The Matrix and consciousness

The philosopher David Chalmers has an interesting article on the philosophy of the Matrix, which you can download here.  In case you haven’t seen the movie, the premise is that in the future machines have taken over the earth and they use humans as an energy source.  The humans are housed in these pods and to keep them entertained, they’re minds are connected to “the Matrix” where they believe they live in a turn of the (21st) century world.  My very first blog post was on how the energy source premise was inconsistent thermodynamically.

Chalmers points out an interesting conundrum for people living in the Matrix.  Given that the simulation is completely realistic then the simulated bodies in the Matrix should function like real bodies.  If that is the case then what do the simulated brains do?   Are they an exact replica of the real brains in the pods?   If  the simulated brains controlled the simulated bodies then what do the pod brains do?  Are they just spectators?  Chalmers posits that the outputs of the two brains  could be averaged to control the Matrix bodies.  It seems to me that if the pod brains have some control of the simulated body then it would be possible for the simulated humans to do an experiment to show that their brains in the simulation are not completely responsible for controlling their bodies or for their conscious experience.  They could then empirically deduce that they live in a dualistic world where mind is not exactly the same as brain.  This is unlike a self-contained simulation where the simulated brains control simulated bodies entirely.  In that situation, you could not tell if you lived in a simulation.


13 thoughts on “The Matrix and consciousness

  1. One of the hypothesis in the matrix is that the brain that is in a vat (our real brain) is similar to the one we believe we have. This is to me rather unjustified. Our real brains may be much more simple or much more complex that what we call a homo sapiens brain.
    In the end, taken to an extreme, it may just be a small set of neurons that is well-tuned enough and well-fed, so that it believes it is living in our fake world.
    Taken to an even more extreme extreme (!!), we may not even need biology, it could be that we are just the products of robotic minds.

    I guess it boils down to the problem of consciousness, doesn’t it?


  2. We may not need biology, but the Matrix (in the film) needed biology to make energy (as illogical as that may be). In any case, it seems to me that the Matrix scenario of trapped minds in a vat living in a simulated world is much less likely than just having simulated beings in a simulated world.


  3. Have you considered that the pod bodies are effectively paralysed, so they can’t move. It might be possible with electrical noise to knock out some areas of the brain regarding body movement. In fact if someone is moving in a dream, then their brain starts going through the process of say moving the right leg, but it stops the signal being sent at the last possible instance. This is why movement in dreams feels so real. It’s almost as if a ‘valve’ is closed while dreaming, which blocks movement. Sometimes this valve momentarily opens and someone kicks their leg or twitches etc.

    Also there is no simulated brain. The pod brain is merely sent signal via the cables at the back of the head. These signals feed in all the sensory inputs of the virtual world, so the pod brain can’t tell that it’s experiencing a virtual world. So in a way the system is shutting off the biological cameras (pod eyes), and plugging directly in to the visual cortex.


  4. I am responding to this portion of your entry:

    “…it would be possible for the simulated humans to do an experiment to show that their brains in the simulation are not completely responsible for controlling their bodies or for their conscious experience. They could then empirically deduce that they live in a dualistic world where mind is not exactly the same as brain. ”

    That’s very astute. It instantly reminded me of Chalmers’ very similar argument about how dualism COULD have been true, which I linked to here:


  5. Hi SigLNY,

    I touched upon the simulated world thought experiment in some previous posts, eg.

    I think there are three possibilities for simulated worlds. In the dualistic case, you have agents with some sort of program running around in a world with physics that uses a different principle. In this case, the inhabitants could discover that their ‘minds’ functioned inconsistently with their ‘physics’. In the nondualistic scenario, you could start with some low level cellular automaton from which sentient life emerges. In this case, the mind and physics are consistent. There is a third possibility though and that is that the mind is ‘sourced’ by some configuration of matter or bits in the ‘world’. So your brain is like an ‘antenna to the soul universe’. In this case, once the bits in the simulation arrange themselves to form something like a brain, there is a meta-effect where it taps into the mind world that the simulator is housed to generate consciousness. I think for me, a self-consistent explanation of mind is the most satisfying but that is really a matter of taste. However, that to me is also an answerable question, i.e. – Can consciousness arise out of a computation and be exclusively generated by that computation?


  6. Hi all!

    Well, what I think, consciousness is ‘the significant awareness’ which varies but if increased more than what is found in homo sapiens may work more effectively (but differently; often dangerous). The movie has shown only presumptions of what is expected today about machines and what will happen if everything goes at the same pace. The reality occasionally doesn’t go like this, does it? How many times you have found circumstances consequent according to what you expected?



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