Of a mind over 'The Matrix'
by Alex Beam
War, pestilence, bankruptcies -- I don't know about you, but I have had all the reality I can handle. It's time to reenter . . . "The Matrix." The campaign against Saddam Hussein is winding down and the hype for "The Matrix Reloaded" movie is ramping up -- coincidence, or something more? How convenient of Bush & Co. to spool down the war just in time for Warner Bros. to provide some real entertainment.
It is indeed time to return to what Newsweek -- that unpredictable smorgasbord of information and absurdity -- called "The Year of 'The Matrix.' " In a vast advertisement-thinly-disguised-as-a-cover-story, Newsweek dared to suggest that in creating the fantastically popular, digitally unreal world of "The Matrix," filmmakers Andy and Larry Wachowski "borrowed heavily from several sources, mostly comic books, Japanese anime and Asian kung fu movies."
I should think not! If one of the most eminent boatload of fee-for-hire philosophers can be believed, the true sources of "The Matrix" are Plato, the Gnostic gospels, Ren Descartes, and Mahayana Buddhism. In preparation for the May 15 release of "Reloaded," Warner Bros. retained Brooklyn College professor Christopher Grau to recruit some of the country's best known academic philosophers -- David Chalmers, Colin McGinn, James Pryor, and Hubert Dreyfus among them -- to write 14 articles analyzing the occasionally mystifying content of the greatest movie ever made.
"I was able to get people who are superstars in the world of philosophy," Grau says. "Of course no one has ever heard of them." Part of the assignment's allure was the exotic material: "I'm a fan of the movie, and writing about it was a lot of fun," says Julia Driver, an ethics professor at Dartmouth who has been showing the first film to students, with excellent results. Grau explains an added attraction: "We were able to pay rates comparable to mainstream journalism, which compares favorably with the professional philosophy journals. They pay nothing."
I have always found philosophy texts to be heavy paddling, and these essays are no exception. Wheaton College's John Partridge has one, "Plato's Cave and 'The Matrix,' " which is pretty comprehensible. Chalmer's contribution, "The Matrix as Metaphysics," is borderline understandable, until you reach this warning sign: "This slightly technical section can be skipped without too much loss."
Chalmers, director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona, likens the perceptual challenge offered by "The Matrix" to the philosophical conundrum of an "envatted" brain, a laboratory brain stored in a vat and programmed to receive stimuli from the "real world." He seemed quite fascinated when I mentioned Krang, the envatted brain who battles the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from inside the Technodrome. But I digress.
You can read the articles at the official Matrix website, www.thematrix.com. And they are being peer-reviewed by readers for the Oxford University Press for possible publication. "If Oxford printed these, that would be huge," Grau admits.
I would commend them to your attention, because, like me, you may gain some practical information. "It may well be that we're living in a matrix," says Chalmers, who has given the matter considerable thought. "It's not something I would rule out."