Escaping the Matrix (And Other Possible Worlds)

February 23, 2018

 

Summary: The greatest challenge to human knowledge of all time is skepticism. No other philosophical position is more faith robbing. But need that be? This article explores the work of famous philosopher René Descartes and demonstrates convincingly that God is Lord of the Matrix. Click here to subscribe to future posts. 

Intro to Skepticism

 

In the formal dedication to his best known work, famous French philosopher, René Descartes, wrote the following: “I have always considered that the [question of] God…ought to be demonstrated by philosophical rather than theological argument.” [1]   

 

René Descartes was as an avid Catholic theist. His view of divine proofs was drawn from the scriptures. He saw Paul’s argument in the book of Romans as of paramount importance to the work of evangelism. “[I]t…seems impossible,” wrote Descartes, “to persuade infidels of the reality of any religion, or almost…any moral virtue, unless…[God]…be proved to them by natural reason.” [2] Thus, Descartes sought to divine his lofty case.        

 

Unfortunately, Descartes' argument was currently controversial. In particular, it caused him friction with the clergy of his day. He therefore published his “Meditations” in France instead of Holland, in order to ensure a smoother progress with the press. Later, he re-published the book in the city of Amsterdam with several lengthy inclusions written by noted Christian objectors. Descartes therefore became something of a nuisance to theologians, as Galileo, through his science, had earlier managed to do the same.    

 

But were Descartes’ arguments ultimately injurious to the faith? Had his approach to answering skeptics truly crossed the line? Or, put another way, is the terrain of “reason” a dangerous ground for battle for the verity of Christian claims? Historically, Christian fundamentalism has regarded philosophy with suspicion, viewing it as a vestige of carnal, earthly man. But is natural reason justifiably disregarded as though haplessly ignorant of God’s tenants and commands? 

 

Some time ago, I began to suspect quite the opposite. My failure in evangelism was gradually dimming my hopes. I had slowly begun to wonder if I would ever be successful in seeing skeptics turn to God on the basis of scripture alone. A short time later, I began devouring philosophy, seeking common grounds for delivering my case. What happened to me next brought fresh passion to my work, renewing my fire to see skeptics turn to faith. 

 

Here's my story…

 

Facing the Skeptic

 

I had just recently completed an evangelistic event. The title of the affair had been aptly named “Skeptic Sunday.” At the moment, I was speaking with an agnostic friend who had queried my views on a number of gospel questions. Within a few minutes, he invited me to engage with three of his friends around a host of related issues. The results of that encounter were powerfully affirming that philosophy has its place in the work of Christian mission. 

  

“You obviously are convinced of your own religion,” one of them mused. “But how can you be certain of the truth of your beliefs? What rather seems obvious is that no one can know about the reality of God or the nature of his existence. The reason why is simple: God is featureless! No one can know his properties except by faith. Christian beliefs are therefore merely hypothetical, since they cannot be subjected to external verification.”    

 

The young man’s reasoning was immediately familiar. It was typical of the thinking of our modern skeptic age. Unmistakably, it was partial to the selfsame uncertainty which Descartes himself had earlier chosen to embrace. He wrote: “[T]he [usefulness] of...Doubt...is...very great inasmuch as it delivers us from every kind of prejudice...” [3] Descartes then proceeded to question his own beliefs, a method which is common to the practice of skepticism.  

  

Reciting from the book, the intrepid author wrote: “I ought…to justify the rejection of [my beliefs] if I shall find in [them] some ground for doubt.” [4] In this way, Descartes strove for absolute certainty. 

 

He furthermore wrote: “...I shall...in the first place attack those principles upon which all my...[beliefs rest].” [5] Thus Descartes seemed curiously willing for the sake of his fancy to banish his own faith.

 

Trapped in the Matrix

 

Since the time the book was published, responses have varied. Noted modern thinkers have differed widely on their views. Some have seen Descartes as a serious Christian pundit while others have concluded he was history’s greatest skeptic. Hence, secular philosopher, Leonard Peikoff, imputed the “crusading skepticism” of the modern era to Descartes. [6] But do such descriptions truly fit the picture rightly? Or, do they really represent the deeper motives of his heart?   

 

The answer, in this case, is a surprising no. René Descartes merely assumed skeptic thinking. He did it to accomplish his own subversive purpose of usurping the entire formal structure of doubt. He writes: “...I thought it not beside my purpose to inquire...how God may be more easily known…” [7] The truths he discovered in the process of his searching have plausibly disabled the whole force of skeptic thought.   

 

Aware of such weaknesses, I therefore pressed the man firmly. I did not want to somehow miss my opportunity. For skepticisms’ eeriest challenges to date are now wholly surmountable due to frailties in the position. Examples such as the infamous “brain-in-the-vat” argument are presently resolvable through modern philosophy of religion. It is even quite possible that our greatest skeptical problems could at last be settled through the case for God’s existence. 

 

But how…?

  

Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate the point would be to cite the clearest example of the theory. In 1999, famous film director duo, the Watchowski brothers, released their biggest smash-hit. Entitled The Matrix, the movie tells the story of a man who is suddenly unplugged from a computer, only to discover that up until the present, his entire life has been nothing but a dream.   

 

The film portrays the struggles of the character (named Neo) to adjust to the world as it actually is. His life lived as a “brain in a vat” had deceived him regarding the nature of his existence. Sentient machines had cleverly wired his mind to stimulate his brain to accept false experiences. Of course, this only raised the question for moviegoers: How can we be certain that the Matrix does not exist?   

 

These are the sorts of questions which Descartes sought to address. How do we know that our senses are not deceiving us? Perhaps I am just a brain floating in a vat. Since I cannot be certain, I ought to doubt my own experiences. Hence Descartes wrote: “I shall then suppose…that…some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies in deceiving me…[and] availed himself...to lay traps for my credulity…” [8]  

 

Such radical doubt makes evangelism almost impossible. Like it or not, these are the challenges we are facing. If we cannot be certain of the nature of our own existence, then why, it is demanded, bother popping the God question?

 

Yet it is precisely here that our answer arrives and the skeptic’s whole argument begins to crumble, demonstrating that the position is potentially a farce, and that God is real—however we might exist.    

 

Decamping Skepticism

 

Hence, imagine for the sake of argument, that you are a brain in a vat. (As this is the larger challenge we will aim to start here.) An evil mad scientist has wired your cerebrum and is now controlling your every sensory experience. Would it perhaps surprise you that you could still deduce, even in such straits that God exists? In fact, the argument is virtually irrefutable. Come what may, the divine conclusion will persist.

 

The case here, however, will hinge upon Descartes. The key to the whole windup is connected to his math. In the opening salvo of his Meditations, he writes: “...whether...awake or asleep, two and three…[equals] five…” [9] Descartes then continued: “...it does not seem possible that truths so...apparent [could wind up being false]…” [10] Thus for Descartes, math is universal, even if it turns out that we are living in the Matrix.

 

This in turn prepares us to answer skeptic doubts. It leaves the proponent of atheism without a founding case. For if math is truly trustworthy (as Descartes in fact claimed it was) then time in the Matrix must be finite and not beginningless. As noted philosopher of time, professor William Lane Craig has claimed: “…if the past were beginningless, then the present could not have occurred.” [11] But surely that’s absurd! We would therefore have to conclude that the Matrix world itself would necessarily have a beginning.

 

To explain why this is so, consider the following example. I refer to it here as the “Ever-Pending Birthday.” Imagine that you have walked into a room only to encounter an infinite row of tumbling dominos. Each falling tile collapses the subsequent member, causing the proceeding domino to plummet towards the earth. Each successive domino takes all of one second to accomplish its inevitable collision with the floor.    

 

Now imagine that the row is utterly beginningless, leading to a final domino standing near your foot. Bending down, you notice that the domino bears an inscription which reads the exact date of your birth. You then begin to wonder: If the set of dominos is infinitely long, how much time will it take for my birthday to arrive? The answer is unavoidable: Your tile would never fall. Consequently, this would imply that you would never be born!  

 

The Matrix world therefore cannot be eternal. Some initial trigger had to set the world in motion. For since a brain cannot be envatted if it's person were never born, some inaugural set of affairs is necessary for us to create the story.

 

Moreover, the initial cause would have to exist eternally, since any finite cause would require some causal parent. From this point, only one additional proof is needed to demonstrate that God is Lord of the Matrix.

 

The Final Escape

 

Thus our final query is the capstone for our case. If the cause has existed forever, then why not its effect? The only way to make the cause exist without the effect would be to endow that cause with some kind of free will. An eternal Cause (and capitalize it) could freely will to create an effect that, unlike itself, is finite and limited in duration. Thus eminent philosopher of time, William Lane Craig, boldly argues that the impossibility of an infinite past cries out for God’s existence. [12] 

 

From here, refuting skepticism becomes a matter of child’s play, since our case for God's existence applies to life outside “the vat.” Thus, even though I can’t disprove the Matrix, I can nevertheless argue that God would still exist. Whether I’m wired to a computer or living in my body, God remains an overruling reality for me. Indeed, in a sense, it is difficult to see why Cartesian doubt would be incompatible with the worldview of theism! [13] 

 

Interestingly, our solution is similar to Descartes’. It responds to the problem of skepticism by appealing to God’s existence. For as Descartes stated: “…from what has been already said, we must conclude that God necessarily exists.” [14] 

 

This in turn makes theism an extremely powerful option. No matter the world the skeptic imagines, God would be the cause. The force of skeptic doubts are therefore effectively neutralized. Nothing seems to be gained by the theory since God remains unscathed.   

 

Conclusion:

 

In conclusion, a few weeks later, I reconnected with the man. Although I had used a slightly different argument, my appeal had managed to win. No longer a confident skeptic, he requested for my prayers, claiming he had heard the voice of God “calling him home.” After several more weeks, we reconnected again. He told me that he had now begun to attend a local church. Praise God for the victory in this man’s life! Through a simple “chance” encounter, God broke in!

 

Therefore, fellow saint, may you be blessed as God continues to strengthen your faith to do his will. And may the Lord Jesus use you to speak about the truth, that others might come to believe in his name.

 

Amen. 

 

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End Notes:

[1]. René Descartes; Meditations On First Philosophy; Translated by J. Veitch; © Our Open Media 2017. pg. 1.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Ibid pg. 4. Brackets mine.

[4]. Ibid. pg. 11. Brackets mine.

[5]. Ibid. pg. 11. Brackets mine. Italics mine.

[6]. Leonard Peikoff, “Maybe You’re Wrong,” The Objectivist Forum, April 1981, 8.

[7]. René Descartes; Meditations On First Philosophy; Translated by J. Veitch; © Our Open Media 2017. pg. 2.

[8]. Ibid. Brackets mine. pg. 16

[9]. Ibid. Brackets mine. pg. 14

[10]. Ibid. Brackets mine. pg. 14

[11]. William Lane Craig; Reasonable Faith; Crossway Publications, Wheaton Illinois; © 2008; pg. 122.

[12]. For an extended explanation, cf. Reasonable Faith, third edition.

[13]. Though skepticism coheres well with theism, this does not mean it coheres well with Christianity. But that is a subject for a different article. 

[14]. René Descartes; Meditations On First Philosophy; Translated by J. Veitch; © Our Open Media 2017. pg. 32. Italics mine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

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