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Topic Review (Newest First)
Jun 10th, 2003 05:16 PM
James What's wrong with The Matrix?

It should have been about PIZZA!
Jun 10th, 2003 05:00 PM
'What's wrong with the matrix'

I got this e-mail from my mom:

You might be interested in a nice article in May 19 The New Yorker that
discusses academic philosophy and the premise of the "Matrix" movies. (I
know, I'm a couple of weeks late with this, but I just ran across the
article.) It's called "What's wrong with the Matrix" and it's by Adam

Some highlights:

For the past four years, a lot of people have been obsessed with the
movie "The Matrix." As the sequel, "The Matrix Reloaded," arrived in
theatres this week, it was obvious that the strange, violent
science-fiction film, by the previously more or less unknown
Wachowski brothers, had already inspired both a cult and a craze.
(And had made a lot of money into the bargain, enough to fuel two
sequels; "Matrix Revolutions" is supposed to be out in November.)
There hasn't been anything quite like it since "2001: A Space
Odyssey," which had a similar mix of mysticism, solemnity, and
mega-effects. Shortly after its mostly unheralded release, in 1999,
"The Matrix" became an egghead extase. The Slovenian philosopher
Slavoj Zizek's latest work, "Welcome to the Desert of the Real," took
its title from a bit of dialogue in the film; college courses on
epistemology have used "The Matrix" as a chief point of reference;
and there are at least three books devoted to teasing out its
meanings. ("Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in
'The Matrix' " is a typical title.) If the French philosopher Jean
Baudrillard, whose books-"The Gulf War Did Not Take Place" is
one-popularized the view that reality itself has become a simulation,
has not yet embraced the film it may be because he is thinking of
suing for a screen credit. (The "desert of the real" line came from
him.) The movie, it seemed, dramatized a host of doubts and fears and
fascinations, some half as old as time, some with a decent claim to
be postmodern. To a lot of people, it looked like a fable: our fable.

[. . .]
Long before the first "Matrix" was released, of course, there was a
lot of fictional life in the idea that life is a fiction. The finest
of American speculators, Philip K. Dick, whose writing has served as
the basis of some of the more ambitious science-fiction movies of the
past couple of decades ("Blade Runner," "Total Recall," "Minority
Report"), was preoccupied with two questions: how do we know that a
robot doesn't have consciousness, and how do we know that we can
trust our own memories and perceptions? "Blade Runner" dramatized the
first of these two problems, and "The Matrix" was an extremely and
probably self-consciously Dickian dramatization of the second. In one
of Dick's most famous novels, for instance, "The Three Stigmata of
Palmer Erdrich," a colony of earth-men on Mars, trapped in a
miserable life, take an illegal drug that transports them into "Perky
Pat Layouts"-miniature Ken and Barbie doll houses, where they live
out their lives in an idealized Southern California. Like Poe, Dick
took the science of his time, gave it a paranoid twist, and then
became truly paranoid himself. In a long, half-crazy book called
"Valis," he proposed that the world we live in is a weird scramble of
information, that a wicked empire has produced thousands of years of
fake history, and that the fabric of reality is being ripped by a
battle between good and evil. The Dick scholar Erik Davis points out
that, in a sequel to "Valis," Dick even used the term "matrix" in
something like a Wachowskian context.

In the academy, too, the age-old topic of radical doubt has acquired
renewed life in recent years. In fact, what's often called the
"brain-in-the-vat problem" has practically become its own academic
discipline. The philosopher Daniel Dennett invoked it to probe the
paradoxes of identity. Robert Nozick, famous as a theorist of the
minimal state, used it to ask whether you would agree to plug into an
"experience machine" that would give you any experience you
desired-writing a great book, making a friend-even though you'd
really just be floating in a vat with electrodes attached to your
brain. Nozick's perhaps too hasty assumption was that you wouldn't
want to plug in. His point was that usually something has to happen
in the world, not just in our heads, for our desires to be satisfied.
The guerrilla warriors in "The Matrix," confirming the point, are
persuaded that the Matrix is wrong because it isn't "real," and we
intuitively side with them. Yet, unlike Nozick, we also recognize
that it might be a lot more comfortable to remain within the virtual
universe. That's the decision made by a turncoat among the
guerrillas, Cypher. (Agents of the "machine world" seal the pact with
him over dinner at a posh restaurant: "I know this steak doesn't
exist," Cypher tells them, enjoying every calorie-free bite. "I know
that when I put it in my mouth the Matrix is telling my brain that it
is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?
Ignorance is bliss.")

A key feature of "The Matrix" is that all those brains are wired
together-that they really can interact with one another. And it was,
improbably, the Harvard philosopher and mathematician Hilary Putnam
who, a couple of decades back, proposed the essential Matrixian
setup: a bunch of brains in a vat hooked up to a machine that was
"programmed to give them all a collective hallucination, rather than
a number of separate unrelated hallucinations." Putnam used his
Matrix to make a tricky argument about meaning: since words mean what
they normally refer to within a community, a member of the
vatted-brain community might be telling the truth if it said it was
looking at a tree, or, for that matter, at Monica Bellucci. That's
because the brains in that vat aren't really speaking our language.
What they are speaking, he said, is "vat-English," because by "a
tree" they don't mean a tree; they mean, roughly, a tree image.
Presumably, by "Monica Bellucci" they mean "the image of Monica
Bellucci in 'Malena,' " rather than the image of Monica Bellucci in "
Matrix Reloaded," brains-in-vats having taste and large DVD

Like most thought experiments, the brain-in-the-vat scenario was
intended to sharpen our intuitions. But recurrent philosophical
examples tend to have a little symbolic halo around them, a touch of
their time-those angels dancing on the head of a pin were dancing to
a thirteenth-century rhythm. The fact that the brain-in-a-vat
literature has grown so abundant, the vat so vast, suggests that it
has a grip on our imagination as a story in itself.
And there, in retrospect, might lie the secret of the first "Matrix":
beyond the balletic violence, beyond the cool stunts, the idea that
the world we live in isn't real is one that speaks right now to a
general condition. For the curious thing about the movie was that
everybody could grasp the basic setup instantly. Whether it occurs in
cult science fiction or academic philosophy, we seem to be fascinated
by the possibility that our world might not exist. We're not
strangers to the feeling that, for much of our lives, we might just
as well be brains-in-vats, floating in an amniotic fluid of
simulations. It doesn't just strike us as plausibly weird. It strikes
us as weirdly plausible. [. . .]

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