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MATRIX PHILOSOPHY: THE BRAVE NEW WORLD OF THE MATRIX by Hubert Dreyfus & Stephen Dreyfus


The Matrix1 raises several familiar philosophical problems in such fascinating new ways that , in a surprising reversal, students all over the country are assigning it to their philosophy professors. Having done our homework, we'd like to explore two questions raised in Christopher Grau’s three essays on the film. Grau points out that The Matrix dramatizes René Descartes’ worry that, since all we ever experience are our own inner mental states, we might , for all we could tell, be living in an illusion created by a malicious demon. In that case most of our beliefs about reality would be false. That leads Grau to question the rationality of Cypher’s choice to live in an illusory world of pleasant experiences, rather than facing painful reality.

We think that The Matrix 's account of our situation is even more disturbing than these options suggest. The Matrix is a vivid illustration of Descartes’ additional mind blowing claim that we could never be in direct touch with the real world (if there is one) because we are, in fact, all brains in vats. So in choosing to return from the "desert of the real" to the Matrix world, Cypher is merely choosing between two sets of systematic appearances. To counter these disturbing ideas we have to rethink what we mean by experience, illusion, and our contact with the real world. Only then will we be in a position to take up Grau's question as to why we feel it is somehow morally better to face the truth than to live in an illusory world that makes us feel good.

I. The Myth of the Inner

Thanks to Descartes, we moderns have to face the question: how can we ever get outside of our private inner experiences so as to come to know the things and people in the public external world? While this seems an important question to us now, it has not always been taken seriously. The Homeric Greeks thought that human beings had no private life to speak of. All their feelings were expressed publicly. Homer considered it one of Odysseus’ cleverest tricks that he could cry inwardly while his eyes remained like horn.2 A thousand years later, people still had no sense of the importance of their inner life. St. Augustine had to work hard to convince them otherwise. For example, he called attention to the fact that one did not have to read out loud. In his Confessions, he points out that St. Ambrose was remarkable in that he read to himself. "When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still."3 The idea that each of us has an inner life made up of our private thoughts and feelings didn’t really take hold until early in the 17th century when Descartes introduced the modern distinction between the contents of the mind and the rest of reality. In one of his letters, he declared himself "convinced that I cannot have any knowledge of what is outside me except through the mediation of the ideas that I have in me."4

Thus, according to Descartes, all each of us can directly experience is the content of our own mind. Our access to the world is always indirect. Descartes then used reports of people with a phantom limb to call into question even our seemingly direct experience of our own bodies. He writes:

I have been assured by men whose arm or leg has been amputated that it still seemed to them that they occasionally felt pain in the limb they had lost—thus giving me grounds to think that I could not be quite certain that a pain I endured was indeed due to the limb in which I seemed to feel it.5

For all we could ever know, Descartes concluded, the objective external world, including our body, may not exist; all we can be certain of is our subjective inner life.

This Cartesian conclusion was taken for granted by thinkers in the West for the next three centuries. A generation after Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz postulated that each of us is a windowless monad.6 A monad is a self-contained world of experience, which gets no input from objects or other embodied people because there aren’t any. Rather, the temporally evolving content of each monad is synchronized with the evolving content of all the other monads by God, creating the illusion of a shared real world. A generation after that, Immanuel Kant argued that human beings could never know reality as it is in itself but only their own mental representations, but, since these representations had a common cause, these experiences were coordinated with the mental representations of all the others to produce what he called the phenomenal world.7 In the early twentieth century, the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, was more solipsistic. He held, like Descartes, that one could bracket the world and other minds altogether since all that was given to us directly, whether the world and other minds existed or not, was the contents of our own "transcendental consciousness."8 Only recently have philosophers begun to take issue with this powerful Cartesian conviction.

Starting in the 1920s existential phenomenologists such as Martin Heidegger9 in Germany and Maurice Merleau-Ponty10 in France, in opposition to Husserl, contested the Cartesian view that our contact with the world and even our own bodies is mediated by internal mental content. They pointed out that, if one paid careful attention to one’s experience, one would see that, at a level of involvement more basic than thought, we deal directly with the things and people that make up our world.

As Charles Taylor, the leading contemporary exponent of this view, puts it:

My ability to get around this city, this house comes out only in getting around this city and house. We can draw a neat line between my picture of an object and that object, but not between my dealing with the object and that object. It may make sense to ask us to focus on what we believe about something, say a football, even in the absence of that thing; but when it comes to playing football, the corresponding suggestion would be absurd. The actions involved in the game can't be done without the object; they include the object.11

In general, unlike mental content, which can exist independently of its referent, my coping abilities cannot be actualized or even entertained in the absence of what I am coping with.

This is not to say that we can’t be mistaken. It’s hard to see how I could succeed in getting around in a city or playing football without the existence of the city or the ball, but I could be mistaken for a while, as when I mistake a façade for a house. Then, in the face of my failure to cope successfully, I may have to retroactively cross off what I seemingly encountered and adopt a new readiness (itself corrigible) to encounter a façade rather than the house I was set to deal with.

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II. Brains in Vats

So it looks like the inner/outer distinction introduced by Descartes holds only for thoughts. At the basic level of involved skillful coping, one is simply what Merleau-Ponty calls an empty head turned towards the world. But this doesn’t at all show that The Matrix is old fashioned or mistaken. On the contrary it shows that The Matrix has gone further than philosophers who hold we can’t get outside our mind. It suggests a more convincing condition– one that Descartes pioneered but didn't develop – that we can’t get outside our brain.

It was no accident that Descartes proclaimed the priority of the inner in the 17th Century. At that time, instruments like the telescope and microscope were extending human being’s perceptual powers. At the same time, the sense organs themselves were being understood as transducers bringing information to the brain. Descartes pioneered this research with an account of how the eye responded to light energy from the external world and passed the information on to the brain by means of "the small fibers of the optic nerve."12 Likewise, Descartes used the phantom limb phenomenon to argue that other nerves brought information about the body to the brain and from there the information passed to the mind.

It seemed to follow that, since we are each a brain in a cranial vat,13 we can never be in direct contact with the world or even with our own bodies. So, even if phenomenologists like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Taylor seem right that we are not confined to our inner experiences, it still seems plausible to suppose that, as long as the impulses to and from our nervous system copy the complex feedback loop between the brain’s out-going behavior-producing impulses and the incoming perceptual ones, we would have the experience of directly coming to grips with things in the world. Yet, in the brain in the vat case, there would be no house and no city, indeed, no real world, to interact with, and so we would be confined to our inner experiences after all. As Morpheus says to Neo in the construct:

How do you define "real"? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then "real" is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain…

But this Cartesian conclusion is mistaken. The inner electrical impulses are the causal basis of what one can feel and taste, but we don’t feel and taste them. Even if I have only a phantom limb, my pain is not in my brain but in my phantom hand. What the phenomenologist can and should claim is that, in a Matrix world where bodies are in vats, which has its causal basis in bodies in vats outside that world, the Matrix people whose brains are getting computer generated inputs and responding with action outputs, are directly coping with perceived reality, and that that reality isn't inner. Even in the Matrix world, people directly cope with chairs by sitting on them, and need baseballs to bring out their batting skill. Thus coping, even in the Matrix, is more direct than conceived of by any of the inner/outer views of the mind's relation to the external world that have been held from Descartes to Husserl.

Yet, wouldn’t each brain in the Matrix construct have a lot of false beliefs, for example that its Matrix body is its real body whereas its real body is in a vat? No. If the ordinary Matrix dweller has a pain in his damaged foot it’s in his Matrix foot, not in the foot of a body in a vat – a foot that is not damaged and about which he knows nothing at all. It’s a mistake to think that each of us is experiencing a set of neural firings in a brain in a cranial vat. True, each of us has a brain in his or her skull and the brain provides the causal basis of our experience, but we aren’t our brain. Likewise, the people in the Matrix world are not brains in vats any more than we are. They are people who grew up in the Matrix world and their experience of their Matrix body and how to use it makes that body their body, even if another body they can't even imagine has in its skull the brain that is the causal basis of their experience.

After all, the people who live in the Matrix have no other source of experience than what happens in the Matrix. Thus, a person in the Matrix has no beliefs at all about his vat-enclosed body and brain and couldn’t have any. That brain is merely the unknowable causal basis of that person’s experiences. Since the only body a Matrix dweller sees and moves is the one he has in the Matrix world, the AI programmers could have given him a Matrix body radically unlike the body in the vat. After all, the brain in the vat started life as a baby brain and could have been given any content the AI programmers chose. They could have taken a white baby who was going to grow up short and fat, and given him the Matrix body of a tall African-American.14

But there is still at least one problem. The Matricians' beliefs about the properties and uses of their perceived bodies, and of chairs, cities, and the world may be shared and reliable, and in that sense true, but what about the causal beliefs of the people in the Matrix? They believe, as we do, that germs cause disease, that the sun causes things to get warm, and gravity causes things to fall, and so forth. Aren’t all these beliefs false? That depends on their understanding of causality. People don’t normally have explicit beliefs about the nature of causality. Rather, they simply take for granted a shared sense that they are coping with a shared world whose contents are causing their experience. Unless they are philosophizing, they do not believe that the world is real or that it is an illusion, they just count on it behaving in a consistent way so that they can cope with things successfully. If, however, as philosophers, they believe that there is a physical universe with causal powers that makes things happen in our world, they are mistaken. But if they claim that our belief in causality is simply our response to the constant conjunctions of experiences as David Hume did, or our positing of universal laws relating experiences as Kant held, then their causal beliefs would be true of the causal relations in the Matrix world.15

Kant claims we experience a public, objective world, and science then relates these appearances by rules we call laws, but we can’t know the causal ground of the phenomena we perceive. Specifically, according to Kant, we experience the world as in space and time but things in themselves aren’t in space and time. So Kant says we can know the phenomenal world of objects and their law-like relations but we can’t know the things in themselves that are the ground of these appearances.

The Matricians are in the same epistemological position that we all are in according to Kant. So, if there are Kantians in the Matrix world, most of their beliefs would be true. They would understand that they are experiencing a coordinated system of appearances, and understand too that they couldn’t know things in themselves that are the ground of these appearances, that is, that they couldn't know the basis of their shared experience of the world and universe. Kantians don’t hold that our shared and tested beliefs about the world, and scientists’ confirmed beliefs about the universe, are false just because they are about phenomena and do not and cannot correspond to things in themselves. And, as long as Kantians, and, indeed, everyone in the Matrix, didn’t claim to know about things in themselves, most of their beliefs would be true.

Nonetheless, the Matrix philosophy obviously does not subscribe to the Kantian view that we can never know things in themselves. In The Matrix one can come to know reality. Once Neo’s body is flushed out of the vat and is on the hovercraft, he has a broader view of reality and sees that his previous understanding was limited. But that doesn’t mean he had a lot of false beliefs about his body and the world when he was in the Matrix. He didn’t think about these philosophical questions at all. But once he is out, he has a lot of new true beliefs about his former vat-enclosed body -- beliefs he didn’t have and couldn’t have had while in the Matrix.16 We have seen that existential phenomenologists acknowledge that we are sometimes mistaken about particular things and have to retroactively take back our set to cope with them. But, as Merleau-Ponty and Taylor add, we only do so in terms of a new and better prima facie contact with reality. Likewise, in The Matrix version of the brain in the vat situation, those who have been hauled from the vat into what they experience as the real world can see that much of what they took for granted about the basis of their experience before was mistaken. They can, for example, understand that what they took to be a world that had been around for millions of years was a recently constructed computer program.

Of course, things are not so simple. Neo’s current beliefs might still all be false. His experience is, after all, sustained by a brain in a skull in a vat, and the AI programmers might now be feeding that brain the experience of being outside the Matrix and in the hovercraft. Given the conceivability of the brain in the vat fantasy, the most we can be sure of is that our coping experience reveals that we are directly up against some boundary conditions independent of our coping — boundary conditions with which we must get in sync in order to cope successfully. In this way, our coping experience is sensitive to the causal powers of these boundary conditions. Whether these independent causal conditions have the structure of an independent physical universe discovered by science, or whether the boundary conditions and the causal structures discovered by science are both the effect of an unknowable thing in itself that is the ground of appearances as postulated by Kant, or whether the cause of all appearances is a computer, is something we could never know from inside our world. But Neo, once he is on the hovercraft, does know that, as in waking from a dream, his current understanding of reality supercedes and crosses out his former one.

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III. A New Brave New World

We are now in a position to understand and try to answer Cypher’s question: Why live in the miserable world the war has produced rather than in a satisfying illusion? Some answers just won't do. It doesn’t seem to be a question of whether one should face the truth rather than live in an illusion. Indeed, most of the beliefs of the average Matrician are true; when they sit on a chair it usually supports them, when they enter a house they see the inside, people have bodies that can be injured, and they can cope by acting in some ways and not others. Even their background sense that in their actions they are coping with something independent of them and that others are coping with it too, is justified. As we have seen, Kant argued, even if this is a phenomenal world, a world of appearances, most of our beliefs would still be true. Likewise, living in the Matrix world does not seem to be less moral than living in our everyday world. The Matricians are dealing with real people, and they are free to choose what they will do; they can be selfish like Cypher and betray their friends, or they can be loyal to their friends like Trinity, and they can try to provide for the future happiness of those they love. None of the above concerns seem to give us a grip on what, if anything, is wrong with the Matrix world.

To understand what's wrong with living in the Matrix we have to understand the source of the power of the Matrix world. Part of the power comes from the way the inputs and outputs from the computer are plugged directly in the brain’s sensory motor-system. When we experience ourselves as acting in a certain way, say walking inside a house, the computer gives us the correlated experiences of seeing the interior. These correlations produce a powerful perceptual effect that is impervious to what we believe, like the wrap-around IMAX illusion that forces one to sway to keep one’s balance on a skateboard even though one knows one is sitting in a stationary seat watching a movie, or just as the moon looks bigger on the horizon even though we know it isn’t.

The inputs to the perceptual system of the brain in the vat produce the perceptual world whether we believe it is real or not, but, once one realizes that the causality in the Matrix world is only virtual, since causality is not built into our perceptual system, one can violate the Matrix’s causal laws. By the end of the movie, Neo can fly, if he wants to, he could bend spoons.17 About the causal principles governing the Matrix world, Morpheus tells Neo, "It is all in your mind."

If one doesn’t believe in the causal laws governing appearances, one is free from the causal consequences. One's disbelief in the illusion somehow forces the computer to give one the experience one wills to have. To take a simple example, if one doesn't believe in the existence of a spoon, when one's brain gives out the neural output for the action of bending the spoon, the computer is forced to give back the visual input that the spoon is bending. This is a literal example of what Morpheus calls "bending the rules." Likewise, if one believes that one can stop bullets, one will look for them where one stopped them and the computer will obediently display them there. So, after he learns the Matrix world is an illusion, Neo doesn't directly see things differently – the impulses to his brain still control what he sees18 – but he is able to choose to do things that he couldn’t do before (like choose to stop bullets) and that affects what he sees (the bullets stop). How this suspension of causality is supposed to work in not explained in the film.

What, then, is the source of sinister power of the Matrix world that keeps people conforming to the supposed constraints of a causal universe, even though there are no such constraints? If it isn’t just that they are locked into the sensory motor correlations of their perceptual world, what sort of control is it? It has to be some sort of control of the Matricians' intellectual powers — powers which we learn early on in the movie are free from the control of direct sensory-motor computer correlations.19 It must be some sort of mind control.

It seems that the Matrix simply takes advantage of a sort of mind control already operating in the everyday world. We are told that what keeps people from taking control of the Matrix world is their taking for granted the common sense view of how things behave, such as, if you fall you will get hurt. More generally, what keeps people in line is their tendency to believe what the average person believes, and consequently keep doing (and not doing) what one does and doesn't do. (As in one eats peas with a fork, one doesn’t throw food at the dinner table, and one goes out the door rather than the window.) Heidegger describes the resulting conformism as letting oneself be taken over by "the one" (Das Man).20 Aldous Huxley similarly lamented the conformity of the brainwashed masses in Brave New World.

Thus, The Matrix can be seen as an attack on what Nietzsche calls herd mentality. Nietzsche points out that human beings are normally socialized into obeying shared, social norms, and that it is hard to think differently. As he puts it, "as long as there have been humans, there have also been herds of men (clans, communities, tribes, peoples, states, churches) and always a great many people who obey, ... considering, then, that nothing has been exercised and cultivated better and longer among men than obedience, one may fairly assume that the need for it is now innate in the average man."21

Waking in the movie, then, amounts to freeing oneself from the taken for granted norms that one has been brought up to accept. But how is this possible? Heidegger claims that everyone dimly senses that there is more to life than conforming. As Morpheus says to Neo, you know there is something lacking in this world; "it's like a splinter in your mind." But most people flee the thought that their conformist world lacks something important. According to Heidegger it takes an attack of anxiety, the experience that none of the taken-for-granted normal ways of seeing and doing things have any basis, to jolt someone out of the herd. It is important to understand that Heidegger's anxiety is not the wringing of hands that we witness in the everyday world. It is a feeling of the weirdness of the world. How fitting then that a barely expressible unease seems to pervade Neo's life — an anxiety that prompts him to begin the process of breaking free by subverting the system. Finally, Neo has a dramatic version of an anxiety attack. When he hears that the world he has been taking for granted is a computer simulation used to turn people into energy resources, he falls to the floor and throws up.

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IV. A Really Brave New World

One might reasonably object that all the dreaming talk in the film, even if it should not be literal, is too strong a religious metaphor to refer merely to what Heidegger calls living a tranquilized existence in the one. And waking seems to be more than becoming a non-conformist. After all, there are all those mentions of Jesus in connection with Neo collected by Colin McGinn.22 There can be no doubt that Neo is meant to be a kind of Savior, but what kind?

It’s tempting to think that The Matrix is a Gnostic, Buddhist, or Platonic/Christian parable, in which what we take to be reality turns out to be a dream, and we are led to wake from the world of appearances to some kind of higher spiritual reality. On this reading, Neo would lead people out of the illusions of Plato’s cave, the veil of Maya, or the darkness of the world into a higher disembodied life. But this association would be all wrong! True, the conformist Matrix world is a sort of tranquilizing illusion promoted by the Artificial Intelligences, and we know that, in the Matrix the Agents take care of those who, like Neo, get out of line. And we are led to expect that Neo will lead people out of it. But this does not mean learning that our mortal bodies are a cover-up and that salvation consists in leaving our vulnerable bodies behind in exchange for some kind of eternal life.

In the film, salvation means the absolute opposite of the traditional religious vision. True, the ones who see through the Matrix can get over some of the limitations of having a body as exemplified by their flying.23 But such flying takes place in the Matrix world. In the real world to which Neo "awakes" and into which he will, we suppose, eventually lead everyone, there will be no more flying. People will have earth-bound, vulnerable bodies and suffer cold, bad food, and death. It may look, at the end of the film, as if Neo evades death, but his "resurrection" in the hovercraft is not into a world where death has been overcome by a miraculous divine love, rather, he has been saved by an earthly intervention — a sort of tender CPR — quite within the bounds of physics and chemistry. So he still has his vulnerable body and will have to die a real death one day. What he presumably has gotten over is not death but the herd’s fear of death, thereby overcoming what, according to Heidegger, is the most serious constraint that normally limits people's freedom.

But if bending the rules that are accepted by the average person just amounts to being able to bend spoons, fly, and stop bullets, it doesn’t seem any kind of salvation. Being creative must mean more than just being disruptive.24 We are lead to expect that, in return for accepting everyday vulnerability and suffering, the people liberated by Neo will be reborn to a new and better life. But what sort of life is that? To account for why it is admirable to confront risky reality rather than remain in the safe and tranquilized Matrix whatever the quality of experience in each, we need an account of human nature, so we can understand what human beings need that the Matrix world fails to provide.

But, in our pluralistic world, there are many different cultures, each with its own understanding of human nature. Even our own culture has experienced many different worlds created by new interpretations of human nature and the natural world that changed what counted as human beings and things. What mattered in the world of Homer was to be a hero and collect beautifully crafted artifacts; in the Hebrew World one had to obey God’s law and to govern all other creatures; in the Christian World, the goal was to purify one's desires and to read the text of God's world in order to know God’s will; and, with Descartes and Kant, people in the Modern World became autonomous, self-controlled subjects organizing and controlling objects and their own inner lives. While now, in the Postmodern World, many people, like Cypher, are egocentric hedonists trying to get the most out of their possibilities by maximizing the quality of their private experiences, and thereby treating themselves as resources.

But doesn’t this just show, as Sartre famously observed, that there is no human nature? Here Heidegger makes an important meta-move. As the history of the West suggests, our nature is to be able to open up new worlds and so to transform what is currently taken to be our nature. Perhaps human beings are essentially world disclosers. So, to determine what human beings need beyond just breaking out of the banal, it looks like we have to turn to the Heideggerian point that what is missing in the Matrix is the possibility of going beyond conventional preprogrammed reality and opening up new worlds; not just breaking the rules of the current game but inventing new games. Nietzsche says we should "become those we are — human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves."25 Jesus created a new world by defining us in terms of our desires rather than our actions, and Descartes invented the inner and so helped disclose the Modern World. On a less dramatic scale, Martin Luther King Jr. opened a new world for Afro-Americans.26 It is just such a freedom to open up new worlds that the Matrix world lacks. A sense of the limit on our possibilities is what Neo experiences as the splinter in the mind. As he says to the AI intelligences at the end of the film, “I know you are afraid…of change.”27

Heidegger thinks that our freedom to disclose new worlds is our special human freedom, and holds that this freedom implies that there is no fixed pre-existent set of possible worlds. Each world exists only once it is disclosed. So it makes no sense to think that a computer could be programmed with rules for producing the sensory-motor connections that would allow the creation of all possible worlds in advance of their being opened by human beings. Artificial intelligences couldn't program for such a radically open world if they wanted to. In fact, programmed creativity is an oxymoron.

If being world disclosers is our nature, that would explain why we feel a special joy when we are opening new worlds. Once we experience world disclosing, we understand why it’s better to be in the real world than in the Matrix, even if, in the world of the Matrix, one can enjoy steak and good wine. Real salvation comes from transcending the world foreclosing limits of the Matrix program. What’s ultimately important to us, then, is not whether most of our beliefs are true, or whether we are brave enough to face a risky reality, but whether we are locked into a world of routine, standard activities or are free to transform the world and ourselves.

If the Matricians were simply the victims of the Matrix computer program in that they had false beliefs about the causal basis of their experiences, Neo could show them that their beliefs about the causal basis of things were false and teach them to agree with Kant that the world is an appearance, but that wouldn't set the free — not as long as they saw only the possibilities that one normally sees and never experienced anxiety. Neo has to do more. He has to do the job that Heidegger thinks anxiety does: he has to show the people in the Matrix that the order they take for granted is ungrounded and so can be creatively changed. As he says, “I’m going to. show these people a world without rules and control. A world where everything is possible.”

And by the end of the movie, Neo as the One (or the anti-one as Heidegger would see it), has only begun freeing the people in the Matrix from their conformism by showing them that they have the freedom to bend the rules. He has not, however, freed them from the Matrix by showing them how to open new worlds. But, of course, there are two more movies to come. We can hope that, before number three is over, Neo will get to Zion and lead people in disclosing a really brave new world.

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Endnotes

1.  Names in the movie are generally very well chosen. The way the word "matrix" refers both to the womb and to an array of numbers works perfectly. Likewise, Neo is both a neophyte and the one who will renew the world. These names are so fitting one can’t help looking for the aptness of the name, Morpheus, but it is hard to find. The Greek Morpheus is the god of dreams but the Morpheus in the movie is trying to wake people up. The only way to make some sense of the name is to think of the Greek god, not as the producer of dreams, but as the one who has power over dreams: both to give them and to take them away.

2.  "Imagine how his heart ached …and yet he never blinked;
his eyes might have been made of horn or iron...
He had this trick—wept, if he willed to, inwardly."
Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), 360.

Of course, the Homeric Greeks must have had some sort of private feelings for Odysseus to perform this trick, but they thought the inner was rare and usually trivial. As far as we know, there is no other reference to private feelings in Homer. Rather, there are many public displays of emotions, and shared visions of gods, monsters, and future events.

3. Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (Penguin, l961), 114.

4.  Letter to Gibieuf of 19 January 1642; English in Descartes: Philosophical Letters, trans. Anthony Kenny (Oxford University Press 1970), 123.

5. René Descartes, "Meditations on First Philosophy - Meditations VI", in Essential Works of Descartes, trans. Lowell Bair (New York: Bantam Books, 1961), 98.

6. Gottfried Leibniz, The Monadology and Other Philosophical Writings (London: Oxford University Press), 1898. A monad, according to Leibniz, is an immaterial entity lacking spatial parts, whose basic properties are a function of its inner perceptions and appetites. As Leibniz put it: A monad has no windows.

7. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: The Humanities Press, 1950).

8. Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology, trans. Dorion Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960).

9. See, Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson (New York: Harper Collins, 1962).

10. See, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. C. Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962).

11. Charles Taylor, "Overcoming Epistemology," Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 12. See also, Samuel Todes, Body and World (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2001).

12. René Descartes, "Dioptric," Descartes: Philosophical Writings, ed. and trans. Norman Kemp Smith (Modern Library, l958), 150.

13. The point has been made explicitly by John Searle: "[E]ach of us is precisely a brain in a vat; the vat is a skull and the 'messages' coming in are coming in by way of impacts on the nervous system." Intentionality: An essay in the philosophy of mind (Cambridge University Press, 1983), 230.

14. There are limits of course. The Matrix programmers can’t give a human being a dog’s body. It’s also unlikely they could make a brain in a female body the causal basis of a man’s body in the Matrix world. The hormones of the body in the vat wouldn’t match the physical attributes of the body in the Matrix world.

Still, a good way for the AI programmers to prevent bodies being rescued to the hovercraft would be to give each brain the experience of a radically different body (within whatever limits are imposed by biology) in the Matrix world than the body that brain is actually in. If rescued, such people would quite likely go crazy trying to reconcile the body they had experienced all their life with the alien body they found themselves in on the hovercraft.

15. Likewise, their beliefs about entities such as viruses and black holes would be true if, like empiricists, they held that theoretical entities are just convenient ways to refer to the data produced by experiments. See Bas van Frassen, The Scientific Image (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).

16. Of course, things are really not so simple. Most people don’t have beliefs about the reality of the world; they just take the world for granted. Neo has, however, been forced to raise the question, and he believes he is now facing reality. But Neo’s current beliefs could still be false. He could still be a brain in a vat fed the experience of being in the hovercraft. Given the conceivability of the brain in the vat fantasy, the most we can be sure of is that our coping experience reveals that we are directly up against some boundary conditions independent of our coping with which we must get in sync in order to act, and that, therefore, our coping experience is sensitive to the causal powers of these boundary conditions. Whether these independent causal conditions have the structure of an independent physical universe discovered by science, or whether the boundary conditions and the causal structures discovered by science are the effect of an unknowable thing in itself that is the ground of appearances as postulated by Kant, or even whether the cause of all appearances is a computer, is something we could never know from inside our world. But Neo does know that, as in waking from a dream, his current understanding of reality supercedes and crosses out his former one.

17. Granted it’s hard to resist believing in the Matrix illusion even where causality is concerned, nonetheless, Neo learns he can stop believing in it. This new understanding of reality is described by Morpheus talking to Neo near the beginning of the movie, and by Neo at the end, as like waking from a dream. But the brains in the vats are not literally dreaming. Their world is much too coherent and intersubjective to be a dream. Or, to put it another way, dreams are the result of some quirk in our internal neural wiring and full of inconsistencies, although when dreaming we don’t usually notice them. They are not the result of a systematic correlation between input and output to the brain’s perceptual system that is meant to reproduce the consistent coordinated experience that we have when awake. When someone from the hovercraft returns to the Matrix world, it looks like their hovercraft body goes to sleep, but they do not enter a private dream world but an alternative intersubjective world where they are normally wide awake, but in which they can also seem to dream and wake from a dream, as Neo does after the Agents take away his mouth.

18. There is one unfortunate exception to this claim. At the end of the movie, Neo catches a glimpse of the computer program behind the perceptual illusion. This is a powerful visual effect, but, if what we’ve been saying is right, it makes no sense. If the computer is still feeding systematic sensory-motor impulses into Neo’s brain when he is plugged into the Matrix world, then he will see the world the program is producing in his visual system. What the sight of the rows of numbers is meant to do is to remind us that Neo no longer believes in the Matrix illusion but understands it is a program, but even so, he should continue to see it.

19. The Agents, who are computer programs, don't have this freedom. It might seem that Agent Smith shows his freedom and deviates from his job of maintaining order in the Matrix when he tells Morpheus how disgusted he is with the Matrix world. We think it would be consistent with the limitations of the Agents to understand this as Smith's playing the good cop routine; trying to get Morpheus to believe Smith is on his side, so that Morpheus, in his weakened state, will give Smith the access codes for Zion, but the movie does not exploit this possibility.

20. Not to be confused with Neo as "the One" who will save people from the Matrix. For Heidegger’s account of the power of the one, see his Being and Time, and also H. Dreyfus, Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time, Division I (Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T Press, 1991), Chapter 8.

21. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Vintage Books, 1966). # 199.

22. Colin McGinn's essay can be found here.

23. Given the kind of bodies we have: that we move forward more easily than backwards, that we can only cope with what is in front of us, that we have to balance in a gravitational field, etc., we can question to what extant such body-relative constraints can be violated in The Matrix if what is going on is still to make sense.

To test these limits, the filmmakers occasionally blow our minds by using a wrap-around point of view from which action looks so far from normal as to be awesomely unintelligible. At the same time, they have successfully met the challenge of discovering which body-relative invariances can be intelligibly violated and which can’t. For example, in the movie, gravity can be overcome — Neo can fly — but he can’t see equally in all directions, cope equally in all directions, nor can he be in several places at once. What would it look like for a single person to surround somebody?

Time too has a body-relative structure that can’t be violated with impunity. The way we experience time as moving into the future and leaving the past behind depends on the way our forward directed body leads us to approach objects and then pass them by. (See Todes, Body and World). Could we make sense of a scene in which someone attacked an enemy not just from behind, but from the past? If, in the movie, the liberated ones were free of all bodily constraints governing their action we couldn’t make sense of what they were doing and neither could they. They wouldn’t be liberated but would be bewildered, as we often are in our dreams.

24. Although being disruptive is the best one can do in the Matrix world. That’s why Neo, a hacker who, as Agent Smith says, has broken every rule in the book, is the natural candidate for savior.

25. F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, (Vintage Books Edition, March 1974), # 335.

26. See Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores, and Hubert Dreyfus, Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).

27.Early in the film. Morpheus says:"What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world, built to keep us under control." and James Pryor, at the end of his essay, tried heroically to make sense of this claim by speculating on what the AI programmers might do to the Matrix dwellers.  If the machines had done any of these things, Pryor would have the right to say as he does: "In the movie, humans are all slaves. They're not in charge of their own lives. They may be contented slaves, unaware of their chains, but they're slaves nonetheless. They have only a very limited ability to shape their own futures. [...] The worst thing about living in the Matrix would not be something metaphysical or epistemological. The worst thing would be something political. It would be the fact that you're a slave."

But I fear that Morpheus is simply mistaken, at least concerning what has happened in the Matrix series thus far.  If you're a slave, there must be a master who controls what you can do or, in Brave New World, who even controls what you want to do, and, of course, if you knew you were in such a world you would want your freedom. Having their causal basis used as a battery, however, doesn't interact with the Matricians' psychic lives and doesn't limit what they can decide, what they can desire, or what they can do. Pryor rightly points out, that the AI intelligences could sabotage the Matricians' projects or reset their world back to 1980 if they so chose, but what Morpheus doesn't understand (and Pryor doesn't bring out) is that there is nothing in having your causal basis used as a battery that is essentially enslaving. That is, although the Matricians' causal basis is being used to generate electricity, they are not being controlled.  Their "enslavement" in the Matrix is like our relation to our selfish genes, and no one feels there is something morally wrong with our world because our DNA is using us to propagate itself; likewise the simple fact that the bodies the Matricians are linked to are serving some purpose outside their lives can't be what's wrong with living in the Matrix.

There is, indeed, a very subtle way that the AI computers have foreclosed the Matrix dweller's future but it is not by limiting the possibilities available to them in their world.  The limitation in question has nothing to do with being brains in vats as long as the inputs to the brains are modeled on the way things normally behave in the world, and the outputs depend on the Matrix dwellers' decisions. The problem isn't epistemological, nor metaphysical, nor (pace Morpheus and Pryor) political. The problem is what Heidegger would call ontological. It has to do not with freedom to choose in the current world, but freedom to change worlds. By suppressing all unconventional behavior in their fear of change, and, in any case, having no way to introduce radical freedom into their programs, the AI intelligences have suppressed the Martricians' most essential human capacity - a way of being the computers can't understand but dimly fear -- our ontological capacity for opening radically new worlds.

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