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The Matrix Philosophy - Doubts About Reality and Rene Descartes Meditations

Updated on July 10, 2020

Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes lived in France in the 1600’s during a time of great change, when many intellectuals were debating scientific and philosophical theories. New discoveries in science resulted in scientists disagreeing with one another over what was in fact true. Philosophers were growing more sceptical; doubting if it was actually possible to know anything for certain. Beliefs and institutes which could once be trusted were no longer reliable so Descartes wanted to find what was certain and discard what was false or unsure in the hope of restoring some order in these matters. He wanted to prove 'certain knowledge' existed in order to prove wrong the ideas sceptics were considering possible truth. In doing this he hoped to create the basis of a new philosophical and scientific system; creating order for present and future theories. He realised that many thing which he trusted as true relied on unstable foundations and so to discover certain truth he would first have to get rid of these ideas. He did this by reviewing general categories enabling him to outcast many ideas quickly. He puts his reviewed beliefs into three categories of what he thought false (or sufficiently doubted). He didn’t want his entire thesis to be proved wrong based on any assumptions he might make. so he sections off beliefs which may be found true or false later on. He recorded what he discovered in the form of his six meditations. These meditations covered a variety of topics including his views on the reliability of the senses, the existence of God, etc. Religion had a great influence on Descartes writings and so he tried to accommodate the principle of God in all of his thinking.



Descartes Dream Argument

It is with his dream argument that Descartes is able to doubt the evidence given to us by our sense. He believes that even if we feel absolutely sure that we are doing something, we may in fact just be dreaming that it is happening. In dreams we receive the same sensory information as in reality and Descartes felt there was no way of proving whether we were sleeping or not. The matrix also doubt the information given to us by our senses; “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste then ‘real’ is simple electrical signals interpreted by your brain”. Descartes believes also that events in dreams are based on reality so no matter how abstract and unusual they may be they still have their foundations in reality. By believing this he prevents physical entities from being considered certain and true but he still has logic left. He believes that obvious truths are contained within mathematical propositions which is external to any physical form and can thus be considered true in both dreams and reality. He also believes the possibility of an external world of some kind remains certain truth. We may be being meddled with by an Evil Deceiver and so even the senses cannot be trusted fully and without question. He later brings the belief of God into his meditations which over powers the Evil Deceivers power, much like Neo’s power in the matrix. There are problems with the dream argument though as people believe there are certain ways of testing whether it is dream or realty. Firstly dreams tend to be largely visual and in dreams we tend not to have a sense of touch. Dreams also have less continuity than waking experience does and they also tend to be short episodes rather than the prolonged experience of life. Strange elements exist within dreams as well and may be far removed from reality. Descartes makes a jump from mistaking some dreams for reality to believing it isn’t possible to tell the difference between the two thus causing him to believe he can’t tell whether he is awake or asleep now. Norman Malcolm believes it is logically impossible to ask ‘am I dreaming?’ unless you are conscious and while dreaming you are not so you can only question it in reality. Nigel Warburton feels that it is easy to distinguish dreams from reality because dreams are full of weird ideas but he also believes that some dreams do cause us to wake with a slight sense of doubt about whether it happened or not. Descartes firstly realises that dreams give us the same sensory information as reality does and that the sense cannot therefore by trusted; “how often does the nocturnal quietness convince me of familiar things”. He also accepts that “…things we see while asleep are like certain familiar images which can be painted only as copies of things which are real…these general things…exist as real things rather than…imaginary things”. That which we see in our dreams are not wholly false, they are, as visions of general objects, grounded in reality.


The Matrix

The Matrix film is predominantly based on Descartes dream argument. The film is about the human race being deceived by their senses. People are tricked into believing the world around them is the true world when it is fact they are in a dream state. This relates to Descartes as he also questions the senses reliability; whether its possible to be deceived into believing that a dream is reality due to the senses convincing us that it is so. The main character, Neo, discovered the matrix and wants to know more about it. The matrix is a programme fed to the mind which causes the person to believe in the reality of the world being projected to them. The programme deceives the senses into thinking they are experiencing the false world when in reality they are laying in a pod wired to the matrix. Other leading characters, Trinity and Morpheus, contact him through various means from beyond the matrix in the true world. These characters are awake to the reality of the world and are able to drift from the true world to the matrix in order to save some from the lifelong dream; Neo is someone they offer the truth to. Morpheus offers Neo the truth in the form of two pills; Neo must choose between a blue pill which will let him return to the matrix still ignorant of its falseness, or a red pill which will reveal to him the truth. Within the matrix there are agents which are part of the programme and are designed to stop people discovering reality. These agents resemble Descartes evil deceiver whose sole aim is to hide the truth and cause doubt in our minds about the true reality. Before leaving the matrix Neo is captured by agents who question and bug him but Neo wakes in his bed believing the experience had all been a dream bringing to light the difficulty in differentiating between dreams and reality. Morpheus finds Neo believing him to be the one; the one appears to be the equivalent of Jesus in many passing statements. Near the beginning of the film Chio, a minor character, says to Neo “Hallelujah, you’re my saviour, man. My own personal Jesus Christ” foreshadowing his future in the true world. Cypher also refers to him as Jesus when saying “Jesus, what a mind job”. Thus, like God in Descartes arguement, it is Neos role to reveal the truth to everyone.

Descartes in the Matrix

In the Matrix, Neo is trapped in a dream world which, to him, appears real. He questions Morpheus; “I thought the Matrix wasn’t real” to which Matrix responds; “your mind makes it real”. The dream state in which Neo was trapped for most of his life is described by Morpheus as “a prison for your mind” as all that Neo thought happened only occurred in his mind due to him being hooked up to the matrix programme. The Matrix caused his mind to believe his senses were experiencing that which the matrix was telling him was happening. Trinity tells Neo “…the matrix cannot tell you who you are” and this idea relates to Descartes belief that if you can think and doubt that you exist then you must exist and that this is a certain truth whether you’re surrounding environment is real or not. Cypher says “I know 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”. This is Cypher acknowledging that in the matrix what his senses tell him isn’t real he enjoys the sensation which he thinks is real and would rather live in a joyful dream than a sorrowful reality. Neo says “I have memories of my life. None of them happened” which is similar to the idea of waking and having a seed of doubt planted about whether it happened or not as you can remember it so distinctly.


Descartes dream argument shows that it is possible to distinguish between dreams and reality and that all forms of gaining knowledge, such as the senses, should be doubted as they are the same in both waking and sleeping states and that therefore only mathematical propositions and the possibility of an external world cannot be doubted as the remain equally true and certain in both states. Though there is some truth in the foundation it leaps from a true statement to a false one. It appears that the Matrix has a similar string of ideas as Descartes dream argument in that it is not wholly possible to conclude what is a dream and what is real. It appears that the Matrix is not real but how is it possible to prove that what is thought to be reality is in fact the dream world? The films premise does however involve some of the arguments against the dream argument enabling the characters to prove that the matrix is not real and that the real world is the truth. It could even be the reality which we believe to be true is in fact not true at all, it could be the ‘dream’. In my opinion Descartes argument does not stand up as he seems to make a leap from the fact that he often mistakenly believes dreams to be true to the idea that this means you cannot ever tell the difference between the dreaming and conscious experience. He seems not to deal the dreams which, when you wake, you are certain did not truly occur. He also derives from these beliefs that he cannot therefore tell whether he is awake or asleep at this moment, but he does not seem to seek any possible way of being that on some occasions it is difficult to differentiate between dreams and reality, such as when one is hallucinating or when just awakening but I feel that to conclude with this information that it is not possible to tell the difference is a little extravagant. I agree with Malcolm and Warburton’s ideas for telling the difference between waking and sleeping states. I also feel me makes too much of an assumption in believing in God.


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    • profile image

      Tea for the 

      3 years ago

      Thanks for an interesting read. I did want to question something you said:

      "...therefore only mathematical propositions and the possibility of an external world cannot be doubted as the remain equally true and certain in both states."

      Surely we can be deceived about mathematical propositions, and logic. Descartes demon is as capable of that as anything don't you think? And an external world...why does the awareness of thought as evidence for existence (cogito ergo sum) prove the existence of an external world?


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