The Matrix and philosophy

Lucy asked:

According to Descartes, before Neo is freed from the Matrix (i.e. when his body and brain are still imprisoned by the machines), can he properly claim to know anything at all? If so, give an example of something he can know and explain why it counts as knowledge.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Actually your question should go much further. Before asking how much (if any) knowledge Neo might possess, you should enquire if Neo has the capacity to think; and whether, upon his exit from the matrix, if he is actually fit to live in the empirical world.

So we start with him as a typical denizen of the matrix, which is to say, as a particular instantiation of a computer program which controls his brain. As his brain’s inputs have been disconnected from his body, Neo’s sensory experience from birth to manhood is negligible. His body has not gone through the mandatory process of priming it for life in an empirical (social and natural) habitat. I regret to say that the movie skips over this elementary item, as if it didn’t matter or could be circumvented. But it does matter and cannot be circumvented.

To elaborate on this: One of the really useful aspects of philosophy is, that it teaches one to take unquestioned presuppositions apart and subpoena the evidence on which the whole construction might rest. You would undoubtedly agree that the explanation of the origin and constitution of the matrix is pretty rough and obscure. No details! Instead we are fobbed off with intuition pump that suggests to us that the denizens of the matrix are all exemplifications of Descartes’ ‘thinking thing’ or, in its updated terminology, the ‘brain in the vat’ hypothesis. Descartes does not speculate on the possibility of a brain being dissociated from its body and allocated to another; but it is implied in the hypothesis. The ‘brain in the vat’ hypothesis takes this implication to the stage of running the idea through a series of thought experiments. ‘The Matrix’ hangs it on a salvationist story line, by insinuating that Neo’s instantiation is an instance of a glitch in the system, as he has the capacity of discerning a flaw in its architecture that enables him to sabotage it.

His brain, like all others, is being fed data by the system, on which it can work and produce images that emulate the normal life cycle of a person. But the glitch has already enabled others to escape; and this can mean nothing other than somehow (no details!) re-connecting these brains with their own body.

However, there is another glitch, this time in the theory. Let’s re-enter the matrix for a moment and examine the crack in its edifice. Everyone knows that a huge preponderance of the signalling traffic between the body’s nervous system and the brain is concerned with evaluating real time occasions. Accordingly, in an empirical habitat, the outcome of the brain’s manipulation of all the inflowing signals is a corresponding outflow of signals into the body, consisting of options for behaviour, motion, exertion etc. So body, brain and mind are an integrated feedback system; and now the obvious question must be asked, apropos the matrix: where does this return traffic flow to, when there is no body to respond to it?

It flows back into the matrix, But the matrix cannot maintain the two-way feedback, as it cannot handle the infinite regress of the continuous ricochetting of responses between brain and body (the famous halting problem). Biological organisms don’t have this problem, because they make constant arbitrary, spontaneous decisions involving equipollence breaking. As one biologist famously said, body and brain working in tandem produce lots of ‘quick dirty fixes’ for real time situations — a best guess from 5 to 50 alternatives that has the merit of promoting survival, if not logic! A computer program can’t work that way; it needs precise data and unambiguous yes/ no alternatives for its logic gates. Moreover, the matrix is a closed system, and this implies that over certain stretches of time it would have to recycle of all its contents in new mixes, as otherwise the signalling tree would rapidly outgrow the system’s capacity to operate in ‘real time’.

In a word, the ‘individuals’ in the system are not evolved, but reconstituted entities, and the resources of the matrix constrained to a finite quantity inside the boundary of its architecture.

Returning now to the rebels, but focussing on Neo because he is the new boy on the block, we come upon the third and most fatal objection. Which is that Neo would be unfit to live an empirical earthly life, precisely because the body-brain feedback system has been truncated. Inside the matrix, his brain produces images that are a simulacrum of human society, but — they are images, nothing else.

In real life, images are only a part of the brain’s work. As it works in real time, most of the results of mental processing are actions. Accordingly Neo’s exit from the matrix subjects him immediately to a sensory environment of which he has almost zero experience and therefore none of the know-how that is required to cope with real-life stimuli and situations. He would be helpless as a new-born babe. To repeat this important principle: life in the matrix is not sensory, as the information is already formed to produce images in the brain. This is frequently overlooked, especially by those who subscribe to the incorrect assumption that every stimulus impacting on the body is registered in the brain. In fact, a very large percentage of sensory information is pre-processed and filtered before it reaches the brain, and another large percentage is withheld altogether, if it can be dealt with in situ.

Thus all living bodies maintain a certain amount of autonomy, which is indeed crucial, because the last thing that e.g. the metabolic and homeostatic systems want is for the brain to interfere with their delicately tuned microprocesses. Besides, every organ and every fibre in the body has to be primed for optimum performance in the subject’s habitat, and none of this has any relevance to the brain.

Consider now a couple of absolutely basic facts of life. The matrix is not a habitat. Therefore he has never learnt to use his eyes, ears or tongue. He doesn’t need them in the matrix! But in real life, he needs them for orientation on what’s going on. Babies learn the use of eyes, ears and tongue in the first years of life. Neo missed out.

In a word: None of his biological fibres have been primed for the conditions of life in an empirical habitat. This means that his brain knows literally nothing that pertains to living; and his body has not acquired any navigation, orientation and anticipation skills. On top, his muscles and nerves would be totally dysfunctional (maybe atrophied) and the ordinary living pressures he encounters on his entry into the ‘dirty’ world of reality would induce high levels of distress, disorientation, fear, excessive blood pressure, breathing difficulty etc. etc.

I come to conclusions. The proposition of ‘The Matrix’ is about the energy of living humans being sucked into the matrix for power. But this is all one-way traffic (as they say, the body is basically a battery). About Neo’s brain, the most favourable hypothesis would be that, perhaps, he acquired some purely intellectual knowledge such as mathematical equations. But as he cannot be a knowing agent, this is tantamount to proposing that knowledge is something that can exist on its own, without being held by knower. That may suffice for the matrix, but it is nonsense in the real world.

Altogether: Entertaining movie; insupportable presuppositions; careless stitching together of several incompatible scientific-philosophical theories; internal self-contradictions; inadmissable conflation of two disparate states of existence.

Final answer: Neo is merely the simulation of a person. Try to work out how he ‘exists’ if someone got hold of the main switch and turned the power for the whole matrix off. Then you also have the answer to how much knowledge he has.


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