The Matrix trilogy is a exploration of many profound philosophical questions. What it means to be human, the relationship between faith and reason, what reality is, free will and determinism and many more. In this piece, I’ll briefly be exploring some of the themes of the Matrix trilogy. Spoilers ahead, you have been warned.
In the Matrix trilogy, the line between reality and illusion is a blurry one. The real world is a dystopian technocratic hellscape in which super intelligent AI have taken over the world. In order to harvest energy—a ongoing war between AI and Humanity has blocked out the sun, making it unusable as a source of energy—the AI are literally using humans as a source of energy. The Humans are kept alive in a jell filled tube, but their mind are connected to the Matrix, a software alternative reality created by the AI. A small portion of humanity has broken out of the Matrix and are living in a underground haven called Zion. The plot of the trilogy is too complex to describe in detail, but essentially Neo, the main character, has been freed from the Matrix by choosing the “red pill,” a choice that unhooks him from the matrix and makes him see the world as it really is for the first time. Neo is discovered to be “the one,” a messianic figure prophesied to end the war between the humans and the AI. He discovers that he has unique powers, within the Matrix he can bend and control the laws of the program (the matrix is essentially a giant computer program into which human minds have been uploaded) to his will. Later he discovers his powers extend beyond the Matrix and that he has control over machines. Behind the Matrix is a super intelligence known as “the designer.” The Designer is a hyper rational program which can predict what will happen and design the best outcomes, it is he after all that has created the Matrix. The designer claims that he once made a “perfect world” for humans, but , since humans thrive in “misery and suffering,” it didn’t work out.
The movie engages here with some interesting philosophical ideas. One of the answers to the “problem of evil”—why an all loving and all powerful God has created such a world filled with suffering—is that such a world is impossible for finite beings like ourselves. Dostoyevsky famously said that Humans, if given a world in which all their needs and wants were met, a world in which there was nothing to do but “busy themselves with the propagation of the species,” humans would find that they find such a world unliveable and would revolt. The Designer’s comments seem to echo this sentiment. The truth is that part of what makes us human is our earthly, embodied, irrational imperfection. Indeed, this is one of the key themes of the film. The rogue AI’s in the film constantly point out how irrational, pathetic, and “smelly” humans are. Agent Smith, a rogue AI bemoans being trapped in a human body:
“I hate this place, this zoo, this prison, this reality, whatever you want to call it. I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink, and every time I do I fear that I have somehow been infected by it. It’s repulsive! Isn’t it?”
The AI are disembodied. Humans are earthly, primordial, tied down, lovers, empathizers, choice makers, spiritual and irrational. And this is what eludes the Creator’s hyper rational algorithm—the human ability to choose. The Creator’s conception of the universe is a rational, deterministic one, there is no room in such a world for something as irrational as choice.
The trilogy is filled with choices, the most obvious being the choice between the red pill or the blue pill. This constant choosing is in defiance of the insistence by the AI, that free will is an illusion. Indeed, Neo, the main character is determined to prove that he does in fact have control, that he can indeed choose. The choices Neo makes are quintessentially human choices, when he chooses to save his girlfriend or his friends, even if these are, from the perspective of the utilitarian AI algorithm, less than rational choices. However, Neo’s insistence on free will does lead to some naiveté on his part. One memorable scene takes place in the machine room of Zion. A council member comments on the irony that while some machines are trying to kill them, others are keeping them alive. Perhaps, comments the old man, we aren’t all that different from those stuck in the Matrix. Neo objects, but surely the difference is that we are in control of the machines, we could choose to shut them off anytime. This is where we must ask, with the old man, what it really means to be in control, or indeed, what it means to be free. The truth is, the machines cannot be turned off, because we depend on them for our survival, our fate is intertwined with theirs. There can never be a total freedom in which we make radical blank slate choices; we are always constrained by our context. We never control machines, they always control us, they pattern our lives, and dictate how we think and see the world, There is never a neutral relationship between man and machine. While man shapes machine, the machine also shapes man.
The irony of dependence here, that humanity is forced to rely on what is destroying them, points to another central theme in the movie. The theme of dependence, trust and faith as essentially human features which continuously separates the humans from the AI. While machines can rationalize, calculate, and reach conclusions, only the human can venture, trust, believe and walk by faith. Neo and his crew are forced to trust the Oracle, they must have faith in what she tells them because they have no other choice. Others in the film scoff at their religiosity and depend on reason and logic instead—a puny weapon against a super intelligence. Indeed, in the last movie of the trilogy, when it seems that all is lost, when the rational permits nothing but despair, the humans are compelled to have faith, to believe the unbelievable, the superstitious, the fanciful. One of Neo’s crew members clutches a good luck charm. A rational battle commander puts his last hope in Neo. Others trust in prophecies. The choice that confronts characters, and indeed the choice that makes it possible for Neo to survive the Matrix is simple: believe or don’t believe, venture, walk the path or die.
To survive, characters must also place radical trust in each other. Most obviously, the humans of Zion must trust Neo, especially when his plans seem to be so crass and irrational. Neo and Trinity must trust each other, the Crew must trust each other, the various shady characters that they encounter throughout the trilogy must be trusted to keep their side of the bargain.
The centrality of faith—even superstitious, irrational, choosing, faith sets up another key tension. That between faith and reason or broadly speaking between irrationality and rationality. In some sense, this is near the heart of the film. It is the anti-human, hyper rationality that has gotten humanity into the mess that is the Matrix, and only the fundamentally human is what can confront and allude the machine. One of my favourite scenes is the tribal dance in Zion. Set in the heart of the earth, near its core—a primordial place among the stalactites for a primordial humanity, and what lies at the essence of humanity. There, a preacher calls for faith amidst fear and then the crowd breaks into a tribal dance. This is a primordial humanity: throbbing, pulsing, sweating, jumping and dancing to the beat, body on body, naked and barefoot in the dirt. It is spiritual, communal and embodied: humanity stripped of the layers of civilization and technology. It is here in this heart that the resistance against the machines is to be waged. Humanity has turned to its breathing, sweating, organic roots, soaked in spirituality and tribal power, this is set against the cold, black, towering steel of the machine. Will humanity be crushed in the cold cogs of machines? Or can we resist with that which makes us human. That, essentially, is the question the Matrix asks. And this is the question that is behind the choice between the red and blue pill. It is a choice we must all face, for we all live in the Matrix. Our consumeristic, hyper sexualized, glitzy culture gives us the illusion of choice, while we become ever more alienated from reality and from what it means to be human. Meanwhile, we live in a world of increasing technocratic control and mass surveillance, in which human beings are progressively assimilated to the machine and forced into the mold of efficiency. At the same time, we are fed the lie that this alienating world is better, more real and more human. Will we choose this world controlled by the machine? Or will we choose reality, freedom and the cost, uncertainty, and adventure that this brings with it?