My Take

Brain game: Wachowski brothers – now sisters – challenge our perception of reality

Philosophers ask us to challenge “reality” as an intellectual exercise; only fanatics and visionaries like the filmmakers would try to live the challenge

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2016, 1:51am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2016, 1:51am

If it were any other brothers, the news would have been quite improbable. But since it was the Wachowski brothers, who have now made the transgender transition to become sisters, somehow it almost makes sense.

Hollywood director Andy Wachowski is now Lilly. Her brother and filmmaking partner Larry came out as Lana a couple years ago. Perhaps it would be difficult to find two brothers who are this close at such a deep human level – professionally and in so many other ways.

I am a big fan of the first Matrix sci-fi movie, less so the series that came after. Every philosophy student recognises the fundamental Cartesian premise of the film: the material “reality” as we know it through our five senses may be a complete fiction.

Rene Descartes uses the thought experiment of an all-powerful demon who deceives us by manufacturing a total illusion that we take to be the external world. This is sometime updated by contemporary philosophers with the “brain-in-the-jar” argument that the brain doesn’t know it’s a brain in a jar.

In their movie series, the Wachowski sisters repackaged this most famous of philosophical problems by imaging an all-powerful computer network called the Matrix that breeds millions of humans in artificial wombs to use them as batteries to power itself. But to keep them alive, it makes them believe they are leading normal lives in the late 20th century. Only an occasional computer glitch allows a few perceptive humans – philosophers, rebels, hackers, terrorists? – a sudden shock or insight that things are not what they seem.

If what we take to be reality can be a total illusion, other philosophers have worked down the “reality” chain to more specific areas. Thus personhood or human rights have been called legal fictions; numbers are logical fictions … It should not be surprising that a whole school of thought that inspires contemporary queer/gay/gender studies questions the reality of sexuality and traditional gender categories.

If these things are not real or at least highly fluid, why should we define – and confine - ourselves by the sex stated in our birth certificates?

Of course, philosophers only ask us to challenge “reality” as an intellectual exercise. Only rebels, fanatics and visionaries like the Wachowskis would try to live the challenge.