‘The Matrix’, Simulation, and the Inherent Value of Reality

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

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

According to most philosophers, a proposition is true if it simply corresponds to the way the world is. It’s called the correspondence theory of truth. And if a proposition does correspond to reality, then it’s true—regardless of whether we are aware of that correspondence or not. How does this apply to The Matrix?

A man holding a surreal painting of a boardwalk.
An experience gives a person any set of experiences they desire by directly stimulating their brain. (Image: fran_kie/Shutterstock)

Artificial and yet Real

The correspondence theory of truth maintains that a proposition is true when it corresponds to an outer experience. Based on this definition, things could even be true even in The Matrix. Neo says that his memory of eating at the noodle house “never happened,” but that’s not quite right.

The event took place; it’s just that the nature of the event was different than he assumed. It’s still true that he had a noodle-eating experience—it’s just that what caused that experience was lines of code on a hard drive rather than strips of pasta in a bowl.

The point is that the nature of the Matrix is different than those in it assume; it’s digital rather than material. Something similar could actually be said of the physical world. Most people assume that matter is solid, when in fact it is mostly empty space. But the physical world still exists.

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

Is Ignorance Bliss?

In the movie The Matrix, Cypher wants to have his memory erased and then be plugged back into the Matrix. “And I want to be rich,” he says. Cypher wants to trade the uncomfortable truth of reality for the blissful ignorance provided by the Matrix.

This is one of the philosophical themes of The Matrix. Since Cypher is the movie’s villain, we must conclude the moral of the story to be that this isn’t the way a person should be. Ignorance is not bliss; ignorance is slavery. One should not just “believe what you want to believe,” as the blue pill allows them to. One should take the red pill and seek out the truth at all costs. This has been the mantra of philosophers since Socrates.

Learn more about the time travel paradoxes.

Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s The Republic

To make this point in his book The Republic, Plato asks us to imagine a group of people in a cave, chained down so that they can only stare at a wall on which shadows appear. Since that is all they’ve ever known, they think the shadows are real.

But when one is freed, he slowly learns the truth. The shadows aren’t real; they are cast by statues of people and animals held in front of a fire. Once out of the cave, he discovers real people and real animals and eventually learns about the how the world works.

A representation of Plato’s allegory of the cave.
The people in the cave believe the shadows are the reality, when in fact they are only illusions of reality. (Image: delcarmat /Shutterstock)

He then thinks back to his life in the cave. What he believed was real was so far removed from reality; he knew only the shadows of statues, which themselves were mere simulations of real objects. He pities his former self and those he left behind.

Plato used the allegory to illustrate the life of a philosopher. The philosopher is able to break through the chains put on us by society that make us see the world a certain way.

Through careful logic and reason, however, a philosopher can come to see the world as it really is. And once he/she does, he/she can never turn back. Unlike the cowardly Cypher, the philosopher would never again gladly embrace ignorance—no matter how horrible or inconvenient the truth might be.

Learn more about the movie The Thirteenth Floor.

Reality as an End in Itself

Is knowledge really that important? Should we always choose it over ignorance? Robert Nozick, a philosopher, asks us to imagine what he calls an “experience machine”— a machine capable of giving a person any set of experiences they desire by directly stimulating their brain.

Illustration of virtual reality.
A fake life full of non-genuine sensations is not something anyone would want to trade in for a real life in the real world. (Image: yosart/Shutterstock)

Then Nozick presents us with a choice: to continue living the life we have, or give it up completely in exchange for experiencing any kind of life we want in the experience machine; a life that you will be fooled into thinking is real. Nozick argues that if you are like most, you would not choose to plug in.

Although it might be fun to plug in for a while, a fake life full of non-genuine sensations is not something anyone would want to trade in for a real life in the real world.

The Familiarity Factor

Felipe De Brigard, a philosopher, argues that the reason people choose reality when offered the experience machine may not be because they value contact with reality, but because they prefer the familiar.

What’s called the status quo bias, suggesting humans irrationally prefer that with which they are already familiar, is well established experimentally. People will rank familiar faces as more attractive, or prefer one equally valuable object over another simply because they contacted it first.

If the situation were reversed, and instead of being offered a pretend world, people were told that they were already in a pretend world and instead offered a real one, maybe they would choose to stay in the pretend world because that is the world they are already familiar with.

If Nozick is right, people seem to agree that “living in contact with reality” is, itself, objectively worthwhile. From an objective point of view, we’d prefer not to be duped. Knowledge is intrinsically valuable.

Common Questions about The Matrix, Knowledge, and the Inherent Value of Reality

Q:  What is the correspondence theory of truth?

The correspondence theory of truth maintains that a proposition is true when it corresponds to an outer experience.

Q: What is Plato’s allegory of the Cave, and how does it relate to the Matrix?

Plato presents us with a thought experiment in which a group of people live in a cave and are chained down and can only stare at a wall on which shadows appear. But when one is freed, he learns the truth that shadows are cast by statues of people and animals held in front of a fire. The Matrix also presents us with a similar idea; once the characters know that the Matrix is not real, most of them are unwilling to go back to their normal lives.

 Q: What is the experience machine thought experiment?

Robert Nozick, a philosopher, asks us to imagine what he calls an “experience machine”— a machine capable of giving a person any set of experiences they desire by directly simulating their brain (like in The Matrix). We have two choices: to continue living the life we have, or give it up completely in exchange for experiencing any kind of life we want in the experience machine.

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