Spring 2016, NYU Abu Dhabi

Philosophical Issues in The Matrix

The Matrix raises a number of philosophical issues. The most central of these is the question how you know whether the things you perceive are real or just an illusion. Some scenes in the movie where this is explicitly discussed:

  1. Neo talking to junkie early in the movie:

    You ever have this feeling where you're not sure if you're awake or still dreaming?

  2. Neo thinks his first meeting with the agents is just a dream.

  3. Red pill, blue pill scene:

    Morpheus: Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?

    Neo: This can't...

    Morpheus: Be what? Be real?

    See clip

  4. Morpheus and Neo in "The Construct":

    Neo: This isn't real...

    Morpheus: What is "real"? How do you define "real"? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then "real" is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain...

    [Turns on TV] This is the world that you know. The world as it was at the end of the 20th century. It exists now only as part of a neural interactive simulation that we call "The Matrix." You've been living in a dream world, Neo.

    [TV switches to desolate world] This is the world as it exists today...

So one question the movie wants you to ask yourself is: How you know you're not in something like the Matrix program?

Here's another question to think about: How does Neo know that his experiences of "breaking out" of the Matrix program were real? Maybe they were just part of the program, too. How could he tell...?

Another interesting philosophical issue is the question of what is bad about being in the Matrix program. Is it better to live inside the program, or better to see things as they really are?

  1. Consider Cypher's conversation with Agent Smith:

    Agent Smith: Do we have a deal, Mr. Reagan?

    Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?... Ignorance is bliss.

    Agent Smith: Then we have a deal.

    Cypher: I don't want to remember nothing. Nothing! You understand? And I want to be rich, you know, someone important. Like an actor.

    Agent Smith: Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.

We'll be examining this question more closely in a few lectures.

  1. Yet another interesting issue is whether it's correct to say that the Matrix is "less real" than the world Neo awakens to. Cypher and Trinity argue about this:

    Cypher: "Free"...you call this "free"? All I do is what he tells me to do. If I had to choose between that and the Matrix...I choose the Matrix.

    Trinity: The Matrix isn't real.

    Cypher: I disagree, Trinity. I think the Matrix can be more real than this world...

We'll also be looking at this question, whether the Matrix really is "less real" than the world outside the Matrix.