Bad Dreams, Evil Demons, and the Experience Machine: Philosophy and The Matrix

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Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth


In the 1999 sci-fi film The Matrix, a computer hacker named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) discovers that his life has been an illusion. He wakes to discover himself in a pod, wired to a tower to which countless other pods are also wired. Like all humans in those other pods, Neo has been used essentially as a battery by intelligent machines that have taken over Earth. To keep the humans docile, the machines feed them (through sockets in their heads) an illusory - yet completely realistic - world known as the Matrix, which the occupants have no way to know is not real.

This brief summary does little justice to the movie's thrilling plot, but it does provide a hint of some of the big philosophical questions raised by the film. Here, philosopher Christopher Grau discusses some of the parallels between the scenario described in The Matrix and similar situations imagined by Descartes and other more recent philosophers. As Grau points out, such scenarios continue to fascinate and engage philosophers (and sci-fi buffs) today.