The Matrix is, at its core, a film with a moral plot. We, the viewers, like the heroes, are in on a secret: The reality that forms the lives of millions of human beings is not real. The world that seems real to most people is in fact a computer-generated simulation, but almost no one knows it. In reality human beings are floating in liquid in machine pods, with tubes connected to them in a grotesque post-apocalyptic world where the sun is blotted out. To the average person, of course, it seems to be the ordinary world of 1999. Although some details of the history remain untold, it is an essential part of The Matrix that we are provided with a specific account of how all of this happened. There was a battle between human beings and machines whose cognitive capacity had surpassed their own. In a desperate attempt to win, human beings blocked out the sun’s light in order to deprive the machines of their power source. Despite this extreme tactic, the humans lost, were enslaved, and are now farmed to supply energy sources for the machines. The machines induce the appearance of ordinary 1999 life in the human beings with a computer generated “virtual community” for the purpose of keeping them docile and asleep so that they and their offspring can be used like living batteries. While humans seem to walk around in an ordinary life, their minds are radically deceived and their bodies are exploited. The heroes are thus depicted as fighting a noble battle for the liberation of the human species.Another topic raised by the film, which I will not discuss beyond this note, would be to assess the moral background of the plot. Are the humans clearly in the right? After all, it was they who … Continue reading
I have so far drawn out two aspects of the “moral background” of the film: enslavement and deception. We should also note the perspective we have on the Matrix as viewers of The Matrix. We have what is sometimes called a “God’s eye” perspective: we can see both the Matrix reality and “real” reality. We are let in on the truth about the situation, and we are not supposed to question, for example, whether the battle between Morpheus and his friends and the Agents is itself being conducted in another “meta-matrix”, or whether the view of the human pods we see might only be some sort of dream image or illusion. As viewers of the Matrix, we are in on the truth and we can see for ourselves that human beings are both enslaved and deceived. Given the outlined history, we are meant to understand the situation of the humans as a terrible and unfair one.
1. How Does the Matrix Differ from Reality?
Excluding, for the moment, the heroes – Morpheus, Trinity, eventually Neo, and the rest of their crew – and the machines, no one in the Matrix shares our God’s eye perspective. In everyday life as well, as far as we know, reality is simply there. When we watch the film, we identify with the heroes in part because we are repulsed by the idea that human beings are enslaved and deceived.And in part because we too would like to control reality; see below. It is easy to find these two elements at work in The Matrix in part because we think of enslavement and deception as things that are done to some people by others; one group of people enslaves another, or one person or group deceives others. In the film it is the machines who are the agents of slavery and deception and almost all of the humans are victims. But how does the Matrix, and the situation of the ordinary people within it differ from reality and the people within it (i.e., us)?
Let’s begin with enslavement. We are forced to do many things in ordinary reality: we must eat, drink, sleep, on penalty of death. Also, no matter what we do, we shall eventually, within a fairly predictable time frame, die; we cannot stay alive forever, or even for a couple of hundred years. We can’t travel back and forth in time; can’t fly to other planets by flapping our arms. The list could go on and on, and I have simply offered limits we are subject to in virtue of the laws of nature. In other words, compared with some easily imaginable possibilities, we are severely constrained, in a type of bondage, though ordinarily most of us don’t think of it as such. Writers, artists, philosophers, and theologians over the centuries have of course been keenly aware of these limitations, examined many forms of human bondage, and offered various types of suggestions as to how to free ourselves. Human beings have longed to “break out” of this reality, to transcend the imposed limitations on their physical being. Moreover, we should be clear that these limitations are imposed on us. We simply find ourselves in this condition, with these rules: we all die within approximately 100 years. It has nothing to do with our voluntary choice, our wishes, or our judgements about what ought to be the case.
Who has done this to us? Answering this question is important to some degree because we typically use the term “enslavement” to refer to something done by one agent to some others. In the case of the constraints I outlined above it may be harder, initially, to find anyone on whom to pin the blame. But of course human beings have offered answers to this question: one is God; another, the laws of nature. Religious thinkers have struggled with questions about why we should not be angry at God for constraining us in the ways he does: why do people die, why can’t we go back in time, travel to other planets, etc.? Others conclude that God is not constraining us, but simply the laws of nature. At least at first this thought might be a bit more palatable insofar as we think of the laws of nature as impersonal features of reality; no one made them that way (if God did, then we get angry at him again). They do not mean to constrain us and there is no mind or intelligent force actively doing anything to us.The Stoics thought of the natural world, of the universe as a whole, as itself a rational creature with an overall goal or purpose. Either way, however, our actual situation is one of involuntary constraint, much akin to the humans’ situation in the Matrix, except that it is not at the hands of machines against whom we lost a war, but at the hands of God or “nature”.
The second aspect of the moral background of The Matrix is deception. Human beings are being actively deceived by the Matrix into believing things about reality that are not true. Deception offends many people, except perhaps for committed subjectivists, since many people believe that they want to know, or at least have the right to know, the truth, even if it is terrible. For one person, or a group of people, purposefully to keep others in the dark about some truth is to diminish the respect and authority of those people; it is to act patronizingly and paternalistically. In such situations, a few people decide which truths others can handle, and which they can’t. Although this happens routinely – consider the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed – many people bristle at this idea and want the scope of such filtering of the truth to be severely limited.
We might think, however, not about the deception of some people by others (just as we did not look at the enslavement of some people by others), but the deception of humanity in general. In Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey the gods are depicted throughout as capriciously deceiving human beings, compelling them knowingly and unknowingly to do specific things, and generally interfering quite frequently in human affairs. The humans in Homer certainly seem to be caught in a matrix of sorts, with gods and goddesses operating on a plane of reality that is not accessible to them (unless the gods want it to be) but that nevertheless often affects matters in the humans’ ordinary reality. As human beings began to understand that the Earth rotated around the Sun, and not vice versa, Descartes certainly worried about the extent to which God had had a hand in deceiving all of humanity for tens of thousands of years up to that point. He devotes a significant portion of the MeditationsAlthough this theme is present throughout, see especially Meditations I and IV. to worrying about how an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God could have allowed (and whether indeed he was complicit in) people’s radical deception about the relative motions of the planet they live on, and other truths that turn out to be radically different from how things seem to be.
So in our ordinary situation, without any cruel machines doing anything to us, we realize that there are nevertheless many things we cannot do, and we know that we humans have been radically deceived by natural phenomena (or by the gods, or by God) about things in the past, and that it only stands to reason that we may be radically mistaken about our explanations of things now. I say people’s “radical deception”, despite the fact that, as with being enslaved, being deceived also seems to require an agent – someone to do the deceiving. We should note, however, that we talk of being deceived or fooled by mirrors, or by the light, or by angles. Natural phenomena are often described as contributing to our misunderstanding of them for a reason. Even though human beings were mistaken for millennia about the fact that the Earth moves relative to the Sun, and not the other way round, it is hard to describe our error as simply having “made a mistake”, as though humanity forgot to carry the two in some addition calculation. Surely part of the reason that it took humans so long to understand the motions of the Earth is that the appearances themselves are deceptive: it certainly looks as though the Sun is moving across the sky.The idea that reality is tricky and tries to hide its nature from us is very old, even without, as in Homer’s case, any gods acting as agents of deception. For example, the Presocratic … Continue reading We can see the very development of philosophy, art, religion, science, and technology as all stemming from a drive to “free humanity” from such deception and enslavement, as part of a struggle to achieve the position of a Morpheus or a Neo.Morpheus and company are an interesting amalgam of technological sophistication and religious symbolism. We develop planes to break the bonds of gravity that keep us physically on the surface of the Earth; we develop complex experiments and gadgets designed to discover the truth about things independently of how they may appear.
My first point, then, is that if we could get hold of the being responsible for setting up the reality we’re actually in, then we could perhaps “free” ourselves, finally knowing the full truth about things, and being able to manipulate reality. If God is responsible, we would need to plead with him successfully, or to fight him and win; if it’s the mathematical formulae (computer programs?) underlying “the laws of nature,” we would need to learn how to write and rewrite them. We would then all be Neos.Or, more precisely, those of us who accomplished this. We might note too, at this big-picture level, a difference between the Homeric gods and the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic God. In Homer’s world the gods were frequently literally in battle with humans who were greatly outmatched, although not entirely impotent – much like the humans that, before Neo, fought with the “Agents”. With the God of the major contemporary religions, he is, by definition, all-good. From this perspective, we should not fight God, for he set things up the way he did for a wise and benevolent reason; rather, we need to learn to accept the position he has put us in (this “mortal coil”, our reality, our matrix) and, then, if we act certain ways, or do certain things, he will free us from this reality after we “die” (i.e. not go out of existence, but end our stay in this reality) and show us the truth in heaven.
I hope this necessarily brief discussion enables us to see the importance of both the God’s eye perspective and the moral background of the film for effecting a difference between the situation depicted in The Matrix and our ordinary condition. As viewers of the film we are in a special position: we can see both inside and outside of the Matrix. We can see that it is not a benevolent God who has set up this 1999 reality, replete with constraints and deceptive appearances, pain and toil, for some wonderful, miraculous purpose. Nor is the reality of most people in the Matrix the result of impersonal laws of nature. Instead, machines who use human beings as batteries are responsible for what counts as reality for most people. The Matrix then supplies us the viewers with a definitive answer about who is responsible for what most human beings take to be reality.Of course for Morpheus and his crew, and for the machines if they were sufficiently reflective, the same questions could be raised about what makes the reality outside of the Matrix the … Continue reading
2. A Benevolently Generated Matrix
Now The Matrix could be significantly altered, without changing anything in the Matrix. Imagine that the real world is a post-apocalyptic hell, just as in the film, but, unlike in the film, suppose that the cause of the world’s being in such a state is not some battle with machines that wanted to enslave us, but the emission of so many greenhouse gases with our three-lane-wide SUVs that we completely obliterated the ozone layer and thereby rendered the planet uninhabitable by us or by the plants and animals that we rely on for our survival. Suppose further that sometime in the future, in order to save the human race, scientists set up an enormous self-sustaining machine, just as in the film (minus the scary “Sentinels”), designed to keep the human species alive and reproducing for the 100,000 years it will take for whatever weeds are left on the planet to fix our atmosphere and make the planet once again habitable in a normal way. The machine operates simply on solar power (since, on this scenario, the sun is now stronger than ever, frying almost everything else on the planet), so that human beings are not needed as “batteries”.This detail is meant simply to avoid the possibility of unease over the issue of whether human beings are being used as batteries, voluntarily or not. While humans are stuck in this state, the scientists create the Matrix for them to “live” their lives in instead of being conscious of floating in a vat for the length of their life, which would clearly be a most horrific torture. Once the power of the sun is diminished to a habitable degree (because of the repaired atmosphere) the machine would “wake” us humans, and we could go back to living on the planet.
The ordinary person in this scenario is in the same condition as an ordinary person in the film, except that instead of the Matrix being the diabolical result of evil machines who exploit the human race, it is the result of benevolent human beings trying to keep the human race alive in as good condition as possible under the terrible circumstances. Of course it would seem no different to the person in the Matrix. We, the viewers, however, would have quite a different response to The Matrix. There would be no enemy to fight, no injustice to rectify (the pushers of SUVs being long dead). If there were a Morpheus in this situation, how would we think of him? If Morpheus and his friends had left the Matrix, and figured out that they could, with extreme difficulty, survive in the devastated world (eating disgusting porridge, etc.), should they go about “freeing” everyone, even if it would take another 10,000 years for the Earth to return to its present state of habitability?
As Chris Grau discusses in his introductory essay (section “C”), the Matrix is importantly different from Robert Nozick’s “experience machine”.I shall assume that my reader has read that essay, where Grau clearly explains Nozick’s example. (The essay can be found here.) Grau points out that we retain free will in the Matrix. The “world” in the Matrix will respond to our free choices, just as the ordinary world does now. Another difference that I think is quite significant is that in the Matrix, unlike in the experience machine, I am really interacting with other human minds. There is a community of human beings. With the experience machine, it is all about my experience, which is the private content of my own consciousness. It is imaginable that I am alone in the universe, floating in a vat set up by a god who has since committed suicide. In sceptical problems that stem from the Evil Genius hypothesis in Descartes’ first Meditation, there is a threat of solipsism and the dread of feeling that one might be alone in the universe.See Grau, “Dream Skepticism“. The threat of solipsism seems to me to be the same in the Matrix or in the ordinary world; and that is not my concern here. I am simply taking the truth of … Continue reading In the Matrix, however, when two people meet there are really two consciousnesses there that are each experiencing “the same things” from their respective positions. Everyone is hooked up to one and the same Matrix; there are not unique matrices generated for each individual. Of course people aren’t really shaking hands – their hands are in vats – but it seems to each of their consciousnesses, not just to one consciousness, that they are shaking hands. This feature of the Matrix is also a respect in which life in the Matrix is critically unlike a dream, despite the fact that the humans are described as “dreaming”.I think that perhaps Colin McGinn’s essay too quickly assimilates the Matrix to dreaming, and Neo’s control over it to “lucid” dreaming. Although McGinn may be right that the … Continue reading Regardless of the amount of conscious control one has or lacks in a dream, a dream is private to one’s own consciousness. It is part of the grammar of “dream”, as Wittgenstein might say, that only I can have my dream.We could certainly, if we wish, call the experience of the Matrix “a dream”, as the movie does. But we should remember that Neo, while in the Matrix and before he has met Morpheus, has … Continue reading
Now this seems to me to be of enormous significance in thinking about the Matrix. If two people fall in love in the Matrix, in what sense would their love not be real? It would not be as if a person merely dreamt that he had fallen in love with someone; for in a dream that person is not really there at all, just like in Nozick’s experience machine. It is true that in the Matrix they would not really be giving each other flowers, or really holding hands. They would, however, both be experiencing the same things together. They would know each other as persons, who display their characters in how they react to all of the – in one sense – “unreal” situations of the Matrix. Moreover, people in the Matrix really suffer and experience pain, and when they die in the Matrix, they die in the “real world” too. The fact that one and the same Matrix is inhabited by millions of minds means that millions of people are really interacting, even if the physical universe in which they are interacting is radically different from how it appears.
Consider as well writing a novel, a poem, or a philosophy paper. Or consider painting or dancing, making music or a movie. Would any of these activities be affected by the fact that what I took to be material objects were objects that were computer generated? And if not, in the benevolently generated Matrix I hypothesized we would seem clearly better off as a species, developing artistically, intellectually, loving each other within the Matrix rather than fighting for survival and barely succeeding outside of it. If my aim in life was to write some extraordinary philosophy or a ground-breaking novel, surely I could do that far better within the Matrix than outside of it where a person must battle simply for his or her survival. After all, where does my novel or my philosophy paper exist for much of its genesis and storage? In a computer of course. If I wrote a novel in the Matrix, and you read it, and so did 10,000 other minds, and I then win the Pulitzer Prize for it, in what sense would it be unreal or even diminished in value? This differs again from the experience machine. In the experience machine, I might have programmed it so that it would seem to me that I had written a brilliant novel and that people had appreciated it. In fact, however, no one would have read my novel and I would have simply programmed myself with memories of having written it, although I never really did. In the Matrix, however, I am not given false memories, and I do really interact with other minds. Physics as we know it would be false (not of course the physics of the Matrix, which scientists would study and which would progress as does ordinary science; see below). But art and human relationships would not be affected. I am trying to show that while we are attached to reality, we are not attached to the physical per se, where that refers to what we think of as the underlying causes of the smells, tastes, feels, sights, and sounds around us: they could be molecules, they could be computer chips, they could be the whims of Homeric gods. Indeed, very few human beings have much understanding of contemporary physics and what it maintains things “really” are.This sentence implies that contemporary physics represents humans’ best understanding of the true nature of reality, which is certainly a contentious claim. Nozick’s experience machine may have shown us that we have an attachment to the real, an attachment to the truth that we are really doing things, really accomplishing things, and not just seeming to, but we should not for that reason think we are necessarily attached to a certain picture of the physical or metaphysical constitution of things.
I would like return to the question of the sense in which the reality of the Matrix is different from the real world. I think that there is an important difference between being deceived about the reality of an object and being deceived about the real underlying physical or metaphysical cause of something. Avoiding deception and error about the latter is the concern of physics (and metaphysics). That we might be wrong, indeed radically wrong, about the physics/biology of an elephant is quite different from hallucinating that there is an elephant in front of you, or dreaming of an elephant, or experiencing an elephant in Nozick’s machine. In the latter three cases, one is deceived about the reality of an object, about whether there is an elephant there at all. I am not saying that the actual physics or metaphysics of a thing will not determine whether it is there; if something is really the underlying cause of something else, of course it must determine its existence. I do claim, however, that given the reality of a thing, knowing its true physical/metaphysical explanation neither augments nor diminishes its value or its reality.The question of whether I know something is in fact real or an illusion remains as legitimate or illegitimate as always. As throughout this essay, I am simply bypassing any sceptical questions, since … Continue reading To discover that, contrary to what you had believed, elephants evolved from single-celled sea creatures and are mostly water, and that water consists of molecules, and that molecules consist of atoms, and that there is a certain interrelationship between matter and energy – that is all part of science’s attempt to understand the truth about physical reality. None of these conclusions impugns the elephant’s reality or the value it has in the world. What substances at bottom are is a question for science or, perhaps, metaphysics. The moral background of the film is quite relevant here. If the fact that we are in the Matrix is simply a matter of our being incorrect about or ignorant of what the real physics of things is, then the Matrix is quite close to our ordinary situation, although our position as viewers of The Matrix is not like that at all. Since we have a “God’s eye” perspective, we are able to know what is really the cause of things and what is not.
In the benevolent Matrix that I envisaged, however, you could learn Matrix-physics and Matrix-history just as we now learn ordinary physics and ordinary history. At a certain age in school you might be taught that your body is really floating in a vat, and then perhaps you could put on goggles and see the world outside of the Matrix, like looking at an x-ray or at your blood under a microscope. Brought up with such a physics and biology, it would seem natural – about as exciting (and unexciting) as being told that your solid unmoving table is made of incredibly small incredibly fast moving parts, or that all of your physical characteristics are determined by a certain code in your DNA, or where babies come from – despite the fact that such truths are hardly obvious, and conflict radically with the way things appear. Just consider any of the conclusions of contemporary physics or quantum mechanics. History too might continue as normal, divided into BM (before Matrix) and AM (after Matrix) dates. After all in the “real” world, outside of the Matrix, nothing would be happening of interest except to scientists. It would be like the contemporary study of bottom of the ocean, or of the moon. Aside from its causal influence on the physical state of the planet, what goes on down there or up there has no part to play in human history. All of human history would occur within the Matrix.
By hypothesizing a benevolent rather than a malevolent cause of the Matrix, we can see how much of what I am calling the “moral background” of The Matrix influences what we think of it. Deprived of that moral background, a benevolently generated Matrix can show us that our attachment is not to the physical constitution and cause of things, but also not simply to experience. Our attachment is to things that have value. Let me explain.
Take the example, discussed in the film, of the pleasure of eating. Imagine that science develops a pill which supplies the perfect amount of nutrition for a human being each day. Humans no longer need to eat at all in the ordinary way. In fact they are, as far as their health is concerned, far worse off if they try to rely on their taste to supply them with the appropriate nutrition (see current statistics on fast food consumption and obesity). They can simply take the pill and get nutrition far superior to what they would if left to their own taste to determine what and how much to eat. Let’s suppose too that science has found a way to simulate food with a computer, so that they have created a “food-matrix”. My real nutrition would come from the pill, but I could still go out for a “simulated” steak and it would seem just as though I were really eating a steak, including the sensation of getting full, although in fact I would be eating nothing and getting no nutritional harm or benefit from the experience at all. It is hard to imagine such a perfect pill and such perfect computer-simulated food; such a pill is no simple vitamin, and a tofu-burger is no simulated steak. But if we suppose that there are such things, I think human beings would readily give up eating real steak. What those who value eating steak value is not the eating of real cow flesh (in fact, putting it that way inclines one to become a vegetarian), but the experience of eating. If eating the computer steak really were, as we are assuming, absolutely indistinguishable from eating a real steak, no one would care whether they were eating a “real” steak – that is, one that was obtained from a slaughtered cow.
At this level the discussion is again about what the underlying causes of phenomenal qualities are: whether the causes of the taste, smell, etc. of the steak are cow molecules or computer chips or the hand of God. This is, as it were, a matter of science or metaphysics – not of concern to the consumer as a consumer. Now for all physical objects, I contend, it is of no value to us if their underlying constitution is ordinary atoms, or computer generated simulation. My favorite pen still writes the same way, my favorite shirt still feels the same way. If these things are not “real” in the sense that their underlying constitution is radically other than I had believed, that makes no difference to the value that these things have in our lives. It does, of course, make a difference to the truth of the physics or metaphysics I learn. But none of this implies that I was being deceived about the reality of the object – that the object I valued was or is not there in the sense that matters to the non-scientist.All human being might be considered “scientists” insofar as we are curious about and have a conception of what the reality of things are: what causes them, how they come into being, how … Continue reading In a scene discussed by Grau, Cypher claims his knowledge that the steak is “unreal” – that is, computer generated – does not diminish his enjoyment. Cypher then looks forward to the point when he expects his memory to be wiped clean, and when he will no longer remember that the Matrix is the Matrix. But it seems to me to be unclear why Cypher needs to forget anything about his steak being unreal in order to fully enjoy it – as he himself seems to understand – nor does he need to forget that he is in the Matrix in order to make his life pleasant and satisfying within it. What he desperately needs to forget in order to have a comfortable and satisfying life is the memory of his immoral and cowardly betrayal of his friends and of the rest of those outside of the Matrix who are engaged in the fight for human liberation. But this is an issue, once again, not arising from the Matrix itself, but from the “moral background” of the film.
Having a radically different underlying constitution is very different from saying that things are not real, in the sense of being a mere illusion, as in a dream or a hallucination. Consider again the case of our human interactions. If a person I am friends with is not, after all, a person, then I think there is a clear sense in which the friendship is not real, just as in Nozick’s experience machine or in a dream that I was friends with Tom Waits. I would then seem to have a relationship to someone, but in reality not have one. What matters is whether I am really interacting with another free mind. I certainly won’t try to say what it is to have a mind, or what it is for that mind to be “free”, but whatever it is, I am claiming that its value is not importantly tied to any theory in physics or metaphysics. Whatever the cause and explanation is of the existence of a free mind, it is the having of one and the ability to interact with other ones that matters. If the underlying constitution of Tom Waits is computer chips, instead of blood and guts, what difference does that make? This is not a question about his reality – whether he is really there or not –, it is a question about his physical or metaphysical constitution. If he has a mind, whatever that is, and he has free will, whatever that is, what do I care what physical parts he is – or is not – made of?Given a true account of what it is to have a mind, I would surely care if what appeared to be a person did not fulfill those criteria, for then he would not be a person after all. For example, if … Continue reading Indeed, I earnestly hope in the actual world never to see any of those parts or have direct contact with them at all.
3. The Matrix on the Matrix
I shall conclude by claiming that The Matrix itself provides evidence that, barring enslavement and deception, we would prefer life within the Matrix. I have so far considered how we would feel about the reality of a benevolently generated Matrix. But in The Matrix, the cause of the Matrix is explicitly not benevolent. Human beings are enslaved and exploited by scary-looking machines. The Matrix is a story about a few human beings fighting to save the rest of humanity. That is how the movie generates excitement, the thrill for the viewer as he or she hopes that the heroes can defeat the enemy. Of course, the film expects one to root for the humans. But I think there is some duplicity at work in the way The Matrix exploits the Matrix. Neo is the savior of humanity, and a large amount of the pleasure that the viewer gets from the film consists of watching Neo and his friends learn to manipulate the Matrix. Key to Neo’s eventual success is his training. In his training he learns that the Matrix, as a computer-generated group dream, can be manipulated by a human being. The idea, I guess, is that if one could bring oneself to believe deeply enough that, despite appearances, things are not real, then one could manipulate the reality of the Matrix. The thrill that Neo feels, and that we feel watching him, is that as he gains this control he is able to do things that are, apparently, superhuman – move faster than bullets, hang onto helicopters, fly, etc. We ought to note here, though, that Neo’s greatness, his being the One, is only the case because the Matrix exists. Outside of the Matrix, Neo is just a smart computer geek. He can’t really fly, or really dodge bullets (nor, apparently, does he dress in full-length black leather coats, though I guess he could). We, as viewers, would not get any pleasure from The Matrix if it were not for the Matrix. If there were no Matrix, everyone would be eating terrible porridge in a sunless world and simply fighting for survival, which would make for a bad world and a bad movie. The premise of the movie is that there is a moral duty to destroy the Matrix, and “free” the humans. But all of the satisfaction that the viewer gets, and that the characters get in terms of their own sense of purpose and of being special, is derived from the Matrix. It’s not just Cypher’s steak that is owed to the Matrix, it is Morpheus’s breaking the handcuffs, Trinity’s gravity-defying leaps, and Neo’s bullet dodging. If my argument is right, then, the irony of The Matrix is that the heroes spend all of their time liberating human beings from the Matrix although afterwards they would have good reason to go back in, assuming the conditions on Earth are still so terrible. This is because there’s nothing wrong with the Matrix per se; indeed, I’ve argued that our reality might just as well be the Matrix. What we want, now as always, one way or another, is to have control over it ourselves. What we would do with such power is a question, I suppose, for psychologists; but, looking at what people have done so far, I at any rate hope we remain enslaved and deceived by something for a long time to come.I am grateful to Chris Grau and Bill Vasiliou for comments on and discussion about an earlier version of this essay.
|Another topic raised by the film, which I will not discuss beyond this note, would be to assess the moral background of the plot. Are the humans clearly in the right? After all, it was they who blotted out the sun in an attempt to exterminate the machines. Particularly in light of the machines’ claim that they are simply the next evolutionary step, we ought to think about whether there is some objectionable “speciesism” at work in the humans’ assessment of the situation. For my purposes I’ll assume the humans are morally justified in the fight for liberation, which, I might add, is certainly a defensible position. For even if machines are the next evolutionary step, and some human beings are guilty of having acted wrongly towards them, that would hardly justify the involuntary enslavement of the entire human race in perpetuity. Moreover, the existence of a “more advanced” species than our own (however that is to be determined) surely should not deprive us of our human rights.
|And in part because we too would like to control reality; see below.
|The Stoics thought of the natural world, of the universe as a whole, as itself a rational creature with an overall goal or purpose.
|Although this theme is present throughout, see especially Meditations I and IV.
|The idea that reality is tricky and tries to hide its nature from us is very old, even without, as in Homer’s case, any gods acting as agents of deception. For example, the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus (c.540-c.480 BC) writes (fr. 53) “an unapparent connection is stronger than an apparent one” and (fr. 123) “nature/the real constitution [of things] (phusis) loves to hide itself.”
|Morpheus and company are an interesting amalgam of technological sophistication and religious symbolism.
|Or, more precisely, those of us who accomplished this.
|Of course for Morpheus and his crew, and for the machines if they were sufficiently reflective, the same questions could be raised about what makes the reality outside of the Matrix the way it is – who is responsible for that? And then we can imagine them responding in the sorts of ways I have described, pinning the blame on God, the laws of nature, etc.
|This detail is meant simply to avoid the possibility of unease over the issue of whether human beings are being used as batteries, voluntarily or not.
|I shall assume that my reader has read that essay, where Grau clearly explains Nozick’s example. (The essay can be found here.)
|See Grau, “Dream Skepticism“. The threat of solipsism seems to me to be the same in the Matrix or in the ordinary world; and that is not my concern here. I am simply taking the truth of the “God’s eye” perspective offered the viewer of the film for granted. The Matrix tells us and shows us that we are all hooked up to the same Matrix.
|I think that perhaps Colin McGinn’s essay too quickly assimilates the Matrix to dreaming, and Neo’s control over it to “lucid” dreaming. Although McGinn may be right that the Matrix must be dealing with “images” rather than “percepts”, there are important disanalogies between Matrix-experience and dream-experience. First, in a dream, there is only your own mind involved. The Matrix must be, at a minimum, a group dream. I am arguing above that the fact that one mind is really interacting with other minds is critical to assessing the value of the Matrix reality. This complicates the apparently clear idea of controlling one’s dream, since it is not simply one mind at work that can “alter” the images one is conscious of. I am not sure of the coherence of the hypothesis here. For example, when the young boy bends the spoon, Neo “sees” this. So the boy’s control of his environment is perceivable both by the boy’s mind and by Neo’s. So he must be changing something that is, “in reality”, in Neo’s mind – namely, Neo’s image of the spoon. But what if Neo straightens the spoon at the same time the boy bends it? Whose lucid dream will win out, and be perceived by the other minds? The one with the stronger will? Second, the “images” that are in your mind in the Matrix can, and regularly do, really kill people; that is, kill their bodies outside of the Matrix. Except in some bad horror movies, dream images cannot really kill you, or make you bleed. The difficulty of understanding how something which is a mere “image” is supposed to have this sort of effect seems therefore to cause some problems for calling the state of ordinary people in the Matrix “dreaming”. See also next note.
|We could certainly, if we wish, call the experience of the Matrix “a dream”, as the movie does. But we should remember that Neo, while in the Matrix and before he has met Morpheus, has a dream while he is “asleep”. So we need some distinction between that sort of “dream” and Neo’s “waking” “group-dream” within the Matrix.
|This sentence implies that contemporary physics represents humans’ best understanding of the true nature of reality, which is certainly a contentious claim.
|The question of whether I know something is in fact real or an illusion remains as legitimate or illegitimate as always. As throughout this essay, I am simply bypassing any sceptical questions, since it is part of my argument that being in the Matrix does not affect them.
|All human being might be considered “scientists” insofar as we are curious about and have a conception of what the reality of things are: what causes them, how they come into being, how they are destroyed, etc. But we are also interested in other people, objects, and activities because of their inherent value, a value they retain regardless of the correct explanation of their reality.
|Given a true account of what it is to have a mind, I would surely care if what appeared to be a person did not fulfill those criteria, for then he would not be a person after all. For example, if someone somehow showed that a machine could not have a “free mind”, then I would care whether my friend was a machine or not, but only secondarily, given that ex hypothesi as a machine he would not have a free mind. My point is only that it is “having a free mind” or “being a person” that is the source of value, not the correct theory about what makes someone a person. I am claiming that ignorance of or deception about the right physical or metaphysical account of mind does not thereby cast doubt on the value of having a mind. Scepticism about other minds – the questions of whether there really are other minds and how we could tell whether there are – is not addressed at all by what I am saying. I am taking for granted the truth of what the film tells us: there are other minds. The problem of other minds, like solipsism mentioned above, is equally a problem in or out of the Matrix.
|I am grateful to Chris Grau and Bill Vasiliou for comments on and discussion about an earlier version of this essay.