MATRIX PHILOSOPHY: NEO'S FREEDOM...WHOA! by Michael McKenna
The Matrix provides a fine resource for illustrating philosophical
ideas. Many films have themes that one can philosophize about, or
that serve as useful illustrations of philosophical ideas, such as
the wonderful films Sophie’s Choice or The Sheltering
Sky. But The Matrix offers more than this. It belongs
in a special class of films including Blade Runner, Total
Recall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, A Clockwork Orange,
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and The Truman Show.
All of these films are intentionally philosophical. Each shows how
richly philosophical themes can be developed through cinema. Perhaps
the best of these films is The Matrix.
No doubt, the most striking philosophical
theme found in The Matrix concerns skepticism about knowledge
of an external world. The dream world Neo inhabited was a perfectly
comfortable “reality”—except for the fact that it
was not reality. Life from inside it completely shielded one from
what Morpheus aptly called “the desert of the real,” that
desolated shell of a planet on which countless humans were unknowingly
ensconced in slimy wombs. But there are many other philosophical themes
explored within The Matrix. One is the concept of freedom.
Freedom is mentioned at various points in the film.1
It mattered a great deal who did what freely. For instance, it was
important that Neo freely chose to take the red pill and not the blue
pill. Had he taken the blue pill, he’d have been returned to
that humdrum dream world of vapid city dwellers. He’d never
have taken the path that eventually led him to his heroic defeat of
the agents, and that left him at the end of the film entertaining
the prospect of saving the human race. At various other points Neo
made choices freely, and, as with taking the red pill, it was the
quality of having made them freely that gave them the importance they
had. For instance, Neo freely decided to risk his life for Morpheus;
instead of fleeing when his own life was in danger, he returned to
save Morpheus from cranial meltdown at the hands of those treacherous
agents in their zoot suits. Also, Neo freely followed the white rabbit
that led him tumbling down that rabbit hole. And he remained in the
car when Trinity and Switch gave him the opportunity to bail. By remaining
in the car, Neo freely chose to resist the agents. He chose on his
own not to get out and walk away down that street, down that well
worn path that, Trinity reminded him, led to nowhere special. In choosing
to remain in the car, he freely embarked upon a path that would lead
to an exciting future, to an exciting life.
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But it was not just Neo’s freedom that mattered. Freedom was
an issue for the others as well. During Cypher’s attempted mutiny,
Trinity reminded him that all of Morpheus's rebels had freely chosen
the red pill, and so none could claim that they were in their dire
straights undeservedly. All the same, Cypher regretted his choice.
He felt duped; he did not regard his choice to take the red pill as
free. As he saw it, he was scammed. In fact, he was of the opinion
that he’d have had more freedom as a steak-eating, satiated
participant in The Matrix, oblivious to the “truth”
about the ugly shell that would have held him in perpetual slumber.
Freedom also mattered a great deal when it was not possessed.
It seems that this was the case with those countless human drones,
all contained in their artificial wombs. As Morpheus and company saw
it (save for Cypher), their poor, ignorant kin were victims, blind
to their lack of freedom—maybe even happy in their plodding little
lives within the Matrix, working in cubicles all day—but victims
all the same, enslaved in the service of generating battery juice
for those battery-powered A.I. meanies. Even the leader of the agents’
posse, Agent Smith, valued freedom. He too was limited in his freedom
since he was required to do something against his will, namely remain
in the Matrix and deal with those pesky rebel infiltrators. As he
confessed to Morpheus, he hated having to be there, hated the smell
of the humans. He felt trapped. Poor guy. In the end, Agent Smith’s
freedom was dramatically impaired by a liberated Neo, who had turned
the tables and was now screwing with him.
But of course, all of this is to leave the concept of freedom unanalyzed,
and to take the claims of freedom within the film on face value. As
any good student of philosophy is aware, there are quite general skeptical
challenges to (certain kinds of) freedom that might undermine the
very idea that any agent is free in at least one important respect.
Let’s defer for just a bit longer placing any theoretical structure
on what freedom might be, and on the sorts of challenges there might
be to it. Let’s fix upon some further observations that will
subsequently help us to bring into clear focus a few frequently unacknowledged
but powerful points about the freedom of human agency, a freedom many
have called freedom of the will.
It appeared in the film that some had more freedom than others. Morpheus's
crew was amazed watching Neo fight Morpheus for the first time. They
thought that the untrained neophyte Neo was just so fast, faster than
any of the others. Their hope was that Neo was “The One”.
No doubt there are biblical themes throughout the film, and no doubt
“The One” is one of those themes; “The One”
is something like a divine savior. A crucial feature of this savior
is that whoever could fill the bill would have more freedom within
the Matrix than could any other rebel visitor to it, or for that matter,
any other intentional being operating within the Matrix, including
the agents. Indeed, their hope was that Neo’s freedom within
the Matrix would be like that of God; Neo would have unlimited freedom.
So it appeared that Neo, even when first getting acquainted with his
abilities, had more freedom within the Matrix than did Trinity, Cypher,
or any of the rest of Morpheus's gang (save for Morpheus himself).
But there are other comparisons as well that indicate different degrees
of freedom within the Matrix. Neo, Morpheus, and all of the rebels
had more freedom within the Matrix than did all those clueless characters
walking the streets, living in their homes, watching the TV, going
to work, etc. At least as Morpheus and company saw it, the clueless
were completely unfree.
Until near the film’s end, Neo had less freedom than
did the agents. The agents could simply move about satisfying most
any desire they had, taking on others’ bodies, appearing whenever
and wherever they wanted, and operating with fantastic foresight about
who would be where, when, etc. These agents defied what seemed to
be the laws of nature (as structured within the Matrix). They could
emerge unscathed after being slammed by speeding trains that would
have crushed and destroyed any run of the mill putz living out his
ordinary life within the Matrix. They took bullets and kept a tickin’,
and they could simply make a person’s mouth disappear at will.
They had the run of the place, at least until those closing moments
of the film. But in those closing moments of the film, Neo was the
freest agent operating within the Matrix. Hell, by the time he came
to realize his true potential within it, he could beat the crap out
of those battery-powered robot-demons, stop bullets, and fly…
One more very important observation before we roll up our sleeves
and do some philosophical work: The special sort of freedom that Neo
seemed to possess in the film was a freedom confined to the Matrix.
The same, of course, applies to Morpheus and the other rebels whom
Morpheus trained. The film has given us no reason to believe that
Neo, or anyone else, has any special freedom outside the Matrix. In
the “real” world, as it is in the space ship with those
nasty flying bugs out hunting down rebel ships on that desolated planet,
Morpheus, Neo, Trinity, Cypher, and the rest of the clan are just
normally functioning human agents like you or me. Presumably, in the
real world, Neo’s just a guy, a guy who, analogous to poor,
impaired, nobody Tommy in The Who’s rock opera Tommy,
is transformed in game mode to the most gifted being ever to play
the relevant game—a pinball wizard. In the Matrix, that is,
roughly, in the ultimate of video game consoles, Neo ain’t got
no distractions, can’t hear no buzzes or bells, always gets
the replay and never tilts at all.
So in The Matrix, near the end of the film, as Neo
comes to master the game, he’s totally dialed in. It’s
gotta rock! Let us call this freedom that Neo possesses within the
Matrix absolute freedom, and let us call the feature that
seems to go with it the property of rocking. No doubt, when
Neo first saw such amazing freedom exercised—when Morpheus leapt
an incredible distance from one skyscraper to another—he judged
that indeed such extreme freedom did rock, and in amazement he appropriately
expressed himself thusly: “Whoa!”
The concept of absolute freedom
and its presumed property of rocking will be further developed in
the closing sections of this essay. But for now, let us first give
some theoretical structure to the idea of freedom, forgetting about
absolute freedom, and let us consider briefly a classical
philosophical challenge to it. Once we have these issues in place,
we’ll turn back to the film and examine our natural reactions
to it, reactions such as the many mentioned above.
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The term freedom is used in many contexts, and there is no
reason to assume that there is a single meaning of the term. Minimally,
all of the uses of the term do seem to share the feature that resistance
of some sort, encumbering or impeding desired conduct, gets in the
way of freedom. Typically, one is not free when she is frustrated
in some manner from unencumbered pursuit of her desired course of
action. But the absence of impediments is clearly not sufficient for
the kind of freedom that mattered to Morpheus, Neo, and company, nor
to what is valuable and distinctive of the human condition. A stupid
dog can sometimes act unencumbered when, for instance, she is unleashed—when
she is set free. And though free in a very basic way, the stupid dog’s
freedom is not the kind that makes philosophers, theologians, politicians,
moralists, or just your run of the mill high-minded folk get the warm
fuzzies. No. The freedom worth talking about seems to be a freedom
distinctive of persons, and this suggests that understanding the relevant
notion of freedom first requires an understanding of what it is to
be a person.
Regrettably, offering an account of personhood is beyond the scope
of this essay. But to appreciate what seems to mark persons from non-persons,
those familiar with the movie Blade Runner can reflect upon
the characters Decker and the replicant Rachael, with whom Decker
fell in love. Although Decker was a human being (maybe), and Rachael
was an artificial replicant of a human being, both were persons.2
Both were capable of planning lives, of developing intimate relationships
of love and hate, of fearing for, and finding dear, their own lives,
and the lives of other persons. Both had the capacity for abstract
thought, emotional responses to others, self-consciousness, etc. Less
developed cognitive creatures were not persons, such as the primitive
little A.I. machines that kept J.F. Sebastian company (J.F. Sebastian
was another character in Blade Runner). Or to draw upon other
clear illustrations of personhood from other sources in film, E.T.
from the classic Spielberg movie was a person. Data from the Star
Trek series and movies is a person, though neither E.T. nor Data
is a human being. So, for our purposes, Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, as
well as the agents, are all persons—though the agents, like
E.T. or Data, are non-human persons.
Even restricting the term freedom to its applications to persons,
there are at least two sorts that have been the focus of a great deal
of philosophical attention for well over two millennia now. One is
a matter of political freedom, another is a matter of metaphysical
freedom, the latter being understood as freedom of the will. Political
freedom concerns the freedom of persons to conduct themselves as they
see fit within the political landscape. The nature of the political
landscape is itself a matter of dispute. Does the landscape germane
to political freedom include economic empowerment? Or does it merely
involve what are often referred to as the civil liberties, such as
the liberty to speak unthreatened from harm of prohibition, to organize
as one wishes, etc? Political freedom, whatever it comes to, is certainly
a deeply important sort of freedom, and no doubt, it is a sort of
freedom that Morpheus was struggling to give back to the human race.
At least this is how Morpheus and his comrades saw it. But the more
immediate sort of freedom to which the film directs our attention
is not political freedom, but metaphysical freedom, that is, freedom
of the will.
Before turning our attention to the topic of free will, it
is worth asking, what is a will? This is also the subject
of a great deal of dispute, but it is natural to think of the will
as the aspect of a creature’s mentality that is the source of
voluntary, intentional (that is, goal-directed) action. Hence, any
agent—that is, any being that acts, such as a dog, a cat, a
chimpanzee—has a will. The philosophical gem worthy of reflection
is what makes a will free, and most notably free in the special way
distinctive of a unique class of agents, those who are persons.
A word of caution: The expression “metaphysical freedom”
is often regarded derisively by theorists, largely outside of philosophy,
who fallaciously associate it only with extravagant views about the
human condition, such as the view that metaphysical freedom provides
persons with a capacity to transcend the material world, to choose
and act unlimited by the laws of nature, or by any constraints from
the material world. And while some theories of free will do attribute
to persons the ability to perform 'very small' miracles whenever they
all the expression metaphysical freedom need pick out is
a distinctive feature of personhood—a feature unique to the
will of a person, perhaps part of the essence or the nature
of what it is to be a person. How to understand this freedom is up
for grabs. So, to be clear: the very mention of the notion of metaphysical
freedom, or freedom of the will, does not entail anything
mysterious. It does not entail anything contrary to the spirit of
an inquiry such as Darwin’s, or that of the neurobiologist.
It might turn out that free will involves no special miraculous features
of agency at all, that metaphysical freedom is entirely consistent
with a deflationary account of human persons according to which all
human persons are entirely the products of their genetics, their environment,
and any other physical factors impinging upon them. That said, it
should be kept in mind that, on the other hand, serious philosophical
reflection might indicate that the concept of free will implies that
a deflationary view of persons is false. But the crucial point here
is that it is not part of the meaning of the very term metaphysical
freedom, or freedom of will, that it involve anything
spooky, mysterious, unworldly, or otherwise beyond the pale of what
is in principle explicable in terms of our best natural sciences.
Here is a theory-neutral characterization
of free will:
Free will is the ability of persons to
control the future through their choices and actions.
This is a lean definition that is not biased towards any one particular
manner of philosophizing about free will. Of course, it is only a
first pass and cries out for refinement. The crux of the issue concerns
how best to articulate the ability to control the future. Let us consider
two ways to articulate further this characterization of free will.
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It is quite natural to assume, as many philosophers do, that a person
acts with freedom of the will only if there are alternative courses
of action available to her at the time at which she acts. On a model
such as this, a person’s freedom of the will consists partly
in her being in control of a spectrum of options that, so to speak,
open up different temporal paths, allowing her access to different
unfolding futures, different ways that her life might go. At various
points in the film, this picture of freedom was emphasized, as when
Neo chose to remain in the car and not bail when Trinity and Switch
gave him the opportunity to do so. This picture of freedom was also
highlighted when Neo chose to return and fight the agents so as to
save Morpheus. Instead Neo could have left Morpheus to (what seemed
to be) his inevitable demise.
So one way to advance free will is in terms of alternative possibilities.
But there are other strategies for understanding free will, strategies
that might or might not work in tandem with a demand for alternative
possibilities. For instance, another way to think about free will is
in terms of what does happen, what an agent does do,
and not in terms of what other things she might do or might have done.
Instead of focusing on alternative possibilities, this manner of theorizing
concentrates upon the source of an agent’s actions. On
this approach, freely willed actions arise from certain salient features
of an agent’s self, features that indicate that, in an important
respect she—the agent—is the source of how the
future does unfold. To illustrate, consider a paradigmatic case of an
agent who lacks free will. An unwilling addict, for example would not
act with freedom of will when she takes the drug to which she is addicted.
This is because her addictive desire to take the drug is so strong that
it compels her to take it even though she is unwilling in taking the
drug. She does not desire that her desire for the drug cause
her to take it. But she does take it all the same. The future does not
unfold as she herself would like it to unfold. On the other hand, sometimes
properly functioning persons do act precisely as they wish
(however “as they wish” might be understood). When they
do, if all goes well, the future unfolds as they would like it to unfold,
and it unfolds in this way partially because what they do causes
it to unfold in this way. Hence, in a very basic way, these normally
functioning persons are guiding how the future unfolds when they act
unencumbered. They are the ones bringing about certain events, shaping
the future in certain ways via their agency. They are sources of
control over the future. It should also be clear that Morpheus
and Neo illustrated such views of freedom. They certainly were at points
sources of “control” over how their futures were unfolding.
Morpheus and Neo, as well as the rest of the rebels, were making their
marks inside and outside of the Matrix. Much to the chagrin of the agents,
Morpheus and his crew were sources of control over how certain events
In summary, if we understand free will as a capacity of persons to
control the future through their choices and actions, then there are
two ways that one might further develop this idea of control over
the future. One is in terms of control over alternative possibilities;
another is in terms of one’s very self being a source of how
the future goes, an authentic shaper or causer of events in the world.
However the concept of free will is
developed, there is a classical challenge to the very idea that any person
possesses it. In particular, some philosophers believe that if the universe
is fully determined, then no person has free will. What it means to suggest
that the universe is determined is a distinct and controversial philosophical
topic. A currently fashionable definition of determinism has
it, roughly, that the past, combined with the laws of nature, causally
insures one unique future. To appreciate fully this definition, one needs
an account of what the past is (or the facts of it), what it means to
causally insure, etc. But the general idea is basically captured with
the suggestion that, for any person, states of the world independent of
that person, or independent of features of her intentional agency (possibly,
states of the world prior to her birth), combined with the laws governing
the natural world (such as the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, etc.),
are themselves sufficient to fix fully what that person does at any time.
Crudely put, are persons and their conduct exhaustively explained in terms
of their hereditary, their biology, such as their neurobiological functioning,
and the environmental influences impinging upon them? Put even more crudely,
is all human conduct purely a matter of nature and nurture? Or is determinism
false, and is it instead the case that these influences do not all by
themselves explain exactly what a person does at any time? If not, does
the person herself contribute something over and above these other factors
that accounts for why she does what she does?
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Incompatibilists believe that if determinism is true, no one
has free will. No one can control her future since the universe, so to
speak, is really controlling it, and persons and their conduct are merely
conduits through which the forces of nature operate. The universe leads
some people to act in certain ways, and others to act differently. Persons
are not at the helms of their lives, guiding their futures. Persons are
products of the universe, not agents freely acting upon it!
Turning to the two ways of developing the concept of free will suggested
above, the incompatibilists will argue that either way conflicts with
the assumptions of a deterministic world. Suppose that the concept
of free will is developed in terms of alternative possibilities. If
determinism is true, and if facts distinct from a person’s intentional
agency, combined with the laws of nature, entail that an agent’s
intentional conduct will be thus and so, then an agent is not free
to do other than thus and so. She has no alternatives over which to
exercise control. Her past and the forces of nature have settled for
her what path into the future she will take.
Or suppose instead that the concept of free will is developed in terms
of an agent’s being an actual source of how the world goes,
and it going that way, at least in part, because of her. If determinism
is true, then there are facts prior to any person’s birth, combined
with the laws of nature, that provide sufficient conditions for how the
future will unfold. A person’s agency, given determinism, seems
to be nothing but a conduit, a facilitator, for what has already been
set in motion. She, ultimately, is not the source of her action,
the controller of an unfolding future. Sure, sometimes the future unfolds
as she desires that it does, and sometimes her desires figure in the causes
that explain why it does unfold as such. But these very desires, her beliefs,
value judgments, her preferences about what motivational states are the
ones that she wishes to act upon, all of these factors are themselves
not factors ultimately issuing from her, but from the determined universe
and the unfolding future that is an upshot of it.
As initially puzzling as it seems, compatibilists maintain
that persons can have free will even if determinism is true. Some compatibilists,
embracing a view of free will that requires alternative possibilities,
have attempted to show that a determined person might still, in some
meaningful sense, have the ability to do other than what she does. Other
compatibilists have instead emphasized how an agent might, via her own
motivational states, still count as a significant actual source of efficacy
in the way the future comes about.4
There are various ways in which the
tension between compatibilism and incompatibilism is brought out in
the film. One is in terms of reflections upon fate. Another is in terms
of the Oracle’s ability to know the future. Yet another has to
do with the status of those poor “enslaved” humans.
It is worth noting that within the
film, as in ordinary discourse, the term fate is used in two
different sorts of ways, ways that are easy to confuse, but upon reflection
are clearly distinct. Sometimes fate is used to mean what is
also meant by determinism. This certainly seems to be the primary
manner in which it is used within the film. Given this usage, what it
is for something to be fated is for it to be causally insured by prior
conditions. This view is entirely consistent with one’s conduct
being a crucial factor in what is causally insured. But on a different
construal, if some outcome is fated, then it will come about no
matter what one does. On this view, one’s agency is an idle
factor. A certain future will transpire irrespective of anything
one might do. The standard example of this is the story of Oedipus.
The gods were going to see to it that Oedipus met his terrible fate—killing
his father and copulating with his mother—no matter what different
things were done by any mortal to avoid that outcome.
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These two notions are extremely different. To illustrate: If it was
fated irrespective of what anyone did that Kennedy would be assassinated
on the day he was, then no matter what Lee Harvey Oswald did (including
not assassinate anyone), Kennedy was going to be assassinated (by someone).
But if it was fated just in the sense of being determined that Kennedy
was going to be assassinated, then it mattered a great deal precisely
what Oswald did. Had he not done what he did, then Kennedy would not
have been shot. One account of fate states that a certain future will
unfold no matter what any person does or will do; another sates
that a certain future will unfold precisely because of what does
or will take place (which includes, among other things, what people
actually do). Typically, philosophers reserve the term fatalism
for the former notion and determinism for the latter. But for
purposes of analyzing the film, let us distinguish between no-matter-what-one-does
fatalism and deterministic fatalism.5
When Neo and Morpheus first met, Morpheus asked Neo if he believed in
fate. Neo said that he did not since he did not like the idea that he
did not control his life. Note that, at this point in the film, what
Morpheus meant by fate, and what Neo took it to mean, remained ambiguous
between the two notions distinguished above. This is because, if one’s
life is subject to no-matter-what-one-does fate, then that would undermine
one’s control with respect to the fated outcome. So Neo’s
reply could have been in response to the suggestion that life was no-matter-what-one-does
Perhaps what Neo found objectionable about fatalism was the thought
that his agency in the world would have no effect on the world’s
outcome at all—no matter what he did. And indeed, that is how
it seemed the enslaved humans lived within the Matrix, having no effect
no matter what they did on their contribution to generating electricity
for the A.I. meanies. But even if this is what Neo meant in that first
conversation with Morpheus, later in the film it is clear that Neo also
wanted to resist deterministic fatalism. He was committed to the idea
that deterministic fatalism would undermine his control over the world.
At points it was quite clear that his worry was in the form of alternative
possibilities. He resisted the idea that the Oracle could know which
of the possible futures before him would be his inevitable actual future.
He thought that it was up to him what that future would be—would
he choose to save Morpheus or himself? But Neo also seemed to think
in terms of source models of control: As he saw it, it was not settled
in advance how he would act; he would be the settler of it! As the Oracle
was bidding Neo farewell, she herself put those words in his mouth.
Neo, it seems, was an incompatibilist.
If Neo is the incompatibilist in the film, Morpheus is certainly the
compatibilist. He believed in his consultations with the Oracle that
the future was deterministically fated, that The One would come. But
he also believed that what he did, and what the others did, mattered
very much to that outcome. (So he certainly did not endorse no-matter-what-one-does
fatalism.) Even more importantly, he believed that it mattered very
much that what people did, they did of their own free will, hence the
use of the blue and the red pills. His advice to Neo was especially
telling. Thinking in terms of source control, Morpheus explained to
Neo that it is not enough to know that you are The One, you have to
be The One. That is, Neo had to be the actual source of that
special person, which was a matter of his actual conduct in the world,
and not merely something he conceptually grasped.
And what of the Oracle herself? To correct the impression that perhaps
the Oracle is not really able to foresee the future, Morpheus tells
Neo that the Oracle never intended to speak truthfully to Neo about
what she foresaw. She only intended to say to Neo what he needed to
hear (which of course she knew since she was an Oracle). Surely, if
she did make any judgments about what Neo needed to hear, then she did
believe that what he would do would matter to how the future would go.
If so, then like Neo and Morpheus, she also did not believe in no-matter-what-one-does
fate. But being an Oracle, she probably at least entertained the idea
that deterministic-fatalism was true. Suppose she did believe it. Was
she a compatibilist or an incompatibilist? Might she have believed,
consistent with incompatibilism, that all the human struggles to shape
the future were unfree actions set in motion by a long, deterministically
fated history? Or did she instead, consistent with compatibilism, foresee
and understand Neo’s heroic efforts as deterministically fated,
but freely willed all the same? Suppose instead that the Oracle did
not believe in deterministic fatalism. Perhaps she thought the universe
was fundamentally indeterminate and that no facts of the past or present
insured any particular way that the future must go. If she believed
this, then how did she understand the basis of her own predictions?
Maybe in foreseeing Neo’s actions, she interpreted them as freely
willed and understood her powers to foresee future conduct as completely
consistent with the falsity of determinism.7
The film leaves entirely open which interpretation of the Oracle’s
beliefs is the correct one.
Consider a very different matter, the status of the enslaved masses.
Unlike characters like Neo, Morpheus, and the Oracle, it seems irrelevant
to ask about what they believe about their own free will and what they
might think about fate. They are oblivious to what is taking place outside
of the Matrix. Much like the character Truman from the film The
Truman Show, these poor suckers stuck in those giant wombs are
the ultimate illustrations of a very special sort of example used in
the free will debate. Incompatibilists are fond of challenging compatibilist
notions of control with complicated manipulation cases. The incompatibilists’
strategy is to cook up a very troubling scenario in which a person is
manipulated into a manner of acting. Of course, what the incompatibilists
try to do is make the sort of manipulation so subtle that it is indistinguishable
from what ordinary life might be like for you or me. Intuitively the
examples are supposed to elicit the reaction that the manipulated person
is not free because the source of her action is polluted. It is not
she but something else that is the source of her agency. Then the incompatibilists
will attempt to argue that a person determined by her past and the laws
of nature is no different than a person manipulated in one of these
wild scenarios. Hence, the only way that a person like you or me can
be free is if she is not determined. If she is determined, then she
is no more free than is a manipulated agent, which is to say that she
is not free at all.
These manipulation cases have come to be known as covert non-constraining
control (CNC) examples.8
Compatibilists have two ways in which they can respond to CNC cases.
One is to deny that the manipulated agents are unfree. So long as the
manipulation is complicated enough, and so long as the manipulation
accurately replicates the normal functioning of a person getting through
life, then it really is no different than a person being determined.
But this is not a problem since the manipulated person is a freely willing
one. It is just that the causes of her actions are a lot weirder than
the causes of a normally functioning person. Note that this was Cypher’s
view. In fact, for him the Matrix would afford him more freedom than
what was available on that disgusting planet. What did he care what
caused his sensation of eating a juicy delicious steak? Real or illusory,
he just wanted the damned steak to taste good!
Other compatibilists try to show that there is some significant difference
between a causally determined person and a manipulated one. Typically
the difference has to do with the history that explains why a person
is caused to be as she is. If the causes are of the wrong sort, then
she is in some way inauthentic. She is not truly the one engaging the
world. Someone or something else is settling for her the values, principles,
etc. that she then uses to decide how to act in the world. This, it
seems, was the basis for Morpheus's complaint about the Matrix. When
he first coaxed Neo, prodding Neo and asking him if he too felt that
something about his reality was not right, what Morpheus sought to convey
was that human agency within the Matrix was defective; its causal source
was designed to settle other goals or needs than the ones that persons
within the Matrix endorsed. Their minds were thus enslaved and so, even
if, in a sense, they were “free” within their dream world
to do certain things, they were not the source of the goals that their
lives ultimately served.
All of the above reflections indicate
the various ways that The Matrix openly struggles with the
free will debate. But what view of free will is the correct one, and
how ought it to be characterized? The philosophical controversy between
compatibilists and incompatibilists is one of the perennial problems
of philosophy. It will likely remain so. One reason for this is that
it is clearly not a “no-brainer”! Reasonable minds
have differed as to the correct resolution to this problem. And there
is no reason to think that this will change any time soon. In fact,
one of today’s most influential theorists about the controversy
has suggested that, at least for certain ways of formulating the problem,
the debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists leads to dialectical
A dialectical stalemate arises when opposing positions within a reasoned
debate reach points at which each side’s arguments remain reasonable,
even compelling, but in which argument runs out; neither can rightly
claim decisively to have unseated the legitimacy of the other side’s
point of view.
[ Top ]
I certainly do not know whether the free will problem is ultimately
doomed to dialectical stalemate, or whether instead there is some strategy
that will be able to settle a reasoned disagreement that is over 2,500
years old. But one point I would like to highlight about this controversy
is that it would not have remained a controversial topic, and dialectical
stalemates would not have arisen from it, were it not for the fact that
the phenomenology of human experience, as it is for the normally functioning
person, does not decisively provide evidence for any one position. It
is consistent with how we experience our lives, and how we experience
the exercising of our agency, that, in keeping with the incompatibilist
position, the control required for free will is illusory, and that we
are determined creatures. Or, also in keeping with the incompatibilist
position, it is consistent with our experience that the control required
for free will is satisfied, and in a way that requires the falsity of
determinism. Finally, as the compatibilists allow, it is also consistent
with our experience that we do possess free will and that we are determined.
To its credit, The Matrix
does not pretend to endorse one point of view about free will. It is neither
a compatibilist-friendly, nor an incompatibilist-friendly film. With notable
exceptions, the film’s reflections on free will mirror the phenomenology
of human agency. As is the case in our actual lives, how life is experienced
underdetermines the correct answer as to whether the compatibilists or
the incompatibilists are correct about free will. I say here “with
notable exceptions” since there are clearly aspects of Neo’s
agency, as well as that of Morpheus's, the other rebels’, and
the A.I. agents’ that most distinctly do not mirror the phenomenology
of human agency. It is to these differences that I would now like to turn
One assumption of the free will debate, shared by all parties to it,
is that whatever kind of freedom an agent does possess, whether it requires
the falsity of determinism or not, an agent’s free will does not
consist in her ability to actually cause laws of nature to be false,
or to be suspended just in order to bring about astounding miracles.
But within the Matrix, that is, essentially, the sort of control that
Neo came to have. Of course, to a lesser extent, so too did Trinity
and Morpheus. Indeed, Morpheus even advised Neo to think of the rules
of his dream world as mere conventions (rules of a program) that could
be bent or just flat out broken. Now some philosophers might want to
object here that there is a conceptual problem with describing any rules
within the Matrix as both laws of nature and breakable. But this would
be splitting hairs at a point at which much more could be gained by
reflecting instead upon the power of the thought experiment as it is
played out within the film.
Within the history of philosophy, various writers have at one point
or another articulated accounts of free will that later were scoffed
at and quickly dismissed as fantastical or incoherent or ultimately
All of these criticisms of these extreme views of freedom might have
been on the money, but no philosophical dismissal of the conceptual
legitimacy of such a notion of freedom can itself discredit the sort
of basis one might have for desiring it. Neo’s freedom within
the Matrix might seem completely outlandish, merely the stuff of comic
books, but the source of its cinematic appeal is that, in a very primitive
way, as agents in the world, we all know what it is to bump up against
the boundaries of the causally possible. We all understand what a source
of liberation it would be if all at once we could act unconstrained
by them. Of course, this is the stuff that dreams are made
of. But to see where our dreams begin often helps us to appreciate both
the limits and value of our actual lives.
I shall therefore close with two observations about this extreme sort
of fantastical freedom exercised within the Matrix. In section one of
this essay I indicated that the freedom of the agents within the Matrix
came in degrees, and that more of it appeared to be more appealing than
less. In fact, I suggested that, by the film’s end, within the
Matrix Neo possessed absolute freedom, and that it rocked. But does
absolute freedom rock? We all do value freedom, it appears, and it does
look as if it gives most everyone the warm fuzzies. But I propose that
absolute freedom would not rock, and once had for a while,
when exercising it, one would no longer be prepared to exclaim, along
with Neo, “Whoa!” This is because the property of rocking
found in exercising one’s agency comes when one is pressing the
boundaries of what she is capable of, pressing the boundaries of the
limits placed upon her. Anyone who knows the joy of play understands
this. Taking the basketball to the hole, snagging a line drive, pushing
one’s skis down the steep tight line, nailing a turn on a cycle,
or crossing the finish line first with the beat of the pack just behind
you, all of this involves the prospect of failure and the demands of
an effort of will forced up against the boundaries of what one can do.
Absolute freedom would require none of that.
Surprising as it might seem, I propose that a life filled to the brim
with absolute freedom would absolutely suck. It would be boring as hell
and almost entirely uneventful. Recall the look of utter indifference
Neo had on his face when he realized how completely effortlessly he
could block Agent Smith’s blows in that final face-off. He might
as well have been yawning and reading a paper while defending himself:
“Ho hum.” Imagine if all of one’s efforts in life
were like this. Contrast this with Neo’s intensity and enthusiasm
when he still had to work hard to get what he wanted, leaping from a
helicopter to save Morpheus, or cart-wheeling through a blaze of bullets
and taking out all attackers. How mundane all of this would have been
had Neo then been able just to will all of the bullets to stop flying,
or Morpheus to stop falling to earth, etc.
Here is a rich irony: Our hankering for absolute freedom, a hankering
of a dream world, is something we wish for because we do not have it.
Because we bump up against our limits and sometimes fail, we yearn for
the power to move beyond those limits. But if we had that power in spades,
we’d lose all interest in the activities we find so dear. So it
seems that the value of freedom and its place in our lives is partially
a function of the manner in which we lack it. It is yet a further credit
to a film like The Matrix that it instigates such reflections
on the value of freedom.
A final speculation will also shed further light on the value we place
on freedom. Supposing that Neo could find a way to continue rocking
from within the Matrix. Neo faces a fantastic choice. Should
he work to destroy the Matrix? His absolute freedom is so great within
it. Imagine the possibilities. He could be so much in the dream world,
have so much, do so much; he could bring such joy to others within it.
But knowing what he does about the real world, could he value it, could
he take the Matrix seriously? Perhaps you think that Neo should remain
within the Matrix where his powers are phenomenal. If instead he attempted
to destroy the Matrix, he’d lose all of his powers and have only
a dark and barren planet to offer to his liberated human kin. Maybe,
like Cypher, they would hate that world and thus resent Neo, seeing
him not as a god-like liberator, but as an evil demon dragging them
from a relative dream-world utopia into a real-life hell. Even if, for
these reasons, you think Neo would do better to remain within the Matrix,
acting as a god, trying to do as much good for others as he can, I’ll
bet that you pause at the thought of it. I myself am unsure what Neo
should do, or what I would do if I were he. But if there is something
wrong with this option, I suggest that it is at least in part because
it would be an inauthentic form of life, a life that valued a certain
kind of freedom at the expense of truth, at the expense of real engagement
with the actual world. Would this not amount to placing too much
value in freedom; would it not amount to valuing freedom at the expense
of other worthy elements of life?
When I was young boy my grandfather, Poppy, took me fishing. I wanted
very much that day to catch a trout. I was completely incapable of the
task, so Poppy caught one and took it upstream a little way, still hooked
on a line. Placing it back in the water, but holding onto the line,
he walked it down to me, made as if it was tugging at my pole, and then
helped me to “reel it in.” I was delighted. So was he. It
was only years later that he told me how I came to snag that elusive
trout. Suppose that the rest of my life, each fish I caught, I caught
only that way, each success of mine was only such a success. Even though
Poppy was certainly happy with that little moment of mine, he’d
never have wished for me a life of nothing but such shams. To wish merely
for an improved life for human kind only within the Matrix,
even with lots of nifty freedom for everyone within it, I would speculate,
if it is wrong, then its wrongness is partially explained by the fact
that it is analogous to wishing for all human kind that all of their
accomplishments be like Poppy’s tying that fish to the end of
my pole. It would be nice for a spell, for a moment, in a dream. But
we humans want something more. We want to catch our own
fish, and we want to catch real fish. When we want something
else, we’ll go to the movies.
[ Top ]
1. I shall assume
that my reader has seen the film and is familiar with the characters
in it, the basic plot, various events that took place, etc.
[ Top ]
2. I say that maybe
Decker is a human being since there is some suggestion in the film that
Decker might actually be a replicant and not a human being.
example, in articulating an account of free will, the philosopher Roderick
…if what I have been trying to say is true, then we have a prerogative
which some would attribute only to God: each of us, when we act, is
a prime mover unmoved. In doing what we do, we cause certain events
to happen, and nothing—or no one—causes us to cause those
events to happen. (Chisholm, p. 32, cited from Watson, ed., 1982)
Caution should be taken with even this rather extreme view, since Chisholm
was not claiming that the sorts of ‘miracles’ what would
allow freely willing and uncaused persons to cause events would amount
to miracles that could make walls melt, planes fall from the sky, or
bullets to stop in mid air.
4. There is even a
controversy amongst compatibilists as to whether or not only the latter
notion of control is needed for free will, or whether free will is possible
only if both alternative possibilities and actual source conditions
5. For a film that plays
with these ideas, see Minority Report.
6. This interpretation
of the scene fits with Morpheus's subsequent description of how the
human race was enslaved. No matter what humans do within the Matrix
itself, their conduct is designed to do no more than generate battery
juice for the “evolved” artificial intelligences. In fact,
it seemed from the film that the level of control that the designers
and controllers of the Matrix had over the humans operating within it
was not a completely deterministically fated sort of control, but really
a sort better suited for no-matter-what-one-does fatalism. This is because
people within the Matrix seemed able to do all sorts of different things
within certain boundaries. The A.I. creatures cared not a bit. The A.I.
intelligences were happy to allow a certain level of social disharmony
and chaos amongst the humans within the Matrix. As long as ultimately
the outcome was that human lives were lived in the service of creating
energy for their artificial intelligence lives, what did it matter to
them what the humans did to each other in their dream worlds?
7. The puzzles here over
the status of the Oracle’s foreknowledge are like those regarding
the status of a foreknowing God. If God foreknows all human conduct,
does that mean that, by virtue of God’s infallible nature, all
human conduct is determined? Or is it possible for god to know exactly
what any person does or will do even if nothing other than the person
herself freely determines what she will do?
8. See Robert Kane,
1996, pp.65-71. . Kane writes:
We are all aware of …two ways to get others to do our bidding
in everyday life. We may force them to do what we want by coercing or
constraining them against their wills, which is constraining control
or CC control. Or we may manipulate them into doing what we want while
making them feel that they have made up their own minds and are acting
“of their own free will”—which is covert nonconstraining
or CNC control. Cases of CNC control in larger settings are provided
by examples like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or B.F.
Skinner’s Walden Two. Frazier, the fictional founder
of Skinner’s Walden Two, gives a clear description of
CNC control when he says that in his community persons can do whatever
they want or choose, but they have been conditioned since childhood
to want and choose only that they can have or do (p.65).
9. John Martin Fischer,
10. A classic example
of this is Sartre’s notion of radical freedom, which alleged that
all persons have freedom with respect to every aspect of reality they
confront, every fact of the world. (For an excerpt of Sartre’s
view, as presented in his Being and Nothingness, see the Berofsky
collection, 1966, pp. 174-195.)
Suggestions for Further Reading
Books Especially Accessible to an Introductory Audience
Ekstrom, Laura Waddell. 2000. Free Will. Boulder, CO: Westview
Honderich, Ted. 1993. How Free Are You? Oxford: Oxford University
Wolf, Susan. 1990. Freedom within Reason. Oxford: Oxford University
Berofsky, Bernard. 1987. Freedom from Necessity. London: Routledge
& Kegan Paul.
Bok, Hilary. 1998. Freedom and Responsibility. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press.
Clarke, Randy. forthcoming 2003. Libertarian Accounts of Free Will.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Dennett, Daniel, 1984. Elbow Room. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Ekstrom, Laura Waddell. 2000. Free Will. Boulder, CO: Westview
Fischer, John Martin. 1994. The Metaphysics of Free Will. Oxford:
Fischer, John Martin and Mark Ravizza, 1998. Responsibility and
Control. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Frankfurt, Harry. 1988. The Importance of What We Care About.
New York: Cambridge University Press.
Haji, Ishtiyaque, 1998. Moral Appraisability. New York: Oxford
Honderich, Ted. 1988. A Theory of Determinism. Oxford: Clarendon
Kane, Robert, 1996. The Significance of Free Will. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Mele, Alfred. 1995. Autonomous Agency. New York: Oxford University
O’Connor, Timothy. 2000. Persons and Causes. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Pereboom, Derk. 2001. Living Without Free Will. Cambridge,
UK: Cambridge University Press.
Russell, Paul. 1995. Freedom and Moral Sentiment. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Smalinsky, Saul. 2000. Free Will and Illusion. Oxford: Clarendon
Strawson, Galen. 1986. Freedom and Belief. Oxford: Oxford University
van Inwagen, Peter. 1983. An Essay on Free Will. Oxford: Clarendon
Wallace, R. Jay. 1994. Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wolf, Susan. 1990. Freedom within Reason. Oxford: Oxford University
Zimmerman, Michael. 1989. An Essay on Moral Responsibility.
Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.
[ Top ]
Berofsky, Bernard. ed., 1966. Free Will and Determinism. New
York: Harper and Row.
Ekstrom, Laura Waddell. ed., 2001. Agency and Responsibility.
Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Fischer, John Martin. ed., 1986. Moral Responsibility. Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press.
Fischer, John Martin and Mark Ravizza. eds., 1993. Perspectives
on Moral Responsibility. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Honderich, Ted. ed., Essays on Freedom of Action. London; Routledge
& Kegan Paul.
Hook, Sidney. ed., 1958. Determinism and Freedom. London: Collier.
Kane, Robert. ed., 2002a. Free Will. Oxford: Blackwell.
_____. ed., 2002b. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Lehrer, Keith. ed., 1966. Freedom and Determinism. New York:
O’Connor, Timothy. ed., 1995. Agents, Causes, and Events.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pereboom, Derk. ed., 1997. Free Will. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
Schoeman, Freiderich, ed., 1987. Responsibility, Character, and
the Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Watson, Gary. ed., 1982. Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University
Widerker, David and Michael McKenna. eds., 2002. Alternative Possibilities
and Moral Responsibility. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Press.
Especially Influential Articles
A.J. Ayer. “Freedom and Necessity.” In Pereboom (1997);
and Watson (1982).
Chisholm, Roderick. “Human Freedom and the Self.” In Pereboom
(1997); and Watson (1982).
Dennett, Daniel. “Mechanism and Responsibility.” In Watson
_____. “I Could Not Have Done Otherwise—So What?”
In Kane (2002a).
Edwards, Paul. “Hard and Soft Determinism.” In Hook (1958);
and Kane (2002a)
Fischer, John Martin. “Responsibility and Control.” In Fischer
_____. “Responsiveness and Moral Responsibility.” In Pereboom
(1997); and Schoemann (1987).
Frankfurt, Harry. “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility.”
In Fischer (1986); Pereboom (1997); and Widerker and McKenna (2002).
_____. “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.”
In Fischer (1986); Kane (2002a); Pereboom (1997); and Watson (1982).
Pereboom, Derk. “Determinism Al Dente.” In Pereboom (1997).
Strawson, Peter. “Freedom and Resentment.” In Fischer and
Ravizza (1993); Pereboom (1997); and Watson (1982).
van Inwagen. “The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism.”
In Kane (2002a); Pereboom 1997); and Watson (1982).
Watson, Gary, “Free Agency.” In Fischer (1986); and Watson
_____. “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil.” In Fischer
and Ravizza (1993); Kane (2002a); and Schoeman (1987).
Wolf, Susan. “Asymmetrical Freedom.” In Fischer (1986);
_____. “Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility.” In
Kane (1993); and Schoemann (1987).
For an extensive bibliography, see Kane (2002b).