Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Matrix

My last entry was about reality and how we perceive what is around us. We filter whatever is around us by way of our senses. Sometimes our senses may not work properly which may limit what we perceive. As for me, my eyes are not what they used to be. I have to wear glasses to see things at a distance and then I have to take them off to see things close up. I mentioned in my last entry that I ran across some deaf people. Their ears just don’t work, which means they don’t experience the vibrations in the air that we call sound.  And sometimes all the senses may work just fine, but something in the mind just does not work right- the signals get there and the person just can not properly interpret what comes through.

One of my favorite movies is The Matrix. This is a story which challenges to viewer to judge just what really is real. If you have not seen it, the setting is sometime in the future. Machines went to war with the humans. The machines won. The machines grow humans in pods which are stacked into great towers. The humans live their entire existence in these pods and are hooked by various cables in such a way to provide power for the machines. In order to keep the humans docile the brains of the humans are connected via a vast computer network (aka the Matrix) and fed sensory input. The humans don’t know where they are!  They assume they are living in a normal world living normal lives sometime around the end of the 20th century.

Reality is fed to them. They think they are seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and feeling. They are doing none of this. They are being fed signals through a cable stuck in the back of their skull while they lie dormant in a vat of fluid and provide power to their captors.  

It is only a story, but it is a story which challenges our view of reality and what is real. We assume that our senses are sending us good info. We assume that our brain is able to properly deal with what our five senses send it.  I don’t think I’m in a pod providing kilowatts to my machine overlords. I think I’m setting at a table drinking coffee and typing on my computer and pondering what is real. I suppose I could be mistaken…. I hope not.

The point is that which we take as real sometimes isn’t. The Matrix is a recent attempt to challenge us to judge reality more critically, but there have been others. A few thousand years earlier Plato recorded Socrates’ story of prisoners in a cave which also challenges our views of reality.

In Plato’s version of the Matrix Socrates describes a group of people- actually prisoners- who are chained in a cave. They are positioned in such a way that they can only look forward. There is a fire behind them which causes shadows to be cast on the wall in front of them. They will see shadows of people going by and see shadows of the things that they carry go by. All they see is shadows. And I almost forgot to mention- they have been chained here in the cave their entire lives. Thus in their mind the shadows of what they see is for them reality. In the story a single prisoner escapes. He is able to leave the cave and see the real world. He sees actual people and trees and animals. He is amazed at how different the real world is from the shadow world he once took as reality. This prisoner makes his way back to the cave and tries to tell the other prisoners about the real world. It turns out to be a hard sell for the other prisoners. They just can not conceive of what is being told to them.  To quote Morpheus  from the Matrix, “Unfortunately one can not be told of the matrix, one has to see it for himself.”

The point of Plato’s allegory of the cave is that there is something more real than that which we see with our eyes. Reality is what it is. Its what’s out there and it seems that our five senses limit us and do not allow us to fully know all that there is. More on this in a later entry...

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