Philosophy through Film: The Matrix

I'm taking a class this semester called Philosophy through Film, and one of the assignments is to write a journal entry for each movie we watch.  I've decided to write them here. The Matrix and Skepticism

The Matrix appears to raise a lot of poignant questions about the nature of reality, but I don't actually think many of the questions about our reality it raises are very interesting.  It certainly raises a genre of question that could be troubling (what if the whole of my experience is a simulation) but the specific case it offers (what if everyone's experience is one massive shared simulation) doesn't seem to me to be at all worrying.  Honestly, I don't see a meaningful distinction between the level of horror involved in the statement "My whole reality is a series of ones and zeroes" and the statement "My whole reality is a series of subatomic particles acting in accordance with a completely alien sort of physics".

The Matrix and Ethics

What's important to me is the other people and living entities in the surrounding world, and I think the moral conclusions involved in the Matrix are pretty easy.  As far as I can tell, in the world of the Matrix, the humans are unambiguously the bad guys.

  • They torched the environment completely in order to stop the machine race capitalizing on clean, renewable energy
  • They deliberately pull human beings out of a shared virtual reality which:
    • Is specifically engineered to be as nice a place for humans as is possible (they couldn't cope with a perfect world, and no indication is given that The Matrix contains a developing world.  As far as I can tell, it's all cities.)
    • Provides homeostasis and healthcare for the physical bodies of all those humans in its care
    • And breaks the chain of cause and effect between the clearly irresponsible human population and environmental consequences
  • They kill people.  And by 'people' I mean both human consciousnesses going about their lives in the matrix, and law-abiding sentient computer programs who are just trying to do their jobs and maintain the stability of the fairly charitable environment set up for the environment-torching murder-species which they were morally obliged to stop.

Obviously, Morpheus and his gang are terrorists.

The Matrix and Ambiguity in Art

I'm putting this section in because the section that follows it is going to be fundamentally incompatible with the section that precedes it.  So I want to take a moment to address the fact that this provides a good example of the way narrative art forms can produce seemingly irreconcilable moral ambiguity.  I lean towards interpreting this as a flaw in the storytelling rather than a reflection of human reality, but I'm not sold on either end of that dilemma.  The Matrix, in particular, displays the sorts of representation problems that turn up when the filmmakers' view is sympathetic to the relatively wronger side.

The Matrix as a metaphor for the Patriarchy

There's evidence for this view in the casting of most of the roles -- all the agents are white men, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar are mostly women and people of color, the character who betrays them is a white male, and the systems of control in the Matrix could be taken as metaphorical for the systems of control that characterize the low-level cultural oppression in modern society.

Everyone is a potential enemy, and anyone not exposed to reality and unplugged from the system is a constant enforcer of that same system.  That said, for the unplugged, there is no safe place -- everywhere they go, they face the constant threat of attack.

That said, while I think the directors probably had this in mind during the production process, I don't think it was intended to be the central thrust of the film.  For one thing, the parallels aren't made terribly explicit.  For another, there are some senses where the metaphor seems inconsistent with the other messages of the film.  Like, the robots were oppressed, won their independence, and then used that independence to take over the former ruling class and subjugate them.  That doesn't seem to me like  a very progressive stance.

The Matrix and Plato

Okay, I just want to address this because it comes up whenever anyone talks about the Matrix and philosophy.  I don't think the Matrix is a parallel to the Allegory of the Cave.  I think it makes a terrible case, if any at all, for Platonic Idealism, and I don't think the narrative points line up beyond the first few.

Okay, I do think the Matrix has some relationship to Platonism.  Like, the same relationship Neon Genesis Evangelion has to Kabbalah.  That is, the creators threw a bunch of the associated symbolism at it to see what would stick, but it's not there to guide you into a deeper understanding of Plato/Kabbalah.  At best, it's there to indicate the line of thinking the movie is aiming for.  At worst (and I think most likely,) it's there to add some artificial depth, using flourishes in directoral detail as a substitute for narrative depth.

Conclusion

Unlike Inception, which I think has more, and more interesting, depths and details the longer you contemplate it, where most or all of its nods and flourishes lead into new and interesting ways to analyze the movie, I think the Matrix runs out of steam after a reasonable amount of analysis.  That's not to say I think it's a bad movie -- I just think it's got a relatively shallow limit for how deep you can get with it before you (a.) find the bottom of the barrel and have to admit that's all there is to it, or (b.) start getting silly.  Like, really silly.