When the Matrix movies were at the height of their popularity some years ago, philosophers were ecstatic because those movies popularized some canonical Western philosophical ideas, reaching back to Descartes’ handling of the evil genius form of skepticism, and to Plato’s Cave metaphor. Those films also have Gnostic and other religious themes. Less well-known, I think, is that The Matrix is useful as a way of popularizing what are now becoming scientific conventions, especially in biology and cognitive science. In fact, the core idea of The Matrix, as opposed to the movie’s plot, is shown to be almost literally true by those sciences. I’ve alluded a few times in this blog to The Matrix, and so I’ll explore here the relevance of especially the first of the three movies to Rants Within the Undead God.
First, I need to summarize the movie’s premise. The movie supposes that what most people perceive of the world is actually a mass hallucination, a virtual reality constructed by anti-human, artificially intelligent machines and employed to keep most people docile so that the machines can use their dormant organic bodies for fuel. The hero, Neo, wakes up from the dream world, into the harsher reality and fights the machines, eventually sacrificing himself and rescuing his fellow liberated, enlightened allies.
Genes and Mental Models
Now, there are two scientific theories that The Matrix seems to popularize, one from biology, the other from psychology. The former is Richard Dawkins’ gene’s-eye perspective on natural selection, and the latter is the theory of the self as the brain’s model of its inner processes. To begin with Dawkins, he went as far as to resort to science fiction tropes in pushing his point that natural selection can benefit the replicators at the expense of their “vehicles” or “hosts.” On this view, that which is primarily selected by the environment is a genetic lineage, and the phenotype--with all of its physical and mental adaptations--piggybacks on the fitness of the genes, much as Ayn Rand and plutocrats maintain that relatively poor people survive and enjoy many privileges only because of the greatness of their financial superiors who create civilization in the first place.
The second theory, found in books such as The Self Illusion by Bruce Wood, and The Ego Tunnel, by Thomas Metzinger, is that just as the brain simplifies the external data it receives from the senses, processing the information and producing a model of the outer world, so too the brain simplifies and simulates its neural activity, producing what we think of the self or the ego. The point isn’t that the external world or the self doesn’t exist, but that neither is as we naively assume it to be. For example, even though our eyes dart back and forth when we look at something, we assume that all of what we’re looking at is visually clear, knowing that we could focus on any part of it at will. The focal point of our field of vision is actually tiny compared to everything else we see at a glance. That which falls outside the focal point is comparatively blurry, but the brain remembers what we saw when we focused, say, on the left side of an apple, so that when we focus on the right side, we can think of the whole apple as a crisply-delineated object. In this way, our memories create a simplified impression, or model, of the apple, which edits out the visual information pertaining to the apple’s blurriness.
Likewise, we have an idea of the self as a conscious, free, rational agent, but this self is an illusion generated by the brain and serving an evolutionary function. Anyone who couldn’t simplify her inner or outer sense experience in these ways would be stupefied as a result of sensory overload, and thus couldn’t actively safeguard the genes or transmit them to the next generation. The kind of model at issue here is common in science. For example, the physical model of DNA or of atoms is a highly simplified representation that ignores many details, but the model might be useful for certain purposes. A so-called ceteris paribus law is another kind of simplification, which generalizes about what would happen in a system were everything outside the system left out of the picture. In reality, systems interact and so a ceteris paribus law can have exceptions. But the point is that our folk psychological myth about our nature as human beings, which theists take to the extreme by positing the immaterial and immortal spirit, is like these scientific models. At best, such a model is useful as a means to a certain end, but at worst the end served by the model is detrimental to us or the model oversimplifies the facts and becomes counterproductive (as is likely the case with respect to the theist’s dualistic notion of the self).
Our Biomechanical Overlords
Back to The Matrix. The relevance of the genetic interpretation of evolution is that the genes, the proteins, and the whole cellular assembly system that builds our bodies from the moment of conception are literally machines. You might think we can say that that assembly system, in which the genetic code is read by messenger RNA to build amino acids, proteins, and cells, is only metaphorically a sprawling machine, since there’s no God who designed those chemicals to perform any intended function, Creationism notwithstanding. But this begs the question, since according to the psychological theory at issue, neither is there any self who builds our cell phones, planes, computers, and other devices. Our naïve conception of ourselves is undermined by science, and thus so too is the standard notion that a literal machine depends on a designer’s intention. The commonsensical notion of an intention, of a belief or a desire, is only a highly simplified way of talking about part of the brain. Granted, complex patterns can emerge, but some patterns are subjective illusions that depend more on the eye of the beholder; in other words, a pattern can be a delusion rather than an illusion. We want to see ourselves as rational commanders, and so we define our technology as a slave carrying out our command. But that may be a story we tell only within the matrix, as will become clearer in a moment.
At any rate, as I say in Darwinism and Nature’s Undeadness, the updated intuition we need to make sense of natural creativity of all kinds, including our designing of technology and our genes’ role in building us, is the intuition of nature’s undeadness. Anything which passes the anthropomorphist’s generous test of life is at best undead, given naturalistic metaphysics. There are no supernatural essences of personality or spiritual fragments of a transcendent plane. But given our preoccupation with social relations, we’ll model as intelligent anything that looks to us as though it’s following a plan. Thus, we model each other as having rational homunculi that control our bodies, and most people, being theists, interpret all of nature as following God’s plan; even atheists instinctively blame unseen gremlins, for example, when we meet with ill fortune. Again, the naïve way of looking at this generous way of interpreting natural order is the dualistic one, which is no longer tenable after the Darwinian revolution. Instead, we should interpret all living and nonliving things as neither alive nor dead in the naïve senses, but as blasphemously undead, as mere simulations of ideal, spiritual life; after all, even nonliving things, like DNA, stars, and galaxies perform a great deal of work, evolving, complexifying, and creating everything in nature. So according to the Darwinian intuition, life and death are unified in the concept of the undead, and that undeadness will seem enchanted to zombies like us who instinctively personify everything around us.
In this way, everything in the cosmos, both that which is naively thought to be living by way of being infused with a supernatural spirit, and that which is so thought to be spiritless and lifeless, can look alive by merely following its routine, like a zombie stumbling along as though anyone were at home in its brain. In particular, our machines will look like they follow our orders, and DNA and protein synthesis will look like they’re designed mechanisms that perform the function of building organisms. But there are no such orders or designs--at least, not in the way we naively assume. Instead, the source of natural order at both the micro and the meso levels is the monstrous and mysterious simulation of what we think of as planned work. Work is done everywhere, but there’s no spirit in charge. True, some work in the universe is done by brains, and here we do find emergent patterns of personal autonomy. But underlying the difference between the brain’s self-control and DNA’s lack of personhood is the monistic, naturalistic metaphysics which has become compulsory as a result of modern science, and according to this metaphysics, there’s no substantial difference between a brain and DNA with respect to their apparent vitality. Both work as undead automatons, although brains can tell themselves self-serving (or rather, self-creating) stories to keep their spirits up (or rather to pretend that they have spirits).
The upshot of this is that while a human brain looks more alive than the proteins that build our bodies by receiving genetic messages, this is a matter merely of degree, not of metaphysical kind. Metaphysically, everything that participates in the natural order is undead, to some extent. With respect to The Matrix, this means that the genes have the same sort of “life” as our machines, the difference being that brains build our machines whereas no brain designs the genes. Still, if the genes and our machines are both undead, in that they pass the test of seeming to be fine-tuned and to work according to intentions, the movie’s narrative applies rather directly to our actual situation. Substitute the genes and the cellular assembly process for AI machines built by humans in the future, and you’ve still got the movie’s core idea: we’re programmed and misled by machines to serve their undead pseudo-interests.
Specifically, the Dawkinsian biologist says that our fundamental role is to serve as vessels for our genes. So in the Matrix, the machines use human bodies as batteries, while in biological reality our bodies are used as vehicles to store, defend, and propagate the microscopic machinery that sustains us. Moreover, in the movie the dormant humans are abused by the machines and forced into the dehumanizing, humiliating position of lying in a jelly-filled pod with tubes down their throats. In biological reality, the genes implant in us the instinct to procreate, which is to say, to assume various dehumanizing and humiliating postures involving organic jellies and tubes. The parallel, I trust, is clear.
Finally, there’s the matrix itself, the virtual reality of delusions that transfixes human slaves. In psychological reality, the brain produces a highly simplified model of its neural interactions, and we inhabit the space of that model; that is, we spontaneously apply naive concepts, anthropomorphizing each other and virtually anything else, projecting that model and reflexively retreating to it even after enlightening ourselves with respect to our true nature, by studying biology or psychology, for example. We’re trapped in that misleading view of ourselves, because our bodies are built--by our biomechanical overlords, no less--to adopt that naïve viewpoint. We wear blinders that focus us on completing tasks that aren’t even tasks in the ordinary sense, but are the end results of our genes’ undead wanderings.
Our anthropomorphic models force us to think of each other as gods, as conscious, free, and rational spirits, but the “lie” of those models is given by the fact that instead of treating each other as such, we’re preoccupied with primitive urges, sexualizing and otherwise objectifying each other, calculating breast sizes, hip-to-waste ratios, and other signs of fertility or else the wealth and status of a reliable provider of resources for the woman to raise a child. In the matrix of our naïve self-conception, we ignore our animal nature and pretend that we’re godlike, whereas our predominant behaviors, such as our secretive sex practices and our short-sighted, irrational, and violent servitude to tribal conventions, unveil the grim truth for all to see. Despite the obviousness of that truth, we seldom ever appreciate it or dwell on it for long, because we are in fact trapped in a false view of the world, and we’re put in that trap by machines that are roughly as undead as the machines we design and engineer. Thus, the premise of The Matrix is a highly useful myth, which is to say a powerful story that makes sense of where we are and what we should do.
Escape from the Matrix
This brings me to the prospect of a higher self’s escape from the matrix. In the movie, there’s a real self who underlies the illusory one in the matrix and who frees himself by recognizing that the matrix isn’t real. Here I think science and the movie diverge. There is no real, hidden self that either coexists with or exists prior to the brain’s mental model, which can then overwrite that model in an act of enlightenment. However, I do think there’s an important distinction between the enlightened and the unenlightened, between esoteric and exoteric knowledge, between authentic people who understand their existential situation and who heroically overcome it, and those who thrive on delusions. The enlightened person can’t escape from being just a brain’s model of its inner activity, but some models are aesthetically and ethically better than others.
At our best, we create an enlightened self from the rude materials of our more gene-friendly pseudo-self, and just as some paintings are more inspiring, original, and beautiful than others, so too some minds come closer to achieving certain ideals. Some ideals transparently serve the routines of our undead, biochemical overlords, whereas others are only byproducts of naturally selected traits, or what Stephen Jay Gould calls spandrels. One such spandrel is surely the existential cosmicist’s ideal of appreciating the full horror of our existential situation, summarized in the above section, for example, and of taking at least a symbolic stand against that situation.
Unlike in the biblical Job’s case, there’s no one to hear our protests since our overlords are undead, as are we, their “victims.” The price of liberation, then, is angst, alienation, dread, and perhaps social detachment or even insanity. The brain didn’t evolve to sustain a rebel against its makers. To become such a rebel, we have to overcome genetic and social conditioning, and we need the courage and the creativity to invent new and worthwhile ways of being undead, even while recognizing the tragic futility of this spiritual, transhuman endeavor. To paraphrase Plato, those who are confined to the matrix (or to the Cave of reflections) demonstrate their creativity mainly in the sexual realm, dutifully producing a fresh generation of slaves, whereas the enlightened philosopher creates brainchildren. Ultimately, neither sort of creativity will likely matter. Natural forces create biological patterns, but eventually such forces will replace those patterns with something else; the universe’s evolution is monstrous--inexorable and inhumane. But enlightenment is the best we can do; confronting the philosophical implications of modern science, and living with dignity in light of that accursed knowledge is, to use Nietzsche’s word, nobler than the alternative of sleepwalking with a biochemical leash/noose wrapped around our neck.
A liberal secular humanist will protest that philosophy is irrelevant, that all that matters is pragmatically applying science and technology to “raise our standard of living.” You wouldn’t know it from the scientistic technocracy implied by this protest, but the humanist has a burden of justifying the values that set the standard of living. How then shall the humanist proceed, by polling a population, asking what its members want to do with their life, and taking their answer as gospel? Will even the humanist be satisfied by that grossly fallacious plan of action? Or how about deferring to the oligarchs that run the system managed by the technocratic liberal? Should the most vicious among us who rise to the pinnacle of a dominance hierarchy be trusted to dictate our ethical and aesthetic standards? Surely not! No, this is where enlightenment is a prerequisite even of the anti-philosophical liberal’s busywork. Those who feign pragmatism still need to justify their goals, even as they preoccupy themselves with devising more and more efficient means of achieving them. And enlightened people will have ethically and aesthetically superior goals to those of the deluded folks who are mesmerized by the matrix.