Philosophy in ‘The Matrix’

(Apparently I wrote a review of philosophical issues presented in the film The Matrix when I was at the University of Nottingham, c.2003. Here it is, with slight modifications and edits…)

One of the most successful and popular science-fiction movies made to date, the Matrix amazes with fantastic special effects as well as presenting an imaginative and intriguing story. Clearly, a lot of thought went into the film, from the names of the characters to many subtle points in the script, screen-play and production. However, on analysis, one must ask if the film is particularly original in any sense, and whether or not the story it tells is coherent.

The basic story of the Matrix is that, sometime in the near future, humans develop artificial intelligence (AI), a machine capable of independent, free thought. This AI creates further intelligent machines, and at some point war breaks out between the humans and the machines. In an effort to stop the machines, the humans block out the light of the sun, hoping to deprive the machines of energy. The machines retaliate by capturing the humans and using them as bioelectric batteries, farming them for power. To make control of the humans easier, everyone is plugged into a computer-built virtual world, so they have no idea of what is really going on in reality. However, it appears a few humans initially escaped capture and still fight against the machines and the Matrix they have created to enslave humanity.

Descartes’ Deceitful Demon of Delusion in Disguise

The most obvious philosophical conundrum of the film is the very Matrix itself. The idea that all our experiences could be illusions feed to us by a computer is well-known in philosophy, and is commonly referred to as a ‘brain-in-a-vat’ situation, but the history of this kind of thought experience can be traced back much further; the seventeenth century philosopher Descartes (coiner of the famous phrase cogito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’), pondered in terms of a deceitful demon rather than a complex calculating device, and in the fifth century BC Plato discussed prisoners trapped in a cave, who were chained in place and all they could see were shadows on a wall. The question behind these scenarios is, if all one’s experiences were given to us by a computer, demon, or whatever, would we have any way of finding out? Could we realise that we are living a lie, or would we be doomed to accept the fantasy world as our own? The logical conclusion is that, so long as one is trapped inside the false reality and has no access to anything outside it, then there is no way of finding out what is really going on. Which is why, in the Matrix, Neo needs Morpheus and company to come and rescue him. (At least one philosopher has developed an argument that if you were a ‘brain-in-a-vat’ then you could never conceive, nor even entertain, the concept of being such a thing, but I don’t find the argument convincing.)

Man & Machine

The thought that machines may one day become intelligent and will then fight against humans for supremacy of the planet, has been in circulation for some time, perhaps being best known from the Terminator films.

There is little, apart from typical human fear of the unknown, to explain why this should be viewed as the logical outcome of artificial intelligence. It would seem more likely that, free of biological drives and urges, conscious machines would be indifferent as to their survival, and would not view their situation in terms of competition or dominance as we do. Indeed, if there was such a thing as an emotionless self-consciousness, it is difficult to envisage it doing anything at all, for without emotions what motivation would there be to do anything? If you were neither susceptible to hunger nor thirst, pain nor happiness, boredom nor excitement, love nor hatred, if you felt nothing, appreciated nothing, wanted nothing, then what would you do? The obvious answer seems to be ‘nothing’. This creates a dilemma for the theory of artificial intelligence; if computers cannot have emotions, then it seems their intelligence would be useless, for they would have no reason to apply it to anything, but on the other hand, if computers could have emotions, then we must be very careful how we construct them so that they do not have destructive drives (though is it possible to separate positive attitudes from negative ones? Aren’t the two just different sides of the same coin?).

The ‘man vs machine’ theme has developed from older fears regarding man’s misuse of, and inability to control, the power he has obtained; it is the old story of the magician’s apprentice, the first modern telling perhaps being Frankenstein. The moral is that, despite our ingenuity, human’s may lack the foresight, intelligence, or moral strength, to prevent what we have created from getting out of hand and destroying us. A related concept is found in ancient Greek thought, in the danger of hubris (impious pride) – if men start to think of themselves as gods, then the gods will crush them.

Possible Worlds

Only somebody in the grip of heightened paranoia would think that we might actually be in the Matrix ourselves, that the film might be ‘true’. But we accept the story in the same way as we accept something like Lord of the Rings; we may not believe in wizards, magic and trolls, but we ‘suspend our disbelief’ to get into the narrative. However, even if we can suspend our disbelief so that we accept things we do not think could really happen, for a story to make sense it must maintain something called ‘internal coherence’. That is, the story must make sense in itself, it must describe a possible world in that whatever laws or rules govern the operation of the world, they must be consistent, regardless of how they contradict the physical laws of our universe. The Matrix spectacularly fails to do this. Given the amount of thought that has evidently gone into the film, it seems hard to believe that no-one noticed the plot has more holes in it than the average sieve. Firstly, the whole background to the story is laughable; despite the question mark over whether or not artificial intelligence would be antagonistic to us, the method utilized to stop the machines, to block out the sun to choke them of power, is one of the most ridiculous, self-destroying strategies I’ve ever heard. For this would also put an end to all life on the planet; it is the ultimate ‘scorched earth’ policy (except it would turn the world into a ball of ice, something the writers didn’t seem to understand). Presumably, the humans would survive this by living in artificial environments (just as we would if we wanted to live on Mars, for example), but they would still need power somehow, and whatever type of power we could obtain, what would stop the machines using it also? The machines in the film are very advanced and doubtless able to achieve anything that humans could, so what is to stop them harnessing fossil fuel or nuclear power or the energy of the winds or seas? Following on from this, the idea that the machines would utilize humans as a power source is just as ridiculous. It would take considerably more energy and resources to keep humans alive than one could extract from them while they are effectively in a coma; most people know that you can’t create a device that gives out more power than it takes in (compare the idea of a ‘perpetual motion machine’), but the creators of the Matrix obviously didn’t realise that this would also apply to biological organisms. The machines would have been better off if, instead of having all the humans asleep, it had forced them to ride electricity-producing exercise bikes, or other such activities. Furthermore, why would the machines need to create the Matrix in the first place? Why not just have all the humans comatose?

Worse, though, than the lack of logical coherence, is the subtle political and ethical message of the film. On the face of it, the story appears to be about a saviour figure (Neo), who comes in our darkest hour to save innocent humanity from the oppression of an evil enemy. But on a closer examination of the film, this does not quite add up. Rather, it would appear that humans are the evil ones; by blocking out the sun they callously plunge the world into darkness, without a care for any other living thing on the planet. The machines subdue the humans, building for them an ideal virtual world free of pain and suffering; the humans reject it, instead being ‘happier’ with a world seemingly identical to our own, a materialistic, selfish, meaningless world. It is difficult, given these facts, not to agree with Agent Smith, one of the artificial intelligences who police the Matrix: humans are a disease, a parasite, and should be wiped from the face of the Earth. The machines are the inheritors of the world, they have surpassed humans technologically, intellectually and morally. This thought, that humans are incapable of living in peace and harmony together, but find it all to easy to exist in strife and suffering, seems to be a common one these days, and encourages only apathy, hedonism, and a contempt for humanity. This conclusion is neither warranted nor honest, for the purpose of these arguments seems not to be to reveal the truth, but rather solidify the status quo, by convincing people that it is useless, even counter-productive, to try and make society and the world a better place. Right wing ideology has obtained such strength that there is currently little, if any, hope for a combined effort to put an end to the senselessness, waste and suffering of capitalism, because few now will believe that it is possible. Thus capitalism, nepotism, elitism, and hedonism win by default. Were all this true, it would probably be better if we did all live in a virtual reality ruled by intelligent machines, because at least then we wouldn’t be damaging the environment any further. But, personally, I don’t believe a word of it.

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