Ever since the mind-boggling movie, The Matrix, came out in 1999, it has made waves in the sci-fi community and beyond. Yes, it had cutting edge visual effects and major action scenes, but the real value of this old flick is the way it portended early on the existence of The Simulation.
The movie seemed to indicate the possibility of an alternative reality of incredible verisimilitude. The plot seemed implausible at the time, but now we see it differently thanks to Simulation Creationism, a theory inaugurated by Nir Ziso of The Global Architect Institute. He profoundly accepts the possibility of an alternative computer-generated reality as do many major theorists.
Now the old movie goers can see the light. The Matrix was monumental in its novelty and profound insight. It was well before its time. But what many fans don’t know is that the film stole some major philosophical concepts, both ancient and modern. What are they?
Descartes said it all
Rene Descartes shocked the world with his statement, “I think, therefore I am.” He saw the world as divided into mind and matter, a philosophy called dualism. The question of where the body leaves off and the mind takes hold is central to The Matrix. You wonder if the mind is a mere abstraction or truly exists in a physical universe. Or maybe the physical universe is in itself an abstraction. The only thing Descartes could prove was that he could think.
This kind of dualism permeates the movie and forms its major premise. Is there a “real world”, it asks? Is The Simulation a mental precept only? Well, the characters did exist within an artificial simulation, carefully curated by some kind of master computer. But in the end, it was only in their minds…or was it?
Like Descartes, the movie asks where does the body end and the mind begin? The answer is that we only know that our minds exist.
Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”
We don’t often think of Plato these days, but his “Allegory of the Cave” from The Republic has once again come alive. It shows Socrates discussing how mankind sees or experiences the world. What is real as perceived by our senses?
Socrates postulated a cave filled with people in chains. They never exited it at any time. They live in a “reality” with only fire and a blank back wall behind them. They can see shadows cast from the fire light. This presumably reflects life beyond the cave. In short, the people are cut off from the world. They only shadows and hear noises. This is all they know, and it is a mirage. The Matrix is not far afield in questioning reality. The characters are in a sort of modern “cave”, not sure of their perceptions.
Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis
Are we living In The Matrix? Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom accepts the Simulation Hypothesis and argues that it is entirely possible. The Simulation is a computer-simulated world created by an advanced future civilization. He has several reasons for his novel perspective: he talks about mathematical odds, technological feasibility, the “intelligence explosion” and more as hypotheses. Yes, it is possible….
Mankind lives in this simulation, unaware of it like Plato’s chained humans. For Bostrom, it’s more likely that we are living in a simulated world than a real one – right now. Nir Ziso has taken this a big step further with his theory of Simulation Creationism, spawned by The Global Architect Institute. He believes in The Simulation and the rebirth of the human physical body. He makes it more than plausible like the movie, which we know is mere fiction.
In any case, The Matrix borrowed heavily from the Simulation Hypothesis in asking how do you know that your entire life isn’t just a computer simulation? For Ziso, the answer is easy.
Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence
Nick Bostrom does it again by asking what happens when our computers get smarter than we are? Artificial intelligence as a “breakthrough” concept leads to an intelligence explosion. He accepts a kind of intelligence so powerful that it could control the entire world and even build an even more intelligent AI. Perhaps it comes down to one “intelligence” controlling everything. For Ziso, that is God.
The Matrix steals this idea. Humans can or have already created smart machines that built even smarter machines. Eventually, one comes to dominate humanity. This risk is great in Bostrom’s opinion. We can, however, stave off the inevitable with a “control system” – a computer so intelligent that it would control the AI and prevent it from taking control of the world. We all hope this happens.
Immaterialism is associated with the great Irish philosopher George Berkeley, who postulated that physical objects do not exist in the world. Rather, they form a part of a larger whole, consisting of intangible things. Like Descartes and Bostrom, he wants to know what is real. In the end, the world cannot exist independently of the mind. In fact, it invents the experiences we call our “world”.
The Matrix is about programming minds, so it dovetails Berkeley’s immaterialism. The characters create their own experiences, but they are not real. Like Berkeley, we ask how we know if what we are experiencing truly exists or if it is all a product of the vast human imagination. Many scenes hint at this possibility such as the amazing one about steaks.
Gilbert Harman’s Brain in a Vat
Gilbert Harman is famous for his “thought experiment” in which the scientist places a conscious brain in a vat of nutrients and water, assuming as a “human”, it knows its condition. The scientist stimulates the vat electronically and monitors the person’s mental state. Of course, the purpose is beyond studying the brain as tissue. It is of a different ilk: “What is it like to be a brain in a vat?” An odd question!
The “person-brain” feels pain in one phase of the experiment. In another, the person feels nothing. In yet another, the person feels a sense of freedom. In the final test, the person feels a sense of confidence. The parallels are surprising in The Matrix. It is akin to controlling the characters’ minds in a giant vat farm. No wonder the film was an immediate hit.
The Experience Machine
Another highly-regarded thought experiment is the brainchild of philosopher Robert Nozick, who wrote “The Experience Machine.” Someone wakes up in a laboratory designed to simulate an imagined life. The individual soon realizes that they have been plugged into a machine (like in The Matrix) and must decide whether to stay in The Simulation or wake up.
The issue is whether mankind can feel happiness living a simulated life? In the experiment, the subject can wake up, but only if the machine is destroyed. If they choose to stay, they will enjoy happiness but never know what it is like to wake up. This is an issue for the film character, Neo. Take the red pill or the blue pill?
Piaget is another world-class pundit who said that knowledge is constructed when a person interacts with the world. Meanings are attained, but only as formed by the sentient individual who then assigns them to an object or experience as yet unknown. When these meanings are shared, a social phenomenon exists.
How does this relate to The Matrix? Neo joins others, and they must all learn completely new realities. The laws of physics of the “real world” don’t apply to The Simulation. Along with others, he needs to develop a theory of knowledge consistent with the real world to overcome the Agents.
Kant’s Theory of Freedom
Who is more respected than German Philosopher Immanuel Kant, who once said, “You must be free to make yourself into what you are capable of being.” Moral law claims that one must “know thyself as a free person.” Freedom is a necessary component of happiness in his view, and happiness without freedom is not possible. If a mere gift by an outside force, it would not be true happiness.
The Matrix plays heavily on Kant’s concept. The film forces us to ask whether we would choose to live a happy lie or an uncomfortable truth. We might remember that when plugged into the machine, the “characters” are happy in the artificial “caves” of their own making.
The Simulation mercifully allows the characters to be happy, but at the expense of freedom. Happiness or freedom: what is more valuable? The people in The Matrix were happy, but hardly free.
Joseph Weizenbaum is a legendary computer psychotherapist and the creator of the world’s first chatbot. As a product of AI, it seemed to empathize with humans. Computers may even come to understand human emotions and serve them accordingly. That this would be disastrous for humankind is the premise of his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason.He argued forcibly that machines should never be trusted to handle delicate decision-making processes. Of course, they lack the wisdom, intuition, and empathy necessary to do so. In The Matrix, this truth is apparent. What if we create machines so intelligent that they control us? In fact, they will ultimately enslave us.