Accepting the Matrix’s Scenario

Banin D. Sukmono

Director and Head of Metaphysics and Science
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Let’s imagine the world presented in The Matrix movie is true, that the world we inhabit is no more than a simulation created by the new ruler of the world, smart machines. The illusion is created to keep us alive while they exploit our life-energy like batteries. Our brains are conditioned to constantly receive electrical signals which virtually are identical to people on average so that we do not cast any doubts the delicious chicken porridge we had an hour ago is artificial. In the world where our brain spatially located, however, the porridge is never get tasted by us, or, worse, never exist. Let’s name it The Matrix’s scenario.

It invites an obvious question: what kind of philosophical problems do you expect to emerge from The Matrix’s scenario above? Although The Matrix as a hypothesis is captivating since it could bear problems regarding reference, real/artificial, and immanence/transcendence, I do think the inverse. Supposing The Matrix’s scenario is true, recalling it is logically possible, ontologically, there is nothing to worry about. The references of our sentences will still refer to; the world we reside will still real enough to be believed in; and, the transcendence we imagine will still be admitted without hinging on religiosity. In short, we could go along with Berkeley at this position. If the world outside The Matrix did exist we could never know, if it does not exist everything remains the same.[i] When Berkeley establishes an idealistic position, in The Matrix’s case, nevertheless, Berkeley’s principle on the sensible world could be interpreted in a non-idealistic way.

Before considering the possibility further, we should analyze first for which The Matrix’s scenario is concerned as detrimental and needed to be rejected. Descartes’s meditation could be accused as the origin. In his Meditation on First Philosophy [ii], Descartes says probably an “evil spirit…deceiving me,” an evil spirit which is “supremely powerful and cunning”, impelling us to start pondering that “the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds, and all things” might be a dream. Descartes’s imagination is the ancient version of The Matrix, evil spirits = smart machines.

Descartes discerns the problem as if it is a threat. Providing that it is true, it will be fairly likely the smell of pine tree and the taste of chicken flesh in our last camping are dreams. We have never camped to the mountain; we merely slept in the evil spirit’s cave. For Descartes, therefore, The Matrix entails the issue of the nature of our encountered world. Accepting the scenario could lead us to re-weigh our certainty about 1) mind-independent world, and 2) our beliefs about that world. The evil spirit should be eliminated, and cogito ergo sum and ens quo maius cogitari nequit are born to carry out the mission. God will guarantee the clarity of our thinking and not deceive us by letting old-fashioned The Matrix run by evil demon works.

What we appropriate from Descartes are suspicions. Descartes is not explicitly conducting an analytic demonstration to explain the problem of The Matrix. Hilary Putnam, in his seminal article “Brains in a vat”,[iii] takes over the job. To show that, Putnam suggests we imagine by pure chance an ant on the patch of sand leaves traces resembling a picture of an Elm Tree[iv]. Could we state that the ant by his trace refers to the Elm tree we normally understand? Take another situation as the example, imagine in a planet not owning a single Elm tree is dropped a painting of an Elm tree by other planet’s creatures not having understanding also about an Elm tree. The painting is made by chance. Does the painting designate to the Elm tree in the earth?

For Putnam, that is certainly not the case. For a reference calls for user possessing conceptual ability towards the reference and it is only gained by causal and contextual contacts with the thing referred. Putnam repudiates name and representation always designate to what is named. Following the examples above, without having causal-contextual contact with the Elm tree, even if you have identical qualitative pictures, we will never refer to the Elm Tree. That is to say if we are brains in a vat, or, pertaining to The Matrix, humans in tubes, our statement with respect to the world outside The Matrix will not refer. It might merely refer to the images in the brain.

Unfortunately, for Putnam, the condition supported those statements is self-refuting. Let’s imagine a sentence “I am a human in a tube” (human manipulated in The Matrix) is intended by a subject in The Matrix. The sentences as regards “human” and “tube” will not refer to the humans and tubes outside The Matrix. Thus, Putnam contends, we are not humans in a tube since our real concept on the world outside The Matrix is impossible. Accepting The Matrix’s scenario, by contrast, implies we acknowledge a theory that should not be endorsed, namely the magical theory of reference of what is referred.

Since the time it was published, Putnam’s response engenders numerous insightful controversies. We will not explore the debate. I merely want to highlight Putnam’s three essential points explained clearly by Tim Button in “Brains in Vats and Model Theory”.[v]  Firstly, Putnam’s standing is to refuse our capability to entertain a certain thought, including a world which is like The Matrix. Secondly, the first point is sufficient to answer internal skepticism, skepticism raising antinomy in our worldview, which is Putnam’s aim in the first place; and not an external skepticism, which its construction is not available to be countered. The last skepticism could be ignored. Finally, not accepting the neutrality of The Matrix’s scenario since, recalling the first point, seemingly, we could abandon our human framework and use the god’s-eye-perspective.

From Descartes and Putnam we could recognize the way in which The Matrix’s scenario is comprehended as dangerous. The affirmation toward that plot could jeopardize an essential cog in their philosophical system–for Descartes, beliefs about the external world, for Putnam, the condition of reference. However, the skepticism comes from incautious and misleading metaphysical assumptions toward The Matrix’s scenario. Answering Descartes, our beliefs towards the external world could be true; answering Putnam, the argument from the causal theory of reference does not tear down the possibility of The Matrix. Let’s start with the latter.

Janet Folina, in “Realism, Skepticism, and the Brain”, [vi] shows her careful worries towards Putnam’s argument. For Folina, Putnam operates double references in his arguments or reference-shift. Suppose the standard scenario of The Matrix:

P = we are humans in a tube.

Clearly, that P is a statement concerning a state of affairs. Putnam’s first reference, therefore, is about the actual possibility of P outside The Matrix. However, his rejection is changed to the possible intelligibility of P, which is a modal claim on the intentional context inside The Matrix.

This reference-shift questions Putnam’s claim that P is self-refuting. For Putnam, the statement is identical to the liar paradox. In fact, the format of the liar paradox is the following:

Q if only if not-Q.

While The Matrix’s scenario leads more to these statements, apparently not a paradox:

If P then P is not sayable.

If P then not-P* (P in The Matrix).

In light of this, instead of following Putnam that P must suppose the negation of P*; the more arguable inference is if P then A (a human in The Matrix) could not refer to P. There is no an ontological negation in the argument. The worry Folina proposed makes the advocacy by imposing internal skepticism unpalatable. For the clear distinction between existence and intelligibility plays a significant role in the construction of our worldview. For instance, regardless that ant’s traces does not refer to the Elm Tree, it does not mean the real Elm tree does not exist, false, or impossible. While we establish ontological understanding solely with what is conceptually possible to be referred, we cover ourselves against logical un-refer possibility which might occur anytime.

Now, we could move to Descartes’s reservations that if The Matrix is true, our beliefs regarding the world might be false. In The Matrix movie, this plot is shown when Neo realizes he has never had steak every time he thinks he has had steak. The problem with Neo and Descartes is assuming The Matrix as a skeptical hypothesis. In fact, The Matrix’s scenario, evil spirit, or brains in a vat, as David Chalmers says in “The Matrix as Metaphysics”,[vii] is a metaphysical hypothesis. A metaphysical hypothesis, as opposed to the skeptical questioning our beliefs, posits fundamental reality supporting the physical world.

Chalmers argues, even if The Matrix is true, the prejudice that our beliefs might be entirely false is not acceptable. For, the point of The Matrix’s scenario is: firstly, the creation hypothesis, namely robot creating our world, not God; secondly, the computational hypothesis, that the deepest form of physical reality is a super-advanced computational algorithm, and thirdly, the mind-body hypothesis, that mind is located outside physical space-time despite their reciprocal interaction. It is obvious that nothing of those three hypotheses is skeptical. The Matrix seems more constructive.

On the condition that those entire hypotheses are true, and The Matrix is supposed to resemble the world outside The Matrix, we will have two physical worlds regardless of the differences in the nature of reality, creator, and mind-body relations. With this in mind, our understanding we are in the city called Yogyakarta* is still true, even if the world outside The Matrix, the place where we are entubed, has never built a city called Yogyakarta. If we formulate those points, we could see these two kinds of statement conflated before:

Q = I am in Yogyakarta (The world outside The Matrix).

Q* = I am in Yogyakarta* (The world inside The Matrix).

Both of them have their own references and, therefore, do not falsify each other. Yogyakarta is different from Yogyakarta*. We can imagine two different people live in different places and mastering different conceptions about the surrounding. If those designate two different entities with the same name, it does not mean that one of them misdesignates. This formulation, however, is different from Putnam’s conception supposing the image of brains as the references, stirring him to answer external relation between Yogyakarta and Yogyakarta*.

I do not want to dive further into the problem of references, yet I want to state The Matrix’s scenario is only possible provided that there is a world independent from the mental (the consequence of mind-body hypothesis). That world shapes similar to our physical world, and in that world, our bodies are situated. However, the world is designed by super-advanced computers and the nature of its fundamental reality is advanced computational algorithms. Our brain does not determine what types of worlds which should occur; it only receives, process, and interpret signals from the computer. In the scenario, our statements, therefore, could refer to the physical world developed by The Matrix. For example, they refer to sets of bits interpreted by the brain as Yogyakarta* city. In this sense, Yogyakarta* is external.[viii]

We could answer Descartes’s reservations now. Even if there are two worlds, namely the world of the evil spirits, where we are laid, and the world created by the evil spirits, where we are manipulated, our everyday understanding of the world is not wrong. The noteworthy differences are merely the creator, and, possibly, the nature of reality. If the evil spirit modifies our world like The Matrix, our physical world will stay real and run as our common and physical sense. If we suddenly wake up, we will know that Yogyakarta we understood, namely Yogyakarta*, is only a world constructed, and it is different from the world we wake up. For the extreme example, if we are reawakened in the life after death, it seems not acceptable to say our previous world, the world where we work, suffer, and have fun (Q*), is wrong.

At his point, we seemingly stand on the Berkeley’s T junction. We can take the world outside The Matrix as something not affecting us. Even if it does, nothing changes. Yet do not regard this that the world itself cannot be intervened. It merely states that our understanding of our physical and everyday world will remain intact if evidently our world is The Matrix. Marian David[ix] properly points out the other details of The Matrix’s scenario are inessential, apart from our inability to know the world retrospectively. Making people realize and aware as to The Matrix, as the movie, demands external intervention from the world keeping watch humans’ activities. However, it is notable to say that it should not be concerned as an epiphenomenal nor an idealistic thesis.

In the worst scenario, reprogramming the world because of the creator’s intention is possible. This possibility is logically probable since we have never acquired any certainty about the future. [x] At that time, we should set ourselves up to prepare with tremendous possible transformation in our physical world, such as the multiplicity of agent Smith, or small changes, including the advent of the superhuman and magic door connecting any places. Although at first, it seems chaotic, there is nothing wrong with that. Science will still work and our understanding of our world is still the same, but, undoubtedly, there may be revisions.

On the other hand, although we could abandon our epistemological content of the world outside The Matrix (supposing we are inside The Matrix), it does not mean we abandon the independent dimension holding normally by non-idealist. The Matrix’s metaphysical assumption of mind-body relation implies there is a prior physical room and, consequently, an independent and ready-made world which free from representation and interpretation. We do not choose Berkeley’s side accordingly.

All things considered, this writing does not suppose The Matrix’s scenario is inessential philosophically. What is at stake here is the converse, that, ontologically, The Matrix is not destructive. Up to a point, it is truly vital for the realists. Providing that The Matrix is true, and not only probable, firstly, the reality should be ready-made and independent from the mental. Consequently, realist could apply infinitely The Matrix’s world so that nothing possible to get outside The Matrix, because every time you escape from The Matrix, you are still in the bigger The Matrix. It means there is no way out from realism. We have not achieved the conclusion. However, we should open ourselves to every possibility. That is the reason I recommend that we should always-already face the advent of The Matrix’s scenario. It should be fun, if it is the case, we could fly anywhere we want, like Neo.


[i] John R. Searle, “Does the Real World Exist?” in Realism/Antirealism and Epistemology, ed. Christopher B. Kulp (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publisher, 1997) 15-52.

[ii] Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Michael Moriarty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) 16-17.

[iii] Hilary Putnam, “Brains in a vat”, in Reason, Truth, and History (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981), 1-21

[iv] I modify the example.

[v] Tim Button, “Brains in vats and model theory”, in The Brain in A Vat, ed. Sanford C. Goldberg (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2016), 131-154.

[vi] Janet Foline, “Realism, skepticism, and the brain in a vat”, in The Brain in A Vat, ed. Sanford C. Goldberg (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2016), 155-173.

[vii] David Chalmers, “The Matrix as Metaphysics”, in


[viii] I take distance from Janet Folina here since she does not assume The Matrix as a metaphysical hypothesis.

[ix] Marian David, “neither Mentioning ‘Brains in a Vat’ nor Mentioning Brains in a Vat Will Prove that We Are Not Brains in a vat”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 51, no. 4 (1991) 891. Doi. .

[x] Quentin Meillassoux, Science Fiction and Extra-Science Fiction, trans. Alyosha Edlebi (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2015).