In Defense of The Matrix Saga

by David Kyle Johnson

The Matrix is one of the most celebrated science-fiction movies of all time. Its widely held, however, that the sequels are not. As recently as the Matrix 15th anniversary, reviewer Dan Seitz simply called them “undeniably terrible.”1 But I would like to argue that they should be celebrated – especially the second movie –and that the entire saga should be accorded a favored status in your sci-fi movie collection. It’s my contention that most people didn’t like the sequels because most people didn’t understand them; and most people didn’t understand them because the movies presupposed unfamiliar philosophical concepts. The first movie was inspired by the problem of philosophical skepticism; how can you know for certain that you’re not, right now, trapped in something like the Matrix? In the same way, the sequels also borrowed heavily from philosophical notions, but they were notions that not everyone was as familiar with—or, perhaps, that were not as easily understandable. So it’s my goal to get you to appreciate the Matrix sequels by getting to you to understand those notions, and thus a little bit about philosophy itself.
One of the major obstacles to understanding the sequels was the Architect – the Colonel Sanders looking guy in the room filled with TV screens who designed the Matrix. He basically explains the entire saga, but he does so in such a convoluted way that it’s almost impossible to track. In all honesty, he talks kind of like a bad philosopher; I had to type out his dialogue and study it to figure out exactly what was going on. But it was worth it to figure everything out.

The Matrix 1.0 and the Problem of Evil

One of the first things that he tells us is that the first Matrix he designed was perfect, a utopia. In Reloaded he tells it contained no evil – and it crashed as a result.

The first Matrix I designed was quite naturally perfect. It was a work of art… flawless, sublime. A triumph equaled only by its monumental failure. The inevitability of its doom is apparent to me now as a consequence of the imperfection inherent in every human being. Thus I redesigned it, based on your history, to more accurately reflect the varying grotesqueries of your nature.

Agent Smith alluded to this version of the Matrix in the first movie when he pointed out that, while the first Matrix was perfect, “entire crops were lost” because it was a world that our “primitive cerebrums” kept “trying to wake up from.” The world was perfect, and we couldn’t stand it.
Philosophically, this points to the problem of evil – the question of how a perfectly benevolent God could author, or even allow, evil to exist in the world. In response, some philosophers have suggested that we need evil in the world. If everything were good, they suggest, we would not be able to recognize anything as good. And who would want to live in a world where nothing seems good? Of course, we still might wonder why there is so much evil in the world; that’s called the evidential problem of evil. But it is here we see our first underpinning of a philosophical concept.

The Matrix 2.0 and Free Choice

Adding evil to the Matrix didn’t keep it from crashing again. Something else stood in the way.

…I was again frustrated by failure. [T]he answer eluded me because it required… a mind less bound by the parameters of perfection… an intuitive program initially created to investigate certain aspects of the human psyche [i.e. The Oracle]. She stumbled upon a solution whereby nearly 99% of all test subjects accepted the program as long as they were given a choice — even if they were only aware of the choice at a near unconscious level.

Evidently, in the first two versions of the Matrix, unplugging wasn’t an option. The program was forced upon us. (This is why the first utopian Matrix was only something that we could try to wake up from.) But forcing the Matrix upon its inhabitants made the system crash, apparently because it interfered with their free will. The solution to this problem was to give the habitants of the Matrix a choice to accept or reject the program.

Free Will and Why the Machines Need Zion

But this created another problem.

While this answer functioned, it was obviously fundamentally flawed, thus creating the otherwise contradictory systemic anomaly that, if left unchecked, might threaten the system itself. Ergo, those that refused the program, while a minority, if unchecked would constitute an escalating probability of disaster… You [Neo] are here [at The Source] because Zion is about to be destroyed—its every living inhabitant terminated, its entire existence irradiated.

So giving the inhabitants of the Matrix a choice to reject it (to unplug and wake up) led to the existence of Zion – the city outside the Matrix where those who reject the program go to live. Zion serves as a home base for those trying to free inhabitants of the Matrix, so you can see how it’s a problem that the machines can’t ignore. Left alone, they would eventually free everyone, and then… no more Matrix, no more power, and the machine world dies.
But wait a minute. Why don’t the machines simply kill people when they choose to unplug, instead of letting them go live in Zion? That way there would be no Zion and thus no threat. I mean, they certainly could do this. When Neo woke up in the first movie, the machine had to come and unplug him. Why didn’t it just kill him? But not only do they not do this, the machines actively make sure that Zion exists. Even after they destroy it, they rebuild it.

The function of The One is now to return to The Source, allowing a temporary dissemination of the code you carry, reinserting the prime program. After which, you will be required to select from The Matrix 23 individuals (16 female, 7 male) to rebuild Zion.

Why do they do this? Isn’t this the hard way to neutralize the threat created by giving the inhabitants of the Matrix free will?
This is where some philosophy comes in handy. As we have seen, in order for the Matrix to function, its inhabitants must have the freedom to accept the program on their own. But freedom requires free will — the power of free choice. But what does free will require? Classically, according to philosophers, it requires alternate possibilities. This fact is expressed by the Principle of Alternate Possibilities: if a person is to freely decide to do some action, it must be possible for that person to do something else besides that action.
The debate about the truth of this principle, and how exactly it should be formulated, takes up thousands of pages in philosophy journals. But it also helps us understand why the machines need Zion; it is the alternate possibility that allows the inhabitants of the Matrix to have the freedom to choose. Not only do the inhabitants of Zion sometimes make the inhabitants of the Matrix consciously aware of the alternate possibility of a life on the outside, but the existence of Zion makes a life on the outside a real possibility — one the inhabitants of the Matrix can even know about unconsciously. In short, we might say, the machines need Zion because they need the inhabitants of the Matrix to have a choice. We might say that choosing between accepting the Matrix or death really isn’t a choice at all.

The “Others” and the Eternal Return

But the real kicker comes when we take an even closer look at the Architect’s words. When Neo first arrives at The Source, the Architect knows what questions Neo will ask before he asks them, and notes that Neo is figuring things out more quickly than “the others” who had been there before him. Surrounding Neo are screens, containing his image, each of which represents a possible way that he could respond. “Others? What Others?” one of them asks. “The Matrix is older than you know,” the Architect replies. “I prefer counting from the emergence of one integral anomaly to the emergence of the next, in which case this is the 6th version.” Neo is the anomaly, so what the Architect is saying is that there have been 5 other Neos — five other “chosen ones” — who have been to The Source before him!
That’s a big reveal, but that’s not all. Like Neo, these others were all lead to The Source by the prophecy, which promised that by reaching The Source they could end the war. But, instead, they were —again like Neo — simply presented with a choice:

  • Cooperate with the machines, exiting the Matrix so it can be rebooted and help repopulate Zion (once it is destroyed); or
  • Rebel against the machines, reenter the Matrix, thus eradicating humanity.

In Neo’s case, choosing to rebel allowed him to save Trinity — so that’s what he did. But the previous five chosen-ones cooperated. As the architect points out, “this will be the sixth time we have destroyed [Zion] and we have become exceedingly efficient at it.”
Packed into this little bit of dialogue is quite a few reveals. First of all, the prophecy was a lie — a way to manipulate the chosen one(s). It was just a trick to force them to make their way to The Source so that they could choose to cooperate with the machines in restarting The Matrix and Zion (and thus continue to provide the machines with power). And not only have there been five other chosen-ones, but five other versions of the Matrix. Five previous times the machines have restarted Zion and The Matrix, let them run for about 100 years2, and then wiped the slate clean by destroying both and starting over again. The philosophical and religious concept of the “Eternal Return,” where the universe is repeatedly created and destroyed, springs to mind.
For my money, this reveal is just as shocking — it’s a twist just as jarring as the one we get in the first movie, when we learn what the Matrix is. Nothing is as it seems; even our heroes aren’t heroes. Neo’s been duped and the Oracle was in on it. What’s more, they don’t hit you over the head with it; the Wachowskis don’t feed you this with a spoon. There is no spoon! You have to pay attention and think. This alone, I think, makes Reloaded — at least philosophically — just as good as The Matrix.

Determining the Future

But it doesn’t stop there. The Architect knew that Neo was going to rebel by choosing to try to save Trinity instead.

…we already know what you are going to do, don’t we? Already I can see the chain reaction, the chemical precursors that signal the onset of an emotion, designed specifically to overwhelm logic and reason — an emotion that is already blinding you from the simple and obvious truth: She is going to die and there is nothing you can do to stop it.

The Architect sees Neo as a simple biological machine whose behavior is dictated by his brain structure. If he wants to know what Neo will do, the Architect just has to look at the material of his brain and figure out what the laws of physics necessitate will happen. Everything is just a matter of cause and effect.
This view is shared by the Merovingian, who sees the entire world this way:

It is, of course, the way of all things. You see, there is only one constant, one universal, it is the only real truth: causality—action, reaction, cause and effect. … Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without. … This is the nature of the universe. We struggle against it, we fight to deny it, but it is of course pretense; it is a lie. Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely out of control. Causality. There is no escape from it. We are forever slaves to it.

Philosophically, this view is called determinism. What is happening at any moment in time is merely the physically necessary causal result of what was happening the previous moment in time. Someone who knew where everything was, and knew the laws of physics, would be able to simply do the math to figure out what will happen in the next moment, and the next — all throughout time.
But what if the world really is this way; and what if our behavior is deterministically predictable? Then it would seem that we are not free. If determinism is true, not only is our behavior not really up to us, but we can’t act otherwise. There are no alternate possibilities — but there must be if we are to be free.
The world of The Matrix seems to be largely deterministic. This, in fact, makes predicting what will happen even easier. The Architect doesn’t have to do complicated deterministic calculus to know what questions Neo will ask; he knows because the five previous chosen ones already asked them. The Oracle doesn’t have to be omniscient to know that Neo will break the vase in the kitchen and choose to sit on the bench in the park. She’s seen these things happen five times before. In fact, this seems to be how the Oracle gets a wealth of her foreknowledge. After all, she’s just a computer program like Smith and the Architect; she doesn’t have any mystical powers. She’s just seen it all before. It seems that the events that happen in the Matrix and Zion, each time they are reset, are basically the same.
But that can’t be the only way she tells the future. After all, the Oracle makes accurate predictions about what will happen after Neo refuses to cooperate with the machines. That’s never happened before. So the Oracle must be doing some deterministic calculus to figure out what will happen next. But her foreknowledge is not unlimited. As she tells Neo, she can predict the choices she “understands,” but she can’t see past those that she doesn’t. In other words, she can do the calculations up to the point where a real free willed choice is made, but beyond that she doesn’t know what will happen.
This, in fact, seems to be how she helps Neo defeat Agent Smith and end the war. She has seen the future up to the point where Neo must choose whether to sacrifice himself, or not. At that moment, Neo will lie at the bottom of a crater seemingly defeated and Smith will say, “Everything that has a beginning has an end, Neo.” And Smith gains this knowledge when he copies himself onto the Oracle. But what he doesn’t know is the limits of her knowledge — that she (the Oracle) doesn’t understand Neo’s choice. She “has faith” in Neo, but she can’t see what choice he will make. Consequently, neither can Agent Smith. He thinks that’s the end, but when Neo stands to seemingly fight again, despite the fact that he can’t win, Smith doesn’t know how to react. He no longer knows what’s going to happen. He reels back, and in a seemingly desperate move he copies himself onto Neo. This, of course, gives the machines direct access to Smith and allows them to purge him from the Matrix — which fulfills Neo’s end of the bargain and thus ends the war.

Do We Have Free Will?

So it seems that the world of the Matrix is not completely deterministic; every now and again — in important situations — choice creeps in. But is it truly a free choice? Well, suppose that Neo’s choice regarding whether or not to sit on the park bench is one that the Oracle is unable to predict by doing deterministic math. But suppose also that the Oracle knows that Neo will sit because all five of his predecessors chose to sit. It would seem that Neo’s decision, even though it is not causally determined, is still not free – he couldn’t do otherwise. So, although an action being determined is enough to make that action unfree, an action being undetermined is not enough to make it free. Being indeterminate is necessary, but not sufficient, for an action to be free.
Now we might think that Neo’s choice to rebel and save Trinity was a free choice because it was unique; you couldn’t predict it based on previous experience because none of Neo’s predecessors made that choice. But the Architect points out the reason that Neo will make that choice (while the others didn’t). It’s because Neo experiences his (pre-programmed) attachment to humanity in a specific way – a way that the others did not — as a love for Trinity. In fact, as we’ve already seen, the Architect was able to predict Neo’s rebellious action before he did it by looking at the causal processes of his brain. He could see Neo’s love for Trinity causing “an emotion, designed specifically to overwhelm logic and reason.” So, while being unique seems to be necessary for an action to be free, it is not sufficient.
It seems that the best candidate we have for a truly free action in the entire Matrix Saga is Neo’s choice to surrender himself to Smith at the end. It was not deterministically predictable and it was unique. But if we were to rewind and play that scenario five times, would Neo always make the same choice? Perhaps we would like to think so because we think Neo is noble – but then his action doesn’t look very free. He wouldn’t seem that he could have done anything else.
Is there free will in our universe, the real world? Well, fortunately, we know that our world is not deterministic. We know that there are events that happen at the quantum level that are random and without a cause. Unfortunately, this fact is not enough to justify belief in free will. For one thing, the randomness of quantum events usually gets averaged out on a larger scale; while the behavior of quantum events can be random, the behavior of large objects (like our brain) seems to still be deterministic. But let us imagine that, somehow, our actions are the result of quantum events; perhaps sometimes a single quantum event in our brain leads to a chain reaction that results in an action, and so that action is truly random and ultimately uncaused. Does that make it free? Unfortunately not. No one controls the outcome of quantum events; not even the outcome of quantum events in your brain is up to you. So the notion that our actions are randomly caused is just as incompatible with free will as the notion that they are deterministically caused, and an indeterministic universe is just as unfriendly to free will as a deterministic one.
In all honesty, the notion that humans have free will is difficult to defend philosophically. Only if human minds are made of a separable non-physical substance that magically reaches down from beyond the universe to cause our actions would we be able to make sense of our having alternate possibilities and our actions ultimately being “up to us.” Unfortunately, that “substance dualism” is untenable is one of the most agreed upon philosophical notions today3. This is largely because dualism stands contrary to basic laws of physics (like conservation laws), is inconsistent with neuroscience, and is limited in its explanatory scope4. This is perhaps not too surprising; the only notion that is less popular is the notion that humans have the kind of free will of which we have been speaking5.

Welcome to the Desert of the Real

There is a wealth of other questions raised by the Matrix Saga that philosophy could help us answer. How can Agent Smith copy himself onto a flesh-and-blood person, like Bane? Are we all programs too? Is the Merovingian the Devil? Is he, perhaps, the first “chosen-one”? Is Persephone the first Trinity? Are they, in fact, just the same person? I could go on and on.
In my opinion, the action sequences of “Reloaded” are enough to put it on par with “The Matrix.” The car chase scene alone, for which the Wachowskis built their own 10 mile stretch of highway (and which includes a fight scene on top of a moving semi) may put it over the top. But I think that an appreciation of the sequel’s plot and twists, revealed through philosophical examination, demonstrates that the sequels were greatly underappreciated. Hopefully, you now agree and are feeling the urge to go watch them all again.
1 Dan Seitz, “Are ‘The Matrix’ Sequels Really That Bad? Let’s Discuss.”, 3/31/14,
2 Why 100 years? This seems to be how long the inhabits of Zion think the war has lasted. Given that the first movie is set in 1999, it seems that the machines are making humanity relive the 20th century, over and over.
3 Only 27% of philosophers accept any version of it; when there is controversy, the percentages are much closer to 50/50. See D. Bourget & D. Chalmers, ‘What do Philosophers Believe?’, Philosophical Studies (2013), pp. 1-36.
4 For more, see my paper “Do Souls Exist” Think 12 (35):61-75 (2013)
5 Only 14% of philosophers believe in so called “libertarian free will.” For more on The Matrix Saga and free will, see Schick, Theodore Jr. “Choice, Purpose, and Understanding: Neo, the Merovingian, and the Oracle” in William Irwin’s More Matrix and Philosophy: Revolutions and Reloaded Decoded, Open Court, Chicago and LaSalle, IL. (2005)

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