Consciousness and pop stuff

The Matrices (1999-2003)

Posted in Idealism-or-similar by Trevor on May 25, 2010

YOUNG BALD AUSTRALIAN: Don’t try to bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, only realise the truth.

NEO: What truth is that?

YOUNG BALD AUSTRALIAN: There is no spoon.

NEO: Caaaaaaaaarn Strayaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

It will come as no surprise to know that I’m not the first to write about the philosophy in The Matrix movies. It’s already become a slightly-hackneyed example used by academic philosophers to illustrate assorted conundrums. There are even whole books about it. Which I’ve not read, I’m sorry.

Also there’s a documentary called “Return to the Source: Philosophy and The Matrix” in which a bunch of academics and other crazy people talk about how it’s an allegory of scepticism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Christianity, post-modernism, Transcendental Idealism and anything else they happen to be a crank for. Pretty much, if you believe it, you can find an allegory for it in The Matrix movies. View the documentary online here.

One of the reasons I liked the first film is that I saw it when I lived in Sydney. And it was filmed in Sydney, it’s full of Sydney buildings and landmarks. Which means that when you step out of the cinema there, you step out into the Matrix. Which is a great wheeze if you’re philosophically inclined.


Come to Sydney! It doesn't really exist! (Yet property prices are high.)

Anyway, as discussed on the Consciousness Verdicts explained page, I am a crank for Idealism-or-similar. Therefore that’s what I see in The Matrices. Here’s why:

Let’s focus on the first movie. The philosophically interesting character here is not Neo the hero, but Agent Smith, the villain. He’s played by Hugo Weaving (Caaaaaaarn Strayaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!) and he talks in an unnatural, sing-song sort of voice that no real person has ever had, except of course for Carl Sagan. See Agent Smith doing Carl Sagan here.

Agent Smith wearing an outfit which the other agents complained about.

Agent Smith wearing an outfit which the other agents complained about.

Smith is entirely virtual, he’s just a computer program, one of the AIs that has enslaved the humans. Is he sentient? We have every reason to believe so, and Morpheus actually calls the agents “sentient programs” when he introduces them.

So within the world of the Matrix movies, conscious experiences can be generated by an underlying substratum which is very different from the experiences themselves. That is, Agent Smith experiences the world within The Matrix as if it’s an actual world, whereas in fact it’s all computer generated. And so is he.

His consciousness is not something which arises from the brain in his head – it arises from the computer system which executes the Matrix. When Agent Smith sees a spoon – just like the bald, Australian child – he can feel it, touch it, hear it, smell it and taste it. (Do spoons have a taste?) But it’s also the case that – in a very real sense – there is no spoon. That is what I call “Idealism-or-similar” (or Phenomenalistic Representationism to be more precise).

The spoon that isn't there. And Angry Anderson in the early days before the angry part took over.

The spoon that isn't there. And Angry Anderson in the early days before the angry part took over.

Now – I’m going to get a bit finicky here – when I say “there is no spoon”, I don’t mean that nothing but the perception of the spoon exists. Outside of the human/agent perceptions of the spoon, the spoon does also exist as a bit of code in the Matrix computer. All the humans could drop dead (or continue-to-lie-down dead) and this bit of computer code would still be there. The code holds all the information needed to create the “perception-of-spoon” but it is not itself a spoon. Hence “there is no spoon”.

To put it in terms of Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, the spoon which Agent Smith perceives in the Matrix is “phenomenal” or a “thing-for-us”. Whereas the bit of code which determines this perception is “noumenal” or a “thing-in-itself”. There you go – that’s Kant’s Transcendental Idealism in 38 words. If you can do better, I’ll send you a Mars Bar.**

Righty. So the point is that the situation which Agent Smith is in is the same situation we are in. We have a set of conscious experiences and these are caused by some kind of external structure which we cannot perceive.

In fact, even outside the Matrix this appears to be the case. In the later movies Neo demonstrates an ability to access some other level of reality which underlies the real world and this gives him magical powers. This probably backs up the idea that these movies are even more Idealist. Maybe. Who cares? I gotta confess, once it started to get all magicky my interest started to wane.

In the last film a guy called The Architect who looks like Tom Wolfe’s suit with Donald Sutherland’s head stuck on it comes on and explains everything.

The Architect: Tom Wolfe's suit with Donald Sutherland's head stuck on it.

The Architect: Tom Wolfe's suit with Donald Sutherland's head stuck on it.

When I first saw the movie I had no idea what he was talking about. But, now that youtube has been invented, I can go back and listen again. Listen to The Architect explaining everything here.

Basically what he says is that The Matrix was built to contain humans, however humans have this thing called free will which defies mathematical modelling, and because of this the Matrix never really lasts forever. Instead, the freewillness builds up in the system and sooner or later a figure like Neo comes forward who has to be let out. This person then goes and starts a new human settlement as soon as the AIs have destroyed the existing one. This has happened five times before. (This time however, Neo really is The One and he beats the AIs instead.)

So here’s an interesting point: the writers of The Matrix draw a strong distinction between human intelligence and machine intelligence. That is, machine intelligence is algorithmic while humans have unsimulatable free will. But free will isn’t bound up with consciousness. The AIs are conscious but they don’t have free will. Which must feel a bit shit I would imagine. Doesn’t seem to bother them though. I guess they’re programmed not to worry about it.

Alright. That’s all. Carry on simulating.

** No I won’t.