Saturday, November 22, 2003

Anarchy, State, and The Matrix

I saw the third installment of the Matrix during its opening weekend, and I’m going to depart from the conventional wisdom by recommending it. Before watching it, I rented and re-watched the second installment (“Matrix Reloaded”), rewinding as necessary to make sure I understood the confusing bits. Then I viewed “Matrix Revolutions” in the theater and thoroughly enjoyed it. The key is to regard the two movies as one continuous story. WARNING: There are spoilers in the remainder of this post, so don’t continue reading if you haven’t seen the movie yet (and intend to see it).

The original “Matrix” raised a number of interesting philosophical questions, most of which “Reloaded” seemed either to ignore or to confuse. But “Revolutions” brings the philosophical questions back to the fore. The most intriguing question, to me at least, is whether deliberately living in the Matrix can be a valid lifestyle choice. In the original movie, Cipher (Joe Pantoliano) decides that he actually prefers the Matrix to the ugly real world, and he makes a deal with the machines to let him re-enter the Matrix (with his memory suitably wiped, so he won’t realize his reality is only virtual). Readers of Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” will recognize this as a variant of Nozick’s experience-machine thought experiment: would you choose to allow yourself to be hooked up to a machine that would create the mental experience of a blissfully fulfilling life? If your answer is “no” because you’d want to believe that your life and accomplishments were real, or some similar objection, then suitably modify the thought experiment to make that the case (“your memory of having made this choice will be wiped, and the machine will create the belief that you’re living in a real world and your accomplishments are your own”).

The purpose of the thought experiment is to demonstrate an alleged flaw in utilitarianism. If, as utilitarianism posits, happiness is the sole criterion for goodness, then you would indeed choose to get hooked to the experience machine. The fact that most people have an instinctive aversion to the idea of being on an experience machine (or living in the Matrix) is, supposedly, evidence of something wrong with utilitarianism. Any person who would choose to live in the Matrix, like Cipher, must have something wrong with him. Cipher’s deficient character is further evidenced by his willingness to sacrifice Morpheus, Neo, and the other members of the Nebuchadnezzar crew.

And that’s where the philosophy rests – until “Matrix Revolutions.” Between “Reloaded” and “Revolutions,” we discover that the Oracle (previously an unalloyed friend of the free humans) is in quasi-cahoots with the Architect who designed the Matrix. When the Architect discovered that he could not design a Matrix that 100% of all human beings would accept, the Oracle provided him with a means of dealing with the problem. In each generation, a fraction of humans who reject the reality of the Matrix are allowed to escape into the real world, where they join the other free humans in the city of Zion. At some point in the movie, either the Oracle or the Architect (can’t recall which) indicates that every human in the Matrix has, either consciously or subconsciously, chosen to accept the Matrix’s programming. Most people – upwards of 99% – are sheep who willingly accept the virtual reality. Those who reject it are allowed to leave, in the manner of Neo and Trinity. (Periodically, the free human population gets too large, and the machines come to destroy Zion. Carnage ensues, and only ends when the Messiah-like Neo arranges a truce, and the cycle begins once more. But that’s not crucial for the question I’m addressing here.) At the end of “Revolutions,” the Oracle makes sure that the Architect will continue to allow the program-rejecting humans to escape the Matrix.

In contrast to the narrow conception of free will in “The Matrix,” whereby people are only truly free if they live in the real world, we have a broader conception: everyone has the freedom to live in the real world or to stay in the Matrix. True, for the people inside the Matrix, it is a subconscious kind of free will – but they choose nonetheless. Indeed, the presence of choice is the Achilles’ heel of the Matrix, which the Oracle solves by instituting a right of exit.

And in this choosing between different ideas of the good life, we find another connection to the philosophy of Nozick, born of another of his thought experiments: the concept of “little utopias.” Nozick’s idea of the good society is a system in which people can choose what kind of communities they wish to live in, subject to no overarching rule but a right to vote with your feet. The “little utopias” vision finesses the seeming conflict between freedom and the desire of (at least many) people to submit to the controls of religions, creeds, cultures, and governments. In the Nozickian vision, you have the right and the freedom to choose which controls to subject yourself to. And that is, in key respects, the same vision presented at the end of the Matrix saga: you can choose which world to live in, the real world or the virtual. But the latter of those two worlds is one that Nozick himself surmised that most people would intuitively reject: living in the experience machine. And is that so wrong?