Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Matrix dissected: a theological review of The Matrix Trilogy


Jewish date:  15 Kislew 5770 (Parashath Wayyishlaḥ).

Today’s holiday:  Wednesday of the First Week of Advent (Roman Catholicism).

poster for The MatrixImage via Wikipedia
Today’s topic:  At long last, I finally present:

The Matrix dissected:  a theological review of The Matrix Trilogy
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

What is The Matrix?  It is a trilogy of science-fiction movies (The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, and Matrix Revolutions), but it is much more than that.  No one can truly describe The Matrix.  You have to see it for yourself to truly understand it.  To be fair, the trilogy has some good points.  The visual effects included computer generated imagery which set a new standard for the cinema.  The plot is expansive enough to pit the heroes against multiple villainous factions which compete with each other, thereby avoiding a naïve version of the “good versus evil” scenario.  The primary villain, Agent Smith, is, of course cruel and evil, but he couples his evil and cruelty with ambition, purpose, and attempts at philosophy.  And several of the characters are in the habit of giving stylistically pleasing speeches, often imitating Carl Sagan.  The Matrix Trilogy is also a story which deals with great religious and philosophical issues; unfortunately, the answers it gives for these problems are often unsatisfying or absent.

Reality:  The best question asked in The Matrix Trilogy is:  what is reality?  Long before the start of the series, humans fought a war against the Machines.  Humans lost the war and were  enslaved by the Machines.  Now humans are encased for life in capsules of pink goo and used to generate electricity to power the Machines.  To pacify humanity, the Machines created a massive virtual reality known as the Matrix and wired them into it.  Trapped in a virtual world they mistake for physical reality (late 20th century Earth), humanity would never be able to rebel in the physical world—or so the Machines hoped, though it did not work out that way.  Sentient programs, such as the Agents and the Merovingian, also live in the Matrix, which they also treat as a physical world.  And so the question presented is:  is what happens in the Matrix real?

To answer this question lies in the nature of reality.  Reality may be simply defined as that which actually exists, but that answer belies how complex reality really is.  The kind of reality familiar to everyone is physical reality, the material universe in which we live, known for having three space dimensions, one time dimension, and being subject to the laws of physics.  But there are other realities as well.  Religions often posit the existence of other universes or realities besides our own.  Some of these may be parts of our universe which are inaccessible to us or other universes more or less like our own (“parallel universes”).  Others may be domains inhabited by—or even be identical to—gods or angels:  supernatural realities.  On the other side, there are also simulations:  worlds defined (usually) in computer programs, populated by whatever beings their authors see fit to live in them, containing whatever their authors see fit to be there, and working according to whatever laws of physics suit their authors’ fancies.

It is admittedly odd to call simulation a form of reality, but let us consider a simple simulation, John Horton Conway’s Game of Life (or for short, just Life).  Life is “played” on a two-dimensional grid of cells with time measured in distinct “generations”.  A cell in any generation can be “on” or “off”.  If a cell has two or three on neighbors in one generation, it is on in the next; otherwise it is off in the next.  These simple rules are the whole of the laws of physics for Life.  Despite their simplicity, these rules make possible a bewilderingly large number of patterns, including ones that act as computers.  Now suppose that a Life universe contained a sentient being.  What would this being think about his/her world?  He/she would probably think of his world as real.  All he/she would know of on his/her own would be the Life environment around him/her and Life physics.  None of his surroundings would suddenly disappear if he/she did not look at them or went to sleep.  Neither could he/she deny anything around him/her out of existence.  For all practical purposes, from his/her point of view, he/she would be living in a physical reality.  This is not negated by him/her being simulated from our point of view.  Rather what is real is relative, not absolute.  For all we know, our own physical reality is but a simulation on some god’s computer, yet from our own point of view, for all practical purposes, we are real.

The Matrix is a more complex case.  It qualifies as a simulation, an interactive simulation populated by real people mostly unaware that it is a simulation, but it is a simulation nonetheless.  But one can still legitimately talk about “what actually exists” in the Matrix.  If you live in the Matrix and have a cell phone, you actually have a cell phone.  For all practical purposes, it has mass, it takes up space, it has color and texture, and it functions as a cell phone.  It continues to exist and have these properties even if you forget about it.   And if some jerk runs up to you and steals it, you have lost it and no longer can use it.  One can quibble about whether in some “deeper sense” a cell phone in the Matrix is real, but for all practical purposes it is to those living in the Matrix.  Indeed, the traitorous Cypher finds the physical world such a wretched place to live that he wants to get back into the Matrix, and he thinks “the Matrix can be more real than” the physical world.  To its credit, The Matrix Trilogy has prompted serious questions about whether our own universe could actually be a simulation.

Unfortunately (or fortunately for those who do not like contemplating the question of what is real), Cypher is just about the only character who philosophizes about the nature of reality, with any ground he does not cover being left to the viewer as an exercise.  The rest of the characters on-screen regard the physical and virtual worlds as two separate stages on which to act (to be poetic) and do not worry about it.  (To be fair, they are fighting a war, and many of them have more pressing business than philosophy.)

The writers treat the two-level reality of The Matrix Universe as an excuse for dramatic rules.  There is the virtual reality equivalent of the questionable idea that if you dream you die, you die.  (It is questionable because even though it is possible that people have died when they dreamed they died, at least one human purported has dreamed of dying—multiple times, no less—and has lived to tell the tale.  At best, dying when one dreams of dying is not inevitable.)  Humans in the Matrix who are killed automatically die in physical reality, despite the complete lack of lethal (or nonlethal) physical damage.  This is puzzling since the Machines should actually be doing everything in their power to make it not work like this, as dead humans, having no metabolism, cannot be used as batteries.  Furthermore, it is clear that the Architect never intended for anyone to unplug humans from the Matrix.  Humans cannot voluntarily “wake up” from the Matrix; they need to use a hack which only lets them leave the Matrix via phone calls in designated (virtual) places.  The obvious workaround, yanking the cable out of the back of someone’s head, is always fatal.  There is no apparent reason for this to happen, seeing there is not even the excuse of “if you dream you die, you die”.

The Agents also operate under counterintuitive rules.  One could argue that the Agents should be effectively omnipotent and omniscient, as well as be able to act completely on their own; however, this would ruin much chance of a plot, so the writers made them rather more limited.  Agents never function on their own.  They can only act in the Matrix by possessing a human, though they can easily move from one human to another.  They cannot be killed; at best, one can kill the host, but the Agent can move on to a new host.  They can change the state of the world somewhat, e.g., create a wall where there was none before.  They can sense whatever any human around them can sense, so acting without their knowledge is difficult.  And yet they do not automatically know where everyone in the Matrix is.  They are sufficiently powerful to be dangerous, but they still have major gaps in their knowledge and ability to act.

The point of these rules is to create problems which the resistance has to deal with without making the fight obviously impossible to win.  The resistance has to play hide and seek from the Agents.  Cypher yanks the plug on humans still attached to the Matrix, killing them.  Humans trying to leave the Matrix have to go through dangerous virtual territory in order to reach somewhere they can exit.  Morpheus (the great mentor figure) is captured in the Matrix by the Agents, who start hacking his mind for information; the important moral question is whether to kill him in the physical world to save the resistance or launch an attack on the Agents in the Matrix to save him.  The rules indeed make for drama, but there is a dark side:  the rules are used as an excuse for moral callousness.

Morality:  Morality in The Matrix Trilogy suffers from a mismatch between stated values and action.  Obviously one should not expect the Machines to consider humans their moral equals; they do use humans as a power source against their will.  However, even a pathological egotist can understand and live by the principle of self-interest.  Since the Machines need humans intact to at least maintain their standard of living, if not the survival of much of their population, even if they adhere to a LaVeyan Satanism-style morality, they should have the commonsense not to recklessly endanger human lives in the Matrix, even if they think all humans are scum.  Paradoxically, the Agents, who work for the Machines, care nothing for human safety.  E.g., in The Matrix Reloaded, they cause such a degree of mayhem on the freeway in an effort to capture or kill Morpheus and his acolyte Trinity that there is no question that many humans die.

Puzzlingly, the rebels are no better.  Morpheus teaches Neo (the hero) “us versus them” morality:  the rebels are “us”, and anyone who has not been freed from the Matrix is “them”.  Since the Agents can possess any humans who have not yet been freed, considering unfree humans dangerous is certainly prudent.  That some unfree humans might be killed inadvertently in war is inevitable; there are always innocent people killed in war.  But unfree humans are treated as morally insignificant.  Their property may be seized, their homes invaded, and even their lives endangered by the rebels without the least moral qualms, even when unnecessary.  E.g., in The Matrix, when going to save Morpheus, Neo and Trinity need to get into a heavily guarded building.  Neo and Trinity can bring in whatever weapons they can carry, any weapons they want.  Do they bring in anesthetic darts or tranquilizer gas?  No.  They bring in as many guns as possible and kill the guards without mercy.  Unfortunately, it never gets any better morally.  Human life is considered nothing so long it is part of the system, despite the fact that the resistance is supposed to be fighting for the sake of humanity.  Never, ever do Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus shed even a single tear over the death of an unfree human.  

Why the Agents and the rebels are so callous is never explained.  Intuition suggests that both the Agents and the resistance have been fighting so long that they have become used to the senseless bloodshed and have forgotten that by their own moral rules they should kill as few unfree humans as possible.  But this does not explain Neo being likewise callous; he is freed during the first film and does not spend the time in battle needed to become so morally indifferent.  Neither does he seem to be a psychopath.  In any case, the universal moral indifference is a serious plot hole.

Theology:  There is practically none, which is curious in movies dealing with religious ideas.  No deities make any appearance.  No deities are invoked as a reason for behaving in a particular way.  No deities are invoked to explain the existence of anything or how anything works.  There is one mention of karma, defined oddly as “what I am here to do”.  So thorough is the lack of theology that there is not even a denial of the existence of any deity.  Even the prayer service in The Matrix Reloaded never makes clear to Whom the inhabitants of the human city of Zion are praying or even addresses a Whom.  There are some scattered references to God and Jesus, but except for a single attribution of what has happened to Providence by Morpheus, these never move beyond literary references and exclamations.  The nearest approaches to deities are the Architect, who created the Matrix, and the Oracle, who helps keep it from crashing.  But neither of these is ever more than just a powerful program.  No one—I repeat:  no one—seems to be in charge in this fictional world.

Christian-style messianism:  Despite the lack of a true deity, The Matrix Trilogy has a messianic figure in the character of Neo.  Foreseen by the Oracle, Morpheus has sought out the One and finds Neo.  Neo proceeds in The Matrix through a number of steps patterned after the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  (See “The Matrix as Messiah Movie”, which does the dirty work.)  This includes his death, followed by a resurrection at the encouragement of Trinity.  Neo temporarily destroys his archenemy, Agent Smith, as well.  But in the middle of The Matrix Reloaded, everything takes a sharp turn.  Under instruction of the Oracle and after a lot of mayhem, Neo reaches the Source, the Machine mainframe, where he meets the Architect.  He learns that the One is not meant to free humanity from the Machines.  Rather, the Architect tells him, the One is an integral part of the system, the details of which are just so much technobabble. , but the relevant parts are that Zion, the last human city, is going to be destroyed for the sixth time, and Neo gets to decide which 23 humans get to survive to help rebuild the human race for the sixth time.  Neo decides not to be part of the system and instead leaves the Source to continue his overarching goal of saving humanity, which he eventually does.  The equivalent in Christian terms is Jesus finding out that he really works for Satan and his purpose is to damn humanity to Hell, only for Jesus to manage to bring about human salvation anyway. 

Prophecy:  There is no prophecy in The Matrix Trilogy, despite claims otherwise.  Strictly speaking, prophecy is communication from Divine beings, of which there are none in the story.  The talent that the Oracle has, of seeing the future, is foresight or prescience.  Furthermore, unlike what a real prophet is supposed to do, the Oracle does not tell people the truth; she tells them what (she believes) they need to hear.  E.g., she tells Neo when he first comes to see her that he is not the One.  This is a lie which helps him do what he needs to do to be the One.  In The Matrix, it looks like the Oracle is genuinely prescient.  However, in The Matrix Reloaded the Architect reveals to Neo that she is really working for the Machines and has fabricated “prophecy”.  This raises the question of how the Oracle is able to make non-trivial predictions of how others are going to act, e.g., she knows in advance whether Neo is going to stand or sit or knock over a vase.  The Architect can see the operation of Neo’s brain; he knows what Neo is deciding to do without Neo telling him.  The Oracle may be using the same ability to fake prescience.  However, this does not explain all of the Oracle’s predictions, e.g., that Trinity would fall in love with the One.  In Matrix Revolutions, Agent Smith, when he meets the Oracle, treats her as prescient.  He worked for the Machines, and he should know very well what she is capable of.  He argues that she knows in advance what he is going to do, and therefore everything she does, down to baking cookies and where she sits, is deliberate.  She declines to enlighten him.  If the Oracle is actually prescient, her prescience appears to have limits; at the very end of Matrix Revolutions, she claims she did not know what Neo would do, but only believed.

The Oracle is not the only prescient being in The Matrix Trilogy.  In The Matrix Reloaded, Neo foresees Trinity’s (first) death in a dream and tries to prevent it.  (He fails, though he manages to bring her back to life.)  In Matrix Revolutions, Agent Smith, after he copies himself over the Oracle (among many other beings), realizes they are all coming to the end of a cycle.  He foresees his final battle with Neo, even the exact words he is supposed to say.  No mechanism is provided for either Neo or Agent Smith to know the future.

“Your mind makes it real” and blind faith:  The source of the rebels’ power to bend the rules in the Matrix is the ability to deny what they experience as being real.  With training and practice, they can violate the laws of physics in ways particularly convenient for the martial arts.  Neo is no exception, only he takes it further than anyone else, e.g., he can stop bullets by force of will and fly.  

The power of belief goes beyond just bending the rules of physics in the Matrix.  “Your mind makes it real” is the reason given that humans who die in the Matrix die in physical reality, despite the lack of damage:  humans die because they believe they are dead.  Neo takes this principle a step further.  Trinity literally talks him out of his first death in The Matrix, and he returns the favor by shocking her out of her first death in The Matrix Reloaded.
Unlike the other rebels, Neo’s powers are not limited to the Matrix or humans connected to the Matrix.  At the end of The Matrix Reloaded, he kills a few Machines with his mind.  In Matrix Revolutions as he and Trinity head for the Machine city, he sees after Agent Smith blinds him, and he destroys attacking Machines with his mind.  No mechanism is given to explain this, and “your mind makes it real” is not a viable alternative.  (It does not matter what The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know? say.  One can claim that one can believe a brick wall out of existence in virtual reality, because virtual realities are built from the ground up to be reshaped by humans.  Our physical reality is not set up to work that way, and brick walls here refuse to be believed out of existence.)

Related to the idea that belief creates reality is the idea that one’s beliefs are necessarily the same thing as reality, regardless of what the evidence and reason have to say:  blind faith.  Blind faith in The Matrix Trilogy is exemplified by Morpheus.  Morpheus believes blindly that Neo is the One and will save humanity.  He never gives any reason for this whatsoever.  When the Oracle tells Neo that he is not the One, Morpheus does not consider he could be wrong, but he continues believing Neo is the One nevertheless.  And he turns out to be right.  Then he clashes with those who do not believe as he does, arguing his case weakly, and still it turns out that Neo is the One and saves humanity from the Machines.  Our physical reality does not work this way; if one does not believe correctly already, then blind faith will simply keep one continuing to believe something wrong.

Fatalism, choice, and causality:  The characters in The Matrix Trilogy take different positions on fatalism and choice.  Agent Smith believes in fate.  He believes he will inevitably triumph over Neo, and he even claims to have seen his triumph.  Prescience in the Matrix means that there are events which must inevitably happen.  Neo, on the other hand, believes in choice because he wants to be in control of his life.  Even after he finds out (at least some of) the Oracle’s prophecies are a fraud, he chooses to continue his original mission of saving humanity with no regard to fate.  The problem with the dichotomy of choice versus fate is that it is an illusion:  the two are actually compatible.  Maybe there are events which must happen, no matter what anyone tries to do.  But that does not mean other events are “nailed down”.  Neo foresees Trinity’s first death.  Since he does not foresee her permanently dying at that point, he can choose to revive her.  Agent Smith foresees his final triumph and copying himself over Neo.  Neo allows it to happen, realizing it is inevitable.  But that does not stop Neo from choosing to destroy Agent Smith from the inside.  Rather than a showdown of views on free will, the final battle of Neo and Agent Smith shows neither view is the whole truth in The Matrix Universe.

Likewise incomplete are the views of the Merovingian.  In The Matrix Reloaded he gives Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus a dramatic lecture on causality, the notion that everything that happens has a cause.  Every sentient being has a history and reacts to his/her environment.  Thus they are inevitably subject to external influence and thus causality.  The Merovingian thus claims that none of us are truly responsible for our actions.  Whatever we do, we are just reacting to whatever we are exposed to and could not act otherwise; control is only an illusion.  This thinking assumes that effect directly follows from cause.  In our world, it is not necessarily so.  A brick, which is a chunk of fairly inert matter, behaves in the way that the Merovingian describes.  It is not structured to do anything but unconsciously react.  But not so humans.  Human brains are frightfully complicated.  The path of a signal from any stimulus to a reaction easily bifurcates and spreads out over much of the brain, and in the process choices are inevitably made of how to react or not react.  Humans even make conscious decisions of how to react to stimuli and are even sometimes successful in changing their own behavior.  Even if it is proven that our universe has only one possible history, that we cannot do anything other than what we actually do, all those extra steps going on in our brains still provide control.  This is the difference between a falling leaf driven by the wind and an airplane on autopilot.  Neither system has free will according to probably any definition of the term.  The leaf is at the (figurative) mercy of the wind, but the airplane on autopilot is in control of itself.  Note that the Merovingian seems to treat causality as an excuse for his own behavior more than anything else.  When he finds out his wife Persephone has given Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus the Key-Maker without his being aware of it, he has difficulty with her explanation that she did it because of a sexual indiscretion on his part.  Even simple causality is not enough for the Merovingian.

Names:  Many names of people, places, and things in The Matrix Trilogy have a religious significance, though sometimes clashing with their original meaning.

Conclusion:  The Matrix Trilogy is theologically confusing.  On one hand, the excellent question of what is real is raised, it is acknowledged that fate, choice, and causality are more nuanced concepts than one might initially think, and many of the names of religious significance are used in a way that actually makes some sort of sense.  In contrast, there are some serious problems.  Theology is practically nonexistent.  Both the rebels and the Machines display an unexplained moral callousness towards unfree humans.  In The Matrix Universe belief shapes reality without giving any reason for it to work.  Morpheus believes blindly in Neo and is somehow right.  The errors in morality and belief are nontrivial.  The moral errors are hypocrisy, a visible mismatch between values and behavior.  The error of treating belief as shaping reality or as reality itself only works in fiction; in our universe, the results could be fatal.  These may be excusable if one is watching for the action scenes, but not as serious theological statements.

Overall classification:  Science-fiction/action hybrid with philosophical pretensions.

Theological rating:  D, with a recommendation that Larry and Andy Wachowski—who are responsible for this series, no matter what the Merovingian says—take refresher courses in religion.

Other worthwhile reading material on The Matrix Trilogy:

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