Wow, there’s a lot I could say about this one. This is my first video for my channel and also the first time I had any real exposure to Adobe After Effects or Premiere Pro. Premiere Pro is pretty intuitive, but AE has a nasty learning curve, and my Matrix vid probably represents about a 200 hour investment on my part. After 200 hours of staring at images from The Matrix, I found I had some second thoughts regarding my video’s central thesis which I’ve finally gotten around to writing up and compiling here.
I got the idea to make a video illustrating the differences between The Matrix and the simulation argument because I was a little annoyed by how everyone uses The Matrix as the go to example when talking about simulation theory. I noticed everyone from scientists to writers for the New Yorker to even professional philosophers making this mistake, and I thought I could use this common misconception as a takeoff point to illustrate the difference between Simulation theory and the Cartesian skepticism and just why the former is so interesting
After the video went up, however, I began to consider something: Maybe it’s not Neil Degrasse Tyson and Adam Gopnik and all the people making Matrix references to talk about simulation theory that were so wrong. Maybe the misinterpretation wasn’t on their part, but actually on the part of the Wachowskis in their capacity as screenwriters.
Here’s my thinking on this one: One of the most notable parts of Simulation theory is just how contingent it is to modern computing to function as an argument. The simulation argument creates a probabilistic model that shows that the closer we come to creating a lifelike simulation of our own, then the likelier it is that we ourselves are simulated. Assume you could go back in time to the 13th century in time and explain the simulation argument to some person living then—let’s get Thomas Aquinas so long as we’re in the neighborhood. Father Tom is pretty damn sharp so I’m sure he wouldn’t have trouble grasping the concept of both computers and simulations, but I think he’d still consider the argument very weak. Even if Thomas could grasp the concept of computers, there’s nothing in his 13th century experience to lead him to believe that normal humans would ever having the power to actually create such magical machines, and therefore, following the probabilistic model of the simulation argument, the odds of ourselves being simulated would be correspondingly very low for him. The argument is much stronger for us 21st century humans, however, because we’ve seen what computers can do. We’ve all seen the worlds that CGI can create through movies and video games, we’ve seen, well, we’ve seen The Matrix.
Nick Bostrom published Are You Living in a Computer Simulation in 2003, only four years after The Matrix was released. The proximity of these two dates is not a coincidence. I believe that the sheer spectacle of The Matrix and its then cutting-edge computer graphics are what really made Bostrom’s simulation argument even imaginable. Returning to our example with Aquinas, if you took an iPad back with you and let Aquinas watch The Matrix, telling him most of what he was seeing was produced by humans using a computer, I’m sure he’d start to take your funny little argument much more seriously. Merely by creating this simulated realistic imagery, the Wachowskis increased the chances of a world simulation following Bostrom’s logic by an order of magnitude. I don’t think Bostrom would have even have been able to imagine his argument without The Matrix, and it certainly wouldn’t have gotten as popular as it did without that movie and others like it inviting us to question whether the normal everyday world might not be simulated as well.
I do hold to my video’s original thesis that the simulation argument and the philosophy of the matrix are fundamentally distinct on the level of narrative. As I explained in my video, Neo is a Cartesian subject going through the stages of skeptical doubt and eventual self-knowledge and self-mastery. It’s in that computer-generated imagery that you can really find the seeds of the simulation argument. Funny enough, I think the fundamental misinterpretation which annoyed me into making the video actually comes from the Wachowskis themselves; they didn’t have a good idea of the philosophical implications inherent to the images they were creating—no one did, really—so they just recycled some old ideas out of Descartes and his inheritors from critical theory¹ when writing the story.
I think what we’re seeing here is something that’s actually quite common in the history of art. Harold Bloom once wrote in his book, The Anxiety of Influence, that the history of poetry is a series of poets creating strong misreadings of their predecessors, and while I don’t think that Bloom’s exact model holds all the time, I do think that creative misinterpretation plays a powerful role in the progression of both art and philosophy. We find ourselves locked in a prison of past concepts and old ideas, there has to be some crack in the structure somewhere in order for anything new to get in. The Wachowskis were just doing what all good artists do; creating something new out of something old.
I don’t disavow my video; I think I did a good job illustrating both the simulation argument and philosophical skepticism, and I stand by my reading of The Matrix as a story. That said, I would like to put a small disclaimer on it: It may have been a misreading to equate Descartes with Bostrom, but it was this very misreading of Descartes that helped pave the way for Bostrom.
¹The Cartesian skeptical hypothesis in The Matrix is used as a metaphor for what the movie is really interested in getting at: a social critique of consumer culture. You can see this kind of thing all over movies in the 90s (Fight Club, The Truman Show, I’d put They Live as part of that general milieu as well although it’s technically an ’88 film) where there’s a sense that society is arranged to trick individuals into conformity and we need to break out. The age-old skeptical hypothesis gets used to illustrate and dramatize this idea in a sci-fi setting, but I don’t think there’s any inconsistency in this. Critique of ideology is a school of thought that is essentially predicated on Descartes and the Cartesian notion of mind as the theatre of representation. Descartes is the one who introduced the notion that our relationship to the world is intrinsically a mediated one, and from there you eventually get to the idea intrinsic to Marx, Freud, and their PoMo descendants that our relationship is socially mediated.