In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick presents an often referenced thought experiment. Drawing from Descartes, Nozick describes the situation that we may simply be a brain in a vat (pictured to the right for your amusement) that is merely receiving electrical impulses via wires and a computer. A more contemporary version of this idea is presented in the Wachowski Brothers’ movie, The Matrix (the most awesome film ever made). In essence, in the universe of the Matrix, the world we call reality is a simulation presented to us by supercomputers. Our actual physical bodies are sitting in jelly-filled pods hooked up to a variety of probing wires.
One of the many “bad guys” in the movie is a character named “cypher” who decides to betray his friends in order to return to the “falsified” world of the matrix. Our natural reaction is obviously to hate this guy’s guts. Not only does he betray his friends, but he seems to be a coward. He can’t stand “reality”, so he tries to retreat to the “fake” world of the Matrix.
But after pushing aside the instinct to think that deciding to live in the Matrix is a dishonorable choice, we realize that our initial reaction might be too hasty. Maybe looking into the philosophy of the oft confusing Immanuel Kant might help.
“According to [Kant], our perception and understanding of the world is a result of filtering or molding of our sensory impressions througha priori intuitions (of space and time) and a priori concepts (such as causality). Such “pure forms of sensibility and of understanding” impose on us a certain basic view of the world, independently of (i.e. without regard to or appeal to) any content of sensation. They are structural preconditions of, respectively, any perception and any conceptual understanding, which therefore to a certain extent determine our thoughts without any reference to experience, which means effectively ‘subjectively’ (in one sense of the term, i.e. at least not objectively).”
Kant argues that the world we perceive is filtered through metaphorical goggles that we can never remove. These goggles are defined by our various senses and mental capacity that are the bridge by which we experience the world. Due to differences in each human’s (and possibly even living being’s) goggles, he/she perceives reality to be a different thing (in the case of people these differences can be mere minutia). What another organism (take for example one that has none of our five senses, but five completely different receptors) perceives reality to be would be completely different from what you and I defined it as. In fact, the way we experience reality can never be completely “unfiltered” (unless we can magically become super brains that overcome the biases of cognitive constraint and senses), because our inherently limited senses are the only way we can define the real world. We are all led to have our own unique definition of what reality actually is.
Therefore, we start to come to the conclusion that “reality” isn’t as objective as we often think it is. Reality then can only be defined by subjective and imperfect receptors in the brain, thus making it impossible for there to be one absolute “reality” every organism agrees upon. Once we realize that we can no longer define reality as a set of static descriptions, what will this new subjective reality be grounded in. All we can say that reality is unique for each person/organism and that each personal reality is defined by the sensory inputs they are experiencing.
Take for example a comparison between your and a schizophrenic person’s reality (I’m going to assume for the sake of the example you aren’t currently talking to yourself). In his world, he might be talking to a his friend on a park bench. But in yours, he is just sitting there mumbling to himself. Our reaction is to think that this “imaginary” friend is non-existent in an absolute sense i.e. he does not exist in any reality. But, the schizophrenic person can sense his friend and believes him to be sitting right next to him. So, we can say that this “imaginary” friend is actually real. He might not exist in your reality per say, but he definitely exists in a reality, that of the schizophrenic.
Then what do we make of the Matrix. The supposed real world that we like to ground ourselves in, is still experienced in the same way you would live in the Matrix. Through electrical impulses sent to your brain. Using the subjective reality view, our personal reality is dictated by the senses we perceive. Thus you cannot say that the Matrix is not a true reality in itself. For those who have broken out of the gelatinous vats, the Matrix is no longer a real world. They have changed their goggles (by choosing the red pill and going down the rabbit hole as Morpheus says) and now each perceive reality to be something different. But those in the system aren’t living a lie. Their reality is just as “real”. We might just think that because it is transparently deterministic that it is fake, but what is to say that our reality is not as deterministic.
Thus why Cypher is trying to do, is restore his old goggles and return to the old reality. He isn’t returning to some false fantasy world, he is merely changing (or asking for a change) in the way he perceives the world so that he can exist in a reality that he finds more comforting. If anything he understands that the Matrix is as real as the world Neo is trying to save. Unfortunately, he still tried to kill all of his friends, which in itself takes a massively strong believe in moral relativism to clear him of his “bad guy” title.