MATRIX PHILOSOPHY: DREAM SKEPTICISM by Crhistopher Grau
Neo has woken up from a hell of a dream — the
dream that was his life. How was he to know? The cliché is
that if you are dreaming and you pinch yourself, you will wake up.
Unfortunately, things aren't quite that simple. It is the nature of
most dreams that we take them for reality — while dreaming we are
unaware that we are in fact in a dreamworld. Of course, we eventually
wake up, and when we do we realize that our experience was all in
our mind. Neo's predicament makes one wonder, though: how can any
of us be sure that we have ever genuinely woken up? Perhaps,
like Neo prior to his downing the red pill, our dreams thus far have
in fact been dreams within a dream.
The idea that what we take to be the real world
could all be just a dream is familiar to many students of philosophy,
poetry, and literature. Most of us, at one time or another, have been
struck with the thought that we might mistake a dream for reality,
or reality for a dream. Arguably the most famous exponent of this
worry in the Western philosophical tradition is the seventeenth-century
French philosopher Rene Descartes. In an attempt to provide a firm
foundation for knowledge, he began his Meditations by clearing
the philosophical ground through doubting all that could be doubted.
This was done, in part, in order to determine if anything that could
count as certain knowledge could survive such rigorous and systematic
skepticism. Descartes takes the first step towards this goal by raising
(through his fictional narrator) the possibility that we might be
"How often, asleep at night, am I convinced of just such familiar
events — that I am here in my dressing gown, sitting by the fire
—when in fact I am lying undressed in bed! Yet at the moment my
eyes are certainly wide awake when I look at this piece of paper;
I shake my head and it is not asleep; as I stretch out and feel
my hand I do so deliberately, and I know what I am doing. All this
would not happen with such distinctness to someone asleep. Indeed!
As if I did not remember other occasions when I have been tricked
by exactly similar thoughts while asleep! As I think about this
more carefully, I see plainly that there are never any sure signs
by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep.
The result is that I begin to feel dazed, and this very feeling
only reinforces the notion that I may be asleep." (Meditations,
When we dream we are often blissfully ignorant
that we are dreaming. Given this, and the fact that dreams often seem
as vivid and "realistic" as real life, how can you rule
out the possibility that you might be dreaming even now, as you sit
at your computer and read this? This is the kind of perplexing thought
Descartes forces us to confront. It seems we have no justification
for the belief that we are not dreaming. If so, then it seems we similarly
have no justification in thinking that the world we experience is
the real world. Indeed, it becomes questionable whether we are justified
in thinking that any of our beliefs are true.
The narrator of Descartes' Meditations worries about this,
but he ultimately maintains that the possibility that one might be
dreaming cannot by itself cast doubt on all we think we know; he points
out that even if all our sensory experience is but a dream, we can
still conclude that we have some knowledge of the nature
of reality. Just as a painter cannot create ex nihilo but
must rely on pigments with which to create her image, certain elements
of our thought must exist prior to our imaginings. Among the items
of knowledge that Descartes thought survived dream skepticism are
truths arrived at through the use of reason, such as the truths of
mathematics: "For whether I am awake or asleep, two and three
added together are five, and a square has no more than four sides."
While such an insight offers little comfort to someone wondering whether
the people and objects she confronts are genuine, it served Descartes'
larger philosophical project: he sought, among other things, to provide
a foundation for knowledge in which truths arrived at through reason
are given priority over knowledge gained from the senses. (This bias
shouldn't surprise those who remember that Descartes was a brilliant
mathematician in addition to being a philosopher.) Descartes was not
himself a skeptic — he employs this skeptical argument so as to help
remind the reader that the truths of mathematics (and other truths
of reason) are on firmer ground than the data provided to us by our
Despite the fact that Descartes' ultimate goal
was to demonstrate how genuine knowledge is possible, he proceeds
in The Meditations to utilize a much more radical skeptical
argument, one that casts doubt on even his beloved mathematical truths.
In the next section we will see that, many years before the Wachowskis
dreamed up The Matrix, Descartes had imagined an equally
Dancy, Jonathan. Introduction
to Contemporary Epistemology, Blackwell, 1985.
Descartes.The Philosophical Writings
of Descartes, tr: John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch.
Cambridge University Press, 1984
Stroud, Barry.The Significance of
Philosophical Scepticism, Oxford, 1984.