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You Won’t Know the Difference So You Can’t Make the Choice

says Robin Beck

Which pill, red or blue? I propose that it does not matter which pill one takes and that there are no rational grounds for making the decision. That is, I do not see any way to argue that one ought to choose either red or blue. The basis for this conclusion is that, if we really examine the substance of the question, there is no meaningful way to understand the difference between the two possible choices. This answer is, of course, somewhat counterintuitive, but I think that if we take the time to look closely at the consequences of taking each pill, then it will become clear that there is no reasonable way to choose.

The first section of this essay will compare the two choices and explain why I think that there are no crucial differences between them. The second part of the essay will focus on refuting several possible criticisms of my argument, and concluding that even the very idea that there is a meaningful choice to be made is flawed.

Let me begin be describing a scenario that takes place after someone takes one of the pills. He wakes up and the world around him seems totally real. The laws of physics seem the same as the day before; he looks the same; all of his senses work in the same way and he has no doubt that everything around him is real. If he were to ask anyone around him whether or not he was in the real world he would receive nothing besides confirmation that, indeed, his world is the real world. In short, he wakes up and is just as convinced as he was the day before that the world around him is real.

Which pill did he take? It seems that this scenario could describe what happens after taking either pill. With the blue pill a person is sent back to her life as it was, and experiences the above scenario. With the red pill, the world in which the person lives is certainly different, but everything in the description above still applies.

Epistemologically, the two worlds are the same, they offer the same type of sensory experiences and the same methods for people to use to examine their world. It is not as though taking the red pill gives people some sort of new ability to have unquestionable knowledge about the world in which they live. On the contrary, the people remain unchanged and have only their senses and their minds to tell them about their world.

A person can be skeptical about whether or not they are living in the real world regardless of which pill that person takes. With the blue pill, people can engage in some type of Cartesian skepticism and question what seems to be true about the world around them, or they can have faith that their world is as people tell them it is and as it seems to be.

After taking the red pill, people can still be just as skeptical and question whether this new world is any more real than the old one. That is, while there would be no doubt after taking the red pill that the person in question is living in a different world, there does not seem to be anything that guarantees that this new world is the real world. Perhaps the red pill’s world is just a different matrix, controlled by different machines. Perhaps the old world was real and the new world is a machine controlled matrix. The point is that there is no way to tell. If one wants to, one can still be skeptical after taking the red pill, or one can be just as trusting of her senses and the people around her as she would have been with the blue pill.

All of this is meant to illustrate the point that the supposed benefit of taking the red pill, namely that one has true knowledge of the world, is worthless because there is no way to confirm or deny that the red pill has actually done what it claims to be able to do. Without any way to tell whether the new world of the red pill is any more real than the old world, it seems that it becomes almost meaningless to speak of there even being any important difference between the two worlds. If there are two worlds which seem equally real and cannot be distinguished from one another, how is anyone supposed to see any importance in, or method for, choosing between the two? I propose that this problem renders the very question impossible to answer rationally. One could, of course, just have faith that the world of the red pill is ‘true’, but faith in something which cannot be proven is not rational. One could also just pick the color that one likes more, but again this cannot be considered a rational basis for making a decision. I am not trying to disparage either faith or aesthetic concerns as important considerations when making decisions, I am just pointing out that these are the only appropriate methods to use in this case, and that neither are rational and thus not justifiable through rational argument.

At this point, I hope I have made it clear why I think that there is no meaningful difference between the two pills, and why I think that takes away any meaningful way to argue for talking one pill over another. What I would like to do now is to respond to three possible criticisms of this position.

The first criticism of my view is the point that there is an important difference between the worlds of the two different pills that I ignore. The supposed difference is that with the red pill, one is conscious of having made a choice and of taking the red pill. One might want to say that remembering the old world, and remembering one’s choice to enter the new world, is an important enough difference between the two pills to warrant choosing one pill over another. While I admit that this certainly is a difference between the two worlds, I do not see how it could be the basis for making a decision. The knowledge that one has moved from one reality to another, and has chosen to do so, does not lend any credibility to the claim that the new world is any more real than the old one. All the memory of having taken the red pill can do is to confirm that, in fact, there are at least two different worlds that seem equally real.

The second possible criticism of my view is that one ought to always try to discover truth and help others to do the same. This seems like a much stronger criticism with roots in Platonic philosophy. Here, one might be tempted to say that choosing between the pills is analogous to choosing whether or not to leave Plato’s cave. It seems that this is even what the Matrix is alluding to when it talks about a ‘world of illusion’ and a world of ‘truth’. One could then continue this train of thought and propose, as Plato does, that it is best to always try to pursue truth and to then try to show the truth to others.

I think, however, that the situation that Neo faces is not analogous to leaving the cave and that the very thing that has given us so much trouble in trying to figure out how one could choose between the pills makes the analogy fail. Specifically, the fact that there is no way to know that the new world is any more real or true than the old one makes the situation different from the cave. For Plato, when someone leaves the cave, he or she sees real objects for the first time, and can tell that they are different and more real than the shadows on the wall of the cave. Unlike leaving the cave, when someone takes the red pill, she does not see the new world as consisting in real things as opposed to shadows. Instead, the new world seems to consist in things that are different from those in the old world, but equally real. This difference between the two pills and Plato’s cave seems to make it difficult to argue that one should take the red pill in order to be able see truth and show the truth to others. Without any way to tell when one is seeing the truth, how is there any way to show that truth to others?

Right here, one might want to bring up what I see as the third and strongest criticism of my view. The criticism proceeds by pointing out that while I have explained why knowing that one has made a choice is not relevant and why it is hard to justify taking the red pill for the sake of being able to show the truth to others, I have not addressed the point that there is something inherently valuable in both pursuing and facing the truth. I would like to respond to this possible complaint in two parts. First I want to explain the problems with suggesting that the red pill is better because it is better to see the truth, and then why it is equally problematic to say that the red pill is better because it is good to do anything one can to try to pursue truth.

I do not wish to argue that there is no value in being exposed to the truth, but rather that without any way to know when one is seeing the truth, any such value in seeing the truth is lost. If someone is shown the truth about something, but does not know that what he is seeing is the truth, then there is no way for that person to give any sort of privilege to the true information he now has, and thus no way for that information to have any particular value just because it happens to be true. That is, the only way for seeing the truth to have any value is if the true information can be used or categorized differently than false information. With the red pill this cannot be done, and thus there is no meaningful way to argue that there is something good just in seeing the truth.

To the second part of this final criticism, that it is good just to try to pursue truth and thus take the red pill, I want to respond by arguing that if there is any inherent goodness in just trying to pursue truth, it still does not matter which pill one takes because one can be just as convinced in either world that he is trying to move closer to true knowledge about the world. Of course, if one takes the red pill, then one will think that she is doing what needs to be done in order to attain true knowledge about the world. What might not be so obvious is that one can feel exactly the same way in the world of the blue pill. I have already argued that how much faith or skepticism one has about the realness of the world is only dependent on the individual and not on which pill she chooses. Similarly, whether or not one tries to pursue truth for its own sake is dependent on certain qualities of the individual in question, and not on which pill that person takes.

The basic point I have been making is that one needs to be able to know when one is or is not seeing the real world or the truth for either of these terms to have any value. Over and over, we have seen that because there is no way to tell that one world is more real or closer to the truth than the other world, any benefits to choosing one pill over the other disappear. What this should lead us to is the conclusion that there is a problem with the very question we are trying to address. It seems that our question presupposes, by speaking of one world as being ‘illusion’ and the other as being ‘truth’, that there is some way that a person who was choosing between the two pills could tell the difference and thus appreciate the ‘true’ world. The movie asks us to simply accept that there are two worlds and that one is real and the other is not. This is fine for entertainment, but if we want a serious and justifiable philosophical answer to the pill dilemma, then we need to start asking hard questions and figure out what we can and cannot rationally know and argue. Without a willing suspension of disbelief, there is no rational way to choose a pill. Blind faith seems to be the only way to justify either choice, and blind faith alone can not establish a rational basis for making this, or any other, decision.

© Robin Beck

Robin Beck comes from Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is in his fourth year at the University of Chicago concentrating in philosophy.

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