By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College
The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions deal specifically with the philosophical concept of free will. For thousands of years, philosophers grappled with the idea of whether we choose our actions freely or they are already determined, and we just act them out. The Matrix sequels bring all of these ideas together.
A Deterministic Universe
Neo, the main character of The Matrix franchise, is informed by the Oracle that to fulfill the prophecies he must go to the computer mainframe called “the Source.” To do that, he has to find the Key Maker who has been abducted by an ancient program called the Merovingian.
When Neo, Morpheus and Trinity find Merovingian in a restaurant, he tells them that “choice is an illusion.” What he is referring to is the idea of determinism, which argues everything in the universe is predetermined and free will is just an illusion. The Merovingian believes we are living in a deterministic universe.
Many philosophers have tried to refute the idea of determinism, but that’s a daunting task. Those who endorse the libertarian notion of free will are usually called agent causation theorists. They think that in order for an action to be free, the causal explanation for why that action occurred must end, ultimately, in the agent—the person—who performed that action. Agents are the ultimate cause of free actions; that’s why there are alternate possibilities.
But if determinism is true, not only are there no alternate possibilities, but agents are not the ultimate cause of their actions. The causal explanation of people’s action traces back all the way to the motion of atoms at the beginning of the universe.
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Quantum Mechanics and Free Will
Technically speaking, the Merovingian is wrong. The universe is not a deterministic system. Quantum mechanics has taught us that determinism is false. On the quantum level, individual events happen randomly and without a cause all the time. And to be clear, it’s not merely that we have so far been unable to predict such events or find their cause. We have actually proved, experimentally, that they have no cause.
Unfortunately, the randomness of quantum events cannot rescue human free will. For one, as philosopher Peter van Inwagen points out, indeterminism is just as incompatible with free will as determinism.
Learn more about the philosophical conundrum of free will and determinism.
The Randomness of Events and Us
Even if our decisions are the consequence of random quantum events in our brain, then we still aren’t free because we aren’t the cause of those events. We can’t be. Nothing is the cause of those events. Indeed, their randomness entails that they are not caused.
Secondly, determinism is still true in a different way. Quantum randomness, which occurs on the micro-level, is essentially averaged out on the macro-level of larger objects. For example, the decay of individual radioactive atoms is random, but if you have a collection of them, you can deterministically predict when half of them will decay.
Adequate Determinism and Compatibilism
The statistical notion of adequate determinism can be used to predict the behavior of larger physical systems despite quantum behavior inside them. Since the brain is such a system, even though it may be impossible to predict specific quantum events within it, the outcome of the brain’s activity is likely deterministic. We may even one day have laws that enable us to predict its behavior.
All of this clearly makes it difficult to defend the notion that humans are free in the libertarian sense. Consequently, some philosophers have suggested an alternate theory of what it means to be free, known as compatibilism.
As the name suggests, these philosophers believe that free will and determinism are compatible. This idea dates all the way back to Aristotle and is defended by modern-day philosophers like John Martin Fischer.
Learn more about Aristotle and the Socratic legacy.
Analysing the Agent’s Action
The essence of the suggestion is that an agent freely performs an action as long as that action flows or follows from some part of the agent. To modify Fischer’s argument, which was originally about moral responsibility, we might say that an agent’s action is free as long as it is the result of a conscious rational deliberative process.
If the agent thinks about what to do, and then the outcome of that process causes the agent’s action, then the agent has acted freely. The problem with this understanding of free will is that it doesn’t align with our intuitions about what free will is.
According to the theory, as long as you are acting in accordance with the consequence of your rational deliberation, then you are acting freely—even if outside forces are what ultimately caused that rational deliberation to occur as it did.
Common Questions about The Matrix Universe and the Fight to Reclaim Free Will
Philosophers who endorse the libertarian notion of free will are usually called agent causation theorists. According to this theory, for an action to be free, the causal explanation for why that action occurred must end, ultimately, in the agent—the person—who performed that action. Agents are the ultimate cause of free actions; that’s why there are alternate possibilities.
On the quantum level, individual events happen randomly and without a cause, all the time. But the randomness of quantum events cannot rescue human free will. Indeterminism is just as incompatible with free will as determinism is. Even if our decisions are the result of random quantum events in our brain, we still aren’t free because we aren’t the cause of those events.
Compatibilism suggests that free will and determinism are compatible. The essence of the suggestion is that an agent freely performs an action as long as that action flows or follows from some part of the agent.