By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College
The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions can be considered the most underrated sci-fi sequels of all time as they were largely panned so viciously by critics and audiences. However, they both represent fundamental philosophical ideas that when combined with the unique visual effects and storytelling, become especially striking.
A War of Philosophy
One of the main criticisms of the sequels The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions is that while the first movie hit the philosophical nail on the head, the philosophy of the sequels is jumbled. They just try to sound philosophically sophisticated. However, they tackle philosophical topics clearly and directly—especially the topic of free will.
Reloaded opens with the revelation that the machines are digging their way to Zion, the underground home city of the remaining humans. The machines intend to destroy it. Morpheus sees it as an act of desperation because of a recent exponential increase in the number of people they’ve been freeing from the Matrix.
He believes Neo will soon fulfill the Oracle’s prophecy and end the war between humans and machines. When the Oracle offers him a piece of candy, Neo asks her a simple question: If she already knows whether he is going to take it, how can he freely choose whether to take it? With this, the Wachowskis are borrowing from a philosophical problem that goes as far back as the 6th century and a philosopher named Boethius.
Boethius believed that God’s perfection entails God has foreknowledge of the future. But if God knows what we will do before we do it, Boethius asked, how can we freely decide to do what we do?
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Philosopher Nelson Pike clarified the problem in the 20th century. According to the traditional understanding of free will, known as the libertarian understanding, to freely choose to do something we must have alternate possibilities.
Choosing and not choosing to do the action in question must both be possible. When we deliberate about whether to do something, we honestly believe that both options are possible.
But if God already knows we are going to choose to do something, let’s call it action A, then not deciding to do that action is impossible.
The reason is to be able to decide not to do action A, we must either have the power to make God’s past belief false—which we can’t do since God can’t be wrong—or have the power to change what God’s past belief was—which we can’t do since the past is fixed. Once something has occurred, we can’t make it un-occur.
Do We Have a Choice?
Now, to be clear, the argument is not suggesting that God makes us decide to do action A. But the fact that God already knows that we will do action A, logically entails that we can’t decide to do otherwise. The only thing possible is what God sees we would do. And thus, when we do A, we are not deciding to do so freely.
It’s like watching a movie in a theater. As we are watching the film, it might appear as if any ending is possible, but there is only one ending: The ending that’s already written, that already exists on the reel of film feeding through the projector.
Learn more about Star Wars: good versus evil.
Choice Is an Illusion
So the existence of the foreknowing Oracle in the Matrix universe raises a series of questions, grounded in classic philosophy, about whether the humans in the movie have free will.
The Oracle goes on to tell Neo that to fulfill the prophecy and end the war, Neo must make his way to the computer mainframe, called “the Source.” And he can only do so with the help of the Key Maker—kidnapped by an ancient program called the Merovingian. And when Neo, Morpheus and Trinity find the Merovingian in a French restaurant, he too raises serious doubts about free will.
Morpheus thinks they have chosen to be there, but the Merovingian argues that “Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without … [T]here is only one constant, one universal … causality—action, reaction, cause, and effect.”
Determinism in Ancient Philosophy
The mentioned quote is rooted in a philosophical argument called determinism, an idea which itself goes all the way back to ancient philosophers Leucippus and Democritus. Determinism is a hypothesis where the universe is a deterministic system.
A deterministic system in which everything that happens is a causal effect of physical events governed by physical laws. An example would be a billiards/pool table. Once you break, with perfect knowledge of the physics, you could predict the path of every ball by simply doing the math. The philosopher Pierre-Simon Laplace imagined a super-intelligent demon able to do this with the entire universe.
Like those philosophers before him, the Merovingian thinks the universe is a deterministic system and that our brains—which cause our actions—are just a part of that system.
Learn more about the force and fate in The Adjustment Bureau.
Determinism and Free Will Are Incompatible
If the Merovingian is right, according to Christian philosopher Peter van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument, free will indeed is an illusion.
If determinism is true, everything that happens is a consequence of the laws of physics and past facts—facts as distant as the big bang. Nothing else could happen but what they entail, and no human has ever had any choice or control over the laws of physics or distant past events.
Indeed, if our brain is just another part of that physical system—basically a biological machine—then we could, with the proper knowledge, like Laplace’s demon, simply look at the brain and predict how it will respond to any given stimuli, just like we could predict the behavior of a program.
It’s all just a result of how it’s components, whether they are microchips or neurons, are wired. And since our brains are responsible for our actions, if determinism is true, our behavior is perfectly predictable and thus not free.
Common Questions about The Matrix Sequels: Free Will Vs. Determinism
According to libertarian or traditional understanding of free will, to freely choose to do something, we must have alternate possibilities.
Determinism is the concept that the universe is a deterministic system, meaning everything that happens is a causal result of physical events governed by physical laws.
According to Peter van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument, free will is an illusion.