Are We Living in the Matrix?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy

By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College

For most humans, the ability to attain knowledge and resist efforts to rob them of it is an integral part of life. A world ruled over by propaganda can diminish one’s ability to discern what is real and what isn’t. But this problem can be remedied by applying a threefold criterion to competing hypotheses, even if they are based on abstract and philosophical interpretations.

The word 'doublethink' in a dictionary.
Doublethink is an Orwellian tactic in which a fascist party tries to control how individuals see reality. (Image: Casimiro PT/Shutterstock)

An Orwellian Nightmare

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the character Capt. Picard is kidnapped and tortured by the Cardassian military officer, Gul Madred. Madred blasts four lights in Picard’s face but says that the torture will end, and Picard can live a life of luxury if he will simply say that he sees five lights.

Picard refuses, recognizing not only the value of true belief but realizing that if Madred can get him to deny the obvious truth, he can make Picard believe anything he wants—even make him see the world a different way—and thus ultimately control and manipulate Picard any way he sees fit.

And it almost works. At the end of the episode, Picard says that he was so desperate for the torture to end that he not only was going to say that there were five lights, he believed he actually saw five lights. The writers, it seems, borrowed from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, where a fascist party tries to control the way people think.

Orwell called it “doublethink.” Doublethink is similar to another phenomenon called gaslighting, which gets its name from another piece of fiction: a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton called Gas Light, in which a husband gets his wife to question her very grasp of reality and even sanity by continually presenting her with false information—denying what is obvious, misdirection, distraction and engaging in downright contradiction, and outright lying.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Cypherian Happiness

This phenomenon can diminish the individual’s ability to discern what’s real by internalizing the idea that everything is fake. It makes knowledge of truth irrelevant. But knowledge isn’t the only thing that is intrinsically valuable. Freedom is also important.

In The Matrix, in response to Trinity saying that Morpheus had set him free, the character Cypher says: “Free? You call this free? All I do is what he tells me to do. If I have to choose between that and the Matrix, I choose the Matrix.” Knowledge is valuable, but so is freedom and happiness.

Learn more about transcendence and the dangers of AI.

Knowledge is Attainable

Does the fact that we can’t be certain we aren’t in a simulation like the Matrix mean that having knowledge is impossible? The short answer is, no.

Either we are actually awake and experiencing a physical world, or we are being fooled in some grandiose way, like in The Matrix, into thinking the world is real when it’s not. And there is no test that we can perform to prove which hypothesis is true.

When we have multiple interpretations of an event, with no way to prove which one is true, we still can come to a rational conclusion. To reach the optimum interpretation, we have to consider which aligns most with the facts and which is based on mere personal preferences. 

The Scientific Criteria

This happens in science too. When two explanations account for the same data, we have to distinguish them by appealing to other scientific criteria.

3D rendering of the Sun and the planets of the solar system.
The scientific method enables us to determine whether the planets orbit the Earth or the Sun. (Image: AlexLMX/Shutterstock)

Which hypothesis is simpler, that is, which hypothesis makes the fewest assumptions? Which hypothesis has a wider scope, explaining the most without raising unanswerable questions? Which one is more conservative, better aligning with what is already well established? Any theory that aligns with most of these criteria is the superior one.

We can apply these criteria to the motion of the planets. As astronomers tracked them, they saw that they occasionally double back on their own paths. It’s called a retrograde. We can interpret that data to construct a model of the solar system in two different models.

We could place the Earth at the center and have the planets circling it with odd, epicyclic orbits, constantly doubling back on themselves. Or we could simply place the Sun at the center and have the planets orbiting it.

Both hypotheses are actually consistent with the data. But we chose the heliocentric model even before we could confirm it observationally because it is the superior explanation. Most notably, it is simpler. Numerous ad hoc epicycles have to be invented to account for all the retrogrades on the geocentric model.

Learn more about the possibility of time travel.

The Matrix Explanation is Not Sufficient

We can do the same with Descartes’ problem. We can ask ourselves what is the more logical explanation for our experiences? That we are experiencing the world right now? Or that we are fed sensations by a supercomputer (like the one in The Matrix)?

The Matrix explanation isn’t simple; it assumes the existence of the world as well as a giant, powerful computer in that world. And the Matrix explanation also has very little scope.

A rendering of a supercomputer.
The Matrix explanation isn’t simple; it assumes both the existence of the world as well as a supercomputer. (Image: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)

It raises all kinds of unanswerable questions about how the computer works, who built it, why, how it induces our experiences, etc. But we actually have a consistent and coherent explanation of how the universe came into existence and how it causes our experience. Thus, even though we can’t prove which hypothesis is true, we can show which one is superior, most likely, and hence, more rational to accept.

Therefore, we can have knowledge. But can we be certain of that knowledge? No. Even if we can, as Descartes argued, be certain of our own existence— “I think therefore I am”—we can’t deduce from there (certainty about the entire world). But since knowledge doesn’t require certainty we don’t have to. Knowledge is simply justified true belief. We are justified in believing that which is most likely.

Common Questions about Our Reality and the Matrix

Q: What is gaslighting?

The phenomenon of gaslighting gets its name from a 1938 play called Gas Light in which a husband gets his wife to question her very grasp of reality and even sanity by continually presenting her with false information. This phenomenon can cause the individual to doubt reality.

Q: What is the meaning of the term doublethink?

George Orwell used the term doublethink to explain how a fascist party tries to control how individuals see reality in his dystopian novel, 1984.

Q: What are the main weaknesses of the Matrix explanation of reality?

The Matrix hypothesis isn’t simple and has a limited scope. It assumes the existence of both the world as well as a supercomputer. It raises all kinds of unanswerable questions about how the computer works, and who built it, why, how it induces our experiences, etc.

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