Contrasting The Matrix and Descartes Meditation One

Steffaine asked:

How would you contrast the movie, The Matrix and ‘Meditation One: Of the things of which we may doubt’ by Descartes?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Descartes in Meditation One works up to his case for universal doubt in several stages, but it is the last stage – the Evil Demon Hypothesis – that is the real show-stopper.


Descartes considers, and rejects, the possibility that my senses could always lead me astray. We learn about cases when we have been deceived by our senses, through the exercise of those very same senses.

But couldn’t I be dreaming now, and not realize this? This hypothesis is difficult to refute, if you allow that a ‘dream’ need not be disjointed and irrational. It is logically possible to have a coherent dream where, for example, I am in Sheffield, at my computer, writing a perfectly or at least reasonably coherent answer to Ask a Philosopher, even if such dreams occur only rarely if at all. Logical possibility is all Descartes needs.

This is the equivalent of the Matrix scenario. In reality, while I compose my answer, I am sleeping in a ‘pod’ having experiences fed directly to my brain by a super-computer.

The Matrix hypothesis is difficult to refute. But it still isn’t enough for Descartes’ purposes. Because, even on this hypothesis, certain key beliefs remain unchallenged. In particular, the belief that there exists a world of material objects in space. The existence of a physical world is one of the basic assumptions of the Matrix story.

That’s why Descartes takes the extra step of imaging a powerful, non-physical intelligence capable of producing the experience of ‘a world of material objects in space’ in me, even though in reality no such world exists. An evil demon.

But how ‘evil’ is this demon, really? Berkeley took Descartes’ argument for doubt and stood it on its head: nothing could conceivably count as proof of the existence of ‘matter’, because all we ever have is ‘experience’. All that exists, in ultimate reality, is God and ‘finite souls’ like us who have experiences that God produces in us. – When you look out at the world you are looking at the inside of God’s mind.


One thought on “Contrasting The Matrix and Descartes Meditation One

  1. Very interesting. I have not read Descartes yet and have only a vague understanding of his philosophical contributions. I will be sure to put him on my reading list! Thank you.

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