The Matrix as Metaphysics



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Envatment Reconsidered

This is a standard way of thinking about the vat scenario. It seems that this view is also endorsed by the people who created The Matrix. On the DVD case for the movie, one sees the following:



Perception: Our day-in, day-out world is real.

Reality: That world is a hoax, an elaborate deception spun by all-powerful machines that control us. Whoa.

I think this view is not quite right. I think that even if I am in a matrix, my world is perfectly real. A brain in a vat is not massively deluded (at least if it has always been in the vat). Neo does not have massively false beliefs about the external world. Instead, envatted beings have largely correct beliefs about their world. If so, the Matrix Hypothesis is not a skeptical hypothesis, and its possibility does not undercut everything that I think I know.

Philosophers have held this sort of view before. The 18th-century philosopher George Berkeley held, in effect, that appearance is reality. (Recall Morpheus: "What is real? 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.") If this is right, then the world perceived by envatted beings is perfectly real: they have all the right appearances, and appearance is reality. So on this view, even envatted beings have true beliefs about the world.

I have recently found myself embracing a similar conclusion, though for quite different reasons. I don't find the view that appearance is reality plausible, so I don't endorse Berkeley's reasoning. And until recently, it has seemed quite obvious to me that brains in vats would have massively false beliefs. But I now think there is a line of reasoning that shows that this is wrong.

I still think I cannot rule out the hypothesis that I am in a matrix. But I think that even I am in a matrix, I am still in Tucson, I am still sitting at my desk, and so on. So the hypothesis that I am in a matrix is not a skeptical hypothesis. The same goes for Neo. At the beginning of the film, if he thinks "I have hair", he is correct. If he thinks "It is sunny outside", he is correct. And the same goes, of course, for the original brain in a vat. When it thinks "I have a body", it is correct. When it thinks "I am walking", it is correct.

This view may seem very counterintuitive at first. Initially, it seemed quite counterintuitive to me. So I'll now present the line of reasoning that has convinced me that it is correct.




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