The Work of René Descartes

Yet another philosophical precedent for the Matrix films is the work of René Descartes, the man responsible for Cartesian coordinates and the phrase “I think, therefore I am.” In his 1641 book Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes poses the question of how he can know with certainty that the world he experiences is not an illusion being forced upon him by an evil demon. He reasons since he believes in what he sees and feels while dreaming, he cannot trust his senses to tell him that he is not still dreaming. His senses cannot provide him with proof that the world even exists. He concludes that he cannot rely on his senses, and that for all he knows, he and the rest of the world might all be under the control of an evil demon.

Descartes’ evil demon is vividly realized in the Matrix films as the artificial intelligence that forces a virtual reality on humans. Just as Descartes realized that the sensations in his dreams were vivid enough to convince him the dreams were real, the humans who are plugged into the Matrix have no idea that their sensations are false, created artificially instead of arising from actual experiences. Until Neo is yanked from the Matrix, he, too, has no idea that his life is a virtual reality. Like Descartes, Neo eventually knows to take nothing at face value, and to question the existence of even those things, such as chairs, that seem most real.

Socrates’ Visit to the Oracle of Delphi

Ancient Greeks considered Delphi to be the center of the world and revered the wisdom of the Oracle who resided there, in the Temple of Apollo. This Oracle’s prophecies were always cryptic. When Socrates visited the Oracle, he claimed that he knew nothing, and the Oracle replied that he was the wisest man on earth. Socrates disagreed, but he eventually discovered her ironic meaning. By claiming to know nothing, Socrates truly was the wisest because all others were under the false impression that they knew more than they actually knew. The phrase “Know Thyself” was inscribed on the walls of the Oracle’s temple, suggesting that true wisdom lies in recognizing one’s own ignorance. Neo, like Socrates, is willing to admit to his own ignorance, and the Oracle in the Matrix films maintains her confidence in him and his abilities despite his often visible confusion and doubt.