How can Neo know what is real?

"…listen carefully: Your cell phone isn't real."

All novels are lies. Literary fiction has a peculiar and not entirely obvious quality in which it is necessary to tell a lie for the story to work. Even in realistic fiction, an author must deliberately abbreviate events or conspicuously ignore some detail or contrive some person or circumstance into existence. All of this is toward the construction of an illusion. While an historian seeks to overcome factual limitations, the novelist exploits them.

Neo, a character in the storyThe Matrix, lives in a world he has no reason to doubt is real. One day, however, Neo is made aware of an alternative reality through a revelation from a prophetic, revolutionary figure named Morpheus, a man who claimed to have seen that alternative universe. After making an irreversible commitment, Neo then discovers by first-hand experience that the alternate reality Morpheus spoke of is not “alternative” but the actual reality; what he had taken for granted as real and genuinely physical, was rather a very elaborate illusion created for him. That alternative reality, called the Matrix, was not created for his happiness or health.

Risks and Limitations

We encounter a philosophical problem while ordering our world methodically and factually. We are aware, I hope, that we have certain limitations: We are limited by what we are able to see or what our instruments can see; we are limited by what we can touch or manipulate; we are limited by what we can (and cannot!) smell and hear. We are limited by the speed and capacity of the human brain. Whatever the limitations, these are ‘colored glasses’ through which we struggle to understand the universe, even while simultaneously deducing the nature of our limitations.

It would seem that Neo had little interest or motivation to seek out the true nature of his universe. If he had been thus motivated and had really tried to understand the underpinnings of his world, he would have eventually come to an inexplicable edge. He would have discovered that his world lacked some needed dimension. With a rational method of investigation, Neo would have discovered weird and utterly unexplainable inconsistencies in the Matrix without any special help from a quasi-supernatural revelation.

Naturally, as an audience watching a sci-fi film, we read into the visuals what we want to see: Namely, that Neo’s world seems like it should be a representation of our real world. So, in our imaginations, it becomes our world. Aren’t all stories about ourselves?

Problems Reveal Solutions

Consider the problem that a hypothetically real Neo would have: He would not be able to apprehend a full picture of his own world from the start since it is a simulated world. To treat Neo’s world as though it were real, that is as though a faithful representation of our own world, we must then ask some questions as an audience in order to understand his and our worlds:

  • Are all physical effects in Neo’s world simulated? Is nothing about Neo’s pre-revelation experience not simulated? If simulated in his world, then are they in ours?
  • Are the properties of sub-atomic particles also simulated? Is Neo’s world so deeply simulated that even  aspects of his world which we now take for granted are simulated — Relativity, gravitational lensing, Quantum foam? If such things are simulated, then what would the purpose of such a simulation be?
  • Would the computers which created Neo’s world and generated the complexity surrounding Neo in his illusory life also be able to simulate all of the complex, hidden properties and phenomena normally and otherwise completely invisible to unaided senses?
  • Would the computers which generated Neo’s world be creative enough to develop solutions to their own problems based upon some tools of investigation? And if these sentient computers are so powerful that they could represent an entire universe, why are they then stuck on that tiny planet using people for batteries?

Yes, I make a bad movie watching companion. But, maybe you see where I am going with these questions. The point of questions like these is to discover what it would take to uncover some pretense in the environment and reveal what is false.  One question leads to another problem. If the world is contrived to some purpose, every branch of investigation should, conceivably, lead toward that purpose. An author of fiction, you see, can’t help but reveal intention and give away the pretense, no matter how obfuscated — even where obfuscation is the actual purpose! Something will not match reality.

Tools of investigation describe a fully and consistently naturalistic universe, even if a counter-intuitive universe. A scientific method on Neo’s world, however, would have to lead, increasingly and without any help from a revelatory Morpheus, toward a creator evidently locked into supporting one very specific purpose. Everything in Neo’s universe would factually and intuitively lead to that one specific purpose. Even if that purpose remained invisible to Neo, the allocation of resources alone would consistently point to that purpose in the same way that an increase in food shipments might signal to an intelligence officer the intention to move as yet unknown troops by an enemy military. How can one not help but be curious about anomalies?

Real Life is Rubbish - Noble and Webster

Which Story

A comparison between Neo’s world and our own leads us to two options for evaluating reality. The first option is that Neo’s world is intended to be a true and faithful (if allegorical) representation of the nature of our world. In this interpretation, our universe is made to be lyrically and tragically worse than Plato’s cave: Horrifyingly, even the cave isn’t real!

The other option is that Neo’s world is only a parallel world. His is similar to ours in easily identifiable ways — with similar computers, cars, steaks and telephones — just offering us an entertaining “what if” scenario; an apocalyptic parable about how the products of our minds and hands will (by the way) eventually enslave us as they did in Neo’s world.

The clever trick in The Matrix is in the way in which we are drawn to see both universes simultaneously. Just as one is about to understand one or the other, we receive a mixed message and, confounding the two, we might then conclude, falsely, that our real universe must therefore be less real than we feared; that what we think we know are grotesque lies; that we are all each just moments away from a horrifying discovery that pursuit of knowledge is to blame for our lack of freedom. As with any explanation built on faulty premises, none of these is of necessity true.