In the film The Matrix, a scenario is presented that asks the question: is our perception of physical space-time real? But this question is made insignificant by an even greater question: what constitutes reality? In the film, the protagonist, Neo, discovers that his perception of physical space-time is deluded and that his life up to this point has only been a virtual simulation created by machines. Once this discovery is made, Neo assumes that since the world he once lived in is a simulation, it is definitely not reality and has made his existence up to this point meaningless. As a result, he risks life and limb to fight the machines that created “the Matrix”. It is this assumption that I wish to dispute: the Matrix Hypothesis is life altering and trivializes human existence within the simulation. The Matrix Hypothesis, as defined by David J. Chalmers in his article The Matrix as Metaphysics, is that “I am in a matrix and have always been in a matrix.” While Chalmers ignores the general narrative of the film to broaden his argument, I will focus on the narrative to express Neo’s overreaction to the Matrix Hypothesis. Neo’s assumption that the Matrix Hypothesis is life altering is false; the Matrix Hypothesis is insignificant because it reinforces the widely supported Creation Hypothesis and does not change the fundamental building blocks of our physical space-time.
The scenario presented in The Matrix aligns with many people’s general beliefs on the creation of life and does not alter our day-to-day perceptions. Chalmers describes the Creation Theory as the belief that “physical space-time and its contents were created by beings outside physical space-time.” Many people believe in some form of a God, which also serves as a figure who created physical space-time, and also exists outside of it. In The Matrix, machines exist outside of space-time and created the physical space-time that humans exist in. Therefore, while the Matrix Hypothesis will challenge some people’s beliefs concerning the origins of physical space-time, it will not change their general perception of day-to-day life. For example, if a Christian believes that physical space-time was created by a singular God, but then realizes that it was actually created by machines, his perceptions of the physical world will stay the same. His house will still be his house, his feet are still his feet, he can still walk and talk and interact with other people, he still experiences pain, pleasure, etc. So is the discovery truly life altering? For the Christian (or anyone for that matter), the only aspect of his life that changes is his perception of the unseen forces that created physical space-time, but the physical space-time itself stays the same. Though the Matrix Hypothesis would change some of our beliefs concerning the origins of physical space-time, the perception of our reality would not be altered.
Chalmers compares the discovery of the Matrix to the discovery that physical objects are made up of subatomic particles. Both discoveries force us to make slight alterations to our general beliefs, but we can continue to live our lives unscathed by both discoveries. Some might argue against this comparison, believing that subatomic particles help explain the fundamental nature of our physical reality, while the Matrix Hypothesis makes our reality a lie. In turn, this argument asserts that the Matrix Hypothesis would render our lives trivial, because we would be nothing but a computer simulation. However, if we are nothing more than a computer simulation, what makes the simulation more trivial than if our existence were anything else? Humanity has existed thinking that we are in reality, but what constitutes reality? The machines that created the simulation, or better yet the people like Morpheus who escaped the Matrix, are just as confident that their reality is the true reality. But who is right? Could they be just another layer in a multi-tiered Matrix? As this falls into the trap of an infinite regression, the question of multiple Matrixes cannot be definitively answered. However, I think the Computational Hypothesis can potentially refute the idea that the Matrix Hypothesis would trivialize human existence. Chalmers presents the Computational Hypothesis as follows: “microphysical processes throughout space-time are constituted by underlying computational processes.” While not as widely believed as the Creation Hypothesis, the Computational Hypothesis offers a possible explanation for the fundamental workings of physical space-time. If this hypothesis is to be believed, then space-time is essentially a giant computer program, with 1’s and 0’s comprising the most basic foundation of reality. This, in turn, would imply that the Matrix Hypothesis is not far from the truth, making its discovery all the less significant. If Morpheus’ “reality” is essentially a giant computer program, it is no more legitimate than the Matrix. If physical space-time were at its core a series of basic algorithms, then the Matrix Hypothesis would not change our reality at all.
One issue in the film I have not addressed yet is the motives of the machines. In The Matrix, the machines are harvesting humans to use them as an energy resource. Many would argue that this fact alone is enough to legitimize Neo’s reaction and provide a reason to break free of the Matrix. The Creation Theory offers a possible counterargument to this assertion. If the Creation Theory is to be believed, and a force outside of physical space-time did in fact create space-time, then humans are at the mercy of that outside force. For example, if one believes in God, they believe that they are the product of a greater power. If that power did create physical space-time, the motives of that force are both unknowable and irrelevant to daily life. Even without the belief in God, humans are at the mercy of the reality they exist in. Humans continue to live out their lives within the simulation, and when they die, their bodies are removed from the Matrix and disposed of. While this may not be comforting to know, it has no bearing on the activities within the simulation. And since the Computational Hypothesis establishes that physical space-time within the Matrix is no less real than the space-time that Morpheus and the machines exist in, there is no logical reason for Neo or anyone else to break free of the Matrix. Therefore, the machines’ motives do not have any bearing on the Matrix Hypothesis.
The Matrix sets out an interesting premise, but exaggerates the significance of its narrative for dramatic effect. Though the Matrix Hypothesis alters some of our beliefs, it has no bearing on our daily perception of physical reality. It also does not belittle human existence, because it aligns rather closely with many of our beliefs concerning the origins of physical space-time. Even the machine’s motives are irrelevant because they do not change the daily occurrences within the simulation. Does the knowledge of the Matrix Hypothesis change Neo’s beliefs regarding the origins of physical space-time? Yes, but the Matrix Hypothesis does not change the basic characteristics of his perceived “reality,” nor does it trivialize human existence. It merely offers a new explanation for the creation of physical space-time.
Chalmers, David J. The Matrix as Metaphysics.