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Plato, Descartes, and The Matrix

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Plato, Descartes, and The Matrix

In this unit, we have been discussing how we “know.”The modern American philosopher, Hilary Putnam, popularized a well-known thought experiment highlighting the problem of skepticism and our knowledge of reality. To understand Putnam’s experiment, we need to consider how we normally obtain knowledge of reality. Our knowledge of reality usually begins with sensory input. While each of our five senses perceives the world according to their individual means, we will use seeing as an example.Light is reflected off of objects and enters through our eyes, which focus an image of these objects to the back of our eyeball, where it hits our optic nerve. Our nerve transforms this image into electrical/neural impulses that travel through the optic nerve up to where it is plugged into the brain. The brain then processes these impulses where they are transformed into an image in our mind. What ourminds experience is an image of the outside world, similar to how a television projects an image captured by a television camera.


In Putnam’s thought experiment, you imagine that your brain has been severed from the nerves connecting it to your senses (eyes, ears, nose, etc.) and has been removed from your skull and placed in a vat filled with the nutritional fluid necessary to keep your brain alive and functioning. Electrical wires have been spliced into your sensory nerves that are connected to the sensory inputs in your brain. The other ends of these wires are connected to the outputs of a giant super computer. A man sits at the keyboard of this super computer, inputting data. This data is transformed into electrical/neural impulses that travel through the spliced wire/sensory nerves and into your brain. The brain processes this information as if it were from your senses. Hence, you have whatever image the man at the keyboard wants you to have. Suppose he inputs data that you are sitting in a café in France, drinking an espresso. He includes all the usual sensory data, including the smell and taste of the coffee, the hardness of the chair and table, the cool breeze blowing by, the sounds of the traffic, and the view of the Eiffel Tower. You experience all of this exactly as if you are really there. In such a situation, you would have no idea that you(or at least your brain) areactually sitting in some vat in some laboratory.


In 1999, Putnam’s thought experiment became the basis of a megahit movie, The Matrix. However, Putnam was not the first to suggest that there may be a problem with perceiving and knowing reality. A number of philosophers have wrestled with this problem. This brings us to your assignment, described below.


Attatched there are 3 short readings. Your assignment is to read them and then write an essay (addressing some of the questions listed below (in the “Questions to Consider” section). You must address the first question; then,choose 1 of the other questions to address also.


While you are free to quote from sources, quotations will not count towards the minimum word count. Plagiarism of any kind will result in a 0 for the assignment.




A note about the readings: The first reading is a synopsis of The Matrix. If you have seen the movie, this will function as a review for you. If you have not seen the movie, you may choose to do so. However, you should know that the movie is rated R for language and violence. It is not necessary to view the movie to fulfill the assignment, as the synopsis is enough to consider the questions. The second reading comes from Plato’s classic work, The Republic. It is in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, a brother of Plato, and contains the famous cave allegory. The third and final reading is a section from Meditation I, from Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes, who offers some reasons to doubt his senses.


Questions to Consider


  1. Compare and contrast The Matrix with the readings from Plato and Descartes. What are some similarities and differences?


  1. Can we prove that the world we are experiencing is real? How do we know we are not dreaming, living in a Platonic cave, or trapped in some sort of matrix?


  1. At the end of the cave allegory, Socrates implies that most men would want to escape the cave and see reality as it really is. However, in his betrayal of Morpheus,Cypher implies that it is better to live in the artificial world of the Matrix. Which is better: the harshness of reality, or the “ignorance is bliss” of illusion? Defend your answer.


  1. Since much of our knowledge is based on sensory experience, and since our senses are imperfect and can be deceived, can we ever be certain that our beliefs are true?Defend or explain your answer.


Again, you must address the first question, followed by1 of the others from the list.


Synopsis:The Matrix

“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” –Morpheus


Have you ever had a dream that was so life-like that when you woke up you weren’t sure at first if the dream had ended? Mr. Anderson had such a dream. Mr. Anderson is a computer programmer. He works for a big software corporation, but he lives alone. He doesn’t sleep well, so he has a problem making it to work on time. In general, though, he is a decent guy: he is well educated, he pays his rent on time, and he helps his landlord take out the trash. But at night, he works on his computer. He is a hacker, and he goes by the hacker alias “Neo.”


Neo has been having a nagging concern, a niggling little sense in the back of his head that something isn’t right about his life. He hasn’t been able to figure out what exactly is wrong, but the feeling lingers there, like a splinter in his mind. And then he meets Morpheus….


Morpheus is a leader of a group of dissidents who are trying to help others see the true nature of their world. The truth, according to them, is that the world is an illusion, an elaborate system of deception perpetrated to keep people contentedly under control. Morpheus offers Neo a choice: he can forget that they ever met, go back to living his old life, and run the risk that he’s being conned, or he can “take the red pill,” follow Morpheus, and find out what’s really going on. Neo takes the pill.


What he discovers is mind-boggling. It turns out that almost the entire human race is lying unconscious in giant machines that are keeping their bodies alive. Their brains are all connected (via cables) to a powerful computer on which a programed simulation of the world is running, and they are all unconsciously living out virtual lives as individual players in this computer simulation. They experience being born, growing up, getting jobs, growing old, and dying through their virtual lives in a computer simulation called “the Matrix.” As Morpheus tells Neo, “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” It all seems so real that they have no idea that they are being duped.


All of this comes as a huge shock to Neo. It is almost too much for him to accept. He experiences fear, denial, and confusion, but eventually acceptance and then sadness. He realizes that all of his “life” had been a lie. Morpheus reminds him, “I didn’t say it would be easy, Neo. I only said it would be the truth.”




Neo joins Morpheus’ crew in helping other people to discover the truth about the Matrix. However, many are not ready to accept this truth. One such person is Cypher, adisillusioned member of Morpheus’ rebel band. Cypher had expected that knowing the truth would make life easier or somehow better, but he discovers that knowledge can be a weighty burden. Hence he seeks a way to erase his memories of the truth and go back to his former state. He emphatically asserts, “Ignorance is bliss,” and even strikes a deal with the master computer to betray Morpheus in return for being returned to his former state. But Neo disagrees with Cypher, and the movie ends with his challenge to theMatrix:“I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries—A world where anything is possible.”


Wachowski, Andy, and Lana Wachowski. The Matrix. Directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. Los Angeles: Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999.

“The Allegory of the Cave”

Excerpt from Plato, The Republic, Book VII, 514A1–518D8

Socrates and Glaucon are conversing:


SOCRATES:  “Next,” said I “compare our nature in respect of education and its lack to such an experience as this. Picture men dwelling in a sort of subterranean cavern with a long entrance open to the light on its entire width. Conceive them as having their legs and necks fettered from childhood, so that they remain in the same spot, able to look forward only, and prevented by the fetters from turning their heads. Picture further the light from a fire burning higher up and at a distance behind them, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them a road along which a low wall has been built, as the exhibitors of puppet-shows have partitions before the men themselves, above which they show the puppets.”

GLAUCON:   “All that I see,” he said.

SOCRATES:  “See also, then, men carrying past the wall implements of all kinds that rise above the wall; and human images and shapes of animals as well, wrought in stone and wood and every material, some of these bearers presumably speaking and others silent.”

GLAUCON:   “A strange image you speak of,” he said, “and strange prisoners.”

SOCRATES:  “Like to us,” I said; “for, to begin with, tell me do you think that these men would have seen anything of themselves or of one another except the shadows cast from the fire on the wall of the cave that fronted them?”

GLAUCON:   “How could they,” he said, “if they were compelled to hold their heads unmoved through life?”

SOCRATES:  “And again, would not the same be true of the objects carried past them?”

GLAUCON:   “Surely.”

SOCRATES:  “If then they were able to talk to one another, do you not think that they would suppose that in naming the things that they saw they were naming the passing objects?”

GLAUCON:   “Necessarily.”

SOCRATES:  “And if their prison had an echo from the wall opposite them, when one of the passersby uttered a sound, do you think that they would suppose anything else than the passing shadow to be the speaker?”

GLAUCON:   “By Zeus, I do not,” said he.

SOCRATES:  “Then in every way such prisoners would deem reality to be nothing else than the shadows of the artificial objects.”

GLAUCON:   “Quite inevitably,” he said.



SOCRATES:  “Consider, then, what would be the manner of the release and healing from these bonds and this folly if in the course of nature something of this sort should happen to them: When one was freed from his fetters and compelled to stand up suddenly and turn his head around and walk and to lift up his eyes to the light, and in doing all this felt pain and, because of the dazzle and glitter of the light, was unable to discern the objects whose shadows he formerly saw, what do you suppose would be his answer if someone told him that what he had seen before was all a cheat and an illusion, but that now, being nearer to reality and turned toward more real things, he saw more truly? And if also one should point out to him each of the passing objects and constrain him by questions to say what it is, do you not think that he would be at a loss and that he would regard what he formerly saw as more real than the things now pointed out to him?”

GLAUCON:   “Far more real,” he said.

SOCRATES:  “And if he were compelled to look at the light itself, would not that pain his eyes, and would he not turn away and flee to those things which he is able to discern and regard them as in very deed more clear and exact than the objects pointed out?”

GLAUCON:   “It is so,” he said.

SOCRATES:  “And if,” said I, “someone should drag him thence by force up the ascent which is rough and steep, and not let him go before he had drawn him out into the light of the sun, do you not think that he would find it painful to be so hauled along, and would chafe at it, and when he came out into the light, that his eyes would be filled with its beams so that he would not be able to see even one of the things that we call real?”

GLAUCON:   “Why, no, not immediately,” he said.

SOCRATES:  “Then there would be need of habituation, I take it, to enable him to see the things higher up. And at first he would most easily discern the shadows and, after that, the likenesses or reflections in water of men and other things, and later, the things themselves, and from these he would go on to contemplate the appearances in the heavens and heaven itself, more easily by night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than by day the sun and the sun’s light.”

GLAUCON:   “Of course.”

SOCRATES:  “And so, finally, I suppose, he would be able to look upon the sun itself and see its true nature, not by reflections in water or phantasms of it in an alien setting, but in and by itself in its own place.”

GLAUCON:   “Necessarily,” he said.

SOCRATES:  “And at this point he would infer and conclude that this it is that provides the seasons and the courses of the year and presides over all things in the visible region, and is in some sort the cause of all these things that they had seen.”

GLAUCON:   “Obviously,” he said, “that would be the next step.”

SOCRATES:  “Well then, if he recalled to mind his first habitation and what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow-bondsmen, do you not think that he would count himself happy in the change and pity them?”

GLAUCON:   “He would indeed.”


“Meditation I ofthe Thingsof Which We May Doubt”

Excerpt from René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, 1641

  1. SEVERAL years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences. But as this enterprise appeared to me to be one of great magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced I should be better able to execute my design. On this account, I have delayed so long that I should henceforth consider I was doing wrong were I still to consume in deliberation any of the time that now remains for action. Today, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares [and am happily disturbed by no passions], and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.


  1. But, to this end, it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false–a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach; but as even now my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt. Nor for this purpose will it be necessary even to deal with each belief individually, which would be truly an endless labor; but, as the removal from below of the foundation necessarily involves the downfall of the whole edifice, I will at once approach the criticism of the principles on which all my former beliefs rested.


  1. All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.


  1. But it may be said, perhaps, that, although the senses occasionally mislead us respecting minute objects, and such as are so far removed from us as to be beyond the reach of close observation, there are yet many other of their informations (presentations), of the truth of which it is manifestly impossible to doubt; as for example, that I am in this place, seated by the fire, clothed in a winter dressing gown, that I hold in my hands this piece of paper, with other intimations of the same nature. But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors as to cause them pertinaciously to assert that they are monarchs when they are in the greatest poverty; or clothed [in gold] and purple when destitute of any covering; or that their head is made of clay, their body of glass, or that they are gourds? I should certainly be not less insane than they, were I to regulate my procedure according to examples so extravagant.



  1. Though this be true, I must nevertheless here consider that I am a man, and that, consequently, I am in the habit of sleeping, and representing to myself in dreams those same things, or even sometimes others less probable, which the insane think are presented to them in their waking moments. How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At the present moment, however, I certainly look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; the head which I now move is not asleep; I extend this hand consciously and with express purpose, and I perceive it; the occurrences in sleep are not so distinct as all this. But I cannot forget that, at other times I have been deceived in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering those cases, I perceive so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep, that I feel greatly astonished; and in amazement I almost persuade myself that I am now dreaming.


  1. Let us suppose, then, that we are dreaming, and that all these particulars–namely, the opening of the eyes, the motion of the head, the forth- putting of the hands–are merely illusions; and even that we really possess neither an entire body nor hands such as we see. Nevertheless it must be admitted at least that the objects which appear to us in sleep are, as it were, painted representations which could not have been formed unless in the likeness of realities; and, therefore, that those general objects, at all events, namely, eyes, a head, hands, and an entire body, are not simply imaginary, but really existent. For, in truth, painters themselves, even when they study to represent sirens and satyrs by forms the most fantastic and extraordinary, cannot bestow upon them natures absolutely new, but can only make a certain medley of the members of different animals; or if they chance to imagine something so novel that nothing at all similar has ever been seen before, and such as is, therefore, purely fictitious and absolutely false, it is at least certain that the colors of which this is composed are real. And on the same principle, although these general objects, viz. [a body], eyes, a head, hands, and the like, be imaginary, we are nevertheless absolutely necessitated to admit the reality at least of some other objects still more simple and universal than these, of which, just as of certain real colors, all those images of things, whether true and real, or false and fantastic, that are found in our consciousness (cogitatio) are formed.


  1. To this class of objects seem to belong corporeal nature in general and its extension; the figure of extended things, their quantity or magnitude, and their number, as also the place in, and the time during, which they exist, and other things of the same sort.


  1. We will not, therefore, perhaps reason illegitimately if we conclude from this that Physics, Astronomy, Medicine, and all the other sciences that have for their end the consideration of composite objects, are indeed of a doubtful character; but that Arithmetic, Geometry, and the other sciences of the same class, which regard merely the simplest and most general objects, and scarcely inquire whether or not these are really existent, contain somewhat that is certain and indubitable: for whether I am awake or dreaming, it remains true that two and three make five, and that a square has but four sides; nor does it seem possible that truths so apparent can ever fall under a suspicion of falsity [or incertitude].



  1. Nevertheless, the belief that there is a God who is all powerful, and who created me, such as I am, has, for a long time, obtained steady possession of my mind. How, then, do I know that he has not arranged that there should be neither earth, nor sky, nor any extended thing, nor figure, nor magnitude, nor place, providing at the same time, however, for [the rise in me of the perceptions of all these objects, and] the persuasion that these do not exist otherwise than as I perceive them ? And further, as I sometimes think that others are in error respecting matters of which they believe themselves to possess a perfect knowledge, how do I know that I am not also deceived each time I add together two and three, or number the sides of a square, or form some judgment still more simple, if more simple indeed can be imagined? But perhaps Deity has not been willing that I should be thus deceived, for he is said to be supremely good. If, however, it were repugnant to the goodness of Deity to have created me subject to constant deception, it would seem likewise to be contrary to his goodness to allow me to be occasionally deceived; and yet it is clear that this is permitted.


  1. Some, indeed, might perhaps be found who would be disposed rather to deny the existence of a Being so powerful than to believe that there is nothing certain. But let us for the present refrain from opposing this opinion, and grant that all which is here said of a Deity is fabulous: nevertheless, in whatever way it be supposed that I reach the state in which I exist, whether by fate, or chance, or by an endless series of antecedents and consequents, or by any other means, it is clear (since to be deceived and to err is a certain defect ) that the probability of my being so imperfect as to be the constant victim of deception, will be increased exactly in proportion as the power possessed by the cause, to which they assign my origin, is lessened. To these reasonings I have assuredly nothing to reply, but am constrained at last to avow that there is nothing of all that I formerly believed to be true of which it is impossible to doubt, and that not through thoughtlessness or levity, but from cogent and maturely considered reasons; so that henceforward, if I desire to discover anything certain, I ought not the less carefully to refrain from assenting to those same opinions than to what might be shown to be manifestly false.


  1. But it is not sufficient to have made these observations; care must be taken likewise to keep them in remembrance. For those old and customary opinions perpetually recur– long and familiar usage giving them the right of occupying my mind, even almost against my will, and subduing my belief; nor will I lose the habit of deferring to them and confiding in them so long as I shall consider them to be what in truth they are, viz., opinions to some extent doubtful, as I have already shown, but still highly probable, and such as it is much more reasonable to believe than deny. It is for this reason I am persuaded that I shall not be doing wrong, if, taking an opposite judgment of deliberate design, I become my own deceiver, by supposing, for a time, that all those opinions are entirely false and imaginary, until at length, having thus balanced my old by my new prejudices, my judgment shall no longer be turned aside by perverted usage from the path that may conduct to the perception of truth. For I am assured that, meanwhile, there will arise neither peril nor error from this course, and that I cannot for the present yield too much to distrust, since the end I now seek is not action but knowledge.



  1. I will suppose, then, not that Deity, who is sovereignly good and the fountain of truth, but that some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive me; t will suppose that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, figures, sounds, and all external things, are nothing better than the illusions of dreams, by means of which this being has laid snares for my credulity; I will consider myself as without hands, eyes, flesh, blood, or any of the senses, and as falsely believing that I am possessed of these; I will continue resolutely fixed in this belief, and if indeed by this means it be not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of truth, I shall at least do what is in my power, viz., [ suspend my judgment ], and guard with settled purpose against giving my assent to what is false, and being imposed upon by this deceiver, whatever be his power and artifice. But this undertaking is arduous, and a certain indolence insensibly leads me back to my ordinary course of life; and just as the captive, who, perchance, was enjoying in his dreams an imaginary liberty, when he begins to suspect that it is but a vision, dreads awakening, and conspires with the agreeable illusions that the deception may be prolonged; so I, of my own accord, fall back into the train of my former beliefs, and fear to arouse myself from my slumber, lest the time of laborious wakefulness that would succeed this quiet rest, in place of bringing any light of day, should prove inadequate to dispel the darkness that will arise from the difficulties that have now been raised.


Last Updated on February 8, 2018

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