Daniel Dennett and Cornel West Decode the Philosophy of The Matrix

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Matrix: What Went Into The Mix

Daniel Den­nett (a la Jeff Fox­wor­thy) Does the Rou­tine, “You Might be an Athe­ist If…”

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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