Apotheosis of cyberpunk culture, 1999’s The Matrix and its less-successful sequels introduced a generation of fanboys and girls to the most stylish expression of some age-old idealist thought experiments: the Hindu concept of Maya, Plato’s cave, Descartes’ evil demon, Hilary Putnam’s Brain in a Vat—all notions about the nature of reality that ask whether what we experience isn’t instead an elaborate illusion, concealing a “real” world outside of our perceptual grasp. In some versions—such as those of certain Buddhists and Christian Gnostics, whose ideas The Matrix directors borrowed liberally—one can awaken from the dream. In others, such as Kant’s or Jacques Lacan’s, that prospect is unlikely, if impossible. These questions about the nature of reality versus appearance are mainstays of intro philosophy courses and stereotypical stoner sessions. But they’re also perennially relevant to philosophers and neuroscientists, which is why such academic luminaries as Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers continue to address them in their work on the nature and problem of consciousness.
Dennett, Chalmers, the always captivating scholar/theologian/activist Cornel West, and a host of other academic thinkers, appear in the documentary above, Philosophy and the Matrix: Return to the Source. Part of the sprawling box-set The Ultimate Matrix Collection, the film comments on how The Matrix does much more than dramatize an undergraduate thesis; it takes on questions about religious revelation and authority, parapsychology, free will and determinism, and the nature of personal identity in ways that no dry philosophical text or arcane mystical system has before, thanks to its hip veneer and pioneering use of CGI. While some of the thinkers above might see more profundity than the movies seem to warrant, it’s still interesting to note how each film glosses the great metaphysical questions that intrigue us precisely because the answers seem forever out of reach.
Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness