The Philosophy of the Matrix Part II: Fate, Free Will, and Choice

Note: The observations made here are meant to generate discussion and demonstrate how The Matrix explores these ideas. The ideas do not necessarily reflect my views upon the subject and are not attempting to convince anyone to adopt a certain stance.

For all I know, this could be a really explicit image.

Life is full of choices. From the moment we get out of bed in the morning, we are barraged with them. Some of these are so mundane and casual that we are not aware we are making them without taking them for granted. Getting out of bed is itself a choice that required subtle, if quick (mileage may vary), deliberation. What if our choices are predetermined for us? Do we really have choices then? Are we culpable for our actions if they are predetermined? These are questions which philosophers have wrestled over for as long as we have had speech. The answers to these questions have sweeping implications for beliefs, justice, and how we perceive choice. The Matrix Trilogy explores these themes as deeply as any film.

To make a solid case for any of existing camps of determinism would be the work of many novels and ill-suited to an article using a Hollywood Blockbuster as its basis. Partially because the many branches of determinism have been inadequate and unconvincing in one way or another. There is a reason the debate of fate (or “determinism”) versus free will continues today. There is a great deal of emotion regarding the debate which clouds judgment and prevents productive conversation. Neo and Morpheus demonstrate this frustration in an exchange in The Matrix. “Do you believe in fate, Neo?” Morpheus asks. “No.” Neo answers and when pressed for more he adds “Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.” It doesn’t take a philosopher to see the hole in his argument: it’s not an argument. He chooses not to believe in fate because he doesn’t like it. That’s not logic at work, it’s preference. Interestingly enough, however, The Matrix Trilogy has an Oracle.

Free Will Cookies smell good, don’t they?

The Oracle is a unique character in The Matrix. She is a program designed to intuit human behavior. The Architect, of The Matrix ReLoaded infamy, described her best: “…an intuitive program, initially created to investigate certain aspects of the human psyche. If I am the father of the matrix, she would undoubtedly be its mother.” The Oracle seems to posses supernatural intuition into the future but it’s unknown how much of that is due to her understanding of the human psyche or if her talents are truly supernatural, but it is clear she is aware of certain eventualities before they happen. She demonstrates this to Neo by telling him not to worry about a vase he would go on to break as he asks her what vase she’s talking about. It seems like a decidedly Hard Deterministic perspective initially, meaning that free will does not exist and that vase was bound to break, but she immediately throws a wrench in that by suggesting compatiblist determinism ‘What’s really gonna bake your noodle later on is: “Would you have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?”’ So then, does the Oracle just see what will happen if certain choices are made? Or is that even her function?

Cipher was wrong. Everything tastes like chicken because the colonel designed it so.

As it turns out, The Architect actually serves many of the functions we would expect the Oracle to serve. He’s the one who presents the ultimate choice in the matrix’s conundrum. The Architect ensures that events transpire which provide, essentially, a controlled burn of the Zion population. The revolution against the machines is orchestrated to vent out the frustrations humanity feels under such control: the very same frustration Neo feels about fate. Does that mean all of humanity, Neo included, are devoid of choice? On the contrary, great lengths are gone to in order to eliminate the element of choice from humanity. Even that does not quite work as Neo does not make the choice he is painstakingly groomed to make.

So it the Architect serves as the Matrix’s greatest challenge to free will, then what is the Oracle? Oracles are oftentimes the greatest expression of compatablism and this Oracle is no different. She may know where each choice leads, but that does not mean there is no choice at all. Even if that seems to be the case. “You didn’t come here to make a choice, you’ve already made it. You’re here to understand why you made it.”

Fate is a hard pill to swallow.

The Matrix supposes that free will DOES exist. We have agency and that agency gives us responsibility for our actions. The results of our choices are predetermined, but our choices remain. It’s no coincidence that one of the most iconic visuals in the trilogy, a red and blue pill, effectively illustrate a choice with two decidedly determined results.

About nuclearfish2013

Graduated top of my class in the school of hard knocks. I live in Raleigh, NC with my wife and (allegedly) zero kids. I work for a Property Management Company, create pointless trivia games, and manage various social projects. I'm as boring on a job application as I am an "About Me" page.
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