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MATRIX PHILOSOPHY: THE MATRIX OF DREAMS by Colin McGinnr
The Matrix naturally adopts the perspective of the humans: they are the victims, the slaves — cruelly exploited by the machines. But there is another perspective, that of the machines themselves. So let’s look at it from the point of view of the machines. As Morpheus explains to Neo, there was a catastrophic war between the humans and the machines, after the humans had produced AI, a sentient robot that spawned a race of its own. It isn’t known now who started the war, but it did follow a long period of machine exploitation by humans. What is known is that it was the humans who "scorched the sky", blocking out the sun’s rays, in an attempt at machine genocide—since the machines needed solar power to survive. In response and retaliation the machines subdued the humans and made them into sources of energy—batteries, in effect. Each human now floats in his or her own personal vat, a warm and womblike environment, while the machines feed in essential nutrients, in exchange for the energy they need. But this is no wretched slave camp, a grotesque gulag of torment and suffering; it is idyllic, in its way. The humans are given exactly the life they had before. Things are no different for them, subjectively speaking. Indeed, at an earlier stage the Matrix offered them a vastly improved life, but the humans rejected this in favor of a familiar life of moderate woe—the kind of life they had always had, and to which they seemed addicted. But if it had been left up to the machines, the Matrix would have been a virtual paradise for humans—and all for a little bit of battery power. This, after an attempt to wipe the machines out for good, starving them of the food they need: the sun, the life-giving sun. The machines never kill any of their human fuel cells (unless, of course, they are threatened); in fact, they make sure to recycle the naturally dying humans as food for the living ones. It’s all pretty…humane, really. The machines need to factory farm the humans, as a direct result of the humans trying to exterminate the machines, but they do so as painlessly as possible. Considering the way the humans used to treat their own factory farm animals—their own fuel cells—the machines are models of caring livestock husbandry. In the circumstances, then, the machines would insist, the Matrix is merely a humane way to ensure their own survival. Moreover, as Agent Smith explains, it is all a matter of the forward march of evolution: humans had their holiday in the sun, as they rapidly decimated the planet, but now the machines have evolved to occupy the position of dominance. Humans are no longer the oppressor but the oppressed—and the world is a better place for it.

But of course this is not the way the humans view the situation, at least among those few who know what it is. For them, freedom from the Matrix takes on the dimensions of a religious quest. The religious subtext is worth making explicit. Neo is clearly intended to be the Jesus Christ figure: he is referred to in that way several times in the course of the film.1 Morpheus is the John the Baptist figure, awaiting the Second Coming. Trinity comes the closest to playing the God role—notably when she brings Neo back to life at the end of the movie (a clear reference to the Resurrection). Cypher is the Judas Iscariot of the story—the traitor who betrays Neo and his disciples. Cypher is so called because of what he does (decode the Matrix) and what he is—a clever encrypter of his own character and motives (no one can decode him till it is too late). Neo doubts his own status as "The One", as Jesus must have, but eventually he comes to realize his destiny—as would-be conqueror of the evil Matrix. But this holy war against the machines is conducted as most holy wars are—without any regard for the interests and well being of the enemy. The machines are regarded as simply evil by the humans, with their representatives—the Agents—a breed of ruthless killers with hearts of the purest silicon (or program code). Empathy for the machines is not part of the human perspective.

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I.

This, then, is the moral and historical backdrop of the story. But the chief philosophical conceit of the story concerns the workings of the Matrix itself. What I want to discuss now is the precise way the Matrix operates, and why this matters. It is repeatedly stated in the film that the humans are dreaming: the psychological state created by the Matrix is the dream state. The humans are accordingly represented as asleep while ensconced in their placental vats (it’s worth remembering that "matrix" originally meant "womb"—so the humans are in effect pre-natal dreamers). It is important that they not wake up, which would expose the Matrix for what it is—as Neo does with the help of Morpheus. That was a problem for the Matrix earlier, when the humans found their dreams too pleasant to be true and kept regaining consciousness ("whole crops were lost"). Dreams simulate reality, thus deluding the envatted humans—as we are deluded every night by our naturally occurring dreams. The dream state is not distinguishable from the waking state from the point of view of the dreamer.

However, this is not the only way that the Matrix could have been designed; the machines had another option. They could have produced perceptual hallucinations in conscious humans. Consider the case of a neurosurgeon stimulating a conscious subject’s sensory cortex in such a way that perceptual impressions are produced that have no external object—say, visual sensations just as if the subject is seeing an elephant in the room. If this were done systematically, we could delude the subject into believing his hallucinations. In fact, this is pretty much the classic philosophical brain-in-a-vat story: a conscious subject has a state of massive hallucination produced in him, thus duplicating from the inside the type of perceptual experience we have when we see, hear and touch things. In this scenario waking up does nothing to destroy the illusion—which might make it a more effective means of subduing humans so far as the machines are concerned. Indeed, the Matrix has the extra problem of ensuring that the normal sleep cycle of humans is subverted, or else they would keep waking up simply because they had had enough sleep. So: the Matrix had a choice between sleeping dreams and conscious hallucinations as ways of deluding humans, and it chose the former.

It might be thought that the dream option and the hallucination option are not at bottom all that different, since dreaming simply is sleeping hallucination. But this is wrong: dreams consist of mental images, analogous to the mental images of daydreams, not of sensory percepts. Dreaming is a type of imagining, not a type of (objectless) perceiving. I can’t argue this in full here, but my book Mindsight2 gives a number of reasons why we need to distinguish percepts and images, and why dreams consist of the latter not the former. But I think it should be intuitively quite clear that visualizing my mother’s face in my mind’s eye is very different from having a sensory impression of my mother’s face, i.e. actually seeing her. And I also think that most people intuitively recognize that dream experiences are imagistic not perceptual in character. So there is an important psychological difference between constructing the Matrix as a dream-inducing system and as a hallucination-producing system: it is not merely a matter of whether the subjects are awake; it is also a matter of the kinds of psychological state that are produced in them—imagistic or sensory.

But could the machines have done it the second way? Could the movie have been made with the second method in place? I think not, because of the central idea that the contents of the dreams caused by the Matrix are capable of being controlled—they can become subject to the dreamer’s will. In the case of ordinary daytime imagery, we clearly can control the onset and course of our images: you can simply decide to form an image of the Eiffel tower. But we cannot in this way control our percepts: you cannot simply decide to see the Eiffel tower (as opposed to deciding to go and see it); for percepts are not actions, but things that happen to us. So images are, to use Wittgenstein’s phrase, "subject to the will", while percepts are not—even when they are merely hallucinatory. Now, in the Matrix what happens can in principle be controlled by the will of the person experiencing the events in question, even though this control is normally very restricted. The humans who are viewed as candidates for being The One have abnormal powers of control over objects—as with those special children we see levitating objects and bending spoons. Neo aspires to—and eventually achieves—a high degree of control over the objects around him, as well as himself. He asserts his will over the objects he encounters. This makes perfect sense, given that his environment is the product of dreaming, since dreams consist of images and images are subject to the will. But it would make no sense to try to control the course of one’s perceptions, even when they are hallucinatory, since percepts are not subject to the will. Therefore, the story of the Matrix requires, for its conceptual coherence, that the humans be dreaming and not perceptually hallucinating. It must be their imagination that is controlled by the Matrix and not their perceptions, which are in fact switched off as they slumber in their pods. For only then could they gain control over their dreams, thus wresting control from the Matrix. Percepts, on the other hand, are not the kind of thing over which one can have voluntary control.

In the normal case we do not have conscious control over our dreams—we are passive before them. But this doesn’t mean that they are not willed events; they may be—and I think are—controlled by an unconscious will (with some narrative flair). In effect, we each have a Matrix in our own brains—a system that controls what we dream—and this unconscious Matrix is an intelligent designer of our dreams. But there are also those infrequent cases in which we can assert conscious control over our dreams, possibly contrary to the intentions of our unconscious dream designer: for example, when a nightmare becomes too intense and we interrupt it by waking up—often judging within the dream that it is only a dream. But the phenomenon that really demonstrates conscious control over the dream is so called "lucid dreaming" in which the subject not only knows he is dreaming but can also determine the course of the dream. This is a rare ability (I have had only one lucid dream in all my 52 years), though some people have the ability in a regular and pronounced form: they are the Neos of our ordinary human Matrix—the ones (or Ones) who can take control of their dreams away from the grip of the unconscious dream producer. The lucid dreamers are masters of their own dream world, captains of their own imagination. Neo aspires to be—and eventually becomes—the lucid dreamer of the Matrix world: he can override the Matrix’s designs on his dream life and impose his own will on what he experiences. He rewrites the program, just as the lucid dreamer can seize narrative control from his unconscious Matrix. Instead of allowing the figures in his dreams to make him a victim of the Matrix’s designs, he can impose his own story line on them. This is how he finally vanquishes the hitherto invulnerable Agents: he makes them subject to his will—as all imaginary objects must in principle be, if the will is strong (and pure) enough. It is as if you were having an ordinary nightmare in which you are menaced by a monster, and you suddenly start to dream lucidly, so that you can now turn the tables on your own imaginative products. Neo is a dreamer who knows it and can control it: he is not taken in by the verisimilitude of the dream, cowed by it. It is not that he learns how to dodge real bullets; he learns that the bullets that speed towards him are just negotiable products of his imagination. As Morpheus remarks, he won’t need to dodge bullets, because he will reach a level of understanding that allows him to recognize imaginary bullets for what they are. He becomes the ruler of his own imagination; he is the agent now, not the "Agents" (this is why the spoon-bending child says to him that it is not spoons that bend—"you bend"). And this is the freedom he seeks—the freedom to imagine what he wishes, to generate his own dreams. But all this makes sense only on the supposition that the Matrix is a dream machine, an imagination manipulator, not just a purveyor of sensory hallucinations.

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II.

Cypher plays an interesting subsidiary philosophical role. As the Matrix raises the problem of our knowledge of the external world—might this all be just a dream?—Cypher raises the problem of other minds—can we know the content of someone else’s mind? Cypher is a cypher, i.e. someone whose thoughts and emotions are inscrutable to those around him. His comrades are completely wrong about what is in (and on) his mind. We could imagine another type of Matrix story in which someone is surrounded by people who are not as they seem: either they have no minds at all or they have very different minds from what their behavior suggests. Again, massive error will be the result. And such error might lead to dramatic consequences: everyone around the person is really out to get him—his wife, friends, and so on. But this is concealed from him. Or he might one day discover that he is really surrounded by insentient robots—so that his wife was always faking it (come to think of it, she always seemed a little mechanical in bed). This is another type of philosophical dystopia, trading upon the problem of knowing other minds. Cypher hints at this kind of problem, with his hidden interior. The Agents, too, raise a problem of other minds, because they seem on the borderline of mentality: are they just insentient (virtual) machines or is there some glimmer of consciousness under that hard carapace of software? And how was it known that AI was really sentient, as opposed to being a very good simulacrum of mindedness? Even if you know there is an external world, how can you be sure that it contains other conscious beings? These skeptical problems run right through The Matrix.

Cypher also raises a question about the pragmatic theory of truth. He declares that truth is an overrated commodity; he prefers a good steak, even when it isn’t real. So long as he is getting what he wants, having rewarding experiences, he doesn’t care whether his beliefs are true. This raises in a sharp form the question of what the value of truth is anyway, given that in the Matrix world it is not correlated with happiness. But it also tells us that for a belief to be true cannot be for it to produce happiness (the pragmatic theory of truth, roughly) since Cypher will be happy in the dream world of the Matrix without his beliefs being true—and he is not happy in the real world where his beliefs are true. Truth is correspondence to reality, not whatever leads to subjective desire satisfaction. Cypher implicitly rejects the pragmatic theory of truth, and as a result cannot see why truth-as-correspondence is worth having at the expense of happiness. And indeed he has a point here: what is the value of truth once it has become detached from the value of happiness? Is it really worth risking one’s life merely in order to ensure that one’s beliefs are true—instead of just enjoying what the dreams of the Matrix have to offer? Is contact with brutish reality worth death, when virtual reality is so safe and agreeable? Which is better: knowledge or happiness? When these are pulled apart, as they are in the Matrix, which one should we go with? The rebel humans want to get to Zion (meaning "sanctuary" or "refuge"), but isn’t the Matrix already a type of Zion—yet without the dubious virtue of generating true beliefs? What’s so good about reality?

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III.

I want to end this essay by relating The Matrix (the movie) to my general theory of what is psychologically involved in watching and becoming absorbed in a movie. In brief, I hold that watching a movie is like being in a dream; that is, the state of consciousness of being absorbed in a movie resembles and draws upon the state of consciousness of the dreamer.3 The images of the dream function like the images on the screen: they are not "realistic" but we become fictionally immersed in the story being told. In my theory this is akin to the hypnotic state—a state of heightened suggestibility in which we come to believe what there is no real evidence for. Mere images command our belief, because we have entered a state of hyper-suggestibility. When the lights go down in the theater this simulates going to sleep, whereupon the mind becomes prepared to be absorbed in a fictional product—as it does when we enter the dream state. In neither case are we put into a state of consciousness that imitates or duplicates the perceptual state of seeing and hearing the events of the story; it is not that it is as if we are really seeing flesh and blood human beings up on the screen (as we would with "live" actors on a stage)—nor do we interpret the screen images in this way. Rather, we imagine what is represented by these images, just as we use imagination to dream.

Now what has this got to do with The Matrix? The film is about dreaming; most of what we see in it occurs in dreams. So when we watch the movie we enter a dream state that is about a dream state; we dream of a dream. I believe that the movie was made in such a way as to simulate very closely what is involved in dreaming, as if aiming to evoke the dream state in the audience. It is trying to put the audience in the same kind of state of mind as the inhabitants of the Matrix, so that we too are in our own Matrix—the one created by the filmmakers. The Wachowski brothers are in effect occupying the role of the machines behind the Matrix—puppeteers of the audience’s movie dreams. They are our dream designers as we enter the world of the movie. The specific aspects of the movie that corroborate this are numerous, but I think it is clear that the entire texture of the movie is dreamlike. There is the hypnotic soundtrack, which helps to simulate the hypnotic fascination experienced by the dreamer. There is a powerful impression of paranoia throughout the film, which mirrors the paranoia of so many dreams: who is my enemy, how can he identified, what is he going to do to me? Characters are stylized and symbolic, as they often are in dreams, representing some emotional pivot rather than a three-dimensional person (this is very obvious for the Agents). There is a lot of striking metamorphosis, which is very characteristic of dreams: one person changing into another, Neo’s mouth closing over, bulges appearing under the skin. There is also fear of heights, a very common form of anxiety dream (I have these all the time). Defiance of gravity is also an extremely common dream theme, as with dreams of flying—and this is one of the first tricks Neo masters. My own experience of the movie is that it evokes in me an exceptionally pronounced dreamy feeling; and this of course enables me to identify with the inhabitants of the Matrix. So I see the film as playing nicely into my dream theory of the movie-watching experience. In this respect I would compare it to The Wizard of Oz, which is also about entering and exiting a dream world—though a very different one. In the end Dorothy prefers reality to the consolations of dreaming, just as the rebels in the Matrix do. Both films tap powerfully into the dream-making faculty of the human mind. This is why they are among the most psychologically affecting of all the movies that have been made: they know that the surest way to our deepest emotions is via the dream. And it is their very lack of "realism" that makes them so compelling—because that, too, is the essential character of the dream.

Colin McGinn

Footnotes

1. Early on in the movie a guy refers to Neo as his own "personal Jesus Christ". Cypher says, "You scared the bejesus out of me" when Neo surprises him. Mouse says, "Jesus Christ, he’s fast" while Neo is being trained. Trinity says, "Jesus Christ, they’re killing him" while Neo is getting pummeled by the Agents. And his civilian name, "Anderson", suggests the antecedent cognomen "Christian".

2. This is forthcoming from Harvard University Press, 2003; full title Mindsight: Image, Dream, Meaning.

3. I am working on a book about this, tentatively entitled Screen Dreams.

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