The Fundamental Epistemological Question of ‘The Matrix’: Is the World Real?

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

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

The Matrix is a masterpiece of both storytelling and the visual arts, but more than that it’s a visual philosophical treatise. In the trailer for The Matrix, the following question is posed: “What is the Matrix?” To know what the Matrix is, first we have to know its fundamental philosophical concepts.

The matrix background with green symbols.
The Matrix is the ultimate epistemological movie and makes us consider the possibility that it could actually be true. (Image: ltummy/Shutterstock)

The Red Pill in The Matrix

The movie begins with a computer hacker named Neo, who is compelled by the “What is the Matrix?” question. He finds Morpheus, someone who knows the answer and offers him an unusual choice: Take the blue pill and he’ll wake up in his bed, none the wiser. Take the red pill, and he will learn the truth.

Neo chooses the truth and learns that the Matrix is a digital world designed to fool its inhabitants into thinking that it’s real. He thought he was living a free life in the year 1999. In reality, his body was locked in a pod, floating in goo, and being fed experiences by a computer—the Matrix—around the year 2199.

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

The Matrix: An Epistemological Movie

Morpheus believes Neo is “The One”—the one prophesied to free all of humankind from the Matrix. After being unhooked from the Matrix and learning the full story of the war between the humans and machines that led to the creation of the Matrix, Neo and his new friends hack back into the Matrix to seek a prophetess called “the Oracle.”

On the way back out, one of his colleagues, Cypher, betrays the group to Agent Smith, a sentinel program tasked with killing rebels like Morpheus and Neo. In a final showdown, after saving Morpheus, Neo defeats Smith by basically deprogramming him from the inside.

The Matrix is the ultimate epistemological movie and makes us consider the possibility that it could actually be true. It expresses the worries of one of the most famous works in all of philosophy: Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy.

Cartesian Questions in the Meditations

In the Meditations, Descartes is looking for a solid grounding on which to base all knowledge. To that end, he is looking for a belief that cannot be doubted and thus takes seriously even the most outlandish ways that his foundational beliefs could be false.

A portrait of Descartes.
In the Meditations, Descartes is looking for a solid grounding on which to base all knowledge. (Image: After Frans Hals/Public domain)

It may seem obvious, Descartes says, “I am here, sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing-gown.” But he has dreamed such things before and been just as convinced.

Descartes considers his condition, shakes his head, and admits that it certainly feels like he’s awake. But then again, he has felt the same surety while dreaming.

So, Descartes realizes he could be dreaming; there is no way to prove to himself he’s not. This doesn’t make Descartes doubt the existence of the world, however. After all, the ideas in his dreams come from his experiences during waking hours.

Descartes’ Evil Demon

But then Descartes considers an alternate possibility for the source of those ideas. What if “some malicious, powerful, cunning demon has done all he can to deceive me?” Descartes asks.

If that’s true, not even the world exists. And since a lifetime of experiences fed to Descartes by such a demon would be indistinguishable from a lifetime of experiences of the real world, there is no way to prove that this isn’t true. Indeed, no matter what “test” Descartes performed to see if this was true, the demon could simply fool him into thinking he had passed the test when he had not.

Learn more about the possibility of time travel.

Brain in a Vat Thought Experiment

The Matrix is simply a technological variation on this same problem: The machines are the evil demons, and the Matrix is their method for imputing sensations. It’s akin to another version of the argument called “the brain in a vat” problem.

The argument is, if you actually were just a brain in a vat, floating in a pod of goo, being fed sensations by a computer to make you experience a fake world, your entire life would consist of exactly the same kind of experiences that it has consisted of.

Thus, you can’t know the world is real. And if we can’t know something as basic as that, something that seems to undergird our entire belief system, it seems you can’t know anything at all. Knowledge is impossible.

The Definition of Knowledge

Almost 2,500 years ago, in the Theaetetus, Plato defined knowledge as “true belief with an account.” In other words, you know something when you believe it, and you have good reason to think it’s true.

That’s essentially the definition that’s accepted by philosophers today: knowledge is justified true belief. It’s certainly agreed that all three are necessary. You can’t know something without believing it. A belief can’t count as knowledge unless it’s justified. And you can’t know something if it’s false. You, of course, can know that something is false, but you can’t know something that is false. 

For example, you can know that the proposition “the world is flat” is false, but you can’t know that the world is flat because it’s not. Descartes worried that knowledge was impossible because it was impossible for any belief to be justified.

Learn more about transcendence and the dangers of AI.

There is No Truth, Just Simulacra

Jean Baudrillard deeply influenced the creators of The Matrix. In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard argues that the postmodern world (post World War II), after the invention of computerized technology and ubiquitous media, consists merely of simulacra.

Creative polygonal mesh background with dots.
Baudrillard argues that the postmodern world consists merely of simulacra. (Image: Who is Danny/Shutterstock)

In other words, we no longer interact with things, but merely images and representations of things: signs, copies, models. We are inundated with propaganda and deception, from politicians, from media outlets, etc.

The influence is obvious, but the similarity between Baudrillard’s philosophy and The Matrix stops there. Baudrillard doesn’t call for us to pull the wool over our eyes in an effort to return to the real world and learn the truth like Neo does.

Instead, he concludes that existence is meaningless and that there is no real-world or truth to seek. Baudrillard’s mistake is simple: He has confused epistemology—the study of knowledge—with metaphysics—the study of reality. Our continued exposure to simulacra may make it difficult to know how the world works, but that doesn’t mean the world doesn’t exist at all.

Common Questions about The Matrix

Q: Why is The Matrix an epistemological movie?

The Matrix is the ultimate epistemological movie and makes us consider the possibility that it could actually be true.

Q: Who influenced the creators of The Matrix?

Jean Baudrillard deeply influenced the creators of The Matrix.

Q: What is the difference between Baudrillard’s ideas and the philosophical themes of The Matrix?

Unlike the characters in the Matrix, Baudrillard doesn’t call for us to pull the wool over our eyes in an effort to return to the real world and learn the truth. Instead, he concludes that existence is meaningless and that there is no real-world or truth to seek.

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