The Matrix and Philosophy

The Matrix and PhilosophyThe Matrix and Philosophy edited by William Irwin

My bachelor’s degree is in Philosophy (UC Davis, 1992), and The Matrix is one of my favorite science fiction films ever; and so this book seems like it would be a perfect match for me, doesn’t it? It’s part of the same Philosophy and Popular Culture series which includes other books such as The Simpsons and Philosophy, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Philosophy (which I have and which is a surprisingly entertaining read, save for the very last essay), and the forthcoming The Undead and Philosophy, which I need to get just because the title sounds so impressive. There’s another book out now called Superheroes and Philosophy which I want to read, even though I have never been much of a fan of the superhero genre.

After reading this book, though, I can only think about two things: first, how glad I am that I chose not to pursue an advanced degree in philosophy; and second, why I can’t watch The Matrix nearly as often as I used to (and why the two sequels sucked — and why it was inevitable that they would). The Matrix presents itself as a movie full of deep meanings, with deep reflections on the nature of reality, the nature of belief, the ethics of revolution, and so on. Visually, nothing compares. Its production values are pretty much without peer. Even if you accept, though, that all of the philosophical questionings in the film are old hat to philosophy students (though every freshman seems to think they’re the first one to come up with the question, “What if we’re just brains in vats? What then, huh?” — cause God knows I thought I was), it’s still hard to escape the fact that The Matrix is basically overrated when it comes to this sort of thing. It’s not just that the questions it raises are answered more satisfactorily in other works, it’s that the film’s narrative itself is basically incoherent when it comes to using the storyline to resolve those questions. One could argue, in fact, that at the end of the film, nothing has changed. Has Neo really saved humanity from the enslavement of the AI’s that run the Matrix? He talks about showing the other human beings “a world of possibilities”, and then goes flying off into the sky. But these infinite possibilities that he’s promising to show are really present only within the Matrix itself. And why should the computers care if human beings are able to manipulate the Matrix in that way so long as they stay plugged in? The real world presented in the films (”The desert of the real”) is really an unattractive alternative to being able to fly within a virtual environment that seems limitless in possibilities.

The essays in this book start with the premise that the film is a philosophically sound and coherent presentation, and go from there, and that simply isn’t the case. As such, many of the essays present arguments that rely heavily on basic logical fallacies such as begging the question and equivocation in order to hold up, and I find that philosophically unsatisfying. Several essays tackle the issue of epistemology and sensory knowledge, a subject which has been more adequately examined in the field of physiology. The essays which deal with ontology and metaphysics rely so heavily on comparisons between the film and the real world that they end up basically pointless. And the essays on ethics — particularly ethics with relation to the virtue of “happiness” (in an Aristotlean sense) — end up being screeds focused almost entirely on subtle variations between varying definitions of the word “happiness”, resulting in essays which have no relevance to anything beyond their own confines.

One essay does, however, take on the essential incoherence of the film, which I appreciated. On the other hand, the inclusion of a Freudian analysis of the role of excretory imagery in the film seems to push the limits of usefulness.

I’m also glad that I chose not to pursue an advanced degree in philosophy, just because I can’t imagine myself writing these sorts of essays for a living (well, if I were a philosopher, I guess I’d also make a living in teaching other people how to write this kind of essay). Don’t get me wrong, though; I do think that there is a very important role for this sort of questioning and thinking. While I’m not entirely of the opinion that the unexamined life is not worth living, questions such as “Who am I, really?” and “What is the nature of God” and so on get our creative and intellectual juices flowing, and ultimately guide our actions in ethical and productive ways.

I’m not sure I can recommend this book; as an introduction to academic philosophy using the imagery and conceits of the film, I think it would be good for incoming freshmen taking an introductory philosophy class, so long as they learn that philosophy needs to be more rigid than what is presented here. I’m not sure it would appeal, though, either to people with a degree in philosophy, or people who have had no philosophy experience at all.

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