Friday, January 23, 2009

Epistemology in The Matrix

For a long time philosophers have looked to science fiction as a source of fruitful examples for thinking about life's big issues. And plenty of good science fiction is inspired by philosophical ideas. As Robert J. Sawyer puts it, "I think a better name for most ambitious science fiction is ‘philosophical fiction.’"

The success of The Matrix in 1999 helped to bring this confluence of philosophy and science fiction to the attention of the wider public. I know of at least four books that explore the philosophy of the Matrix trilogy of films.

Chapter 2 of Mark Rowlands's book Sci-Phi: Philosophy from Socrates to Schwarzenegger focuses on the epistemological issues raised by the Wachowski brothers' film. For the uninitiated, an epistemological issue is one that concerns knowledge. What epistemological questions did this film leave with you? Does the film try to answer these questions? How does Rowlands's chapter help you think about all this? Do you disagree with him anywhere?


Hazel said...

Dear blogger, why can't we see the post while we comment on it?

I won't answer all the questions you posted, but I do want to toss one thing out there.

Rowland talks of skepticism (or scepticism? Is that a Brit spelling?) but he keeps saying that he "won't lose any sleep" over the thousand possibilities. What seems to hold him together, functionally, is what he calls a strong belief in the way things are -- despite his skepticism.
That idea intrigues me -- like a *functional* philosophy that says, "well, maybe I am a brain in a vat, but I'm going to operate as though I'm a person in a world." Because if I were a brain in a vat, I'd go skydiving more. But we don't, do we?
I once heard a pastor say "to believe in something is to act as if it is so." Not a dictionary definition, but an interesting question that is raised by skepticism. At some point we have to find some way to operate, and if we're to be skeptical we can't wait for certainty to move ahead.

Just a thought.

DJ Spank said...

the matrix left me with questions of reality. Actually after reading the chapter, i went through an existential crisis of sorts. Though Rowlands kept saying that he didn't quite believe Descartes, i myself became a skeptic of sorts. Questions about reality have been on my mind a lot lately. After we watched the twilight zone episode in class the other day about vocational obsolescence, i went back to my room only to find an ad on my email saying: jobs become obsolete, talent doesn't. To my feeble mind, this 'coincidence' seemed like a hiccup in time, similar to the one in the matrix where Neo sees the black cat i'm not sure if someone was messing with the programming of my world or anything, but this 'coincidence' was quite astonishing.

Hazel said...

A glitch; that's sort of creepy.

I wasn't there for the bit about vocational obsolescence, so I can't comment about that, but I absolutely agree with what you said about turning into a skeptic as we read -- I think as much as Rowland was very flippant with skepticism, it's only because he didn't let it unsettle him.

For a long time I've had arguments with people everywhere about the nature of truth, because they just assume that "facts" are things verifiable by empirical evidence. (It's like we forgot about the theory of relativity. C'mon, people.) But experience IS subjective -- thus an eyewitness account being insufficient for legal condemnation, etc.
To me, that means we have to start believing things without proving them, since we've got no agreed-upon method for proving.

Unless there's another school of thought that widely stands up to the skeptical paradigm . . . Jensen, anything?

randy jensen said...

We might divide responses to skepticism into two camps: Some think we *can* give a successful response to the skeptic and others think we can't but we don't have to.

The former (e.g. Descartes) do try to *disprove* skepticism. Such disproofs aren't often found convincing. As Hume puts it, once you call *everything* into question, it seems impossible to get yourself out of the skeptical predicament.

But why go there? Maybe we have to take some things for granted. As Hume says, maybe we just believe in the world. Maybe we *start* with the presumption that there's a world outside my own mind. Maybe we cannot start from nowhere and get somewhere. Maybe that has to be okay, since it's all we've got.

In response to Hazel's last question, one helpful point is to be clear about what we mean by "proving" something. It may be right that we cannot prove very much, if "prove" means what it means in the context of mathematics and formal logic. However, in courtrooms and labs and ordinary life, we don't require that standard of proof.

So, to say that we may have to believe things without proving them may just mean that we have to let good reasons or lots of evidence be enough, even if we don't have a decisive proof.

Or, in some cases, it may mean we simply have to take some things as given. A school of thought known as "Reformed epistemology" states that we can see a belief in the external world--and, interestingly, a belief in God, as a basic belief, as something we start with, rather than as something we have to prove.

Obviously, there's lots more to say. But maybe that's enough to continue the conversation....

Hazel said...

I maybe shouldn't have asked that question before the class we talked about it, either, sorry.

"Maybe we cannot start from nowhere and get somewhere." I like that thought -- because it takes the skeptics' feet out from under them. It squirms around the necessity of proof.
I wish I'd taken a philosophy course sooner. I didn't know there was language for these questions.

I think maybe this reformed epistemology thing is for me.