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I Think, therefore I Am a Simulation?

The Thirteenth Floor as a Thought Experiment on Descartes' Cogito
Ergo Sum
Since the success of The Matrix (1999) simulated realities are a popular
topic in pop-culture !nother more recent example from the cinema is
Inception ("#1#) $o%e&er' there are other films %hich are not as %ell-
(no%n as the a)o&e The Thirteenth Floor' from the same *ear as The
Matrix' deals %ith a similar topic $annon Fuller (!rmin +ueller-Stahl)'
de&eloper of a computer program %hich allo%s the user to do%nload his
consciousness into a simulated realit*' disco&ers that he himself li&es in
a simulated realit* $e is murdered )* a user from "#",' Da&id' )ut not
)efore he can lea&e a message to one of his emplo*ees in the
simulation Douglas $all (Craig -ier(o) sets out to find the message
and is ama.ed )* ho% real the units in the simulation seem $e finds
out the truth and falls in lo&e %ith Da&id's %ife /ane (0retchen +ol) 1n
the end' Da&id is murdered %hile he occupies Douglas' )od* and
Douglas %a(es up in "#",
The 2uestion %hether %e and the %orld %e li&e in are real is not
a ne% one The French philosopher 3en4 Descartes alread* discussed
this 2uestion in his Meditations on First Philosophy in 15,1 Descartes
proposed that thin(ing a)out one's existence pro&es that some)od*
exists to do the thin(ing (Descartes 16) 1n other %ords' if there %as no
one to do the thin(ing' there %ould )e no thought $o%e&er' Descartes'
in the 7general 8estern pattern of dra%ing strict lines9 onl*
distinguished )et%een real and unreal and did not allo% for different
le&els of realit* (Schroeder "6:)
Films can deal %ith philosophical 2uestions and ideas )* acting
as thought experiments' %hich are a common method in philosoph*
These thought experiments are 7meant to challenge our intuitions or
commonsense assumptions9 (;roustallis <") The* can examine a
philosophical 2uestion and at the same time 7entertain %ith their
narrati&e and fictional structure9 (;roustallis <=) 1n The Thirteenth
Floor' the audience is challenged to 7the same dou)ts a)out
appearance and realit* that the main character faces9 (;roustallis <=-
To sho% that The Thirteenth Floor is a thought experiment on
Descartes' 71 thin(' therefore 1 am9 statement' this essa* %ill examine
the different la*ers of realit* in the film' the pro)lem of identit*' testing
the limits of the %orld and anal*se the end of the film
There are three different realities in the film> the 19=#'s' the
middle realit* and "#", The 19=#'s are the lo%est realit*' the* are the
simulation %ithin the simulation The* are sho%n in )ro%n' gre* and
)lac( colours and are 7replete %ith rich lustrous fa)rics and cro%ded
ca)aret scenes9 ($a*les ,6<) This %orld is used )* their de&eloper
$annon Fuller' %ho do%nloads his consciousness into the s*stem to
ha&e sex %ith *oung girls 1t resem)les the %orld as it %as %hen he %as
*oung The middle realit* is 7the present-da* real %orld ?%hich@ is itself a
simulation' created )* a realit* a)o&e it9 ($a*les ,6,) The middle %orld
is characteri.ed )* 7cold glass and steel surfaces9 ($a*les ,6<) 1t is
used )* Da&id %ho do%nloads into main character Douglas $all to li&e
out his &iolent side The "#", realit* is the realit* on top of the other
ones' it has a 7futuristic utopian st*le9 %ith light colours ($a*les ,6<)
The characters )elie&e this realit* to )e the highest and onl* real one
8hene&er some)od* do%nloads their consciousness into one of
the s*stems there is the 2uestion %hat happens to the consciousness of
the person the* do%nload into during that time and ho% much memor*
of the time the* %ill ha&e 7The user's experiences manifest themsel&es
to the simulant as almost memories' interpreted as d4AB &u9 ($a*les
,6,) There are se&eral times %hen d4AB-&u is mentioned in the film
D4AB &u can mean a 7false memor*9 or 7that an e&ent or entit* is similar
to' )ut not replicati&e of' another e&ent or entit*9 ($unt-Ca.erson "6:)
8hen Douglas meets /ane for the first time' he thin(s he has met her
)efore !t that time' he does not (no% that his user Da&id is married to
her in the "#", realit* 8hen Douglas enters the =#'s simulation and
&isits Fuller's unit 0rierson' the old man thin(s Douglas loo(s familiar'
)ut )ecause he cannot remem)er him' he concludes that Douglas Aust
has one of those familiar faces !fter Douglas comes out of the
simulation' he &isits /ane and as(s her again %h* she seems so familiar
and she sa*s ma*)e the* ha&e met in another life Cater Douglas finds
/ane's middle realit* unit Datasha +olinaro and she feels li(e the* ha&e
met )efore' too
The units also reali.e that there are time spans that the* cannot
remem)er Douglas does not (no% if he is framed for the murder of his
friend Fuller or if he reall* murdered him' )ecause he cannot remem)er
the night of the murder or deleting the message Fuller left him right
)efore his death 1n the =#'s simulation Douglas tries to trigger
0rierson's memor* and ta(es him to the )ar Fuller used to go to There
0rierson remem)ers the names of t%o of the girls and that he ga&e a
letter to the )artender Cater Douglas suddenl* remem)ers that he E
%hile controlled )* Da&id E sta))ed his friend
!nother factor %hen loo(ing at the identities of the persons %ho
do%nload their consciousness into another person's )od* is their
identif*ing ha)its and ho% the* )lend together For example' Douglas
does not smo(e at the )eginning of the film' )ut his unit /ohn Ferguson
does 8hen Douglas has spent some time in the =#'s simulation' he
starts smo(ing Cater /ane as(s him to dance %ith her and he sa*s he
has t%o left feed )ut then dances 2uite %ell $e finds out that Ferguson
is a good dancer %hen he enters the =#'s simulation the next time
8hen Douglas fights off the )artender Tom /ones' %ho comes to
)lac(mail him in the middle realit*' he seems to )e surprised of ho% %ell
he fights )ut later finds out that his user Da&id is a &iolent man
!fter the )artender /err* !shton read the letter Fuller ga&e him in
the =#'s simulation to gi&e to Douglas' sa*ing that their %orld is not real'
he follo%s the instructions to test the limits of his %orld 8hen he sees
for himself that his %orld ends in nothingness Aust outside the to%n he
li&es in' he )elie&es that he and his %orld are not real and looses his
mind o&er the (no%ledge Douglas finds out that /err* (no%s and %ants
to shut do%n the simulation )ecause he thin(s 7these people are real9
!t this point' the film raises an ethical 2uestion' if the people in the
simulation are real 7shutting the s*stem do%n can onl* amount to mass
murder9 ($a*les ,6:) 1n fact' the simulation is shut do%n later )*
Da&id' %ho pa*s for all his murders %ith his o%n life
!part from this 2uestion' e&er*)od* %ho finds out the truth
seems to struggle %ith the (no%ledge !t the )eginning of the film' the
audience learns that Fuller %ished he had ne&er found out the truth
from his letter 8hen Douglas finall* realises that he li&es in another
simulation and has )een to the end of the %orld' he thin(s that his life is
meaningless 7Fou pull the plug' 1 disappear' and nothing 1 e&er sa*'
nothing 1 e&er do' %ill e&er matter9 !nd %hen /ane tells him that she
lo&es him' he sa*s that she cannot fall in lo&e %ith a dream
1n general the characters ha&e different opinions on %hat is real
and %hat is not -efore Douglas finds out that he is a simulation' he
thin(s that the people in the =#'s simulation are real )ut his co-%or(er
8hitne* sa*s the* are not /ane thin(s that Douglas is real and e&en
has a soul' too' )ut Da&id thin(s that Douglas is Aust a part of him
)ecause he %as modelled after him 1n the end' Douglas consciousness
is uploaded into Da&id's )od* in "#", after the latter is shot in the
simulation This suggests that Douglas' consciousness or soul is as real
as Da&id's if it can )e transferred to the real %orld
The closing shot' ho%e&er' suggests that "#", is another
simulation as %ell 7The &ertical )egins to shrin( and then contracts to a
%hite dot' as if a tele&ision or computer screen %ere )eing shut do%n9
($a*les ,6<) This suggestion is also encouraged )* the fact that
no)od* e&er tests the limits of the "#", %orld
1n conclusion' the film suggests that )eing a)le to thin( is not a
guarantee for )eing real !fter all' not onl* do all the characters thin('
the* also thin( of themsel&es as real )efore the* find out the truth 1t
also 2uestions if there e&en is a real %orld or that it matters if there is
!ll characters %ho do not (*et) (no% the truth seem to li&e perfectl*
normal and happ* li&es and e&er*)od* %ho finds out the truth faces
internal and external struggle G&er all the film clearl* disagrees %ith
Descartes' 71 thin(' therefore 1 am9 statement
8or(s Cited
Descartes' 3en4 and Donald ! Cress Discourse on Method and
Meditations on First Philosophy. ,
ed 1ndianapolis> $ac(ett
Hu)lishing' 1996 Hrint
$a*les' D ;atherine and Dicholas 0essler 7The Slipstream of +ixed
3ealit*> Insta)le Gntologies and Semiotic +ar(ers in 'The
Thirteenth Floor' Dar( Cit*' and +ulholland Dri&e'9 PMA
119= ("##,)> ,6"-,99 !ST"# 8e) "" /une "#1,
$unt Ca.erson' -ar)ara 7D4AB &u9 American Speech 59= (199,)> "6:-
"9= !ST"# 8e) "" /une "#1,
;roustallis' -asileios 7Film as Thought Experiment9 Film$Philosophy
151 ("#1")> <"-6, Hrint
Schroeder' Craig 7Ce&els of Truth and 3ealit* in the Hhilosophies of
Descartes and Sam(ara9 Philosophy %ast and &est =:=
(196:)> "6:-"9= !ST"# 8e) "" /une "#1,
The Thirteenth Floor Dir /osef 3usna( Hrod 3oland Emmerich
Colum)ia Hictures' 1999 Film