Rene Descartes Meditations and The Matrix

Descartes Meditations on the First Philosophy is one of the most thought-provoking philosophical works during the Enlightenment in the 17th century. The Meditations centered mostly on a number of Cartesian principles such as Doubt, the Malignant Demon, the rational existence of God, and the existence of two kinds of substances res cogitans, or thinking substance, and res extensa, or physical substance. In a similar way, the 1999 Warner Brothers motion picture The Matrix gives life to the same principles on the big screen only that in here Cartesian metaphysics is fused with robotics and artificial intelligence. The Matrix is a movie where true reality is believed to be hidden from all except a few individuals and where access to the truth is controlled by an evil force, and that the movie is believed to be the exact replica of Descartes Meditations. However, the numerous parallelisms between the Meditations and The Matrix say otherwise.

The Doubt that Leads to Wisdom
One of the most striking similarities between Descartes Meditations and the movie The Matrix is the idea of doubt. At the beginning of The Matrix, Neo, the protagonist in the movie, literally wakes up to his computer telling him, Wake up Neo the Matrix has you (The Matrix). In the same way four hundred years ago, Descartes wakes up to the realization that there is nothing at all that he formerly believes to be true of which it is impossible to doubt (Descartes I).

Neos awakening is no other than the literal version of a spiritual awakening in him which somehow tells him that there could possibly be another world, which is entirely different from what he sees. This begins his journey towards the eventual discovery of the nature of the Matrix and the Real World, which are both shown to be constantly interacting with each other. Unlike Descartes however, there is not much realization to do on Neos part for he discovers the facts first-hand. Perhaps he may have gotten the idea of another world from his extreme fascination with computers and hacking. However, what is more significant is the fact that the other world that he may have perhaps once envisioned and turns out to be real is actually similar to the secret world of a computer hacker that he is living. This further proves the point that both the Matrix and the Real World are constantly interacting with each other.

In the same way, in the first book of Meditations, Descartes begins to doubt the existence of everything including God, for there is in him a deep curiosity on whether things around him do not exist otherwise than as he perceives them (Descartes I). Is everything around him, including his own physical body, nothing but the workings of his mind This doubt then develops into his theory later on that there are two types of material substances that, unlike the Matrix and the real world, are independent of each other.

The Not-so Malignant Demon
Descartes mentions in the latter part of the first book of Meditations that some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive him (Descartes I). The reason why Descartes begins to believe in the existence of this malignant demon is simply the fact that he is in doubt. The moment of doubt in Descartes seems to be a moment of extreme discomfort and agitation and he does not believe that a sovereignly good God who is the fountain of truth is the one causing all this discomfort in him. That is why he puts the blame on this malignant demon. However, little does Descartes realize that the demon as the source of his doubt is the one who in fact leads him on to this metaphysical quest.

In The Matrix, Descartes malignant demon has an equivalent in the character of the agents, particularly Agent Smith, who seems to stand as their leader. However, while Descartes demon provokes him to doubt and consequently think, the agents in the movie, together with the police, seem to quell any form of doubt in every human member of the Matrix for perhaps they know that doubt could be the beginning of wisdom, which eventually leads to the knowledge of the Real World and consequently the destruction of the Matrix. Nevertheless, Agent Smiths statement that Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planetand we are the cure (The Matrix) is perhaps a wake-up call that indeed the Matrix is not only real but also necessary. Moreover, Agent Smiths protection of the Matrix and the quelling of any form of rebellion do not necessarily mean that the Matrix is evil, false or manipulative. The Real World may in fact be the one which is rebellious and warlike, hence it is just proper that it should be controlled.

The Reality and Existence of Two Types of Substances and Two Worlds
The doubt caused by Descartes malignant demon eventually causes him to think of the possibility of two types of mutually exclusive substances, and consequently two worlds in general  the world that thinks, or res cogitans, and the world that is thought of, or res extensa. Nevertheless, when the philosopher himself mentions that his thought imposes no necessity on things and as he may imagine a winged horse, though there be none such (Descartes, V), he implies that the two substances are independent of each other. This is slightly different from the Matrix where both the Matrix and the Real World may at times interact as when some of the enlightened ones can slip through every now and then.

However, the question is Is true reality maliciously hidden from but a few individuals The opinions both in the movie and of Descartes are both inconclusive as to the allegation that true reality is in fact maliciously hidden.

One can see that although the movie The Matrix mentions the existence of the so-called Real World and several times throughout the entire movie has regarded the Matrix as false and manipulative, it still somehow contradicts Morpheus asking Neo rhetorically, What is real How do you define real (The Matrix). This means to say that what is real is actually undefined and that not even one person can pinpoint what is truly real, therefore Morpheus somehow contradicts himself when he tells Neo Welcome to the Real World (The Matrix)

In contrast with the seemingly inconsistent statements in The Matrix on the subject of reality, Descartes himself does not imply that there is one distinct reality for he believes in the real existence of two substances. This means that for Descartes, both the res cogitans, which may also refer to the unseen or the Real World, and the res extensa, which may refer to the one which is obvious or the Matrix, are actually both as real as they may seem. However, Descartes somehow implies that the res extensa, the corporeal world or the equivalent of the Matrix, is known with much greater distinctness than that he knows not what part of himself which is not imaginable (Descartes II), whereas the res cogitans or the cogito is more hidden and less obvious. Nevertheless, it is only the res cogitans or cogito whose existence Descartes is in fact certain about, as clearly stated in his famous Cogito ergo sum, which means, in Descartes words, that since I am the one thinking and in doubt, then I must exist.

Now, going back to the question Is true reality maliciously hidden from but a few individuals The Matrix answers a resounding Yes but with a poor defense based on the assumed falsity of the Matrix where people are actually slaves and the assumed freedom in the Real World where people live in an old ship and eat unsavory food. Descartes, on the other hand, answers Not necessarily for although he implies that the res cogitans, or the equivalent of the Real World, is less perceivable than the res extensa, or the equivalent of the Matrix, he does not imply that the former is maliciously hidden. Moreover, the fact that he can perceive the res extensa, or the Matrix, more readily may actually mean that this is in fact more real to him.

The Rebellious Struggle for Existence
The question remains now as to whether Morpheus is really teaching Neo in The Matrix how to fight and be free or just simply how to destroy the Matrix, which Morpheus and a few others unjustly consider to be false and malevolent In fact, the main reason why Morpheus summons Neo is that the former, with his colleagues, simply seek to make him destroy the Matrix, which they accuse as manipulative and evil, perhaps simply because of the fact that they have discovered another world for themselves. Morpheus defines the Matrix as the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truththat you are a slave (The Matrix), making it sound like it is not real, and as he says Welcome to the Real World (The Matrix), one is compelled to ask him, Why What is real, Morpheus

How do you define real
What does Descartes have to say about this then in his Meditations Descartes somehow implies that a struggle for existence comes with the quest for the truth when he mentions, Let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am something (Descartes II). Descartes implies here that in order not to be reduced to nothingness, one should assert his existence in the realm of things by being conscious that I am something. However, unlike the theme of The Matrix, Descartes does not imply the destruction of the deceiver, and the destruction of the whole Matrix, which is what Morpheus and his colleagues thirst for. While the idea of struggle for existence in The Matrix is seemingly rebellious in nature, Descartes idea of the same thing is nothing but a personal quest to rise above the self, and this is where Neos personal quest comes in.

In fact, more than the idea of battling against the Matrix, the movie is all about Neos journey towards self-discovery. Neo is a modern Alice in Wonderland who, unlike the fairy tale character, brings back home more than just a load of experiences. In his philosophical journey, Neo learns about the Matrix, learns about removing his doubt and fear, and eventually learns how to make a choice and alter his destiny. In the movie, Neo is actually not the One, but he chooses to be the One and succeeds for a deceiver or any evil can never bring it about that he is nothing, so long as he shall be conscious that he is something, which is simply what Descartes mentions in his Meditations.

The movie The Matrix seems to be the brutal and violent version of the philosophical principles presented in Descartes Meditations. Despite the fact that both the Meditations and The Matrix consider doubt as the primary factor that eventually instills wisdom and opens up someone to another reality, the Meditations does not seek to destroy the Matrix and in fact considers it simply the other form of reality. Moreover, although Descartes condemns the deceiving and malignant demon, he does not seek its destruction, and only sees its purpose in his life, whereas Morpheus and his companions believe the agents to be the enemy. Lastly, despite the struggle with the malignant demon, Descartes puts his faith in a sovereignly good God who will somehow put everything in order, while the people who wish to destroy the Matrix seem to have put their faith in Neo and the war that they are going to wage against the Matrix. There is actually no new insight that The Matrix brings to Descartes Meditations except perhaps a version of it where a few rebellious people seem to be narrow-minded and seek to destroy what they regard as false and evil, instead of embracing it as another form of reality, just like Descartes once did. Descartes did embrace Dualism but Morpheus wanted to destroy it.


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