The Philosophy of The Matrix: From Plato and Descartes, to Eastern Philosophy

Do you take the red pill or the blue pill? The ques­tion, which at its heart has to do with either accept­ing or reject­ing the illu­sions that con­sti­tute some or all of life as you know it, became part of the cul­ture almost imme­di­ate­ly after Mor­pheus, Lawrence Fish­burne’s char­ac­ter in The Matrix, put it to Keanu Reeves’ pro­tag­o­nist Neo. That film, a career-mak­ing suc­cess for its direc­tors the Wachows­ki sis­ters (then the Wachows­ki broth­ers), had its own elab­o­rate vision of a false real­i­ty entrap­ping human­i­ty as the actu­al one sur­rounds it, a vision made real­iz­able by the finest late-1990s com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed spe­cial effects. But the ideas behind it, as this Film Radar video essay shows, go back a long way indeed.

The first and by far the most respect­ed of the tril­o­gy, The Matrix “large­ly inter­prets Pla­to’s Alle­go­ry of the Cave. Imag­ine a cave. Inside are peo­ple who were born and have spent their entire lives there, chained into a fixed posi­tion, only able to see the wall in front of them. As far as they know, this is the entire world.” The Wachowskis ask the same ques­tion Pla­to does: “How do we know what our real­i­ty real­ly is?”

When they have Mor­pheus bring Neo out of his “cave” of every­day late-20th-cen­tu­ry exis­tence, they do it in a man­ner anal­o­gous to Pla­to’s Anal­o­gy of the Sun, in which “the sun is a metaphor for the nature of real­i­ty and knowl­edge con­cern­ing it,” and the eyes of the fear­ful few forced out of their cave need some time to adjust to it.

But when one “unplugs” from the illu­sion-gen­er­at­ing Matrix of the title — a con­cept now in con­sid­er­a­tion again thanks to the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the “sim­u­la­tion argu­ment” — a longer jour­ney toward that real­ly-real real­i­ty still awaits. The sec­ond and third install­ments of the tril­o­gy involve a dive into “reli­gious phi­los­o­phy from the East,” espe­cial­ly the idea of escape from the eter­nal soul’s rein­car­na­tion “into oth­er phys­i­cal forms in an infi­nite cycle where the soul is left to wan­der and suf­fer” by means of a spir­i­tu­al quest for “enlight­en­ment, by unit­ing body and mind with spir­it.” This leads, inevitably, to self-sac­ri­fice: by final­ly “allow­ing him­self to die,” Neo “is reunit­ed with spir­it” and “becomes the true sav­ior of human­i­ty” — a nar­ra­tive ele­ment not unknown in reli­gious texts even out­side the East.

These count as only “a few of the philo­soph­i­cal ideas the Wachowskis explore in the Matrix tril­o­gy,” the oth­ers includ­ing Robert Noz­ick­’s “Expe­ri­ence Machine,” Descartes’ “Great Deceiv­er,” and oth­er con­cepts from Kant and Hume “ques­tion­ing real­i­ty, causal­i­ty, and free will, not to men­tion the obvi­ous com­men­tary on tech­nol­o­gy or a sub­mis­sive soci­ety.” Of course, philo­soph­i­cal explo­ration in The Matrix involve count­less fly­ing — and grav­i­ty-defy­ing — fists and bul­lets, much of it per­formed by char­ac­ters clad in reflec­tive sun­glass­es and black leather. Per­haps that dat­ed­ness has prompt­ed the recent announce­ment of a Matrix reboot: though the styles may change, if it hap­pens, the ideas would no doubt remain rec­og­niz­able to Pla­to him­self.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Are We Liv­ing Inside a Com­put­er Sim­u­la­tion?: An Intro­duc­tion to the Mind-Bog­gling “Sim­u­la­tion Argu­ment”

Philip K. Dick The­o­rizes The Matrix in 1977, Declares That We Live in “A Com­put­er-Pro­grammed Real­i­ty”

Daniel Den­nett and Cor­nel West Decode the Phi­los­o­phy of The Matrix

The Matrix: What Went Into The Mix

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Clive says:

    The ‘Matrix’ film was of a pop­u­la­tion as ‘pris­on­er’s because they were all liv­ing with­in a real­i­ty and a ‘body’ both of which weren’t real. In oth­er words, you are essen­tial­ly a pris­on­er specif­i­cal­ly because your body and your real­i­ty are FAKE. You are then in effect noth­ing more than a ‘shad­ow’ on the wall of a fake real­i­ty.

    As the entire basis of the ‘Matrix’ arti­fi­cial real­i­ty type rests on the premise that your cur­rent body is fake then you’d imag­ine that a search for:

    ‘Pla­to’s cave two bod­ies inter­faced togeth­er Matrix real­i­ty’

    … would return more than a hand­ful of pages.

    I’ve also nev­er seen men­tioned in any Pla­to’s cave matrix arti­fi­cial real­i­ty com­par­i­son dis­cus­sions and par­tic­u­lar­ly on phi­los­o­phy ori­en­tat­ed web sites that a fake real­i­ty would have both the MOTIVE as well as the oppor­tu­ni­ty to direct­ly manip­u­late it’s res­i­dents and would per­haps par­tic­u­lar­ly do this when the res­i­dents of a fake real­i­ty are dis­cussing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of whether they are liv­ing with­in a fake real­i­ty or not!!!

    Some reasoned/rational ‘Matrix’ real­i­ty spec­u­la­tion pages can be found on

  • Jay says:

    The cave and the Matrix both have the
    Motive to con­trol its res­i­dents if they ate liv­ing in a fake real­i­ty or a liv­ing

  • elf says:

    We live in two spaces, the feel­ing space cen­tered in our organs, and the think­ing space cen­tered in our brain. The first one works in quan­tum time, the sec­ond in lin­ear time. Child amne­sia is when the sec­ond takes the lead because our soci­ety favored it. The fab­ric of our life is made of feel­ings and we only have that. A feel­ing or affect has a tridi­men­sion­al struc­ture: body ten­sion, body acti­va­tion and pro­to-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of bel­ly malaise or bel­ly well-being which will give “it’s bad” or “it’s good” and the cono­ta­tion of all the con­cepts ( on side of the def­i­n­i­tion of the dic­tio­nary). the rea­son is for sur­vival: at any time we need to know if our sit­u­a­tion is good or bad, to cope with the sit­u­a­tion and have our body ready to fight or flee or freeze. The feel­ing space is an on-going mon­i­tor­ing process which com­pute all the stim­uli from the out­side and inter­nal in no time, and resume them in a feel­ing. Remem­ber the last time you jump back while you want­ed to cross the street but did­nt see the motorcycle…your on-going mon­i­tor­ing process is here for you to thank. The gut feel­ing that saved it all but nev­er rec­og­nized for what it is. The free will that fleet­ing moment where you will have the pre­cip­i­tate of a feel­ing as good or bad. Most of us, bor­der­line, have cut the bridge between the two spaces because we did­n’t receive our count of uncon­di­tion­al love as infant, and the big mon­ster anger inside us was so fright­en­ing as all pow­er baby who could destroy the world and kill the care­givers. That the eter­nal inter­nal con­flict most of us drag on, until you rec­og­nize that low­er­ing the anger allows you to get self-con­fi­dence. then, you become more dif­fi­cult to manip­u­late and to keep in the matrix. It hap­pens that medi­a­tion is a way to renew the bridge: put the ten­sion as low as pos­si­ble, don’t move, let you think­ing stop. no words because there is none in the feel­ing space. With your true self aside of your feel­ings: have anger, no more angry, You don’t blur with your feel­ings no more, as you don’t blur with the words.I could devel­op more, but I only want to add, we are safe from the AI as long as they don’t have feel­ings (not imi­ta­tion). Truth is, I don’t know what a quan­tum com­put­er is capa­ble of. The cri­sis we are going on with the mil­i­taro-indus­tri­al com­plex and deep­state and CB, is cen­tered around quan­tum com­put­ers, but far from our eyes. Last time they orga­nized the death camps with IBM machines, no they hope the all plan­et with become a death camp where they can decide who lives and who dies. I hope you are awak­en, it is fright­en­ing but also excit­ing time to be alive. Cheers!

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