The arguments of French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) have had an enormous impact on philosophy. In what follows, Descartes arguments will be examined through the contemporary viewfinder of Alejandro Amenábar’s Abre los Ojos (1997). The intention, however, is not to use the film as a mere vehicle for conveying Descartes’ thought, but rather to consider whether the particular context that Amenábar provides, and the nature of film itself, can enhance our understanding and and provide fresh insight into the issues that Descartes raises.
Descartes is writing at a time of scientific revolution and upheaval – many doctrines which have hitherto been accepted as most certain have been overturned and, as such, he is struck by the instability and unreliability of scientific ‘knowledge’. In his First Meditation, Descartes aims to sweep away all of his previously held opinions and start afresh. Descartes’ ‘method of doubt’ entails that if anything can be doubted, however slightly, then we are to treat it as if it is manifestly false and reject it outright. It is not, however, necessary that we subject each and every one of our opinions to this hyperbolic (exaggerated) doubt, as this would be a Sisyphean task. Rather, Descartes aims to test the ‘foundations’ of what we claim to know – ‘as the removal from below of the foundation necessarily involves the downfall of the whole edifice’.
Descartes’ claim is that one of these foundations is the senses – that is to say, if we can cast any doubt whatsoever on the reliability of the senses then we should reject as false whatever we learn from them:
All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.
After briefly considering optical illusions and madness, Descartes goes on to provide one of the most famous arguments in philosophy: the dream hypothesis. What Descartes hopes to establish via this argument is that, given any particular experience, we can never know that that experience is not a dream.
In Abre los Ojos, we are introduced early on to the Cartesian idea that there are no sure signs by which we we can distinguish wakefulness from sleep. At the outset of the film, César dreams that he awakes, but only realises this was a dream when he awakes ‘for real’. But (how) does he know that he is not still dreaming? Do you know that you really woke up this morning and are not now dreaming?
For Descartes, the dream hypothesis provides sufficient reason to doubt the senses and, as such, treat all beliefs that we receive from them as manifestly false. Descartes believes, however, that some things are immune from the dream hypothesis: namely, for our purposes, the existence of corporeal nature in general – for even if we are dreaming, the content of our dreams must have their origin in reality (which must, therefore, bear some resemblance the kind of world we dream about).
Descartes’ point here is actually put to good use in Vanilla Sky (the Hollywood remake of Abre los Ojos) in the scene where the contents of David’s ‘dream’ are shown to be constructed from his prior experiences of films, paintings, album covers, etc. [this scene does not appear in the original]. This brings out an important feature of the dream hypothesis, which people often miss. Descartes is not here stating that ‘life could be a dream’. In fact, the very existence of dreams, entails the existence of wakefulness; after all, dreams are said to have a dreamlike quality, which necessarily differentiates them from our ‘undreamlike’ waking life (unfortunately we aren’t always aware of this quality at the time). [It is interesting to see how this dreamlike quality is represented cinematically, by blurring, etc.]
In order, then, to subject this realm to the method of doubt, Descartes conjures the second of his sceptical arguments: the demon hypothesis.
I will suppose … that some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive me; I will suppose that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, figures, sounds, and all external things, are nothing better than the illusions of dreams.
Descartes’ demon argument has been updated by Hilary Putnam and Jonathan Dancy in terms of the now famous brains in vats hypothesis:
You do not know that you are not a brain, suspended in a vat full of liquid in a laboratory, and wired to a computer which is feeding you your current experiences under the control of some ingenious technician scientist (benevolent or malevolent according to taste). For if you were such a brain, then, provided that the scientist is successful, nothing in your experience could possibly reveal that you were; for your experience is ex hypothesi identical with that of something which is not a brain in a vat. Since you have only your own experience to appeal to, and that experience is the same in either situation, nothing can reveal to you which situation is the actual one.
Dancy, An Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology, 1985
This scenario is used to great effect in both Abre los Ojos as well as the Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix (Wachowski bros. 1999). The latter, in fact, is even more accurately pre-empted by Hilary Putnam in his Reason, Truth, and History (1981):
Instead of having just one brain in a vat, we could imagine that all human beings (perhaps all sentient beings) are brains in a vat (or nervous systems in a vat in case some beings with just nervous systems count as ‘sentient’). Of course, the evil scientist would have to be outside? or would he? Perhaps there is no evil scientist, perhaps (though this is absurd) the universe just happens to consist of automatic machinery tending a vat full of brains and nervous systems. This time let us suppose that the automatic machinery is programmed to give us all a collective hallucination, rather than a number of separate unrelated hallucinations.
In both films, then, we are presented with the hypothesis that what we take for reality is nothing but illusion, and that reality is something far removed from what we perceive it to be. This is closely associated with the view that Plato’ puts forward in his allegory of the cave. What do you think, if anything, the cinematic counterparts of these famous thought experiments add to our understanding? Do they merely portray, visually, pre-existing ideas or do they enhance these ideas? Are they merely vehicles for philosophy or are they, themselves, examples of philosophy?
By the end of the First Meditation Descartes has done a terrific demolition job. By applying his method of exaggerated doubt to the foundations of knowledge the entire edifice has indeed crumbled. At the outset of Meditation II, he states that:
The Meditation of yesterday has filled my mind with so many doubts, that it is no longer in my power to forget them… I suppose, accordingly, that all the things which I see are false (fictitious); I believe that none of those objects which my fallacious memory represents ever existed; I suppose that I possess no senses; I believe that body, figure, extension, motion, and place are merely fictions of my mind. What is there, then, that can be esteemed true? Perhaps this only, that there is absolutely nothing certain.
In order to progress, Descartes must establish one thing that is certain and indubitable. This eventually leads him to the cogito: ‘this proposition I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind’. This one truth, believes Descartes, is immune from all doubt for even a malignant demon cannot deceive me into thinking that I exist if I do not; if I am being deceived, then I exist.
In the rest of Meditation II, Descartes goes on to emphasise the divide between mind and matter, and in the remainder of the Meditations he sets about his rebuilding project, which is far less successful than his earlier demolition job. Descartes’ contribution to science and philosophy has been enormous (scientific method, dualism, etc.), however, perhaps his overriding legacy has been that of solipsism – the sceptical position that knowledge of anything other than our own minds is unjustified.
Here we depart company with Descartes’ worry that our experience may be illusory, but we are not yet done with our films. For what both Abre los Ojos and The Matrix add to the existing sceptical worry, is the related moral question of whether it matters. At the end of Abre los Ojos, for example, Cesar is given a choice – between illusion on the one hand, and reality on the other. In his Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1971) Robert Nozick provides the following thought experiment:
Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s desires?…Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?’
In The Matrix, the character Cypher chooses to plug back into the system, assured that he will be rich and famous, and will remember nothing whatsoever about the matrix. But what would you choose? To exist in an uncertain and possibly harsh reality, or to retreat to a beautiful illusion (unaware, of course, of its being an illusion). Is ignorance bliss? Is all that matters, as Nozick states, ‘how our lives feel from the inside’ or is there something else that matters to us more? If so, what?