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This question originates from the explanation of Existential Comics 332.

When The Matrix came out, the New York Times reached out to philosopher of mind John Searle to write an article about the philosophical implications of the movie, most likely expecting some kind of bland article about how it was a recreation of Descartes. Instead John Searle wrote them saying the movie was incoherent, for the reasons outlined in the comic.

[Those reasons being that if two people have dreams about the same thing at the same time, those are different dreams.]

The article was never published on account of the fact that no one wanted to read that the movie was incoherent, not to mention most viewers probably wouldn't share Searle's intuitions about its incoherence. Ironic, since John Searle is one of the only modern philosophers to hold seriously the position that most people hold without any philosophical training - naive realism. That is to say, the belief that we experience reality directly. If this belief is true, of course, he is perfectly correct to say that the Matrix is incoherent, because a dream would be separated from reality via a causal connection, so we could have no interactive component.

Most people reject this upon further thought however, after all massively multiplayer video games, where the game world is experienced by each player independently but kept track of my a central computer, are perfectly coherent to most people. Philosophers usually reject this because they read Kant, which John Searle certainly did, but as far as I know he never played WoW so that's probably where he went astray.

According to Wikipedia, the first online multiplayer games appeared in the late 1980s, and by the time The Matrix came out in 1999 there were many well-established multiplayer games like Quake and Ultima Online. Brain-computer interfaces that can make these into a true shared dream are still beyond current technology, and the scope of this question, but I would just like to know who these "philosophers" who "reject this idea" are, and if any of them has engaged with the implications of the "shared dream" that millions of people experience every day.

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  • Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer.
    – Community Bot
    Dec 6, 2023 at 18:27
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    This is more ethnography than philosophy, but Julian Dibbell's My Tiny Life investigates the social reality of virtual spaces. Separately - and maybe because I can't remember that book very well - I wonder what you or anyone thinks is the important difference in this matter between online multiplayer games and plain ol' in-person games. A good comparison would be on ongoing game of Dungeons and Dragons, where all the players and the game master are agreeing to create a fantasy world and follow its rules.
    – Juhasz
    Dec 6, 2023 at 19:57
  • Multiple client consoles networked to a main server computer are about five minutes older than the computer itself. There's no reason to suspect that Searl didn't know about them, which makes the whole thing look like a strawman.
    – g s
    Dec 6, 2023 at 20:09
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    I think this is the case where loose popular language clashes with philosophers' penchant for technicality and precision. Brain-computer interfaces and "shared dreams" they bring will not produce any "true shared consciousness", as philosophers understand it. It is no different, in principle, than playing a multiplayer board game, we just replace retina and optical nerve with neural implants as communication media. There is "shared play" in both cases, but consciousnesses stay just as separate whatever the interface is. Where Searle went astray is taking metaphorical language at face value.
    – Conifold
    Dec 6, 2023 at 23:38

4 Answers 4

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The thing is the simulation in the Matrix is not a dream, but a part of reality. Probably Searle got that wrong because he hadn't seen the movie, and the New York Times people didn't explain it very well (that's my speculation).

Dreams are a production of our own brain, but what happens in the fictional matrix is not. We can both dream of having dinner together at the same time, but if I order fries in my dream it does'nt imply that I shall do the same in yours. On the other hand when Cypher orders a steak during his dinner with Agent Smith, the simulation will inform the people around, the waiter, the cook, that this guy ordered steak and they will act accordingly. If all were dreaming, this interaction would not happen.

If we define reality as what we can share a perception of, interact together with and agree upon, then the Matrix simulation and online games are definitely part of reality.

If we go with another definition summed up by the Philipp K. Dick quote "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away", then again online games and the Matrix simulation correspond to that definition. If a player forgets about a certain quest or a certain monster in World of Warcraft, or even if every single player were to forget about it, it is still here, described in the game's database. If they enter the wrong room in a dungeon they will see it didn't go away. The Matrix here is more complex to analyse because Neo has the power to wish bullets away, but if you think about it he never stops believing that the simulation is informing him that there are fictitious bullets coming the way of his avatar, he just stops believing those bullets have the power to harm his physical body. Which, actually, they never had. This retroactive power of the simulation on the bodies is precisely the only thing that is not real in the movie's universe, and it goes away when Neo stops believing in it.

The conclusion would be that online games are not any more about collective consciousness or dream sharing than watching the Macy's Thanksgiving parade live on TV. Although they are far appart, all spectators are watching a representation of the same thing and can talk about it later, share their impressions. The only difference being that in online games the player can chose a viewport and decide of one character's actions, but all players are still watching a rendering of the same, physical thing, that is the state of the game server.

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This is a fascinating question. I suppose it depends on what you mean by "shared consciousness". Conventional physicalists insist that the mind somehow supervenes on the brain, however anyone who supports embodied cognition (SEP) pushes past those limits making it now ambiguous to claim what consciousness is. For instance, from an externalist standpoint, if you consider that people use language to explicitly extend their cognition in line with thinking about content externalism (SEP), then shared consciousness might be by metaphysical necessity precisely what we have when we talk about having a consensus reality or talking about a heterphenomenological method. We like to see our consciousness as individuated and distinct, but if a natural language is indeed a public and conventional artifact, how much of our consciousness inner dialog is really ours alone?

John Searle is a defender of direct realism and rejects, IIRC, a representational theory of mind very vehemently, and therefore the idea that minds can be shared would be, I suppose, tantamount to having an intermingling of shared representation? An idealist would seem to have less trouble with the notion of sharing consciousness since the mind presupposes the erstwhile physical barrier between minds in the our physicalist presumptions above. But then again, we still have to deal with the presuppositions that support our claims about consciousness and whatever ontology we build around it. As far as I know, and I"m no expert in consciousness, the term 'collective consciousness' might be the body of literature to search for ideas?

Perhaps you might want to consider those who question the coherence of the concept of consciousness entirely. To say there a "shared consciousness" might be some sort of category mistake. According to WP:

Philosophers differ from non-philosophers in their intuitions about what consciousness is.[31] While most people have a strong intuition for the existence of what they refer to as consciousness,[25] skeptics argue that this intuition is false, either because the concept of consciousness is intrinsically incoherent, or because our intuitions about it are based in illusions. Gilbert Ryle, for example, argued that traditional understanding of consciousness depends on a Cartesian dualist outlook that improperly distinguishes between mind and body, or between mind and world. He proposed that we speak not of minds, bodies, and the world, but of individuals, or persons, acting in the world. Thus, by speaking of "consciousness" we end up misleading ourselves by thinking that there is any sort of thing as consciousness separated from behavioral and linguistic understandings.

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The answer is emphatically - YES.

It's Putnam... not Searle, but we're talking history, not philosophy. All of the Matrix movies were based on a combination of Putnam, and frank capra. And the creators 100% knew what they were doing. That and a little James Cameron... so theyre very fun to watch

** changed the question so this might not apply ***

Playing video games isnt even close to having your brain in a vat.

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Multiplayer online games are not an example of "shared consciousness" but of "virtual reality". The players share the same reality (even though it is a virtual one) but they do not share the same consciousness.

Other players can see what your avatar is doing, but they have no clue what "you" are doing or how "you" feel about what is happening.

Also what is broadcasted to you might not even be the same reality. Like technically the server only stores and passes information about objects and passes signals between players. So a "game state" might be as boring as a list of "where things are in the game world". And it likely is that boring because otherwise you'd have to send large amounts of data all the time which costs money and is harder to synchronize.

So what you experience as the "objects" and "characters" isn't really a property of the "game state" that is shared with other people, they are a property of the client (your locally installed game that takes something like monster:["type A object", x=23,y=145,z=0, array_of_hitboxes)] and replaces that with a nice looking sprite of a monster.

However the difference between client and server already allows for "inverted spectra", like what others see as counter strike and people shooting at each other with machine guns could idk be a snow ball fight on another person's computer. You might life in the same reality and you might have a very different perspective of it. You could still say stuff like "where is ABC" and "he's over there" and both of you would know what that means and get an impression that the other person has grasped what you were asking for and yet what you see is and experience is very different.

But it doesn't stop there because so far the objects are still just an array of pixels on a screen, they only really become "a monster" inside your brain. Which adds another layer of meaning to these entities that was not encoded in the information transmitted to the client or on your screen and that is probably distinct from what the other players get from the game.

So while you see similar things/events you experience a different world. So you are not in the same dream. In fact the game is literally working very hard to emulate that illusion by constantly sending signals between you an the other dreamers prompting you to describe your dream and telling your "subconsciousness" (client pc) what the others are dreaming in order to keep the events in your world consistent enough for it to feel plausible. But they literally stop at the level of objects and interactions with the environment (including players) leaving a lot of the things that your consciousness is bothered with and which the game can neither know nor transport.

So no you are sleeping in your own bed and you don't share the same dream you just share the same "(constantly updating) thinking prompt", but you don't necessarily make the same thing out of it. And in that regard multiplayer online games haven't added more insight, have they?

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