Concepts, Control and Choice Between the Matrix Trilogy and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
The human mind may be seen as a sophisticated computing machine which has for its object of thought that which we call reality. In a certain sense, scientific knowledge and technological developments continuously define and redefine our sense of what is real. Questions concerning reality are questions that are paradigmatically philosophical. A paradigmatically philosophical question is a question that is both familiar and strange. This familiarity and strangeness of reality manifests itself when we try to ask ourselves the question:
What is reality? On a preliminary note, both The Matrix Trilogy and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave present us with fundamental questions concerning reality and knowledge. Moreover, both The Matrix and Plato present us with questions concerning a very important characterization of the human being: our capacity for choice which is built upon the concepts of rationality and autonomy. As rational and autonomous beings, we are responsible for the choices that we make.
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In 514a of Plato’s work called Republic, he offers the Allegory of the Cave as an analogy for the educational progress or enlightenment of the soul.
In Plato’s theory of the Divided Line, he uses the sun as a metaphor for the Form of the Good, which for him, is the proper object of thought. It is important to note that Plato assigns an ontological status to the Forms. The Forms are real, so to speak. In the allegory of the cave, he uses a surrogate metaphor for the sun: the fire within the cave. The main thrust of the Allegory of the Cave is to contrast life within the cave with the life outside of it. The cave, in Plato’s work, is a prison wherein the individuals dwell in the world of semblances.
Inside the cave, the prisoners only see shadows of objects produced by the light coming from the fire. Plato uses the object-image metaphor to illustrate this point. What we may thus infer is that knowledge and reality, in Plato’s account of them in the Allegory of the Cave, comes in degrees. Regarding this particular differentiation between object and image and the real from a mere semblance or copy, Cornford writes that Plato views “…a world of intelligible Forms separate from the things our senses perceive” (2).
In effect, Plato envisions reality as that which is absolute and accessible only through thought in contrast with mere semblances or copies that we find in the sensible world. Whereas Plato considers reality as absolute, the Matrix Trilogy depicts not just a reality but ‘realities’ which overlap each other. Morpheus presents Neo with a dilemma when the latter has to make a choice between which pill to take. The evidence of the aforementioned necessity to choose is evident as Morpheus states that “no one can be told what the Matrix is (since its existence is something that one ought) to see for one’s self”.
In this sense, the discovery of reality is to be understood as an act which involves the reacquisition of a new perspective in which one may understand reality per se. According to Irwin, the similitude of Plato’s conception of the Forms in relation to the conception of reality as presented within the aforementioned text is evident if one considers that “as with the Forms, it is not a literal ‘seeing’ (which is involved) but a direct knowing that brings understanding of the Matrix” (14). In the movie, the red pill stands for ‘truth’ which eventually allows Neo to see behind the deceiving reality produced by the matrix.
In very important respects, the red pill also stands for the biblical interpretation associated with the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden. In the film, the red pill induced the discovery that the world in which Neo lives is not real but a mere virtual reality (Lloyd 32). The fact of the matter is that Neo’s body is stored in a body farm with his mind plugged into the matrix. It is not difficult to see the apparent similarity with this state of affairs with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In effect, we may say that Neo and the prisoners in the cave are in a state of illusion.
Both Neo and the prisoners in the cave are presented with two options: to remain in the state of illusion or to liberate themselves from the virtual reality of the matrix or the shadows in the cave. The meaning of human life then, its purpose and moral integrity in a physical or bodily existence in the context of The Matrix is to be found in human beings’ opposition to the illusions produced by the Matrix or in a more academic terminology, ‘technological modernity’ and by restoring the natural world.
In today’s world, there is a clamor for a paradigm shift in terms of adapting to the demands of modernity. Such a shift is considered by Beck as necessary when he writes that: A new kind of capitalism, a new kind of economy, a new kind of global order, a new kind of politics and law, a new kind of society and personal life are in the making which both separately and in context are clearly distinct from earlier phases of social evolution (81). In line with this, it is important to note Agent Smith’s initial explanation as to the creation of the Matrix.
According to Agent Smith, the Matrix was “designed to be a perfect human world where none suffered”. The result of the design, however, remained as an ideal. Agent Smith noted that the reason for this lies in the imperfection of the programming language used to depict that perfect world. He notes, “I believe that as species human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from”. Questions concerning the meaning and purpose of human life are further explored on Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolution.
They provide more complicated and dialectical approach of what it means for a human being to live in a technological world. The aforementioned complexity may be inferred from comparing the possibilities that are evident in the presentation of the worlds in the three movies. It is important to note that in the first movie, the matrix and the machine from which it gets its sustenance only seems to provide less complicated and normative possibilities evident in its ‘either-or’ presentation.
It is at this particular aspect point where one may say that Reloaded and Revolution provide a more appropriate construal of the human condition. These two were able to explore not only the diametrically opposing views on technology and human society but also their complex interdependence. It is not difficult to see that the moral dilemma posed by Reloaded and Revolution then, is not simply to escape from our technological milieu, but to discover and rediscover what it is that enables us to be and to remain ‘human’ within such a world.
Furthermore, the narrative suggests that the threat of a nihilistic instrumentalism is to be found, not simply in the external world of technological devices and systems prima facie, but in that moral and metaphysical trajectory underlying a mechanistic technoscience. The urgent task that it points to is thus to contest the nihilism of the Baconian dream and to recover those deeper sources that can sustain moral and spiritual experience and relationship even within a highly technologically advanced world.
Another important aspect that ought to be given emphasis is the ‘divide’ existing behind those who know the truth [or reality] and those who do not know. Zion, the last bastion of humanity, represents that which is real. Why is it important to point out the so called divide? The answer is rather obvious. This particular aspect further generates systems of power and power relations. In a certain sense, it maintains political power.
Whoever creates the divide, the fake choice, is placed at the point of authority and ultimate control. Withholding the knowledge of one world from another is simply a tool of this control – and the Plato’s Cave, so often referred to in discussions on The Matrix, does not necessarily have to refer to Zion alone. It represents any society where the knowledge is withheld from both sides of the divide, and where the self-examination of each group is discouraged of stepping over into examination of the whole system.
Mindful of the points of convergence between the Matrix Trilogy and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in terms of their themes and philosophical underpinnings, we may safely add that both of them employed, in one way or another, the use of myths and metaphors in terms accounting for the concept of reality. If we are to characterize the ancient mind, we may say that it thinks in terms of metaphors. Metaphorical thinking is still one of the ways in and through which we try to explain and appropriate for ourselves various phenomena.
One may take the time to consider how, for instance, we used to explain to ourselves that ‘the universe is a machine’. This was the metaphor during the time of Leibniz which continued to flourish in the advent of scientific reductionism. There remains, however, a significant difference in the Matrix Trilogy and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Whereas, the path to Zion, the representation of that which is real requires Neo and the others to rebel against the matrix for them to be able to liberate themselves, the path to Plato’s Form of the Good, that which is real, requires introspection and a life of contemplation.
This is because Plato is primarily concerned with questions of ontology than questions of politics or even ethics. In the case of the Allegory of the Cave, Plato seeks to explain the nature of reality and knowledge. He is concerned with the liberation of the mind from ignorance and dogmatism. Human beings’ capacity for reason is what distinguishes them from other forms of life in the universe. Rationality is an excellence of the noble soul.