“The Matrix” is one of the most important and influential science fiction films of the last twenty years. Upon its release, it was hailed as a great block-buster, alongside a serious philosophical enquiry into the nature of epistemology, free-will, human reliance on technology and the relationship between cyber-space and our perception of the everyday world. As one reviewer notes: “The image of a superficial existence where ignorant people thrive by blocking out a troublesome reality is potent for a Western society drowning in wealth while the rest of the world suffers” (Pierce, 2003).

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This paper will focus, however, on the aspects of the film which may be related to free-will and will demonstrate how the film demonstrates two concerns with regard to autonomy. The first of these problems focuses on the capacity to determine whether or not one’s purportedly free actions are based on true and accurate information, and the second focuses on whether nor not, given the potentially damaging and difficult nature of reality one would prefer to live in a state of permanent, and happy, delusion. This paper will explore both of these problems in turn and will explicate them via reference to specific event in the film.

The central conceit of “The Matrix” is that at an indeterminate point in the future majority of humanity has been enslaved by a artificial intelligence and are effectively farmed for the molecular energy which they produce. These people are unaware of their slavery and are held in a perpetual virtual reality system, known as the Matrix, which replicates the exact state of the world as it was in the late 1990s. The protagonist, Neo, is freed form his programme and introduced to the “real world” in which he engages in terrorist action with a group of people who are able to enter the Matrix at will. The film climaxes as Neo is forced to enter the Matrix in order to rescue his mentor, Morpheus, from a group of “agents,” AI guards who patrol the Matrix, who are attempting to torture him into releasing defence codes for the one remaining actual human city.

Central to the film is the status off empirical reality, especially that which is derived through the sense. At one point, after having been released and then introduced back into a different version of the Matrix, Neo asks Morpheus whether what he is seeing is real. The latter responds by saying that if Neo means what he can touch and see then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by his brain. According to this understanding, any image of reality is related to the reception of sensory impulses by an essentially passive human subject. Such sensory impulses provide the ground on which to judge what actions a person may wish to engage in, and whether or not those actions can be considered as being truly autonomous. It could be argued that action taken within the Matrix, even if its taken in a situation of complete deception remains free, as it is action taken by a person who is capable of using their senses and thinking rationally. The film at this point does not present a situation in which peoples’ actions within the space of virtual reality are determined, but it rather presents one in which this reality itself is fabricated. This would appeal to present a neutral relationship between epistemological knowledge and free-will.

In order to determine the status of reality and autonomy in “The Matrix,” it is necessary to understand the status accorded to the human subject, and to the conditions within which this subject can be realized. At several points in the film characters reflect on whether or not their life outside of the Matrix is any better than their life when they were inside it and they were unaware. Indeed, the film’s least likeable character, Cypher, precipitates its climax by making a deal with the AI to betray his comrades in return for his memory being erased and his mind and body being reinserted into the Matrix. The film, however, clearly suggests that empirically true life is superior to delusion, and it is by fighting to defend the true reality that Neo and Morpheus end as heroes, with promise to liberate each person beholden to the machines.

Crucially, however, this is not the presented as a simple choice to believe in one reality over another. Rather the real world is presented as the only world in which it is possible to be autonomous. Jason Haslam notes that Neo does not simply fight for the ability to live in the real world, but that he fights for the ability to live as an individual per-se. They write that in particular while he is fighting Agent Smith, the film’s most direct antagonist, Neo fights a faceless universal and works towards a manifestation of his own individual subjectivity and towards “a reintegration of the previously marginalized, embodied subjects” (2005, 100). Autonomy in this sense is tied completely to the empirical validity of the real world, but only in so far as this allows a person to be a person at all. In this sense, it is possible to reconcile the two aspects of free-will that the film is concerned with. Free action is only possible in the world which is free from delusion because it is only when free delusion that a person may become sufficiently individualized to be able to be a person at all. The epistemological validity of the world in which they act should therefore be seen as a necessary, but not sufficient ground of free action. It is the gap between this ground and actual freedom that forms the film’s primary focus with regard to the problem of free-will.

In conclusion, this paper has argued that “The Matrix” concerns itself with two aspects of a thinking of free-will. The first of these is the question of the epistemological validity of the world in which one acts, and the second is the value of that world. It has argued that the film reconciles these two aspects by making the clear judgement that only in the epistemologically “true” world is it possible to be an individual, and therefore to act freely. It is this emphasis on a combination of epistemological validity and value which marks the film’s overall discourse on the nature of free-will.

  • Haslam, Jason. “Coded Discourse: Romancing the (Electronic) Shadow) in “The Matrix.” College Literature. 32 (3). 92-115.
  • Pierce, Nev. “”The Matrix (1999)”. BBC. 26 February, 2003. Web. 12 October, 2015. .