Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 9, April 2001: "Red or Blue? What kind of life would you choose?"

Is it better to live a harsh reality or a comfortable fantasy? And why? This is one interpretation of a key question faced by Neo, the hero of the movie The Matrix. Neo has a conversation with the rather enigmatic Morpheus, who explains that what Neo has always perceived as “reality,” including his friends, his job, and his entire existence in 20th century America, is actually a simulation caused by a race of computers that has taken over earth long ago and has enslaved human beings. Our brains, according to Morpheus, are simply kept alive in a fantasy world so that we can provide electricity to the machines. But a few individuals are occasionally able to disconnect themselves from this matrix of fantasy and regain control of their body, thereby fighting a desperate battle for supremacy on the planet. Now, Morpheus says, Neo has two choices. If he takes a blue pill that he is being offered, he will forget about the matrix and go back to his illusory but relatively safe and predictable life. Take the red pill, however, and you will see the world as it really is. The trade-off is clear: comfortable fantasy or harsh reality? What would you choose, and why?

Some philosophy students, who essentially questioned the assumptions underlying the choice, have proposed a radical way around the dilemma. What makes us think that Morpheus is telling the truth? What if it is the red pill that leads to an imaginary world? This is a valid epistemological point. How do you know what is real and what is not? What kind of evidence do you have that you were dreaming last night of being a butterfly, and are you not in fact a butterfly who is now dreaming of being a human being? There are some reasonable, though by no means foolproof, ways out of this basic dilemma. For example, dreams—unlike what we consider reality—have no temporal continuity and are often characterized by arbitrary rules of engagement (contrary to, say, the laws of physics). But Neo did not have such a luxury, since in his case both situations felt very real. Furthermore, some people on drugs, or affected by particular brain disorders, really do have a hard time distinguishing between reality and hallucinations.

However, this kind of existential response based on radical skepticism skirts an interesting question. Let us assume that we have good reasons to believe Morpheus (as Neo does in the movie, given some recent disturbing experiences that had shaken his conception of reality); what would you then do about it?

In essence, the choice can be seen as one between truth and happiness (albeit the latter may be of a rather limited variety). In this sense, the question becomes of utmost interest and of surprising practical relevance. For example, you are faced by this dilemma when you examine your religious beliefs. Since there is no more evidence for the existence of a god than for the existence of unicorns, but believing in god makes you feel more comfortable and gives eternal meaning to your life, should you believe the unbelievable or attempt to find your way through the tortuous road of secular morality and meaning? Of course, most people don’t really choose to believe in a god, they rather culturally inherit such belief from their parents and friends; but most of us do arrive at the rejection of god by an often long process of questioning during which we are faced with terrible questions of existential meaning and of good and evil. In this sense, consciously becoming an agnostic or atheist is indeed more difficult than the other path, and it is like taking Neo’s red pill.

Less controversial (if you actually believe in god and don’t therefore buy the above argument) but equally dramatic is the choice of taking or not taking drugs. The “reality” offered by drugs is more pleasurable (at least temporarily) than the real life out there, especially for poor or psychologically damaged people. Why not avoid the pain and go for the blue option? A minor version of the same question could be framed in terms of choosing entertainment over meaningful activities: why not just spend your life watching TV, or drinking beer, or—when this will be technologically feasible—shut yourself in a holodeck-like virtual reality where you can have all the food, sex partners, and riches you like?

Most people I talked to (but this was by no means an unbiased sample) chose the red pill, yet I found quite a bit of disagreement on the motives. Essentially, however, there are two main reasons that can be advanced for taking red over blue: pragmatic and ethical ones.

The pragmatic motive is that living in an imaginary world can be pretty dangerous. One of the reasons human beings have been so successful during evolution is precisely because our large brains have an uncanny capability of assessing reality, of finding cause-effect connections, and therefore of manipulating the world to our advantage. One could object that plenty of people in modern society believe all sorts of weird things, from astrology to gods, and yet seem to function reasonably well, thank you very much. But this is because, in fact, most of the time they do not act on their beliefs. For example, while many people would claim to leave their lives in god’s hands when they are so questioned, they nevertheless take out insurance policies, look on both sides of the road before crossing, and go regularly to the doctor, if they can afford it. When they do behave according to a strict adherence to fantastic beliefs, bad things happen. A recurrent example is offered by Christian Scientists who die (or, worse, let their children die) because they do not believe in getting medical attention when they are sick. Reality does have a way of biting your back side.

The ethical reason represents an even more general answer to Neo’s question: regardless of practical consequences or of feelings of pleasure and discomfort, it is simply right to choose the red pill. We are social beings, and by nature we have a tendency to relate to other humans and to help them out, especially if they are our kin or friends. This tendency constitutes the basis of most of our ethical systems, and it implies that it is our duty not to shut ourselves out of the world in order to simply seek pleasure or avoid pain. This, however, begs the question of what is right to begin with and of how we determine it, something that I have covered, and will come back to, in this column. Essentially, we are now faced with the radical moral skeptic question: why bother, if it does not affect your own happiness?

The point is, even a science fiction movie can generate profound philosophical questions, and these in turn are not necessarily idle speculations on the sex of angels but give us the opportunity to examine some of our most basic choices and their often far-reaching consequences. And remember, an unexamined life is not worth living. Or is it?

Next Month: "The many faces of anti-intellectualism"

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2000