“The Matrix”: Soul and Free Will

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy

By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College

While the first Matrix movie addressed the problem of reality and simulation, the second and third parts in the franchise focused more on the philosophical notion of free will. Many argue the sequels diminished the value of the first masterpiece. But at least from a philosophical point of view, this claim is unwarranted.

Four wind-up men walking with no free will, one man walks opposite them.
The Matrix sequels address the problem of free will. (Image: rudall30/Shutterstock)

The Problem of Foreknowledge

The Matrix sequels address the issue of human freedom, foreknowledge problem, determinism, the consequence argument, and our nature as biological machines.

Upon their last meeting in Revolutions, the Oracle admits to Neo that she cannot “see beyond a choice [she does] not understand.” This seems to mean two things: she can’t see beyond her own choices, but she also can’t see beyond choices that are truly free.

In The Matrix: Reloaded, Agent Smith becomes a computer virus, copying himself over and over onto other programs. By the third movie in the franchise, Revolutions, Smith has taken over a large portion of the Matrix, and the machines outside the Matrix rightly fear that he will start taking them over too. In an effort to stop him, the Oracle chooses to let Smith copy himself onto her, thus absorbing all her powers, including her ability to predict the future.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

I Choose, Therefore I Can

The Machines plug Neo directly into the Matrix so that he can square off with Smith one last time. Smith chooses the copy of himself that overwrote the Oracle to face Neo. Neo keeps getting beaten down and yet still continues to fight. Smith asks him, “Why do you persist?” Neo’s response is simple, “Because I choose to.”

Once Smith has smashed Neo to the ground one last time, the Oracle’s foresight kicks in. But when Neo chooses to get up again, Smith is surprised. That was supposed to be the end. Smith doesn’t realize the limits of the Oracle’s power— that she can’t see past free choices—in this case, seeing past whether Neo will choose to keep fighting.

Now uncertain of the future, and thus fearful of Neo, Smith panics and copies himself onto Neo. This gives the machine’s direct access to Smith, and they purge the system of Smith, killing Neo in the process.

Learn more about the ideas concerning truth, knowledge, and reality through The Matrix.

Understanding the Soul

What’s philosophically disappointing about the films is that, even though they advocate for the idea that humans have free will, they actually give us no reason to think so. They don’t provide any logical basis for how Neo can act freely. He just does, like magic.

A magician is showing a hat magic trick.
It seems the Wachowskis resort to magic to prove free will. (Image: vchal/Shutterstock)

We might perhaps get the impression that Neo is able to act freely because he has a soul. A soul is thought to be the immaterial part of a person—what houses our mentality and floats away with it when we die.

It’s what determines our personality; it’s where our emotions are felt and our decisions are made. And, some might argue, freewill resides in the soul, which is beyond the physical world.

Everything about the soul is a complete mystery. It’s supposedly nonmaterial, but that’s not a useful description. If it’s not material, then what is it? And how can something that is not material—and so has no location, no mass, and takes no space—moves something that does?

The Problem of Downwards Causation

This is called the problem of downwards causation, and it has yet to receive a satisfactory answer. Most philosophers doubt the existence of a soul. For one, when it comes to existential matters—about whether something exists—the burden of proof is on the believer. Your own personal introspection might reveal that your mind exists, but it does not reveal that your mind is housed in a separable nonmaterial object.

Indeed, the evidence actually suggests that our mentality is a product of select portions of our brain and that mental activity cannot exist in the absence of such brain activity.

We’ve come to know this, most interestingly, through cases where people have had specific portions of their brain damaged and correspondingly lost the ability to perform specific mental functions.

Learn more about the brain.

Irreducible Emergent Properties of the Brain

An illustration of the human soul.
A soul is thought to be the immaterial part of a person. (Image: Benjavisa Ruangvaree Art /Shutterstock)

Some philosophers argue that, due to their complexity, parts of the brain have irreducible emergent properties—properties that are inexplicable in terms of their parts but that are produced by the whole; conscious mental properties that have causal powers above and beyond the physical substrate from which they emerge. If so, perhaps this could explain free will.

But this suggestion is also problematic. First, it’s not clear that irreducible emergent properties can exist. Emergent properties—properties by a whole but not by its parts—are certainly real. For example, no molecule of H2O has liquidity, but the ocean certainly does. But its liquidity is explicable in virtue of the interaction of the molecules that make it up. So how mental properties could be irreducible remains a mystery.

More Problems with the Theory

Second, mental properties making bodies move would seem to violate well-established laws of physics, like the conservation of energy and the causal closure of the physical world. The causal powers of such properties would be adding energy to an otherwise closed system.

And third, psychologists like Benjamin Libet have actually studied decision-making in the brain and found that parts of the brain from which our decisions seem to originate aren’t conscious.

The conscious experience of “making a free decision as a result of a rational deliberation” seems to be just an illusory byproduct of unconscious processes. In the final analysis, as much as we want to believe in free will, it seems the evidence tips the balance in favor of determinism.

Common Questions about The Matrix, Soul and Free Will

Q: Could The Matrix franchise provide any satisfactory evidence for the existence of free will?

No, even though the movies advocate for the idea that humans have a soul and free will, they actually give us no reason to think so.

Q: Why do most philosophers doubt the existence of the soul?

When it comes to existential matters—about whether something exists—like the existence of the soul and free will, the burden of proof is on the believer, and it cannot be proven whether the soul exists. Also, they believe that the concept of the soul and any other mental activity is a product of the brain.

Q: How can we explain free will and the soul based on emergent properties theory?

Some philosophers argue that, due to their complexity, parts of the brain have irreducible emergent properties—properties that are inexplicable in terms of their parts but that are produced by the whole. Soul and free will can arise from the sum total of the brain and not a specific part of it.

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