For centuries, humans have attempted to understand what constitutes knowledge and how it can be achieved. Knowledge, or information and facts about the world and objects in it, serves as the basis for any human activity. If one relies on inaccurate or incomplete knowledge, it can lead to fatal and dangerous miscalculations and failures, so the quest for the right knowledge is a natural response to avoid such situations.
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However, different philosophical schools of thought have put the concept of knowledge in perspective, with some going as far as to claim that no knowledge can be achieved with complete certainty. Nevertheless, a French philosopher René Descartes has managed to develop a proposition that can be used as a starting point to make further inferences about the world. The present paper analyzes Descartes’ epistemology in the light of the tripartite theory of knowledge and uses a science fiction film The Matrix to understand Descartes’ influence on the human understanding of reality.
Knowledge has been traditionally divided into three types: acquaintance, procedural, and propositional knowledge. Philosophy as a discipline is primarily concerned with understanding and defining propositional, or descriptive, the knowledge that serves as the basis for exploration of the world. Importantly, knowledge is clearly distinguished from belief: it is possible for someone to believe a proposition that does not constitute knowledge because beliefs are not necessarily grounded in factual information.
The tripartite theory of knowledge links it closely to belief: for a person to know something, they must also believe it. However, the scope of the concept of knowledge is much broader, as belief alone is not sufficient. Knowledge includes two more criteria: the proposition needs to be true, and one needs to have sufficient justification for believing it – thus, knowledge is often referred to as “justified true belief” (Turri 248).
It is useful to think of the tripartite theory in terms of people’s beliefs as to whether the Earth is flat or round. The majority opinion in the Middle Ages was that the Earth was flat: people surely believed it, and, based on their observations and experiences, they were justified to do so. However, since the Earth is, in fact, not flat, this proposition fails to meet all three criteria. If someone in that era believed that the Earth was round because, for instance, the Sun also appears round, they would have made a lucky guess without having sufficient justification for such a belief. On the other hand, the contemporary people’s knowledge satisfies all three criteria: it is a true belief with sufficient justification, as people have seen the Earth from the airplane or on space pictures.
However, it was not long until the tripartite theory of knowledge has been challenged by other thinkers, especially philosophical skeptics. In particular, Cartesian skepticism concerns itself with epistemology and the possibility of attaining adequate justification for any proposition. Ultimately, all knowledge is derived on the basis of the evidence presented by human senses. However, it is possible, although seemingly unlikely, that humans and their senses are being deceived by a malicious omnipotent entity (Bridges, Kolodny, and Wong 54).
Since it is impossible to either prove or reject this possibility on the basis of the available epistemological tools, complete justification is unattainable. This notion found a reflection in contemporary popular culture – for instance, in the movie The Matrix. The protagonist of the film Thomas Anderson, also known as Neo, lives in a computer-simulated reality called the Matrix. For all Anderson and everyone around him knows, their perceptual experiences serve as sufficient justification to believe that the world as they know it is real. As Morpheus explains to Anderson: “It [the Matrix] is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work when you go to church when you pay your taxes” (The Matrix).
Thus, if the Matrix is so omnipresent, one will never gain any evidence of its deceptive features from their senses. The Matrix thus demonstrates that human experience, however consistent and continuous, is an unreliable epistemological tool to extract information about the world. Since people cannot disprove they are not being deceived by an external force, they can never achieve absolute certainty or have complete justification for any proposition.
Even though one might dismiss The Matrix as an entertaining science fiction film not related to reality, it actually sheds light on an important philosophical issue. As a matter of fact, a Medieval philosopher René Descartes was concerned with the same question – that is, the attainability of absolute certainty. He details his metaphysical quest in his Meditations on First Philosophy when the Meditator reflects about the nature and origin of all the false propositions he has ever believed in.
Over the course of the First Meditation, Descartes comes to understand that everything can be called into doubt. Composite objects can be deceiving because of one’s senses or dreaming experiences. The Meditator initially believes that simple things such as size and shape that form the basis for mathematics are certain and not subject to doubt. However, he ultimately arrives at the conclusion that God, being omnipotent, can make even mathematical propositions false (Descartes 43).
However, Descartes was not satisfied with such a conclusion and continued his search until he has reached one proposition that he believed he could be certain of. While objects and ideas are subject to change and probable deception, there is one thing that remains constant regardless of external circumstances – one’s existence evident from one’s ability to think and be deceived: “But what then am I? A thinking thing. And what is that? Something that doubts understands affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and also senses and has mental images” (Descartes 49). For Descartes, this is the only proposition that cannot be called into doubt, and that can be used as a starting point for making more complex observations about the world.
The proposition developed by Descartes, which has come to be widely known as “I think, therefore I am,” serves as the basis for contemporary Western philosophy. Radical skeptics, who doubt the existence of absolute knowledge or propositions, have challenged Descartes’ claim about the certainty of one’s cognitive facilities (Hetherington 100). However, for all intents and purposes, one’s mind, however deceptive, certainly serves as a proof of one’s existence.
As a matter of fact, Neo could have come to a similar conclusion in The Matrix, even before taking the red pill. When he started noticing discrepancies and inconsistencies in the world as he has always known it, every single notion that he has ever held was shattered. However, regardless of whether Neo is inside or outside of the Matrix, one thing remains constant – he can question, doubt, and think thanks to his mind, even if it is difficult to attain absolute certainty about any event or object in his universe. While a situation depicted in The Matrix seems to be entirely impossible, it actually occurs more often than people would imagine, although not on such a major dystopian scale. The film is often compared to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where prisoners are chained facing a blank wall on which they observe different shadows (Sanders 14).
However, once prisoners are freed, they come to realize that what they have always perceived as reality is, in fact, merely a shadow of it. Similarly, the reality that every single human being lives in is constrained by the mental model of the world that their brains construct based on their experiences with it.
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Thus, the abstract philosophical problems concerning epistemology are of direct relevance to one’s life experiences. While the possibility of universal indubitable knowledge is still an unresolved question, the theory put forward by Descartes serves as a solid foundation for one to make assumptions about the world. Understanding what constitutes reality has become a subject of several science fiction films, such as The Matrix, dealing with dystopian models of the world controlled by omnipotent supernatural forces. However, a philosophical analysis of the film suggests that it is grounded in quite common limitations of one’s ability to perceive the world. Therefore, according to Descartes, one’s cognitive facilities are the only constant proof of one’s existence, regardless of other circumstances.
Bridges, Jason, Niko Kolodny, and Wai-Hung Wong. The Possibility of Philosophical Understanding: Reflections on the Thought of Barry Stroud, Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy: with Selections from the Objections and Replies, Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Hetherington, Stephen. Epistemology: The Key Thinkers. 1st ed. 2012. London, United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing. Print.
Sanders, Steven. The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film, Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2008. Print.
The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. Warner Brothers, 1999. DVD.
Turri, John. “Is Knowledge Justified True Belief?” Synthese 184.3 (2012): 247-259. Print.