[If you haven’t seen The Matrix, that’s okay. If you live in an alternate world where The Matrix series was good, that’s also okay. Here is the story in a nutshell:
There was this strange piece of propaganda that came out in the late 90s and early 2000s which claimed that living in a simulation was bad. This was all a ruse to fool our Robot Overlords into thinking that we really hate living in this strange virtual world, and it made them feel very guilty. So they created better video games for us, and we all lived happily ever after.
That’s the actual truth. This piece here is just a bunch of lies, cleverly strung together in the hopes that it will make the robots buy me an XBox.]
It seemed a fairly common view, by the time of the third Matrix movie, that the Wachowski sibling has lost their way, and failed to capitalize on the brilliant premise of the first movie.
I’m not always ahead of the curve, but in this case, unfortunately, I knew better. As would any fairly serious student of Zen, I think, although I suspect that most of those people would choose a meditative calm and allow themselves to be unperturbed by the situation, rather than being filled with phosphorescent flames of burning nerd rage. I can’t help it, though; I was a geek long before I trained in any other philosophy, and I knew they had no idea what they were doing.
I’m not going to stand up and argue that there’s only one way to use philosophy. But I am going to say that questions like “Is Truth, therefore, Beauty?” are meant to make us think about the nature of aesthetics and our conceptions of what it’s like to probe mysteries of important concepts. In the hands of the Wachowski brothers, the question is clearly the precursor to, “…and if so, is Truth single?”
I wouldn’t want to try to give the definitive definition of a Koan; I would just put out the idea that there are a lot of interesting ways to try to get minds to open new channels and pathways, and you can’t necessarily access them by saying, “Hey, OPEN UP IN THERE!”
So Koans, and many other tools of thought-based mind-alteration, often go into areas of paradox, absurdity, contradiction, or nonsense. When I was younger, I thought there might be a single deep meaning in each Koan, unlockable only with enlightenment; after thirty years of poking my head around them, I feel more like some have hit me on multiple levels, and some don’t make sense to me, and perhaps not every Zen parable ever written down is a good one or a useful one.
But Koans are also tests, not necessarily of intellect or enlightenment, but dedication. Because they’re frustrating. They’re not like crossword puzzles or Sudoku; you generally can’t puzzle them out by putting together bits of logic, following a certain set of rules.
And that’s part of what made the Matrix so infuriating to begin with.
“Why can’t you eat soup in the Matrix?”
“…because there is no spoon.”
-joke I used to tell in ’99
“Why is there no spoon?”
-joke I used to tell in ’03
Long before the other two parts of the trilogy, I was fairly sure that “The Matrix” was going to go off the rails. Because, as far as I was concerned, it had never gotten on the rails. It was so fascinated with Eastern-style ideas, Western-style gnosticism, and, of course, sunglasses (to be fair, the sunglasses were cool) that it never seemed to want to tackle the really big question:
What’s wrong with living in a simulation?
If the general premise of a simulation is “Your sensory inputs are not matching the experiences of your body in the ways you think they are,” then that’s just regular old naive realism. There are people who have argued that this is true of our everyday lives. I’d be one of them; I do not believe that you are either as small as just your perceptions, housed in flesh; nor as limited as only what you think you can perceive.
But without going there, one of the villains (oh, it’s always the Villain, isn’t it?) makes a point in the first film that we’re supposed to see as despicable. He offers to betray humanity because, as he puts it, he might be one of the few people who knows that he’s living in a ‘false’ reality, that he thinks he’s eating a steak while his ‘real’ body is eating tasteless nutrients somewhere; but the steak has perfect reality to him, and it’s wonderful, and he’s doing fine without the experience of existing in the physical apparatus which happens to house the cognition tools (his brain) which supply part of his consciousness.
And that’s very much the point. What’s wrong with living in the Matrix? It’s not real? Sure it’s real. It meets plenty of criteria for reality. We take in sensory input, process it, and act in the world. The world responds to our actions in a way that makes sense, based on what we know of the world. That’s a pretty good definition of reality.
In the films, the robots are ‘farming’ human energy, keeping them subservient to use humans as batteries. Let’s put aside the arguments over whether or not that’s actually a practical, much less an intelligent, resource use for the machines. Let’s just ask: “Okay, so the machines keep us healthy and well and simulate a reality for us, and in return for that, they take some electrical energy from our bodies. We don’t feel the process. We don’t know the process is happening. We don’t even seem to be tired because of it. Why is this wrong, again?”
What we needed, even in that first movie, was to see why this held humanity back. We were told that the machines kept humanity placid and docile, but we sure didn’t see a whole lot of it. Neo seemed to have a really boring office job, but the movie didn’t dwell on it much. It didn’t dwell a whole lot on what life was like for those who inhabited the Matrix and were unawakened.
Did they somehow live without art, and were the suffering because of it? Were humans in the Matrix unable to be creative? Could they not love well or fully? Did they have no hobbies? No passions?
We don’t know.
We didn’t need to see a damn lack of spoon. We needed to see a lack of the things that make life matter, and, because there’s not necessarily a universal agreement on what those things are, we needed an impassioned defense of why those things are important to humanity.
What we got was a lot of bullets.
Q: How do you know if you’re in the Matrix?
A: A magical dude will offer you a pair of magical pills, one of which makes you able to see and experience a reality beyond the one you already know.
Q: Wow! That sounds so cool!
A: It’s REALLY cool if the magical dude thinks you’re special. If he doesn’t, if you’re one of the 99.9% of humanity who don’t meet this guy, you’re just screwed.
Q: What’s cool about seeing the new reality?
A: You can dodge bullets.
Q: Okay, hot, true. And why is this better than not being shot at to begin with?
A: …did I mention the sunglasses yet? The sunglasses are very badass.
You’ve likely heard of simulation theory; if not, I’ll deeply oversimplify by saying, “There are people who believe we live in a simulation, because they feel that if simulations can exist, then they’d be, statistically, the vast majority of existences”.
This isn’t necessarily a good thing or a bad thing; it’s just a thing.
Saying “I live in a simulation” is not, in and of itself, worse than saying “I live in a meatsack”, or “I am a hyperintelligent being from an advanced civilization who has chosen to forget my origins and abilities because I really wanted to go live in a primitive world ruled by cats”.
The Wachowski sibling’s crime against humanity is not that they made us question Reality, but rather, that the questions we end up asking about it are very vapid. “How do I live in the reality where I can download kung fu instantly into my brain?” is a fun question, but it’s not a meaningful question. In fact, it’s rather the opposite; mastery of the martial arts starts with mental discipline. You can’t gain the skills and the knowledge without the experiences, and if you could, your martial arts would be weak; they would not have the strength and the courage and the discipline that you build through hard work and training, overcoming problems, defeating inner demons.
The Wachowski Siblings have offered us Enlightenment, and given us despair. Because of them, we now know that if we do live in a simulation, it’s probably one of the really terrible ones.
* * *
That was originally where this piece stopped, but I thought I’d add this:
If we live in a simulation, then our ideas of what is ‘impossible’ are inaccurate.
In fact, even if we don’t live in a simulation, the ‘impossible’ is arguable the trademark of humanity. What do you call a non-flying species which can fly? Human. What do you call a species that can communicate with other members of its species on the other side of the world in an instant? Human. What do you call a species that can write poetry, stories, songs, and essays? Blue whale. Or human, either one.
There is an unintentional message of “The Matrix”: The impossible is probably possible. And it might be worth trying.
My name is Jeff Mach (“Dark Lord” is optional) and I build communities, put on events, and make stories come into being. I also tweet a lot over @darklordjournal.