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"ROUND 2. FIGHT!"
August 7, 2014 8:46 AM   Subscribe


 
Oh that's beautiful. It so perfectly matches the cheesy awfulness of the film itself. Remember when serious, grown-up people used to argue that The Matrix was a really profound philosophical work? Strange times.
posted by yoink at 8:49 AM on August 7, 2014 [9 favorites]


There was a wave of hope among some academics that they could use it to get their students interested in Descartes or Baudrillard, which wasn't ridiculous, but I guess some people went farther.

Fights and car crashes sound nothing like they do in TV and movies, but, if you made a realistic version, people would probably be unsatisfied by it.
posted by thelonius at 8:54 AM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


There was a wave of hope among some academics that they could use it to get their students interested in Descartes or Baudrillard, which wasn't ridiculous, but I guess some people went farther.

I had several colleagues who insisted to me--at length and with deadly earnestness--not just that it could be used as a jumping off point to get students thinking about Descartes and Baudrillard (which, of course, would be fine) but that it was actually in itself making profound philosophical and political arguments.
posted by yoink at 9:00 AM on August 7, 2014


yeah this just highlights for me how silly movie sounds are. One thing that really bugs me is when i recognize a movie sound from a videogame, like the door open sound from morrowind... there's just too much sound re-use!
posted by rebent at 9:10 AM on August 7, 2014


I always thought the Matrix really dropped the ball with not even a tiny, subtle reference to UUDDLRLRBASTART or gaming cheat codes in general.

Another thing is, is that over 25 years later, the music of Contra is still fantastic.

that it was actually in itself making profound philosophical and political arguments.

I'd agree with that, save for the 'profound' part, which is debatable. It at least should get credit for assembling a number of them from previous works of science fiction and presenting them in a manner that seemed to result in those being considered by academics for review more successfully than a great deal of past works of science fiction.
posted by chambers at 9:11 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


As a Computer Scientist, I still have a fondness for the Matrix: Reloaded. I enjoy the idea that there are competing AIs in the matrix, each with their own motivations. It takes it way beyond "The Terminator"-style humanity-versus-evil-robots. I particularly like Agent Smith copying himself everywhere, because that's not unlike the behavior of actual malware.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:15 AM on August 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


I enjoyed the first Matrix movie the first couple of times. I liked the character of the Oracle. I kind of wished street fashion would take a cue from the movies. But everything else was just cyberpunk tropes done badly.
posted by Foosnark at 9:21 AM on August 7, 2014


By Phillip Raupach, I believe a student project from San Francisco State University.

You know how people say "lol" which is a lazy way of saying "mildly funny, slightly better than meh"? I was actually laughing out loud at this. It's such a shame that the Matrix sequels ended up being so easily mocked. The first film is still great. And so is the underappreciated Speed Racer film, the Wachowskis made next which let them indulge this insane video language without apology or nods to sophomoric philosophy.

Jupiter Ascending comes out next year. The Wachowskis have also been filming Sense8 around San Francisco, a Netflix sci-fi series.
posted by Nelson at 9:21 AM on August 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


I had several colleagues who insisted to me--at length and with deadly earnestness--not just that it could be used as a jumping off point to get students thinking about Descartes and Baudrillard (which, of course, would be fine) but that it was actually in itself making profound philosophical and political arguments.
Most scholars of culture and literature are fairly aware of intentional fallacy (except for really bad ones or ones who have never studied poststructuralism [as opposed to merely hearing of it]). The way forward (past intentional fallacy) is not to claim a work, or author, or group intended to communicate something but, rather, that the artifact in question can be read in such a way that suggests [INSERT WHATEVER EPIPHENOMENON YOU WANT TO ARTICULATE].

This puts the burden of demonstration on the person doing the analysis (writer/student/scholar/critic) rather than upon some handwaving statements similar to "The Wachowski brothers are trying to [X, Y, and Z]".

By the way, 8-Bit The Matrix Reloaded is boss.
posted by mistersquid at 9:25 AM on August 7, 2014


The first film is still great.

not really. Not from any reasonably adult perspective. Which isn't to say that it doesn't start well and set up an overall fascinating world in the process, and the central concept is far more inventive/relevant than most Hollywood sci-fi ... but it gets lost in its nifty action sequences, its fights and chases that do-not-end. Not unlike a vain fifteen year old, it gets more interested in being cool than being smart and ultimately just sets up an embarrassingly unresolvable next two acts.

But I do love that central notion that we're all just food for evil machines unless we WAKE UP. Every fifteen year old needs a dose of that.
posted by philip-random at 9:35 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Now that he's not popular anymore, I feel more or less safe noting in public that I believe the first matrix movie was actually smarter about politics. media, and the significance of simulation than Baudrillard was. This is not to say, though, that the first matrix movie was particularly smart about politics, media, or the significance of simulation.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:35 AM on August 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


This is brilliant.

And, related to the academic talk...In 2000, I switched majors from computer science to philosophy. The only thing I remember about my Ancient Greek class was one of my classmates professing his love of The Matrix. The professor was quick to point out how super-cheesey it was, and that -- if you're looking for a movie that is a decent treatment of these kind of themes -- Existenz is far superior. I can't comment on either of these movies or anything having to do with philosophy, because I was in the process of turning on/tuning in/dropping out.
posted by mean square error at 9:38 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


It did start this cottage industry of "Philosophy and $TV_SHOW_OR_MOVIE" books. I swear I saw "Philosophy And 'How I Met Your Mother'" the other day, in a University bookstore's philosophy section. Who reads these books? Maybe they're good, I don't know.
posted by thelonius at 9:50 AM on August 7, 2014


I'm sorry, you can take Revolutions and Reloaded and shoot them in the alley out back, but I'm not going to apologize for liking The Matrix. It's a great movie, eminently rewatchable, a wonderful big studio special effects flick with an enjoyable, thoughtful message that lifts my spirits every time I watch it. Sure, they throw in a love story, and you won't find something like that in any academic journals. But what do you do when the oracle tells you you're not the one?

it gets more interested in being cool than being smart and ultimately just sets up an embarrassingly unresolvable next two acts.

And to that I say: try reading Baudrillard some time.
posted by phaedon at 9:53 AM on August 7, 2014 [12 favorites]


Aren't those Street Fighter II samples 16-bit?
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 9:57 AM on August 7, 2014 [11 favorites]


... the artifact in question can be read in such a way that suggests [INSERT WHATEVER EPIPHENOMENON YOU WANT TO ARTICULATE]. This puts the burden of demonstration on the person doing the analysis (writer/student/scholar/critic) rather than upon some handwaving statements similar to "The Wachowski brothers are trying to [X, Y, and Z]".

Honest question: what's the point of this approach? What do participants hope to gain from the exercise? Does it have a name? I've encountered it in academic cultural-criticism contexts before, and it baffles me.

It reminds me of that guy who argued that zombies are a cipher for the racial "other". People in that thread (myself included) were like "what the hell; maybe that's part of it for some authors and audiences—but it's bizarre to indict all zombie fiction as inherently racist, just because a racist reading [exists|is possible]". Other people were like "it's not about zombies; zombie fiction is just a framing device / blank slate for talking about another subject".

Which (please correct me if I'm misunderstanding) seems to be pretty much the exercise you're describing in the quote above: talking about the "meaning" or interpretation of a work, without regard for the actual meaning that was intended by the author, or the actual meaning that is received by the audience. Like, hanging whatever meaning on the work suits your purposes.

So if the text in question isn't what you're actually talking about, then why bring it into the conversation at all? At best, it's a distraction. At worst, it's misleading, and leads to nonsense like "if you enjoy zombie fiction, it's because you're racist".

We needn't rehash the zombie conversation here; it's just that you precisely described a critical approach that I don't "get", and I'm hoping you (or someone) can shed some light...
posted by escape from the potato planet at 10:09 AM on August 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


The comments in this thread do nothing but remind me of GALVATRON solves the Matrix: THE MOTHER OF ALL SPOILERS

It's been a while since I read it, but I remember it as being this incredibly insightful prediction for how Revolutions would end the trilogy. It was written after Reloaded and Animatrix (but before Revolutions, of course) and picked up on all sorts of things potentially hidden in everything up to that point. Got me so pumped for seeing Revolutions, I even went and saw Reloaded in IMAX! (What a disappointing waste of money that was!)

But alas, the Wachowskis opted to end it with essentially, "oh yeah, he's just Jesus", complete with Neo exploding into a glowing cross.

Still have yet to watch Revolutions a second time. Probably ought to do that one of these days now that I know not to expect a compelling ending to the storyline :-/
posted by StarmanDXE at 10:12 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Speed Racer is hideously undervalued as a film.

But thanks to it, I discovered a metric for discovering if a film is fun. On rotten tomato's, you take the viewers score, and you subtract the critics score. If that difference is 20 or more, then it's a film you'll probably really enjoy (though you're unlikely to come to metafilter to tell people about).

The latter also holds sway. Any film with a critics score massively higher than the viewers score is generally utterly shit.
posted by zoo at 10:12 AM on August 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


I also want to throw into the mix (and I am prepared to have my ass handed to me if necessary, but I doubt it) that the Cartesian thought-experiment has been thoroughly discredited by a handful of modern philosophers, one in particular whose name escapes me. Basically, it's irretrievably flawed.

Incidentally, I think the one movie that tangentially proves how impossible it is to both question reality and claim to be living in it (at one point or another) is Inception. Another amazing, albeit slightly overcooked, film.

Since I'm trying to avoid work today at all costs, let me also suggest that people watch Blade and The Matrix back-to-back. They are, much to my surprise, literally the same movie, and came out about six months from each other.
posted by phaedon at 10:16 AM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


On rotten tomato's, you take the viewers score, and you subtract the critics score. If that difference is 20 or more, then it's a film you'll probably really enjoy (though you're unlikely to come to metafilter to tell people about).

The Matrix Revolutions:
Critics: 36%
Viewers: 61%

Sorry, seems your hypothesis needs some work!
posted by StarmanDXE at 10:17 AM on August 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


If anybody gets bored enough to dress down the movie and spell out what many allude to here, I'd love to read it. User commentary that is, not off-site links.

They are, much to my surprise, literally the same movie

Wait, what? I mean I get ways you could group things to make similarities, but there are also lots and lots of differences.
posted by cashman at 10:29 AM on August 7, 2014


phaedon, you're probably thinking of either Putnam/ semantic externalism or various wittgensteinian replies to the thought experiment. Both of which are flawed. :)
posted by persona au gratin at 10:32 AM on August 7, 2014


This exists: "Philosopher Commentary: Dr. Cornel West and Ken Wilber" on the Ultimate Matrix Collection.
posted by Fizz at 10:34 AM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Which (please correct me if I'm misunderstanding) seems to be pretty much the exercise you're describing in the quote above: talking about the "meaning" or interpretation of a work, without regard for the actual meaning that was intended by the author, or the actual meaning that is received by the audience.

Well, the person doing the interpretation kinda is the audience. If they're being sincere when they present their interpretation, then it's a legit meaning of the work.

This does of course mean that (for instance) everything is secretly about class struggle if your a Marxist, everyone is secretly a Christ-figure if you're into that, and so forth. So the fact that a work can be read one way or another doesn't necessarily mean anything about anything. But the Intentional Fallacy says that the stuff the author had in mind tells you nothing about the actual meaning of the work.

I don't entirely agree with this point of view, mostly because it is easy, these days, to go on Google and find out what the author means by x, y, z. Shoot them an email if you care to. But I think it's a much better starting point than the notion that criticism is all about reading the author's mind. I figure, if the author really wanted to communicate exactly one idea in particular, it was rather inconsiderate of them to do it in a novel or a film rather than an essay.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:35 AM on August 7, 2014


Btw, long before Inception, there was Nancy.
posted by persona au gratin at 10:36 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


hey, Neo's not just Jesus!

He's also Muad'dib.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:36 AM on August 7, 2014


Wait, what? I mean I get ways you could group things to make similarities, but there are also lots and lots of differences.

I've wanted to cut my own Youtube video but this video does a reasonably good job of showing a lot of overwhelmingly strong similarities between both movies in both dialogue and action sequences, including the jump from building to building in the beginning of the movie, the lobby sequence at the end, and the general bad-guy attire and the martial arts lean.
posted by phaedon at 10:37 AM on August 7, 2014


But what do you do when the oracle tells you you're not the one?

I can think of at least one other time someone was either told or discovered that they were not the chosen savior of the world after going for some time believing that they were. Upon discovery that a good portion of his life was spent in vain, that fellow led a solitary existence, searching for the real chosen one to advise and train, and in the process abandoned his wife, later to find near the end of his life that years before she had borne a son by him that she killed at birth as an act of revenge. To find out about such a sad tale, look closely at the 1983 film Krull.
posted by chambers at 10:44 AM on August 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


ultraviolet catastrophe, yours is the only comment that matters in this entire thread. Talk about missing the trees for the forest.
posted by Poppa Bear at 10:52 AM on August 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


phaedon, you're probably thinking of either Putnam/ semantic externalism or various wittgensteinian replies to the thought experiment. Both of which are flawed. :)

I remember being surprised that Putnam was not one of the books in The Matrix since "brain in a vat" is about as literal as you can get.

The point I'm trying to make about the Cartesian thought-experiment being flawed is that in order to buy into Descartes' questioning of the senses, through sleight of hand, you have to at least believe that Descartes at some point does not believe his senses are deceived, or rather that they are providing him with correct information.

So for example, from a distance I see something that looks like a tree, but when I walk up close to it, it turns out to be a boy dressed in green. Descartes uses this as evidence that his vision has deceived him and therefore he can entertain the possibility of doubting all of his senses, but in the example itself that requires him believing that the boy in green is actually real in order to prove his point. Which basically robs the cogito and his own ontological argument for the existence of God of all its thrust; he is not in fact doubting everything. I'm under the impression that the person that made this argument wrote this paper and 2-3 others and just off that was granted a chair at a prestigious Ivy League university. Make my day and tell me who it is.
posted by phaedon at 10:52 AM on August 7, 2014


The problem with the second two films is that Reloaded writes a bunch of checks that Revolutions can't cash. Neo having super-powers in the real world has profound implications, which just get hand-waved away in the next movie as a mystical and undefined connection to "the Source."

It seemed obvious to me, at the end of Reloaded, that the Real World was not real, and that the final film would have some interesting conclusion and also straighten up some of the dumb stuff, like the thermodynamically laughable idea of using humans as an energy source.
posted by rustcrumb at 10:52 AM on August 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


This does of course mean that (for instance) everything is secretly about class struggle if your a Marxist, everyone is secretly a Christ-figure if you're into that, and so forth. So the fact that a work can be read one way or another doesn't necessarily mean anything about anything.

Well, that's exactly what I'm questioning about this kind of criticism. If it doesn't tell you anything (other than "some people like reading their pet theories into everything"), then what's the point?
posted by escape from the potato planet at 10:54 AM on August 7, 2014


Just a small point. The Matrix is a much better pop-culture analogue to Plato's cave than Descartes's deceiver.
posted by oddman at 10:54 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


So for example, from a distance I see something that looks like a tree, but when I walk up close to it, it turns out to be a boy dressed in green. Descartes uses this as evidence that his vision has deceived him, but in the example itself that requires him believing that the boy in green is actually real in order to prove his point. Which basically robs the cogito and his ontological argument for God of all its thrust; he is not in fact doubting everything.

I don't think that's fair to the Cartesian skeptical argument. As I read him, Descartes makes two basic skeptical arguments. The first is a sort of nagging question. According to your senses, there was a tree in the distance. But then, later, your senses told you to revise your belief. Why think that your revised belief is any more secure than your initial one? You seem to have evidence that your senses lie to you. Repeatedly. So, why think they are reliable witnesses in any case? The second is a dilemma. At one time, you look at some wax, and it is hard. At another time, you look at what you take to be the same wax, and it is soft. So, which is it? I think you can resist the wax argument with temporal indexing. But the dream argument is tougher. Sometimes you are awake and sometimes you are dreaming. Which of those sets of experiences correspond to a real world? If there are no marks by which you can tell from within the experiences, then each set of experiences undercuts claims of reliability on behalf of the other.

In any event, while I don't accept the Cartesian skeptical conclusion, I don't know of anyone who has shown a compelling way out of it. Externalists and contextualists both seem to me to be changing the subject. And while ignoring Descartes' challenge seems healthy to me, it isn't the same as actually answering it.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 11:15 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Guys, your philosophy discussion is only on-topic if you punctuate it with video game samples. I think Secret of Mana might be a good place to source the discussion about Descartes.
posted by Nelson at 11:20 AM on August 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


There's a fan edit of the second and third movies that turns them into one good movie. It's call The Matrix: Dezionized, and removes every reference to Zion that can be removed.

NOT DEZIONIST
posted by zippy at 11:32 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Neo having super-powers in the real world has profound implications, which just get hand-waved away in the next movie as a mystical and undefined connection to "the Source."

Real-world Neo doesn't have mystical Matrix super-powers, though. He can't fly, he can't block swords with his hand, he can't stop bullets.

In the real world, it basically appears that his cybernetic body plus his rewired/enlightened mind can sense machine activity and also powerfully influence them to the point of causing them to malfunction. That's fantastical, but not particularly mystical in the context of the narrative, though like everything else in the film it has a metaphysical/symbolic gloss.
posted by weston at 11:33 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ah, The Matrix as the starter for serious conversations. I watched it with friends and friends of friends in college, and we had some heady discussions after it, including someone use the movie as a way to talk about God, trying to woo me to a Christian bible study. And then a couple friends were talking very seriously about how technological things identified people - was it motion or heat? Except after a minute, we realized one person was talking about auto-flushing urinals, while the others were talking about the Sentinel squiddies.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:41 AM on August 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


Honest question: what's the point of this approach? ... It reminds me of that guy who argued that zombies are a cipher for the racial "other". People in that thread (myself included) were like "what the hell; maybe that's part of it for some authors and audiences—but it's bizarre to indict all zombie fiction as inherently racist, just because a racist reading [exists|is possible]"

Which (please correct me if I'm misunderstanding) seems to be pretty much the exercise you're describing in the quote above: talking about the "meaning" or interpretation of a work, without regard for the actual meaning that was intended by the author, or the actual meaning that is received by the audience. Like, hanging whatever meaning on the work suits your purposes.


Even if you say, to use your example, that writers and audiences of zombie fiction don't consciously intend or receive any correspondence with, say racist fears of minority hordes, you can still talk about the ways such racism seems to be present in some of the source material (e.g. Hatian Voodoo stories), the ways current zombie stories resemble other expressions of racism, look at overlap between say, fanciful zombie-preparedness guides and the actions of real-world right-wing survivalists, maybe even argue that certain features of zombie stories inform the way some people talk about things like immigration. These kinds of correspondences exist (or don't) independently of what film-makers intend or audiences perceive.

With the Matrix you can say that the films clearly inherit themes from Descartes and other philosophers, certain features of the plot do or don't match up with particular philosophical responses to Descartes, and, for better or worse, the films serve as an introductory touchstone to philosophical ideas for some students (and why that might be helpful or unhelpful), all without reference to what the Wachowskis did or didn't intend.
posted by straight at 12:16 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Speaking of gunshot effects in movies; I watched all of Six Feet Under twice, the second time through with audio commentary, and I remember one where the show started with a convenience store clerk being shot. The sound effect was just flat and quick, and they commented specifically that they used the real sound of that gun instead of the typical unrealistic effect you hear constantly.

I thought that was pretty cool.
posted by odinsdream at 12:18 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


@escape from the potato planet, I want to comment in greater depth but I'm at work.

For now, the point of such readings is (historically) motivated/justified by reception theory, which leverages the fact that the impact of cultural artifacts depends on how they are received.

It also has to do with professionalism in the humanities. By conducting readings that do not focus upon or require authorial intention, writers and critics are free to repurpose (cynically, appropriate) cultural artifacts for their own agenda.

Finally (in this short placeholder), conducting readings of cultural objects is not to say that authorial intention is unimportant. Many cultural critics would try to recover what authors and creators have to say about their work.

But keep in mind, authors and creators are often unaware of what it is they are doing. A good example is Richard Kelly with Donnie Darko and (even more important) Southland Tales.

And this is not to condescend to creators/authors. For example, even in our own direct experience we will do things and only much later realize our multiple (often contradictory) motivations for doing them.

Authorial intention is important, but it should not be the ground from which cultural interpretation springs. (This last is my opinion, one with which some scholars might partially agree.)
posted by mistersquid at 12:19 PM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


my apologies for such a tortured reply. I'm gonna stop editing after the fact now and post more thoughtfully later.
posted by mistersquid at 12:23 PM on August 7, 2014


If there are no marks by which you can tell from within the experiences, then each set of experiences undercuts claims of reliability on behalf of the other. In any event, while I don't accept the Cartesian skeptical conclusion, I don't know of anyone who has shown a compelling way out of it.

I don't think I characterized Descartes unfairly and I certainly don't think I'm dodging the issue. And then I feel like you sort of go on to prove my point.

To use your language, what I'm trying to say is there is no such thing as a "mark within our experiences" (a black cat, a boy dressed in green) that serves as a hint for something being "real" that could thereby be used as a basis for "rigorous, global skepticism." The idea that everything is in doubt and yet there are "marks" upon which we can anchor our questions and theories as being "objective" or ontological is intellectually dishonest. This is essentially what post-modernists like Rorty are saying. If you're going to go down this road, then it's all a construct.

I also believe (and perhaps Putnam does too, I cant remember) that you cannot question the construct from within the construct. Even though Descartes claims to be doing that, he is not. He believes he is doing this with some success, but again, to use your language and to tie this into Inception, it is impossible for the audience to establish whether or not the totem is telling the truth. Because it is not in fact a Totem with a capital T. We treat it as a mark and have the ability to call other things in that world "illusions" or "falsehoods" but that does not make the mark any more "real" beyond our treatment of it. So you can have "casual skepticism" in which certain observations are compared to other observations and held up as more or less real, but there is no actual conversation taking place between you and say the "real world." So if you were actually a brain in a vat, there is no way you could thought-experiment your way out of that vat to make any comments about how the world "really is."

What we are left with then, is a major rabbit hole, especially with regards to science, that a lot of post-modernists fill in with a different answer, and always running the risk of collapsing into epistemological relativism.
posted by phaedon at 12:37 PM on August 7, 2014


...like the thermodynamically laughable idea of using humans as an energy source.

I like to think that this is the same world as "I, Robot" (the Will Smith version) where the fancy mainframe concludes that it needs to enslave humanity in order to save it. The whole humans as power source thing is just a way to get back some of the resources it spends on the infrastructure to maintain the matrix and ends up refining the process enough that it squeaks out a small gain.

The "new kind of fusion" is the real power source but the machines still have a hardwired obligation to see that humanity survives. Or, at least, whatever machine is in charge does. Hence, the matrix and the cycle of the one, destruction of Zion, etc.
posted by VTX at 12:38 PM on August 7, 2014


To use your language, what I'm trying to say is there is no such thing as a "mark within our experiences" (a black cat, a boy dressed in green) that serves as a hint for something being "real" that could thereby be used as a basis for "rigorous, global skepticism." The idea that everything is in doubt and yet there are "marks" upon which we can anchor our questions and theories as being "objective" or ontological is intellectually dishonest.

But the point for Descartes is precisely that we cannot ever know for certain if we are getting the "truth" from our senses. That is, it's not that Descartes lays any more stock in the "it was really a boy dressed in green" than in the "look, it's a tree." His argument doesn't require the "boy dressed in green" to be "certain" or "real"--all it requires is for it to be different from "it's a tree." In fact Descartes entire point is that the evidence of the senses is just an endless rabbit hole--all we can ever point to to "ground" our sense perceptions are more sense perceptions (which is why we ultimately need God to ground all knowledge).

And the pragmatic response to Descartes is not based on a refutation of his skepticism--it accepts that you can't argue your way out of skeptical empiricism; it just says that nothing ultimately hangs on the argument pragmatically and that it is therefore not worth pursuing (an argument, by the way, entirely anticipated by Hume in his critique of pyrrhonian skepticism).
posted by yoink at 12:58 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


...like the thermodynamically laughable idea of using humans as an energy source.

I remember reading that the original script had the humans being used for their brains (as CPUs) to form a massive neural network!

...but then "The Man" (i.e. studio executives) decided that was too hard for the population at large to understand and forced the Wachowskis to change it to batteries. What a shame.
posted by StarmanDXE at 12:58 PM on August 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


These might be a little too thematically appropriate.

For irreverence value, I think it'd be better to use Warner Bros & Hanna-Barbera cartoon sound effects.
posted by JHarris at 1:06 PM on August 7, 2014


"So if you were actually a brain in a vat, there is no way you could thought-experiment your way out of that vat to make any comments about how the world "really is."

What we are left with then, is a major rabbit hole, especially with regards to science
"

This is simply a paraphrase of Kant isn't it (and of the grounds for interpreting him as an metaphysical idealist)?



(the following is a separate point)
Phaedon it looks to me like your conflating Descartes's skeptical argument (which isn't typically thought to have any significant philosophical holes) with his response to the same (which is widely and convincingly argued against). As yoink points out (almost) no on accepts the conclusion of Meditation 1, but no one has figured out a way to successfully argue against it. (Even Descartes himself noted, many times, how hard it was, practically speaking to accept external-world skepticism.)
posted by oddman at 1:07 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


But the point for Descartes is precisely that we cannot ever know for certain if we are getting the "truth" from our senses. That is, it's not that Descartes lays any more stock in the "it was really a boy dressed in green" than in the "look, it's a tree." His argument doesn't require the "boy dressed in green" to be "certain" or "real"--all it requires is for it to be different from "it's a tree." In fact Descartes entire point is that the evidence of the senses is just an endless rabbit hole--all we can ever point to to "ground" our sense perceptions are more sense perceptions (which is why we ultimately need God to ground all knowledge).

And yet Descartes uses his senses to establish deceit. That's the point I'm trying to make. The deceit itself is a totem. The deceit must be true even though he is in the middle of questioning everything. He is still holding on to something.

I hope the issue I'm raising here is obvious. I don't disagree that Descartes does go on to say that the evidence of the senses is just an endless rabbit hole, it's just that he doesn't go far enough. Even the idea that thoughts are "grounded" in a perceptible reality is itself a construct. This may or may not be the way the world is outside the vat. Who said that a tree seen from afar can't be a boy up close? Does this not rely on some "understanding" of the world that we have been asked to forego in the thought-experiment?

If "evidence of the senses" were a real rabbit-hole, there wouldn't be hiccups in the system signaling to you that you're in a rabbit-hole. [insert 8-bit noises]
posted by phaedon at 1:24 PM on August 7, 2014


I do this at parties by the way. With extremely mixed results.
posted by phaedon at 1:38 PM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Who said that a tree seen from afar can't be a boy up close?

Well, certainly not Descartes. Again, the conclusion Descartes is coming to there is just "nothing we think we're seeing/sensing is reliable." He doesn't have to privilege the boy OR the tree, he doesn't have to privilege the dream or the waking experience. His whole point is that there is no reliable way to privilege either or any of those options that is based simply on sense experience.

So you're just wrong to say that he's electing some sense experience as a "token" by which others can be shown to be unreal. His point is simply "in our ordinary understanding of the world we make all these strong claims based on sense experience about what is real and what is illusion, but when we really try to find a solid ground on which to base that separation, we find nothing but endless regression."
posted by yoink at 1:41 PM on August 7, 2014


His whole point is that there is no reliable way to privilege either or any of those options that is based simply on sense experience..

Well, I'll just reiterate my point one more time, and then yield. If there was no reliable way to privilege either the boy or the tree, then Descartes would not be able to say "my senses have failed me." Sensory failure on a very basic level implies one observation is privileged and the other is not. Otherwise, you open yourself to both experiences being privileged, or neither. There would be no totems, or "marks," or "failures." The boy/tree would not be worthy of epistemological comment, if one or the other were not privileged on some level.

So this is local skepticism, not global skepticism, because in Descartes' moment of greatest doubt, the world continues to offer certain sensory experiences worth extrapolating from. A true skeptic would see a tree from afar and see a tree up close, and still doubt this experience, would he not? The more I think about this, the more ridiculous and anthropocentric I find Descartes' argument to be.

Man certainly has the ability to doubt, I'll give you that. And believe and even demonstrate certain things to be "true." These are always going to be complicated observations for post-modernists to deal with. But if you're going to throw everything out and attempt to make an ontological argument, you have to go all the way. I'm just saying Descartes doesn't actually achieve this, despite his truly wonderful prose and status as father of modern philosophy.
posted by phaedon at 2:21 PM on August 7, 2014


Well, I think that we've proven that The Matrix can indeed serve as a good jumping off point for deeper philosophical discussions.
posted by VTX at 2:38 PM on August 7, 2014


It's been over a decade since I've seen either, but I remember The Animatrix having more philosophical depth than the source material, which was just about as banal and freshman-level as you can get. Around roughly the same time frame, 12 Monkeys, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Existenz, and hell, Spielberg's A.I. are major sci-fi movies with much, much more to dig into.
posted by naju at 2:46 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


The Matrix is an example of a tiny genre I call "mainstream mind-fucks". Mid to large budget films -- often genre films -- that have a certain amount of easily discernible philosophical content. So, The Matrix, Inception, Fight Club... These are movies that will take people who aren't necessarily into "arty" films and make them go, "Whoa. That's deep." They're films that end up as posters on dorm room walls.

To be clear, I'm not knocking the movies for this at all, and I really enjoy most of them. It's just something I've noticed.
posted by brundlefly at 3:05 PM on August 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


The point I'm trying to make about the Cartesian thought-experiment being flawed is that in order to buy into Descartes' questioning of the senses, through sleight of hand, you have to at least believe that Descartes at some point does not believe his senses are deceived, or rather that they are providing him with correct information.

Right. Descartes doesn't actually think that he's being deceived by a demon or whatever. But he thinks he could be so-deceived, and that is enough to threaten knowledge of the external world.

Descartes uses this as evidence that his vision has deceived him and therefore he can entertain the possibility of doubting all of his senses, but in the example itself that requires him believing that the boy in green is actually real in order to prove his point.

Right. Though he actually acknowledges exactly this point, which is why he moves on to the dreaming and evil demon scenarios.

Which basically robs the cogito and his own ontological argument for the existence of God of all its thrust; he is not in fact doubting everything. I'm under the impression that the person that made this argument wrote this paper and 2-3 others and just off that was granted a chair at a prestigious Ivy League university. Make my day and tell me who it is.

2-3 papers and a chair is probably Derek Parfit at All Souls. Though he's best-known for his science-fiction thought experiments in thinking about personal identity.

It's also worth noting that the ontological argument comes along after he thinks that he's already proved the existence of God (in Med. 3). So he thinks it's sound, but it's not playing a crucial role in defeating skepticism in Descartes' scaffolding.
posted by persona au gratin at 4:38 PM on August 7, 2014


Jonathan Livengood: The issue with the wax (according to Descartes, at least) isn't the problem with temporary intrinsics that endurantists have, the issue is an epistemic one--you know the wax persists in spite of the fact that all of its sensory qualities have changed. Your justification for the belief that it's numerically the same piece of wax must come from some other source than the senses (it gets weird here, but this is what he's thinking). That source is the intellect.
posted by persona au gratin at 4:43 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Well, that's exactly what I'm questioning about this kind of criticism. If it doesn't tell you anything (other than "some people like reading their pet theories into everything"), then what's the point?

I think it's a bit weird that you expect an entire field of academia to have some specific point to it. People can make points with it and about it, and so forth, you know, if they want.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:25 AM on August 8, 2014


Anyway, people reading their pet theories into everything actually does tell you something. Not all theories work equally well for the purpose of being read into everything. You could probably construct some kind of argument that Neo is secretly a Disney Princess if you really wanted to, but I don't think anyone was trying to do that before I mentioned it just then -- isn't that interesting?
posted by LogicalDash at 4:28 AM on August 8, 2014


If there was no reliable way to privilege either the boy or the tree, then Descartes would not be able to say "my senses have failed me."

I don't understand this objection at all. All Descartes needs to make his point is the inconsistency. He needn't assume that either the boy or the tree are correct to say that sometimes his senses are unreliable and therefore it's possible that any sensory input is incorrect.
posted by straight at 7:53 AM on August 8, 2014


The issue with the wax (according to Descartes, at least) isn't the problem with temporary intrinsics that endurantists have, the issue is an epistemic one ...

Right. Descartes is not problematizing the idea that it is the same piece of wax. He's problematizing our ability to come to know the wax. He's looking around for "the objects that are commonly thought to be the most distinctly known." His first example is the wax, and his point seems to be that whatever it is about the wax that we know is not to be found in its sensible qualities, since those change. He writes:
Does the same wax still remain after this change? It must be admitted that it does remain; no one doubts it, or judges otherwise. What, then, was it I knew with so much distinctness in the piece of wax? Assuredly, it could be nothing of all that I observed by means of the senses, since all the things that fell under taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing are changed, and yet the same wax remains.
He goes on to say that since all of the sensible qualities are changeable, it must be the mind (by intuition) that perceives external objects like pieces of wax. It isn't any of the senses or the imagination that perceives something changeable like wax.

More to the point, the changeable qualities are not the nature of the wax -- or of any corporeal body. The point, I think, is that we do not distinctly know any body in virtue of our senses. (Or maybe in virtue of our sense alone? Tough to say.)

I think at this point, you ought to ask why it is that Descartes thinks you cannot distinctly know a piece of wax or distinctly know about a piece of wax via its changeable qualities. Descartes seems to be committed to the following conditional: if the same object has different sensible qualities at different times, then none of those qualities are part of the nature of the thing or allow an experiencing subject to distinctly know it. But that conditional, I think, can be resisted via temporal indexing. You can distinctly know about the wax through its hardness at some time because it is hard at that time.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 8:05 PM on August 8, 2014


I don't understand this objection at all. All Descartes needs to make his point is the inconsistency. He needn't assume that either the boy or the tree are correct to say that sometimes his senses are unreliable and therefore it's possible that any sensory input is incorrect.

Sure he does. I don't mean to oversimplify my point, but if you're buying what I'm selling thus far, take the sun for example. It moves around the sky during the day and even disappears altogether at night, albeit to reemerge the next morning. At no point do we look up at the sky and say, "Wait a minute, the sun has moved and disappeared. That is inconsistent. Perhaps my senses have failed me."

So clearly something else is going on here. Many things in the world are inconsistent without serving as proof of sensory failure. How do you distinguish between the sun and the boy/tree? In order for some other point to be made here, you would have to hold that one view of the boy/tree has to be privileged and one is not.

To introduce that privilege undercuts the idea that we can actually doubt all of our senses. It's just not the same point. Descartes quickly and deftly suggests it is; but it isn't. We cannot even prove that our senses fail us without relying on our senses. We are of course, capable of identifying specific phenomena and describing our skepticism towards them. But methodologically this does not rise to the level of questioning all of our senses. It is at best an analogy.

Descartes' arguments are so simple and clean that this just amounts to saying, "Well, maybe it's not that easy."
posted by phaedon at 10:59 PM on August 8, 2014


I'm not going to apologize for liking The Matrix. It's a great movie, eminently rewatchable, a wonderful big studio special effects flick with an enjoyable, thoughtful message that lifts my spirits every time I watch it.

What he said.

Also: please remember that the other big-studio-special-effects-flick in 1999 was... Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 9:09 AM on August 9, 2014


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