Whoever conceived the plot of this film must have been a student of philosophy.
Neo, a clueless happy-go-lucky person, is one day visited by Morpheus, a mysterious stranger. Morpheus knows something: The world, in which Neo and everyone else live, is not really what it appears to be. There are two 'levels.' People live at the everyday level - don't we all? But, Morpheus claims, this is not Reality. This everyday level is the product of the Matrix - a complicated computer system of virtual reality, run by robot-like artificial intelligences. Human beings have been chained down and drugged. Their brains are connected to a vat - and the 'everyday' level experiences are induced by the drugs in the vat. This is what Neo and the rest are experiencing - not true reality but a massive, collective, and sustained hallucination induced by chemical means. It is as if they were dreaming - they are in fact hallucinating. Because they are not ever allowed to wake up they never find out. What they take to be real is not! The bodies of Neo and everyone are alive - of course - and they are maintained by life-support systems. But Neo and the others are not even able to feel their bodies. They think that they are aware of their bodies because this information has also been programmed into the Matrix and is transmitted to their brains in the vat.
It is as if Descartes - turned playwright - had thought of the idea for this movie. You have here both of Descartes' suspicions - the suspicions he came up when he was looking for perfect certainty and started doubting everyday reality: a. You have the Dream Hypothesis: what if everyday life is a dream, or a continuous hallucination? How would I know? b. And you have the Evil Genius Hypothesis: What if an evil genius had been playing tricks with me - had been deceiving me - throughout my whole life? In fact, this required great imagination - and did not sound convincing - in Descartes' times. But, today, with hallucinogens and with virtual reality computer programs, it sounds less far-fetched.
So, in Neo's world, human bodies are inert. They don't move, they don't experience. Only the brains, in the vat, experience. [So, brains are NOT body-like - they are NOT like, and of, our bodies? What do you think?]
What 'moves' and 'happens' in Neo's world has to do with minds - chemical injections into the brains in the vat and subsequent electrical charges in those brains. Chemical reactions must be happening on them, right? Or, if you are not a materialist, you might say that the robots have found a way to deceive the minds or souls of the humans in this futuristic universe.
Consider this: Compare Neo's world - what he takes for real - with our sense of reality. Remember - until he meets Morpheus, Neo has no clue about the Matrix. So, Neo's reality does not include the knowledge about the Matrix; Neo's reality does not include knowledge of reality in it at all - because, as they say in the movie, 'only the Matrix is real.' But ask yourself this question: How is Neo's reality different from ours? Couldn't the robots program into the virtual reality system EXACTLY what we experience in our everyday reality? [The computer systems, which the robots are running are powerful; they can reproduce not only the reality we know but they could even create alternate universes - but that might be unrealistic and Neo might begin to suspect something.]
So, Neo's world is not real - it is a sustained hallucination, a virtual reality program fed into his brain. At the same time, his world is - can be, technically - exactly the same as ours. Hmmm... How do we know this is not happenning to us, then? This is what poor Descartes was asking centuries ago - long before the era of computers and virtual reality games.
The robots who are running the system are the ones who live in reality, of course. This is strange: artificial intelligences living in reality and human beings living in a state of illusion. How does this happen? Because the robots 'know' that what is fed into the human brains is only a virtual reality program - an illusion. But, if this is the only difference, there is something funny about it: The standards of reality are, either way, in the MIND and not in the senses. [Do you see why? Because the advantage the robots have - which places them in reality - is a 'mind' advantage: they 'know' something the human beings do not know.] Is this movie Cartesian [Descartean] or what? Why am I saying this? Make sure you read Descartes' Meditations to find out.
The story can even get trickier - going beyond the movie plot: What if the robots were just spinning out universes and 'reality' virtual programs, which have no connection to the reality we know? In that case, think of this: If Neo and eveyrone else had been born and raised under the rule of the robots, they would have never known any other 'reality' besides the one the robots have been feeding to them. Of course, whether what is fed to them is like the reality we know or not, the fact is that it is NOT real - it is an illusion. If it is a 'weird' illusion - nothing like what we take to be real - is this any different? How many times did you have dreams that were 'weird' - could not have been 'real' - and, yet, they were so dramatic and vivid that they 'felt' real?
Notice that the robots are deliberately depriving the human beings of reality in this plot. They are keeping humans inert and with their brains in a vat, so they can control them. The robots control humans so they can extract energy from the human bodies. The robots need this energy to 'survive' - to continue functioning. Here, you might be also reminded of our earlier discussions in class of the absurd. Is this situation absurd? Why? Does it become less absurd - or does the absurdity disappear altogether - when Neo is told of what is happening? Neo is supposed to become the Liberator of the human race after he is informed. Does this mission and sense of liberating purpose make absurdity go away? Does the fact that Neo finds out what REALITY really is - does this make absurdity go away?
How can Neo ever tell for sure that he is now awake and out of the vat, fighting for human liberation? What if Morpheus himself - the one who told him the story - is also a robot who is feeding Neo with another virtual-reality scenario? What if this is a civil war within the robot community - one faction of robots trying to prevail over another and feeding the human brains with a different virtual-reality story? Can the humans ever know if what they take for real is real or not? Can we know? This is what Descartes was looking for when he wrote his 'Meditations' - anything that he can hold on to with certainty. Do you remember what he found?