The Harvard Review of Philosophy 11 (1):18-31 (2003)

Hubert Dreyfus
University of California, Berkeley
The Matrix raises several familiar philosophical problems in such new ways that students all over the country are assigning it to their philosophy professors. In so doing, they have offered us a great opportunity to illustrate some of the basic insights of existential phenomenology. The Matrix might seem to renew Descartes’s worry that, since all we ever experience are our own inner mental states, we might, for all we could tell, be living in an illusion created by a malicious demon. In that case, most of our beliefs about reality would be false. But there is a way of understanding The Matrix that denies the mediation of mental states and shows those living in the Matrix to be in direct touch with Matrix reality. The Matrix world is public and objective, not a private subjective dream. Still, there is clearly a sense in which the Matrix world, while not merely mental, is not real either. There is after all a demon—the AI intelligences and their computer—that has in some sense fooled all those who accept the reality of the Matrix world. Thus, the film’s account of our situation is even more disturbing than Descartes’s claim that we are each confined to our own mind. The Matrix world is a vivid illustration of Descartes’s additional prescient claim that we could never be in direct touch with the real world because we are all what we would now call brains in vats.
Keywords Analytic Philosophy  Contemporary Philosophy  General Interest
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ISBN(s) 1062-6239
DOI 10.5840/harvardreview20031113
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