Neo’s Freedom… Whoa!

The Matrix provides a fine resource for illustrating philosophical ideas. Many films have themes that one can philosophize about, or that serve as useful illustrations of philosophical ideas, such as the wonderful films Sophie’s Choice or The Sheltering Sky. But The Matrix offers more than this. It belongs in a special class of films including Blade RunnerTotal RecallCrimes and MisdemeanorsA Clockwork OrangeThe Unbearable Lightness of Being, and The Truman Show. All of these films are intentionally philosophical. Each shows how richly philosophical themes can be developed through cinema. Perhaps the best of these films is The Matrix.


No doubt, the most striking philosophical theme found in The Matrix concerns skepticism about knowledge of an external world. The dream world Neo inhabited was a perfectly comfortable “reality”—except for the fact that it was not reality.[1]This claim is meant to be philosophically innocent, simply taking “reality” as the films creators suggested it to be. For proper philosophical scrutiny of the notion of reality as it pertains to … Continue reading Life from inside it completely shielded one from what Morpheus aptly called “the desert of the real,” that desolated shell of a planet on which countless humans were unknowingly ensconced in slimy wombs. But there are many other philosophical themes explored within The Matrix. One is the concept of freedom. Freedom is mentioned at various points in the film.[2]I shall assume that my reader has seen the film and is familiar with the characters in it, the basic plot, various events that took place, etc.  It mattered a great deal who did what freely. For instance, it was important that Neo freely chose to take the red pill and not the blue pill. Had he taken the blue pill, he’d have been returned to that humdrum dream world of vapid city dwellers. He’d never have taken the path that eventually led him to his heroic defeat of the agents, and that left him at the end of the film entertaining the prospect of saving the human race. At various other points Neo made choices freely, and, as with taking the red pill, it was the quality of having made them freely that gave them the importance they had. For instance, Neo freely decided to risk his life for Morpheus; instead of fleeing when his own life was in danger, he returned to save Morpheus from cranial meltdown at the hands of those treacherous agents in their zoot suits. Also, Neo freely followed the white rabbit that led him tumbling down that rabbit hole. And he remained in the car when Trinity and Switch gave him the opportunity to bail. By remaining in the car, Neo freely chose to resist the agents. He chose on his own not to get out and walk away down that street, down that well worn path that, Trinity reminded him, led to nowhere special. In choosing to remain in the car, he freely embarked upon a path that would lead to an exciting future, to an exciting life.

But it was not just Neo’s freedom that mattered. Freedom was an issue for the others as well. During Cypher’s attempted mutiny, Trinity reminded him that all of Morpheus’s rebels had freely chosen the red pill, and so none could claim that they were in their dire straights undeservedly. All the same, Cypher regretted his choice. He felt duped; he did not regard his choice to take the red pill as free. As he saw it, he was scammed. In fact, he was of the opinion that he’d have had more freedom as a steak-eating, satiated participant in The Matrix, oblivious to the “truth” about the ugly shell that would have held him in perpetual slumber.

Freedom also mattered a great deal when it was not possessed. It seems that this was the case with those countless human drones, all contained in their artificial wombs. As Morpheus and company saw it (save for Cypher), their poor, ignorant kin were victims, blind to their lack of freedom—maybe even happy in their plodding little lives within the Matrix, working in cubicles all day—but victims all the same, enslaved in the service of generating battery juice for those battery-powered A.I. meanies. Even the leader of the agents’ posse, Agent Smith, valued freedom. He too was limited in his freedom since he was required to do something against his will, namely remain in the Matrix and deal with those pesky rebel infiltrators. As he confessed to Morpheus, he hated having to be there, hated the smell of the humans. He felt trapped. Poor guy. In the end, Agent Smith’s freedom was dramatically impaired by a liberated Neo, who had turned the tables and was now screwing with him.

But of course, all of this is to leave the concept of freedom unanalyzed, and to take the claims of freedom within the film on face value. As any good student of philosophy is aware, there are quite general skeptical challenges to (certain kinds of) freedom that might undermine the very idea that any agent is free in at least one important respect. Let’s defer for just a bit longer placing any theoretical structure on what freedom might be, and on the sorts of challenges there might be to it. Let’s fix upon some further observations that will subsequently help us to bring into clear focus a few frequently unacknowledged but powerful points about the freedom of human agency, a freedom many have called freedom of the will.

It appeared in the film that some had more freedom than others. Morpheus’s crew was amazed watching Neo fight Morpheus for the first time. They thought that the untrained neophyte Neo was just so fast, faster than any of the others. Their hope was that Neo was “The One”. No doubt there are biblical themes throughout the film, and no doubt “The One” is one of those themes; “The One” is something like a divine savior. A crucial feature of this savior is that whoever could fill the bill would have more freedom within the Matrix than could any other rebel visitor to it, or for that matter, any other intentional being operating within the Matrix, including the agents. Indeed, their hope was that Neo’s freedom within the Matrix would be like that of God; Neo would have unlimited freedom. So it appeared that Neo, even when first getting acquainted with his abilities, had more freedom within the Matrix than did Trinity, Cypher, or any of the rest of Morpheus’s gang (save for Morpheus himself). But there are other comparisons as well that indicate different degrees of freedom within the Matrix. Neo, Morpheus, and all of the rebels had more freedom within the Matrix than did all those clueless characters walking the streets, living in their homes, watching the TV, going to work, etc. At least as Morpheus and company saw it, the clueless were completely unfree.

Until near the film’s end, Neo had less freedom than did the agents. The agents could simply move about satisfying most any desire they had, taking on others’ bodies, appearing whenever and wherever they wanted, and operating with fantastic foresight about who would be where, when, etc. These agents defied what seemed to be the laws of nature (as structured within the Matrix). They could emerge unscathed after being slammed by speeding trains that would have crushed and destroyed any run of the mill putz living out his ordinary life within the Matrix. They took bullets and kept a tickin’, and they could simply make a person’s mouth disappear at will. They had the run of the place, at least until those closing moments of the film. But in those closing moments of the film, Neo was the freest agent operating within the Matrix. Hell, by the time he came to realize his true potential within it, he could beat the crap out of those battery-powered robot-demons, stop bullets, and fly… like Superman.

One more very important observation before we roll up our sleeves and do some philosophical work: The special sort of freedom that Neo seemed to possess in the film was a freedom confined to the Matrix. The same, of course, applies to Morpheus and the other rebels whom Morpheus trained. The film has given us no reason to believe that Neo, or anyone else, has any special freedom outside the Matrix. In the “real” world, as it is in the space ship with those nasty flying bugs out hunting down rebel ships on that desolated planet, Morpheus, Neo, Trinity, Cypher, and the rest of the clan are just normally functioning human agents like you or me. Presumably, in the real world, Neo’s just a guy, a guy who, analogous to poor, impaired, nobody Tommy in The Who’s rock opera Tommy, is transformed in game mode to the most gifted being ever to play the relevant game—a pinball wizard. In the Matrix, that is, roughly, in the ultimate of video game consoles, Neo ain’t got no distractions, can’t hear no buzzes or bells, always gets the replay and never tilts at all.

So in The Matrix, near the end of the film, as Neo comes to master the game, he’s totally dialed in. It’s gotta rock! Let us call this freedom that Neo possesses within the Matrix absolute freedom, and let us call the feature that seems to go with it the property of rocking. No doubt, when Neo first saw such amazing freedom exercised—when Morpheus leapt an incredible distance from one skyscraper to another—he judged that indeed such extreme freedom did rock, and in amazement he appropriately expressed himself thusly: “Whoa!”


The concept of absolute freedom and its presumed property of rocking will be further developed in the closing sections of this essay. But for now, let us first give some theoretical structure to the idea of freedom, forgetting about absolute freedom, and let us consider briefly a classical philosophical challenge to it. Once we have these issues in place, we’ll turn back to the film and examine our natural reactions to it, reactions such as the many mentioned above.

The term freedom is used in many contexts, and there is no reason to assume that there is a single meaning of the term. Minimally, all of the uses of the term do seem to share the feature that resistance of some sort, encumbering or impeding desired conduct, gets in the way of freedom. Typically, one is not free when she is frustrated in some manner from unencumbered pursuit of her desired course of action. But the absence of impediments is clearly not sufficient for the kind of freedom that mattered to Morpheus, Neo, and company, nor to what is valuable and distinctive of the human condition. A stupid dog can sometimes act unencumbered when, for instance, she is unleashed—when she is set free. And though free in a very basic way, the stupid dog’s freedom is not the kind that makes philosophers, theologians, politicians, moralists, or just your run of the mill high-minded folk get the warm fuzzies. No. The freedom worth talking about seems to be a freedom distinctive of persons, and this suggests that understanding the relevant notion of freedom first requires an understanding of what it is to be a person.

Regrettably, offering an account of personhood is beyond the scope of this essay. But to appreciate what seems to mark persons from non-persons, those familiar with the movie Blade Runner can reflect upon the characters Decker and the replicant Rachael, with whom Decker fell in love. Although Decker was a human being (maybe), and Rachael was an artificial replicant of a human being, both were persons.[3]I say that maybe Decker is a human being since there is some suggestion in the film that Decker might actually be a replicant and not a human being.  Both were capable of planning lives, of developing intimate relationships of love and hate, of fearing for, and finding dear, their own lives, and the lives of other persons. Both had the capacity for abstract thought, emotional responses to others, self-consciousness, etc. Less developed cognitive creatures were not persons, such as the primitive little A.I. machines that kept J.F. Sebastian company (J.F. Sebastian was another character in Blade Runner). Or to draw upon other clear illustrations of personhood from other sources in film, E.T. from the classic Spielberg movie was a person. Data from the Star Trek series and movies is a person, though neither E.T. nor Data is a human being. So, for our purposes, Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, as well as the agents, are all persons—though the agents, like E.T. or Data, are non-human persons.

Even restricting the term freedom to its applications to persons, there are at least two sorts that have been the focus of a great deal of philosophical attention for well over two millennia now. One is a matter of political freedom, another is a matter of metaphysical freedom, the latter being understood as freedom of the will. Political freedom concerns the freedom of persons to conduct themselves as they see fit within the political landscape. The nature of the political landscape is itself a matter of dispute. Does the landscape germane to political freedom include economic empowerment? Or does it merely involve what are often referred to as the civil liberties, such as the liberty to speak unthreatened from harm of prohibition, to organize as one wishes, etc? Political freedom, whatever it comes to, is certainly a deeply important sort of freedom, and no doubt, it is a sort of freedom that Morpheus was struggling to give back to the human race. At least this is how Morpheus and his comrades saw it. But the more immediate sort of freedom to which the film directs our attention is not political freedom, but metaphysical freedom, that is, freedom of the will.

Before turning our attention to the topic of free will, it is worth asking, what is a will? This is also the subject of a great deal of dispute, but it is natural to think of the will as the aspect of a creature’s mentality that is the source of voluntary, intentional (that is, goal-directed) action. Hence, any agent—that is, any being that acts, such as a dog, a cat, a chimpanzee—has a will. The philosophical gem worthy of reflection is what makes a will free, and most notably free in the special way distinctive of a unique class of agents, those who are persons.

A word of caution: The expression “metaphysical freedom” is often regarded derisively by theorists, largely outside of philosophy, who fallaciously associate it only with extravagant views about the human condition, such as the view that metaphysical freedom provides persons with a capacity to transcend the material world, to choose and act unlimited by the laws of nature, or by any constraints from the material world. And while some theories of free will do attribute to persons the ability to perform ‘very small’ miracles whenever they act freely[4]For example, in articulating an account of free will, the philosopher Roderick Chisholm wrote: …if what I have been trying to say is true, then we have a prerogative which some would attribute only … Continue reading, all the expression metaphysical freedom need pick out is a distinctive feature of personhood—a feature unique to the will of a person, perhaps part of the essence or the nature of what it is to be a person. How to understand this freedom is up for grabs. So, to be clear: the very mention of the notion of metaphysical freedom, or freedom of the will, does not entail anything mysterious. It does not entail anything contrary to the spirit of an inquiry such as Darwin’s, or that of the neurobiologist. It might turn out that free will involves no special miraculous features of agency at all, that metaphysical freedom is entirely consistent with a deflationary account of human persons according to which all human persons are entirely the products of their genetics, their environment, and any other physical factors impinging upon them. That said, it should be kept in mind that, on the other hand, serious philosophical reflection might indicate that the concept of free will implies that a deflationary view of persons is false. But the crucial point here is that it is not part of the meaning of the very term metaphysical freedom, or freedom of will, that it involve anything spooky, mysterious, unworldly, or otherwise beyond the pale of what is in principle explicable in terms of our best natural sciences.


Here is a theory-neutral characterization of free will:

Free will is the ability of persons to control the future through their choices and actions.

This is a lean definition that is not biased towards any one particular manner of philosophizing about free will. Of course, it is only a first pass and cries out for refinement. The crux of the issue concerns how best to articulate the ability to control the future. Let us consider two ways to articulate further this characterization of free will.

It is quite natural to assume, as many philosophers do, that a person acts with freedom of the will only if there are alternative courses of action available to her at the time at which she acts. On a model such as this, a person’s freedom of the will consists partly in her being in control of a spectrum of options that, so to speak, open up different temporal paths, allowing her access to different unfolding futures, different ways that her life might go. At various points in the film, this picture of freedom was emphasized, as when Neo chose to remain in the car and not bail when Trinity and Switch gave him the opportunity to do so. This picture of freedom was also highlighted when Neo chose to return and fight the agents so as to save Morpheus. Instead Neo could have left Morpheus to (what seemed to be) his inevitable demise.

So one way to advance free will is in terms of alternative possibilities. But there are other strategies for understanding free will, strategies that might or might not work in tandem with a demand for alternative possibilities. For instance, another way to think about free will is in terms of what does happen, what an agent does do, and not in terms of what other things she might do or might have done. Instead of focusing on alternative possibilities, this manner of theorizing concentrates upon the source of an agent’s actions. On this approach, freely willed actions arise from certain salient features of an agent’s self, features that indicate that, in an important respect she—the agent—is the source of how the future does unfold. To illustrate, consider a paradigmatic case of an agent who lacks free will. An unwilling addict, for example would not act with freedom of will when she takes the drug to which she is addicted. This is because her addictive desire to take the drug is so strong that it compels her to take it even though she is unwilling in taking the drug. She does not desire that her desire for the drug cause her to take it. But she does take it all the same. The future does not unfold as she herself would like it to unfold. On the other hand, sometimes properly functioning persons do act precisely as they wish (however “as they wish” might be understood). When they do, if all goes well, the future unfolds as they would like it to unfold, and it unfolds in this way partially because what they do causes it to unfold in this way. Hence, in a very basic way, these normally functioning persons are guiding how the future unfolds when they act unencumbered. They are the ones bringing about certain events, shaping the future in certain ways via their agency. They are sources of control over the future. It should also be clear that Morpheus and Neo illustrated such views of freedom. They certainly were at points sources of “control” over how their futures were unfolding. Morpheus and Neo, as well as the rest of the rebels, were making their marks inside and outside of the Matrix. Much to the chagrin of the agents, Morpheus and his crew were sources of control over how certain events were unfolding.

In summary, if we understand free will as a capacity of persons to control the future through their choices and actions, then there are two ways that one might further develop this idea of control over the future. One is in terms of control over alternative possibilities; another is in terms of one’s very self being a source of how the future goes, an authentic shaper or causer of events in the world.


However the concept of free will is developed, there is a classical challenge to the very idea that any person possesses it. In particular, some philosophers believe that if the universe is fully determined, then no person has free will. What it means to suggest that the universe is determined is a distinct and controversial philosophical topic. A currently fashionable definition of determinism has it, roughly, that the past, combined with the laws of nature, causally insures one unique future. To appreciate fully this definition, one needs an account of what the past is (or the facts of it), what it means to causally insure, etc. But the general idea is basically captured with the suggestion that, for any person, states of the world independent of that person, or independent of features of her intentional agency (possibly, states of the world prior to her birth), combined with the laws governing the natural world (such as the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), are themselves sufficient to fix fully what that person does at any time. Crudely put, are persons and their conduct exhaustively explained in terms of their hereditary, their biology, such as their neurobiological functioning, and the environmental influences impinging upon them? Put even more crudely, is all human conduct purely a matter of nature and nurture? Or is determinism false, and is it instead the case that these influences do not all by themselves explain exactly what a person does at any time? If not, does the person herself contribute something over and above these other factors that accounts for why she does what she does?

Incompatibilists believe that if determinism is true, no one has free will. No one can control her future since the universe, so to speak, is really controlling it, and persons and their conduct are merely conduits through which the forces of nature operate. The universe leads some people to act in certain ways, and others to act differently. Persons are not at the helms of their lives, guiding their futures. Persons are products of the universe, not agents freely acting upon it!

Turning to the two ways of developing the concept of free will suggested above, the incompatibilists will argue that either way conflicts with the assumptions of a deterministic world. Suppose that the concept of free will is developed in terms of alternative possibilities. If determinism is true, and if facts distinct from a person’s intentional agency, combined with the laws of nature, entail that an agent’s intentional conduct will be thus and so, then an agent is not free to do other than thus and so. She has no alternatives over which to exercise control. Her past and the forces of nature have settled for her what path into the future she will take.

Or suppose instead that the concept of free will is developed in terms of an agent’s being an actual source of how the world goes, and it going that way, at least in part, because of her. If determinism is true, then there are facts prior to any person’s birth, combined with the laws of nature, that provide sufficient conditions for how the future will unfold. A person’s agency, given determinism, seems to be nothing but a conduit, a facilitator, for what has already been set in motion. She, ultimately, is not the source of her action, the controller of an unfolding future. Sure, sometimes the future unfolds as she desires that it does, and sometimes her desires figure in the causes that explain why it does unfold as such. But these very desires, her beliefs, value judgments, her preferences about what motivational states are the ones that she wishes to act upon, all of these factors are themselves not factors ultimately issuing from her, but from the determined universe and the unfolding future that is an upshot of it.

As initially puzzling as it seems, compatibilists maintain that persons can have free will even if determinism is true. Some compatibilists, embracing a view of free will that requires alternative possibilities, have attempted to show that a determined person might still, in some meaningful sense, have the ability to do other than what she does. Other compatibilists have instead emphasized how an agent might, via her own motivational states, still count as a significant actual source of efficacy in the way the future comes about.[5]There is even a controversy amongst compatibilists as to whether or not only the latter notion of control is needed for free will, or whether free will is possible only if both alternative … Continue reading


There are various ways in which the tension between compatibilism and incompatibilism is brought out in the film. One is in terms of reflections upon fate. Another is in terms of the Oracle’s ability to know the future. Yet another has to do with the status of those poor “enslaved” humans.

It is worth noting that within the film, as in ordinary discourse, the term fate is used in two different sorts of ways, ways that are easy to confuse, but upon reflection are clearly distinct. Sometimes fate is used to mean what is also meant by determinism. This certainly seems to be the primary manner in which it is used within the film. Given this usage, what it is for something to be fated is for it to be causally insured by prior conditions. This view is entirely consistent with one’s conduct being a crucial factor in what is causally insured. But on a different construal, if some outcome is fated, then it will come about no matter what one does. On this view, one’s agency is an idle factor. A certain future will transpire irrespective of anything one might do. The standard example of this is the story of Oedipus. The gods were going to see to it that Oedipus met his terrible fate—killing his father and copulating with his mother—no matter what different things were done by any mortal to avoid that outcome.

These two notions are extremely different. To illustrate: If it was fated irrespective of what anyone did that Kennedy would be assassinated on the day he was, then no matter what Lee Harvey Oswald did (including not assassinate anyone), Kennedy was going to be assassinated (by someone). But if it was fated just in the sense of being determined that Kennedy was going to be assassinated, then it mattered a great deal precisely what Oswald did. Had he not done what he did, then Kennedy would not have been shot. One account of fate states that a certain future will unfold no matter what any person does or will do; another sates that a certain future will unfold precisely because of what does or will take place (which includes, among other things, what people actually do). Typically, philosophers reserve the term fatalism for the former notion and determinism for the latter. But for purposes of analyzing the film, let us distinguish between no-matter-what-one-does fatalism and deterministic fatalism.[6]For a film that plays with these ideas, see Minority Report.

When Neo and Morpheus first met, Morpheus asked Neo if he believed in fate. Neo said that he did not since he did not like the idea that he did not control his life. Note that, at this point in the film, what Morpheus meant by fate, and what Neo took it to mean, remained ambiguous between the two notions distinguished above. This is because, if one’s life is subject to no-matter-what-one-does fate, then that would undermine one’s control with respect to the fated outcome. So Neo’s reply could have been in response to the suggestion that life was no-matter-what-one-does fated.[7]This interpretation of the scene fits with Morpheus’s subsequent description of how the human race was enslaved. No matter what humans do within the Matrix itself, their conduct is designed to … Continue reading Perhaps what Neo found objectionable about fatalism was the thought that his agency in the world would have no effect on the world’s outcome at all—no matter what he did. And indeed, that is how it seemed the enslaved humans lived within the Matrix, having no effect no matter what they did on their contribution to generating electricity for the A.I. meanies. But even if this is what Neo meant in that first conversation with Morpheus, later in the film it is clear that Neo also wanted to resist deterministic fatalism. He was committed to the idea that deterministic fatalism would undermine his control over the world. At points it was quite clear that his worry was in the form of alternative possibilities. He resisted the idea that the Oracle could know which of the possible futures before him would be his inevitable actual future. He thought that it was up to him what that future would be—would he choose to save Morpheus or himself? But Neo also seemed to think in terms of source models of control: As he saw it, it was not settled in advance how he would act; he would be the settler of it! As the Oracle was bidding Neo farewell, she herself put those words in his mouth. Neo, it seems, was an incompatibilist.

If Neo is the incompatibilist in the film, Morpheus is certainly the compatibilist. He believed in his consultations with the Oracle that the future was deterministically fated, that The One would come. But he also believed that what he did, and what the others did, mattered very much to that outcome. (So he certainly did not endorse no-matter-what-one-does fatalism.) Even more importantly, he believed that it mattered very much that what people did, they did of their own free will, hence the use of the blue and the red pills. His advice to Neo was especially telling. Thinking in terms of source control, Morpheus explained to Neo that it is not enough to know that you are The One, you have to be The One. That is, Neo had to be the actual source of that special person, which was a matter of his actual conduct in the world, and not merely something he conceptually grasped.

And what of the Oracle herself? To correct the impression that perhaps the Oracle is not really able to foresee the future, Morpheus tells Neo that the Oracle never intended to speak truthfully to Neo about what she foresaw. She only intended to say to Neo what he needed to hear (which of course she knew since she was an Oracle). Surely, if she did make any judgments about what Neo needed to hear, then she did believe that what he would do would matter to how the future would go. If so, then like Neo and Morpheus, she also did not believe in no-matter-what-one-does fate. But being an Oracle, she probably at least entertained the idea that deterministic-fatalism was true. Suppose she did believe it. Was she a compatibilist or an incompatibilist? Might she have believed, consistent with incompatibilism, that all the human struggles to shape the future were unfree actions set in motion by a long, deterministically fated history? Or did she instead, consistent with compatibilism, foresee and understand Neo’s heroic efforts as deterministically fated, but freely willed all the same? Suppose instead that the Oracle did not believe in deterministic fatalism. Perhaps she thought the universe was fundamentally indeterminate and that no facts of the past or present insured any particular way that the future must go. If she believed this, then how did she understand the basis of her own predictions? Maybe in foreseeing Neo’s actions, she interpreted them as freely willed and understood her powers to foresee future conduct as completely consistent with the falsity of determinism.[8]The puzzles here over the status of the Oracle’s foreknowledge are like those regarding the status of a foreknowing God. If God foreknows all human conduct, does that mean that, by virtue of … Continue reading The film leaves entirely open which interpretation of the Oracle’s beliefs is the correct one.

Consider a very different matter, the status of the enslaved masses. Unlike characters like Neo, Morpheus, and the Oracle, it seems irrelevant to ask about what they believe about their own free will and what they might think about fate. They are oblivious to what is taking place outside of the Matrix. Much like the character Truman from the film The Truman Show, these poor suckers stuck in those giant wombs are the ultimate illustrations of a very special sort of example used in the free will debate. Incompatibilists are fond of challenging compatibilist notions of control with complicated manipulation cases. The incompatibilists’ strategy is to cook up a very troubling scenario in which a person is manipulated into a manner of acting. Of course, what the incompatibilists try to do is make the sort of manipulation so subtle that it is indistinguishable from what ordinary life might be like for you or me. Intuitively the examples are supposed to elicit the reaction that the manipulated person is not free because the source of her action is polluted. It is not she but something else that is the source of her agency. Then the incompatibilists will attempt to argue that a person determined by her past and the laws of nature is no different than a person manipulated in one of these wild scenarios. Hence, the only way that a person like you or me can be free is if she is not determined. If she is determined, then she is no more free than is a manipulated agent, which is to say that she is not free at all.

These manipulation cases have come to be known as covert non-constraining control (CNC) examples.[9]See Robert Kane, 1996, pp.65-71. . Kane writes: We are all aware of …two ways to get others to do our bidding in everyday life. We may force them to do what we want by coercing or constraining them … Continue reading Compatibilists have two ways in which they can respond to CNC cases. One is to deny that the manipulated agents are unfree. So long as the manipulation is complicated enough, and so long as the manipulation accurately replicates the normal functioning of a person getting through life, then it really is no different than a person being determined. But this is not a problem since the manipulated person is a freely willing one. It is just that the causes of her actions are a lot weirder than the causes of a normally functioning person. Note that this was Cypher’s view. In fact, for him the Matrix would afford him more freedom than what was available on that disgusting planet. What did he care what caused his sensation of eating a juicy delicious steak? Real or illusory, he just wanted the damned steak to taste good!

Other compatibilists try to show that there is some significant difference between a causally determined person and a manipulated one. Typically the difference has to do with the history that explains why a person is caused to be as she is. If the causes are of the wrong sort, then she is in some way inauthentic. She is not truly the one engaging the world. Someone or something else is settling for her the values, principles, etc. that she then uses to decide how to act in the world. This, it seems, was the basis for Morpheus’s complaint about the Matrix. When he first coaxed Neo, prodding Neo and asking him if he too felt that something about his reality was not right, what Morpheus sought to convey was that human agency within the Matrix was defective; its causal source was designed to settle other goals or needs than the ones that persons within the Matrix endorsed. Their minds were thus enslaved and so, even if, in a sense, they were “free” within their dream world to do certain things, they were not the source of the goals that their lives ultimately served.


All of the above reflections indicate the various ways that The Matrix openly struggles with the free will debate. But what view of free will is the correct one, and how ought it to be characterized? The philosophical controversy between compatibilists and incompatibilists is one of the perennial problems of philosophy. It will likely remain so. One reason for this is that it is clearly not a “no-brainer”! Reasonable minds have differed as to the correct resolution to this problem. And there is no reason to think that this will change any time soon. In fact, one of today’s most influential theorists about the controversy has suggested that, at least for certain ways of formulating the problem, the debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists leads to dialectical stalemates.[10]John Martin Fischer, 1994, pp.83-85.  A dialectical stalemate arises when opposing positions within a reasoned debate reach points at which each side’s arguments remain reasonable, even compelling, but in which argument runs out; neither can rightly claim decisively to have unseated the legitimacy of the other side’s point of view.

I certainly do not know whether the free will problem is ultimately doomed to dialectical stalemate, or whether instead there is some strategy that will be able to settle a reasoned disagreement that is over 2,500 years old. But one point I would like to highlight about this controversy is that it would not have remained a controversial topic, and dialectical stalemates would not have arisen from it, were it not for the fact that the phenomenology of human experience, as it is for the normally functioning person, does not decisively provide evidence for any one position. It is consistent with how we experience our lives, and how we experience the exercising of our agency, that, in keeping with the incompatibilist position, the control required for free will is illusory, and that we are determined creatures. Or, also in keeping with the incompatibilist position, it is consistent with our experience that the control required for free will is satisfied, and in a way that requires the falsity of determinism. Finally, as the compatibilists allow, it is also consistent with our experience that we do possess free will and that we are determined.


To its credit, The Matrix does not pretend to endorse one point of view about free will. It is neither a compatibilist-friendly, nor an incompatibilist-friendly film. With notable exceptions, the film’s reflections on free will mirror the phenomenology of human agency. As is the case in our actual lives, how life is experienced underdetermines the correct answer as to whether the compatibilists or the incompatibilists are correct about free will. I say here “with notable exceptions” since there are clearly aspects of Neo’s agency, as well as that of Morpheus’s, the other rebels’, and the A.I. agents’ that most distinctly do not mirror the phenomenology of human agency. It is to these differences that I would now like to turn in closing.

One assumption of the free will debate, shared by all parties to it, is that whatever kind of freedom an agent does possess, whether it requires the falsity of determinism or not, an agent’s free will does not consist in her ability to actually cause laws of nature to be false, or to be suspended just in order to bring about astounding miracles. But within the Matrix, that is, essentially, the sort of control that Neo came to have. Of course, to a lesser extent, so too did Trinity and Morpheus. Indeed, Morpheus even advised Neo to think of the rules of his dream world as mere conventions (rules of a program) that could be bent or just flat out broken. Now some philosophers might want to object here that there is a conceptual problem with describing any rules within the Matrix as both laws of nature and breakable. But this would be splitting hairs at a point at which much more could be gained by reflecting instead upon the power of the thought experiment as it is played out within the film.

Within the history of philosophy, various writers have at one point or another articulated accounts of free will that later were scoffed at and quickly dismissed as fantastical or incoherent or ultimately contradictory.[11]A classic example of this is Sartre’s notion of radical freedom, which alleged that all persons have freedom with respect to every aspect of reality they confront, every fact of the world. (For an … Continue reading All of these criticisms of these extreme views of freedom might have been on the money, but no philosophical dismissal of the conceptual legitimacy of such a notion of freedom can itself discredit the sort of basis one might have for desiring it. Neo’s freedom within the Matrix might seem completely outlandish, merely the stuff of comic books, but the source of its cinematic appeal is that, in a very primitive way, as agents in the world, we all know what it is to bump up against the boundaries of the causally possible. We all understand what a source of liberation it would be if all at once we could act unconstrained by them. Of course, this is the stuff that dreams are made of. But to see where our dreams begin often helps us to appreciate both the limits and value of our actual lives.

I shall therefore close with two observations about this extreme sort of fantastical freedom exercised within the Matrix. In section one of this essay I indicated that the freedom of the agents within the Matrix came in degrees, and that more of it appeared to be more appealing than less. In fact, I suggested that, by the film’s end, within the Matrix Neo possessed absolute freedom, and that it rocked. But does absolute freedom rock? We all do value freedom, it appears, and it does look as if it gives most everyone the warm fuzzies. But I propose that absolute freedom would not rock, and once had for a while, when exercising it, one would no longer be prepared to exclaim, along with Neo, “Whoa!” This is because the property of rocking found in exercising one’s agency comes when one is pressing the boundaries of what she is capable of, pressing the boundaries of the limits placed upon her. Anyone who knows the joy of play understands this. Taking the basketball to the hole, snagging a line drive, pushing one’s skis down the steep tight line, nailing a turn on a cycle, or crossing the finish line first with the beat of the pack just behind you, all of this involves the prospect of failure and the demands of an effort of will forced up against the boundaries of what one can do. Absolute freedom would require none of that.

Surprising as it might seem, I propose that a life filled to the brim with absolute freedom would absolutely suck. It would be boring as hell and almost entirely uneventful. Recall the look of utter indifference Neo had on his face when he realized how completely effortlessly he could block Agent Smith’s blows in that final face-off. He might as well have been yawning and reading a paper while defending himself: “Ho hum.” Imagine if all of one’s efforts in life were like this. Contrast this with Neo’s intensity and enthusiasm when he still had to work hard to get what he wanted, leaping from a helicopter to save Morpheus, or cart-wheeling through a blaze of bullets and taking out all attackers. How mundane all of this would have been had Neo then been able just to will all of the bullets to stop flying, or Morpheus to stop falling to earth, etc.

Here is a rich irony: Our hankering for absolute freedom, a hankering of a dream world, is something we wish for because we do not have it. Because we bump up against our limits and sometimes fail, we yearn for the power to move beyond those limits. But if we had that power in spades, we’d lose all interest in the activities we find so dear. So it seems that the value of freedom and its place in our lives is partially a function of the manner in which we lack it. It is yet a further credit to a film like The Matrix that it instigates such reflections on the value of freedom.

A final speculation will also shed further light on the value we place on freedom. Supposing that Neo could find a way to continue rocking from within the Matrix. Neo faces a fantastic choice. Should he work to destroy the Matrix? His absolute freedom is so great within it. Imagine the possibilities. He could be so much in the dream world, have so much, do so much; he could bring such joy to others within it. But knowing what he does about the real world, could he value it, could he take the Matrix seriously? Perhaps you think that Neo should remain within the Matrix where his powers are phenomenal. If instead he attempted to destroy the Matrix, he’d lose all of his powers and have only a dark and barren planet to offer to his liberated human kin. Maybe, like Cypher, they would hate that world and thus resent Neo, seeing him not as a god-like liberator, but as an evil demon dragging them from a relative dream-world utopia into a real-life hell. Even if, for these reasons, you think Neo would do better to remain within the Matrix, acting as a god, trying to do as much good for others as he can, I’ll bet that you pause at the thought of it. I myself am unsure what Neo should do, or what I would do if I were he. But if there is something wrong with this option, I suggest that it is at least in part because it would be an inauthentic form of life, a life that valued a certain kind of freedom at the expense of truth, at the expense of real engagement with the actual world. Would this not amount to placing too much value in freedom; would it not amount to valuing freedom at the expense of other worthy elements of life?

When I was a young boy my grandfather, Poppy, took me fishing. I wanted very much that day to catch a trout. I was completely incapable of the task, so Poppy caught one and took it upstream a little way, still hooked on a line. Placing it back in the water, but holding onto the line, he walked it down to me, made as if it was tugging at my pole, and then helped me to “reel it in.” I was delighted. So was he. It was only years later that he told me how I came to snag that elusive trout. Suppose that the rest of my life, each fish I caught, I caught only that way, each success of mine was only such a success. Even though Poppy was certainly happy with that little moment of mine, he’d never have wished for me a life of nothing but such shams. To wish merely for an improved life for human kind only within the Matrix, even with lots of nifty freedom for everyone within it, I would speculate, if it is wrong, then its wrongness is partially explained by the fact that it is analogous to wishing for all human kind that all of their accomplishments be like Poppy’s tying that fish to the end of my pole. It would be nice for a spell, for a moment, in a dream. But we humans want something more. We want to catch our own fish, and we want to catch real fish. When we want something else, we’ll go to the movies.

Michael McKenna

Suggestions for Further Reading

Books Especially Accessible to an Introductory Audience

Ekstrom, Laura Waddell. 2000. Free Will. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Honderich, Ted. 1993. How Free Are You? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wolf, Susan. 1990. Freedom within Reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scholarly Monographs

Berofsky, Bernard. 1987. Freedom from Necessity. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Bok, Hilary. 1998. Freedom and Responsibility. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Clarke, Randy. forthcoming 2003. Libertarian Accounts of Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dennett, Daniel, 1984. Elbow Room. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Ekstrom, Laura Waddell. 2000. Free Will. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Fischer, John Martin. 1994. The Metaphysics of Free Will. Oxford: Blackwell.
Fischer, John Martin and Mark Ravizza, 1998. Responsibility and Control. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Frankfurt, Harry. 1988. The Importance of What We Care About. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Haji, Ishtiyaque, 1998. Moral Appraisability. New York: Oxford University Press.
Honderich, Ted. 1988. A Theory of Determinism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Kane, Robert, 1996. The Significance of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mele, Alfred. 1995. Autonomous Agency. New York: Oxford University Press.
O’Connor, Timothy. 2000. Persons and Causes. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pereboom, Derk. 2001. Living Without Free Will. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Russell, Paul. 1995. Freedom and Moral Sentiment. New York: Oxford University Press.
Smalinsky, Saul. 2000. Free Will and Illusion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Strawson, Galen. 1986. Freedom and Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
van Inwagen, Peter. 1983. An Essay on Free Will. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Wallace, R. Jay. 1994. Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wolf, Susan. 1990. Freedom within Reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zimmerman, Michael. 1989. An Essay on Moral Responsibility. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.


Berofsky, Bernard. ed., 1966. Free Will and Determinism. New York: Harper and Row.
Ekstrom, Laura Waddell. ed., 2001. Agency and Responsibility. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Fischer, John Martin. ed., 1986. Moral Responsibility. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Fischer, John Martin and Mark Ravizza. eds., 1993. Perspectives on Moral Responsibility. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Honderich, Ted. ed., Essays on Freedom of Action. London; Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Hook, Sidney. ed., 1958. Determinism and Freedom. London: Collier.
Kane, Robert. ed., 2002a. Free Will. Oxford: Blackwell.
_____. ed., 2002b. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lehrer, Keith. ed., 1966. Freedom and Determinism. New York: Random House.
O’Connor, Timothy. ed., 1995. Agents, Causes, and Events. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pereboom, Derk. ed., 1997. Free Will. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
Schoeman, Freiderich, ed., 1987. Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Watson, Gary. ed., 1982. Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Widerker, David and Michael McKenna. eds., 2002. Alternative Possibilities and Moral Responsibility. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Press.

Especially Influential Articles

A.J. Ayer. “Freedom and Necessity.” In Pereboom (1997); and Watson (1982).
Chisholm, Roderick. “Human Freedom and the Self.” In Pereboom (1997); and Watson (1982).
Dennett, Daniel. “Mechanism and Responsibility.” In Watson (1982).
_____. “I Could Not Have Done Otherwise—So What?” In Kane (2002a).
Edwards, Paul. “Hard and Soft Determinism.” In Hook (1958); and Kane (2002a)
Fischer, John Martin. “Responsibility and Control.” In Fischer (1986).
_____. “Responsiveness and Moral Responsibility.” In Pereboom (1997); and Schoemann (1987).
Frankfurt, Harry. “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility.” In Fischer (1986); Pereboom (1997); and Widerker and McKenna (2002).
_____. “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.” In Fischer (1986); Kane (2002a); Pereboom (1997); and Watson (1982).
Pereboom, Derk. “Determinism Al Dente.” In Pereboom (1997).
Strawson, Peter. “Freedom and Resentment.” In Fischer and Ravizza (1993); Pereboom (1997); and Watson (1982).
van Inwagen. “The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism.” In Kane (2002a); Pereboom 1997); and Watson (1982).
Watson, Gary, “Free Agency.” In Fischer (1986); and Watson (1982).
_____. “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil.” In Fischer and Ravizza (1993); Kane (2002a); and Schoeman (1987).
Wolf, Susan. “Asymmetrical Freedom.” In Fischer (1986);
_____. “Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility.” In Kane (1993); and Schoemann (1987).
For an extensive bibliography, see Kane (2002b).


1 This claim is meant to be philosophically innocent, simply taking “reality” as the films creators suggested it to be. For proper philosophical scrutiny of the notion of reality as it pertains to The Matrix, see the essay in this collection by David Chalmers.
2 I shall assume that my reader has seen the film and is familiar with the characters in it, the basic plot, various events that took place, etc.
3 I say that maybe Decker is a human being since there is some suggestion in the film that Decker might actually be a replicant and not a human being.
4 For example, in articulating an account of free will, the philosopher Roderick Chisholm wrote:

…if what I have been trying to say is true, then we have a prerogative which some would attribute only to God: each of us, when we act, is a prime mover unmoved. In doing what we do, we cause certain events to happen, and nothing—or no one—causes us to cause those events to happen. (Chisholm, p. 32, cited from Watson, ed., 1982)

Caution should be taken with even this rather extreme view, since Chisholm was not claiming that the sorts of ‘miracles’ what would allow freely willing and uncaused persons to cause events would amount to miracles that could make walls melt, planes fall from the sky, or bullets to stop in mid air.
5 There is even a controversy amongst compatibilists as to whether or not only the latter notion of control is needed for free will, or whether free will is possible only if both alternative possibilities and actual source conditions are satisfied.
6 For a film that plays with these ideas, see Minority Report.
7 This interpretation of the scene fits with Morpheus’s subsequent description of how the human race was enslaved. No matter what humans do within the Matrix itself, their conduct is designed to do no more than generate battery juice for the “evolved” artificial intelligences. In fact, it seemed from the film that the level of control that the designers and controllers of the Matrix had over the humans operating within it was not a completely deterministically fated sort of control, but really a sort better suited for no-matter-what-one-does fatalism. This is because people within the Matrix seemed able to do all sorts of different things within certain boundaries. The A.I. creatures cared not a bit. The A.I. intelligences were happy to allow a certain level of social disharmony and chaos amongst the humans within the Matrix. As long as ultimately the outcome was that human lives were lived in the service of creating energy for their artificial intelligence lives, what did it matter to them what the humans did to each other in their dream worlds?
8 The puzzles here over the status of the Oracle’s foreknowledge are like those regarding the status of a foreknowing God. If God foreknows all human conduct, does that mean that, by virtue of God’s infallible nature, all human conduct is determined? Or is it possible for god to know exactly what any person does or will do even if nothing other than the person herself freely determines what she will do?
9 See Robert Kane, 1996, pp.65-71. . Kane writes:
We are all aware of …two ways to get others to do our bidding in everyday life. We may force them to do what we want by coercing or constraining them against their wills, which is constraining control or CC control. Or we may manipulate them into doing what we want while making them feel that they have made up their own minds and are acting “of their own free will”—which is covert nonconstraining or CNC control. Cases of CNC control in larger settings are provided by examples like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two. Frazier, the fictional founder of Skinner’s Walden Two, gives a clear description of CNC control when he says that in his community persons can do whatever they want or choose, but they have been conditioned since childhood to want and choose only that they can have or do (p.65).
10 John Martin Fischer, 1994, pp.83-85.
11 A classic example of this is Sartre’s notion of radical freedom, which alleged that all persons have freedom with respect to every aspect of reality they confront, every fact of the world. (For an excerpt of Sartre’s view, as presented in his Being and Nothingness, see the Berofsky collection, 1966, pp. 174-195.)