Good Essay On Descartes
One of the greatest and oldest doubts philosophers have had, is if what people experience is real. Ancient Greek philosopher Plato tried to explain that human senses were prone to being deceived, so what they perceived were actually not real things, but just shadows of a higher and more real world. French philosopher René Descartes had a similar idea. In his quest to find out if there was anything he could say he was sure about, he started by thinking about the separation of soul and body, and the nature of reality. More recently, Robert Nozick follows these ideas from a different point of view. He imagined what the implications would be if a machine could simulate experiences and feed them directly into the human brain. This work exposes their ideas and see how they are expressed in two popular films, Open Your Eyes and The Matrix, to see if these modern versions solve any of the problems encountered by Descartes and Nozick.
Following the steps of Plato, he develops his ideas from two general assumptions. Firstly, for him there was a rational realm, or res cogitans, where ideas reside and all things are conceived. And then there was an empirical realm, populated by all those things conceived by reason but that could be perceived by the senses. The second assumption is that the senses could be deceived and many of the things that are perceived could be the result of illusion. Descartes then embarked himself on his quest to find how someone could be sure of anything at all. He proposed experience is doubtable and that truth resides in the mind. Descartes devised then a thought experiment. He imagined that maybe all humans were being deceived by an evil god. Maybe the human soul was floating in the vacuum, and this higher entity would feed it with sensations and thoughts. No one could tell if what they felt was real or true, the same way sometimes people cannot tell the differences between dream and reality.
Descartes’s theories might be old and quaint, but there have been modern popular expressions of these ideas, especially films. The film Open Your Eyes puts a character, César, in the place of the doubter. Through the film, the character leads a normal and apparently happy life. Later, he gets involved in a car accident, and becomes horribly scarred. As the film advances, he starts noticing inconsistencies in his life. His scars are unexplainably repaired, and many events of his past seem to start being mixed with his present life. César becomes ultimately unable to tell dream from reality .
The Cartesian doubt stops when one is able to recognize that, despite not knowing anything for certain, one can definitely be sure that at least there is something that is doing the doubting. In the film, when César is being questioned by his therapist, this Cartesian doubt is expressed. For a while they entertain the idea of not being able to differentiate between reality and dream, as it is epistemically possible that they are actually dreaming. At the end of the film, however, there is a twist to this Cartesian doubt one that proposes an even deeper doubt than what Descartes imagined. César discovers he is inside an infinite computer simulation where he will be able to live forever happy, or at least until science is able to cure him from some disease he had in his real life. He wants out, and has to do a leap of fate, jumping off a building, to wake up. His therapist, scared for him, tries to stop him and convince him that he lives in the real world. César then asks him to give him details about his personal life and family, which the therapist is unable to provide. This confirms César´s beliefs. It is both epistemically and metaphysically impossible that someone lucid would not remember his own personal background. Also, the therapist is now not only doubting his own senses and memories, he now doubts that there is something doubting, taking the Cartesian doubt to a new level.
The film The Matrix, proposes a similar take. The world is a colossal simulation where all humanity is connected and interacting. For most, this is the real world, and they know no other, and they cannot possibly recognize they are being deceived. In the movie, Morpheus explains that reality is just a succession of electrical impulses interpreted by the brain. For all we know, this might be possible. In one of the training sessions, he sees Neo gasping for air and he asks him “Do you think that´s air you´re breathing?” , which makes neo, and the audience, start to question his own senses. In the Matrix, the Evil God imagined by Descartes is replaced by machines, which were a product of human ingenuity in the first place. This creates a certain loop, because it would be impossible to know which one came first, or if there is something higher than the world of the machines.
One other philosophical theory that could challenge the validity of what is real, is that of the Experience Machine proposed by Robert Nozick. In it, Nozick imagines that there is a machine that, if connected directly into our brains, could give people any experience they wanted. People would not be able to tell the difference between the experiences obtained by doing something, and the experiences transmitted by the machine into their brains. But people would not be actually doing anything, they would only be indeterminate blobs floating in a tank . This experiment is made to refute hedonism or pleasure as the ultimate goal in life. He concludes that men want to actually do things, have a sense of achievement, even though that sense of achievement could also be emulated by the machine. Men also like to become things, to transcend and affect the world they live in .
It can be said that both films, The Matrix and Open Your Eyes, reflect instances of this Experience Machine. In the Matrix, the access to the machine is collective, and seems to address the doubts expressed by Nozick about who would want to be constantly plugged in, and who would be in charge of its maintenance. For example, the character named Cypher is clearly unhappy by living in the real world, which is ravaged, full of toil and devoid of beauty and pleasure. In one scene he asks one of the agents of the Matrix, those in charge of maintenance, that he be plugged back. As he eats a steak, he says he knows the steak is not real, but he does not want to know it. He would like to go back to blissful ignorance and go back to being a blob in a tank forever. Yet another scene expresses a different idea. The agent of the matrix explains Morpheus that this is not the first matrix built. The oldest were programs that gave humans a world full of infinite pleasures and happiness, but people soon started to want to wake up. They grew skeptic and did not accept it as reality. For them, it was epistemologically and metaphysically impossible that reality was only based on pleasure and happiness, some essential elements were missing. So the machines designed this new matrix which included all the horrors and suffering of the twentieth century . The movie showed that there is a frame of comparison between what people experience in the Matrix, and how things ought to happen in the real world. This frame or concept of reality must be shared by the ones living in the Matrix, and its designers. The movie also conveys the idea of strong skepticism. When people cannot rationally conceive that something is true, like an infinitely happy world, they stop believing in it and would want to wake up.
The film Open Your Eyes deals more with weak skepticism. César does not know if he is living in the real world. He knows reality or expresses a conceptual necessity of it. As he notices an increasing amount of inconsistencies, his conceptual knowledge of reality tells him that something is not quite right. He slowly discovers the truth and is given a choice, to continue living in this customized and perfect world, or to wake up to an uncertain reality . César chooses to open his eyes, in accordance to what Nozick believes. Both films show that it is morally commendable to forego hedonism or mere experiences, and try to actually do something by living a life.
Abre Los Ojos. Dir. Alejandro Amenábar. 1997. FIlm.
Descartes, René. A Discourse on Method. London: Everyman, 2004.
Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.
The Matrix. Dirs. Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. 1999. Film.