Simulated Living: The Matrix, Existential Nihilism, and the Shortcomings of Technology

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The Matrix. While it works as an allegory for nonconformity, and an army of G-Men that assimilate random civilians into their network, it’s best known for making people question the realness of their surroundings. Are we real? Living in a simulation? Researchers like Nick Bostrom have explored this possibility in academia, and it seems every few years someone with a social platform reintroduces the idea into the public consciousness.

While such technology may one day be possible, and if Bostrom is right it may have already happened, the way life was lived in 1999, and even more so in 2017, gives us reason to consider uploading our consciousness into a simulated world and unlock the well of power and potential buried deep inside. Or are we really searching for something else entirely?

Being is Boring

The Matrix

Life is routine. Monotonous cycles of work, miscellaneous tasks, and sleep are typically broken up by periodic diversions and random chance. For most, tomorrow will look like today, as will the next day, and the one to follow. It’s a consequence of being able to think abstractly and live for a relatively long time. Together, these two things contribute to a long tradition of listlessness and lack of fulfillment that’s defined the common man since the days of classical philosophy.

In the Matrix, Thomas “Neo” Anderson is that common man, haunted by this existential nihilism. Neo’s life has no meaning. He works at a job he isn’t excited about, organizes his free time around it, and is desperately searching for something to justify the existence of the world around him. On good days he’s bored, and he probably prefers it to the alternative.

Philosopher Blaise Pascal focused intently on the enduring unhappiness of man in his collection of thoughts, Pensées. Whether it’s the 17th Century, 1999, or 2017, Pascal noted that living in a modern world means having access to abundance, a means to satisfy every instinctive desire that we could ever conceive of. Yet it does nothing to hinder the ability to remain dissatisfied.

The companion anthology film, the Animatrix, also features characters with the same problems as Neo. Some start off with the best circumstances, able to express discontent with their job or feigning interest in their friends and the problems that attempt to divert their attention from the pointlessness of it all. Then there are times where introspection lingers, and the weight of existence becomes to much to bear.

The Matrix

For Pascal, having access to modern means to meet our desires isn’t the same as finding fulfillment in existence. Existentialists, like Martin Heidegger, base their work on Pascal’s and might argue that Neo would be better off if he could find a connection to his fellow man or nature. Pascal would say that he needs a god.

Pascal’s Wager argues that a rational person, despite what they know to be true, would choose to believe in the Christian God. If it turns out that deity exists, they will find eternity in heaven after death, and being wrong simply meant dying. In the end, there’s no downside, but there’s also the added benefit of living a good Christian life, which Pascal argued would fight back the intrinsic nihilism that life drops on our shoulders.

Zion has its own religion, and several of the crew members aboard the Nebuchadnezzar are followers, but Morpheus is the true believer. With faith and scripture handed down by the Oracle, Morpheus has been given a lifelong mission to find “the One,” essentially a reincarnated god that will end the war with the machines, free humanity from their simulated prisons, and nurture Zion’s growth.

Pascal’s Wager is harder to make in a world with advanced technology. Objective problems like disease and death are pushed back, limitations in communication and education are bridged by the ubiquity of technology. This reduces the reliance on gods to solve problems and provide purpose. If you were to look around you’d see the role of religion decreasing in public life, and its remaining adherents reacting to that change in society. Even in 1999 Neo was living in a world where “God is dead,” and technology stands tall above all else.

Technology has afforded the 21st century an opportunity to make sense of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous saying “existence precedes essence.” Like Pascal, Sartre, indeed all of existentialism, sees people as lacking until they recognize the nothingness at the center of their being.

Simone de Beauvoir (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre (right)

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world–and defines himself afterward. If man as the existentialist sees him as not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, then he will be what he makes of himself.

Jean-Paul Sartre

From nothing to something, that’s the goal. While we’re shackled to monotony and expectations, Neo is tethered to the Matrix, realizes he’s one pod in a row of a billion identical pods, and, with enough exposure to reality, is free to make choices to define himself. To potentially escape the nihilism that follows us, we too have to break free, but not everyone becomes a fashionable, zen-calm, kung-fu-fighting demigod. When given the chance to embrace freedom, many people make objectively destructive decisions.

Aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, there’s one unabashed non-believer, Cypher. He comfortably jokes about religion, questions the wisdom of the faith Morpheus holds so dear, and turns hostile when belief can’t measure up to the evidence of life’s pointlessness. Unlike Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus, Cypher has accepted the pointlessness of existence and rejects the possibility of the supernatural. He hasn’t moved far from the starting position of the Matrix. If Neo was shuffling like a corporate zombie at MetaCortex and dreaming of a more meaningful life at his desk at home, is it any different from Cypher drinking moonshine to numb his distaste for living while floating on a hovercraft through the ruins of the real world?

The Matrix

To remedy this situation, Cypher, like a lot of people, chooses distraction. In a dinner with Agent Smith, Cypher agrees to betray Morpheus in exchange for the life of a celebrity within the Matrix. It’s a wager made with technology to replace the wager Pascal would’ve suggested.

In his observation of kings, which are largely celebrities in the modern world, Pascal notes that the diversions offered by wealth and celebrity don’t last. Eventually, diversion dies out, and the king returns to reflect on the frivolity of it all, putting him back into a position where he yearns for a life that doesn’t leave him feeling so empty.

If we live in an era where gods have been replaced by evolving technology that radically transforms daily life, can we do anything but balance obsessing over our place in the world and collecting diversions to distract us from that truth? Yes, but it might involve even more reliance on technology.

All in Your Head

The Animatrix

Mouse: How did the machines know what Tasty Wheat tasted like, huh? Maybe they got it wrong. Maybe what I think Tasty Wheat tasted like actually tasted like oatmeal or tuna fish. That makes you wonder about a lot of things. You take chicken, for example, maybe they couldn’t figure out what to make chicken taste like, which is why chicken tastes like everything.

The debate over the taste of their goop is the crew making sense of qualia, subjective perceptions of objective experiences that can’t be articulated coherently. When Mouse eats his daily goop, he’s unsure that what he tastes is what Neo is tasting, and there’s no way to accurately describe what he’s tasting with enough accuracy to compare.

Qualia in the Matrix universe is the basis for the Animatrix, an anthology of nine short films that intersect with the live-action trilogy. Trinity plays a significant role in A Detective Story, and she pairs up with Neo to wake up Popper in Kid’s Story. More substantial connections move into the video game Enter the Matrix, where Niobe and Ghost retrieve a message from Jue, which turns out to be the video Thadeus records in Final Flight of the Osiris. This sets up the conflicts in the Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, were we finally see Popper, Trinity, and Neo interact in live-action.

Animation in the Matrix universe suggests that every character has their own version of reality to experience. Yoko looks for her missing cat in a fairly typical anime version of Tokyo. Thadeus and Jue sword fight in a CGI construct that mimics our objective world. Ash inhabits a noir, retro-futuristic Manhattan where style stagnates but makes room for technology. They’re all intended to be the same dual realities Neo crosses in the trilogy, filtered by the subjective interpretations of each individual plugged into the Matrix.

The Animatrix

Qualia is popular among philosophical dualists like Rene Descartes, who argued that the body and mind existed with some degree of separation, which put objective reality into question since it’s always filtered through the senses. This would explain how Tasty Wheat can taste like chicken or tuna, why there can be several representations of the same realities. Relying on senses also means that the mind can’t distinguish physical interactions and thought; a person could be awake, asleep, or in a simulation and never be able to tell the difference.

There’s no end to the lines about “freeing your mind” in the Matrix universe, deliberately separating the “mind” from the organ that is the brain. This is another Cartesian staple. Morpheus ambiguously tells Neo that his mind is the key to leaping over city streets, Descartes would say that his mind is actually his immortal soul, sitting in the pineal gland at the center of his brain. From here one would ascend to heaven and become more than they formerly were. In the Matrix, connecting to a port situated in the same spot can turn people into godlike martial artists that dodge bullets and out-fly explosions.

Whole Brain Emulation (WBE) is just one life-extension prospect that takes Cartesian thinking to its high-tech conclusion. Researchers in the WBE field hope to one day recreate consciousness to new platforms, whether that be a super computer, a robot body, or a complex simulation like San Junipero. A Matrix by choice.

AI researchers like Marvin Minsky and philosophers like Daniel Dennett point out the fallacy in this thinking. For Dennett, in order for qualia to exist and the mind to be something simple enough to be transferred to another platform would require a Cartesian Theater, a place in the brain where a homunculus sits and collects all experience to create a consciousness. In order to do this, that homunculus would need a theater of its own. How else could it process any information without a brain? And on and on it would go–an endless series of theaters with progressively smaller homunculi watching all we do. It’s clearly not how the brain processes experiences.

Minsky more simply points out that language is a system limited in its expression. Just because we can’t describe Tasty Wheat’s taste minutely enough to compare doesn’t make it a unique dish to each of us. It’s all the same goop.

The Animatrix

Hundreds of years of medical research have discarded Descartes’ idea of how consciousness works, but the brain remains astonishingly complex. Too complex to have a single gland act as a hard drive collecting all we are. This calls some prospects of life-extension into question. While WBE will need technological advancements to be actualized, what it aims to do is not too different from what countless mythologies promise with their respective afterlife expectations.

Will science technology, at some point, come full circle and replace religions entirely and provide an actual life after death? That remains to be seen. What is clear is that many are placing expectations in technology, to give existence meaning in a way religion once had, to extend life beyond nature’s limits, without addressing the shadow cast over humanity and how it might follow us into the next rung of our development.

Nothing Matters or: Making Peace with Absurdity

The Animatrix

The last short in the Animatrix, “Matriculation,” was written and directed by Peter Chung, creator of Aeon Flux, which is also about people finding a reason to go on living in a future that has no place for anyone.

Each night, Alexa and Baby, her lemur, scout for machines they can lure back to base. There the crew converts them to fight for humans through a psychedelic trip that mirrors what Morpheus did for Neo.

Where Chung differs from the Wachowskis in exploring the mind is that he doesn’t rhapsodize over its perceived power. Instead, Alexa sits in a very comfortable place of uncertainty. With access to most of the technology aboard the Nebuchadnezzar and an actual engineer able to make sense of the machines, Alexa and her crew not only understand the real world and the Matrix but arguably have a more nuanced relationship with both than any of the other crews. This leaves Alexa unimpressed with either reality and aware of her limitations. She even goes out of her way to refute Cartesian interpretations of the senses, stating emphatically that she knows the difference between dreaming and the real world.

Understanding the world for what it is matters, but as we know from Cypher, it’s not enough to be comfortable with life as it is. But it doesn’t seem like Alexa’s life is mission-oriented either. This crew doesn’t live in or seem to have contact with Zion, they don’t share a ship like the crew of the Osiris, Logos, or Nebuchadnezzar, they don’t even seem to have a connection to the Matrix, just a construct.

If Alexa and Baby didn’t go out each night, there’s a possibility that the crew could avoid the machines and enjoy some relative peace and safety for a time. Risking that, as French philosopher Albert Camus would say, is absurd.

The Animatrix

Doing things and finding joy in that despite knowing that there’s no intrinsic meaning behind one’s existence is Absurdism. In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus explained what humans ought to do when burdened by the weight of the inescapable darkness that casts a shadow on the lives of everyone is to imagine “Sisyphus happy” while he eternally rolls a boulder up a hill.

For Camus, most people are like Neo, Ash, Yoko and anyone who calls the Matrix home. Though they’re in a more advantageous position than any other era in human history when it comes to having concrete answers for why the world is the way it is, still we want there to be some special corner carved out just for us; we want significance to be a product of our being, not God, not technology.

Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.

Albert Camus

Accepting that indifference is how reality reacts to the presence of humanity is what frees Alexa from the trap that’s ensnared the rest. She has a task that occupies and fulfills her, enjoys her time with the rest of the crew, and remains unconcerned with the probability of nihilism returning by accepting that there is much she doesn’t know and never will. What matters is that night’s run.

Conclusion

The Animatrix

People are contradictory. We want to be sure that we’re given the truth, and at the same time, we create narratives that we want our lives to follow. Those desires conflict. This is one reason why some may choose to be selective in their acceptance of science in favor of religion, because with it suddenly life has a mission, an end goal, and they have a desire to accomplish their task in it. But statistics point to religiosity losing favor with each passing year. Science and technology have made the world less mystical, and this only makes us more pensive over our place in it.

At the end of “Matriculation,” the crew is slaughtered by machines, but the captured runner survives long enough to connect Alexa’s dead body to the construct. Immediately there’s a reaction to being reconnected after death, and it’s not the pleasant experience life-extension proponents would agree with.

Will science find a way to upload consciousness to digital platforms without duplication? Are we sitting in a simulation right now? Are we just non-playable characters in a sophisticated video game? It ultimately doesn’t matter. The philosophical quagmires that define being human will follow us into transhuman life. Even when we look at the programs inside the Matrix like Agent Smith, Persephone, and the Merovingian we see humanity reflected, dissatisfied with their simulated world, their place in it, or just wanting a way out. Not because there wasn’t an interesting way to write AI as a character but because technology that imitates humanity will inherit our flaws.

The Matrix

Agent Smith: I’m going to be honest with you. I hate this place, this zoo, this prison, this reality, whatever you want to call it. I can’t stand it any longer. I must get out of here.

There’s no innovating around the pointlessness of existence, and supernatural explanations for the mundanity of life only cloud our reading of objective reality. Short of becoming the One, what’s the solution to overcoming this hurdle? There isn’t one.

Whether deliberately or by chance, Camus’s solutions to dealing with absurdity occur several times in the Matrix franchise: people can either let existential nihilism drive them to kill themselves, directly or indirectly; ignore it through diversions, however small they may be; or find a reason to keep going by accepting that it’s all absurd.

If you’d like to delve deeper into some of these ideas, you can check out the complete Matrix series, Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, Daniel Dennet’s Consciousness Explained, and/or Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.

3 Responses to “Simulated Living: The Matrix, Existential Nihilism, and the Shortcomings of Technology”

  1. Interesting writings as I was recently contemplating a few of the concepts of self which are discussed. The idea of what we know and what we do with what we know. Is that carrot in front of you what you desire to believe to follow or is it a picture of a carrot that you blindly follow? I enjoyed the different philosophies expressed throughout the series of the matrix because it ends at the most important one; choice. Cogito ergo sum. Cheers DR!

  2. Isaac L. Wheeler (Veritas)

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article, we strive to make the underlying philosophy of cyberpunk works more accessible. And I personally think about this stuff all the time.

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