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Living in the Matrix

Updated on July 14, 2017



The Matrix and Philosophy

In the film Matrix (1999) human beings live in a simulated world, where they live in ignorant bliss as the machine uses their body for energy. Although they are shown to experience the pleasure of living in this system rather than the real world, I will present a number of philosophical arguments to show why living in such a simulation in ignorance is not a better alternative to living in the real world. Even after being found guilty of heresy, Socrates was still unwilling to stop pursuing his philosophy. It is for this reason he said that the un-examined life is not worth living (Apology 38a). Many will admit to having read or head of this quote, which is one of the most popular quotes by Socrates during his trial. Socrates had been on trial for not only challenging the status quo (various accepted beliefs) but mostly for having influenced the youth to challenge these beliefs by questioning them and pursuing the truth in the same way, and not simply accepting what they were told or taught. During this period, there were many teachers and philosophers who claimed to have wisdom and knowledge about various aspects of life, and took it upon themselves to teach others. These sophists were therefore seen as the wisest men in Athens and were even paid to teach philosophy and rhetoric. There teachings were therefore taken to be the truth to a great many. This is similar to the idea presented in the film the Matrix (1999), where people live in a simulated reality (the matrix), which appears to be more comfortable that the reality. In the Apology, Socrates is found guilty, and asked to pick an alternative to his punishment apart from the death sentence. Although this gives him an opportunity to escape death, it also means that he has to abandon his quest for truth, and stop teaching the youth to do the same. This is the reality he is presented with if he is to continue living. In the film Matrix, the simulated life appears to be perfect in every way for the people while their bodies provide energy for the system in reality. Although some would opt for the simulated life in the matrix rather than living in the miserable reality, Socrates would disagree given that it would amount to living in ignorance. In his opinion, death is a better alternative than simply accepting things the way they are, and not pursuing the truth for its sake. Living an un-examined life for some is easier and less complicated as is the case with the matrix. However, it also means allowing others (those considered to be in authority) to be in control of one's life and destiny, which tends to devalue the quality of life and what it means to be human.

Live in the Matrix

Nozick's experience machine

Taking a closer look at Nozick's experience machine supports the argument that living a simulated life as is the case with the matrix is not better than living life and experiencing the real life. In Nozick's thought experiment, we are asked to imagine an experience machine that has the ability to give us any experience we desire. In this scenario the machine has the capacity to give us any of our desired experience (falling in love, climbing a mountain, competing in a sport, making friends and spending time with loved ones, etc) (Nozick, 1989). However, this would involve being inside some tank with electrodes connected to the brain and the machine in order to produce these experiences. Nozick then asks whether we would want to plug in to experience these desires. For such Consequentialists as Jeremy Bentham, the answer would be "yes". In Consequentialism, the right action is one that results in the best consequences (Bentham, 1996). In this case, the end justifies the means. From this perspective, the action that produces the best consequences (happiness, pleasure etc) is given preference to all the others (Erik, 1995). Each individual has his or her desires, which they hope to achieve. In the case of Hedonists for instance, happiness/pleasure are the end we all seek, being the intrinsic good. Assuming that the experience machine can provide this, consequentialists would argue that it would be the best alternative given that it can provide such experiences with ease. Whichever end we seek (or experience); this would be viewed as the most ideal option in that it can assure such experiences. This involves living in a simulation that has the capacity to make a person live their desired experience. As such, it is similar to the Matrix, where one experiences life in a simulation. Although one gets to experience various aspects of life as though they are really living in the real world, this is not the case.

In addition to the question as to whether anyone would want to be plugged in such a machine, Nozick reminds us that the reality is that people tend to do certain things because they want to actually be involved in such experiences. He adds that we have a need to be certain people in the real world and plugging in to the machine is a form of suicide. Although this is not to say that some would not prefer plugging in to the machine, the majority would prefer to experience the experiences from the real world. Here, Nozick shows that human beings do not only want experience, and thus seek something more in life. It can be argued that apart from experience, the nature of human beings as being curious cannot allow them to live in ignorance even when the machine promises the best experiences possible. Man always feels the need to seek the truth, which is one of the main reasons as to why so many of former beliefs have been proven write or wrong depending on evidence gathered.

In the Republic (Book VIII) Socrates introduces us to the "Allegory of the cave". In his dialogue with Glaucon, Socrates asks him to imagine a cave where prisoners have lived all their lives, and chained in manner that only allows them to see shadows on the wall in front of them (Jowett, 1941). Having stayed there all their lives, they come to believe that the shadows are real since they know nothing else. However, upon one leaving the cave and experiences the real world, although he is overwhelmed at firs and even feels the need to go back to the cave ad the reality he knew, he soon becomes more interested and in the need to learn more to the extent that he runs back to the cave to inform the others, who are hesitant to believe him. Living in the Matrix world (simulated) would be similar to living as a prisoner in the cave, where one would remain unaware of reality. Although one would not know that the shadows they are looking at is not reality, as would also be the case with the experience machine, life would tend to lose meaning since it would simply involve having experiences, but not really living. This can also be equated to living in a dream. In a dream, even though one gets to experience some happiness (example, being with a person that one desires) reality is removed, and therefore the experience would simply be nothing more than an imagination, which has little value to the person.

For any given individual, the real value of life involves actively interacting with real life situations and achieving various interests in reality. Act- utilitarianism would disagree with this idea with the argument that such a machine as the experience machine would help attain various pleasures or happiness, which everyone seeks. However, human beings do not simply seek pleasure, but rather feel the need to interact with the real world as they seek out their interests. On the other hand, the end does not simply justify the means and plugging in to such a machine, or living in a satisfying dream would deprive a person of their humanity since they are no longer. A good example of this is a person in a coma. Although such an individual may be in a state where he/she is experiencing pleasant experiences in him mind (such as hallucinations etc) the reality remains that they are not interacting with the real world, and therefore feel no real joy of all the experiences of doing do. In this case, there is little or no difference between living and dying given that interaction with real world no longer exists, and all that is left is mere experiences. As Socrates notes; the unexamined life is not worth living. On the other hand, according to Mozick, if in fact all we desired was pleasure, then everyone would simply want to be plugged in to the machine. However, human beings do not simply seek pleasure, and are always in search of various truths. Although their journey may involve various hardships and struggles, it is overcoming them that add to the value of life for human beings as they interact with the real world in the process. For this real, the simulated life inside the matrix would be undesirable given that it would mean taking away all the value and experiences humans seek as they interact with the real world.


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