When it came out in 1999, The Matrix was a film for the record books. With incredible performances from actors Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishbourne, cutting-edge special effects, unbelievable action scenes, and an undeniably good soundtrack, The Matrix quickly took the world by storm. But lurking beneath the surface of these praiseworthy aspects of the film is the fact that the plot is downright twisted. It weaves a narrative of confusion, one that makes you question your own reality, as it mesmerizes you with its aesthetic beauty.
Millions of people walked out of the movie theaters in 1999 wondering if the world they were living in was truly the real world. And all of this comes from some deep philosophical questions that brilliant people have been pondering for thousands of years. But what if all of the mind-boggling concepts were nothing new? It turns out The Matrix used a lot of ideas from philosophers, both modern and ancient.
Here are 10 philosophical ideas The Matrix used…borrowed…stole (you pick) from other people.
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10 Cartesian Dualism
Cartesian dualism is a philosophical theory in which the universe is divided into two equal and opposite types of existence, called “mind” and “matter.” Developed by French philosopher Rene Descartes, it’s a direct extension of his philosophy of mind-body dualism. Descartes was obsessed with the point where the body ends and the mind beings.
The question at hand is whether the mind is an abstraction that exists in the physical universe or whether the physical universe is an abstraction that exists in the mind. And, using my mind, the only thing I can ever truly prove is the mental world of my thinking.
This problem was the cornerstone of the movie, The Matrix.
There was a “real” world, and then there was the abstraction that existed only in the mind. The real world existed, but what the characters experienced was a carefully curated artificial simulation that existed only in their minds—until they went down the rabbit hole.
Where do the body end and the mind begin? And how can we truly know if we can only think with our minds, and thus, we can only say for certain that our minds exist?
9 Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”
Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” comes from his work The Republic. It starts off with a conversation between Socrates and Glaucon where they discuss the idea of how we see the world. How do we know if the reality we’re experiencing is actually real? Can we use our senses?
Socrates didn’t think so, and he asks us to imagine a cave with people in it who’ve never been outside of it. There’s a fire in the front and a blank wall in the back. On the back wall, shadows are cast using the light from the fire, showing the activity happening outside the cave—but only in shadow.
The people in the cave can only see what is in front of them, and they can only hear the noises of other people. They’re cut off from the world outside the cave and chained to the wall inside the cave.
Considering these people have spent their entire lives in the cave, they have no clue there’s a real world outside of the cave, one that’s totally different from the mirage they’d always known.
This begs the question, how do we know that what we experience isn’t just shadows, like “the woman in the red dress?” How do we know if we’ve never stepped outside of our own “caves” and into the “real” world that creates them?
8 Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis
The Simulation Hypothesis, proposed by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, argues that it’s possible that we are living in a computer-simulated world created by an advanced civilization, possibly from the future. Bostrom bases this hypothesis on three criteria: the mathematical odds of the existence of the simulated world, the technological feasibility of running a simulated world, and the “intelligence explosion” required to create that simulated world. More on this later…
In the simulation theory, the people in the simulated world are unaware that they are living in a simulation.
Bostrom demonstrates that it’s more likely that we’re living in a simulated world than a real one right now. One real-world could create as many simulated worlds as it wanted to, as long as it had the technological power to do so, so the odds stack up in favor of this world being simulated.
The implications of this are stunning. The Matrix borrowed heavily from the Simulation Hypothesis when it created its own simulated world. So, how do you know that your entire life isn’t just a computer simulation?
7 Berkeley’s Immaterialism
There is a school of thought called immaterialism, which was conceived by the Irish philosopher George Berkeley. Immaterialism is the idea that physical objects do not exist in a world of their own but rather form a part of a larger whole in a world consisting only of intangible things. For Berkeley, the world doesn’t exist independently of the mind. There is only the mind, and the mind invents the experiences we call the world.
In The Matrix, the computer programmed the characters’ minds, but their minds created their experiences—experiences that weren’t real.
Berkeley asks us how we can truly know if what we’re experiencing is the real thing or just our imaginations.
Remember that scene where they were eating amorphous muck out of bowls and missing fat, juicy steaks? How do you know that every steak you’ve ever eaten wasn’t really just a blob of muck that your brain interpreted as steak?
6 Gilbert Harman’s Brain in a Vat
In a thought experiment by philosopher Gilbert Harman, a scientist places a conscious brain in a vat of nutrients and water and makes him believe that he is a brain in a vat. The scientist then stimulates the vat with electricity and monitors the changes in the person’s mental state. Unbeknownst to the person, the scientist’s intentions are not to study the brain but rather to test the question, “What is it like to be a brain in a vat?”
In one experiment, the scientist stimulates the vat with electricity, and the person feels pain. In another experiment, the scientist stimulates the vat with electricity, and the person feels nothing. In yet another, the scientist stimulates the vat with electricity, and the person feels a sense of freedom. In a final test, the scientist stimulates the vat with electricity, and the person feels a sense of confidence.
The parallels should be obvious. From downloading Kung-Fu moves to the “woman in the red dress,” The Matrix was controlling the characters’ minds in a giant vat farm.
5 The Experience Machine
The philosopher Robert Nozick wrote a short thought experiment called “The Experience Machine.” In it, an individual wakes up in a laboratory designed to simulate whatever life they can imagine. The individual then realizes that they have been plugged into this machine. The individual must decide whether to stay in the machine’s simulation or wake up.
This makes us ask ourselves, can we find happiness living a simulated life?
The individual in the experiment is faced with choosing to stay in the machine or wake up. They can wake up, but only if the machine is destroyed. If they choose to stay in the machine, they will find happiness in the life they are living but will never know what it is like to wake up.
So, if you were Neo, would you take the red pill or the blue pill?
4 The Constructivism of Jean Piaget
Constructivism is a theory of knowledge that says that knowledge is constructed by the individual’s interactions with the world. Knowledge is made up of meanings, which are created by the individual. The individual then assigns meaning to an object or experience that is not already known. The individual then shares this meaning with others. This creates a social phenomenon constructed by the individual’s interactions with the world.
Constructivism plays a crucial role when Neo joins the rest, and they must learn completely new realities. The laws of physics are totally different in the real world than they were in the simulated world, and the team needs to develop a theory of knowledge together that’s consistent with the real world in order to overcome the Agents.
3 Kant’s Theory of Freedom
German Philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, “You must be free in order to make yourself into what you are capable of being.” He believed that moral law was to know thyself as a free person. For Kant, freedom is a necessary component of happiness, and happiness without freedom is impossible. If happiness was a gift that was given to you by an outside force, it wouldn’t be true happiness.
And The Matrix played heavily on this concept when it forced us to ask whether we’d prefer to live a happy lie or an uncomfortable truth. When plugged into the machine, the people are happy living in the artificial “caves” of their own minds. The machines created a simulation that allowed the characters to be happy—but only at the expense of freedom.
So what’s more important to you, happiness or freedom?
The people living in The Matrix were happy, but they weren’t free.
2 Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence
Bostrom’s work discusses the possibility of an artificial intelligence “breakthrough” that would lead to an intelligence explosion. This would result in the creation of intelligence so powerful that it would be able to control the entire world. The intelligence would be so powerful that it would be able to build an even more intelligent AI. This process would continue until one intelligence controlled everything.
This is exactly what happened in The Matrix. Humans built smart machines. Those smart machines built smarter machines that eventually came to dominate humanity.
Bostrom says that the risk of artificial intelligence is so great that the best way to prevent it from happening is to have a “control” system. This system would be a computer that would play the role of the AI. The computer would be so intelligent that it would be able to control the AI and prevent it from taking control of the world.
Do you think we could build such a control system? Or are we doomed to The Matrix?
1 Joseph Weizenbaum and the Problem of AI Empathy
Joseph Weizenbaum was the creator of the world’s first chatbot, and it was able to somewhat empathize with humans. He believed that computers would someday be able to understand human emotion and would eventually takeover service positions where empathy is necessary.
And he also believed this would be disastrous for humankind.
In his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason, Weizenbaum argued that machines should never be trusted to handle delicate decision-making processes because they will always lack the wisdom, intuition, and empathy necessary to do so well.
This is what happened in The Matrix. We created machines so intelligent that they could control us, but those machines didn’t care for us—and they ultimately enslaved us.