The Matrix is a film that astounds not only with action and special effects but also with ideas. These pages are dedicated to exploring some of the many philosophical ideas that arise in both the original film and the sequels. In the upcoming months we will be continually expanding this section, offering essays from some of the brightest minds in philosophy and cognitive science. News about updates to this section can be found right here.
LAUNCH: NOVEMBER 20, 2002
We are kicking things off with essays from eight different contributors on various philosophical, technological, and religious aspects of the film.
Though this collection of essays is part of the official web site for the Matrix films, the views expressed in these essays are solely those of the individual authors. The Wachowski brothers have remained relatively tight-lipped regarding the religious symbolism and philosophical themes that permeate the film, preferring that the movie speak for itself. Accordingly, you will not find anyone here claiming to offer the definitive analysis of the film, its symbols, message, etc. What you will find instead are essays that both elucidate the philosophical problems raised by the film and explore possible avenues for solving these problems. Some of these essays are more pedagogical in nature – instructing the reader in the various ways in which The Matrix raises questions that have been tackled throughout history by prominent philosophers. Other contributors use the film as a springboard for discussing their own original philosophical views. As you will see, the authors don’t always agree with each other regarding how best to interpret the film. However, all of the essays share the aim of giving the reader a sense of how this remarkable film offers more than the standard Hollywood fare. In other words, their common goal is to help show you just “how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
Beginning the collection are three short essays in which I discuss two of the more conspicuous philosophical questions raised by the film: the skeptical worry that one’s experience may be illusory, and the moral question of whether it matters. Highlighting the parallels between the scenario described in The Matrix and similar imaginary situations that have been much discussed by philosophers, these essays offer an introduction to the positions taken by various thinkers on these fascinating skeptical and moral puzzles. They serve as a warm-up for things to come.
Next is “The Matrix of Dreams” by Colin McGinn, a distinguished contemporary philosopher who is perhaps best known for his writings on consciousness. His essay offers an analysis of the film that focuses on the dreamlike nature of the world of the Matrix. Arguing that it is misguided to characterize the situation described by the film as involving hallucinations, McGinn seeks to show how the particular details of the film make it more plausible to see the Matrix as involving the direct employment of one’s imagination (as in a dream), rather than a force-feeding of false perceptions. Along the way, McGinn’s essay also touches on the moral assumptions of the film, several other philosophical problems raised by the character of Cypher, and the dreamlike quality of all films.
Hubert Dreyfus is a philosopher known both for his pioneering discussion of the philosophical problems of Artificial Intelligence, and his work in bridging the gap between recent European and English-language philosophy. In “The Brave New World of The Matrix,” he and his son Stephen Dreyfus draw on the phenomenological tradition that began with Edmund Husserl and culminates in Maurice Merleau-Ponty to discuss the skeptical and moral problems raised by the film. They argue that the real worry facing folks trapped in the Matrix involves not deception or the possession of possibly false beliefs, but the limits on creativity imposed by the Matrix. Following Martin Heidegger in suggesting that our human nature lies in our capacity to redefine our nature and thereby open up new worlds, they conclude that this capacity for radical creation seems unavailable to those locked within the pre-programmed confines of the Matrix.
Richard Hanley, author of the best-selling book The Metaphysics of Star Trek and a philosophy professor at the University of Delaware, again explores the intersection of philosophy and science fiction with his entertaining and thought-provoking piece “Never the Twain Shall Meet: Reflections on The First Matrix.” In it he argues that The Matrix may have lessons to teach us regarding the coherence of our values. In particular, he makes the case that, given a traditional Christian notion of an afterlife, Heaven turns out to be rather like a Matrix! Even more surprising is a corollary to this thesis: Jean-Paul (“Hell is other people”) Sartre was close to the truth after all – Heaven is best understood as a Matrix-like simulation in which contact with other real human beings is eliminated.
Iakovos Vasiliou, a philosopher at Brooklyn College who specializes in Plato, Aristotle, and Wittgenstein, offers a penetrating investigation into the differences (and surprising similarities) between the scenario described in The Matrix and our own everyday situation in his essay “Reality, What Matters, and The Matrix.” Pointing out that more than we might expect hinges on the moral backdrop of The Matrix plot line, he asks readers to instead envisage a “benevolently generated Matrix.” Given the possibility of such a Matrix and the actuality of a horrible situation on Earth, he argues that we will agree that entering into it offers not a denial of what we most value but instead a chance to better realize those values.
Changing gears a bit we then have an essay from the notable (and some would say notorious) cybernetics pioneer Kevin Warwick. He is known internationally for his robotics research and in particular for a series of procedures in which he was implanted with sensors that connected him to computers and the internet. Less well-publicized is the fact that several years before The Matrix came out he published a non-fiction book that predicted the ultimate takeover of mankind by a race of super-intelligent robots. In his contribution here (“The Matrix – Our Future?“) he draws on his years of research to muse on the plausibility (and desirability) of the scenario described in The Matrix, concluding that a real-life Matrix need not be feared if we prepare ourselves adequately. How? By becoming part machine ourselves – Warwick argues that transforming ourselves into Cyborgs will allow us to “plug in” confident that we will fully benefit from all that such a future offers.
Rounding out our collection is an essay entitled “Wake Up! Gnosticism & Buddhism in The Matrix” from two professors of religion: Frances Flannery-Dailey and Rachel Wagner. Flannery-Dailey’s research speciality is ancient dreams, apocalypticism and early-Jewish mysticism, while Wagner’s research focuses on biblical studies and the relationship between religion & culture. Their essay offers a comprehensive treatment of the Gnostic and Buddhist themes that appear in the film. While pointing out the many differences between these two traditions and the eclectic manner in which both are referenced throughout the film, Flannery-Dailey and Wagner make it clear that common to Gnosticism, Buddhism, and The Matrix is the idea that what we take to be reality is in fact a kind of illusion or dream from which we ought best to “wake up.” Only then can enlightenment, be it spiritual or otherwise, occur.
We hope you enjoy this first batch of essays. Check back for future contributions from the renowned philosopher of mind David Chalmers (Arizona), moral philosopher Julia Driver (Dartmouth), and epistemologist James Pryor (Princeton), among others.
UPDATE: MARCH 20, 2003
As promised, we are pleased to offer five new essays tackling philosophical themes that arise in The Matrix.
Starting things off is a piece by the epistemologist and philosopher of mind James Pryor. He’s contributed a lively essay that will be of particular interest to those coming to philosophy for the first time. In “What’s So Bad About Living in The Matrix?” he explores and criticizes two tempting but problematic philosophical positions: the view that there can’t be facts which it’s impossible for us to know about (sometimes called verificationism), and the view that everyone’s motive for acting is always to have nicer experiences. Employing examples from both the film and imaginary thought-experiments, Pryor tries to show that these positions, which can often initially seem irresistible to students, are not as straightforward or as satisfying as they might first appear. He then goes on to argue (in sympathy with Vasiliou’s essay) that the worst thing about living in the Matrix would not be the metaphysical or epistemological limitations such a scenario would impose, it would instead be the political constraints: those trapped in the Matrix have constraints on their action that most of us deeply value not having.
David Chalmers is a philosopher from the University of Arizona and author of numerous books and articles on the philosophy of mind, including the influential volume The Conscious Mind. In his essay “The Matrix as Metaphysics,” he suggests that while we cannot rule out the possibility that we are in a system like the Matrix, this possibility is not as bad as we might have thought. He argues against the intuitive view that if we are in a matrix, we are deluded about the external world. Instead, he suggests that if we are in a matrix, we should regard this as telling us about the nature of the external world: the physical world is ultimately made of bits, and was created by beings who ensured that our minds interact with this physical world. Chalmers’s surprising conclusion is that even if we are living in a Matrix-like simulation, most of our beliefs about the world are still true.
Julia Driver, a moral philosopher from Dartmouth College and author of Uneasy Virtue, explores some of the distinctively ethical issues that arise in The Matrix in her essay “Artificial Ethics.” Driver begins by using the film to consider the moral status of artificially created beings: she argues that, given certain assumptions regarding the nature of consciousness, rationality, and personhood, we ought to regard artificial intelligences such as Agent Smith as creatures that deserve genuine moral consideration. In the second part of her essay Driver tackles the thorny philosophical question of whether one can behave immorally when in “non-veridical” (illusory) circumstances. Noting the implausibility of attributing wrongdoing to those who perform seemingly immoral acts in a dream, she argues that, to the extent that the Matrix offers a similarly illusory world free of actual unpleasant effects on others, it also seems odd to attribute wrongdoing to agents acting in such a world. However, drawing on insights from the first part of her essay, Driver concludes that we have good reasons to think that actions in the Matrix would have genuine effects on both humans and some artificial creatures, and thus the world of the Matrix, like our world, has its own moral norms — its own ethics — that ought to be both acknowledged and respected.
Michael McKenna, a philosopher at Ithaca College who specializes in the philosophical problems of freedom and moral responsibility, offers up a comprehensive yet light-hearted exploration of the free will problem in his essay “Neo’s Freedom … Whoa!“. Ingeniously utilizing aspects of The Matrix to describe and explore the traditional positions taken in debates over free will, McKenna manages to cover a lot of ground: determinism, fatalism, compatibilism, and incompatibilism are all canvassed and compared through the unique perspective afforded us by the film. He then goes on to explore the attractiveness of the radical freedom that Neo appears to have achieved by the end of The Matrix. Does such absolute freedom indeed “rock” the way we naturally think it would? McKenna convincingly argues that total freedom of this sort offers too much of a good thing: part of the joy we take in exercising our freedom is in pushing boundaries and testing limits — if all boundaries and limitations are removed, the possibility for such joy will disappear as well.
Finally, we have an essay from John Partridge, a professor of philosophy at Wheaton College whose work focuses on the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. In “Plato’s Cave & The Matrix,” Partridge considers the striking similarities between The Matrix and the “cave” scenario described in Plato’s Republic. In addition to pointing out the numerous surface parallels between the cave-dwellers Plato describes and the humans trapped in the Matrix, Partridge explores a deeper continuity between the film and Plato’s text: both narratives privilege the self-knowledge that follows from the right kind of self-examination. As Plato might put it, both Neo and the cave-dwellers must undertake a difficult journey from darkness to light if genuine knowledge (and consequently true “care of the soul”) is to be attained.
Enjoy this new group of essays, and be sure and check back soon for further updates.
Chris Grau, Editor
UPDATE: DECEMBER 19, 2003
Just in time for Christmas, we are pleased to offer a final update to the philosophy section: four new essays on the philosophical questions raised by the Matrix films.
Starting things off is Tim Mawson’s essay “Morpheus and Berkeley on Reality”. Tim is Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at St Peter’s College, Oxford University. He takes a comment by Morpheus regarding “what is real” as his starting point for an introduction to the difficult philosophical problem of sorting out the real from the unreal. Discussing the philosopher George Berkeley’s startling views on the nature of reality, he considers the question of whether Berkeley offers a genuine, if radical, way out of the skeptical worries raised by Descartes, and whether this Berkeleyan path is one that Morpheus would do best to follow. He concludes that, even if Berkeley doesn’t offer us a satisfying escape from skepticism, consideration of his views can help us to get closer to the truth through bringing us to a more sophisticated understanding of Morpheus’s comments and the skeptical worries they engender.
Next is “Matrix and Monadology“, an essay from the Johns Hopkins philosopher Sean Greenberg that compares the metaphysical implications of the Matrix with the bizarre metaphysics of the 17th century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. Pointing out some revealing similarities between Leibniz’s “Monadology” and the world described in The Matrix, Greenberg goes on to use the film to help elucidate Leibniz’s notion of “monads” and his theory of causation. While both The Matrix and Leibniz seem to present us with nightmarish visions of reality as being thoroughly unlike what we ordinarily believe, Greenberg concludes that it is only the film that presents a genuine nightmare, and that a proper understanding of Leibniz’s views can help us understand why the metaphysics of the Matrix is so disturbing.
Richard Hanley, the philosopher from the University of Delaware who previously contributed an essay on the similarities between The Matrix and heaven (“Never the Twain Shall Meet: Reflections on The First Matrix“), here brings us a spirited discussion of the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard, one of the few philosophers to be explicitly referenced in the first Matrix film. In his essay “Simulacra and Simulation“, Hanley considers Baudrillard’s influence on The Matrix as well as the general influence that Baudrillard’s brand of postmodernism has had on our culture. Along the way he offers readers a critical but enlightening introduction to postmodern thought.
Finally we have “The Twisted Matrix: Dream, Simulation, or Hybrid?” from the influential philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark. Clark brings some helpful empirical data to the table to help ground the discussion of the “dreamlike quality” of the Matrix that we have seen in essays from Grau, McGinn, Chalmers, and others. Pointing out that the reality of dreams is rather different than philosophers tend to suppose, he distinguishes between the sloppy but creative cognition of our actual “uncritical” dreams and the “industrial strength deception” that philosophers since Descartes have (mistakenly) assumed to be part and parcel of ordinary dreams. Arguing that the film plays on and at times conflates these two distinct conceptions of dreams, Clark concludes that this ambivalence at the heart of The Matrix helps explain why it is such a memorable and thought-provoking cinematic experience.
Chris Grau, Editor