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Descartes Skepticism and the Matrix

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    Reality is something that has been debated among philosophers for centuries. Rene Descartes is one of these philosophers who has come up with a unique way of understanding reality. Descartes in Meditations on First Philosophy argues his method of doubt about the idea of skepticism and this is reflected in the Matrix when Neo chooses the red pill over the blue pill and his entire experience that followed.

    In The Matrix, Neo is given the choice by Morpheus to take the red pill, which will take him out of the Matrix, or the blue pill, which will leave him in the Matrix. Neo is given the choice of accepting Morpheus, who offers him the truth, or to be a skeptic and doubt the Matrix, which he thought to be reality. When Neo chooses the red pill, he chooses to pick reality over the Matrix program. In taking the red pill, Neo threw away everything he thought to be true in order to take part in the real truth. Neo obviously had doubts about what he thought to be true and therefore threw away those thoughts in order to experience the real truth, which could not be experienced while he held onto the false truth he first believed while in the Matrix. This one decision of choosing the red pill was not the end but the beginning of the journey as Neo grew more and more in his understanding that he has not reached the whole truth, but that there is always more to know. This is evident in the fact that Neo was not immediately strong enough to defeat Agent Smith, but had to grow in his power through much training and understanding.

    This idea that Neo had to doubt the Matrix more and more in order to grow in his understanding of reality skepticism. Lawrence defines a skeptic as “a person who believes that we can never be absolutely sure what the world is really like” (21). Skepticism argues that one can never reach true reality, no matter how much time is spent in the process of seeking. Nothing that one can see or experience is absolutely known to be real. Skepticism argues that one cannot know something to be true without an outside frame of reference. This is explained by Rene Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy when he speaks of dreams. One can tell a dream from reality because reality is an outside frame of reference from which one can compare to the dream. But if what one calls reality is in fact a dream, one has no outside frame of reference to compare it to. (29-30)

    In light of this, Descartes presumes that we are sleeping: that everything that is experienced is “false and illusory” (Descartes 30). There is no true way to know that anything that is experienced is real. One’s senses often deceive him and therefore the senses are not the true way to understand reality. The way people know reality as they experience it is through their senses, but because the senses deceive, clearly no one is experiencing true reality. This is the skepticism Descartes looks into deeply. One experiences reality through the senses. But the senses deceive and there is, therefore, no way to reach one hundred percent certain truth.

    It was in this understanding that Descartes began seeking the very thing that is impossible to reach: one hundred percent certain truth. Lawrence explains: “He employed what is famously known as his method of doubt. He began by discarding all of his beliefs, and resolved to allow them in only if it could be shown that they were absolute truth” (21). Descartes set everything that he knows through the senses aside as if rejecting them. Descartes recognizes how impossible it is to say everything is true then pick out what is false through the senses because almost everything is known through the senses. This is why Descartes chose to set everything apart as false in order to find what is true.

    Descartes goes on to explain that the senses are merely tools which “some
    malignant genius exceedingly powerful and cunning” (Descartes 32) uses to deceive humans, just as the machines use the Matrix to deceive Neo and everyone in the Matrix to accept a false reality in order to fuel the machines and just as the devil uses many tricks to deceive Christians into believing lies about themselves, reality, and turn them from God. Descartes explains his frustration with this being, who gave him senses that can be deceived in order to understand everything. This, therefore, leaves him unable to fully understand anything. Because of this, Descartes goes on to believe all external things to be illusions, even his own body and claims that he has no senses (Descartes 33). He acknowledges that this may not be the way to achieve truth, but to hold off judgment so as to keep himself from the influence of this deceiver.

    Descartes continues by questioning his own existence. He raises the points, “If I am persuading myself of something, in so doing I assuredly do exist” and “if he is deceiving me, I exist” (Descartes 34). He claims that because he thinks and because some deceiver is trying to deceive him, he must exist or else these occurrences would not be happening. Knowing this, he goes on to question who he really is, so as not to lose this knowledge that he gained that he exists. He begins by questioning who he originally believed himself to be. He originally thought himself to be a man (whatever that may be) with a body that was nourished, walked, sensed, and thought (Descartes 34). He though all of these to correspond to the soul, but he put no consideration as to what the soul actually is. As he questions each of these, he finds that none of these actually belongs to him until he reaches thinking. He comes to the conclusion that he exists as long as he is thinking, that he is a mind or a thinking thing and that everything is truly known only through the mind. Karl Popper’s philosophy would claim that Descartes’ method of doubt and knowledge that he is only a thinking thing is non-falsifiable, and therefore non-scientific, because it cannot be proven by tests or experiments. But Popper cannot deny that Descartes has a very sound argument that although may have elements of falsity, clearly contains elements of truth.

    All of this comes of Descartes method of doubt in response to the idea of
    skepticism. As he sets aside everything he thought to be true, he sets aside his very self in order to understand himself even more. Through his questioning of who he is, he comes to understand that who he thought he is was false and comes to the conclusion that he is a thinking thing, a mind, and that anything that attempts to convince him otherwise is a scheme of the malignant genius to deceive him. This whole ideology is evidenced in the Matrix as Neo chooses to doubt the Matrix and engage in true reality in denying the false reality the machines have created.

    Descartes, Rene. “Meditations on First Philosophy.” European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche. 1st ed. Beardsley, Monroe C. New York: Random House, 1960. 29-34. Print. Lawrence, Matt. Like a Splinter in Your Mind: The Philosophy Behind the Matrix Trilogy. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Print.

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