Comparison amongst The Matrix, Plato and Descartes
In this unit, we have been discussing how we “know.” The modern American philosopher, Hilary Putnam, popularized a well-known thought experiment highlighting the problem of skepticism and our knowledge of reality. To understand Putnam’s experiment, we need to consider how we normally obtain knowledge of reality. Our knowledge of reality usually begins with sensory input. While each of our five senses perceives the world according to their individual means, we will use seeing as an example. Light is reflected off of objects and enters through our eyes, which focus an image of these objects to the back of our eyeball, where it hits our optic nerve. Our nerve transforms this image into electrical/neural impulses that travel through the optic nerve up to where it is plugged into the brain. The brain then processes these impulses where they are transformed into an image in our mind. What our minds experience is an image of the outside world, similar to how a television projects an image captured by a television camera.
In Putnam’s thought experiment, you imagine that your brain has been severed from the nerves connecting it to your senses (eyes, ears, nose, etc.) and has been removed from your skull and placed in a vat filled with the nutritional fluid necessary to keep your brain alive and functioning. Electrical wires have been spliced into your sensory nerves that are connected to the sensory inputs in your brain. The other ends of these wires are connected to the outputs of a giant super computer. A man sits at the keyboard of this super computer, inputting data. This data is transformed into electrical/neural impulses that travel through the spliced wire/sensory nerves and into your brain. The brain processes this information as if it were from your senses. Hence, you have whatever image the man at the keyboard wants you to have. Suppose he inputs data that you are sitting in a café in France, drinking an espresso. He includes all the usual sensory data, including the smell and taste of the coffee, the hardness of the chair and table, the cool breeze blowing by, the sounds of the traffic, and the view of the Eiffel Tower. You experience all of this exactly as if you are really there. In such a situation, you would have no idea that you (or at least your brain) are actually sitting in some vat in some laboratory.
Harshness of Reality versus Ignorance of Bliss
In 1999, Putnam’s thought experiment became the basis of a megahit movie, The Matrix. However, Putnam was not the first to suggest that there may be a problem with perceiving and knowing reality. A number of philosophers have wrestled with this problem. This brings us to your assignment, described below.
In Module/Week 5’s Reading & Study folder, there are 3 short readings. Your assignment is to read them and then write an essay of at least 600 words (in current MLA, APA, or Turabian format) addressing some of the questions listed below (in the “Questions to Consider” section). You must address the first question; then, choose 1 of the other questions to address also.
While you are free to quote from sources, quotations will not count towards the minimum word count. Plagiarism of any kind will result in a 0 for the assignment and may result in being dropped from the course.
A note about the readings: The first reading is a synopsis of The Matrix. If you have seen the movie, this will function as a review for you. If you have not seen the movie, you may choose to do so. However, you should know that the movie is rated R for language and violence. It is not necessary to view the movie to fulfill the assignment, as the synopsis is enough to consider the questions. The second reading comes from Plato’s classic work, The Republic. It is in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, a brother of Plato, and contains the famous cave allegory. The third and final reading is a section from Meditation I, from Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes, who offers some reasons to doubt his senses.
1. Compare and contrast The Matrixwith the readings from Plato and Descartes. What are some similarities and differences?
2. Can we prove that the world we are experiencing is real? How do we know we are not dreaming, living in a Platonic cave, or trapped in some sort of matrix?
3. At the end of the cave allegory, Socrates implies that most men would want to escape the cave and see reality as it really is. However, in his betrayal of Morpheus, Cypher implies that it is better to live in the artificial world of the Matrix. Which is better: the harshness of reality, or the “ignorance is bliss” of illusion? Defend your answer.
4. Since much of our knowledge is based on sensory experience, and since our senses are imperfect and can be deceived, can we ever be certain that our beliefs are true? Defend or explain your answer.
Comparison amongst The Matrix, Plato and Descartes
The confusion between reality and illusion is consistent within the philosophies of Plato and Descartes and in the idea of the movie Matrix. Plato is known for his famous ‘Allegory of the Cave’ where he metamorphically opines that human beings are being kept chained in a cave (Mitchell and Lucas). The ‘reality’ that is shown to them is actually an illusion projected by those who control the important affairs of society such as the politicians and those who control the economic affairs of the State. He believes that these human beings should find out a way to break free of the chains and escape the cave. Once out of the cave, they will be able to see the actual ‘reality’ with their own eyes, guided by the light of the Sun (Friedlander). Descartes has a similar philosophy whereby he maintains that the human beings are, in reality, kept clouded in illusion (Descartes and Lafleur). He is of the view that certain malicious demons control this illusion, which affects the human beings. He questions the prevailing circumstances of society in this context (Williams). The movie Matrix is based along similar lines. Neo, a computer programmer finds out that the ‘reality’ which he believed to be true his entire life is, in fact, an illusion controlled by a super computer (Wachowski and Director). In all of these stories, the main aim by the authors and the producer is to show that there exists a conflict between the ‘reality’ that is perceived by human beings and the ‘true reality’.
However, there exists some major differences between them. Plato believed that human beings could only be free of the chains if it was so wished by the people controlling them (Friedlander). Descartes could never find out the truth as he began to question his own logic of reasoning (Descartes and Lafleur). Neo, in contrast, was able to find out ‘true reality’. However, in comparison to Plato, a character in Matrix named Cypher, wanted to stay in the illusive world (Wachowski and Director).
In his ‘Allegory of the Cave’, Plato believed that the human beings who were being kept chained in the Cave, would like to escape (Peterson). Inside the Cave, they only saw the illusions in the reflections of the shadows shown to them by their ‘masters’. In order to escape this, the individuals need to be free of their chains and see ‘true’ reality by coming out of the Cave. Plato was of the opinion that harsh reality, as compared to lukewarm illusion, is favorable to human beings (Friedlander). They wanted to have a voice on the issues affecting them. In the movie Matrix, the character of Cypher has been portrayed different. When he got to know about the cloud of illusion that had descended over humankind, he could not cope with this knowledge (Wachowski and Director). Thus, instead of fighting the hard battle to free himself from the clutches of illusion, he chose to be within its sweet embrace and spend the rest of life being controlled by someone else.
The harshness of reality is better than being in ignorance. The battle to win one’s freedom to see the reality can be immensely challenging, both within the self and with the eternal environment. Once the human body is suited to a certain way of life, it is very reluctant to change the prevailing situation. However, once people are in ‘true reality’, they can be the master of their own fate; no one else can exercise control over them. The freedom to choose one’s way of life is the most fundamental freedom guaranteed by nature itself. Being under the control of someone is a gross violation of this freedom. People should have the freedom to make decisions by themselves.
Descartes, René, and Laurence J. Lafleur. Meditations on first philosophy. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960.
Friedlander, Paul. Plato: An Introduction. Princeton University Press, 2015.
Mitchell, Basil, and John Randolph Lucas. An engagement with Plato's Republic: a companion to the Republic. Routledge, 2017.
Peterson, Valerie V. "Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: literacy and “the good”." Review of Communication 17.4 (2017): 273-287.
Wachowski, A. and (Director). The Matrix [Motion Picture]. 1999.
Williams, Bernard. Descartes: The project of pure enquiry. Routledge, 2014.
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