The original Matrix film has become a cultural phenomenon, one that seems only to gain further relevance with age. A film originally released in 1999 was ahead of its time for the questions it raised. The question I want you to consider today: is it so crazy to plug into the Matrix?
As we come to learn in the film, Neo, is the character that learns about the virtual world that the people perceive to be the actual reality — it’s all a lie — an artificial world created by the machines. Neo becomes aware of his fake reality and chooses to unplug from the virtual world created by the machines — unplug from the Matrix.
Now, if you recall from the film, the reality where the machines are king, and where a small faction of resistance has started fighting back isn’t all that its cracked up to be. It’s a world where the resistance is constantly on the run, food is scarce, living conditions are poor, the resistance revolt seems to be a losing cause, and life isn’t so great.
Well, Cypher, a character that is part of the resistance can’t bear the true reality any longer.
Cypher: “I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing! You understand? And I want to be rich. Someone important. Like an actor. You can do that, right?”
Agent Smith: “Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.”
Cypher chooses to give information about the resistance to the machines. What does he get in return? The opportunity to plug back into the Matrix. A chance to forget his understanding of the true nature of reality — one that is artificial and less meek. He chooses to plug into the pleasurable lies provided by the Matrix.
The Experience Machine
This brings us to Robert Nozick, who introduced a thought experiment that has become widely known as the experience machine.
Imagine our world where scientist have created a new amazing technology: The Experience Machine.
Scientists sit you down and ask you everything that you’ve ever wanted out of life. You explain your perfect life — the ideal image you want of yourself — maybe it’s winning an NBA championship, earning a noble prize, or having the intelligence of Albert Einstein. Perhaps it’s simply being well known for your inventions like Elon Musk, or maybe it’s merely the feeling after you finally finish the book you’ve meant to — the possibilities are only limited to your imagination.
So how does this machine work? The device has “superduper neuropsychologists” that can “simulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain,” explained Robert Nozick.
This machine puts your unconscious body into a tank of fluid, plugging into electrodes into your head. Once in the tank, the simulation begins.
The question is: “Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?”
There’s no need to worry about missing out on life experiences, the library of possible choices is endless. Anything you imagine can be yours — you just have to plug in.
Although, once plugged in you will never again wake up or experience the real world or interact with real people, but this will be unknown to you, everything will feel real — it will appear identical to “real” life.
Building off of Nozick’s question: If a group of genius scientist created the experience machine and guaranteed it to work, would you do it? Is Cypher so crazy for wanting to plug into the Matrix?
Nozick provides a few suggestions on why most would elect not to plug in.
One being: we want to do certain things and not just have the experience of having done them.
Two being: we want to be certain people and to plug in is to commit a form of suicide. In that, the experience does not mean you are that person that you are experiencing because it’s a fake simulation.
Three being: we are limited to a human created reality, one that people have constructed. No ability to contact any deeper reality, you’re limited by the human-made simulation.
See, this third point is something the Matrix touches on, in that once you unplug you shouldn’t want to plug back in — you are now aware of your true reality.
The Matrix makes the point — like Nozick — that real life is what matters because there is something intuitively important about reality that humans want to strive for: there are things that matter to us more than merely having certain experiences — at least for some of us.
- If all that mattered to us was pleasure, then we would want to plug into the experience machine.
- However, we would not want to plug-in.
- Thus, there are things which matter to us besides pleasure.
This argument is Nozick’s initial inspiration: to respond to this idea that pleasure is the only thing we should care about.
For him, there’s something about being in the REAL reality.
So what is the consequence if you’re not convinced that you should not plug in?
Well, assuming that you find no problem with the machine because you won’t recall plugging in and you can have the best life you have ever imagined, then you have no problem with Hedonism or pleasure being your intrinsic value judgment according to Nozick.
But is Nozick Right?
Maybe your intuition says something else, where you take issue with the fact it isn’t real. Then perhaps you don’t find pleasure as your foundational value.
For me, intuitively, I find real experiences seem to be better, and I would hesitate to plug in. Although, it doesn’t seem obvious as Nozick claims. Plus, based on the parameters we’ve put forward and Nozick has put forward, and the matrix has as well — once you unplug, how do you know that you’re then in the current reality? Could the same problem arise? In the case of the Matrix, is it possible you are still in the machine?
Now, imagine someone whose life has been met with endless hardship, where everything they do fails: they can’t hold a job, they have trouble making friends, they didn’t hit the genetic lottery when it comes to looks to societal standards, or maybe it’s a person that was hit with tragedy growing up by losing their parents. Imagine someone that has met a life full of constant, unending misery — a life that you could not possibly bear, would this make you plug in? Would it be so ridiculous that the person experiencing the worst life you can imagine would want to plug in?
Based on that, some level of pleasure in life seems to be necessary.
What would the reason be for plugging in? If it’s because you are experiencing to much pain and not enough pleasure in your “real” life, then it would seem the experience machine doesn’t prove Hedonism false.
Look at the growing issue of depression; I think it would be safe to assume many people facing this mental hardship would gladly plug in.
A reason you might not plug in seems to point to the fact one might take pleasure in knowing that your experiences are real. You are content with the pleasure you are receiving out of life and your current experiences. This demonstrates a particular value structure, your individual method for experiencing pleasure.
Thinking about this you might find yourself going down a rabbit hole. If your life is going smoothly, what if you had previously been living in some terrible life of endless suffering and you escaped by opting into the experience machine. Was that decision wrong then?
Plus, we already have created a vast amount of different entertainment choices to escape reality, the internet void of escape, movies, never ending tv shows, video games, virtual reality, video games, and even traveling is a form of escape — all of these offer an escape from reality.
The machine offers this escape on a much larger scale, one that you never have to come back from, and one that you never have to know you made the difficult choice.
Now, take that example and imagine you are given a one time opportunity to opt out and re-enter your life of endless suffering, would you? Probably not. It would seem irrational to do so in many cases.
Okay, but let’s grant that there’s something about the genuine pleasure from genuine reality. Something that is more valuable than the pleasure experienced in the machine. However, it doesn’t appear the pleasure isn’t genuine, maybe if you think you can’t experience genuine pleasure while in the machine. But I think many that were plugged in and now unplugged would say they experienced real pleasure, it was real for them in those moments. How can we know the pleasure we are currently experiencing is real genuine pleasure and not artificial? We only found out the pleasure was fake after we wake up.
At the very least, Cypher isn’t unreasonable for wanting to plug in. Depending on his experience with the real reality, who can genuinely claim he’s being irrational for desiring his own artificial life?
I don’t want to get too much into my support or disproval of Nozick’s argument. As I think his thought experiment succeeded at something else, see, we can use this experiment to evaluate ourselves, our situation, and our life choices. Asking, are you happy in your current state? From our understanding of the universe, we don’t have the option to plug in. So if you would want to plug in, does that say something about your current experiences in life?
It also comes down to the individual. I don’t see any real right or wrong answer here. It isn’t black and white. Is reality delivering the values or happiness you want to derive out of life? Your experience of reality, based on the individual, will likely shape the answer you intuitively experience when faced with the question of whether or not to plug in.
Maybe we should take the answer to this question to reconsider the choices we’re making to live a happy, enjoyable, and fulfilling life.