The Newsletter of the Philosophical Discussion Group
Of British Mensa

Number 99 : January 2000

19th September 1999 : Theo Todman


I hope you wonít think this article lowers the tone of the newsletter. By way of defence, an article on Pulp Fiction (another film, MíLud) appeared in the magazine Philosophy Now when that film was recently fashionable. I may have missed the boat a bit with The Matrix, as itís now out on video. Anyway, I saw the film The Matrix twice on the plane during a trip to Hong Kong in the summer. I found it interesting from a philosophical viewpoint, though Iíve subsequently found such a large number of web-sites devoted to discussing it, that I believe there cannot really be anything profound in it. I posted a few reviews pinched from some of these sites to PDGList, to give background, but we donít have the space to waste here. I hope you get the drift even if you havenít seen the film. I didnít get any "takers" on PDGList, but I put that down to the complexity of the subject and the fact that responses to posts must be made in a matter of days or the list becomes pre-occupied with something else.

Enough preamble ....

The major (if multiply unlikely) premise of the film is that the human race is being farmed as an energy source by victorious, intelligent machines. All the humans' experiences are only of virtual reality. This virtual reality is of end 20th century life as we know it, but the time is really the end 21st century and those experiencing the VR are really in goo-filled pods being tended by these afore-mentioned machines. One of the throw away lines of the film is that a prior crop had been "lost" when the VR was of paradise; as though humans needed something to strive for. Is this saying something significant or is this another example of theodicy - explaining the evil in the (virtual) world when it looks as though things ought to be better ?

The Matrix, which provides (or is) this virtual world, is a computer program. It is not clear what sort of hardware it runs on. Maybe it's the collective brains of the Human Race - their brains are presumably running their minds - just as your brain is running your mind (a provocative statement !). Credence is lent to this idea when, in the film, people who have escaped from the Matrix can learn virtual reality (VR) skills (eg., to make the film fun, martial arts), for use when they go back into the Matrix, by having an "instant skills" program uploaded into their brains. We have to ask where the infrastructure (of VR), with which the minds of the participants interact, runs in order to provide a consistent picture, as the various VR experiences of those involved appear to be consistent. Is this the ultimate in parallel processing ? How do the various minds interact in their virtual world ? Is this Berkeleyan idealism run riot ?

It is possible for those who "think big" to break the laws of nature in the Matrix, because they're only in the program. There's no suggestion that the physical laws in the real world can be broken (other than the poetic license in all cliff-hanger films - the invading machines appear to be inside Nebuchadnezzar [a real-world mother-ship] when the "pulse" repulses them at the end). Talking of which, this "pulse" - an electrical discharge - is said to drop the connection between the mind in the virtual world (the Matrix) and the brain in the real world (Nebuchadnezzar), preventing a return. This implies that the brain is doing something other than dreaming when the individual's experience is within The Matrix. The actual person appears to be running as part of the program.

If my memory serves me correctly, the interplay between the two worlds is problematical - Neo (the hero, Keanu Reaves) is liberated from The Matrix by taking a (virtual) pill (can't remember whether it's the red or blue one !). This wakes him up in his pod, at which point he's "flushed" by his machine-minder which sees he's woken up - all his connecting tubes pop off and he disappears down a flume into a lake of goo, from which he's rescued by the space-ship (Nebuchadnezzar) housing Morpheus, Trinity et al (youíll have to see the film to find out who these are ... enough to say theyíre previously liberated good guys and gals). He's now experiencing (real) reality, but it's possible for him, and them - at least those who've been liberated previously - to hack back into the Matrix and go back to take on the Agents (geezers in suits and dark glasses). While doing this, the body lies comatose back on ship but is strangely connected to the VR world. Punch-ups in VR affect real bodies, though only to the degree of nose-bleeds (!). Similarly, death of the real body leads to death of the virtual body in The Matrix, as happens when a couple of heroes are wasted by a renegade. It was not clear whether this "Matrix to real body" link also happens to those in the pods - rather the reverse if the "paradise set" was lost !

A classic saying in the film, to explain why death in The Matrix leads to death on Nebuchadnezzar, is that "the body can't exist without a mind"; this seems to be rather the opposite of what would seem to be the case. We have evidence of bodies existing without minds, but not vice versa. Or maybe we have no conclusive evidence either way ? The upload / download into the program seems to involve the use of mobile phones as locators into the matrix, together with apparent worm-holes and specific locations to be beamed up from. I haven't got my head round what this would mean (assuming the notion is coherent) given that we're talking about getting to a particular place in a simulation.

On prophesy - The Oracle (the lady within The Matrix that Neo goes to see to be persuaded that he is The One (I wonít go into all the Messianic overtones here) seems as evasive as the Delphic original - but does successfully predict a smashed vase. Presumably it is possible to predict the future in VR - or only if the virtual laws are not chaotic and the computer is digital ? There's no suggestion that prophesy is possible in the real world; at least, if it is, the intelligent machines haven't go the hang of it !

The bad guy (the Judas character) prefers the qualia of a dream world (the steak etc) to the reality of nutritious mush which those on Nebuchadnezzar must eat. It's not clear why this is a bad thing, nor, as a reviewer notes, what "reality" has to offer in the circumstances of the film.

I shouldnít really enter into criticism of the film as such, but I can't resist ! Firstly, it's not clear to me how overcoming the Agents in The Matrix by means of martial arts breaks the power of The Matrix. How can this be ? Can't the machines make a better Agent ? Or are these not software agents but downloaded minds of other beings (maybe the machines themselves ?). I expect this is just a cheap trick to allow an action movie. Also, if the bodies in the pods are linked to the minds in The Matrix, presumably they would become less efficient energy-producers with age - so the machines wouldn't allow longevity in The Matrix, as would seem to be the case if virtual time is 1999 (when we know there are some oldies around).

Maybe this is just a load of escapism, and people like me are suckers for trying to make it all hang together in some form or other. The film has to be seen (probably 3 times) before you've got it sussed as far as sussing is possible. But, beyond this there are the questions raised - basically all those related to the interrelation of the mental and the physical. It also suggests that we might actually be living in a virtual world, and be able to spot this in some way (as Neo is doing at the start of the film) by some subtle inconsistencies. This is subversive twaddle of course, almost suggesting that because there are apparent inconsistencies in the world as we see it, the whole fabric is potentially a delusion.

I could go on ....


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