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An Interpretation of the Philosophy of The Matrix Trilogy
by Mark Young
Certainly the Matrix movies represent one of the most successful recent attempts to bring philosophical ideas to the general public, although many will confess to be ignorant of the central thesis of the movies and are therefore also dissatisfied with them. This is understandable, since the Wachowski Brothers may not be attempting to convey a definitive thesis, but also because one needs an extensive philosophical background to grasp the ideas and debates that are conveyed in the movies. Within the three movies there occurs a variety of social and philosophical commentary, and this commentary is obscured simply by the fact that the mode of presentation is highly symbolic. Also, the story of the Matrix movies represent not only certain substantive claims and ideas concerning the nature of reality and the human condition, but further communicates the general effect of philosophy on those who engage in it. In what follows an attempt will be made to interpret some of the symbolism of the Matrix movies in order to make some of its interesting aspects transparent.
One of the most significant scenes in any of the three movies occurs when Neo decides to eat the red pill, which then leads to his awakening from the Matrix. With this scene the Wachowski Brothers convey an important idea within philosophy that has been a part of the discipline since its inception. Often people are wiling to accept things as they appear, in that they do not question their beliefs about the world. Our belief systems determine our world for us; since it is through them that we interpret our experiences. A simple example is the optimist who seems to live in a different world than the pessimist, although a more striking example is between the fundamentalist Christian and the scientific naturalist. Each will interpret particular experiences, as well as the whole of reality, differently simply due to the divergent belief systems that each possess. Of course, our belief systems can be wrong, and thus reality is not as we think it is. This was Neo's discovery when he ate the red pill, and the discovery of philosophers when they began to question their beliefs more than twenty-six hundred years ago. Thus Neo's awakening is symbolic of the general philosophic experience of questioning one's beliefs about the world, and the attempt to discover what exists behind our illusions. We can be deceived by evil machines, a Cartesian demon, or by the traditions of our society; and if we are, then reality is not as we believe it is.
The awakening from the Matrix that occurs in the beginning of the first movie, though, is simply a foreshadowing of the rude awakening that Neo experiences through his meeting with the Architect at the end of the second movie. Through this meeting Neo discovers even further that his beliefs are illusory, as the Architect informs him that the 'savior myth' is merely a means of control. But much has occurred between the two 'awakening' scenes. We have learned of humanity's struggle to be free, of Zion, and have been introduced to a number of interesting characters, which include Agent Smith, the Oracle and, of course, the Architect. Zion can be easily interpreted as the city of free thinkers, or those who think 'out side of the box/Matrix.' Their struggle represents the struggle to be free from illusions, and to accept the world as it is. More interesting philosophical notions emerge, though, when we ask whom Neo, the Oracle and the Architect are supposed to represent.
The significance of Neo seems to be readily apparent. He is the savior of a people imprisoned by a false reality. This is a theme that can be found in religions that are as diverse as Christianity and Buddhism. Another theme that can be found in either of these religions' mystical traditions is that religious myths and symbols can be a hindrance to true enlightenment. At the end of the second movie we discover that Neo is such a hindrance. That is, he is not truly the savior of humankind, but instead a means of control. Thus, people will not become free through him. Neo nonetheless is still something special, and it is through the Architect's esoteric remarks that we learn of his significance. Neo is, as the Architect states, the manifestation of pure choice or freedom. We may ask, of course, what does this mean? To answer this question we must state what the Architect is supposed to represent.
The Architect is the designer, and maintainer, of the Matrix. The Matrix is for him an elaborate calculation, or algorithm, which he is capable of computing. This is due to the fact that he possesses a sophisticated logical mind, since he is artificial intelligence. The Architect is able to deal with the plethora of human motives, desires and drives within his algorithmic world, but one thing he is incapable of managing is unfettered choice as it is manifested in Neo. Neo is not constrained by the world around him, since the rules and laws of that world can be overridden by Neo through a simple fiat. He can stop bullets, or fly, by simply willing these things to occur. Neo is therefore referred to as the 'anomaly' by the machines, and by the Architect, since the artificial mind of the latter cannot fathom an undetermined choice. For the artificial mind all thinking is determined by strict rules of reasoning. To make a choice the machine must have a reason which justifies what is chosen, and the reasoning toward this choice always follows the necessary logical steps. The machine mind cannot think outside of strict rules of logic and justification, and this is why the Architect, as well as the Merovingian, cannot break a promise once it is made. If reason and circumstance has led them to make a promise, then they can do nothing other than act in accord with it since their minds can be nothing other than logical.
These are some interesting insights into the two characters of Neo and the Architect, but what is the philosophy that is lying behind such characters? Well, the Wachowski Brothers seem to be making statements both about the nature of the human mind, and about the whole of reality.
Within the twentieth century there have been two distinct intellectual traditions, each advocating a contrary view concerning the nature of the human mind. In one tradition there is a focus on logic and science with the mind being thought of as analogous to a computer. The mind makes choices, and comes to conclusions, only through the influence of particular causes, whether individual persons are aware of such causes or not. These causes can be such things as particular reasons deliberated over, unconscious fears, experiential input and overwhelming desires. There are a variety of theories about the mind within this tradition, but what is common is the idea that the mind entails a set of determinate relations, and that it is through the interaction of these relations that the mind produces its particular activity.
The other tradition focuses less on science and logic, and more on art and creativity. Within this tradition the activity of the human mind can occur without being strictly determined by prior causes. That is, the mind is thought of as more creative and not bound by reasons, desires and so on. Humans have no determinate nature, and can assess the reasons, desires, fears, etc that are possible influences on them and then decide to act on them or not. The important point of distinction to notice here is that with the former tradition the mind's activity is strictly determined by causes while with the latter it is determined by the agent's ability to choose. The mind is more intuitive, in that it does not always act through the influence of reasons, but instead through some insight which shapes perception and acts to influence choice and action. It therefore advocates a strong theory of the unfettered will that is able to act undetermined by causal influences. Exemplary examples of the latter tradition include art, poetry, irrational behaviour and human imagination.
Within the Matrix movies, then, we have the interaction of these two theories of the mind through the interaction of such characters as Neo, the Architect, the Oracle, and Agent Smith. But, as the third movie develops its plot, it is more than a mere theory of the mind that is developed. Also developed is a specific ontology, and this ontology seems to have its roots in the thought of Plato. For Plato there are three fundamental principles at work in any possible universe. These are the One, the Limited, and the Unlimited. The One simply represents unity as fundamental. If there is to be anything it must first possess unity. How things come to be, though, is through the interaction of the Limited and the Unlimited. Unity must exist, but if we are to have more than just unity something must expand, or develop. Such expansion is spurred by the Unlimited, which we can try to make sense of by thinking of it as unfettered growth. How are we then to have a variety of things, or, more accurately, explain the variety of things? Limits must be put on the Unlimited to generate such variety. A sphere comes to be such by having a circumference. Eventually red ceases and the next colour emerges. The basic idea is that there would be nothing without first having unity. Next we need growth, and if we are to have differentiation, then specific limitations must be placed on this growth in determinate ways.
In the third movie, then, the interplay of the Limited, the Unlimited and Unity come to the forefront; although they have actually been there all along. We see this through the interaction between Smith and Neo, as well as the Oracle and the Architect. That Neo is supposed to be representative of the Unlimited has already been elaborated upon, and if Smith is his opposite, as it is stated in the third movie, then he will naturally be symbolic of the Limited. And we can see that this is the case if we look to Smith's actions, and role, in the second and third films. Smith represents an algorithmic self that continues to produce itself. Eventually Smith eliminates all others, and intends to put the ultimate limit on the world by ending it. With this character, then, it seems that the Wachowski Brothers are saying something about algorithmic interpretations of intelligence. They are saying that such an intelligence would ultimately only produce itself, and that if we are to have the variety of humanity we have now there must be some undetermined aspects that humans can mold through sheer will and creativity. What is most important, though, is the interaction between Smith and Neo, especially their last scene together. If we rely on the interpretation that Neo represents the Unlimited, while Smith represents the Limited, then their interaction will be significant for the maintenance of existence. Certainly this is the case, since through their interaction they are both cancelled out and reality reemerges from destruction. This is because we can interpret Neo, as the Unlimited, as representing -1, while Smith, as the Limited, represents 1. What happens when we bring -1 and 1 together? They cancel one another out, and we get 0, which is the starting point of the number line. The number line is itself symbolic of the continuity of existence.
Thus, humanity and the machine world is saved through the confrontation and unity of Neo and Smith, and an uneasy peace exists between the two groups. Once again this 'uneasy peace' represents the delicate balance between the rational and irrational, or limited and unlimited, aspects of the human animal. That it is the Wachowski Brothers' intention to propose an ontology that relies on the interaction of the Unlimited and Limited is further attested to by the last few scenes of the movie. In these last few scenes we see the Oracle and the Architect talking to one another about what has recently transpired and the peace that has emerged. The Oracle, as it is stated in the movie, is an intuitive program, and therefore is representative of the unlimited aspects of humanity. The Architect is the limited. With this last scene when they are talking to one another we learn of how it was ultimately a battle between these two that we had been observing throughout the movies. The Architect is the epitome of rationality, and accuses the Oracle of playing a dangerous game. The Oracle confesses ignorance of what the outcome was to be, but states that such actions were necessary for real change. Nonetheless, it is through their game - through the tension and interaction of the Limited and Unlimited - that a new reality is brought about.
Did You Know?
Neo's opening scene in The Matrix shows the computer displaying 'Wake up Neo'. This echoes HAL's opening line in '2001: A Space Odyssey'.