In Descartes’ “Of The Things of Which We May Doubt”, he questions his understanding of reality from the standpoint that perception, through the body’s senses, is based on deception. Throughout his work he confronts reality as an illusion that is indiscernible from the state of dreaming—a reality that exists only within out minds. It is difficult to conceptualize his posits just from his writings. However, the 1999 movie “The Matrix” provides us with a lens to understand them.
“The Matrix” is a science fiction movie that depicts a world in which reality exists only within the consciousness of a computer program. It is a world where the human race lives only within their minds, and are subject to the laws of programming just as we are subject to the laws of physics. Only a small number of people are actually conscious outside of the program. It is through this movie that Descartes’ deceived perception of reality becomes evident.
In Mediation I Descartes begins by questing how his ideas are even possible. If the senses we posses, the ability to feel and see, define our perception of reality. Then, how can we deny that our perception is false without being labeled as insane (3)? It stands to say that if a person doesn’t believe his own eyes, or if they can’t feel if the air is hot or cold, then there is something wrong with them. However, Descartes presents us with a possibility that we all have experience with, dreams. In our dreams we can experience all the senses that we feel while we are awake (5).
We can see this in “The Matrix” storyline, where reality is based within the unconscious minds of those who are still “plugged in.” It is easy to relate to this. “Ever get the feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming (The Matrix)? Most of us have experienced waking dreams, lucid dreams, or even day dreams, to a similar extent. Yet, we all eventually awake to a conscious reality; a reality where we can recognize our dreams as dreams.
This position was also addressed by Descartes. How can we perceive these dreamt senses unless they “have been formed in the likeness of reality” (6), unless there is some common ground to base them on. In The Matrix, Morpheus says “Unfortunately no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” Similarly, how can something be dreamt, imagined, unless there is a “real” to base it on?
So, “What is real? How do you define real (The Matrix)?” Descartes questions this by examining his faith in a higher power. He is confronted with the understanding that if there is a god, then he it must be some “malignant demon” (12) because the uncertain limbo of reality is a constant deception of his mind. This is similar to the computer program Smith in The Matrix. The Smith is a program designed to enforce the servitude of consciousness to the created reality of the Matrix. Its purpose is to coerce and enforce the deception of their programmed reality. Similarly, in the light that there is no way of discerning whether reality is merely deception Descartes can only concede that the can be only one avenue to his pursuit, there can be nothing certain (M. II 2).
In Meditation II, Descartes’ approach to understanding what is real is by trying to perceive reality without his senses (12 M. I). Admittedly, this is all but impossible to do. Yet, we can gain some understanding through the hero Neo in The Matrix. Neo is rescued from the software reality, and is taught how to override the programming of the machines—by realizing that his former perception of reality is based on deception.
This climatic moment in The Matrix mirrors Descartes’ recognition of a reality without senses, a reality that can only be achieved through thinking. Through questionings he deduces that “I am, I exists, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind (3).” By doing so, he separates his former perception (through senses) from what he understands as the truth, he (god, or the Smith) can never bring about that he is nothing (or deceived) (3). And like the hero Neo, Descartes comes to realize that through this knowledge; “that bodies themselves are not properly perceived by the senses nor by the faculty of imagination, but by the intellect alone.”
After doing the reading and watching the movie I could draw obvious parallels between the two, but because the concepts of each are so surreal I didn’t think I could draw any correlation to other forms of new media. However, I realized that we have a very similar form of the matrix within our reality, MMORPGs (massive multi-plyaer on-line role playing games.) Obviously these players aren’t “jacked in” to some computer program, but the concept of immersing yourself within a world bound by the constraints of a computer program is somewhat similar. Albeit, most players are aware of reality, and do occasionally return to the real world for at least bio breaks (bathroom). Nevertheless, the key point is there are players that are so immersed with these games that they prefer them to actual reality (I’ll admit to playing WOW for 24 hours strait only if you do). Accordingly, MMORPGs have also become a form of digital media that can alter an individual’s perception of reality to the point where facing reality as we know it can be extremely difficult.
I dont think this accurate depicts most on-line gamers, but I do believe this is a fair representation of some of the youths I know that play WOW.