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Watching The Matrix Trilogy Philosophically
by Matt Lawrence, Ph.D.
Author of Like a Splinter in Your Mind: The Philosophy Behind the Matrix Trilogy
The Matrix films are arguably some of the most philosophical films to ever confront mainstream movie audiences. Unfortunately, if one does not have much philosophical background (and most people don't) it is easy to miss most of the philosophical content. Therefore, in order to help fans get the most of their film experience, I offer The Matrix 101 readers the following philosophical guide.
It's The Questions That Drive Us
In essence, philosophy is about asking the big questions of life. The Matrix Trilogy is philosophical precisely because both the characters and the plot are driven by the big questions from almost every area of philosophy. Below is a listing of some of the major branches of philosophical thought, and a brief survey of some of the questions that the films raise.
METAPHYSICS: THE STUDY/THEORY OF REALITY
What is Real? The main metaphysical theme, that appearances can be deceiving, is impossible to miss. It is the very premise of the whole matrix deception. Morpheus raises the big metaphysical questions when, in the construct program, he asks Neo: "What is real? How do you define real?" We've all heard these lines, but to watch the Matrix philosophically is to seriously ask the question yourself. How do you define real? Morpheus goes on to say, "If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain." But the story shows us why this answer won't do. If we define reality in this way, then the Matrix would be "Real." But we want to say (as does Morpheus) that the Matrix is a deception - appearance only. Zion is what's real in the films, and our lives are what's real for us. So how should we define "real?" What is the difference between "appearance" and "reality"? These are the tough metaphysical questions that every armchair philosopher must tackle.
EPISTEMOLOGY: THE STUDY/THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
Can we know what is Real? Morpheus tells Neo, "All I offer is the Truth." But can Morpheus really be sure that he's got it? Does he know with certainty that Zion is the real world and not simply another level of the Matrix? (Note his uncertainty at the end of Revolutions.) And can you be sure that you are not in a matrix yourself? Most people don't take this question very seriously. (It's crazy -- right?) But think about it. What are the tell-tale signs of a matrix? There are none. Thomas Anderson's world seemed just like our world, so can you really be so sure? For centuries skeptics have argued that one can never know for certain what the world is really like. Most of the time we have trouble taking such skeptics seriously, but the Matrix films show us why they may not be as crazy as they seem.
ETHICS: THE STUDY/THEORY OF MORALITY AND VALUE
What is Good? The Matrix urges us to consider a number of questions concerning value. Take, for instance, the choice between the red pill and blue. For Neo the choice is an easy one. To discover what the matrix is has been his life's goal - of course he'll choose the red pill. But Cypher shows us that the choice is really more complicated. It is easy to choose the red pill when you don't know what you are getting yourself into. But Cypher has seen the desert of the real. After eating the same "God damn goop everyday," he regrets the choice. Neo, on the other hand, gets to be Superman. Who wouldn't like that? The interesting thing to consider is what you would do in a situation more like Cypher's. Forget about the war with the machines for a moment and think about this: if our world was an illusion - a matrix of sorts - would you prefer to live in the "real world" if in many ways that world sucked. No more juicy steaks, dry martinis, nice clothes, movie theaters, sports, etc.? Ultimately, how you answer this question will come down to how much you value pleasure in comparison to truth. Is pleasure all that really matters (as philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill have argued), or is truth valuable for its own sake?
Is There Moral Truth? Another key moral question brought out in the trilogy pertains to the objectivity of value judgments. In Revolutions, at the end of their final burly brawl, Smith asks Neo:
Why Mr. Anderson? Why? ...Why keep fighting? Do you think you're fighting for something - for more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom, or truth, perhaps peace, could it be for love? Illusions Mr. Anderson, vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence without meaning or purpose.
Here Smith attacks the values that humans hold dear, claiming that they are "illusions," "constructs" (artificial creations), no more real than the matrix itself. While Neo does not engage Smith in a philosophical debate about this (he fights simply because he chooses to), you might want to take this question on yourself. Is Smith right? Are these values, and the importance we attribute to them, just illusions that we create to justify our actions and our very existence?
If you agree with Smith then you are a moral non-objectivist. You believe that there is no such thing as "objective truth" pertaining to judgments of value, and right and wrong. If you disagree with Smith then you are probably a moral objectivist. You believe that some value judgments and/or judgments about right and wrong can be objectively true. That is, you probably think that certain moral claims like: It's wrong to use a matrix to deceive people against their will, are true in a way that is independent of what any individual or culture thinks about it. While in one sense this is your own moral opinion (and the opinion of your culture), it is not true because you (or we) believe it, rather, you believe it because it is true.
Does objective moral truth exist? This is one of the most important philosophical questions that a person can ask, and the great philosophers have taken both sides. Socrates, Plato, Immanuel Kant and others have argued that there is such truth, while Friedrich Nietzsche, A.J. Ayer, Agent Smith and others have denied it. Without a doubt the Wachowski brothers have contemplated this question, and are encouraging you to do the same.
PHILOSOPHY OF MIND: THE PHILOSOPHICAL STUDY/THEORY OF MIND
The Mind-Body Problem: One of the main questions about the mind that the trilogy raises is called "the mind-body problem." It involves the relationship between the mind and the brain. Is the mind simply the brain? Or, is it separate and distinct - an immortal soul temporarily connected to the brain? The whole "matrix scenario" of jacking into an illusory world by connecting a person's brain to a computer system seems to suppose mind-body materialism - the view that the mind just is the brain. To "think of Zion" or "see an Agent" is just to have your neurons firing in a particular pattern. But the Wachowskis are never ones to suggest an easy answer to philosophical questions. There are elements in the films that can be seen in terms of mind-body dualism which holds that the mind and brain are in some sense separate and distinct. For instance, when Neo finds himself at Mobil Ave. when he isn't even jacked in, seems to suggest that "he" is not just his brain. (Notice, however, that Maggie says his neural patterns look just like those of a person who is jacked in, as he lies comatose on the Hammer.)
It is interesting to consider what theory of the mind is really at work within the Matrix Trilogy, but the beauty of these films is that they make us question our own lives. Is your mind just your brain? Modern neuroscience says "yes," but most religions give an emphatic "no." Which position do you take, and what are your reasons?
Is There Free Will? Another significant issue in the philosophy of mind is the matter of free will. We find a number of different outlooks on this topic within the films:
PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION: THE PHILOSOPHICAL STUDY/THEORY OF RELIGION AND RELIGIOUS ISSUES
The Problem of Freedom and Divine Foreknowledge: Another philosophical puzzle related to free will pertains to the concept of divine foreknowledge. This theme arises within the trilogy with respect to the Oracle's unerring predictions. Although the Oracle is not God, she "sees without time" - a quality typically attributed to God. So the following question arises: If the Oracle (or God), knows what a person shall do, are they free to do otherwise? For example, if the Oracle knows that Neo will take the cookie at exactly 2:45pm (and she is never mistaken), then is it within Neo's power to refuse the cookie? On the face of it, it seems that he cannot. If the Oracle can't be mistaken, then Neo can't refuse. And, if this analysis is correct, then he seems to be "unfree" with respect to that choice. This problem becomes most acute in the case of God who is supposed to know everything. [The Wachowskis toyed with the idea of total foreknowledge themselves. In Enter the Matrix the Oracle told Niobe: "I know everything from the beginning of this path to the end." But, apparently the brothers changed their mind, and at the end of Revolutions she informs Seraph that she didn't know how things would ultimately turn out - but she "believed."] Complete foreknowledge would appear to wipe out free will altogether. Not only would Neo be unable to refuse the cookie, he would be unable to do anything differently in his entirely life from what the Oracle has foreseen.
Is there a way out of this paradox? Most religious people think so. The dominant view within Western theology is that God is indeed omniscient, and knows the future perfectly. Yet most people who believe this also believe that they have free will in the sense that they have real "options" in front of them. Can these two beliefs be reconciled? Can you find an answer to this age-old philosophical puzzle?
SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY: THE PHILOSOPHICAL STUDY OF SOCIAL ISSUES
The Social Construction of Race and Gender: What does it mean to be a man or a woman? What does it mean to be black or white or Asian or Latino, etc.? We all know that race and sex has different meanings in various cultures. For instance, to be black in America two hundred years ago meant (according to the dominant white culture) that you were "property" rather than a person, that you were "unfit" for education, etc. Similarly, to be a woman meant that you were unfit for political life - or to even vote, that you must be dainty and refined, etc. These cultural meanings that a society builds around the biological differences between people (race and sex) are called social constructions And without a doubt, some cultural constructions have been quite damaging. So when you watch the Matrix films, you might consider how race and gender are constructed within the films. As you do this, keep in mind that there are two cultures at work in the films - the culture of the Matrix (think of Neo's job at Metacortex, the Federal building, the Merovingian's restaurant, etc.) and the culture of Zion, which we see through the actions of the rebels in all three films, and in scenes depicting Zion itself in the later two films. If you compare and contrast these two realms you should see a marked difference in how race and gender are depicted. Also, think about the Wachowski's choices regarding the cast. Why are the Architect, the Agents, the police officers, the guards at the Federal building all white men? Why are those programs who help the rebels all people of color and/or women, e.g., Persephone, Oracle, Sati, Seraph, Ramakandra? Surely these are not mere coincidences. The Wachowski's have a distinct message concerning race and gender in these films, and you must dig beyond the surface to understand it.
It's The Questions That Brought You Here
And what are the answers to all these philosophical questions that drive us? By now you probably gather that I'm not going to answer them for you. But after all, how could I? Just as Morpheus explained to Neo that no one can tell him what the matrix is - "he must see it for himself" - similarly, no one can supply the philosophical answers for you. You've got to explore them for yourself. To quote the master: "I can only show you the door. You must walk through it."
Matt Lawrence is the author of Like a Splinter in Your Mind: The Philosophy Behind the Matrix Trilogy and is a frequent contributor to the online Matrix community. He maintains a website with additional information on his book. Read TheMatrix101 review.
Did You Know?
Because of the man vs. machine similarity in storylines between 'The Matrix,' and the 'Terminator' movies, some have suggested they fit together sequentially. The 'Terminator' movies show the intensification of the war as a prequel to The Matrix story, which happens after the machines have found the ultimate way to control humans.