Philosophical Issues in The Matrix

The Matrix raises a number of philosophical issues. First and most obviously, it raises issues about how you know whether the things you perceive are real or just an illusion. Some scenes in the movie where this is explicitly discussed:

(Some of the comments below discuss scenes we didn't present to the class. Those comments are in this typeface.)

  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. Blue pill, red 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?

  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 intepreted 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...?

A second issue that plays a large role in the film is the issue of fate. Some scenes in the movie where this is explicitly discussed:

  1. Blue pill, red pill scene:
    Morpheus: Do you believe in fate, Neo?
    Neo: No.
    Morpheus: Why not?
    Neo: Because I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life.
    (Good argument, Neo.)

  2. Morpheus and Neo talk several times about the point of the Matrix program being to control humans.

  3. All the references to the oracle and her predictions. Consider especially:
    Oracle: I'd ask you to sit down, but you're not going to, anyway... And don't worry about the vase.
    Neo: What vase? [turns and breaks the vase]
    Oracle: That vase.
    Neo: I'm sorry.
    Oracle: I said don't worry about it. I'll get one of my kids to fix it.
    Neo: How did you know?
    Oracle: Ohhh. What's really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn't said anything?

  4. Agent Smith and Neo are wrestling on the subway tracks as the train approaches:
    Agent Smith: Hear that, Mr Anderson? It is the sound of inevitability. It is the sound of your death...

    (But then, whoops, Neo escapes.--Although he does get shot and "die" a few minutes later...)

The Matrix raises some other interesting philosophical issues, too.

One issue we've already been thinking about is whether the machines and Agents have genuine mental lives of their own. The Agents are just computer programs; yet the movie presents them as if they really have thoughts and self-consciousness. For instance:

  1. Agent Smith tells Morpheus that he hates being in the The Matrix Program among all the smelly humans.
Do you think computer programs could really have enough of a mental life to hate things? Could they genuinely desire to be doing something other than the task assigned to them? How would we be able to know whether the programs have real mental lives?

The movie takes up a form of this question when it asks how one knows what other creatures' experiences are like:

  1. Mouse's speech about the gruel they eat on the ship:
    Mouse: Do you know what it really reminds me of? Tasty Wheat. Did you ever eat Tasty Wheat?
    Switch: No, but technically neither did you.
    Mouse: That's exactly my point. Exactly. Becuase you have to wonder now, now how do machines really know what Tasty Wheat tasted like. Maybe they got it wrong. Maybe what I think Tasty Wheat tasted like actually tasted like oatmeal or tuna fish. That makes you wonder about a lot of things...

The movie also raises some interesting questions about whether Agents have wills of their own.

  1. Notice that when Agent Smith tells Morpheus how much he hates The Matrix, he takes off his communication device, so that the other Agents don't hear what he's saying. Is it part of his programming to resent his job, and want to get out of The Matrix? If so, why does he hide this from the other Agents? Or is the movie suggesting that the Agents have a degree of free will, that they can make choices and have feelings that aren't explicitly built into their programming?

  2. Even if the Agents have some degree of free will, though, it's an important part of the movie that human minds have a special kind of freedom that the machines lack. Neo is able to "bend the rules," to be creative and unpredictable, but the Agents are constrained by the laws of their programming:
    Morpheus: I've seen an Agent punch through a concrete wall; men have emptied entire clips at them and hit nothing but air. Yet their strength and their speed are still based on a world that is built on rules. Because of that, they will never be as strong or as fast as you can be.
    Neo: What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?
    Morpheus: No, Neo. I'm trying to tell you that when you're ready, you won't have to.

Do you think that's right? Do you think we have more free will than machines could ever have? Aren't our choices and desires just as determined by the laws of nature as their choices are determined by their programming?

An issue we'll be taking up in our next classes is:

  1. How is it that Neo can learn kung-fu and so on, just by having a program loaded into his brain? How can that give him the ability to fight? (Perhaps it only gives him the ability to fight inside the Matrix; but how does it do even that?) Why should having other programs running through his brain make him have experiences as of being in a city, fighting men in suits, and so on? And how could what happens in the program have the power to make one die?