Salon (US), December 4, 2002

"The Matrix and Philosophy" by William Irwin, ed.

Philosophers tackle the mind-bending questions posed by the science-fiction hit "The Matrix," and come up with some surprisingly deep thoughts.

by Laura Miller

Apparently, when the Wachowski brothers' film "The Matrix" was released in 1999, it set more than the minds of a few million video-game-stoked teenage boys a-whirring. Philosophers, who are quicker on the self-promotional uptake than they're given credit for, seized on the film as a way to illustrate various key principles of their discipline, and in "The Matrix and Philosophy" William Irwin has collected an array of their responses. The movie is, he says, "a philosopher's Rorschach inkblot test" where thinkers detect the ideas of whatever school they like best: "existentialism, Marxism, feminism, Buddhism, nihilism, postmodernism" and more.

Irwin has also put together anthologies of philosophical essays on "Seinfeld" and "The Simpsons," after which scaring up pieces on the much more metaphysically minded "The Matrix" must have seemed like a cakewalk. Although the Brothers W are described by Irwin himself as "college dropout comic book artists," they're also the kind of smarty-pants pop autodidacts who conspicuously feature a copy of the French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard's "Simulations and Simulacra" on the shelf of their hero, who is soon to learn that his entire world is, like, totally bogus. (Not only that, but the book itself is fake, a hollow receptacle where Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, hides contraband data.) Even those contributors to the anthology who ought to be experts at tracking pop culture seem like slow, lumbering, herbivorous dinosaurs compared to the nimble, carnivorous and slightly terrifying Wachowskis. In fact, it's the more traditionally minded essays that feel the most rewarding in "The Matrix and Philosophy."

For those few souls who haven't seen it, "The Matrix" describes the travails of Neo, a young programmer whose vague sense that there is "something wrong with the world ... a splinter in the mind" comes to fruition when he meets the unspeakably cool Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). He takes a pill Morpheus offers, and after a few trippy effects, discovers that his late-20th-century urban life is merely a virtual reality simulation (the Matrix). He and almost all of the rest of humanity are actually kept in womb-like cells, where they supply energy to a vast computerized artificial intelligence, while their minds are occupied with a completely fake "existence."

Morpheus is the leader of that small band of rebels that always turns up in such stories, and Neo joins them in their fight to free humanity; he may even be "the One," a prophesized liberator. (Aside: It's really time for a moratorium on all cinematic and televisual prophecies, folks.) Defeating the Matrix will, naturally, involve many large guns, black leather trench coats and walking up the walls until one flips over -- and, of course, an encyclopedic mastery of kung fu that can be downloaded into Neo's head in a trice.

The philosophers contributing to "The Matrix and Philosophy" are not too interested in the guns and wall-walking, but they do find the implied and explicit ontological questions posed by the film intriguing. "What is real? How do you define real?" Morpheus asks Neo at one point. "If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain." The Matrix, or rather the AI that runs it, recalls Descartes' First Meditation, the hypothesis that what we perceive as the world might be a comprehensive illusion, perhaps created by a "malicious demon." (Hilary Putnam revamped this notion in the 1980s with his "brain in a vat" scenario.) Since the senses have been known to lie, since when we're dreaming we often do not realize that we are dreaming (and therefore are having an "unreal" experience we mistakenly consider real), the ordinary sensory evidence we rely on to tell us what is true cannot necessarily be trusted. Can we really be sure that any of it is authentic?

The real world that Neo emerges into is pretty dire. It's a ruined, lonely, gloomy landscape where the rebels ride around in grungy ships eating bad food and dodging their robotic enemies. When they venture back into the Matrix, they're hunted by agents, or "sentient computer programs" that look like the Men in Black of ufology lore and are capable of killing you so thoroughly in the Matrix that you die in reality as well. A member of Morpheus' crew, Cypher, decides he's had enough and betrays his leader in exchange for being reabsorbed into the Matrix with his memory of reality erased and a new virtual life as a wealthy actor. "After nine years, do you know what I realize?" he tells one of the agents. "Ignorance is bliss."

The nature of reality and the validity of Cypher's choice are the two substantive philosophical questions the movie poses. There are the obvious religious parallels to Neo's messiah-like role, but that mostly comes across as your basic Joseph Campbell hero shtick, and some vaguely Eastern mumbo jumbo about bending a spoon that one contributor memorably characterizes as "loose comments about body and mind" and "blatant hooey, uttered with faux-Zen opacity." But you can find that stuff anywhere these days. (Though to the partisan, perhaps, good press is always welcome; the Zen guy in this book, Michael Brannigan, thinks the cheesy spoon scene is "Neo's most important lesson.")

The first few essays in the anthology are lucid, readable summaries of classic responses to Cartesian skepticism, exactly what the armchair amateur is looking for. Particularly good is David Mitsuo Nixon, who argues, from the epistemology called Holism, that "the Matrix possibility" is conceptually impossible. If the only reality Neo knows is entirely false, then the only criterion he has with which to judge the authenticity of the "real" world he has been pulled into by Morpheus is therefore also false, since it's based on false evidence. Jason Holt mounts a quixotic defense of materialism and the possibility of an artificial mind (kind of a tangent, but fun).

Daniel Barwick shoots materialism down and in the process floats the idea that the "prison for your mind" represented by the Matrix may be "morally neutral with respect to those who are imprisoned." Theodore Schick untangles the film's depiction of fate and free will (more sophisticated than it seems). Cypher's choice gets the once-over from Charles Griswold and James Lawler, who, like many of the contributors, crack open the simple pop assertion that a difficult reality is better than a pleasant unreality (theme of a dozen "Star Trek" episodes), and find its kernel of truth. There are existential and "nihilistic" takes, as well as a more literary-critical examination of "The Matrix" as genre fiction.

Less pleasing are the entries from Christian and Buddhist thinkers, the latter of whom (Brannigan) solemnly observes that the film's "scenes of excessive violence seem to contradict Buddhist teachings regarding nonviolence" (no kidding) and makes the interesting suggestion that, if the agents are in fact sentient, then, even if they are homicidal computer programs, they merit respect for their "Buddha-nature." The most disappointing essays come from the postmodernist, feminist and Marxist critics -- there need to be stronger signs of intellectual rigor here, particularly if you're going to call your piece "Penetrating Keanu: New Holes, but the Same Old Shit," which borders on self-parody. Finally, the theory star of the anthology, Slavoj Zizek, delivers a piece that, while intermittently comprehensible, studded with fetching observations and more pop-culturally literate than anyone else's, is still pretty hard to follow whenever Lacan comes up.

The sequel to "The Matrix" approaches, and one of Zizek's zingier suggestions is that it will contain a moment when the drab, scary "real world" of the film will be revealed as yet another construct. If that's the case, most of the audience will probably whisper "Whoa!" as minds are blown for $10 a pop nationwide. Some of us, though, will not be surprised, and in the late-night gab sessions that such movies are created to inspire, we will be way ahead of the rest of you.

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