'Matrix,' other geek icons become philosophy-class fodder
ALLENTOWN, Pennsylvania (AP) -- Long after The Matrix Revolutions morphs itself off the big screen, the eternal battle of reality versus illusion, fate versus free will and good versus evil will rage on in philosophy classrooms everywhere.
The third and final installment of the trilogy opened November 5 on more than 10,000 screens at the exact same time, and, in spite of mixed reviews, soared quickly to No. 1.
"It didn't raise as many philosophical issues as the other two, but there certainly was a philosophical overlay to the darn thing," said Theodore Schick Jr., head of Muhlenberg College's philosophy department.
He's one of many educators across the country using pop-culture examples of timeless conundrums to challenge students into new thoughts. "It's what a liberal education should do: liberate people from preconceived ideas and prejudices," said Schick.
He's also one of the professors who contributed to a recent book, The Matrix and Philosophy, which reached the New York Times best seller list earlier this year.
To briefly sum up the plot of the movies, the matrix is an illusion generated by robotic machines that have finally gotten their revenge on humans by enslaving them as living battery cells. Humans don't know this, however. They think they are living free.
Along comes Neo (Keanu Reeves), who just may be The One to lift the veil and set humans free; his wise mentor and rebel leader, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne); and Neo's love interest, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). They have the ability to travel between reality and illusion, kung fu fighting with robots and battling giant metallic squids. Symbols from the works of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and James Frazer abound.
In his introduction to The Matrix and Philosophy, William Irwin, assistant professor of philosophy at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, describes the Matrix writers and directors, the Wachowski brothers, as "college dropout comic-book artists intrigued by the Big Questions."
In his contributed chapter, "Fate, Freedom, and Foreknowledge," Schick addresses a predominant Matrix topic: Is anyone -- man or machine -- free, or are they slaves to inescapable destiny?
Schick said there are only three branches of philosophy, and the Matrix trilogy supplies examples for them all.
Metaphysics asks: What makes something real or not real? If all that exists is matter and motion, what is a mind? Can a computer like Agent Smith, Neo's nemesis, have a mind?
Epistemology asks: What is the nature of knowledge? "Skeptics say we can't acquire knowledge by means of the senses, because we can't be certain that what our senses tell us is true," said Schick. So how can we be certain that we're not living in the matrix?
Ethics asks: What makes something right or wrong? Is all that matters in life having good experiences even though you're a "brain in a vat," or the kind of choices you make?
"Neo thinks that leading a good life requires making good choices," said Schick, which brings up the whole issue of fate and free will -- the illusion of a choice, or a real choice -- which leads back to metaphysics.
The Matrix and Philosophy was published before the second movie, The Matrix Reloaded, was released, "but I got the Oracle right, suggesting that she really didn't know the future but was using humans' faith in her to manipulate them," said Schick.
Schick also has contributed a chapter to another book in Irwin's series, Seinfeld and Philosophy. Schick analyzed the final, "Good Samaritan" episode of Seinfeld, in which Jerry and friends end up in a Massachusetts jail for not coming to the aid of an injured person, or even calling 911 on their cell phone.
"What is our obligation to our fellow human beings?" Schick asked, comparing the libertarian duty not to interfere with the communitarian obligation to help.
And he's also in the latest Irwin book, The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy with a chapter titled "The Cracks of Doom: The Threat of Emerging Technologies and Tolkien's Rings of Power."
Schick's contribution examines what we should do with technologies that threaten to destroy us, said Schick, just like J.R.R. Tolkien's rings gave their possessors wealth or dominion over others, but also had the power to corrupt.
Some people think we should stop all research into genetics, robotics and nanotechnology because they have the potential to destroy the human race, said Schick. "We should throw these technologies back into the fire," just like the Council of Elrond voted to destroy the One Ring of Sauron, the Dark Lord, he said.
The Return of the King, the final film in the adaptation of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings fantasy, opens December 17. It follows hobbits Frodo and Sam into the land of Mordor to destroy Sauron's ring of power.
Schick also finds material in Tolkien's story as a study in loyalty and courage. "Frodo is seduced by the ring, and Sam keeps him true," he said.
"The original theories of ethics developed by Plato and Aristotle were based on virtue, in which a good life was one that was led in accordance with the virtues, such as temperance, courage, loyalty, honesty and prudence," he said.
Students: For an easy A, expound on this in your next classroom discussion: What are the philosophical implications of Hugo Weaving, the Australian actor who is Agent Smith in The Matrix trilogy, also playing Elrond, the elven Lord of Rivendell, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy?