In the movie The Matrix, future human beings live in cages where the energy from their bodies powers the robotic overlords who rule a dystopic world. While locked in their cages, however, people remain docile thanks to a grand simulator called The Matrix. The Matrix lulls these people into believing that they are citizens of late 20th century America, doing all the things normal Americans do.
The film is enjoyable hokum. Yet one might think it raises a serious philosophical question. For how do we know that we are not victims of the Matrix? That is, rather than being alive in 2018, enjoying (?) the undoubted madness of Brexit and Donald Trump, we are instead all trapped in electrified cages in some apocalyptic future. We believe the world around us is real and not simulated, so the skeptical worry goes, because this is what the Matrix wants us to believe.
It is a frightening thought. But is it one we should take seriously? The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein shows us why we don’t have to.
Consider the following example. I remark to you, “I saw John yesterday. He looked upset.” Suppose that, unbeknownst to me, you too saw John yesterday but you don’t recall him looking upset. You might then ask me, “Are you sure? Did John say something?” If I were to reply, “he told me his wife is seriously ill”, then this should settle or end your doubt.
Everyday exchanges like this, I claim, support one of Wittgenstein’s crucial insights, namely that doubts have ends. You doubted my statement about John. My follow up then settled or ended your doubt. This is how our normal practice of doubting operates.
Contrast this with the skeptical worry. The skeptic asks: how do you know you are not a victim of the Matrix? You might respond by recounting the sorts of facts you take as confirmation that the world around you is real and not a simulation. Facts such as where you were born, who your parents were, whether or not you are married or have children etc. Yet the skeptic will reply that none of these facts answers their question. For all these facts could be part and parcel of the ‘user illusion’ constructed by the Matrix. If so, then the possibility that you are a victim of the Matrix remains a live one.
However, in his book On Certainty, Wittgenstein points out that, “[a] doubt that doubted everything would not be a doubt” (OC 450), and “doubt without end is not even a doubt” (OC 625). The skeptical worry, at least as reconstructed above, appears to fit both of these descriptions. The worry seeks to doubt everything, in the sense that no matter what facts are offered as evidence for the reality of the world, these facts are dismissed as illusory. The worry is without end, in the sense that once raised, no facts are taken to settle or end it. Yet, if a doubt without end is not a doubt, then whatever else the skeptic is doing, their worry is not on a par with our normal practice of doubting (see our example of John looking upset). As such, it is a mistake to even call what skeptic is doing ‘doubting’.
Is it then false to claim that we are victims of the Matrix? No. But neither is this claim true. Wittgenstein’s insight into our normal practice of doubting instead reveals something else, namely the utter senselessness of the skeptic’s worry. Consequently, despite the visuals supplied by Hollywood, it is not a worry that we need take seriously.