The movie The Matrix which was released in 1990 continues to attract comment because it has become a benchmark in the movie industry for melding sci-fi with philosophy and then projecting it onto the public in the form of an action/thriller. At the time of release the movie was nominated and awarded only one Oscar for Special Effects, but since then there has probably been more theorizing and speculation about the true meaning of The Matrix than any other movie in the history of Hollywood. This movie deals with the most fundamental question of all: What is reality? The hero, played by Keanu Reeves, has a day job as a computer programmer and at night is a geek hacker on the internet where he operates under the name of Neo. The Wachowski Bros. threw in a hotchpotch of allusions to the post-modern theories of Baudrillard as well as Judeo-Christian and Buddhist teachings and to develop the action/thriller motif of the movie the public is invited to adulate Neo as the Messiah, the Buddha and the Terminator all rolled into one. In this article all this pseudo-theology is ignored and we shall address only the core issue of what the movie has to say about reality.
The nerdy, law abiding computer programmer, Thomas Anderson, is contacted by a rebel leader, Morpheus, who attempts to convince him that his everyday existence is in fact a false reality. Morpheus plays a sort of John the Baptist type role heralding the coming of the chosen one, Neo. His job is to make Thomas Anderson question his reality, which is not that difficult because Neo as a cyber-phreak already has misgivings about his everyday life, which to him is almost a torture like a ‘splinter in the mind.’ The name Morpheus comes from Greek Mythology as the god of dreams. His name is the linguistic root of such words as ‘morphine’ (a drug that induces sleep and freedom from pain) and ‘morphing’ (where computer technology enables the seamless transformation from one reality to another). Morpheus asks: “Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream, Neo? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” Morpheus is setting up the scenario where Neo will discover that his waking life which he thought was so real is in fact a virtual reality, the matrix, that is being fed directly into his mind through the manipulation of his senses by a sinister and all-powerful force referred to as AI (Artificial Intelligence) which now actually rules the human race.
We are told that it is actually the year 2199 and the surface of the Earth is a wasteland as a result of a devastating war between humans and AI machines. There are a few humans that remain living in the ‘desert of the real’ but the vast majority of humankind are now being kept underground in pods, where they live on in an embryonic state. They have become merely a source of energy for the AI machines. Through the direct input of data into their sensory organs the humans are living in a virtual reality, a dreamlike state where they believe they are actually living a normal life in an American city in the year 1999. It is this dreamlike state, or virtual reality which is referred to as the ‘matrix.’
MORPHEUS: Do you want to know what it is? The Matrix is everywhere, it’s all around us, here even in this room. You can see it out your window or on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, or go to church or when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
NEO: What truth?
MORPHEUS: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste or touch. A prison for the mind.
The rebels who are now attempting to rescue Thomas Anderson from his dreamlike state are some of the few humans that are continuing their fight against the AI machines. Just like Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, Morpheus is their leader, and they cruise the underworld in a hovercraft, the Nebuchadnezzar. (The dreams of King Nebuchadnezzar feature in the Bible. Even though the King himself couldn’t even remember them, Daniel was able to interpret them which led to a series of prophecies proclaiming the messiah.) There are many parallels between the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar and the apostles of Jesus, including one crew-member Cypher who sells out to the AI machines, thus performing the role of Judas. So the essential scenario is that a malevolent power has managed to hijack the sensory input of all human beings and has thus been able to gain control of their minds and make them believe they are living a normal life in a real world, whereas in fact everything around them is false and is a classic virtual reality.
The AI machines have developed sentient programs and have the ability to directly download sensory data into the human brain, and thus create a virtual reality indistinguishable from our dreams. One commentator thinks that 100 years from now this may not be so far-fetched. He refers to Moore’s law and the exponential growth of computing, particularly nanotechnology, and believes that the time is coming when it will be possible to infiltrate the human brain and body with nanobots that can directly target sensory nerve endings, and thus simulate sensory input that in our consciousness is indistinguishable from data that is coming from a real external world. Once we accept that all the input from the external world is just data then all we can ever know about the source of the data is included in the data package itself. We can never directly experience an external world, we have to take at face value the information in the data that it is coming from our senses that we are informed are impinging on objects in an external world. Even now with conventional computers we have virtual hard-drives and virtual instructions given to the computer as to the source of data, so there is no reason in principle why technology should not develop to the point where nanobots could feed false sensory information into the human brain. In the movie there is a thick cable entering Neo’s brainstem via a bioport, but this is purely for the visual effect on the audience. Even the nanobots in use today in many branches of medicine are wireless.
The question of the nature of reality in Western Philosophy goes back as far as Descartes in his search for a certain foundation of knowledge. He asked the question: What can I know with absolute certainty? In order to answer this question he set about to systematically examine what can be doubted. He made the primary observation that all his ideas about truth and certainty have been derived from or through the senses, so he was led to consider whether what our senses tell us is free from all doubt. He was forced to admit that our senses can sometimes deceive us and so we can never fully trust them. In particular he gave the instance where a completely lucid dream can seem perfectly real, and so he pondered the possibility: Could I, perhaps always be dreaming, when I think I’m awake? The exact same question that Morpheus put to Neo. Descartes himself concluded, “There are no certain marks distinguishing waking from sleep; and I see this so manifestly that, lost in amazement, I am almost persuaded that I am now dreaming.” Descartes also considered the possibility that a powerful being, an “evil genius”, might actually be capable of planting all his sensory experiences in his mind, in which case “the sky, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external things are illusions and impostures of which this evil genius has availed himself for the abuse of my credulity.”
Descartes’ contribution was simply that he started to ask the right questions, because unfortunately he finally came to a conclusion that rendered all he had said before an absurdity. He came up with the famous solution: “I think, therefore I am.” He felt that it was impossible to doubt the contents of his own conscious experience, nor could he doubt his existence as a “thinking thing.” Of course he was writing in the 17th Century long before the advent of computer technology. These days it should be manifest to everyone that our consciousness is nothing but processed data which can be manipulated and falsified with consummate ease. Our thoughts are merely one small part of consciousness and likewise must be the output of computer processing. Descartes went on to develop a complete epistemology (theory of knowledge) based on his certainty of his existence as a “thinking thing”, whereas in point of fact nothing could be less certain. Your own PC could be easily programmed to come up with that conclusion!
We have to look to George Berkeley writing in the early 18th Century to elucidate the true philosophical position about the external world. For him “sensible” objects (the physical objects that we sense) are nothing more than a collection of sensations. He also of course was writing before the computer age so he could never arrive at the conclusion that our consciousness is simply processed sensory data. For Berkeley however for something to be real it had to be perceived or sensed. This is what Morpheus is referring to when he says, “How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, taste, smell or see…” Berkeley thought that physical objects are real because they are part of our experience. These days we would probably substitute the word “consciousness” for “experience”. There is nothing beyond our experience. He arrived at the strictly logical position that because we can have no idea of physical objects except as a collection of sensations, and sensations cannot exist without a mind, then to talk about an external world that is not being perceived or observed by someone is a self-contradiction. There is a famous anecdote about Dr. Johnson who was discussing Berkeley’s theory with Boswell. Dr. Johnson says, “You ask how can I refute Berkeley. Quite simply. By doing this…” and he kicked a rock. He of course meant that it was self-evident that the rock existed, but in fact this is precisely the point that Berkeley was making. The faithful Boswell subtly pointed out to his mentor that no matter how ridiculous Berkeley’s theory seemed to be, still it could not be proved wrong as a matter of logic.