The red pill or the blue pill: The philosophical questions of the Matrix
The Matrix celebrates 20 years in 2019, after its groundbreaking release in 1999. Critically acclaimed for its spectacular action sequences and groundbreaking special effects, which would get replicated in movies to come, many describe the Matrix as the best science-fiction movie of all time. However, far more impressive than its 4 academy awards and the fact that it pulled action movies out from the ‘B-list’ category- where it was placed at the time- back to the ‘A-list’, is its thought provoking ingenious experience. The whole idea of the film comes from famous philosophical ideas, including those of great thinkers, like Plato, Socrates and Descartes.
The Matrix is based on a philosophical question posed by the 17th century French philosopher, René Descartes. His principle philosophical idea is that of ‘Dualism’. His theory of Cartesian dualism separates the body and the mind as two different entities, and says that the mind can exist outside of the body. Descartes’s story of the evil demon talks of a malicious devil who he states is “deceiving me” into thinking that there is a sky or a river. He says, “I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.” The 20th century saw the evolution of this argument into the ‘brain in a vat’ hypothesis, which is the premise of the Matrix. Both Descartes and the Matrix question what is real. “Cogito, ergo sum”, he says. I think, therefore I am. According to him, the fact that we can think and question, proves our existence. So, even if the demon is deceiving him, he would have to exist for the demon to deceive him. Therefore, he does exist. Similarly, the existence of Neo and the rest of the gang is secure since they would have to exist to be plugged into the Matrix in the first place.
The most obvious story that the Matrix was inspired by was Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The story goes such: There is a group of people who have been tied up in a cave since their birth. They see shadows of people and trees, flickering in front of them but never actually see any non-shadow figures. One day, one of the prisoners sets himself free and escapes from the cave. When he reaches the outside world, he is baffled by what he sees- the colour, the texture; The Sun hurts his eyes. He cannot believe what he sees. After spending long enough in the outside world, he gets used to it and returns to the cave to tell his fellow prisoners about this other-world. However, these prisoners think him crazy and do not believe him and become aggressive. The analogy with the Matrix is quite obvious. The matrix is the cave. In fact, Neo’s “why do my eyes hurt?” pulls directly from the allegory. This story reflects the fact that people who are ignorant can never admit their ignorance. If you try to tell them about it, they will ignore you or even be hostile. In fact, Socrates was executed by the Athenian government for apparently disturbing the peace and corrupting the minds of the youth. Another example of this in pop culture can be seen in the case of Jack from Emma Donoghue’s Room (or its 2015 screen adaptation of the same name).
A question that may come up is: who is to decide that the outside-world is more “real” than the cave? Why is the spaceship more real than the Matrix? A possible answer maybe free-will. You choose to be in the outside world, but were a prisoner in the cave, and you choose to be on the ship while you were a mere battery in the Matrix. But what if you choose to be in the Matrix? What if you choose to live in ignorance? What if you choose the blue pill? What is real, then? If the mind perceives it to be real, does it make it real?
Another story it pulls from is that of Socrates and the Oracle of Delphi. Socrates often claimed that he ‘knew nothing’ but when his friend Chaerephon visited the Oracle to ask the priestess if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, the Oracle replied that there was not. This puzzled Socrates and he set out to prove the Oracle wrong. He sought out and questioned highly esteemed Athenian men, like great politicians, poets and skilled craftsmen. What he found was that all these men considered themselves to be wise, when in fact they knew nothing. Socrates found that in his admittance that he knew nothing, Socrates truly was the wisest. We can compare this to Neo’s meeting with the Oracle in the Matrix. He doesn’t believe that he is as Morpheus claims, ‘the One’. When he enters her kitchen, the Oracle points to a Latin saying that supposedly says, “Know Thyslef”. The same phrase was inscribed in the temple of Apollo at Delphi. In time, Neo does come to know himself and believe himself to be the One.
The Matrix leaves the audience with questions like “What is reality?”, “What makes a person?”, “Is it better to know the truth or is ignorance truly bliss?”, and of course, “Will you take the red pill or the blue pill?”