A Philosopher in The Matrix

Click here for the Finnish version: Filosofi Matrixissa

Note: I do not fully agree or disagree with either of the characters.


Man in Trenchcoat and Sunglassses: What if I told you… that everything you thought you knew about the world was an illusion?

Philosopher: Oh, I don’t think it’s a coherent idea that everything I believe can be wrong at the same time.

MiTaS: Is that so? What if I told you that the world we see around is nothing but a computer simulation, and we are really hooked into it in endless rows in a power plant, enslaved by computers who are using us for producing electricity.

P: Hmmm. I don’t think that would make a lot of difference to anything, actually.

MiTaS: What? You don’t care if we’re all living in an illusion?

P: Well, it would be an interesting fundamental truth about the world, certainly, but it wouldn’t change most of the things we think we know.

MiTaS: Of course it would! It means most of the things we’ve believed all our lives are wrong!

P: Ah, but that’s just the thing. All of our lives, we’ve had beliefs about… what? The world that we see around ourselves.

MiTaS: Which is not real!

P: What is real?

MiTaS: Well, 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…

P: No, no, I’m not an idealist. But if I have beliefs about, say, matter, what do they refer to?

MiTaS: Uh, matter?

P: But that is circular. If I think that matter is what makes up this table in front of me, am I wrong? If I’ve always talked about this, even if it’s part of a computer simulation, when I’ve talked about matter? If my parents, also living in the simulation, taught me to speak and they were always using their words to refer to things within the simulation… if all the beliefs I formed about things were about things that I saw around me, things in the simulation… then my beliefs will be true if they are true about the simulation. Because that’s what my beliefs have always been about.

MiTaS: But it’s not real. None of it is. It’s not what it looks like. It looks like we’re sitting here by a table and talking to each other, when really our bodies are curled up in these weird pod things. Well, mine’s not any more, but anyway. And this place we’re in, it doesn’t even exist.

P: But if I have beliefs about my body, they’re surely about the body I’ve always seen and felt as my body, not the other one outside the world I know.

MiTaS: Yes, but–

P: And what if the underlying mechanics behind this reality are surprising? We already believed in quantum mechanics, which say that the phenomena that underlie the world as it appears to us are very different from the ordinary macroscopic world. Yet that doesn’t mean that the ordinary world isn’t real. It’s just that there’s something more behind it.

MiTaS: But… the world is artificial.

P: Many people have always believed that the world was created by a being outside–

MiTaS: All right, all right, I get it. So you’re not bothered by this at all.

P: No. It’s fascinating, but it doesn’t really change anything.

MiTaS: It changes everything!

P: Which exact things? I just specified how it does not change most things that it might prima facie appear to.

MiTaS: …You don’t actually believe any of what I said, do you?

P: I don’t know. But it hardly matters.

MiTaS: I don’t think you’d be saying these things if you did.

P: That’s possible but irrelevant. If my emotional reaction was to be distressed, but in calm reflection I don’t see any reason for that, obviously it’s more rational for me to remain neutral.

MiTaS: Fine. At least I have to admit some admiration for your philosophy for helping you deal with this. Would you like this steak? I think you’d enjoy it more because I know it isn’t real and you know it is.

P: Well, I…

The Oracle: You have already made the choice because you love steak so much.

Philosopher: That’s true, I’ll have it… Wait, are you saying my choices are determined by my desires? That I will choose to do what I want to do?

The Oracle: Yes.

Philosopher: But that means I’ll never randomly do something else! I couldn’t choose otherwise (unless I wanted to)! I have no free will! Nooooo!


For an explicit analysis, and more ideas than are discussed here, see “The Matrix as Metaphysics” by David Chalmers. This post isn’t quite based on that article, but it’s pretty close to being.

Sama suomeksi.


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