MATRIX PHILOSOPHY: THE BRAVE NEW WORLD OF THE MATRIX by Hubert Dreyfus & Stephen Dreyfus
raises several familiar philosophical problems in such fascinating
new ways that , in a surprising reversal, students all over the country
are assigning it to their philosophy professors. Having done our homework,
we'd like to explore two questions raised in Christopher Graus
three essays on the film. Grau points out that The Matrix dramatizes
René Descartes worry that, since all we ever experience
are our own inner mental states, we might , for all we could tell,
be living in an illusion created by a malicious demon. In that case
most of our beliefs about reality would be false. That leads Grau
to question the rationality of Cyphers choice to live in an
illusory world of pleasant experiences, rather than facing painful
We think that The Matrix 's account of our situation is even
more disturbing than these options suggest. The Matrix is a
vivid illustration of Descartes additional mind blowing claim
that we could never be in direct touch with the real world
(if there is one) because we are, in fact, all brains in vats. So
in choosing to return from the "desert of the real" to the
Matrix world, Cypher is merely choosing between two sets of systematic
appearances. To counter these disturbing ideas we have to rethink
what we mean by experience, illusion, and our contact with the real
world. Only then will we be in a position to take up Grau's question
as to why we feel it is somehow morally better to face the truth than
to live in an illusory world that makes us feel good.
I. The Myth of the Inner
Thanks to Descartes, we moderns
have to face the question: how can we ever get outside of our private
inner experiences so as to come to know the things and people
in the public external world? While this seems an important
question to us now, it has not always been taken seriously. The Homeric
Greeks thought that human beings had no private life to speak of.
All their feelings were expressed publicly. Homer considered it one
of Odysseus cleverest tricks that he could cry inwardly while
his eyes remained like horn.2
A thousand years later, people still had no sense of the importance
of their inner life. St. Augustine had to work hard to convince them
otherwise. For example, he called attention to the fact that one did
not have to read out loud. In his Confessions, he points out
that St. Ambrose was remarkable in that he read to himself. "When
he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning,
but his voice was silent and his tongue was still."3
The idea that each of us has an inner life made up of our private
thoughts and feelings didnt really take hold until early in
the 17th century when Descartes introduced the modern distinction
between the contents of the mind and the rest of reality. In one of
his letters, he declared himself "convinced that I cannot have
any knowledge of what is outside me except through the mediation of
the ideas that I have in me."4
Thus, according to Descartes, all each of us can directly experience
is the content of our own mind. Our access to the world is always
indirect. Descartes then used reports of people with a phantom
limb to call into question even our seemingly direct experience of
our own bodies. He writes:
I have been assured by men whose arm or leg has been amputated that
it still seemed to them that they occasionally felt pain in the limb
they had lostthus giving me grounds to think that I could not
be quite certain that a pain I endured was indeed due to the limb
in which I seemed to feel it.5
For all we could ever know, Descartes concluded,
the objective external world, including our body, may not exist; all
we can be certain of is our subjective inner life.
This Cartesian conclusion was taken for granted by thinkers in the West
for the next three centuries. A generation after Descartes, Gottfried
Leibniz postulated that each of us is a windowless monad.6
A monad is a self-contained world of experience, which gets no input
from objects or other embodied people because there arent any.
Rather, the temporally evolving content of each monad is synchronized
with the evolving content of all the other monads by God, creating the
illusion of a shared real world. A generation after that, Immanuel Kant
argued that human beings could never know reality as it is in itself
but only their own mental representations, but, since these representations
had a common cause, these experiences were coordinated with the mental
representations of all the others to produce what he called the phenomenal
In the early twentieth century, the founder of phenomenology, Edmund
Husserl, was more solipsistic. He held, like Descartes, that one could
bracket the world and other minds altogether since all that was given
to us directly, whether the world and other minds existed or not, was
the contents of our own "transcendental consciousness."8
Only recently have philosophers begun to take issue with this powerful
Starting in the 1920s existential phenomenologists such as Martin Heidegger9
in Germany and Maurice Merleau-Ponty10
in France, in opposition to Husserl, contested the Cartesian view that
our contact with the world and even our own bodies is mediated by internal
mental content. They pointed out that, if one paid careful attention
to ones experience, one would see that, at a level of involvement
more basic than thought, we deal directly with the things and people
that make up our world.
As Charles Taylor, the leading contemporary exponent of this view, puts
My ability to get around this city, this house
comes out only in getting around this city and house. We can draw a
neat line between my picture of an object and that object, but not between
my dealing with the object and that object. It may make sense to ask
us to focus on what we believe about something, say a football, even
in the absence of that thing; but when it comes to playing football,
the corresponding suggestion would be absurd. The actions involved in
the game can't be done without the object; they include the object.11
In general, unlike mental content, which can exist independently
of its referent, my coping abilities cannot be actualized or even
entertained in the absence of what I am coping with.
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This is not to say that we cant be mistaken. Its hard
to see how I could succeed in getting around in a city or playing
football without the existence of the city or the ball, but I could
be mistaken for a while, as when I mistake a façade for a house.
Then, in the face of my failure to cope successfully, I may have to
retroactively cross off what I seemingly encountered and adopt a new
readiness (itself corrigible) to encounter a façade rather
than the house I was set to deal with.
II. Brains in Vats
So it looks like the inner/outer distinction introduced by Descartes
holds only for thoughts. At the basic level of involved skillful coping,
one is simply what Merleau-Ponty calls an empty head turned towards
the world. But this doesnt at all show that The Matrix
is old fashioned or mistaken. On the contrary it shows that The
Matrix has gone further than philosophers who hold we cant
get outside our mind. It suggests a more convincing condition
one that Descartes pioneered but didn't develop that we cant
get outside our brain.
It was no accident that Descartes proclaimed the priority of the inner
in the 17th Century. At that time, instruments like the telescope
and microscope were extending human beings perceptual powers.
At the same time, the sense organs themselves were being understood
as transducers bringing information to the brain. Descartes pioneered
this research with an account of how the eye responded to light energy
from the external world and passed the information on to the brain
by means of "the small fibers of the optic nerve."12
Likewise, Descartes used the phantom limb phenomenon to argue that
other nerves brought information about the body to the brain and from
there the information passed to the mind.
It seemed to follow that, since we are each a brain in a cranial vat,13
we can never be in direct contact with the
world or even with our own bodies. So, even if phenomenologists like
Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Taylor seem right that we are not confined
to our inner experiences, it still seems plausible to suppose
that, as long as the impulses to and from our nervous system copy
the complex feedback loop between the brains out-going behavior-producing
impulses and the incoming perceptual ones, we would have the experience
of directly coming to grips with things in the world. Yet, in the
brain in the vat case, there would be no house and no city, indeed,
no real world, to interact with, and so we would be confined to our
inner experiences after all. As Morpheus says to Neo in the construct:
How do you define "real"? 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…
But this Cartesian conclusion is mistaken. The inner electrical impulses
are the causal basis of what one can feel and taste, but we
don’t feel and taste them. Even if I have only a phantom
limb, my pain is not in my brain but in my phantom hand. What the phenomenologist
can and should claim is that, in a Matrix world where bodies are in
vats, which has its causal basis in bodies in vats outside that world,
the Matrix people whose brains are getting computer generated inputs
and responding with action outputs, are directly coping with perceived
reality, and that that reality isn't inner. Even in the Matrix
world, people directly cope with chairs by sitting on them, and need
baseballs to bring out their batting skill. Thus coping, even in the
Matrix, is more direct than conceived of by any of the inner/outer views
of the mind's relation to the external world that have been held from
Descartes to Husserl.
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Yet, wouldnt each brain in the Matrix construct have a lot of
false beliefs, for example that its Matrix body is its real body whereas
its real body is in a vat? No. If the ordinary Matrix dweller has a
pain in his damaged foot it’s in his Matrix foot, not in the foot
of a body in a vat – a foot that is not damaged and about which
he knows nothing at all. Its a mistake to think that each of us
is experiencing a set of neural firings in a brain in a cranial vat.
True, each of us has a brain in his or her skull and the brain provides
the causal basis of our experience, but we arent our brain. Likewise,
the people in the Matrix world are not brains in vats any more than
we are. They are people who grew up in the Matrix world and their experience
of their Matrix body and how to use it makes that body their body, even
if another body they can't even imagine has in its skull the brain that
is the causal basis of their experience.
After all, the people who live in the Matrix have no other source of
experience than what happens in the Matrix. Thus, a person in the Matrix
has no beliefs at all about his vat-enclosed body and brain and couldnt
have any. That brain is merely the unknowable causal basis of that persons
experiences. Since the only body a Matrix dweller sees and moves is
the one he has in the Matrix world, the AI programmers could have given
him a Matrix body radically unlike the body in the vat. After all, the
brain in the vat started life as a baby brain and could have been given
any content the AI programmers chose. They could have taken a white
baby who was going to grow up short and fat, and given him the Matrix
body of a tall African-American.14
But there is still at least one problem. The Matricians' beliefs about
the properties and uses of their perceived bodies, and of chairs, cities,
and the world may be shared and reliable, and in that sense true, but
what about the causal beliefs of the people in the Matrix? They
believe, as we do, that germs cause disease, that the sun causes things
to get warm, and gravity causes things to fall, and so forth. Arent
all these beliefs false? That depends on their understanding of causality.
People dont normally have explicit beliefs about the nature
of causality. Rather, they simply take for granted a shared sense
that they are coping with a shared world whose contents are causing
their experience. Unless they are philosophizing, they do not believe
that the world is real or that it is an illusion, they just count
on it behaving in a consistent way so that they can cope with things
successfully. If, however, as philosophers, they believe that
there is a physical universe with causal powers that makes things happen
in our world, they are mistaken. But if they claim that our belief in
causality is simply our response to the constant conjunctions of experiences
as David Hume did, or our positing of universal laws relating experiences
as Kant held, then their causal beliefs would be true of the causal
relations in the Matrix world.15
Kant claims we experience a public, objective world, and science then
relates these appearances by rules we call laws, but we cant know
the causal ground of the phenomena we perceive. Specifically, according
to Kant, we experience the world as in space and time but things
in themselves arent in space and time. So Kant says we can
know the phenomenal world of objects and their law-like relations
but we cant know the things in themselves that are the ground
of these appearances.
The Matricians are in the same epistemological position that we all
are in according to Kant. So, if there are Kantians in the Matrix world,
most of their beliefs would be true. They would understand that they
are experiencing a coordinated system of appearances, and understand
too that they couldnt know things in themselves that are the ground
of these appearances, that is, that they couldn't know the basis of
their shared experience of the world and universe. Kantians dont
hold that our shared and tested beliefs about the world, and scientists
confirmed beliefs about the universe, are false just because they are
about phenomena and do not and cannot correspond to things in themselves.
And, as long as Kantians, and, indeed, everyone in the Matrix, didnt
claim to know about things in themselves, most of their beliefs would
Nonetheless, the Matrix philosophy obviously does not subscribe to the
Kantian view that we can never know things in themselves. In
The Matrix one can come to know reality. Once Neo’s body
is flushed out of the vat and is on the hovercraft, he has a broader
view of reality and sees that his previous understanding was limited.
But that doesn’t mean he had a lot of false beliefs about
his body and the world when he was in the Matrix. He didn’t think
about these philosophical questions at all. But once he is out, he has
a lot of new true beliefs about his former vat-enclosed body
-- beliefs he didn’t have and couldn’t have had while in
We have seen that existential phenomenologists acknowledge
that we are sometimes mistaken about particular things and have to retroactively
take back our set to cope with them. But, as Merleau-Ponty and Taylor
add, we only do so in terms of a new and better prima facie contact
with reality. Likewise, in The Matrix version of the brain in
the vat situation, those who have been hauled from the vat into what
they experience as the real world can see that much of what they took
for granted about the basis of their experience before was mistaken.
They can, for example, understand that what they took to be a world
that had been around for millions of years was a recently constructed
Of course, things are not so simple. Neo’s current beliefs might
still all be false. His experience is, after all, sustained by a brain
in a skull in a vat, and the AI programmers might now be feeding that
brain the experience of being outside the Matrix and in the hovercraft.
Given the conceivability of the brain in the vat fantasy, the most we
can be sure of is that our coping experience reveals that we are directly
up against some boundary conditions independent of our coping —
boundary conditions with which we must get in sync in order to cope
successfully. In this way, our coping experience is sensitive to the
causal powers of these boundary conditions. Whether these independent
causal conditions have the structure of an independent physical universe
discovered by science, or whether the boundary conditions and the causal
structures discovered by science are both the effect of an unknowable
thing in itself that is the ground of appearances as postulated by Kant,
or whether the cause of all appearances is a computer, is something
we could never know from inside our world. But Neo, once he is on the
hovercraft, does know that, as in waking from a dream, his current understanding
of reality supercedes and crosses out his former one.
III. A New Brave New World
We are now in a position to understand and try to answer Cyphers
question: Why live in the miserable world the war has produced rather
than in a satisfying illusion? Some answers just won't do. It doesnt
seem to be a question of whether one should face the truth rather
than live in an illusion. Indeed, most of the beliefs of the average
Matrician are true; when they sit on a chair it usually supports them,
when they enter a house they see the inside, people have bodies that
can be injured, and they can cope by acting in some ways and not others.
Even their background sense that in their actions they are coping
with something independent of them and that others are coping with
it too, is justified. As we have seen, Kant argued, even if this is
a phenomenal world, a world of appearances, most of our beliefs would
still be true. Likewise, living in the Matrix world does not seem
to be less moral than living in our everyday world. The Matricians
are dealing with real people, and they are free to choose what they
will do; they can be selfish like Cypher and betray their friends,
or they can be loyal to their friends like Trinity, and they can try
to provide for the future happiness of those they love. None of the
above concerns seem to give us a grip on what, if anything, is wrong
with the Matrix world.
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To understand what's wrong with living in the Matrix we have to understand
the source of the power of the Matrix world. Part of the power comes
from the way the inputs and outputs from the computer are plugged
directly in the brains sensory motor-system. When we experience
ourselves as acting in a certain way, say walking inside a house,
the computer gives us the correlated experiences of seeing the interior.
These correlations produce a powerful perceptual effect that is impervious
to what we believe, like the wrap-around IMAX illusion that forces
one to sway to keep ones balance on a skateboard even though
one knows one is sitting in a stationary seat watching a movie, or
just as the moon looks bigger on the horizon even though we know it
The inputs to the perceptual system of the brain in the vat produce
the perceptual world whether we believe it is real or not, but, once
one realizes that the causality in the Matrix world is only virtual,
since causality is not built into our perceptual system, one
can violate the Matrixs causal laws. By the end of the movie,
Neo can fly, if he wants to, he could bend spoons.17
About the causal principles governing the Matrix world, Morpheus tells
Neo, "It is all in your mind."
If one doesnt believe in the causal laws governing appearances,
one is free from the causal consequences. One's disbelief in the illusion
somehow forces the computer to give one the experience one wills to
have. To take a simple example, if one doesn't believe in the existence
of a spoon, when one's brain gives out the neural output for the action
of bending the spoon, the computer is forced to give back the visual
input that the spoon is bending. This is a literal example of what
Morpheus calls "bending the rules." Likewise, if one believes
that one can stop bullets, one will look for them where one stopped
them and the computer will obediently display them there. So, after
he learns the Matrix world is an illusion, Neo doesn't directly see
things differently the impulses to his brain still control
what he sees18
but he is able to choose to do things that he couldnt
do before (like choose to stop bullets) and that affects what he sees
(the bullets stop). How this suspension of causality is supposed to
work in not explained in the film.
What, then, is the source of sinister power of the Matrix world that
keeps people conforming to the supposed constraints of a causal universe,
even though there are no such constraints? If it isnt just that
they are locked into the sensory motor correlations of their perceptual
world, what sort of control is it? It has to be some sort of control
of the Matricians' intellectual powers — powers which we learn
early on in the movie are free from the control of direct sensory-motor
It must be some sort of mind control.
It seems that the Matrix simply takes advantage of a sort of mind
control already operating in the everyday world. We are told that
what keeps people from taking control of the Matrix world is their
taking for granted the common sense view of how things behave, such
as, if you fall you will get hurt. More generally, what keeps people
in line is their tendency to believe what the average person believes,
and consequently keep doing (and not doing) what one does and doesn't
do. (As in one eats peas with a fork, one doesnt throw food
at the dinner table, and one goes out the door rather than the window.)
Heidegger describes the resulting conformism as letting oneself be
taken over by "the one" (Das Man).20
Aldous Huxley similarly lamented the conformity of the brainwashed
masses in Brave New World.
Thus, The Matrix can be seen as an attack on what Nietzsche
calls herd mentality. Nietzsche points out that human beings are normally
socialized into obeying shared, social norms, and that it is hard
to think differently. As he puts it, "as long as there have been
humans, there have also been herds of men (clans, communities, tribes,
peoples, states, churches) and always a great many people who obey,
... considering, then, that nothing has been exercised and cultivated
better and longer among men than obedience, one may fairly assume
that the need for it is now innate in the average man."21
Waking in the movie, then, amounts to freeing oneself from the taken
for granted norms that one has been brought up to accept. But how
is this possible? Heidegger claims that everyone dimly senses that
there is more to life than conforming. As Morpheus says to Neo, you
know there is something lacking in this world; "it's like a splinter
in your mind." But most people flee the thought that their conformist
world lacks something important. According to Heidegger it takes an
attack of anxiety, the experience that none of the taken-for-granted
normal ways of seeing and doing things have any basis, to jolt someone
out of the herd. It is important to understand that Heidegger's anxiety
is not the wringing of hands that we witness in the everyday world.
It is a feeling of the weirdness of the world. How fitting then that
a barely expressible unease seems to pervade Neo's life an
anxiety that prompts him to begin the process of breaking free by
subverting the system. Finally, Neo has a dramatic version of an anxiety
attack. When he hears that the world he has been taking for granted
is a computer simulation used to turn people into energy resources,
he falls to the floor and throws up.
IV. A Really Brave New World
One might reasonably object that all the dreaming talk in the film,
even if it should not be literal, is too strong a religious metaphor
to refer merely to what Heidegger calls living a tranquilized existence
in the one. And waking seems to be more than becoming a non-conformist.
After all, there are all those mentions of Jesus in connection with
Neo collected by Colin McGinn.22
There can be no doubt that Neo is meant to be a kind of Savior, but
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Its tempting to think that The Matrix is a Gnostic,
Buddhist, or Platonic/Christian parable, in which what we take to
be reality turns out to be a dream, and we are led to wake from the
world of appearances to some kind of higher spiritual reality. On
this reading, Neo would lead people out of the illusions of Platos
cave, the veil of Maya, or the darkness of the world into a higher
disembodied life. But this association would be all wrong! True, the
conformist Matrix world is a sort of tranquilizing illusion promoted
by the Artificial Intelligences, and we know that, in the Matrix the
Agents take care of those who, like Neo, get out of line. And we are
led to expect that Neo will lead people out of it. But this does not
mean learning that our mortal bodies are a cover-up and that salvation
consists in leaving our vulnerable bodies behind in exchange for some
kind of eternal life.
In the film, salvation means the absolute opposite of the traditional
religious vision. True, the ones who see through the Matrix can get
over some of the limitations of having a body as exemplified by their
But such flying takes place in the Matrix world. In the real
world to which Neo "awakes" and into which he will, we suppose,
eventually lead everyone, there will be no more flying. People will
have earth-bound, vulnerable bodies and suffer cold, bad food, and
death. It may look, at the end of the film, as if Neo evades death,
but his "resurrection" in the hovercraft is not into a world
where death has been overcome by a miraculous divine love, rather,
he has been saved by an earthly intervention a sort of tender
CPR quite within the bounds of physics and chemistry. So he
still has his vulnerable body and will have to die a real death one
day. What he presumably has gotten over is not death but the herds
fear of death, thereby overcoming what, according to Heidegger, is
the most serious constraint that normally limits people's freedom.
But if bending the rules that are accepted by the average person just
amounts to being able to bend spoons, fly, and stop bullets, it doesnt
seem any kind of salvation. Being creative must mean more than just
We are lead to expect that, in return for accepting everyday vulnerability
and suffering, the people liberated by Neo will be reborn to a new
and better life. But what sort of life is that? To account for why
it is admirable to confront risky reality rather than remain in the
safe and tranquilized Matrix whatever the quality of experience in
each, we need an account of human nature, so we can understand what
human beings need that the Matrix world fails to provide.
But, in our pluralistic world, there are many different cultures,
each with its own understanding of human nature. Even our own culture
has experienced many different worlds created by new interpretations
of human nature and the natural world that changed what counted as
human beings and things. What mattered in the world of Homer was to
be a hero and collect beautifully crafted artifacts; in the Hebrew
World one had to obey Gods law and to govern all other creatures;
in the Christian World, the goal was to purify one's desires and to
read the text of God's world in order to know Gods will; and,
with Descartes and Kant, people in the Modern World became autonomous,
self-controlled subjects organizing and controlling objects and their
own inner lives. While now, in the Postmodern World, many people,
like Cypher, are egocentric hedonists trying to get the most out of
their possibilities by maximizing the quality of their private experiences,
and thereby treating themselves as resources.
But doesnt this just show, as Sartre famously observed, that
there is no human nature? Here Heidegger makes an important meta-move.
As the history of the West suggests, our nature is to be able to open
up new worlds and so to transform what is currently taken to be our
nature. Perhaps human beings are essentially world disclosers. So,
to determine what human beings need beyond just breaking out of the
banal, it looks like we have to turn to the Heideggerian point that
what is missing in the Matrix is the possibility of going beyond conventional
preprogrammed reality and opening up new worlds; not just breaking
the rules of the current game but inventing new games. Nietzsche says
we should "become those we are human beings who are new,
unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves."25
Jesus created a new world by defining us in terms of our desires rather
than our actions, and Descartes invented the inner and so helped disclose
the Modern World. On a less dramatic scale, Martin Luther King Jr.
opened a new world for Afro-Americans.26
It is just such a freedom to open up new worlds that
the Matrix world lacks. A sense of the limit on our possibilities
is what Neo experiences as the splinter in the mind. As he says to
the AI intelligences at the end of the film, “I know you are
Heidegger thinks that our freedom to disclose new worlds is our special
human freedom, and holds that this freedom implies that there is no
fixed pre-existent set of possible worlds. Each world exists only
once it is disclosed. So it makes no sense to think that a computer
could be programmed with rules for producing the sensory-motor connections
that would allow the creation of all possible worlds in advance of
their being opened by human beings. Artificial intelligences couldn't
program for such a radically open world if they wanted to. In fact,
programmed creativity is an oxymoron.
If being world disclosers is our nature, that would explain why we
feel a special joy when we are opening new worlds. Once we experience
world disclosing, we understand why its better to be in the
real world than in the Matrix, even if, in the world of the Matrix,
one can enjoy steak and good wine. Real salvation comes from transcending
the world foreclosing limits of the Matrix program. Whats ultimately
important to us, then, is not whether most of our beliefs are true,
or whether we are brave enough to face a risky reality, but whether
we are locked into a world of routine, standard activities or are
free to transform the world and ourselves.
If the Matricians were simply the victims of the Matrix computer program
in that they had false beliefs about the causal basis of their experiences,
Neo could show them that their beliefs about the causal basis of things
were false and teach them to agree with Kant that the world is an
appearance, but that wouldn't set the free not as long as they
saw only the possibilities that one normally sees and never experienced
anxiety. Neo has to do more. He has to do the job that Heidegger thinks
anxiety does: he has to show the people in the Matrix that the order
they take for granted is ungrounded and so can be creatively changed.
As he says, “I’m going to. show these people a world without
rules and control. A world where everything is possible.”
And by the end of the movie, Neo as the One (or the anti-one as Heidegger
would see it), has only begun freeing the people in the Matrix from
their conformism by showing them that they have the freedom to bend
the rules. He has not, however, freed them from the Matrix
by showing them how to open new worlds. But, of course, there are
two more movies to come. We can hope that, before number three is
over, Neo will get to Zion and lead people in disclosing a really
brave new world.
in the movie are generally very well chosen. The way the word "matrix"
refers both to the womb and to an array of numbers works perfectly.
Likewise, Neo is both a neophyte and the one who will renew the world.
These names are so fitting one cant help looking for the aptness
of the name, Morpheus, but it is hard to find. The Greek Morpheus is
the god of dreams but the Morpheus in the movie is trying to wake people
up. The only way to make some sense of the name is to think of the Greek
god, not as the producer of dreams, but as the one who has power over
dreams: both to give them and to take them away.
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2. "Imagine how
his heart ached
and yet he never blinked;
his eyes might have been made of horn or iron...
He had this trick—wept, if he willed to, inwardly."
Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Vintage
Classics, 1990), 360.
Of course, the Homeric Greeks must have had some sort of private feelings
for Odysseus to perform this trick, but they thought the inner was rare
and usually trivial. As far as we know, there is no other reference
to private feelings in Homer. Rather, there are many public
displays of emotions, and shared visions of gods, monsters, and future
3. Saint Augustine,
Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (Penguin, l961), 114.
4. Letter to Gibieuf
of 19 January 1642; English in Descartes: Philosophical Letters,
trans. Anthony Kenny (Oxford University Press 1970), 123.
5. René Descartes,
"Meditations on First Philosophy - Meditations VI", in Essential
Works of Descartes, trans. Lowell Bair (New York: Bantam Books,
6. Gottfried Leibniz,
The Monadology and Other Philosophical Writings (London: Oxford
University Press), 1898. A monad, according to Leibniz, is an immaterial
entity lacking spatial parts, whose basic properties are a function
of its inner perceptions and appetites. As Leibniz put it: A monad has
7. Immanuel Kant,
Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York:
The Humanities Press, 1950).
8. Edmund Husserl,
Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology, trans.
Dorion Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960).
9. See, Martin Heidegger,
Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson (New York:
Harper Collins, 1962).
10. See, Maurice Merleau-Ponty,
Phenomenology of Perception, trans. C. Smith (London: Routledge
& Kegan Paul, 1962).
11. Charles Taylor,
"Overcoming Epistemology," Philosophical Arguments
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 12. See also, Samuel
Todes, Body and World (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2001).
Descartes, "Dioptric," Descartes: Philosophical Writings,
ed. and trans. Norman Kemp Smith (Modern Library, l958), 150.
13. The point
has been made explicitly by John Searle: "[E]ach of us is precisely
a brain in a vat; the vat is a skull and the 'messages' coming in are
coming in by way of impacts on the nervous system." Intentionality:
An essay in the philosophy of mind (Cambridge University Press,
14. There are
limits of course. The Matrix programmers cant give a human being
a dogs body. Its also unlikely they could make a brain in
a female body the causal basis of a mans body in the Matrix world.
The hormones of the body in the vat wouldnt match the physical
attributes of the body in the Matrix world.
Still, a good way for the AI programmers to prevent bodies being rescued
to the hovercraft would be to give each brain the experience of a radically
different body (within whatever limits are imposed by biology) in the
Matrix world than the body that brain is actually in. If rescued, such
people would quite likely go crazy trying to reconcile the body they
had experienced all their life with the alien body they found themselves
in on the hovercraft.
their beliefs about entities such as viruses and black holes would be
true if, like empiricists, they held that theoretical entities are just
convenient ways to refer to the data produced by experiments. See Bas
van Frassen, The Scientific Image (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).
16. Of course, things
are really not so simple. Most people dont have beliefs about
the reality of the world; they just take the world for granted. Neo
has, however, been forced to raise the question, and he believes he
is now facing reality. But Neos current beliefs could still be
false. He could still be a brain in a vat fed the experience of being
in the hovercraft. Given the conceivability of the brain in the vat
fantasy, the most we can be sure of is that our coping experience reveals
that we are directly up against some boundary conditions independent
of our coping with which we must get in sync in order to act, and that,
therefore, our coping experience is sensitive to the causal powers of
these boundary conditions. Whether these independent causal conditions
have the structure of an independent physical universe discovered by
science, or whether the boundary conditions and the causal structures
discovered by science are the effect of an unknowable thing in
itself that is the ground of appearances as postulated by Kant, or even
whether the cause of all appearances is a computer, is something we
could never know from inside our world. But Neo does know that, as in
waking from a dream, his current understanding of reality supercedes
and crosses out his former one.
its hard to resist believing in the Matrix illusion even where
causality is concerned, nonetheless, Neo learns he can stop believing
in it. This new understanding of reality is described by Morpheus talking
to Neo near the beginning of the movie, and by Neo at the end, as like
waking from a dream. But the brains in the vats are not literally dreaming.
Their world is much too coherent and intersubjective to be a dream.
Or, to put it another way, dreams are the result of some quirk in our
internal neural wiring and full of inconsistencies, although when dreaming
we dont usually notice them. They are not the result of a systematic
correlation between input and output to the brains perceptual
system that is meant to reproduce the consistent coordinated experience
that we have when awake. When someone from the hovercraft returns to
the Matrix world, it looks like their hovercraft body goes to sleep,
but they do not enter a private dream world but an alternative intersubjective
world where they are normally wide awake, but in which they can also
seem to dream and wake from a dream, as Neo does after the Agents take
away his mouth.
18. There is
one unfortunate exception to this claim. At the end of the movie, Neo
catches a glimpse of the computer program behind the perceptual illusion.
This is a powerful visual effect, but, if what weve been saying
is right, it makes no sense. If the computer is still feeding systematic
sensory-motor impulses into Neos brain when he is plugged into
the Matrix world, then he will see the world the program is producing
in his visual system. What the sight of the rows of numbers is meant
to do is to remind us that Neo no longer believes in the Matrix
illusion but understands it is a program, but even so, he should continue
to see it.
19. The Agents,
who are computer programs, don't have this freedom. It might seem that
Agent Smith shows his freedom and deviates from his job of maintaining
order in the Matrix when he tells Morpheus how disgusted he is with
the Matrix world. We think it would be consistent with the limitations
of the Agents to understand this as Smith's playing the good cop routine;
trying to get Morpheus to believe Smith is on his side, so that Morpheus,
in his weakened state, will give Smith the access codes for Zion, but
the movie does not exploit this possibility.
20. Not to be confused
with Neo as "the One" who will save people from the Matrix.
For Heideggers account of the power of the one, see his Being
and Time, and also H. Dreyfus, Being-in-the-World: A Commentary
on Heidegger's Being and Time, Division I (Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T
Press, 1991), Chapter 8.
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future,
trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Vintage Books, 1966). # 199.
McGinn's essay can be found
23. Given the
kind of bodies we have: that we move forward more easily than backwards,
that we can only cope with what is in front of us, that we have to balance
in a gravitational field, etc., we can question to what extant such
body-relative constraints can be violated in The Matrix if what
is going on is still to make sense.
To test these limits, the filmmakers occasionally blow our minds by
using a wrap-around point of view from which action looks so far from
normal as to be awesomely unintelligible. At the same time, they have
successfully met the challenge of discovering which body-relative invariances
can be intelligibly violated and which cant. For example, in the
movie, gravity can be overcome — Neo can fly — but he cant
see equally in all directions, cope equally in all directions, nor can
he be in several places at once. What would it look like for a single
person to surround somebody?
Time too has a body-relative structure that cant be violated with
impunity. The way we experience time as moving into the future and leaving
the past behind depends on the way our forward directed body leads us
to approach objects and then pass them by. (See Todes, Body and World).
Could we make sense of a scene in which someone attacked an enemy not
just from behind, but from the past? If, in the movie, the liberated
ones were free of all bodily constraints governing their action we couldnt
make sense of what they were doing and neither could they. They wouldnt
be liberated but would be bewildered, as we often are in our dreams.
being disruptive is the best one can do in the Matrix world. Thats
why Neo, a hacker who, as Agent Smith says, has broken every rule in
the book, is the natural candidate for savior.
25. F. Nietzsche,
The Gay Science, (Vintage Books Edition, March 1974), # 335.
Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores, and Hubert Dreyfus, Disclosing
New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation
of Solidarity, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).
in the film. Morpheus says:"What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix
is a computer-generated dream world, built to keep us under control."
and James Pryor, at the end of his essay, tried heroically to make sense
of this claim by speculating on what the AI programmers might do to
the Matrix dwellers. If the machines had done any of these things,
Pryor would have the right to say as he does: "In the movie, humans
are all slaves. They're not in charge of their own lives. They may be
contented slaves, unaware of their chains, but they're slaves nonetheless.
They have only a very limited ability to shape their own futures. [...]
The worst thing about living in the Matrix would not be something metaphysical
or epistemological. The worst thing would be something political. It
would be the fact that you're a slave."
But I fear that Morpheus is simply mistaken, at least concerning what
has happened in the Matrix series thus far. If you're
a slave, there must be a master who controls what you can do
or, in Brave New World, who even controls what you want
to do, and, of course, if you knew you were in such a world you would
want your freedom. Having their causal basis used as a battery, however,
doesn't interact with the Matricians' psychic lives and doesn't limit
what they can decide, what they can desire, or what they can do. Pryor
rightly points out, that the AI intelligences could sabotage the Matricians'
projects or reset their world back to 1980 if they so chose, but what
Morpheus doesn't understand (and Pryor doesn't bring out) is that there
is nothing in having your causal basis used as a battery that is essentially
enslaving. That is, although the Matricians' causal basis is being used
to generate electricity, they are not being controlled.
Their "enslavement" in the Matrix is like our relation to
our selfish genes, and no one feels there is something morally wrong
with our world because our DNA is using us to propagate itself; likewise
the simple fact that the bodies the Matricians are linked to are serving
some purpose outside their lives can't be what's wrong with living in
There is, indeed, a very subtle way that the AI computers have foreclosed
the Matrix dweller's future but it is not by limiting the possibilities
available to them in their world. The limitation in question
has nothing to do with being brains in vats as long as the inputs to
the brains are modeled on the way things normally behave in the world,
and the outputs depend on the Matrix dwellers' decisions. The problem
isn't epistemological, nor metaphysical, nor (pace Morpheus and Pryor)
political. The problem is what Heidegger would call ontological.
It has to do not with freedom to choose in the current world, but freedom
to change worlds. By suppressing all unconventional behavior in their
fear of change, and, in any case, having no way to introduce radical
freedom into their programs, the AI intelligences have suppressed the
Martricians' most essential human capacity - a way of being the computers
can't understand but dimly fear -- our ontological capacity for opening
radically new worlds.