Samuel Paul Veissière Ph.D.

Culture, Mind, and Brain

Do We Live in the Matrix?

Reality may be virtual, but it's not that simple.

Posted Jan 15, 2016

GLMatrix /Copyright: © 1999-2003 by Jamie Zawinski
Source: GLMatrix /Copyright: © 1999-2003 by Jamie Zawinski

"River is not a bad name for the body." (Origen of Alexandria, 184-253 CE)

“Pots are fashioned from clay, but it’s the hollow that makes a pot a pot.” (Tao Te Ching.)

“The fascist is he or she who know longer knows they are an impostor”. (Me, at some point).

This long read is not about artificial intelligence. Much less about the impact of computer technology on human lives. Rather, I want to invite readers into a basic, but difficult set of questions about the nature of Self, Consciousness, and human reality.  I want to suggest that the Self, consciousness, and what we take to be the world around us are primarily virtual processes. As I will argue, however, this should not be interpreted to mean that they do not exist.   As I flesh out these basic questions, I will return to different ways of interpreting the philosophical questions raised in the Wachowski Brothers film The Matrix. In doing so, I will aim to challenge commonly held assumptions about the nature of the real and the virtual.

This year at McGill, I have the privilege to teach an upper-level class on the Anthropology of the Self in which we explore evolutionary, historical, cross-cultural, neurocognitive, and philosophical approaches to the big question of Consciousness.  While I cannot hope to do justice to these mysteries (in this post, in my teaching, or in my lifetime), I wanted to share some of notes and reflections to promote broader thinking on these issues.

We could begin with the Self.

Is the Self the author, or the central character of our lives? Is it, as John Locke proposed, the agent that unifies memories over time?  Is it a mental, or bodily manifestation? Is it both? Is it just an illusion?  

In their review of these questions, philosophers Evan Thompson, Dan Zahavi, and Mark Siderits (2011) identified three broad categories of approaches they term substantialist, non-substantialist, and non-Self theories.

Many non-Self theorists, like David Hume in the West and most of Indian and Buddhist philosophy, outright deny the existence of the Self. Substantialists and non-substantialists, in turn, agree that there is a Self, but they disagree about its nature. It is a thing or physical entity? If it is not physical, then what is it, and how can we know?

Evan Thompson has developed a fascinating approach to these questions that blends theoretical and experimental work in cognitive neuroscience, the introspective rigour of meditation, and different traditions of thought in the Eastern and Western philosophies of mind.  In Thompson’s unique blend of enactivism, the Self is understood as:

 “a process, not a thing or an entity. Just as dancing is a process that enacts a dance and in which the dance is no different from the dancing, so the self is a process of "I-making," in which the "I" is no different from the making” (Thompson, 2014)

While Thompson’s account may be among the most sophisticated at our disposal so far, it still raises something of a metaphysical and, as I will argue, a social and political problem.  Can we really claim that individual dancing bodies and the dancing scripts they follow are made of the same stuff? As an anthropologist, I am inclined to think of the script prescribing bodily movements in a ‘dance’ as the result of a long, cumulative cultural history that partially governs human experience, but lies outside the conscious reach of the very people it compels to move in certain ways! Learning a specific script from others may certainly require conscious effort and attentional demands in its initial stages.  Once successfully learned, the dancer can move with ease of flow without thinking about what she does; the skill had become pre-reflective.

The first problem, here, is that the long social history of the script always lies beyond the immediate grasp of the dancer, novice or otherwise. The bigger problem for humans is that most of what do, feel, and desire, is enacted pre-reflectively and learned implicitly from a broader set of scripts that we are never aware of learning and enacting, let alone inventing in the first place. 

The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello raises similar questions about human thinking by way of musical analogy:

"Thinking would seem to be a completely solitary activity. And so it is for other animal species. But for humans, thinking is like a jazz musician improvising a novel riff in the privacy of his own room. It is a solitary activity all right, but on an instrument made by others for that general purpose, after years of playing with and learning from other practitioners, in a musical genre with a rich history of legendary riffs, for an imagined audience of jazz aficionados. Human thinking is individual improvisation enmeshed in a sociocultural matrix". (Tomasello, 2014)

Just how ‘real’ or ‘virtual’ this sociocultural matrix is, I will argue, is an important question.  The role of this Matrix in mediating human consciousness will also need to be explored.  Are some aspects of our Selves, for example, more dance-like than others, in the sense that they are more scripted, and more or less consciously learned? Is there more to human Selves than arbitrary, mostly invisible scripts?

My discipline of Anthropology has examined how ideas about and experiences of personhood, identity, mind, soul and body vary across cultures and have changed over time.  Anthropologists have offered provocative accounts to help us rethink notions of individualist, selfish Selves that are often taken-for-granted inmost modern Euro-American contexts. At the same time, focusing on this rich array of difference and transience has made it difficult to speak of universals.

Can we really make the claim, as many social scientists have insisted, that the Self is a modern invention? (See Bloch,  2011, for a critical review) Is it an exclusively social, cultural or linguistic construct? Are non-human animals candidates for Selfhood? Are there core elements of sentience and consciousness shared by all humans and living things?

To assist us through these difficult questions, let us tentatively settle on the following definitions:

Intentionality: aboutness, goal-directedness, the property of minds or sentient beings to be about, think about, seek, desire, other things

Sentience:   a goal-directed process or entity that can experience qualia (“what it is like” to experience something).


a) that which is sentient; 

b) that of which the sentience is conscious (e.g., its aching fingers, the cold air, the falling snow, its partially blocked nostrils, the bitter thought of its departed wife, the fear of a spirit), and; 

c) that which is conscious that it is conscious, but; 

d) only partially so, and with great fluctuations from moment to moment. So:

 e) Consciousness, from moment to moment,  is only partially conscious of different dimensions of the world and itself, or of itself-in-the-world. 

This raises the question of the Self again.  An entity or process endowed with consciousness, partial or otherwise, of its Self.

In a class discussion at McGill, a bright philosophy major challenged my circular questioning by insisting that any question about Self and Consciousness had to be grounded in a definition of minimal requirements for what counts as life itself.

He began with the question of origins, or emergence:

It seems to me that any attempt to answer the question of Self and Consciousness must involve an account of how novel properties can emerge from parts which do not themselves contain them.” (Auguste Nahas, personal communication).

He then proposed something of an approach and clearer focus:

any account of the first emergence of Self that doesn’t simultaneously or implicitly give an account of meaning, reference and end-directness must be lacking in a crucial sense”. (ibid).

I offered that the questions of origins were too distant and complex for us to tackle, but that our own lives may point us toward a way of witnessing the nature of the problem.  

We can remember that the drama, miracle, or mystery of phylogeny (evolutionary history – when and how did life and consciousness first emerge out of nothing?) continually reproduces itself in ontogeny (the individual course of each life form). After a male and female sapiens intend to have sex, a new life sometimes emerges. From sperms and eggs, a foetus is born, and at some magical point – when, where, how? – consciousness emerges anew.  This so-called explanatory gap reproduces itself each time a new life is born. The mystery goes on each time what we take to be the bodily evidence of that life perishes.

While we have to cast these big questions aside for now, Auguste’s second proposition [we cannot speak of life, consciousness, and selves without speaking of meaning and reference] will assist us in our discussion.

Life, consciousness, and selves, as we will see, may have something to do with intentionality; with aboutness, teleology, and goal-directed processes.

A simple way to sum this up is that consciousness is necessarily virtual.  

From parts that do not contain It, a being X emerges. From being, becoming.

A sentient being seeks, craves, desires. It experiences what it is like to be in the world.

Note: not what the world is, but what the world is like!

What the world is like for being X.   

Here, we can speak of a basic process of translation and representation for any being to experience the world. 

X  thinks about, desires, moves toward, hypothesizes about things, events and states of affairs that lie beyond the immediate present and immediate experience.

 A squirrel seeks a nut that is not here-right-now.

I remember a beach in Algeria.

Selves, as we will see, are by very definition virtual processes.

From this, however, it is too early to conclude that they do not exist.

In my teaching, I like to discuss the Wachowskis brothers film the Matrix to invite students into basic questions of ontology (what is real?), epistemology (how do we know?), politics (what relations between people and what relations of power exist within the reality we posit to exist), and ethics (what are some problems with this reality? is this reality good or bad, how can we make it better?).

Let’s examine some of the questions raised in the movie.

Ontology: In the Matrix, what humans take to be the real word is a computer-generated simulation. In a deeper reality, human bodies lie unconscious, plugged into machines that harness their energy to sustain an artificially-intelligent Machine world that has evolved to dominate the human species.  Through some never-explained philosophical trick, the blob-humans’ consciousnesses are projected into the Matrix ,where they live in Ignorance.

Epistemology:  A select few humans have resisted, or escaped from the Matrix, and are fighting against the Machines. It is never clear whether these select few are ‘chosen’, and by whom, or whether it the strength of their will that gets to see the truth. The transition from Matrix to ‘real’ reality is symbolized and enacted by the ingestion of a Red Pill, from which there is no going back.  The freed humans (who have access to the real truth) relentlessly fight the Machines in 1) the illusory computer-projected Matrix, and 2) the deeper, ‘real’ netherworld.  They have reconstituted technology that enables them to project their consciousness into the Matrix, while their real bodies lie inert in the real world.  Like their Ignorant conspecifics, they are still dependent on the sense modalities that exist in their real bodies to experience themselves in the Matrix. If their Matrix-bodies are killed in the Matrix, their real-bodies die. The reverse operation also applies:  if their real bodies die, they disappear in the Matrix.

Politics and ethics:   Very simple. The machines are bad. The humans good. There are perpetrators and victims. The victims are not conscious of their victimhood.

I often argue that the Matrix’s ontology, epistemology, politics and ethics are not very good one because they are too simple and shallow.  In what counts as real for us, there is no conspiracy to keep anyone trapped in a fake reality. There is no red pill.  There is no chosen one.   There might be a little bit of choice, but it is very hard to achieve.

That most of what we take to be ‘real’ is a fiction is, of course, true.  Some minimally rigorous training in the social sciences and social ontology will show us that nation states, universities, money, gender and kinship roles, social identities, the linguistic encoding of everything around us, and most of what conditions our everyday experiences only exist because we implicitly agree to believe in them (see John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality).  This level of social reality, thus, is more accurately described as a collectively mediated and enacted fiction, but one in which real bodies feel, desire, and ache.

This reality in its current late-capitalist version may not be a very good one, but it is one which we keep inflicting on one another nonetheless. The ‘truth’ about the Matrix-like nature of social reality, thus, is much more perverse than that of the Wachowski brothers. 

But as we have seen, there is a deeper sense in which all sentient realities dwell in the virtual.  This may be even truer for humans in their symbolic niches..

As we will see, most of what counts as reality for humans – perhaps for all living entities – may inevitably be Matrix-like.  As humans, we cannot in any way coherently operate in the world with the symbolic conventions which at once are not the world they seek to represent, and reshape it as a result.

For the cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, a more interesting way to probe the ontology of the Matrix is to flip the basic question on its head.  By his account, the good question is not  “why do the machines and the Matrix need human energy?”, but “why does human energy need the Matrix?”

The Libido, human desires, Žižek proposes, is at the heart of the problem.  In my work, I take the question of libido beyond its Freudian preoccupation with sexuality, oedipality, or symbolically-mediated cravings of the flesh.   Desire or libido, as I understand them, are good synonyms for intentionality. They describe the representational, goal-and-other-directedness nature of sentience and life itself.

We have established that life at its core may have something to do with desire and the virtual. We’ve established than human lives may be particularly virtual.  But have yet to get anywhere close to the question of Self, and its levels of virtuality.

So let’s begin again:



Q1: Who am I?  

Isn’t this the question we all hope to answer?

I offer that who am I? is not a very good question.  There is a sense in which, obviously, I am me.  I know for sure that I am me. It feels like something to be me.  I am pretty sure I have persisted over time, through the vagaries of unconscious episodes in sleep and ordinary waking life.  If I haven’t, I have fooled myself. Wait. Fooled my Self? Who fooled whom? What?

Let’s begin again.

Q2 “What am I; what is me?” is a much better question. 

Here’s another good one:

Q3: “where am I?”, “where is me?”  what and where is this locus of me-ness. How do I know? How do you know?   

Is me-ness in my brain? My body? All of it? If I lose a limb, am I still me? How much Am I my body?  How much of my body do I have to lose to no longer be me?.  Am I really just my brain? Some magical stuff inside my brain? Am I my memories? Do I have a mental self and a body self?  Where is my mind? What is it? Am I what others see in me?

…  inside? Inside what?

Others see my face, or my skin partially concealed by my clothes, or just the back of my coat as I walk away, but they are pretty sure they are seeing something called me?

They are not really seeing me (they are seeing a moving coat) but they can connect with something else inside me, and it is that thing-inside that is me?

So there is a me inside a me?

We have just posed – we are beginning to pose – the basic problem.

Q2 A1: For Wittgenstein, it was simple.  The Self is that which we refer to when we say “i”.

But what exactly is that entity? What is the that-which being pointed to?

For William James, it is not that simple:

Q2 A2 : The “i” is that which at any given point, is conscious.  The “me” is one of the entities of which the “i” is partially conscious.

Q2 A3 : I (SV) would add that the me has to be the primary entity from which the i springs in partial consciousness of itself – of its me-ness.

This is very complex.  Let’s unpack the problem of a Me’s partial consciousness of itself

>> of its Self >>

 of (its (the me’s) Self). 

of (its (the me(partially perceived by the i))’s) Self).

We have another problem. Are “i”, “me”, and the Self separate entities?

This problem is  made evident in ordinary language. Consider the following propositions:

“I am going away to find myself”

“I want to discover my true self”

“I was talking to myself”

“I have to learn to like myself more. To accept my self”

“I love myself”

“I am not myself today”,

All these propositions reveal and obfuscate a decoupling between the i and the Self.  

The i here is the unnamed entity that can at once look for, love, talk to, or claim not to have access to the Self.

 The i is just partly conscious of the me and its full Self.  So is the Self just a part of the me? Or the me part of the Self?

We need more precise language to pose this problem.  The philosopher Immanuel Kant, as something of an ontological realist, but an epistemological idealist, attempted to sort out the muddle:

For Kant, there is a real world out there: things in themselves that exist independently of our perception of them. The thing itself. Das Ding an sich.  This ‘external’ reality, he terms the noumenon.

But humans are prisoners of their perceptual modalities.   The only reality they have access to is that which appears to consciousness and the senses. This, Kant terms phenomenon.  Reality for humans is phenomenal, not noumenal.

Thus, for Kant, our Self can be posited to exist noumenally and be experienced phenomenally.

As a noumenon, the Self exists as a thing-of-the-world, but it is only partially knowable phenomenally through the vagaries of our consciousness and sense modalities.


Q2 A4:  From the baseline of a noumenal Self, all we have access to is our Phenomenal (also called Empirical) Self.

Recall that we might define consciousness as:

a) that which is sentient,

b) that of which the sentience is conscious, and

c) that which is conscious that it is conscious, but

d) only partially so, and with great fluctuations from moment to moment. So:

 e) consciousness is, from moment to moment, only partially conscious of different dimensions of the world, itself-in-the-World, and its very [noumenal and phenomenal] Self/Selves.

So here, the Self is the open-ended process and bundle of partial consciousness between Selves, and Selves and World.

The question of the phenomenal Self and its avatars, I will claim, is an easy (enough) problem.

The question of the noumenal Self will remain a very hard problem.

Let’s focus on the phenomenal, or empirical Self for a moment.

These are the dimensions of our Selves of which we can be conscious; that is to say, the ones that feel like something and that we can experience, and those that can be imagined, projected, reflected on, and talked about.

For the contemporary philosopher Ned Block, we can further divide consciousness between:

Phenomenal consciousness: what it feels like to be in a particular state.

Access-consciousness: whatever is available for use in reasoning and reflection guiding speech and action.

Others speak of Narrative consciousness:  the thinking-voice consciousness, using language.  

The distinction is not so neat.  It feels like something to imagine mySelf in a particular situation, or as a different kind of Self.

Are there thoughts with no phenomenal grounding? Does something need to be sensory first in order to be ‘retrieved’ and inspected in access consciousness.  What about the other way around?

I can think about someone who is not here, and feel something in my chest or throat. I can remember an embarrassment and experience the feeling again. But if I remember breaking my arm at age 12, I do not experience the pain again. Surely, there any many levels of embodied access phenomenality for which we lack precise language and concepts.

When I remember breaking my arm at age 12, am I really using narrative consciousness? Do I need a story with words, or do I summon an immediate embodied feeling with embodied imagery?

I suspect there are strong individual differences in varieties of access and narrative consciousness; in varieties of ordinary consciousness.

To recap:

 We can have 1) an experience, a feeling (phenomenally), which 2) we can then inspect in access and/or narrative consciousness.

We can have 1) a thought, a memory, a fantasy which 2) then finds phenomenal grounding.

Q5:   Are there thoughts with no phenomenal grounding? (thoughts that feel like nothing).

Q6: Are there phenomena with no propositional grounding? (feelings that are no about anything).

Let’s proceed toward easier questions.

Wittgenstein also proposed that “i” can be used as a subject, or as an object. The contemporary philosopher Galen Strawson wondered about the nature of that object: the object referred to when others speak our ‘i’, and the very object of our own i-consciousness.

Strawson’s hunch is that most people, contrary to what current anti-Cartesian dogmas claim, primarily think of their “me” as their Mental Self.  “i”, “me”, or personal pronouns, for Strawson, can either refer to inner, opaque, mental selves, or full embodied persons.

How do most people think of their Selves and those of others? How do you think of your Self and those of others?

Can we speak of regular entities usually pointed to in ordinary language when we speak of persons

We should also introduce another layer, which I call the performative Self.

Performative selves are all the micro-identities we learn and enact socially from moment to moment and context to context.

For Strawson, this could mean the mental-someone, or embodied human being.

Depending on who I interact with, I can enact such Selves as my professor self, my father self, my son self, my friend self, my lover self, my heartbroken self…..but also many more banal Selves learned and enactable in a variety of socially constructed situations.  Thus, I also have my having-lunch-self, my getting-in-the-shower self, my opening-the-door-for-someone self, etc, etc. Most of the time, I enact these microselves with ease of flow and no ‘conscious’ [access, narrative, cognitively and attentionally costly] effort whatsoever.

Could it be that the Selves we are mostly readily identified with, gossiped about, liked or disliked are Varieties of Performative Selves?

How ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’, then, are these Selves? They are certainly created in an implicit social consensus where professors, nations states, and lunch rituals are mistaken for natural kinds.  But for the most part, we are never meta-conscious (or meta-aware) of these worlds and selves - they operate in the background through immediate coping and know-how (See Francisco Varela's Ethical Know-How).  We know how to handle the world around us without having to think about it.  Know-how is always present without deliberation.   When you get on the bus or sit down to have lunch, your having-lunch-self and getting-on-the-bus-self are automatically enacted and immune to conscious probing.  There is a key difference here is between knowing-how, and knowing-that.  The fictitious nature of these microworlds and Selves can be made available to access consciousness, but it is hard to do.  Most of the time, it seems Marx’s classical definition of ideology applies: they do it, but they do not know that they do it!

Philosophers and cognitive scientists in the phenomenological tradition are good at describing these mechanisms, but they don’t have much to say about the micro cultural, social, and political worlds that structure our sense of selves, habituation, and expectation.

Social Scientists, as it turns out, may have some answers to contribute.

The great socialist Erving Goffman, for example, was a little more cynical about what he called the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  Dramaturgy, the way he saw it, was a good analogy to describe rituals of everyday interaction among humans.

Most of us, Goffman argued, are quite consciously aware and tired of the hard work and imposture of enacting obviously performative Selves. In this model, humans like to see refuge in the background, in the home, the bedroom, the bathroom; places where the conscious performance of every interaction rituals can be put on hold.

Which hypothesis is true? Are we always structured (down to our every movement, thought and desire) by transient, historically and culturally contingent Matrix-like realities, or are we for the most part cynical, but reluctantly conditioned by these realities?

On a political level, it may be true that many of those performative Selves appear inevitable.  I often speak of my reluctance at being identified as a Frenchman. At my core, I do not feel that my “me” is French, any more than it is intrinsically a professor. Yet, my efforts to quit frenchness have proven to be in vain. I cannot, for example, shake off my French accent. ‘My’ body will not let me.  I am invariably identified by others as a Frenchman. Quick, effortless, far-reaching assumptions about my whole person are made on the basis of my being identifiable as part of the socially-constructed category [Frenchman].

I must also concede, on a deeper ontological level, that my desires and tastes  (my very taste buds), my thoughts and voice (the way I utter sounds and what I think about) have been partially shaped through the accidental process of having been involuntarily recruited into the imagined social order that is frenchness.   The particular techniques of the Self I enact daily as an academic may have structured my confidence and the way I interact with others.  I may, one day, forget that I am not really French, or not really an academic, and may become an insufferably pompous and condescending person in most day to day situations.  That would not be good.

Ethically, then, it may be important to remember that for the most part, we are all real impostors.