When is True Freedom Not Enough? An Analysis of The Matrix
This essay was originally written for a college English seminar titled "The Mind and the World." The class covered a variety of topics related to philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, and artificial intelligence. It has been revised for Internet audiences.
Which is better: living your entire life in a prison? Or being freed from this prison to fulfill an assigned role? What if the prison offered the opportunity to lead a full life with no perceivable restraints? What if the assigned role stripped away all opportunities to make your own life choices?
In The Matrix, the humans have been captured and enslaved by an enemy race of artificially intelligent machines. They are kept in a prison unlike any other in existence. Each body is held in a comatose-like state in the dark, devastated remains of a war-torn Earth. However, each mind is living a full and fulfilling life in a virtual world known as the Matrix. Unaware of their true physical condition, the humans see each other and experience a life that mimics the real world. While having no influence outside the virtual realm, any action or choice within the Matrix has real effects that genuinely impact those around them.
A small number of humans, led by their captain Morpheus, have managed to escape the artificial reality of the Matrix. Confined to a freedom ship in the real world, they quest to unite the bodies and minds of the entire human race. Those chosen to be freed are approached within the Matrix and offered the "truth." However, the newly released quickly discover a difficult position awaiting them on the outside: freedom fighter. Because the real world remains a battlefield, freed humans have no autonomy to pursue a role beyond struggling for human independence.
Experience True Freedom
Escaping the grasp of the Matrix releases humans physically, but does not provide the opportunity for freedom. While there is true freedom from the control of the machines, and previously dormant muscles and senses can experience true reality, something distinctly untrue pervades the new life.
Immediately after being released, freed people must heed to a new and apparent authority: the war. Whereas life inside the Matrix was an invisible prison, life in the real world is indentured servitude. The opportunity for freedom, the ability to choose one’s own path through life, is not offered to the newly bound laborers. Even Neo laments the fact that he "can't go back."
Freedom of Opportunity
Conversely, the Matrix offers its inhabitants free reign to pursue any desired life path. And despite being a simulation, the value of such a life cannot be contested within the Matrix; the effect on others’ lives is genuine.
In The Matrix, Cypher has come to the understanding that his life in the real world can never offer the opportunity for freedom. The real world may be free from an omniscient governing entity, but its requirement to fight violates his rights. Cypher's plight reveals the necessity of opportunity and free will when defining freedom. Being free means being able to live out one's own life, even if it is within a virtual environment.
But despite Cypher's reasonable desires for freedom, the movie displays his motives as self-indulgent. His desires for reinsertion into the Matrix seem to be largely based on luxury and sensory satisfaction.
Dealing for Bliss
Disparity Between Worlds
The Matrix displays a stark contrast between the gloomy real world and the vibrant Matrix--emphasizing the luxurious merits of a virtual life over the dismally mechanical setting of freedom.
In the second half of the scene "Dealing for Bliss," Cypher dines in extravagance at a restaurant in the Matrix. Quiet harp music plays in the background as he feasts on tender steak, sips expensive wine, and smokes a large cigar. The lighting uses hues of red and yellow to emphasize warm and upbeat tones. Cypher's pleasure is vividly portrayed as he indulges himself on extravagance. At the end of the scene, however, the music hits a dark and imposing tone that immediately continues through the next scene.
Off to see the oracle
In contrast to Cypher's lavish dining experience, "Off to see the oracle" begins with Tank serving the crew an unrecognizable liquid food from clear pipes. Cool blues and grays replace the warm tones, and all pigment is gone from the characters’ flesh.
Ironically, the real world is just as artificial as the Matrix. With its false light and synthetic food, nothing can be considered natural. Mouse even suggests creating a different false reality to ease the consuming of nutrients: "If you close your eyes, it almost feels like you're eating runny eggs."
In a way, the Matrix takes Mouse’s suggestion to an all-encompassing extreme. Fundamentally, the humans in the Matrix are closing their eyes and having an experience that is perceived different than reality, just as Mouse encourages. Of course, the Matrix is far more advanced and makes the sensations experienced by the brain indistinguishable from truly real ones, but the concept is the same.
Between the Matrix's comforts and its ability to replace the harshness of reality, it is no wonder Cypher sees it as a preferable alternative to the real world. But while the film never hides the allure of the Matrix, it portrays his longings in a very selfish, cynical manner. The fact that he agrees to sacrifice others for his own gain disguises otherwise reasonable motivations.
Living in the Matrix
But to nearly everyone else, the Matrix is a violation of human rights. It is a prime example of modern slavery--going against the very morals and values that holds a free society together.
As James Pryor discusses in his essay, "What's So Bad about Living in the Matrix?", the most unbearable aspect of the Matrix is not the inherent falsehoods of a virtual life but the fact that life and destiny are at the mercy of a malevolent machine society: "In the movie, humans in the Matrix are all slaves. They're not in charge of their own lives…They have only a very limited ability to shape their own futures" (Pryor 58).
Pryor's arguments imply that the machines are actively controlling both body and mind. But within the Matrix, humans are given nearly complete control of their digital lives. They are only prevented from shaping a world of which they have no knowledge. A participant in the Matrix can pursue any end he desires with no obstacles besides merit and determination. Although, his actions will have no impact in the real world.
However, Pryor successfully asserts that lifetimes can easily be lost with a reset of the Matrix. This point demonstrates a much more pressing threat. With the human desire to make a difference, "we don’t want our long-term efforts to be futile" (Pryor 60). It would be a tragedy to all mankind to eliminate and erase the accomplishments, legacies, and connections that had accrued over time.
Is the Real World an Improvement?
The scene "Heroes Unplugged" vividly reveals the faults of life outside the Matrix. While nothing can excuse Cypher's murderous attitude, his feelings are motivated by a real conflict. Having unknowingly traded machine enslavement for human servitude has propelled him to argue against the truth, reality, and freedom of the real world.
Nine years have passed since Cypher's initial release from the Matrix. During that time he has lived without comfort, without reward, in an uninviting, artificial environment. No machine restrains him. But every move is dictated by the benevolent commander Morpheus. Cypher's actions might have a lasting effect on the real world, but they aren't his to decide. And while they may be genuine, his experiences are so limited that they feel much less real.
Ironically, the only way for Cypher to be free to make decisions for himself is to be "enslaved" once again under the watchful, but not imposing, eye of the Matrix. Even Pryor seems to support such a conclusion: "[g]iven the choice…most of us would like humans to be in charge of our own destiny" (Pryor 60). If the only options are the machines' supreme authority or Morpheus's immediate command, the Matrix certainly has the potential to offer the "more real" life Cypher suggests.
The Value of Experience
Some may argue that there is no value to the experiences in the Matrix as nothing occurs in true reality. However, realness has no immediate effect on the value of an item or event in ones life. Experiences within the Matrix do not happen in a vacuum. Everyone is tied into the same intraneural network creating one massive simulation. Interactions and emotions are equally genuine as in the real world. After all, experiences are simply the resultant brain wave activity to a stimulus.
Every experience has true meaning and value, regardless of the reality in which it takes place. Iakovos Vasiliou discusses the uncertainties of reality in his essay “Reality, What Matters, and The Matrix.” Only truth, not value is dependent on anything being "real."
If these [physical] things are not real in the sense that their underlying constitution is radically other than I had believed, that makes no difference to the value that these things have in my life. It does, of course, make a difference to the truth or the physics or metaphysics I learn. But none of this implies that I was being deceived about the reality of the object—that the object I valued was or is not there in the sense that matters to the nonscientist. (Vasiliou 110)
Within the Matrix, only the computer generated world is perceived. Whether or not it exists in a larger context is irrelevant since it is real and worthwhile to those inside. When Trinity asserts that “the Matrix is not real,” she fails to recognize the value of everything that has been created and valued from the alternative frame of reference.
No Sympathy for Murderers
Because The Matrix condemns the inhumanities of slavery and artificial reality, Cypher and his dissent became one of the film's antagonists. The motifs of rebellion and freedom had to far outweigh Cypher’s realizations of reality and perception.
And despite reasonable justifications, the scene “Heroes Unplugged” portrays Cypher as a cynical, selfish, violent, and psychotic detriment to the others. His crude actions and qualities are grossly exaggerated, overpowering any sound argument he makes. The entire scene has one explicit purpose—to ensure no one can sympathize with Cypher. For if Cypher's opinions were deemed to be correct, the movie's entire framework could fail.
Which Would You Choose?
The Power of Free Will
The analysis of The Matrix through Cypher’s situation, reveals not only the faults of the real world, but also the benefits of the Matrix. Even when imprisoned by an enemy, the Matrix is the only place where free will still survives. After all, the machines’ sole motivation for the Matrix was to keep humans happily naive and thus independent within the simulation.
The ability to choose and determine our own futures is what makes our lives real and worthwhile. True freedom is simply not enough if it does not offer free will as well.
Grau, Christopher, ed. Philosophers Explore The Matrix. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Matrix, The. Dirs. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, and Matt Doran. Warner Brothers, 1999. DVD. Warner Home Video, 1999.
Pryor, James. “What’s So Bad about Living in the Matrix.” Christopher Grau 40-61.
Vasilious, Iakovos. “Reality, What Matters, and The Matrix.” Christopher Grau 98-114.
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