A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
it better to live a harsh reality or a comfortable fantasy? And why? This is one
interpretation of a key question faced by Neo, the hero of the movie The
Matrix. Neo has a conversation with the rather enigmatic Morpheus, who
explains that what Neo has always perceived as “reality,” including his
friends, his job, and his entire existence in 20th century America,
is actually a simulation caused by a race of computers that has taken over earth
long ago and has enslaved human beings. Our brains, according to Morpheus, are
simply kept alive in a fantasy world so that we can provide electricity to the
machines. But a few individuals are occasionally able to disconnect themselves
from this matrix of fantasy and regain control of their body, thereby fighting a
desperate battle for supremacy on the planet. Now, Morpheus says, Neo has two
choices. If he takes a blue pill that he is being offered, he will forget about
the matrix and go back to his illusory but relatively safe and predictable life.
Take the red pill, however, and you will see the world as it really is. The
trade-off is clear: comfortable fantasy or harsh reality? What would you
choose, and why?
philosophy students, who essentially questioned the assumptions underlying the
choice, have proposed a radical way around the dilemma. What makes us think that
Morpheus is telling the truth? What if it is the red pill that leads to an
imaginary world? This is a valid epistemological point. How do you know what is
real and what is not? What kind of evidence do you have that you were dreaming
last night of being a butterfly, and are you not in fact a butterfly who is now
dreaming of being a human being? There are some reasonable, though by no means
foolproof, ways out of this basic dilemma. For example, dreams—unlike what we
consider reality—have no temporal continuity and are often characterized by
arbitrary rules of engagement (contrary to, say, the laws of physics). But Neo
did not have such a luxury, since in his case both situations felt very real.
Furthermore, some people on drugs, or affected by particular brain disorders,
really do have a hard time distinguishing between reality and hallucinations.
this kind of existential response based on radical skepticism skirts an
interesting question. Let us assume that we have good reasons to believe
Morpheus (as Neo does in the movie, given some recent disturbing experiences
that had shaken his conception of reality); what would you then do about
essence, the choice can be seen as one between truth and happiness (albeit the
latter may be of a rather limited variety). In this sense, the question becomes
of utmost interest and of surprising practical relevance. For example, you are
faced by this dilemma when you examine your religious beliefs. Since there is no
more evidence for the existence of a god than for the existence of unicorns, but
believing in god makes you feel more comfortable and gives eternal meaning to
your life, should you believe the unbelievable or attempt to find your way
through the tortuous road of secular morality and meaning? Of course, most
people don’t really choose to believe in a god, they rather culturally
inherit such belief from their parents and friends; but most of us do arrive at
the rejection of god by an often long process of questioning during which we are
faced with terrible questions of existential meaning and of good and evil. In
this sense, consciously becoming an agnostic or atheist is indeed more difficult
than the other path, and it is like taking Neo’s red pill.
controversial (if you actually believe in god and don’t therefore buy the
above argument) but equally dramatic is the choice of taking or not taking
drugs. The “reality” offered by drugs is more pleasurable (at least
temporarily) than the real life out there, especially for poor or
psychologically damaged people. Why not avoid the pain and go for the blue
option? A minor version of the same question could be framed in terms of
choosing entertainment over meaningful activities: why not just spend your life
watching TV, or drinking beer, or—when this will be technologically
feasible—shut yourself in a holodeck-like virtual reality where you can have
all the food, sex partners, and riches you like?
people I talked to (but this was by no means an unbiased sample) chose the red
pill, yet I found quite a bit of disagreement on the motives. Essentially,
however, there are two main reasons that can be advanced for taking red over
blue: pragmatic and ethical ones.
pragmatic motive is that living in an imaginary world can be pretty dangerous.
One of the reasons human beings have been so successful during evolution is
precisely because our large brains have an uncanny capability of assessing
reality, of finding cause-effect connections, and therefore of manipulating the
world to our advantage. One could object that plenty of people in modern society
believe all sorts of weird things, from astrology to gods, and yet seem to
function reasonably well, thank you very much. But this is because, in fact,
most of the time they do not act on their beliefs. For example, while
many people would claim to leave their lives in god’s hands when they are so
questioned, they nevertheless take out insurance policies, look on both sides of
the road before crossing, and go regularly to the doctor, if they can afford it.
When they do behave according to a strict adherence to fantastic beliefs,
bad things happen. A recurrent example is offered by Christian Scientists who
die (or, worse, let their children die) because they do not believe in getting
medical attention when they are sick. Reality does have a way of biting your
ethical reason represents an even more general answer to Neo’s question:
regardless of practical consequences or of feelings of pleasure and discomfort,
it is simply right to choose the red pill. We are social beings, and by
nature we have a tendency to relate to other humans and to help them out,
especially if they are our kin or friends. This tendency constitutes the basis
of most of our ethical systems, and it implies that it is our duty not to shut
ourselves out of the world in order to simply seek pleasure or avoid pain. This,
however, begs the question of what is right to begin with and of how we
determine it, something that I have covered, and will come back to, in this
column. Essentially, we are now faced with the radical moral skeptic question:
why bother, if it does not affect your own happiness?
The point is, even a science fiction movie can generate profound philosophical questions, and these in turn are not necessarily idle speculations on the sex of angels but give us the opportunity to examine some of our most basic choices and their often far-reaching consequences. And remember, an unexamined life is not worth living. Or is it?
Next Month: "The
many faces of anti-intellectualism"
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on nihilism,
or what happens if you are a radical skeptic about values.
hedonism, when you
take the blue pill because it is pleasurable.
link to Philosophy
Now, which run a competition for essays on the blue-red choice and
published the two winning essays.
Skeptic & Humanist Web