Mar 162011

Why, Mr. Anderson? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Yes? No? Could it be for love?

Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?

This is the heart of the subtext of the movie, The Matrix, which comes to a head in part three, a few minutes from the end.

The Matrix is a movie where machines have conquered and enslaved humankind. The twist is that humans do not realize that they have been enslaved. They experience the lives we are familiar with, the world we know. But this world is not “real.” It is a computer simulation, a program that is fed to human consciousness through a wire attached to the back of their heads while they sleep.

Most people in the movie live their lives without ever questioning the world they experience. But some people sense that something is wrong. And some of those people wake up to the “really real” (noumenal – Kant, are you listening?) world, which is an apocalyptic, dark world where humans are at war with the machines, because the machines want to use humans as an energy source (batteries).

There is a metaphysical question that is established in the first movie, which was perhaps first articulated by Plato, and fully developed by David Hume’s skepticism. The question has two parts, one metaphysical, the other epistemological:

What is real and how do we know it?

These are large questions. But these questions are only important because of the next question, which depends on the first two: what is the meaning of life and what should we do? This is the question that underscores all of moral philosophy. It is THE moral question: what should we do?

This is the larger moral issue that runs through the movie, summed up in this speech by Mr. Smith, just before he kills Neo in the Matrix. If everything is an illusion (including love); if everything is just neurons firing in the brain; if everything we do, as the evolutionary psychologists tell us, is nothing more than the urge to reproduce; if morality is nothing more than a complex scheme to support this very same urge that began in the first cellular-based life, then what are we to do? Or more specifically, how are we to justify moral law?

Just as in Huckleberry Finn, where we see the world through a child’s eyes so that we can discern from where the revelation of universal human rights is born, so in The Matrix, we see the world through the eyes of a computer program, and a human who has never really seen the world, so that we can discern the source of the answer to the moral question.

The answer the movie gives us is this: moral law (love) is not a product of being human, but of a certain level of consciousness. In the end, even some of the programs in the Matrix learn to love. Yes, programs love! But not Smith. Smith cannot understand this. He is not “evolved” enough. But Neo realized that if the programs could love, peace could be brokered with the machines. In the scene above, Neo has come back to the Matrix in the form of a Trojan Horse to infect Smith so that the Source can delete him. This is what Neo negotiates with the Source. Neo realizes that he can negotiate with the Source because of the young girl Neo meets in the train station earlier in part 3. (The train station is a version of the mythical river Styx that forms the border between earth and hell).

Her parents are programs, the girl was born in the Matrix [what did the prophecy say about The One being born in the Matrix? Was Neo born in the Matrix? Is Neo really the One?], which of course, means she is a program too. But there is this bridge between the program world and the “real world.” The girl’s parents have brokered a deal to transport the girl to this “real world” (where she can be free) but they cannot go with her. That is part of the deal. To send her away is to lose her forever. They do this, they make this enormous personal sacrifice, because they love her.

The idea that a program could love in this profound way (agape) is the most provocative statement, and the key revelation, of the entire series. This is how the mystery of moral law, or love, is reconciled in the movie. It is not an illusion, or some evolutionary urge that arises from the division of the cell. There is something more than a simple evolutionary process going on. It is consciousness, not merely cellular life, from which the moral question is answered.

Smith cannot understand, simply because he is not conscious enough to understand. And moreover, he is wrong. It is not “only a human mind” that can conceive of love. This is the revelation that leads Neo to the solution to ending the war. It is a revelation that has not occurred to anyone else.

Reflections on the Matrix PART 2

But the first mystery in the movie is the Matrix itself. If the Matrix is just a convincing simulation, how do we know that the “real world” is not part of this simulation? If the programs in the Matrix are as susceptible to the vagaries of perception described by Smith above (love, for example), what does that say, if anything, about the nature of reality?

In other words, what does this add to the problem presented by Hume’s skepticism?

Nothing. We are still skeptical. That Smith is able to “transcend” into the real world, that Neo has supernatural powers in the real world, is enough to lead us to reasonably conclude that the “real world” is also some kind of simulation, similar to the Matrix itself.

The inescapable, inevitable issue that this leads to is fundamentally a moral one: If certain knowledge of objective reality is impossible to possess, by what means are we to discern what is right and wrong? In other words, how are we to know how to live our lives?

This is what Smith cannot understand. He is a simple program, with a singular task and purpose. It is beyond his ability to conceive of the meaning and purpose of the more complex beings he is programmed to kill. He does not understand freedom, or choice.

[I have to add that on the topic of freedom and choice, my personal favorite piece of writing on this is the Grand Inquisitor by Dostoevsky. Make time for it!]

And while we may have a more intuitive understanding of the nature of this freedom and choice, we struggle with the responsibility it bears upon us. How should we live? What should we do? Moreover, in an age of skepticism and relativism where our secular understanding of all emotion (including love) is exactly as Smith has described – neurons firing in our brains, a survival habit whose purpose is like every other purpose of cellular-based organisms: reproduction – then what are we to make of agape?

Are we delusional?

A clue to the answer lies in the first movie. It is what Bernard Lonergan describes as a moral conversion:

There is no spoon.

It might be thought that the point of the spoon lesson merely establishes the problem that the external world is not real and that this does not hint at the solution to the moral problem of how to live.

But it does.

The lesson is that you cannot change the world unless you change yourself. It is not the spoon that bends, it is you. When you are stuck in a traffic jam, do you curse and spit, or whistle and sing? Is it possible to bend  a traffic jam from some awful tragedy into something that is actually enjoyable?

Yes. You do so by changing yourself. Marcus Aurelius and the stoic philosophers stressed this: My house has burned down. Whether this is a terrible tragedy, only history can judge. For this is not the only interpretation and I am not obliged to accept it. I may be a good deal better off if I decline to do so.

Likewise, Bernard Lonergan offers insight on the matter. The three conversions that Bernard Lonergan speaks of:

There is an intellectual conversion by which a person has personally met the challenges of a cognitional theory, an epistemology, a metaphysics, and a methodology.

There is a moral conversion by which a person is committed to values above mere satisfactions.

And there is an affective conversion by which a person relies on the love of neighbor, community, and God to heal bias and prioritize values.

These are the changes that change the world. They are internal. It is us that bends, not the spoon. This is the lesson we are to learn. This is what we are to do. This is what redemption is, the conversion described above. This is the meaning behind it all: as Pope Benedict says, “the meaning of life is to love, and be loved in return.”

This is not a lesson learned from logical deduction. This is not a conclusion that arises from axioms, like Euclid’s Elements. Rather, it is the very axiom from which everything else arises.

 Posted by at 1:39 pm

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.