The question “Is this real?” creeps into our minds at times about the world around us. This skeptical thought especially intrigued Rene Descartes. He was skeptical of what he could believe what was real and examined the idea of an evil demon manipulating our minds. Hilary Putnam took this idea, but revised it to fit modern culture with his “Brain in a Vat” thought experiment. Movies such as The Matrix and Inception and even the TV show Futurama have used this idea. A quick explanation of the popular culture videos, Descartes’ hypothesis, and Putnam’s thought experiment will make clear the connections between them and even the implications of this idea in our life.
In 1642, Descartes wrote his Meditations on First Philosophy (Tittle 102). In his Meditations, he set out to establish what he could know for sure. To go through every single thought of his would take forever. So he wanted to empty his mind like that of emptying a barrel and refilling it with things that he could know for sure. Once he could establish a foundation of truth, the rest of the things he could know for sure would build upon it (Tittle 103). His Method of Doubt, which is presented in his First Meditation, has three stages: The Argument from Sensory Illusion, The Argument from Dreaming, and The Deceiving Spirit Argument (Thomson 15-17). Descartes says that his senses have fooled him before, but they have not enough or constantly enough to completely discount his sensory perceptions. We will focus more on his Argument from Dreaming and the Deceiving Spirit Argument, especially that of his evil demon hypothesis.
Descartes states that we cannot be certain to be able to distinguish between our dreams and reality (Thomson). People have experienced vivid dreams that they had thought were real experiences before. This shows the inconsistency of being able to tell reality from dreaming. Some philosophers argue that the idea of a dream requires a contrast with a waking experience. Therefore, we cannot entertain the possibility of being asleep right now unless we had experienced being awake. However, Descartes could insist that this does not undermine his second stage of doubt because, as stated before, we cannot be certain to be able to distinguish between our dreams and reality. This idea will become important when discussing the videos. Morpheus mentions how we sometimes have a difficulty distinguishing whether our dream was real or not when he first meets Neo in The Matrix. The movie Inception just about entirely takes place in a dream, and it even hints that the entire movie is a dream. Characters within the movie have tokens to remind them whether they’re in reality or a dream, because they struggle to tell the difference. Bender dreams all of the actions that take place after his upgrade in the Futurama episode “Obsoletely Fabulous.” When he awakes, he is grateful that it was all dream because it was vivid and felt real. These films play on the fact that we struggle at times to tell the difference between dreams and reality.
After Descartes realizes that his doubts through sensory perceptions and dreams are not enough for him to doubt all of reality, he comes up with his Deceiving Spirit Argument. The argument starts out as a “Deceptive God” argument and turns into an “Evil Demon” hypothesis. He says he has been taught that there is a God that can do all things. Descartes then asks how he can be sure that this God does not cause him to perceive things when in reality they do not exist (Tittle 102). But he cannot bring himself to believe that a benevolent being like God would deceive him, so he comes up with the idea of a supremely powerful evil spirit, the Evil Demon hypothesis (Thomson). This spirit does all he can to deceive him, whether it is causing him to believe things exist when they do not, or causing him to error when he adds numbers or counts the sides of a square (Tittle 102). If this is true, then everything he perceives is an illusion. Descartes does not really suppose that an evil demon exists, but that the mere possibility of its existence provides grounds to doubt that the external world really exists (Thomson 17). The idea of a being deceiving, or creating, our reality is played upon in The Matrix and Inception. The machines in The Matrix create the virtual world that the humans live in. In Inception, there is an “architect” that creates the dreams that they do their missions in.
Even with all of this doubt and deception, Descartes can be sure that he himself exists. If an evil demon does deceive him, then he must exist (Thomson 17). Through all of the demon’s deception he cannot bring about, at the time of Descartes thinking that he is something, that he is in fact nothing. He says that whenever he utters or conceives “I am,” or, “I exist,” in his mind it is necessarily true. His famous cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am,” comes from this (Tittle 103). This allows for him to have a foundation of knowledge for what he can know.
Putnam’s “Brain in a Vat” thought experiment is more of a modern day version of Descartes’ “Evil Demon” hypothesis. He asks us to imagine that a human being, possibly you, has been subjected to experimentation. The brain has been taken out of the body and placed in a vat full of nutrients that sustains it and keeps it alive (Tittle 62). A super computer is hooked up to the nerve endings of the brain, and it causes the brain to have illusions that everything is normal. The brain “sees” trees, people, etc… and “feels” these objects physically. The evil genius can change the program of the computer and cause the subject to “experience” any situation the evil genius wishes (Tittle 62). This evil genius is related to Descartes’ evil demon, the machines in The Matrix, and the “architect” in Inception.
In The Matrix, people are hooked up to machines from birth. They live and grow in embryonic bubbles with cables hooked up directly to their brains and other limbs. The machines then create a virtual world for the humans to “live” in, this is the matrix. They grow up and live in this world experiencing pain, pleasure, hate, and love (Matrix). Their lives are as normal as our lives are. But there is a handful of humans who have been able to escape the virtual prison and from the grasps of the machines (Matrix). They make it their mission to free other humans from the prison too. This is where the movie picks up. They free Neo from the matrix because they think he is the chosen one who will free all of humanity from the matrix and the machines (Matrix). He ends up being the chosen one, and he is able to manipulate the matrix while he is plugged into it. His manipulation of the matrix is similar to that of a programmer, but he appears to be a super human or a god within the Matrix. He does not reprogram certain parts of the matrix; he can only manipulate things relating directly to him. He breaks the “laws of physics” in the matrix by flying, moving at super speeds, and even being able to stop bullets (Matrix). This movie plays directly on Putnam’s “Brain in a Vat” thought experiment. The humans are hooked up to machines that create a virtual world for them to “live” in, just like the brain in Putnam’s thought experiment is hooked up to a machine that creates a virtual world for it to “live” in. There are other machines, we’ll say robots, that control the machines and watch over the humans. These robots are like the evil genius who hooks the brain up to the super computer. They are the ones that watch over the humans and program the machines that create the virtual world for the humans. The robots are the “evil demon” or “evil genius” that deceive the humans in The Matrix.
In Inception, they put people to sleep and create a dream for them to interact with the subjects in. This process is not completely explained in the movie, but they do say that they have an “architect” that designs the dream that they interact in (Inception). This “architect” is our “evil genius” or “evil demon” in Inception. He, or she, is the one that designs the dream and creates the fake reality for the dreamer. They are the ones who deceive the dreamer into believing in a reality that is not true, but you can also include the rest of the people that jump into the dream in the category of “deceiver,” because they interact with the dreamer and deceive him too. Descartes’ second stage of doubt, the Argument from Dreams, is implied here too. Descartes said that we cannot be certain to able to distinguish between reality and our dreams (Thomson 17). While in the dream, the dreamer believes that everything is actually happening. He never realizes that he is in a dream or anything, but once he wakes up he does not remember in full detail what happened. Usually this is normal, but since this was not just any normal dream but actual actions and reality taking place within a dream there is a problem. He does not realize that actual actions took place in his dream; therefore he was deceived into believing that reality did not happen. The team of deceivers also experience reality within this dream. They feel pain if they are shot, but once they die in the dream they just wake up. While in the dream, they can obtain knowledge from the dreamer or implant an idea in his head. This shows that reality does take place in the dream with the obtaining of knowledge and implanting of ideas, but reality does not take place in that once they wake up there are no wounds from the gunshots within the dream.
In the Futurama episode “Obsoletely Fabulous” Bender has to receive and upgrade. He steps into the machine, but changes his mind and breaks out starting an adventure for the viewer to watch. At the end of the episode, you see Bender waking up after finishing the upgrade process, and he steps out of the machine. He then realizes that everything that he thought just happened was just a dream and says, “If that stuff wasn’t real, then how could I be sure anything is real? Is it not possible, nay probable that my whole life is just the product of mine or someone else’s imagination?” (Futurama “Obsoletely Fabulous). This completely grasps the concept of skepticism. Because he thought a certain chain of events was real only to find out that they were not, he becomes unsure of what he can tell what is real, which is the idea of the “Evil Demon” hypothesis. Descartes says he cannot be sure of what is real and what is not if he is being deceived by an evil spirit.
These three popular culture videos raise an intriguing idea: If we become aware that this world that we see as reality is not real, then we can manipulate our surroundings. Once Neo is freed from the matrix and realizes that he is the chosen one, he can manipulate the matrix to his will every time he reenters it (Matrix). If a dreamer realizes that there are people trying to invade his thoughts, his subconscious will adapt to what the “architect” built and begin to attack the invaders (Inception). Bender clearly states this possibility as he walks away from the upgrade center by saying, “Well, reality is what you make of it,” and walks away into a fantasy world (Futurama “Obsoletely Fabulous). If we really are at least hooked up to a machine that creates our reality and become aware of this, then we could possibly be able to manipulate it.
The ideas of Descartes have influenced modern day philosophers and modern popular culture cinema. Putnam took Descartes’ “Evil Demon” hypothesis and modified it to fit modern culture with his “Brain in a Vat” thought experiment. Movie and TV writers have used this idea to make entertaining videos. These videos, although entertaining, voice the question that sometimes creeps into our minds: “Is this real?” An exploration of Descartes’ and Putnam’s ideas, the movies The Matrix and Inception, and the TV show Futurama’s episode “Obsoletely Fabulous” should have made clear the connections between them and the implications they propose.
Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan. By Christopher Nolan. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio. Warner Bros., 2010. DVD..
Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. By Keanu Reeves. Perf. Keanu Reeves. Warner Home Vídeo, 1999. DVD.
Thomson, Garrett. Bacon to Kant: an Introduction to Modern Philosophy. Second ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 2002. Print.
Tittle, Peg. What If–: Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005. Print.
Vebber, Dan. “Obsoletely Fabulous.” Futurama. Dir. Dwayne Carey-Hill. Fox. 27 July 2003. Television.