say that it is simply a simulation. But an appropriate hook-up to our perceptual experiences is built into the Matrix Hypothesis, on the most natural understanding of that hypothesis. So the Matrix Hypothesis has no problems here.
Overall, then, we have seen that a computational process could underlie physical reality, that any abstract computation that qualifies as a simulation of physical reality could play this role, and that any implementation of this computation could constitute physical reality, as long as it is hooked up to our experiences in the relevant way. The Matrix Hypothesis guarantees that we have an abstract computation of the right sort, and it guarantees that it is hooked up to our experiences in the relevant way. So the Matrix Hypothesis implies that the Computational Hypothesis is correct, and that the computer simulation constitutes genuine physical processes.
VII. Other Objections
When we look at a brain in a vat from the outside, it is hard to avoid the sense that it is deluded. This sense manifests itself in a number of related objections. These are not direct objections to the argument above, but they are objections to its conclusion.
Objection 1: A brain in a vat may think it is outside walking in the sun, when in fact it is alone in a dark room. Surely it is deluded!
Response: The brain is alone in a dark room. But this does not imply that the person is alone in a dark room. By analogy, just say Descartes is right that we have disembodied minds outside space-time, made of ectoplasm. When I think "I am outside in the sun", an angel might look at my ectoplasmic mind and note that in fact it is not exposed to any sun at all. Does it follow that my thought is incorrect? Presumably not: I can be outside in the sun, even if my ectoplasmic mind is not. The angel would be wrong to infer that I have an incorrect belief. Likewise, we should not infer that envatted being has an incorrect belief. At least, it is no more deluded than a Cartesian mind.
The moral is that the immediate surroundings of our minds may well be irrelevant to the truth of most of our beliefs. What matters is the processes that our minds are connected to, by perceptual inputs and motor outputs. Once we recognize this, the objection falls away.
Objection 2: An envatted being may believe that it is in Tucson, when in fact it is in New York, and has never been anywhere near Tucson. Surely this belief is deluded.
Response: The envatted being's concept of "Tucson" does not refer to what we call Tucson. Rather, it refers to something else entirely: call this Tucson*, or "virtual Tucson". We might think of this as a "virtual location" (more on this in a moment). When the being says to itself "I am in Tucson", it really is thinking that it is in Tucson*, and it may well in fact be in Tucson*. Because Tucson is not Tucson*, the fact that the being has never been in Tucson is irrelevant to whether its belief is true.
A rough analogy: I look at my colleague Terry, and think "that's Terry". Elsewhere in the world, a duplicate of me looks at a duplicate of Terry. It thinks "that's Terry", but it is not looking at the real Terry. Is its belief false? It seems not: my duplicate's "Terry" concept refers not to Terry, but to his duplicate Terry*. My duplicate really is looking at Terry*, so its belief is true. The same sort of thing is happening in the case above.
Objection 3: Before he leaves the Matrix, Neo believes that he has hair. But in reality he has no hair (the body in the vat is bald). Surely this belief is deluded.
Response: This case is like the last one. Neo's concept of "hair" does not refer to real hair, but to something else that we might call hair* ("virtual hair"). So the fact that Neo does not have real hair is irrelevant to whether his belief is true. Neo really does has virtual hair, so he is correct.
Objection 4: What sort of objects does an envatted being refer to. What is virtual hair, virtual Tucson, and so on?
Response: These are all entities constituted by computational processes. If I am envatted, then the objects that I refer to (hair, Tucson, and so on) are all made of bits. And if another being is envatted, the objects that it refers to (hair*, Tucson*, and so on) are likewise made of bits. If the envatted being is hooked up to a simulation in my computer, then the objects it refers to are constituted by patterns of bits inside my computer. We might call these things virtual objects. Virtual hands are not hands (assuming I am not envatted), but they exist inside the computer all the same. Virtual Tucson is not Tucson, but it exists inside the computer all the same.
Objection 5: You just said that virtual hands are not real hands. Does this mean that if we are in the matrix, we don't have real hands?
Response: No. If we are not in the matrix, but someone else is, we should say that their term "hand" refers to virtual hands, but our term does not. So in this case, our hands aren't virtual hands. But if we are in the matrix, then our term "hand" refers to something that's made of bits: virtual hands, or at least something that would be regarded as virtual hands by people in the next world up. That is, if we are in the matrix, real hands are made of bits. Things look quite different, and our words refer to different things, depending on whether our perspective is inside or outside the matrix.
This sort of perspective shift is common in thinking about the matrix scenario. From the first-person perspective, we suppose that we are in a matrix. Here, real things in our world are made of bits, though the "next world up" might not be made of bits. From the third-person perspective, we suppose that someone else is in a matrix but we are not. Here, real things in our world are not made of bits, but the "next world down" is made of bits. On the first way of doing things, our words refer to computational entities. On the second way of doing things, the envatted beings' words refer to computational entities, but our words do not.
Objection 6: Just which pattern of bits is a given virtual object? Surely it will be impossible to pick out a precise set.
Response: This question is like asking: just which part of the quantum wavefunction is this chair, or is the University of Arizona? These objects are all ultimately constituted by an underlying quantum wavefunction, but there may be no precise part of the micro-level wavefunction that we can say "is" the chair or the university. The chair and the university exist at a higher level. Likewise, if we are envatted, there may be no precise set of bits in the micro-level computational process that is the chair or the university. These exist at a higher level. And if someone else is envatted, there may be no precise sets of bits in the computer simulation that "are" the objects they refer to. But just as a chair exists without being any precise part of the wavefunction, a virtual chair may exist without being any precise set of bits.
Objection 7: An envatted being thinks it performs actions, and it thinks it has friends. Are these beliefs correct?
Response: One might try to say that the being performs actions* and that it has friends*. But for various reason I think it is not plausible that words like "action" and "friend" can shift their meanings as easily as words like like "Tucson" and "hair". Instead, I think one can say truthfully (in our own language) that the envatted being performs actions, and that it has friends. To be sure, it performs actions in its environment, and its environment is not our environment but the virtual environment. And its friends likewise inhabit the virtual environment (assuming that we have a multi-vat matrix, or that computation suffices for consciousness). But the envatted being is not incorrect in this respect.
Objection 8: Set these technical points aside. Surely, if we are in a matrix, the world is nothing like we think it is!
Response: I deny this. Even if we are in a matrix, there are still people, football games, and particles, arranged in space-time just as we think they are. It is just that the world has a further nature that goes beyond our initial conception. In particular, things in the world are realized computationally in a way that we might not have originally imagined. But this does not contradict any of our ordinary beliefs. At most, it will contradict a few of our more abstract metaphysical beliefs. But exactly the same goes for quantum mechanics, relativity theory, and so on.
If we are in a matrix, we may not have many false beliefs, but there is much knowledge that we lack. For example, we do not know that the universe is realized computationally. But this is exactly what one might expect. Even if we are not in a matrix, there may well be much about the fundamental nature of reality that we do not know. We are not omniscient creatures, and our knowledge of the world is at best partial. This is simply the condition of a creature living in a world.
VIII. Other Skeptical Hypotheses
The Matrix Hypothesis is one example of a traditional "skeptical" hypothesis, but it is not the only example. Other skeptical hypotheses are not quite as straightforward as the Matrix Hypothesis. Still, I think that for many of them, a similar line of reasoning applies. In particular, one can argue that most of these are not global skeptical hypotheses: that is, their truth would not undercut all of our empirical beliefs about the physical world. At worst, most of them are partial skeptical hypotheses, undercutting some of our empirical beliefs, but leaving many of these beliefs intact.
New Matrix Hypothesis: I was recently created, along with all my memories, and was put in a newly-created matrix.
What if both the matrix and I have existed for only a short time? This hypothesis is a computational version of Bertrand Russell's Recent Creation Hypothesis: the physical world was created only recently (with fossil record intact), and so was I (with memories intact). On that hypothesis, the external world that I perceive really exists, and most of my beliefs about its current states are plausibly true, but I have many false beliefs about the past. I think the same should be said of the New Matrix Hypothesis. One can argue, along the lines presented earlier, that the New Matrix Hypothesis is equivalent to a combination of the Metaphysical Hypothesis with the Recent Creation Hypothesis. This combination is not a global skeptical hypothesis (though it is a partial skeptical hypothesis, where beliefs about the past are concerned). So the same goes for the New Matrix Hypothesis.
Recent Matrix Hypothesis: For most of my life I have not been envatted, but I was recently hooked up to a matrix.
If I was recently put in a matrix without realizing it, it seems that many of my beliefs about my current environment are false. Let's say that just yesterday someone put me into a simulation, in which I fly to Las Vegas and gamble at a casino. Then I may believe that I am in Las Vegas now, and that I am in a casino, but these beliefs at false: I am really in a laboratory in Tucson.
This result is quite different from the long-term matrix. The difference lies in the fact that my conception of external reality is anchored to the reality in which I have lived most of my life. If I have been envatted all my life, my conception is anchored to the computationally constituted reality. But if I was just envatted yesterday, my conception is anchored to the external reality. So when I think that I am in Las Vegas, I am thinking that I am in the external Las Vegas, and this thought is false.
Still, this does not undercut all of my beliefs about the external world. I believe that I was born in Sydney, that there is water in the oceans, and so on, and all of these beliefs are correct. It is only my recently acquired beliefs, stemming from perception of the simulated environment, that will be false. So this is only a partial skeptical hypothesis: its possibility casts doubt on a subset of our empirical beliefs, but it does not cast doubt on all of them.
Interestingly, the Recent Matrix and the New Matrix hypothesis give opposite results, despite their similar nature: the Recent Matrix Hypothesis yields true beliefs about the past but false beliefs about the present, while the New Matrix Hypothesis yields false beliefs about the past and true beliefs about the present. The differences are tied to the fact that in Recent Matrix Hypothesis, I really have a past existence for my beliefs to be about, and that past reality has played a role in anchoring the contents of my thoughts that has no parallel under the New Matrix Hypothesis.
Local Matrix Hypothesis: I am hooked up to a computer simulation of a fixed local environment in a world.
On one way of doing this, a computer simulates a small fixed environment in a world, and the subjects in the simulation encounter some sort of barrier when they try to leave that area. For example, in the movie The Thirteenth Floor, just California is simulated, and when the subject tries to drive to Nevada, the road says "Closed for Repair" (with faint green electronic mountains in the distance!). Of course this is not the best way to create a matrix, as subjects are likely to discover the limits to their world.
This hypothesis is analogous to a Local Creation Hypothesis, on which creators just created a local part of the physical world. Under this hypothesis, we will have true beliefs about nearby matters, but false beliefs about matters further from home. By the usual sort of reasoning, the Local Matrix Hypothesis can be seen as a combination of the Metaphysical Hypothesis with the Local Creation Hypothesis. So we should say the same thing about this.
Extendible Local Matrix Hypothesis: I am hooked up to a computer simulation of a local environment in a world, extended when necessary depending on subject's movements.
This hypothesis avoids the obvious difficulties with a fixed local matrix. Here the creators simulate a local environment and extend it when necessary. For example, they might right now be concentrating on simulating a room in my house in Tucson. If I walk into another room, or fly to another city, they will simulate those. Of course they need to make sure that when I go to these places, they match my memories and beliefs reasonably well, with allowance for evolution in the meantime. The same goes for when I encounter familiar people, or people I have only heard about. Presumably the simulators keep up a database of the information about the world that has been settled so far, updating this information whenever necessary as time goes along, and making up new details when they need them.
This sort of simulation is quite unlike simulation in an ordinary matrix. In a matrix, the whole world is simulated at once. There are high start-up costs, but once the simulation is up and running, it will take care of itself. By contrast, the extendible local matrix involves "just-in-time" simulation. This has much lower start-up costs, but it requires much more work and creativity as the simulation evolves.
This hypothesis is analogous to an Extendible Local Creation Hypothesis about ordinary reality, under which creators create just a local physical environment, and extend it when necessary. Here, external reality exists and many local beliefs are true, but again beliefs about matters further from home are false. If we combine that hypothesis with the Metaphysical Hypothesis, the result is the Extendible Local Matrix Hypothesis. So if we are in an extendible local matrix, external reality still exists, but there is not as much of it as we thought. Of course if I travel in the right direction, more of it may come into existence!
The situation is reminiscent of The Truman Show. Truman lives in an artificial environment made up of actors and props, which behave appropriately when he is around, but which may be completely different when he is absent. Truman has many true beliefs about his current environment: there really are tables and chairs in front of him, and so on. But he is deeply mistaken about things outside his current environment, and further from home.
It is common to think that while The Truman Show poses a disturbing skeptical scenario, The Matrix is much worse. But if I am right, things are reversed. If I am in a matrix, then most of my beliefs about the external world are true. If I am in something like The Truman Show, then a great number of my beliefs are false. On reflection, it seems to me that this is the right conclusion. If we were to discover that we were (and always had been) in a matrix, this would be surprising, but we would quickly get used to it. If we were to discover that we were (and always had been) in the Truman Show, we might well go insane.
Macroscopic Matrix Hypothesis: I am hooked up to a computer simulation of macroscopic physical processes without microphysical detail.
One can imagine that for ease of simulation, the makers of a matrix might not both to simulate low-level physics. Instead, they might just represent macroscopic objects in the world and their properties: e.g. that there is a table with such-and-such shape, position, and color, with a book on top of it with certain properties, and so on. They will need to make some effort to make sure that these objects behave in a physically reasonable way, and they will have to make special provisions for handling microphysical measurements, but one can imagine that at least a reasonable simulation could be created this way.
I think this hypothesis is analogous to a Macroscopic World Hypothesis: there are no microphysical processes, and instead macroscopic physical objects exist as fundamental objects in the world, with properties of shape, color, position, and so on. This is a coherent way our world could be, and it is not a global skeptical hypothesis, though it may lead to false scientific beliefs about lower levels of reality. The Macroscopic Matrix Hypothesis can be seen as a combination of this hypothesis with a version of the Metaphysical Hypothesis. As such, it is not a global skeptical hypothesis either.
One can also combine the various hypothesis above in various ways, yielding hypotheses such as a New Local Macroscopic Matrix Hypothesis. For the usual reasons, all of these can be seen as analogs of corresponding hypotheses about the physical world. So all of them are compatible with the existence of physical reality, and none is a global skeptical hypothesis.
The God Hypothesis: Physical reality is represented in the mind of God, and our own thoughts and perceptions depend on God's mind.
A hypothesis like this was put forward by George Berkeley as a view about how our world might really be. Berkeley intended this as a sort of metaphysical hypothesis about the nature of reality. Most other philosophers have differed from Berkeley in regarding this as a sort of skeptical hypothesis. If I am right, Berkeley is closer to the truth. The God Hypothesis can be seen as a version of the Matrix Hypothesis, on which the simulation of the world is implemented in the mind of God. If this is right, we should say that physical processes really exist: it's just that at the most fundamental level, they are constituted by processes in the mind of God.
Evil Genius Hypothesis: I have a disembodied mind, and an evil genius is feeding me sensory inputs to give the appearance of an external world.
This is Rene Descartes's classical skeptical hypothesis. What should we say about it? This depends on just how the evil genius works. If the evil genius simulates an entire world in his head in order to determine what inputs I should receive, then we have a version of the God Hypothesis. Here we should say that physical reality exists and is constituted by processes within the genius. If the evil genius is simulating only a small part of the physical world, just enough to give me reasonably consistent inputs, then we have an analog of the Local Matrix Hypothesis (in either its fixed or flexible versions). Here we should say that just a local part of external reality exists. If the evil genius is not bothering to simulate the microphysical level, but just the macroscopic level, then we have an analog of the Macroscopic Matrix Hypothesis. Here we should say that local external macroscopic objects exist, but our beliefs about their microphysical nature are incorrect.
The evil genius hypothesis is often taken to be a global skeptical hypothesis. But if the reasoning above is right, this is incorrect. Even if the Evil Genius Hypothesis is correct, some of the external reality that we apparently perceive really exists, though we may have some false beliefs about it, depending on details. It is just that this external reality has an underlying nature that is quite different from what we may have thought.
Dream Hypothesis: I am now and have always been dreaming.
Descartes raised the question: how do you know that you are not currently dreaming? Morpheus raises a similar question:
Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real. What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?
The hypothesis that I am currently dreaming is analogous to a version of the Recent Matrix Hypothesis. I cannot rule it out conclusively, and if it is correct, then many of my beliefs about my current environment are incorrect. But presumably I still have many true beliefs about the external world, anchored in the past.
What if I have always been dreaming? That is, what if all of my apparent perceptual inputs have been generated by my own cognitive system, without my realizing this? I think this case is analogous to the Evil Genius Hypothesis: it's just that the role of the "evil genius" is played by a part of my own cognitive system! If my dream-generating system simulates all of space-time, we have something like the original Matrix Hypothesis. If it models just my local environment, or just some macroscopic processes, we have analogs of the more local versions of the Evil Genius Hypothesis above. In any of these cases, we should say that the objects that I am currently perceiving really exist (although objects farther from home may not). It is just that some of them are constituted by my own cognitive processes.
Chaos Hypothesis: I do not receive inputs from anywhere in the world. Instead, I have random uncaused experiences. Through a huge coincidence, they are exactly the sort of regular, structured experiences with which I am familiar.
The Chaos Hypothesis is an extraordinarily unlikely hypothesis, much more unlikely than anything considered above. But it is still one that could in principle obtain, even if it has miniscule probability. If I am chaotically envatted, do physical processes obtain in the external world? I think we should say that they do not. My experiences of external objects are caused by nothing, and the set of experiences associated with my conception of a given object will have no common source. Indeed, my experiences are not caused by any reality external to them at all. So this is a genuine skeptical hypothesis: if accepted, it would cause us to reject most of our beliefs about the external world.
So far, the only clear case of a global skeptical hypothesis is the Chaos Hypothesis. Unlike the previous hypothesis, accepting this hypothesis would undercut all of our substantive beliefs about the external world. Where does the difference come from?
Arguably, what is crucial is that on the Chaos Hypothesis, there is no causal explanation of our experiences at all, and there is no explanation for the regularities in our experience. In all the previous cases, there is some explanation for these regularities, though perhaps not the explanation that we expect. One might suggest that as long as a hypothesis involves some reasonable explanation for the regularities in our experience, then it will not be a global skeptical hypothesis.
If so, then if we are granted the assumption that there is some explanation for the regularities in our experience, then it is safe to say that some of our beliefs about the external world are correct. This is not much, but it is something!
David Chalmers' website: http://www.consc.net
(Some philosophical notes on this article can be found here.)Artificial ethics by Julia Driver
The significance of The Matrix as a movie with deep philosophical overtones is well recognized. Whenever the movie is discussed in philosophy classes, comparisons are made with Descartes' Meditations, particularly the dream argument and the evil genius scenario, both of which are intended to generate skeptical doubt. How do we know, for example, that we are awake now, rather than merely dreaming? How do we know that our thoughts are not being manipulated, and that our perceptions of 'reality' are accurate? The Matrix makes these doubts stand out vividly.
However, The Matrix raises many other interesting philosophical issues, and ones that are worthy of further discussion. This essay explores some of the moral issues raised in The Matrix. The first is the issue of the moral status of the created beings, the 'artificial' intelligences, which figure into the universe of The Matrix. The second is the issue of whether or not one can do anything wrong in circumstances where one's experiences are non-veridical; that is, where one's experiences fail to reflect reality.
I. The Moral Status of Programs
There is a reality to the Matrix. The substance of that reality may differ dramatically from the substance we label 'real' - the 'real' world is the desert reality that Morpheus reveals to Neo. But it is clear that, out of the grip of the Matrix, though still having certain dream-like experiences, Neo and his enlightened friends are dealing with actual sentient programs, and making decisions that have actual effects for themselves as well as the machines and the programs. What is the moral status of the sentient programs that populate the Matrix, or, for that matter, the moral status of the machines themselves? The universe of The Matrix is populated with beings that have been created - created by programmers or created by the machine universe itself. The agents, such as Smith, Neo's pursuer, are prime examples. These beings come into and go out of existence without comment on the part of whoever controls the switches - and without any moral debate on the part of the humans who also would like to see the agents destroyed. There seems to be an implicit view that their existence is less significant, their lives of less moral import, than the lives of 'naturally' existing creatures such as ourselves. An obvious explanation for this attitude is that humans are long accustomed to thinking of themselves as being at the center of the universe. The geographic point changed with Copernicus. However, our view of our dominant place in the moral universe has stayed fixed. But, once again, science - and particularly, now, cognitive science holds the potential for challenging this certainty. And science fiction such as The Matrix, which explores differing directions for these potentialities, also brings challenges to this worldview. What The Matrix offers is a vivid thought experiment. It is a thought experiment which makes us ask the sort of 'what if?' question that leads to a change in self conception. It forces us to see where our well accepted moral principles would take us within one possible world.
We know that killing human beings is wrong. It is wrong because human beings have moral standing. Human beings are widely believed to have this standing in virtue of consciousness and sentience. For example, a rock has no moral standing whatsoever. Kicking a rock does not harm it, and no moral rights are violated. It is an inanimate, non-conscious object incapable of either thought or sensation. Animals, however, are generally taken to have some moral standing in virtue of their sentience. Kicking an animal for no compelling reason is generally taken to be immoral. Human beings have greater standing in virtue of their higher rational capacities. They can experience more varied and complex harms, and a wider range of emotional responses - such as resentment - in virtue of their rationality. How one came into existence is not taken to be morally significant. Some people are the products of natural conception, and some are the result of conception in the laboratory. This makes no difference to the possession of those qualities we take to be morally significant - consciousness and rationality. And, surely, the substance from which someone is created is completely irrelevant to the issue of moral status. If a person's consciousness could somehow be transferred to a metallic or plastic robotic body, the end result would still be a person.
It would seem, then, that the fact that one is created, or artificial, is in no way relevant to one's moral standing. And, if this is the case, then the world of The Matrix presents underappreciated moral complexities. Agents such as Smith, while not very pleasant, would arguably have moral standing, moral rights. Of course, Neo has the right to defend himself - Smith is not, after all, an innocent. Indeed, if the religious theme is pursued, he is an agent of darkness. But any innocent creations of the machines - beings brought into existence to populate the Matrix - also would have moral rights. Just as it would be wrong to flip a switch and kill an innocent human being, no matter how that human being came into existence, it would be wrong to flip a switch and kill a sentient program. As long, of course, as that program possessed the qualities we regard as morally relevant. And this is where one of the primary issues raised by the possibility of artificial intelligence becomes important to the question at hand. Do these programs possess consciousness? Since we are considering the world of The Matrix, let's look at what evidence seems to exist in the movie. While we don't have much information about the machines themselves, their agents are on ample display.1
Smith, of course, and his colleagues seem remarkably without affect. Yet, at critical points they do display emotions: anger, fear, and surprise. They seem able to plan and to carry through on a plan. Smith also displays a capacity for sadistic pleasure - at one point he displays this, when he forces Neo's mouth shut. Smith also displays extreme fear near the end of the movie, when Neo leaps through him. The agents display many, if not all, of the responses we associate with consciousness and sentience. But this brings us to another skeptical challenge posed in The Matrix. How can we be sure they do posses minds, and are not mere automata, albeit highly complex ones? Though the movie invites this reflection, it is important to see where this challenge can take us. The "how can I be sure?" question can extend beyond the agents to our fellow human beings. Since a person's conscious experiences are essentially private, one cannot be directly aware of another's experiences. We might try, as St. Augustine suggested, to solve this problem by appeal to analogy: I do directly experience my own mental states - I know that I am a conscious, aware, being. I also know on the basis of observation that I am structurally similar to other human beings. Thus, I reason by analogy, that they must experience mental states as well.2 And, indeed, The Matrix invites such a comparison when the agents display behavior consistent with the experience of certain psychological states.3
Given, then, that we believe what we are invited to believe it would follow that the sentient programs, the cyber persons, do possess those qualities we associate with moral standing. They have moral rights on the basis of consciousness and sentience and rationality. Thus, their moral standing is the same as that of human beings.
It is possible that human beings have some additional value - a kind of antiquarian value. We are, so to speak, "the originals." The original Mona Lisa, for example, has value in excess of its copies. But this kind of value is not moral value and does not reflect on the moral standing of the object, or the moral significance of the lives themselves. The Mona Lisa does have value, but no moral standing since it is a mere painting; it lacks consciousness. It may be damaged, but not harmed in the way that humans and sentient creatures can be harmed.
Perhaps the machines view humans this way. To the machines, the value of humans is mainly instrumental. They are valued as a source of energy, but they may also have some antiquarian value. Humans are merely relics of a past they themselves helped to destroy. If that's the case, the machines have turned the tables. They are making the same moral mistake humans apparently made in the context of The Matrix, in viewing other rational life forms as simple instruments, to use and destroy as one wishes. Indeed, both sides of the conflict seem to have displayed some moral blindness. The humans, in using and destroying, and the machines, certainly, in their subjection of the humans. But both sides view themselves as fighting for survival, and I imagine that Smith and Smith's creators, as well as Neo and his friends, would argue that moral qualms like these are a luxury.
II. Manipulation and Immorality
The world that the pre-enlightened Neo inhabits is one made up by machines. The machines have created a humdrum existence for humans, to keep them happy and pacified and free of the knowledge that they are being used as a source of energy for the machines. Most humans believe that this world is real, but they are mistaken. Within this world they build lives for themselves, have relationships, eat lovely dinners, and at least seem to both create and destroy. To some extent this existence is dream like. It isn't real. When the unenlightened person thinks he's eating a steak, he isn't. Instead, the machines generate mental experiences which correspond to the experience of eating a steak, but which are non-veridical - that is, the person is not actually eating a steak. There is no real or actual steak. The human being's actions, in that respect, have no real or actual consequences in a world that exists independently of his or her mind. However, even in this unenlightened state, the humans do have some control, since what they 'do' in the Matrix has consequences which are realized in the real world. Getting smashed by a truck in the Matrix kills the person in reality. The Matrix offers a 'brain-in-a-vat' experience, but one where the experiencer does have some control.4 The enlightened can, in principle, understand the rules of the Matrix and learn to exert that control with full understanding.5
But, as the steak example illustrates, there are many other 'actions' they perform that seem to have no effects in the real world. The pre-enlightened Neo and most of the humans living in the Matrix seem to be deluded. One issue raised by this is the extent to which they can be held responsible for their actions in the Matrix. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that something like wearing fur is immoral. Is simply making a choice to wear fur, along with the belief that one is wearing fur, enough to make one guilty of wrongdoing? Is it really only the thought that counts, morally? A competing view is that the choices people make must result in actual bad consequences in order for them to be guilty of wrongdoing; or, actual good consequences in order for them to be considered to have acted rightly. So, the issue is that of whether or not the moral quality of a person's actions - its rightness or wrongness - is determined solely by his or her subjective states, or whether, instead, actual consequences figure into this determination.
In the Matrix if fur is worn it is virtual fur, and not real - though the wearer does not realize this. Again, this is because he or she is being mentally manipulated. But is this a genuine delusion? Certainly, an insane person who fails to have a grip on reality, and is deluded in this sense, is thought to have diminished moral responsibility for what he or she does while deluded. Such a person is generally held to not be morally responsible in those circumstances. He is not punished, though he may be confined to a mental hospital and treated for his insanity. The explanation is that the actions performed while insane are not truly voluntary. If the persons who live in the Matrix are similarly deluded, then it would seem that they are not responsible for what they 'do' in the Matrix.
Some writers have argued that one cannot be held responsible for what happens in a dream, since dreams themselves are not voluntary, nor are the 'actions' one seems to perform in a dream.6 Other writers, such as Henry David Thoreau, had the view that what we seemed to do in a dream reflected on our character; and the contents of dreams could reveal true virtue or vice.7 Even if the actions one performs in a dream have no actual good or bad consequences, they reveal truths about one's emotional make-up, and one's inner desires, and these, in turn are revealing of character. But, as we've discussed, the Matrix isn't a dream. The unenlightened exist, rather, in a state of psychological manipulation. The actions they seem to perform don't always have the effects (in reality) that they have reason to expect, based on their manipulated experiences. But even in the Matrix we can argue that they make voluntary choices. They are not irrational. They are not like the insane. Neo believes what any rational, reasonable person would believe under the circumstances. The pre-enlightened are analogous to persons who make decisions based on lies that others have told them. They act, but without relevant information. It's that condition that Neo would like to rectify at the end of The Matrix.
The view I favor is that without actual bad effects the actions of those in the Matrix are not immoral. But, again, this claim is controversial. Some would argue that it's simply "the thought that counts"; that it is the person's intentions which determine the moral quality of what he or she does. Immanuel Kant, for example, is famous for having claimed that all that matters, intrinsically, is a good will - actual consequences are irrelevant to moral worth.8 However, it would then be the case that forming bad intentions in one's dreams is also sufficient for immorality, and this seems highly counterintuitive. If that's true, then the intention to do something immoral along with the belief that one has so acted, is enough to make one guilty of moral wrongdoing. Instead, it seems more plausible that it must also be the case that there is some actual bad brought about, or at least the realistic prospect of some actual bad consequences, and thus non-veridical 'wrongdoing' in the Matrix is not actual wrongdoing.
This seems to be clearly the case in a dream. In a dream, when the dreamer decides to do something bad that decision doesn't impact on the real world. But the Matrix is not really a dream. If we assume that the virtual world of the Matrix is complete - that is, completely like the real world before the machines took over - then the virtual 'harms' are still real in that they are realizized in terms of actual unpleasant mental states. The virtual fur coat is the result then of a virtual animal getting killed, but a virtual animal with all the right sorts of mental states - in this case, pain and suffering. If this is the case, then the killer, though mistaken in thinking the dead animal 'real' has still produced bad effects in the form of genuine pain and suffering. And thus, the action is immoral even though non-veridical. However, if the world of the Matrix is incomplete, the issue becomes more complicated. If Cypher's virtual steak comes from a virtual meat locker, and the meat locker is the end of the line - and the acquisition of the steak does not involve the killing of a virtual animal with all the same psychology of pain and suffering a 'real' animal feels, then no moral harm has been done.
But note that Thoreau's point still holds even though the Matrix is not exactly like a dream. That is - even if a person hasn't actually done anything bad, or caused any real harm to another sentient life form, we may still make a negative evaluation of the person's character.
But my guess is that the Matrix is a complete alternate reality created in the image of the pre-machine reality. And the Matrix, if it does offer such a complete replication of the pre-machine reality, is truly a self-contained world. It has its own objects, its own people, animals and ethics. The systematic deception of the humans doesn't change this.
1. The issue of the moral status of the machines themselves should be kept distinct from the issue of the moral status of the sentient programs. I will focus on the latter issue here in discussion, simply because the movie provides more information about the behavior of these constructs. But the same points would hold for the machines themselves - if they have those qualities that are morally significant, consciousness and rationality, then they also possess moral standing.
2. St. Augustine, The Trinity (8.6.9). Again, this line of reasoning is controversial since it relies on a single case analogy.
3. A lot hinges on what we take to be 'structurally similar'. Some would argue that while the sentient programs are not themselves structures, the machines are, and thus the machines may possess consciousness, though the programs cannot. However, I believe the sentient programs can be structurally similar if that's understood functionally - their code has structure which provides functional equivalence to the physical states that underlie our mental states. But, this issue would be extremely controversial, and there isn't enough time to delve into it more fully here.
4. See Christopher Grau's introductory essays on this site for more on dream skepticism and brain-in-a-vat skepticism.
5.The unenlightened, on the other hand, are constantly being "Gettiered". A woman may have justified true belief that her husband is dead, because she has just 'seen' him smashed by a truck. But being in the Matrix she lacks true knowledge because she is deceived in the true manner of his death.
6. See, for example, William Mann's "Dreams of Immorality," Philosophy (1983), pp. 378-85.
7. Thoreau writes about this in A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack (1849).
8. This also is controversial, but see Kant's Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis White Beck, and critical essays ed. by Robert Paul Wolf (NY: MacMillan, 1969):
Nothing in the world - indeed, nothing even beyond the world - can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will The good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes or because of its adequacy to achieve some proposed end; it is good only because of its willing, i.e., it is good of itself. (pp. 11-12)Neo's freedom...Whoa by Michael McKenna
The Matrix provides a fine resource for illustrating philosophical ideas. Many films have themes that one can philosophize about, or that serve as useful illustrations of philosophical ideas, such as the wonderful films Sophie's Choice or The Sheltering Sky. But The Matrix offers more than this. It belongs in a special class of films including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, A Clockwork Orange, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and The Truman Show. All of these films are intentionally philosophical. Each shows how richly philosophical themes can be developed through cinema. Perhaps the best of these films is The Matrix.
No doubt, the most striking philosophical theme found in The Matrix concerns skepticism about knowledge of an external world. The dream world Neo inhabited was a perfectly comfortable "reality"-except for the fact that it was not reality. Life from inside it completely shielded one from what Morpheus aptly called "the desert of the real," that desolated shell of a planet on which countless humans were unknowingly ensconced in slimy wombs. But there are many other philosophical themes explored within The Matrix. One is the concept of freedom. Freedom is mentioned at various points in the film.1 It mattered a great deal who did what freely. For instance, it was important that Neo freely chose to take the red pill and not the blue pill. Had he taken the blue pill, he'd have been returned to that humdrum dream world of vapid city dwellers. He'd never have taken the path that eventually led him to his heroic defeat of the agents, and that left him at the end of the film entertaining the prospect of saving the human race. At various other points Neo made choices freely, and, as with taking the red pill, it was the quality of having made them freely that gave them the importance they had. For instance, Neo freely decided to risk his life for Morpheus; instead of fleeing when his own life was in danger, he returned to save Morpheus from cranial meltdown at the hands of those treacherous agents in their zoot suits. Also, Neo freely followed the white rabbit that led him tumbling down that rabbit hole. And he remained in the car when Trinity and Switch gave him the opportunity to bail. By remaining in the car, Neo freely chose to resist the agents. He chose on his own not to get out and walk away down that street, down that well worn path that, Trinity reminded him, led to nowhere special. In choosing to remain in the car, he freely embarked upon a path that would lead to an exciting future, to an exciting life.
But it was not just Neo's freedom that mattered. Freedom was an issue for the others as well. During Cypher's attempted mutiny, Trinity reminded him that all of Morpheus's rebels had freely chosen the red pill, and so none could claim that they were in their dire straights undeservedly. All the same, Cypher regretted his choice. He felt duped; he did not regard his choice to take the red pill as free. As he saw it, he was scammed. In fact, he was of the opinion that he'd have had more freedom as a steak-eating, satiated participant in The Matrix, oblivious to the "truth" about the ugly shell that would have held him in perpetual slumber.
Freedom also mattered a great deal when it was not possessed. It seems that this was the case with those countless human drones, all contained in their artificial wombs. As Morpheus and company saw it (save for Cypher), their poor, ignorant kin were victims, blind to their lack of freedom-maybe even happy in their plodding little lives within the Matrix, working in cubicles all day-but victims all the same, enslaved in the service of generating battery juice for those battery-powered A.I. meanies. Even the leader of the agents' posse, Agent Smith, valued freedom. He too was limited in his freedom since he was required to do something against his will, namely remain in the Matrix and deal with those pesky rebel infiltrators. As he confessed to Morpheus, he hated having to be there, hated the smell of the humans. He felt trapped. Poor guy. In the end, Agent Smith's freedom was dramatically impaired by a liberated Neo, who had turned the tables and was now screwing with him.
But of course, all of this is to leave the concept of freedom unanalyzed, and to take the claims of freedom within the film on face value. As any good student of philosophy is aware, there are quite general skeptical challenges to (certain kinds of) freedom that might undermine the very idea that any agent is free in at least one important respect. Let's defer for just a bit longer placing any theoretical structure on what freedom might be, and on the sorts of challenges there might be to it. Let's fix upon some further observations that will subsequently help us to bring into clear focus a few frequently unacknowledged but powerful points about the freedom of human agency, a freedom many have called freedom of the will.
It appeared in the film that some had more freedom than others. Morpheus's crew was amazed watching Neo fight Morpheus for the first time. They thought that the untrained neophyte Neo was just so fast, faster than any of the others. Their hope was that Neo was "The One". No doubt there are biblical themes throughout the film, and no doubt "The One" is one of those themes; "The One" is something like a divine savior. A crucial feature of this savior is that whoever could fill the bill would have more freedom within the Matrix than could any other rebel visitor to it, or for that matter, any other intentional being operating within the Matrix, including the agents. Indeed, their hope was that Neo's freedom within the Matrix would be like that of God; Neo would have unlimited freedom. So it appeared that Neo, even when first getting acquainted with his abilities, had more freedom within the Matrix than did Trinity, Cypher, or any of the rest of Morpheus's gang (save for Morpheus himself). But there are other comparisons as well that indicate different degrees of freedom within the Matrix. Neo, Morpheus, and all of the rebels had more freedom within the Matrix than did all those clueless characters walking the streets, living in their homes, watching the TV, going to work, etc. At least as Morpheus and company saw it, the clueless were completely unfree.
Until near the film's end, Neo had less freedom than did the agents. The agents could simply move about satisfying most any desire they had, taking on others' bodies, appearing whenever and wherever they wanted, and operating with fantastic foresight about who would be where, when, etc. These agents defied what seemed to be the laws of nature (as structured within the Matrix). They could emerge unscathed after being slammed by speeding trains that would have crushed and destroyed any run of the mill putz living out his ordinary life within the Matrix. They took bullets and kept a tickin', and they could simply make a person's mouth disappear at will. They had the run of the place, at least until those closing moments of the film. But in those closing moments of the film, Neo was the freest agent operating within the Matrix. Hell, by the time he came to realize his true potential within it, he could beat the crap out of those battery-powered robot-demons, stop bullets, and fly like Superman.
One more very important observation before we roll up our sleeves and do some philosophical work: The special sort of freedom that Neo seemed to possess in the film was a freedom confined to the Matrix. The same, of course, applies to Morpheus and the other rebels whom Morpheus trained. The film has given us no reason to believe that Neo, or anyone else, has any special freedom outside the Matrix. In the "real" world, as it is in the space ship with those nasty flying bugs out hunting down rebel ships on that desolated planet, Morpheus, Neo, Trinity, Cypher, and the rest of the clan are just normally functioning human agents like you or me. Presumably, in the real world, Neo's just a guy, a guy who, analogous to poor, impaired, nobody Tommy in The Who's rock opera Tommy, is transformed in game mode to the most gifted being ever to play the relevant game-a pinball wizard. In the Matrix, that is, roughly, in the ultimate of video game consoles, Neo ain't got no distractions, can't hear no buzzes or bells, always gets the replay and never tilts at all.
So in The Matrix, near the end of the film, as Neo comes to master the game, he's totally dialed in. It's gotta rock! Let us call this freedom that Neo possesses within the Matrix absolute freedom, and let us call the feature that seems to go with it the property of rocking. No doubt, when Neo first saw such amazing freedom exercised-when Morpheus leapt an incredible distance from one skyscraper to another-he judged that indeed such extreme freedom did rock, and in amazement he appropriately expressed himself thusly: "Whoa!"
The concept of absolute freedom and its presumed property of rocking will be further developed in the closing sections of this essay. But for now, let us first give some theoretical structure to the idea of freedom, forgetting about absolute freedom, and let us consider briefly a classical philosophical challenge to it. Once we have these issues in place, we'll turn back to the film and examine our natural reactions to it, reactions such as the many mentioned above.
The term freedom is used in many contexts, and there is no reason to assume that there is a single meaning of the term. Minimally, all of the uses of the term do seem to share the feature that resistance of some sort, encumbering or impeding desired conduct, gets in the way of freedom. Typically, one is not free when she is frustrated in some manner from unencumbered pursuit of her desired course of action. But the absence of impediments is clearly not sufficient for the kind of freedom that mattered to Morpheus, Neo, and company, nor to what is valuable and distinctive of the human condition. A stupid dog can sometimes act unencumbered when, for instance, she is unleashed-when she is set free. And though free in a very basic way, the stupid dog's freedom is not the kind that makes philosophers, theologians, politicians, moralists, or just your run of the mill high-minded folk get the warm fuzzies. No. The freedom worth talking about seems to be a freedom distinctive of persons, and this suggests that understanding the relevant notion of freedom first requires an understanding of what it is to be a person.
Regrettably, offering an account of personhood is beyond the scope of this essay. But to appreciate what seems to mark persons from non-persons, those familiar with the movie Blade Runner can reflect upon the characters Decker and the replicant Rachael, with whom Decker fell in love. Although Decker was a human being (maybe), and Rachael was an artificial replicant of a human being, both were persons.2 Both were capable of planning lives, of developing intimate relationships of love and hate, of fearing for, and finding dear, their own lives, and the lives of other persons. Both had the capacity for abstract thought, emotional responses to others, self-consciousness, etc. Less developed cognitive creatures were not persons, such as the primitive little A.I. machines that kept J.F. Sebastian company (J.F. Sebastian was another character in Blade Runner). Or to draw upon other clear illustrations of personhood from other sources in film, E.T. from the classic Spielberg movie was a person. Data from the Star Trek series and movies is a person, though neither E.T. nor Data is a human being. So, for our purposes, Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, as well as the agents, are all persons-though the agents, like E.T. or Data, are non-human persons.
Even restricting the term freedom to its applications to persons, there are at least two sorts that have been the focus of a great deal of philosophical attention for well over two millennia now. One is a matter of political freedom, another is a matter of metaphysical freedom, the latter being understood as freedom of the will. Political freedom concerns the freedom of persons to conduct themselves as they see fit within the political landscape. The nature of the political landscape is itself a matter of dispute. Does the landscape germane to political freedom include economic empowerment? Or does it merely involve what are often referred to as the civil liberties, such as the liberty to speak unthreatened from harm of prohibition, to organize as one wishes, etc? Political freedom, whatever it comes to, is certainly a deeply important sort of freedom, and no doubt, it is a sort of freedom that Morpheus was struggling to give back to the human race. At least this is how Morpheus and his comrades saw it. But the more immediate sort of freedom to which the film directs our attention is not political freedom, but metaphysical freedom, that is, freedom of the will.
Before turning our attention to the topic of free will, it is worth asking, what is a will? This is also the subject of a great deal of dispute, but it is natural to think of the will as the aspect of a creature's mentality that is the source of voluntary, intentional (that is, goal-directed) action. Hence, any agent-that is, any being that acts, such as a dog, a cat, a chimpanzee-has a will. The philosophical gem worthy of reflection is what makes a will free, and most notably free in the special way distinctive of a unique class of agents, those who are persons.
A word of caution: The expression "metaphysical freedom" is often regarded derisively by theorists, largely outside of philosophy, who fallaciously associate it only with extravagant views about the human condition, such as the view that metaphysical freedom provides persons with a capacity to transcend the material world, to choose and act unlimited by the laws of nature, or by any constraints from the material world. And while some theories of free will do attribute to persons the ability to perform 'very small' miracles whenever they act freely3, all the expression metaphysical freedom need pick out is a distinctive feature of personhood-a feature unique to the will of a person, perhaps part of the essence or the nature of what it is to be a person. How to understand this freedom is up for grabs. So, to be clear: the very mention of the notion of metaphysical freedom, or freedom of the will, does not entail anything mysterious. It does not entail anything contrary to the spirit of an inquiry such as Darwin's, or that of the neurobiologist. It might turn out that free will involves no special miraculous features of agency at all, that metaphysical freedom is entirely consistent with a deflationary account of human persons according to which all human persons are entirely the products of their genetics, their environment, and any other physical factors impinging upon them. That said, it should be kept in mind that, on the other hand, serious philosophical reflection might indicate that the concept of free will implies that a deflationary view of persons is false. But the crucial point here is that it is not part of the meaning of the very term metaphysical freedom, or freedom of will, that it involve anything spooky, mysterious, unworldly, or otherwise beyond the pale of what is in principle explicable in terms of our best natural sciences.
Here is a theory-neutral characterization of free will:
Free will is the ability of persons to control the future through their choices and actions.
This is a lean definition that is not biased towards any one particular manner of philosophizing about free will. Of course, it is only a first pass and cries out for refinement. The crux of the issue concerns how best to articulate the ability to control the future. Let us consider two ways to articulate further this characterization of free will.
It is quite natural to assume, as many philosophers do, that a person acts with freedom of the will only if there are alternative courses of action available to her at the time at which she acts. On a model such as this, a person's freedom of the will consists partly in her being in control of a spectrum of options that, so to speak, open up different temporal paths, allowing her access to different unfolding futures, different ways that her life might go. At various points in the film, this picture of freedom was emphasized, as when Neo chose to remain in the car and not bail when Trinity and Switch gave him the opportunity to do so. This picture of freedom was also highlighted when Neo chose to return and fight the agents so as to save Morpheus. Instead Neo could have left Morpheus to (what seemed to be) his inevitable demise.
So one way to advance free will is in terms of alternative possibilities. But there are other strategies for understanding free will, strategies that might or might not work in tandem with a demand for alternative possibilities. For instance, another way to think about free will is in terms of what does happen, what an agent does do, and not in terms of what other things she might do or might have done. Instead of focusing on alternative possibilities, this manner of theorizing concentrates upon the source of an agent's actions. On this approach, freely willed actions arise from certain salient features of an agent's self, features that indicate that, in an important respect she-the agent-is the source of how the future does unfold. To illustrate, consider a paradigmatic case of an agent who lacks free will. An unwilling addict, for example would not act with freedom of will when she takes the drug to which she is addicted. This is because her addictive desire to take the drug is so strong that it compels her to take it even though she is unwilling in taking the drug. She does not desire that her desire for the drug cause her to take it. But she does take it all the same. The future does not unfold as she herself would like it to unfold. On the other hand, sometimes properly functioning persons do act precisely as they wish (however "as they wish" might be understood). When they do, if all goes well, the future unfolds as they would like it to unfold, and it unfolds in this way partially because what they do causes it to unfold in this way. Hence, in a very basic way, these normally functioning persons are guiding how the future unfolds when they act unencumbered. They are the ones bringing about certain events, shaping the future in certain ways via their agency. They are sources of control over the future. It should also be clear that Morpheus and Neo illustrated such views of freedom. They certainly were at points sources of "control" over how their futures were unfolding. Morpheus and Neo, as well as the rest of the rebels, were making their marks inside and outside of the Matrix. Much to the chagrin of the agents, Morpheus and his crew were sources of control over how certain events were unfolding.
In summary, if we understand free will as a capacity of persons to control the future through their choices and actions, then there are two ways that one might further develop this idea of control over the future. One is in terms of control over alternative possibilities; another is in terms of one's very self being a source of how the future goes, an authentic shaper or causer of events in the world.
However the concept of free will is developed, there is a classical challenge to the very idea that any person possesses it. In particular, some philosophers believe that if the universe is fully determined, then no person has free will. What it means to suggest that the universe is determined is a distinct and controversial philosophical topic. A currently fashionable definition of determinism has it, roughly, that the past, combined with the laws of nature, causally insures one unique future. To appreciate fully this definition, one needs an account of what the past is (or the facts of it), what it means to causally insure, etc. But the general idea is basically captured with the suggestion that, for any person, states of the world independent of that person, or independent of features of her intentional agency (possibly, states of the world prior to her birth), combined with the laws governing the natural world (such as the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), are themselves sufficient to fix fully what that person does at any time. Crudely put, are persons and their conduct exhaustively explained in terms of their hereditary, their biology, such as their neurobiological functioning, and the environmental influences impinging upon them? Put even more crudely, is all human conduct purely a matter of nature and nurture? Or is determinism false, and is it instead the case that these influences do not all by themselves explain exactly what a person does at any time? If not, does the person herself contribute something over and above these other factors that accounts for why she does what she does?
Incompatibilists believe that if determinism is true, no one has free will. No one can control her future since the universe, so to speak, is really controlling it, and persons and their conduct are merely conduits through which the forces of nature operate. The universe leads some people to act in certain ways, and others to act differently. Persons are not at the helms of their lives, guiding their futures. Persons are products of the universe, not agents freely acting upon it!
Turning to the two ways of developing the concept of free will suggested above, the incompatibilists will argue that either way conflicts with the assumptions of a deterministic world. Suppose that the concept of free will is developed in terms of alternative possibilities. If determinism is true, and if facts distinct from a person's intentional agency, combined with the laws of nature, entail that an agent's intentional conduct will be thus and so, then an agent is not free to do other than thus and so. She has no alternatives over which to exercise control. Her past and the forces of nature have settled for her what path into the future she will take.
Or suppose instead that the concept of free will is developed in terms of an agent's being an actual source of how the world goes, and it going that way, at least in part, because of her. If determinism is true, then there are facts prior to any person's birth, combined with the laws of nature, that provide sufficient conditions for how the future will unfold. A person's agency, given determinism, seems to be nothing but a conduit, a facilitator, for what has already been set in motion. She, ultimately, is not the source of her action, the controller of an unfolding future. Sure, sometimes the future unfolds as she desires that it does, and sometimes her desires figure in the causes that explain why it does unfold as such. But these very desires, her beliefs, value judgments, her preferences about what motivational states are the ones that she wishes to act upon, all of these factors are themselves not factors ultimately issuing from her, but from the determined universe and the unfolding future that is an upshot of it.
As initially puzzling as it seems, compatibilists maintain that persons can have free will even if determinism is true. Some compatibilists, embracing a view of free will that requires alternative possibilities, have attempted to show that a determined person might still, in some meaningful sense, have the ability to do other than what she does. Other compatibilists have instead emphasized how an agent might, via her own motivational states, still count as a significant actual source of efficacy in the way the future comes about.4
There are various ways in which the tension between compatibilism and incompatibilism is brought out in the film. One is in terms of reflections upon fate. Another is in terms of the Oracle's ability to know the future. Yet another has to do with the status of those poor "enslaved" humans.
It is worth noting that within the film, as in ordinary discourse, the term fate is used in two different sorts of ways, ways that are easy to confuse, but upon reflection are clearly distinct. Sometimes fate is used to mean what is also meant by determinism. This certainly seems to be the primary manner in which it is used within the film. Given this usage, what it is for something to be fated is for it to be causally insured by prior conditions. This view is entirely consistent with one's conduct being a crucial factor in what is causally insured. But on a different construal, if some outcome is fated, then it will come about no matter what one does. On this view, one's agency is an idle factor. A certain future will transpire irrespective of anything one might do. The standard example of this is the story of Oedipus. The gods were going to see to it that Oedipus met his terrible fate-killing his father and copulating with his mother-no matter what different things were done by any mortal to avoid that outcome.
These two notions are extremely different. To illustrate: If it was fated irrespective of what anyone did that Kennedy would be assassinated on the day he was, then no matter what Lee Harvey Oswald did (including not assassinate anyone), Kennedy was going to be assassinated (by someone). But if it was fated just in the sense of being determined that Kennedy was going to be assassinated, then it mattered a great deal precisely what Oswald did. Had he not done what he did, then Kennedy would not have been shot. One account of fate states that a certain future will unfold no matter what any person does or will do; another sates that a certain future will unfold precisely because of what does or will take place (which includes, among other things, what people actually do). Typically, philosophers reserve the term fatalism for the former notion and determinism for the latter. But for purposes of analyzing the film, let us distinguish between no-matter-what-one-does fatalism and deterministic fatalism.5
When Neo and Morpheus first met, Morpheus asked Neo if he believed in fate. Neo said that he did not since he did not like the idea that he did not control his life. Note that, at this point in the film, what Morpheus meant by fate, and what Neo took it to mean, remained ambiguous between the two notions distinguished above. This is because, if one's life is subject to no-matter-what-one-does fate, then that would undermine one's control with respect to the fated outcome. So Neo's reply could have been in response to the suggestion that life was no-matter-what-one-does fated.6 Perhaps what Neo found objectionable about fatalism was the thought that his agency in the world would have no effect on the world's outcome at all-no matter what he did. And indeed, that is how it seemed the enslaved humans lived within the Matrix, having no effect no matter what they did on their contribution to generating electricity for the A.I. meanies. But even if this is what Neo meant in that first conversation with Morpheus, later in the film it is clear that Neo also wanted to resist deterministic fatalism. He was committed to the idea that deterministic fatalism would undermine his control over the world. At points it was quite clear that his worry was in the form of alternative possibilities. He resisted the idea that the Oracle could know which of the possible futures before him would be his inevitable actual future. He thought that it was up to him what that future would be-would he choose to save Morpheus or himself? But Neo also seemed to think in terms of source models of control: As he saw it, it was not settled in advance how he would act; he would be the settler of it! As the Oracle was bidding Neo farewell, she herself put those words in his mouth. Neo, it seems, was an incompatibilist.
If Neo is the incompatibilist in the film, Morpheus is certainly the compatibilist. He believed in his consultations with the Oracle that the future was deterministically fated, that The One would come. But he also believed that what he did, and what the others did, mattered very much to that outcome. (So he certainly did not endorse no-matter-what-one-does fatalism.) Even more importantly, he believed that it mattered very much that what people did, they did of their own free will, hence the use of the blue and the red pills. His advice to Neo was especially telling. Thinking in terms of source control, Morpheus explained to Neo that it is not enough to know that you are The One, you have to be The One. That is, Neo had to be the actual source of that special person, which was a matter of his actual conduct in the world, and not merely something he conceptually grasped.
And what of the Oracle herself? To correct the impression that perhaps the Oracle is not really able to foresee the future, Morpheus tells Neo that the Oracle never intended to speak truthfully to Neo about what she foresaw. She only intended to say to Neo what he needed to hear (which of course she knew since she was an Oracle). Surely, if she did make any judgments about what Neo needed to hear, then she did believe that what he would do would matter to how the future would go. If so, then like Neo and Morpheus, she also did not believe in no-matter-what-one-does fate. But being an Oracle, she probably at least entertained the idea that deterministic-fatalism was true. Suppose she did believe it. Was she a compatibilist or an incompatibilist? Might she have believed, consistent with incompatibilism, that all the human struggles to shape the future were unfree actions set in motion by a long, deterministically fated history? Or did she instead, consistent with compatibilism, foresee and understand Neo's heroic efforts as deterministically fated, but freely willed all the same? Suppose instead that the Oracle did not believe in deterministic fatalism. Perhaps she thought the universe was fundamentally indeterminate and that no facts of the past or present insured any particular way that the future must go. If she believed this, then how did she understand the basis of her own predictions? Maybe in foreseeing Neo's actions, she interpreted them as freely willed and understood her powers to foresee future conduct as completely consistent with the falsity of determinism.7 The film leaves entirely open which interpretation of the Oracle's beliefs is the correct one.
Consider a very different matter, the status of the enslaved masses. Unlike characters like Neo, Morpheus, and the Oracle, it seems irrelevant to ask about what they believe about their own free will and what they might think about fate. They are oblivious to what is taking place outside of the Matrix. Much like the character Truman from the film The Truman Show, these poor suckers stuck in those giant wombs are the ultimate illustrations of a very special sort of example used in the free will debate. Incompatibilists are fond of challenging compatibilist notions of control with complicated manipulation cases. The incompatibilists' strategy is to cook up a very troubling scenario in which a person is manipulated into a manner of acting. Of course, what the incompatibilists try to do is make the sort of manipulation so subtle that it is indistinguishable from what ordinary life might be like for you or me. Intuitively the examples are supposed to elicit the reaction that the manipulated person is not free because the source of her action is polluted. It is not she but something else that is the source of her agency. Then the incompatibilists will attempt to argue that a person determined by her past and the laws of nature is no different than a person manipulated in one of these wild scenarios. Hence, the only way that a person like you or me can be free is if she is not determined. If she is determined, then she is no more free than is a manipulated agent, which is to say that she is not free at all.
These manipulation cases have come to be known as covert non-constraining control (CNC) examples.8 Compatibilists have two ways in which they can respond to CNC cases. One is to deny that the manipulated agents are unfree. So long as the manipulation is complicated enough, and so long as the manipulation accurately replicates the normal functioning of a person getting through life, then it really is no different than a person being determined. But this is not a problem since the manipulated person is a freely willing one. It is just that the causes of her actions are a lot weirder than the causes of a normally functioning person. Note that this was Cypher's view. In fact, for him the Matrix would afford him more freedom than what was available on that disgusting planet. What did he care what caused his sensation of eating a juicy delicious steak? Real or illusory, he just wanted the damned steak to taste good!
Other compatibilists try to show that there is some significant difference between a causally determined person and a manipulated one. Typically the difference has to do with the history that explains why a person is caused to be as she is. If the causes are of the wrong sort, then she is in some way inauthentic. She is not truly the one engaging the world. Someone or something else is settling for her the values, principles, etc. that she then uses to decide how to act in the world. This, it seems, was the basis for Morpheus's complaint about the Matrix. When he first coaxed Neo, prodding Neo and asking him if he too felt that something about his reality was not right, what Morpheus sought to convey was that human agency within the Matrix was defective; its causal source was designed to settle other goals or needs than the ones that persons within the Matrix endorsed. Their minds were thus enslaved and so, even if, in a sense, they were "free" within their dream world to do certain things, they were not the source of the goals that their lives ultimately served.
All of the above reflections indicate the various ways that The Matrix openly struggles with the free will debate. But what view of free will is the correct one, and how ought it to be characterized? The philosophical controversy between compatibilists and incompatibilists is one of the perennial problems of philosophy. It will likely remain so. One reason for this is that it is clearly not a "no-brainer"! Reasonable minds have differed as to the correct resolution to this problem. And there is no reason to think that this will change any time soon. In fact, one of today's most influential theorists about the controversy has suggested that, at least for certain ways of formulating the problem, the debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists leads to dialectical stalemates.9 A dialectical stalemate arises when opposing positions within a reasoned debate reach points at which each side's arguments remain reasonable, even compelling, but in which argument runs out; neither can rightly claim decisively to have unseated the legitimacy of the other side's point of view.
I certainly do not know whether the free will problem is ultimately doomed to dialectical stalemate, or whether instead there is some strategy that will be able to settle a reasoned disagreement that is over 2,500 years old. But one point I would like to highlight about this controversy is that it would not have remained a controversial topic, and dialectical stalemates would not have arisen from it, were it not for the fact that the phenomenology of human experience, as it is for the normally functioning person, does not decisively provide evidence for any one position. It is consistent with how we experience our lives, and how we experience the exercising of our agency, that, in keeping with the incompatibilist position, the control required for free will is illusory, and that we are determined creatures. Or, also in keeping with the incompatibilist position, it is consistent with our experience that the control required for free will is satisfied, and in a way that requires the falsity of determinism. Finally, as the compatibilists allow, it is also consistent with our experience that we do possess free will and that we are determined.
To its credit, The Matrix does not pretend to endorse one point of view about free will. It is neither a compatibilist-friendly, nor an incompatibilist-friendly film. With notable exceptions, the film's reflections on free will mirror the phenomenology of human agency. As is the case in our actual lives, how life is experienced underdetermines the correct answer as to whether the compatibilists or the incompatibilists are correct about free will. I say here "with notable exceptions" since there are clearly aspects of Neo's agency, as well as that of Morpheus's, the other rebels', and the A.I. agents' that most distinctly do not mirror the phenomenology of human agency. It is to these differences that I would now like to turn in closing.
One assumption of the free will debate, shared by all parties to it, is that whatever kind of freedom an agent does possess, whether it requires the falsity of determinism or not, an agent's free will does not consist in her ability to actually cause laws of nature to be false, or to be suspended just in order to bring about astounding miracles. But within the Matrix, that is, essentially, the sort of control that Neo came to have. Of course, to a lesser extent, so too did Trinity and Morpheus. Indeed, Morpheus even advised Neo to think of the rules of his dream world as mere conventions (rules of a program) that could be bent or just flat out broken. Now some philosophers might want to object here that there is a conceptual problem with describing any rules within the Matrix as both laws of nature and breakable. But this would be splitting hairs at a point at which much more could be gained by reflecting instead upon the power of the thought experiment as it is played out within the film.
Within the history of philosophy, various writers have at one point or another articulated accounts of free will that later were scoffed at and quickly dismissed as fantastical or incoherent or ultimately contradictory.10 All of these criticisms of these extreme views of freedom might have been on the money, but no philosophical dismissal of the conceptual legitimacy of such a notion of freedom can itself discredit the sort of basis one might have for desiring it. Neo's freedom within the Matrix might seem completely outlandish, merely the stuff of comic books, but the source of its cinematic appeal is that, in a very primitive way, as agents in the world, we all know what it is to bump up against the boundaries of the causally possible. We all understand what a source of liberation it would be if all at once we could act unconstrained by them. Of course, this is the stuff that dreams are made of. But to see where our dreams begin often helps us to appreciate both the limits and value of our actual lives.
I shall therefore close with two observations about this extreme sort of fantastical freedom exercised within the Matrix. In section one of this essay I indicated that the freedom of the agents within the Matrix came in degrees, and that more of it appeared to be more appealing than less. In fact, I suggested that, by the film's end, within the Matrix Neo possessed absolute freedom, and that it rocked. But does absolute freedom rock? We all do value freedom, it appears, and it does look as if it gives most everyone the warm fuzzies. But I propose that absolute freedom would not rock, and once had for a while, when exercising it, one would no longer be prepared to exclaim, along with Neo, "Whoa!" This is because the property of rocking found in exercising one's agency comes when one is pressing the boundaries of what she is capable of, pressing the boundaries of the limits placed upon her. Anyone who knows the joy of play understands this. Taking the basketball to the hole, snagging a line drive, pushing one's skis down the steep tight line, nailing a turn on a cycle, or crossing the finish line first with the beat of the pack just behind you, all of this involves the prospect of failure and the demands of an effort of will forced up against the boundaries of what one can do. Absolute freedom would require none of that.
Surprising as it might seem, I propose that a life filled to the brim with absolute freedom would absolutely suck. It would be boring as hell and almost entirely uneventful. Recall the look of utter indifference Neo had on his face when he realized how completely effortlessly he could block Agent Smith's blows in that final face-off. He might as well have been yawning and reading a paper while defending himself: "Ho hum." Imagine if all of one's efforts in life were like this. Contrast this with Neo's intensity and enthusiasm when he still had to work hard to get what he wanted, leaping from a helicopter to save Morpheus, or cart-wheeling through a blaze of bullets and taking out all attackers. How mundane all of this would have been had Neo then been able just to will all of the bullets to stop flying, or Morpheus to stop falling to earth, etc.
Here is a rich irony: Our hankering for absolute freedom, a hankering of a dream world, is something we wish for because we do not have it. Because we bump up against our limits and sometimes fail, we yearn for the power to move beyond those limits. But if we had that power in spades, we'd lose all interest in the activities we find so dear. So it seems that the value of freedom and its place in our lives is partially a function of the manner in which we lack it. It is yet a further credit to a film like The Matrix that it instigates such reflections on the value of freedom.
A final speculation will also shed further light on the value we place on freedom. Supposing that Neo could find a way to continue rocking from within the Matrix. Neo faces a fantastic choice. Should he work to destroy the Matrix? His absolute freedom is so great within it. Imagine the possibilities. He could be so much in the dream world, have so much, do so much; he could bring such joy to others within it. But knowing what he does about the real world, could he value it, could he take the Matrix seriously? Perhaps you think that Neo should remain within the Matrix where his powers are phenomenal. If instead he attempted to destroy the Matrix, he'd lose all of his powers and have only a dark and barren planet to offer to his liberated human kin. Maybe, like Cypher, they would hate that world and thus resent Neo, seeing him not as a god-like liberator, but as an evil demon dragging them from a relative dream-world utopia into a real-life hell. Even if, for these reasons, you think Neo would do better to remain within the Matrix, acting as a god, trying to do as much good for others as he can, I'll bet that you pause at the thought of it. I myself am unsure what Neo should do, or what I would do if I were he. But if there is something wrong with this option, I suggest that it is at least in part because it would be an inauthentic form of life, a life that valued a certain kind of freedom at the expense of truth, at the expense of real engagement with the actual world. Would this not amount to placing too much value in freedom; would it not amount to valuing freedom at the expense of other worthy elements of life?
When I was young boy my grandfather, Poppy, took me fishing. I wanted very much that day to catch a trout. I was completely incapable of the task, so Poppy caught one and took it upstream a little way, still hooked on a line. Placing it back in the water, but holding onto the line, he walked it down to me, made as if it was tugging at my pole, and then helped me to "reel it in." I was delighted. So was he. It was only years later that he told me how I came to snag that elusive trout. Suppose that the rest of my life, each fish I caught, I caught only that way, each success of mine was only such a success. Even though Poppy was certainly happy with that little moment of mine, he'd never have wished for me a life of nothing but such shams. To wish merely for an improved life for human kind only within the Matrix, even with lots of nifty freedom for everyone within it, I would speculate, if it is wrong, then its wrongness is partially explained by the fact that it is analogous to wishing for all human kind that all of their accomplishments be like Poppy's tying that fish to the end of my pole. It would be nice for a spell, for a moment, in a dream. But we humans want something more. We want to catch our own fish, and we want to catch real fish. When we want something else, we'll go to the movies.
1. I shall assume that my reader has seen the film and is familiar with the characters in it, the basic plot, various events that took place, etc.
2. I say that maybe Decker is a human being since there is some suggestion in the film that Decker might actually be a replicant and not a human being.
3. For example, in articulating an account of free will, the philosopher Roderick Chisholm wrote:
if what I have been trying to say is true, then we have a prerogative which some would attribute only to God: each of us, when we act, is a prime mover unmoved. In doing what we do, we cause certain events to happen, and nothing-or no one-causes us to cause those events to happen. (Chisholm, p. 32, cited from Watson, ed., 1982)
Caution should be taken with even this rather extreme view, since Chisholm was not claiming that the sorts of 'miracles' what would allow freely willing and uncaused persons to cause events would amount to miracles that could make walls melt, planes fall from the sky, or bullets to stop in mid air.
4. There is even a controversy amongst compatibilists as to whether or not only the latter notion of control is needed for free will, or whether free will is possible only if both alternative possibilities and actual source conditions are satisfied.
5. For a film that plays with these ideas, see Minority Report.
6. This interpretation of the scene fits with Morpheus's subsequent description of how the human race was enslaved. No matter what humans do within the Matrix itself, their conduct is designed to do no more than generate battery juice for the "evolved" artificial intelligences. In fact, it seemed from the film that the level of control that the designers and controllers of the Matrix had over the humans operating within it was not a completely deterministically fated sort of control, but really a sort better suited for no-matter-what-one-does fatalism. This is because people within the Matrix seemed able to do all sorts of different things within certain boundaries. The A.I. creatures cared not a bit. The A.I. intelligences were happy to allow a certain level of social disharmony and chaos amongst the humans within the Matrix. As long as ultimately the outcome was that human lives were lived in the service of creating energy for their artificial intelligence lives, what did it matter to them what the humans did to each other in their dream worlds?
7. The puzzles here over the status of the Oracle's foreknowledge are like those regarding the status of a foreknowing God. If God foreknows all human conduct, does that mean that, by virtue of God's infallible nature, all human conduct is determined? Or is it possible for god to know exactly what any person does or will do even if nothing other than the person herself freely determines what she will do?
8. See Robert Kane, 1996, pp.65-71. . Kane writes:
We are all aware of two ways to get others to do our bidding in everyday life. We may force them to do what we want by coercing or constraining them against their wills, which is constraining control or CC control. Or we may manipulate them into doing what we want while making them feel that they have made up their own minds and are acting "of their own free will"-which is covert nonconstraining or CNC control. Cases of CNC control in larger settings are provided by examples like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or B.F. Skinner's Walden Two. Frazier, the fictional founder of Skinner's Walden Two, gives a clear description of CNC control when he says that in his community persons can do whatever they want or choose, but they have been conditioned since childhood to want and choose only that they can have or do (p.65).
9. John Martin Fischer, 1994, pp.83-85.
10. A classic example of this is Sartre's notion of radical freedom, which alleged that all persons have freedom with respect to every aspect of reality they confront, every fact of the world. (For an excerpt of Sartre's view, as presented in his Being and Nothingness, see the Berofsky collection, 1966, pp. 174-195.)
Suggestions for Further Reading
Books Especially Accessible to an Introductory Audience
Ekstrom, Laura Waddell. 2000. Free Will. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Honderich, Ted. 1993. How Free Are You? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wolf, Susan. 1990. Freedom within Reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Berofsky, Bernard. 1987. Freedom from Necessity. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Bok, Hilary. 1998. Freedom and Responsibility. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Clarke, Randy. forthcoming 2003. Libertarian Accounts of Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dennett, Daniel, 1984. Elbow Room. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Ekstrom, Laura Waddell. 2000. Free Will. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Fischer, John Martin. 1994. The Metaphysics of Free Will. Oxford: Blackwell.
Fischer, John Martin and Mark Ravizza, 1998. Responsibility and Control. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Frankfurt, Harry. 1988. The Importance of What We Care About. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Haji, Ishtiyaque, 1998. Moral Appraisability. New York: Oxford University Press.
Honderich, Ted. 1988. A Theory of Determinism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Kane, Robert, 1996. The Significance of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mele, Alfred. 1995. Autonomous Agency. New York: Oxford University Press.
O'Connor, Timothy. 2000. Persons and Causes. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pereboom, Derk. 2001. Living Without Free Will. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Russell, Paul. 1995. Freedom and Moral Sentiment. New York: Oxford University Press.
Smalinsky, Saul. 2000. Free Will and Illusion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Strawson, Galen. 1986. Freedom and Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
van Inwagen, Peter. 1983. An Essay on Free Will. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Wallace, R. Jay. 1994. Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wolf, Susan. 1990. Freedom within Reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zimmerman, Michael. 1989. An Essay on Moral Responsibility. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.
Berofsky, Bernard. ed., 1966. Free Will and Determinism. New York: Harper and Row.
Ekstrom, Laura Waddell. ed., 2001. Agency and Responsibility. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Fischer, John Martin. ed., 1986. Moral Responsibility. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Fischer, John Martin and Mark Ravizza. eds., 1993. Perspectives on Moral Responsibility. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Honderich, Ted. ed., Essays on Freedom of Action. London; Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Hook, Sidney. ed., 1958. Determinism and Freedom. London: Collier.
Kane, Robert. ed., 2002a. Free Will. Oxford: Blackwell.
_____. ed., 2002b. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lehrer, Keith. ed., 1966. Freedom and Determinism. New York: Random House.
O'Connor, Timothy. ed., 1995. Agents, Causes, and Events. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pereboom, Derk. ed., 1997. Free Will. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
Schoeman, Freiderich, ed., 1987. Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Watson, Gary. ed., 1982. Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Widerker, David and Michael McKenna. eds., 2002. Alternative Possibilities and Moral Responsibility. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Press.
Especially Influential Articles
A.J. Ayer. "Freedom and Necessity." In Pereboom (1997); and Watson (1982).
Chisholm, Roderick. "Human Freedom and the Self." In Pereboom (1997); and Watson (1982).
Dennett, Daniel. "Mechanism and Responsibility." In Watson (1982).
_____. "I Could Not Have Done Otherwise-So What?" In Kane (2002a).
Edwards, Paul. "Hard and Soft Determinism." In Hook (1958); and Kane (2002a)
Fischer, John Martin. "Responsibility and Control." In Fischer (1986).
_____. "Responsiveness and Moral Responsibility." In Pereboom (1997); and Schoemann (1987).
Frankfurt, Harry. "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility." In Fischer (1986); Pereboom (1997); and Widerker and McKenna (2002).
_____. "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person." In Fischer (1986); Kane (2002a); Pereboom (1997); and Watson (1982).
Pereboom, Derk. "Determinism Al Dente." In Pereboom (1997).
Strawson, Peter. "Freedom and Resentment." In Fischer and Ravizza (1993); Pereboom (1997); and Watson (1982).
van Inwagen. "The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism." In Kane (2002a); Pereboom 1997); and Watson (1982).
Watson, Gary, "Free Agency." In Fischer (1986); and Watson (1982).
_____. "Responsibility and the Limits of Evil." In Fischer and Ravizza (1993); Kane (2002a); and Schoeman (1987).
Wolf, Susan. "Asymmetrical Freedom." In Fischer (1986);
_____. "Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility." In Kane (1993); and Schoemann (1987).
For an extensive bibliography, see Kane (2002b).Plato's cave and the Matrix by John Partridge
Philosophy involves seeing the absolute oddity of what is familiar and trying to formulate really probing questions about it." -Iris Murdoch1
They say about me that I am the strangest person, always making people confused." -Socrates2
Imagine a dark, subterranean prison in which humans are bound by their necks to a single place from infancy. Elaborate steps are taken by unseen forces to supply and manipulate the content of the prisoner's visual experience. This is so effective that the prisoners do not recognize their imprisonment and are satisfied to live their lives in this way. Moreover, the cumulative effects of this imprisonment are so thorough that if freed, the prisoners would be virtually helpless. They could not stand up on their own, their eyes would be overloaded initially with sensory information, and even their minds would refuse to accept what the senses eventually presented them. It is not unreasonable to expect that some prisoners would wish to remain imprisoned even after their minds grasped the horror of their condition. But if a prisoner was dragged out and compelled to understand the relationship between the prison and outside, matters would be different. In time the prisoner would come to have genuine knowledge superior to the succession of representations that made up the whole of experience before. This freed prisoner would understand those representations as imperfect-like pale copies of the full reality now grasped in the mind. Yet if returned to the prison, the freed prisoner would be the object of ridicule, disbelief, and hostility.
Viewers of The Matrix remember the moment in the film when Neo is released from his prison and made to grasp the truth of his life and the world. The account above roughly captures that turning point in the 1999 film, and yet it is drawn from an image crafted almost twenty-four hundred years ago by the Greek philosopher, Plato (427-347 B.C.E.). Today the Republic is the most influential work by Plato, and the allegory of the Cave the most famous part of the Republic. If you know that Socrates was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock, or that Socrates thought that the unexamined life is not worth living, you may also know that Socrates in the Republic likened the human condition to the state of prisoners bound in a cave seeing only shadows projected on the wall in front of them. Transcending this state is the aim of genuine education, conceived as a release from imprisonment, a turning or reorientation of one's whole life, an upward journey from darkness into light:
The release from the bonds, the turning around from shadows to statues and the light of the fire and, then, the way up out of the cave to the sunlight : [education] has the power to awaken the best part of the soul and lead it upward to the study of the best among the things that are.3
The allegory of the Cave gives literary shape to Socrates' most fundamental concern, namely that our souls be in the best condition possible (Plato, Apology 30a7-b4). Socrates also believed he was commanded by the god Apollo to practice philosophy; it both animated and cost him his life. Yet it is not obvious how philosophical investigation improves the condition of the soul-still less how the Socratic method in particular does so, consisting as it does in testing the consistency of a person's beliefs through a series of questions Socrates asks.
I believe, and will show here, that the allegory of the Cave is part of Plato's effort to make philosophical sense of Socrates' philosophical life, to link Socrates' persistent questioning to his unwavering aim at what he called the "care of the soul." On this theme of care of the soul, there is a deep resonance between The Matrix and Plato's thought in the Republic. Like the allegory of the Cave, The Matrix dramatically conveys the view that ordinary appearances do not depict true reality and that gaining the truth changes one's life. Neo's movements toward greater understanding nicely parallel the movements of the prisoner in the cave whose bonds are loosened. The surface similarities between the film and the allegory can run to a long catalog. The first paragraph of this essay reveals some of these connections. But there remains a deeper affinity between the two that I shall draw out here, especially in Part IV, having to do with Socrates' notion of the care of the soul.
To see what I am calling a deeper connection between the film and the allegory of the Cave, I begin in Part II by recounting the context in which the Cave appears and the philosophical positions it figuratively depicts.4 In Part III I compare and contrast the film and the allegory, focusing attention on the difficulty in sorting out deceptive sensory information. Finally, in Part IV I examine the warnings and concessions Plato places in the dramatic spaces of Republic. The allegory of the Cave is a strange image, as one of Socrates' friends says (515a4), while Socrates himself confesses that the Cave is not exact (504b5; cf. 435c9-d2).5 Rereading the Cave after a recent viewing of the film shows that these are not throwaway remarks. The Matrix likewise privileges the work that strangeness and calculated vagueness do; Morpheus, after all, cannot show Neo what he most needs to see, but must get him to see for himself something that is difficult to recognize. In this way, The Matrix and Plato's Cave are faithful to a central tenet in Socrates' philosophical examinations: that proper teaching only occurs when students are prepared to make discoveries for themselves. Furthermore, the discovery that is most crucial is the discovery of oneself. Readiness for self-examination is, after all, what makes "care of the soul" possible.
II. Plato's Cave
If Plato's Republic has a single unifying theme, it is to show that the life of the just person is intrinsically preferable to any other life. In order to prove this, Socrates is made to investigate the concept of "justice." After an elaborate effort that spans three of the ten books of the Republic, Socrates and his two interlocutors discover what justice is. Justice is shown to be a property of a soul in which its three parts do their proper work and refrain from doing the job of another part. Specifically, reason must rule the other parts of the soul. Only under the rule of reason is the soul's harmonious arrangement secured and preserved. Plato glosses this idea memorably by calling such a soul healthy. Just persons have psychic health; their personality is integrated in the proper way.
At the end of Book Four, there is one main gap in the argument: what is the precise role of reason, the "best part of the soul" mentioned in the passage above? There is little to go on at this stage. We know only that the soul in which reason does its job well is called wise, and wisdom is a special kind of knowledge: knowledge of the good. How are we to arrive at this knowledge? What is it like to possess it? What sort of thing is the good? The allegory of the Cave speaks to these questions.6
In order to impress upon us the importance of these questions, Book Seven of the Republic begins with a startling image of our ignorance. It is the allegory of the Cave:
Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They've been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets . . . Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artifacts that project above it-statues of people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you'd expect, some of the carriers are talking, and some are silent. (514a1-515a3)
Many contemporary readers recoil at the awful politics of the Cave. Who, after all, are the "puppeteers"? Why do they deceive their fellow cave-dwellers? Plato has so little to say about them that readers quickly imagine their own worst fears; a totalitarian government or the mass media struck mid- and late-20th Century readers as an obvious parallel to the prisoners who move freely within the cave. But this gets the aim of the cave wrong, I believe, since it deflects attention away from the prisoners bound to the posts. "They are us," Socrates says, and this is what is truly sinister: an imprisonment that we do not recognize because we are our own prison-keepers. Let us turn to examine these prisoners and their imprisonment, specifically by examining the philosophical stakes of their ignorance. Only then will we see exactly why ignorance is likened to imprisonment and alienation.
In the cave, the prisoners can distinguish the different shadows and sounds (516c8-9, cf. e8-9), apply names to the shadows depicting things (cf. 515b4-5), and even discern the patterns in their presentation (516c9-10). To this extent they have some true beliefs. But insofar as they believe that this two-dimensional, monochromatic play of images-and the echoes reverberating in the cave-is the whole of reality (515c1-2), they are mistaken. Moreover, the opinions they have do not explain why the shapes they see are as they are. They do not know the source of the shadows, nor do they know that the sounds are not produced by the shadows but rather by the unseen people moving the statues (515b7-9).
The possession of a few, small-scale, true beliefs characterizes the condition of all of us, Plato believes. We can distinguish different things, but we lack a systematic, causal explanation of them. To put it loosely, we have, at best, assorted true beliefs about the what of things, but a mistaken hold (if any) on the why of things. Socrates' search for the definition of justice here, like his search for definitions in other Platonic dialogues, looks like an effort to get at these explanations, to grasp why things are the way they are and, perhaps further, what underlying relationship they have to one another. His questions are part of a search for the essence of things, or what he calls their "form."7 For Plato, when we possess knowledge of the form of a thing, we can give a comprehensive account of its essence. Without grasp of the form, we can have at best only true beliefs.
A simple example should show what difference it makes to have knowledge of forms.8 Suppose someone in the cave carries a chair in front of the fire. The bound prisoners see the chair's shadow on the cave wall, and some of them remark, "There is a chair." They are partially correct. If they broke their bonds, they could turn to see the actual chair. In this case their cognitive grip on the chair would be more complete. They would be able to recognize that the shadow was less real than the chair and that the chair is the cause of the shadow.
Ultimately, the physically-real chair is explained in terms of its representation of the form of chair. After all, to have genuine knowledge of a thing it is necessary for our intellects to grasp its form. One might think of the difference this way. A shadow is better grasped when the object casting it is seen. Plato would wish us to see that, in a sense, ordinary objects are like mere shadows of forms. Thus, to grasp objects as fully as possible, one must attain a grasp of its form.
There is a curious complication on the horizon that I shall point out here. It turns out that knowing the form of a thing is not sufficient for gaining a final understanding of that thing. Even to know fully the form of chair, Plato holds, one must know the form of the good.
This does not make sense at first. Recall, the form of the good is what reason ought, ideally, to know, for in knowing it you become wise. Furthermore, knowing the form of the good contributes to your being a just person, since one part of you, reason, is doing its job (and this is what it means for you to be just). Now Plato suggests that grasping the form of the good or the good-itself (the terms are interchangeable; see note 7) is necessary for attaining the best intellectual grasp of anything that our intellects can know. The distinctive importance of the form of the good is indicated by two images that immediately precede the Cave: the Sun and the Line, and I will consider them now.
The Sun analogy (507a ff.) reveals the special epistemological role played by the good-itself. Just as the natural world depends upon the sun (for warmth and light), so too the intelligible world depends on the good-itself (508b13-c2).9 This is the force of the light metaphor. The sun, as Plato puts it, gives the power to see to seers, while the form of the good gives the power to know to knowers (508e1-3).
In our example of the chair, it is only in virtue of the light produced by the fire above and behind the prisoners that the chair and its shadow are visible. The fire, then, is a condition for our acquiring a more complete true belief about the shadow. But the fire is nothing more than a "source of light that is itself a shadow in relation to the sun" (532c2-3). Out of the cave the sun represents the good-itself. The good-itself illuminates the true, intelligible world of ultimate reality, and in this way, the form of chair relies on the form of the good for its intelligibility. The good-itself is the most preeminent item in the universe. It is both an object of knowledge and the condition of fully knowing other objects of knowledge.
Plato is not finished with his specification of the role played by the form of the good. He goes on to suggest that the good-itself nourishes the being of intelligible things in a way analogous to the sun nourishing organic life. For this unusual idea we have some help from the Line image (509d ff), the most obscure of the three images. Imagine a vertical line dividing two realms-physical reality and intelligible reality-into unequal spaces. Each realm is then subdivided in the same uneven proportion as that which separates the physical and intelligible world. To take only the smaller, bottom portion of the line, we find the physical realm divided between actual, physically-existing items and their ephemeral copies (e.g., reflections in water, shadows, and artistic depictions). In the Cave, this is the distinction made between the chair and its shadow. And so too the Line presses us to think that the physically real objects perceived by our senses are, in effect, shadows-pale, diminished or distorted copies of something more real.
The Line offers a ranked order of Plato's ontology according to which the degrees of reality and being of a particular class of things increases as you go up the line. The higher up the scale, the more real the items become; and since the form of the good is the most real item in all of reality, it is located at the very top of the Line, just above the forms. Things lower on the line are derivative and owe whatever reality or being that they have to the things above them. Physical objects are, metaphorically, nourished by their corresponding forms. They depend for their very reality, not just their knowability, on the perfect, eternal Forms existing in the intelligible realm.
One clear implication of the Line is the metaphor of ascent. The Cave exploits it as well: the upward escape from the cave represents the difficulty of gaining ever more abstract knowledge while not relying on information gathered by the senses. By connecting the three images together we discover that the human condition is abject: we see only the most downgraded forms of reality (image, shadows) and are as far from the sun (the good-itself) as we can be. This is what it is to be ignorant of the truth.
But to see why our alienation from what is genuinely good makes a difference in our lives, there is one more feature of the good-itself that deserves attention. Whatever exactly the form of the good is, it serves as a paradigm or model, and it has a remarkable effect on those who grasp it. As Socrates says of fully-educated philosophers near the end of Book Seven, "once they've seen the good-itself, they must each in turn put the city, its citizens, and themselves in order, using it as their model (paradeigmati)" (540a8-b1). This was anticipated in a longer passage in which the philosopher, by means of studying the "things that are" (500b9), acts as a craftsman (cf. 500d6), or a "painter using a divine model (paradeigmati)" (500e3-4). Not only do physical things take on the qualities they have through a process of copying, reflecting or imitating the forms, so too we can take on goodness through intellectual contact with the good-itself.10 By coming to understand the good-itself, we become like it. In short, we become good.
We can see now why being just depends on knowing the form of the good. Reason's rule affords the soul the opportunity to study and therein to become like the good-itself, that is, properly proportioned, well ordered, healthy. Finally, once this knowledge is acquired, and the self is transformed, one becomes productive.11 Those who gain knowledge of the good-itself are capable of crafting virtues in their souls and in the souls of others, and they can paint divine constitutions for cities. This is what enables Plato to put words into Socrates' mouth that, were he on Aristophanes' stage, would have returned thunderous laughter: Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide . . . cities will have no rest from evils, Glaucon, nor, I think, will the human race. (473c11-d6)
III. Plato's Cave and The Matrix
There are no forms in The Matrix, and thus our epistemic and metaphysical circumstances in Plato's Republic look very different from those in the film. The world inside the cave is a diminished one, a shadow or reflection of the real, but broadly continuous with the true world. Even though there is a marked difference between the sensible and intelligible realms viz. method, epistemic certainty, and metaphysical reality, on Plato's view the sensible is somehow derived from the intelligible. Thus, for Plato, our speaking and thinking in the cave is not meaningless, and some of our opinions are true, in spite of our ignorance of the deeper causes of things.
In The Matrix, by contrast, the two worlds are far less continuous with one another. The real world is profoundly dystopian, and the substance of lives inside the Matrix is supplied in mental states almost entirely cut off from this reality. (Ironically, the real world in The Matrix is very like the world inside the cave.) In spite of its realism, the world inside the Matrix is not a copy of the real world but is a simulation. Nevertheless, there is at least one continuity between the real world and the computer-simulated world: your body. Owing to an unexplained principle, called "residual body memory," your body looks the same to you and to others in both worlds. And you are able to retain your memories of one world when you are in the other and when you return back to the first. (This means that Cypher will have to have his memories of the time spent outside the Matrix removed if he is to return to the illusion of reality inside the Matrix.)
Since the real world and the simulated world are worlds in which the senses receive information, the practical problem is not that they are discontinuous, but that they are indiscernible. This is part of the initial difficulty for Neo since he cannot determine which sensory information is genuine and which false. Although he (and the viewer) settles this question soon enough, a skeptical worry remains in the wake: how can he ever be sure his sensory information is truthful if there is no certificate of authenticity on his experiences?
Suppose Agent Smith creates a program that launches right when Neo picks up a phone within the Matrix. Instead of being whisked back aboard the ship, Neo's consciousness is supplied with a computer-generated experience of the interior of the Nebuchadnezzar, and of course he believes he has successfully exited the Matrix. Such a trick might enable Agent Smith to obtain compromising information about the Nebuchadnezzar and its crew or, worse, the passwords for Zion.
It is hard to imagine how Neo might see past Agent Smith's ruse, especially if he only had a few moments to figure things out. Would Plato's freed prisoner fair better? Recall, Plato urges us to regard the sensible world as unreliable, no matter the source of our information about it.12 We must adopt a different method for apprehending the truth of things. This is, of course, not nearly as simple as it sounds, nor is it obviously helpful; after all, what we are to grasp is the intelligible world from which our ordinary, sensible world is copied, not the sensible world itself. The reward is that once you grasp the forms in the intelligible world, you would be an expert in discriminating items in the sensible world (cf. 520c1-6). This doesn't mean you'd never be mistaken, however; rather, you would simply be the best sensible world discriminator there could be. Therefore, in the case where Agent Smith launches his deceptive program, the only advantage the freed prisoner might have is slight: a general unease about all sensory information. Since the ordinary world is too murky and ever-changing to permit genuine knowledge of it, our awareness of this mutability should assist us in determining which of our beliefs were relatively more reliable.
It seems that the metaphysical differences between Plato and The Matrix do not prevent them from telling a roughly similar story about the epistemological unreliability of the senses and the need to abstract from the senses in order to gain genuine knowledge. In fact, we find Neo at the end of the film doing more than simply bending the laws of physics with the Matrix. He has, it seems, stepped almost entirely out of that very world itself. He does not, however, appear in two places at once, but his destruction of one of the Agents, and his ability to fly, suggest that the laws of physics are more than merely bent.
Where Plato's dialogue and The Matrix agree most is in drawing out the enormous psychological difficulty in calling the world into question and the ethical dimensions of failing to do so. Neo and Plato's freed prisoner must accept truths about themselves (namely, that their lives have been unreal) before they can acquire deeper knowledge about fundamental truths. To achieve this, both Neo and the freed prisoner need the shocking demonstration that the senses are inadequate and that they can be systematically deceived. Both then undertake an introspective turn to discover the truth, and must take steps to disregard knowledge derived from the senses.
This is the point to ask, finally, what knowledge Neo attains that operates in him like the knowledge of the Platonic form of the good. What does Neo know only after great difficulty but whose truth is fundamental? What object is grasped by Neo's intellect that he understands to be the condition of his knowing anything else? What knowledge enables him to be productive, to be a savior of himself and others? It is nothing more than proper self-understanding. In both The Matrix and in the Cave, there is a single item the knowledge of which makes the knower more integrated and more powerful, and for Neo it is self-knowledge.
Ought we to see Neo as adhering to the letter of Socratic self-examination and care of the soul? Only at high-altitude will a perfect connection be visible. For Neo's enlightenment is ultimately about his own specific path and role. Socratic care of the soul involves self-knowledge, but the parts of yourself that are peculiar to you, that make up your individuality, are not relevant.13 Since the prisoners in the cave have only dim self-awareness (they see only the shadows of themselves [515a5-8]), it might seem that release involves getting the right beliefs about oneself. But the very abstractness of the knowledge that Plato prizes, which is very unlike the specificity of the knowledge that Neo eventually gets (namely, that he is the One), suggests that the self-knowledge the prisoners need is neither the end of their search nor even the proper beginning.
In other dialogues Socrates was made to endorse the idea that knowledge was in you, that a kind of introspection aided by proper questioning could elicit true beliefs. But these are not truths that are about you, rather they are truths that are in you. Neo's case is different. The truths he must grasp are both in him and about him. The film reveals furthermore how he must demonstrate and experience his capabilities before he is able to believe entirely that he possesses them. And when he believes in himself at last, his capabilities are further enhanced. This result is produced neither by the method nor the aim of Socratic care of the soul.
Most fundamentally, the film and the allegory share a pedagogical conceit. Both hold that in teaching the most basic truths, there is an important role for a strategic strangeness and the confusion it produces. The allegory of the Cave puzzles Socrates' audience, yet as it hooks them, the Cave provides only the outline for solving the puzzle. Might Morpheus be doing the same? Might Morpheus, like the allegory, act as a kind of Socratic teacher, urging Neo toward self-understanding and care for his soul?
IV. Socratic Education in the Cave and The Matrix
To see to what extent this is so, I want now to return to a remark by Socrates' friend, Glaucon, that the cave and its prisoners are "strange" (atopon . . . atopous, [515a4]). The remark is important because it indicates that the image is operating on its audience in a particular way, one that Plato elsewhere gives us reason to believe is significant. Prompting someone to recognize strangeness, something being out of place (atopia), is how the Socratic method achieves one of its aims. This can occur when Socrates asks one of his deceptively simple questions. But it can also occur when he professes ignorance, or when he is silent. Similarly, Plato's allegory of the Cave describes what our ignorance is like in stark images and what it would be like to become educated; it says nothing about what starts the process of becoming educated.14 Of course, the imprisonment is metaphorical, as is the release. Pressing for specific details is to demand too much of the image. By refusing to say precisely how this prisoner is freed, Plato retains the openness of his allegory.15
What are we to say about The Matrix? On the surface, it appears the The Matrix departs from the allegory. First of all, it gives answers to the question above, for it is Morpheus who frees Neo, and Morpheus chooses to free him because there is something particular about Neo that recommends his release. Yet, on closer inspection, Neo's early encounters with Morpheus produce the same kind of confusion that Socrates produces in his interlocutors. Neo receives strange communications via computer ("wake up, Neo,"16) to follow the white rabbit he soon sees on a tattooed shoulder. These odd messages disrupt Neo's expectations of the world, especially his need for control over his life and his facility with computers. Another disruption comes when Neo swallows the red pill. This drug quickly begins to alter his perception of the stability of the world inside the Matrix.17 Taken together, the computer messages uncannily anticipate what is about to happen, while the pill calls into question his grasp of what is now happening. This surely prepares Neo to accept the truth that everything that has already happened is an illusion.
If we suppose that Morpheus asks the right questions, and supplies the right drugs, it is still the case that Neo has to recognize the questions and accept the drugs. Neo proves to be a particularly apt pupil. Indeed, there are features of Neo's life that might explain how he begins to see the falsity of the world inside the Matrix. Neo is an accomplished hacker who would have the best chance of anyone to discover that the whole of his experience is itself nothing more than highly-sophisticated computer code. He is also living a double life. He works as a software engineer perhaps to maintain a steady income, perhaps as cover for his underground activities. Maybe playing the role of an office worker affords him a sense of the absurd that makes it easier to believe that his life is hollow. Insomnia might work for this purpose as well. Besides, who hasn't had the gut feeling Neo has that "there is something wrong with the world"?
Of course, one of the themes of the film is Neo's struggle to accept his role as the One, the savior of humanity. He is the subject of a number of prophecies made by the Oracle.18 In fact, he is the only person whose prophecy does not refer to someone other than himself. He only accepts his true nature well after the series of strange clues Morpheus presents to him and the confusion this produces in him. Ultimately, he must experience first-hand his fitness for the special role that the others urge him to perform.
In this way, Morpheus can be seen as a Socratic gadfly, stinging Neo to take the first steps he needs in order to discover the truth on his own. Similarly, Plato's sketch of the role played by the form of the good only points the way to the complete answer that Plato would have us seek out. In this way, Plato draws the reader to think for him or herself in the same way that Socrates wished his interlocutors to feel the sting of the realization of their ignorance as a motivation to join him in inquiry and care of the soul.
The allegory of the Cave issues a pointed challenge: in what way are we living lives of diminished prospect, resting content with our knowledge, failing even to ask the right questions? These are precisely the questions Morpheus puts to Neo. And like Morpheus, Plato's pessimism about the human condition gives way to an optimistic view of the power of education to liberate anyone:
Education isn't what some people declare it to be, namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes . . . Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn't turned the right way or where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately. (518b7-c2, d5-7)
1. "Literature and Philosophy: A Conversation with Bryan Magee" in Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (New York: Penguin, 1998), 8. Originally published in Magee, Men of Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).
2. Plato, Theaetetus 149a8-9.
3. Plato, Republic 532b6-8, c3-6. What I have dubbed "education" in the brackets is specifically the study of mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and harmony. When properly pursued, each discipline involves abstraction from the senses, and is "really fitted in every way to draw one towards being" (523a2-3). These disciplines prepare our minds for the most important discipline, dialectic, Plato's term for the right kind of philosophical examination.
Hereafter I include citations to the "Stephanus pages" of the Republic in the text. Stephanus pages may be found along the vertical margins of most translations of the Republic. For example, "527d6-e3" refers to a passage beginning on Stephanus page 527, section d, on line 6 of the Oxford Classical Text. The translation I cite here is by Grube/Reeve (1992), which is also found in Cooper (1997).
4. I shall refer to the philosophical positions advocated by the character Socrates as Plato's, though this scholarly convention is under attack in some quarters. Plato never appears in the Republic or any other dialogue (save for the Apology, and he does not speak there). Thus some scholars find it presumptuous to fob off the character Socrates' views onto Plato; would we automatically assume that Ian Fleming took his martini shaken, not stirred, in the manner of his fictional agent? Of course, more is at stake in the first case than getting a drink order wrong, but this is true largely because other assumptions normally accompany the identification of Socrates' utterances with Plato's considered philosophical views. One worry is that this identification narrows the range of answers we might give to the question why Plato wrote dialogues. Another worry is that it may distort our understanding of what Plato took an adequate philosophical theory to be.
5. Contemporary readers generally agree with Socrates. Some refer to "the treacherous analogies and parables" (Cooper , 143) as "over-ambitious" and "overloaded" (Annas , 265; 252, 256). Much ink has been spilled in the effort to provide a consistent, plausible philosophical interpretation of the images in the Republic.
6. I say "speaks to" because the Cave is only part of a generally sketchy account of the nature of the good. Socrates disclaims precision, warning us that his talk about the good is schematic (504d6-8) and fuzzy (cf. 504d8-e3); a shortcut to the truth of things (cf. 504b1-4; 435d2). Given his lack of knowledge about the good (505a4-6, 506c2-3, d6-8), the most Socrates can do is provide stories, not reasoned accounts. This, at least, is the stated rationale for why he gives "the child and offspring of the good" (507a3-4) rather than a fully articulated, rationally defensible account.
Socrates' disavowal of knowledge does not mean that he is completely ignorant. Most obviously, he knows enough to know that he does not know. He also knows that knowledge of the good is important to have (505a6-b4), and what method must be used to get it: dialectic (532a1-d1). Moreover, he provides a formal account of the good, saying it is the chief or ultimate end to all our actions (cf.: "Every soul pursues the good and does whatever it does for its sake" 505d11-e1). And with this premise, he rules out rival attempts to spell out the formal account, arguing against pleasure and knowledge as candidates for a substantive account of goodness itself (505b5-d1). Finally, he seems capable of saying more than he says here, though we cannot be sure that he takes himself to be able to give something more secure than images and other "offspring" (cf. 506e1-3).
7. See 507b5-7. The essence of good things is called, variously, the good-itself (506d8-e1, 507b5) or form of the good (505a2, 508e2-3). This item is really what reason is attempting to grasp; not what is good for me, nor what is 'a good x', but something that is good in and of itself.
8. It is notoriously difficult to count the population of forms, and we cannot be certain that Plato thought there was a form of chair. Reeve's comment (on whether there is a form in the intelligible world for every group of things in the sensible world to which a single name applies) is useful for the general question of how many or what sort of forms there are. "Assumptions are one thing; truths are another. Thus forms are assumed with ontological abandon, but the only ones there really are are those needed by dialectical-thought for its explanatory and reconstructive purposes. Ordinary language is the first word here, but it is not by any means the last word" (1988, 294). Will there be a last word? According to one commentator writing at the beginning of the last century, even what Plato meant by the forms "is a question which has been, and in my opinion will always be, much debated" (Adam , 169).
9. The intelligible world is Plato's way of referring to the class of things that can be known by the mind alone and that are imperceptible to the senses. A list would include mathematical or logical truths and geometrical items, as well as the vaunted forms. (The types of study that yield knowledge of items in or aspects of the intelligible world are mentioned in note 3 above.)
10. "Instead, as he looks at and studies things that are organized and always the same, that neither do injustice to one another nor suffer it, being all in rational order, he imitates them and tries to become as like them as he can. Or do you think that someone can consort with things he admires without imitating them? . . . Then the philosopher, by consorting with what is ordered and divine . . . himself becomes as divine and ordered as a human being can" (500c2-7, c9-d2).
On some ears, this kind of talk encourages mysticism, or the view that the good-itself has occult qualities. But we do well to remind ourselves that dialectic is the only route to grasping the good-itself, and that dialectic is studied only after ten years of mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and the like (537b-c). Indeed, Cooper has argued that we think of the good-itself "somehow or other as a perfect example of rational order, conceived in explicitly mathematical terms" (, 144; see also Kraut ). Again, it is intellectual grasp-not oneness with or absorption into the good-that we are striving to attain.
11. Plato's Symposium famously stresses the fertility of the philosopher who has grasped the forms (212a-b).
12. For this reason, Plato might appreciate the irony of Morpheus stressing, again and again, that Neo must see for himself in order to understand. Plato would regard Neo's transformed conception of reality partial at best since Neo is not called upon to regard all sense impressions as false or diminished, only those that have the wrong source.
13. Annas (1981), 257-59, makes this point when she compares Plato's allegory to Bertolucci's 1970 film, The Conformist.
14. In the allegory, the prisoner's chains are removed but Socrates is silent on who or what removes them. Here are his words: "Consider, then, what being released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance would naturally be like. When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he'd be pain and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he'd seen before" (515c4-d1). The Cave depicts an astonishingly thorough imprisonment. Throughout, Plato remarks on the difficulties that the freed prisoner meets with on the way out of the cave. Given this detail, it is not unreasonable to expect an account of precisely what sort of prisoner it is who begins to question whether the cave contains the whole of reality, or precisely what circumstance prompts his inquiry. Does the prisoner find the play of shadows internally inconsistent? Or does one or more of the unbound prisoners decide to remove the bonds? We are not told.
15. Moreover, the freed prisoner is referred to generically by the indefinite pronoun "someone" (tis); if we wish for specifics, we miss the generality that Plato intends, for his point surely is that anyone could escape the bonds of ignorance.
16. The film surely intends us to read the figurative sense of this expression alongside the literal one, and it may be Morpheus' hope that Neo reflects on the figurative meaning as well. After all, one of the other messages that appears on his screen-"knock, knock, Neo"-is consciously riddling. It invites the question, "who's there?"
17. Although the aim of the pill is to assist in locating Neo's body, the suggestion of a psychoactive effect on him is unmistakable.
18. The Oracle eventually tells Neo "what he needed to hear," namely that he is not the One. This inverts the account of Socrates' oracle as Plato portrays it in the Apology. First, Socrates does not hear the oracle directly but relies on Chaerephon's report that "no one is wiser than Socrates." Second, Neo's reluctance to believe that he is not in control of his actions requires that the Oracle tell him something false. This Neo is happy to hear, and thus he has no motive for questioning it; it is eminently believable that he is not their long-awaited savior. By contrast, Socrates' oracle tells him something true but whose unlikely implications must be carefully interpreted through testing and questioning.
Works Cited / Suggestions for Further Reading
Adam, James. The Republic of Plato. 1902. 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963.
Annas, Julia. An Introduction to Plato's Republic. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1981.
Cooper, John M. "The Psychology of Justice in Plato." American Philosophical Quarterly 14 (1977): 151-57.
Cooper, John M, ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 1997.
Grube, G.M.E, trans. Plato: Republic. 2nd Ed. Rev. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 1992.
Kraut, Richard. "The Defense of Justice in Plato's Republic." In The Cambridge Companion to Plato, edited by Richard Kraut. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 311-37.
Kraut, Richard, ed. Plato's Republic: Critical Essays. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.
Reeve, C.D.C. Philosopher-Kings: The Argument of Plato's Republic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.