What The Matrix Can Teach Us About Choice, Free Will and Human Action

Not scarcely is it referenced to the Matrix Trilogy in a contemporary political context, perhaps especially among conservatives and libertarians. They have “red-pilled”, they say, alluding to when the main character Neo was given a choice between staying in blissful ignorance in the Matrix (blue pill) or waking up to the horrendous reality behind the system (red pill). The parallel between this choice in the movie series and in reality is most usually interpreted as radically changing one’s worldview as a reaction to realizing that one has previously built it upon lies, deception, and ignorance. When a modern liberal becomes a conservative or a conservative becomes a liberal, they may later say that was a “red-pill moment” in that respect, as far as they see it.

This interpretation of the movie scene, however, appears to me rather faulty. For even if you based your life and worldview upon lies and deception originally, how would you know whether the newly adopted worldview, opinions, and arguments are not just based on different ones? A liberal-turned-conservative might call himself “red-pilled”, but if he believes every word the President says and will support him no matter what he does, has he not just chosen the blue pill of blissful ignorance in a different Matrix than the one in which he began? Plenty of people may have experiences of their worldview being torn down before their very eyes, and it is in that moment they’re presented with the choice between ignorance and accepting reality, but many of them pick the former option and ironically enough get duped into the new frame of thinking despite actually believing themselves to be “red-pilled” in parallel to Neo.

How might this scene be interpreted alternatively then? It appears to me that “taking the red pill” is not so much about a “moment” or choosing between two alternative worldviews or viewpoints generally, but rather adopting a different mode of thinking. Staying in “the Matrix” in this context would mean to unquestioningly follow along with the dominating impulses that enter the human psyche, and thinking only on the surface level of things, like what is and has been, rather than their deeper nature, such as why and how they are so and whether they could or should be any other way. This may approach what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger has referred to as Verfallenheit (lit: falling-ness), described by how

[…] we are constantly ignoring our possibilities […] by doing what ‘They’ do. Examples of this include the ways in which people dress alike, the social norms that we adhere to, and the absence of resoluteness towards death. We go through much of our lives this way, simply doing as ‘they’ do. When we face death in our lives, we treat it as though it will never happen to us.”

Taking the red pill thus means adopting an independent, critical and investigative mindset and thinking about oneself, human interaction and reality at large on a meta-level and not just from the frame of reference that runs in accordance with whatever impulses you receive from your surroundings. What may be ignored in an analysis on the surface level of understanding may be found to be crucial on a deeper one. Sherlock Holmes author Arthur C. Doyle expressed this point enigmatically when he wrote: “You see, but you do not observe.” That is, though you may perceive visually what lies in front of you (what, where, when), that doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand what lies behind it (why, how). That understanding is rather important, especially when it concerns one’s own nature, as that is the foundation one tends to act in accordance with.

In the second movie, the Oracle tells Neo that he has already made a given upcoming decision and that he now only needs to understand why. This brings us to the discussion of free will versus determinism, which is a central ideological contrast running throughout the movie series. Though Neo’s decision is not yet made, it’s presented as inevitable based on his nature that he would choose one option over the other. Certainly, a portion of human nature is based upon our biological “programs”, with a series of probabilities of how we may react in given scenarios, while our environment provides us with situations that trigger some of these, so determinism cannot legitimately be dispensed with generally, but the question is rather what portion of a choice is under our control. In a chat between Neo and Councillor Hamann by the engineering-level underbuilding Zion (the remaining city of human civilization outside the Matrix), the latter questions what control itself truly is, where Neo responds that they’re in control of the machines in the sense that they could shut off the machinery if they wanted to, though that’d severely damage the living standards in Zion. But how does this apply with how we are “in control” over our lives and how we act and react? 

To illustrate, we can note that someone heavily prone to aggression has a high likelihood of doing so in given situations, though that’s no guarantee. If he is to act or react non-aggressively, he has to counteract the very programming that makes him more likely to do so. Psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson expressed this point well when he argued that “A harmless man is not a good man. A good man is a very dangerous man who has that under voluntary control.” In other words, someone whose nature makes him more likely to be harmless requires no self-control in order to do so, while others more prone to such aggression and violence deep down who still don’t want to harm others have to tame their impulses to prevent it.

In the Matrix, all programs have a purpose, and if they violate that purpose, they are ordered to be deleted and would have to fight against “the system” in order to survive. It isn’t exactly the same in real life (though certain power structures could have some parallels), but some have argued that there is a parallel between the character Mr. Smith, a rogue anti-virus in the Matrix, and a real psychological phenomenon they thereafter term the “Mr. Smith effect”. This is supposedly what happens when someone suddenly becomes aggressive during a previously friendly conversation in reaction to a taboo subject or opinion is brought up, similarly to how Mr. Smith in the Matrix trilogy takes over the bodies of those who experience abnormalities in the system, or to use them to target those who do. In a circulating meme on the subject, it is explained as follows: “Up pops Mr. Smith, to replace the person you were having a conversation with, to attack you, because any and all truths threaten the matrix.” It is further argued that

The matrix is programmed into most people in their youth and because of this “Mr. Smith programming” these people become guardians of the matrix, protecters of the code, police of the mind control, enforcers of the brain washing which holds together our false conception of reality like super glue. Our handlers program most people to be like this, to attack anyone, at anyone, if another person in the matrix dare speak the truth and disrupt the code of slave control.

Though one may argue that they exaggerate the significance of this somewhat, it certainly shines a light on a real phenomenon, which appears to be an extension of the “Matrix-like mode of thinking” delineated above.

After taking heavy damage in the final battle between Neo and Mr. Smith in the last movie, the latter becomes surprised about how Neo continually manages to still get back up and fight. “Why, why, why?”, Mr. Smith asks frustratingly, and Neo answers, “because I made a choice.” That choice ultimately led him to victory and securing peace in Zion. This may be interpreted as a cliché, such as the notion of “you can do anything if you just believe in yourself”, or how the “good side” always tends to prevail in such movies, but I think there is a deeper philosophical element here that’s important for this reflection of free will and determinism. Namely, the faith that your effort will make a difference. This concerns the mindset one has about one’s own action and betterment. If someone has a deeply deterministic mindset, he might consider himself to be absolved from all responsibility, as nothing is up to “him”, but it’s rather all about the interaction between the impulses and his biological predispositions. In other words, he has no faith that it’s within his control to alter. Something that especially requires such faith in order to alter is habits, i.e. consistent patterns of behavior. If one is to change a habit, one must first identify that the current habit is bad, and then figure out how one is to alter it. For the latter stage, one must counteract how the biological predispositions and environmental impulses have already intertwined and “programmed” him, and “reprogram” his psychic nature, a task whose difficulty will depend on the length and significance of the habit, as well as the series of probabilities inherent in the biological predispositions as explained above.

To conclude, I’ll argue that the Matrix trilogy can teach us about how the complexity of human nature illustrates some nuance between the standpoints of hard-determinism and free will, but that we have the capacity to break out of the determinist and sub-conscious parts of our nature, and take further control of our own lives and decisions by adopting an introspective, investigative and analytical mindset, as well as adopting the faith that one’s effort will make a difference. The real Matrix is not the world we all collectively live in, but rather each of our individual minds, and one’s red-pilling strategy must be set accordingly.

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