Recently, we have discussed how we know. Hilary Putnam, American philosopher, developed a thought experiment which has become so popular that it is the basis of blockbuster film The Matrix. In short, the thought experiment calls one to imagine that your brain and the nerves connecting it to your senses has been severed or disconnected. The brain would actually no longer be in your body it would be placed a vat filled with nutritional fluid to keep your brain alive and functioning. The sensory inputs in your brains are now connected to the outputs of a giant super computer.
A man sits at this computer and inputs data, and this data is processed in your brain as if it came from your senses. Consequently, your brain would only know the information which was entered and would not know it was really sitting in a laboratory somewhere.
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Many philosophers have dealt with the issue of perceiving and knowing reality including Plato and Descartes. A dialogue will now commence in order to compare and contrast The Matrix with the writings of these two well-known philosophers.
Additionally, perception versus reality, and is ignorance really bliss will be mentioned as these issues came up in the movie and both writings. There are numerous similarities and differences between The Matrix and the writings of Plato and Descartes. First a brief description of each piece will be discussed and then the similarities and differences. In The Matrix the main character Neo, is a computer hacker who meets a group of rebels lead by Morpheus. The mission of this group is to get the world to realize the human race is lying unconscious in giant machines that are keeping their bodies alive.
Just like the Putnam thought experiment, their brains are all connected to a super computer on which a simulation of the world is running. Humans are unconsciously living out virtual lives in this computer simulation and are not aware of anything but the simulation. After joining Morpheus’ group of dissenters Neo realizes not everyone can handle the truth and a member of the group, Cypher betrays his comrades so he can once again live in the computer simulation. In the Plato cave allegory piece, there is a dialogue taking place between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon.
Here, Socrates describes a scenario in which men are held captive as prisoners in a cave from childhood. The men have their legs and head fettered so that they can only look straight ahead at the cave wall. For their whole lives they have seen shadows on the wall, objects passing by and all they could do is guess what the objects were. Then, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine that one of these men was released. Ultimately, they deduce that the freed man would pity the other prisoners because he was able to experience things as they actually were and did not have to imagine what everything was.
The reality was far more precious than his imagination. The third writing comes from Meditation I from Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes who offers some reasons to doubt his senses. In this piece, Descartes has resolved to forget everything he thinks he knows. He reasons that if he can doubt the basic principles upon which his opinions are founded then he can doubt all his previous opinions collectively. Most of the opinions he has believed to be most true came from his senses which are only sometimes reliable.
Ultimately he realizes from habit or custom or just laziness that it is almost impossible to change his way of thinking so he just pretends these opinions are false so as to combat his long-held beliefs. There are many similarities between The Matrix and the cave allegory piece by Plato. Most prevalent is the idea of perception versus reality which is illustrated in both works. In The Matrix the perception is that humans are living real lives. Every day they get up, go to work, and come home. They are just normal people living.
The reality however is that humans are unconscious, in machines that keep their bodies alive while their brains are all connected to the matrix which is simulating real life. The perception is completely false. Similarly, in the cave allegory the prisoners’ perception of objects passing the cave wall in the form of shadows is false. In reality, they are only guessing the true nature of the shadows and never really know what the objects are until one prisoner is freed and allowed to experience things as they really are.
Although the perception is all the prisoners have when they are fettered, the truth is as the freed prisoner experienced much better than any imagined object. When free, the prisoner could look at the sun and feel its warmth on his skin something the other prisoners could not imagine. Reality was so much better than the perception that at the end the free man pitied the other prisoners because of this fact. Neo taking the red pill and the prisoner being freed from the cave are moments that have the same impact. For the first time these individuals have the chance to truly experience all that was hidden. The differences between these two pieces were not as pronounced but still apparent.
In The Matrix, Neo was given the option of taking the red pill or the blue pill. He had a choice to learn the truth about the world he was living in or to go back to his life in ignorance. Neo decided to live in reality and thus his life was forever changed. In the cave allegory the prisoner did not have a choice. He was imprisoned since childhood and thus forced to live in ignorance. It was only when his captors decided to free him was he able to experience what life really is beyond the perception of the cave. The Matrix and Meditation I by Descartes had a few similarities.
The most striking similarity between the two is that both Neo and Descartes did not want to conform their way of thinking with that of the whole. A change happened and they questioned all they knew to be true. In each instance, a choice was made and this lead to an enlightenment of sorts. Neo had a feeling that something was not right about his life and chose to live outside of the norm. In the same way, Descartes knew his opinions and beliefs left room for doubt so he questioned the foundation on which he knew what he thought was true.
Both men questioned long-held beliefs as a way to determine if what they knew to be true actually was. The major difference between the movie and Descartes’ piece is the permanency of the change that occurred in Neo and Descartes. Neo was changed forever when he decided to live in the true real world. In the movie once Neo discovered who he really was nothing would be the same for anyone, including those living in the matrix. At the end of Meditation I, Descartes was unsure if he would be able to maintain his new way of thinking and would try to pretend that all his opinions are false.
Ultimately, there is a chance he will go back to his old way of thinking but this does not happen in Neo’s situation. There is no chance Neo will go back since his change was more than a change in his thought processes like the change described by Descartes. As a result of these works, questions naturally arise about perception and reality. For example, how do we know the world we are experiencing is real? Can we ever really be sure that we are not living in a matrix right now?
Unless someone comes along and shows us different we are geared to believe the things we perceive with our senses are real and the world we live in is real. In the end, we may discover that life is itself a dream and when we die we will wake up to this realization. There is no true way to know if we are living in some sort of matrix unless we are made aware of something else as Neo was. Another question, which is better, the harshness of reality or the “ignorance is bliss” comes about because of Cypher’s betrayal in The Matrix. Ignorance is defined “as a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education,” Merriam-Webster.
Merriam-Webster, n. d. Web. Bliss means to be completely happy and thus the saying ‘ignorance is bliss” means if one lacks knowledge they are completely happy. It is much better to escape the cave and live in a world just as it is the good with the perceived bad. If a person is ignorant they do not have the means to make an informed decision and thus are at a disadvantage. It is my position that the harshness of reality is best for the human race as a whole because it gives us all the opportunity to make life what we want it to be and not what some computer imagines for us.
Having the option there is no choice to make. I want to live my most authentic life why live if I cannot co-create my own masterpiece. There are people who would like to live in ignorance like Cypher, but then you are choosing to end up just like him dead. In conclusion, these works all generate thought into reality and perception. The ultimate truth for anyone is that knowing comes from a desire to know. As long as you live you have a choice to make as Neo did to live in ignorance or knowing anything is possible.