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Philosophy & Film: Reality and free will in The Matrix

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Think you know The Matrix? Think again, buddy.

If there’s one thing Descartes loved, it was doubting the existence of all things. It was kind of his thing. He noted that we believe everything in a dream, so what reason do we have to believe that our waking reality is not just another, bigger dream? He introduced the idea of the “evil genius” – this evil genius has created a complete illusion of the external world, our body and all the sensations that go with it. However, there is no body, nor is there an external world; we are being deceived by our senses and this leaves us in pretty much the same position as Neo and co. in the Wachowskis’ The Matrix.

Morpheus echoes Descartes when he says: “What is ‘real’? How do you define ‘real’?”

Morpheus echoes Descartes when he says: “What is ‘real’? How do you define ‘real’? If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” Descartes thinks the only thing we can be sure of is the existence of our own mind because, in doubting everything, we see that the mind is the thing doing the thinking and to do that it must therefore exist. Hence, “cogito ergo sum”, aka “I think therefore I am.” Neo’s mind stays the same even after he takes the red pill, suggesting the mind is the only thing that is able to transcend the doubt.

The way Neo escapes the Matrix is akin to Plato’s allegory of The Cave. In the cave, people are held in chains and bondage (oo-er) and forced to stare at a wall where shadows are projected. For those in the chains, the shadows are reality. But one can break free from these chains, and when they do they are faced with the real objects that cast the shadows and see that these are the true objects of reality. People who escape are compelled to go back to the others and try and force them to see the truth, but are met with hostility because no one wants to believe their radical ideas. Neo has broken away from the binds of the Matrix via the red pill, and takes it upon himself to free the rest of the human race from the imposed false reality they are trapped within.

the matrix red pill blue pill

Another obviously influential philosophy is Robert Nozick’s, who invented the idea of an “experience machine”. He wrote:

“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, pre-programming your life experiences? Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening… Would you plug in?”

“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired… Would you plug in?” – Robert Nozick

It seems intuitive to say “no” to this query, as there are things more important to us than simply the feeling of pleasure. Having autonomy, truth and actual experiences (good and bad) seem to trump the life of one that is only full of seemingly true pleasures. We see Neo literally “unplugged” from what could be seen as a Nozick’s “experience machine” in an attempt to escape such a life, and we see Cypher regretting his decision and wanting to step back into the virtual world. Cypher is seen as a villain, so the writers behind The Matrix clearly support and want the audience to agree with Nozick’s philosophical point of view.

Read more: Philosophy of mind in Memento

the matrix cypher steak

Onto the concept of free will, The Matrix doesn’t really point us in any direction to a theory the filmmakers think is correct, but rather raises different theories with different characters. The Oracle, for example, embodies fatalism. This is the view that certain things are going to happen no matter what. You will always do X, therefore the future is fixed, and no one is free to make any choices. The option for free will looks pretty bleak under fatalism, and is not a view many people take seriously. Indeed, the oracle admits she never “knew” anything was going to happen, just believed it would.

When Neo decides to save Trinity and not Zion, this breaks the cycle of what had previously been ‘determined’

The Merovingian (the guy who makes the orgasm cake) makes a speech about causality: “You see there is only one constant. One universal. It is the only real truth: causality. Action, reaction. Cause and effect.” This symbolises determinism, the view that what you are going to do is fixed by all past events, external to the will. You can’t do anything except that which you are determined to do. This suggests we are not ‘free’ in the way we like to think and that we’re never really making choices.

When Neo decides to save Trinity and not Zion, this breaks the cycle of what had previously been ‘determined’. This could be a nod towards compatibilism: the view that we can have free will even within a determinist universe. When one acts according to one’s motives without hindrance from external influences, one exercises free will. It could also be seen as an incompatibilist view, rejecting determinism altogether and going for libertarianism, which states that humans simply do have free will.


Read more: A Nietszchean interpretation of Eternal Sunshine


All images: Warner Bros


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