[This piece contains spoilers]
The Matrix, a science fiction film created by the Wachowskis, is probably one of the most influential movies ever made. The story starts when computer programmer Thomas Anderson, operating as a hacker under the alias “Neo,” discovers the truth about the world he’s living in, as he becomes aware of the existence of something known as “The Matrix.” After looking for a man named Morpheus who can tell him more about the Matrix, he encounters another hacker named Trinity. After a failed attempt (which led to Agent Smith capturing and bugging him), Trinity takes Neo to Morpheus.
Morpheus vaguely describes the Matrix as this all-encompassing prison, as the world that has been pulled over Neo’s eyes, blinding him from the truth. He also admits that no one can be told what the Matrix is: “you have to see it for yourself,” he states.
So, Neo gets offered a choice in the form of two pills: a blue one and a red one. If he chooses the blue pill, he remains in his everyday life and believes whatever he wants to believe. But if he chooses the red pill, he’ll set foot in the real world and find out what the Matrix truly is. “All I’m offering is the truth,” says Morpheus. And so, Neo takes the red pill and tumbles down the rabbit hole.
The Matrix is considered a philosophical film that contains many existing philosophical and religious themes, like prophecy, love, truth, karma, the nature of reality, and living in a simulation. But there seems to be a particularly close connection between The Matrix and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In this allegory, presented in Plato’s Republic, Socrates describes a group of people chained to a wall within a cave their whole lives. The only reality they know of is the mere shadows projected on the wall in front of them, and they believe these are real entities. Then, one of the prisoners is freed. He leaves the cave and gets to experience the real world outside. But when he returns to the cave to enlighten the other prisoners with the truth, he faces resistance.
This piece analyzes The Matrix film through the lens of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave while exploring the following question: do we, as human beings, actually want the truth? Please note: this video contains spoilers that reveal the plot.
The journey out of the cave
The prisoners of the cave are chained so that they cannot move their legs and necks. They can only sit and watch the wall in front of them, but cannot look around, cannot see each other or the wall they’re chained to. Behind the prisoners burns a fire. There are people in between the fire and the prisoners. These people hold sticks with several forms (birds, horses, dogs) that project onto the wall. So, all they’ve ever seen are mere projections of objects that appear in the real world: a world that’s alien to them.
When one of the prisoners is freed and ascends from the cave into the real world, he experiences sunlight for the first time in his life. He is confused and needs time to adapt, as he’s never seen the daylight before. But when his eyes have adjusted, he encounters all the forms he recognizes from his life in the cave. But they’re different this time. Instead of mere silhouettes, he sees the actual entities: full of color and with profound detail. He then realizes what he thought was real, was in fact, an illusion.
Similarly, Neo has been imprisoned without being able to see the prison. When he wakes up from the simulated reality, his naked body lies in a pod filled with liquid. He notices that his body is full of plugs and then sees millions of other pods with humans connected to (what seems) a giant machine. After a supervising drone notices that Neo has awakened, his body gets unplugged and discharged into a sewer. After Morpheus’ ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, retrieves Neo, he needs some time to adjust to the real world, just like the escapee from Plato’s cave.
A fundamental difference in experience between Plato’s character and Neo is the kind of reality they face. In Plato’s allegory, the liberated man ascends from darkness into the light, from the lower level within the cave to a higher level outside. This ascension serves as a metaphor for gaining knowledge and becoming a philosopher and, thus, obtaining a clear world vision. Plato’s reality presents itself as generally more beautiful in comparison with the cave. Also, the freedom of movement in the outside world is a vast improvement. Overall, the real world seems way more pleasurable, and it would be pretty absurd to exchange it for a life in the cave.
But the Matrix is different. Morpheus told Neo that if he chooses the red pill, he will show him how deep the rabbit hole goes, referring to the children’s novel Alice in Wonderland. Tumbling down a rabbit hole resembles a descent rather than an ascent into reality. This idea comes to fruition when Neo falls from a relatively pleasurable reality into a hellish wasteland devoid of sunlight run by machines.
As opposed to Plato’s reality, the reality in the Matrix isn’t beautiful. It’s terrible. Those plugged into the Matrix live in a vast, colorful, sunny world (although with a green haze) resembling the late nineties. They also have access to an endless variety of human pleasures. But in the real world, there’s only one human city left, Zion, where people live under subhuman conditions stuck in the outskirts, continually threatened of being obliterated by machines. So, one could argue that (in the case of The Matrix) living imprisoned in the cave is more pleasurable than living freely in the outside world.
Blindness to truth
Shortly after his liberation, Neo initially refuses to accept the truth. “No, I don’t believe it. It’s impossible,” he says after Morpheus showed him what the Matrix is. He showed a typical reaction of someone confronted with the harsh reality. As the architect of the Matrix states in the sequel: “denial is the most predictable of all human responses.” We can see this when, for example, we discover that one of our parents isn’t our biological parent. Or the person we consider our greatest enemy turns out to be our parent. In such cases, the truth carries such a magnitude that accepting it shakes one’s identity to its very foundations. Such a massive shift in perception generally terrifies people. Neo asks Morpheus: “I can’t go back, can I?” To which Morpheus answers: “But if you could, would you really want to?”
Flat-out disregard for the truth is common. Many people prefer living in a safe bubble of lies to looking outside for the truth. Living in a cozy, false reality can be pretty convenient and comfortable; you just have to remain ignorant of everything that could burst your bubble. So instead, you go along with the deceptive narrative of the herd, often amplified by mass media and entertainment. But we also see the opposite happening, like people opposing common knowledge, and adopting a false truth like the idea that Earth is flat. So truth, by and large, can be easily fabricated. Merriam Webster provides a definition of truth that goes as follows: “a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true.”
Morpheus’ goal is to liberate the people from the Matrix. But he also realizes that as long as these people are part of the system, they’re the enemy: first of all, because so-called ‘agents’ protect the Matrix. These agents function a bit like a security program to keep Trojan horses and other malware out. And every human projection is potentially an agent. Second of all, most of them aren’t ready to be unplugged. Similarly, when Plato’s enlightened man tries to persuade the people in the cave to go outside, he meets resistance and ridicule. Plato described such an endeavor as “inserting vision into blind eyes.” It’s a waste of time trying to convince someone of the truth if they aren’t receptive to it. Morpheus also states that many are so hopelessly dependent on the system that they’ll fight to protect it; similarly, Socrates asks if these people wouldn’t kill the person offering them the truth about their existence. Nevertheless, Plato points to the philosopher’s responsibility to act in the interest of the unenlightened ones, even if they’re hostile: just as Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, and the other liberated humans do.
Rejecting a painful truth
In Plato’s allegory, we see that liberation ultimately positively affects the man who’s freed. Also, Neo eventually accepts the truth and embraces reality. But what if someone knows the truth, but hates it so much, that he chooses a false reality? Here’s where a character named Cypher comes in. Cypher admits he regrets taking the red pill, saying to Neo, almost assuming he feels the same:
I know what you’re thinking, ‘cause right now I’m thinking the same thing. Actually, I’ve been thinking it ever since I got here: Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?Cypher, The Matrix
But Neo’s body language clearly shows that he’s not on the same line as Cypher. Even though he’s stranded in the same dark world, he seems rather happy with his liberation. Neo finds meaning in it and sort of takes on the role of Plato’s enlightened man, as he takes responsibility to help the people still imprisoned. Moreover, he had always felt that something was off when he was still plugged in and unaware. He felt that he didn’t belong there. He wasn’t happy. Through his liberation, he found what he was looking for, which probably compensates sufficiently for having to face the bleakness of reality. Especially because people regard him as “The One”, which makes his existence even more meaningful.
Cypher, on the other hand, doesn’t enjoy reality in the slightest. He also shows little faith in Morpheus’ prophecy of “The One.” Eventually, he plugs himself into the Matrix to attend a secret meeting with Agent Smith. Although his argument probably falls on deaf ears, he tells Smith:
You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.Cypher, The Matrix
Cypher is well aware that he cannot unsee what he has seen, which results from encountering truth. For him, being ignorant was great until Morpheus came along and threw a wet blanket on the party. When the veil of ignorance has been lifted, there’s no going back. The truth lies naked in front of us. We cannot unsee that the person we thought was our father isn’t our biological father. We cannot unsee the betrayal of a partner we previously believed to be a trustworthy person. A relationship between people changes when its fundamental story turns out to be a lie and reality is not as beautiful as it seemed. The relationship was more enjoyable before the truth came out. Sure, it was based on an illusion. But in exchange for not knowing, we felt a connection, love, intimacy, pleasure, and (ironically) trust. Truth destroyed all that.
Cypher realizes that he’s fundamentally stuck in a reality he despises. So, he asks agent Smith to plug him back into the Matrix, to make him someone rich and influential, “like an actor,” as he stated. But most importantly: he wants all of his memories of the real world wiped. In return, he gives him Morpheus.
Cypher essentially made a hedonistic decision exchanging reality and freedom for blissful ignorance. Interestingly enough, he reveals his idea of reality and freedom to Trinity, which makes his decisions reasonable in his eyes. During Cypher’s attempt to deport Morpheus, Trinity reminds him that Morpheus set him free. But Cypher disagrees and says that all he does is follow the orders of a man who lied to them. And if he has to choose between that and the Matrix, he chooses the Matrix. Trinity then argues that the Matrix isn’t real. But, again, Cypher disagrees, saying: “I think that the Matrix can be more real than this world.”
Suspension of disbelief
The people liberated from the Matrix have the technological ability to plug themselves into the system and be part of the simulated reality as their so-called Residual Self Image (RSI). They can upload programs directly into their minds that contain skills like martial arts and load various items into the Matrix, like guns. Lots of guns. So, they were exposed to an illusion first. Now, they have become illusionists themselves.
When Neo goes back into the Matrix for the first time after his liberation and visits the city he lived in, he sees it in a different light. He realizes that none of his memories ever really happened. He recognizes places where he used to eat, work, and live, but ‘lucidly,’ with the knowledge that they’re just simulacra. The same must have happened to Plato’s enlightened man going back into the cave for the first time after his ascension regarding the shadows on the wall. It probably leaves one disillusioned, perhaps disappointed with the lack of mystique these appearances once had. Finding out how a magic trick works makes it a lot less appealing. Truth, therefore, often goes at the expense of enjoyment.
An example of this is a legendary character in Western Christian culture called Santa Claus, which originates from the early Christian bishop Saint Nicholas. For most children, Santa Claus is a truly magical experience: the idea of an old bearded man traveling from the North Pole in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. According to the legend, Santa’s elves make toys and other presents in a secret workshop and Santa brings them to the children on Christmas Eve. With all the stories, songs, fairy tales, and films about Santa Claus, his annual appearance is almost a religious experience to the infant mind.
But when children are around the age of 6, their parents begin to tell the truth about Santa Claus. Many kids react emotionally and in disbelief. A once so much enjoyed illusion is crushed and loses its magical appeal. Hence, it’s not uncommon to experience nostalgia for the good old time when we were ignorant of the truth and when a “surrogate truth” was more appealing. Cypher experiences such nostalgia as well.
However, interestingly enough, people still can find joy in what they know is fake. An example of this we see in the Matrix is the behavior of a character named the Oracle. The Oracle appears as an elderly woman but is a program that initially served as one of the founding forces of the third “current’ version of the Matrix. But when she finished her purpose, she went into exile and started supporting the resistance. Even though, as a computer program, she is very well aware of the world’s illusory nature, she seems to enjoy it. She clearly shows delight in the smell of cookies, smokes cigarettes, loves candy, and the sunset. We see the same happening with the Merovingian, a character from the sequel The Matrix Reloaded, who is passionate about the French language and loves beautiful women and serving them dessert with a happy ending. He also seems to enjoy the taste of olives, like a true Frenchman. Of course, as these characters are both “software,” these enjoyments could be part of their programming. Nevertheless, they show the human capacity to treat an illusion as if it’s real. There’s a philosophical term for this phenomenon, namely: “suspension of disbelief.”
“Suspension of disbelief” is the intentional avoidance of skepticism, critical thinking, and logic when facing something unreal. For ages, humans have eagerly consumed illusions as entertainment, from cinemas and theatre performances to the puppet shows of the past. Likewise, Plato’s character can still choose to act as if the silhouettes in the cave are real entities, temporarily suspending his disbelief in exchange for enjoyment and having a good time with his old, unenlightened friends.
When it comes to the Matrix, the possibilities regarding the enjoyment of fakery are endless. Unlike the illusionists in Plato’s cave, the Matrix produces an illusion that we can consider better than reality. We can see this with today’s technology as well. How people can immerse themselves in a video game is almost like they’re living a second life: an existence mostly more pleasant and rewarding. But the objects that appear on the screen aren’t real but mere projections. To enjoy them as if they were real, one needs to suspend that truth temporarily. Likewise, characters like Neo and Trinity could delight in the Matrix: perhaps, by enjoying a romantic dinner and an evening walk along the river Seine in Paris. Anyhow, humans seem to be able to temporarily accept and appreciate the lie when it suits them.
Do we actually want the truth?
Do we actually want the truth? If asked, most people will probably answer “yes” to this question. But when exploring Plato’s Allegory and The Matrix, we discover that the human relationship with truth is not that simple. In some cases, we welcome the truth. In other cases, we hide from it, temporarily suspend it, reject it, and even wish to forget the truth if we had that option. One of the most striking examples is the character Cypher.
Both Plato’s work and The Matrix show people’s disdain for a truth that threatens their reality. We tend to attach to the familiar, the comfortable, the meaningful, and are sometimes willing to defend it with our lives. When it comes to the latter, we just have to look at how people are ready to die for their religions and political ideologies.
So, again, do we want the truth? The answer seems to be: “It depends.” We tend to handle the facts selectively, as the truth appears in many different forms, with different magnitudes. Truth can uplift us; it can leave us indifferent but can also make us depressed and miserable. For example, in Plato’s allegory, learning the truth has virtually no downsides. The only downside is the hostility by those in the cave. But aside from that, it’s pretty evident that Plato’s truth leads to something better and would uplift almost anyone. But in the Matrix, the truth is less enjoyable.
However, the effect that truth has on us doesn’t necessarily depend on the truth itself; it also depends on the person receiving it. In the case of Neo and Morpheus, the state of the world provided them with meaning and legitimized the battle they were fighting as liberators of humanity, which is quite an incredible goal to have in life. On the other hand, Cypher pokes fun at that goal, which shows his cynicism and lack of meaning he found in his existence.
People tend to adopt surrogate truths to cover up a painful reality. By contrast, others love painful realities, but these are often instrumental to their already dark worldview. People from both camps also tend to ignore facts that oppose how they want to see the world. In many if not most cases, they share their worldviews with like-minded people. Sharing a certain truth, regardless of whether it’s true, has benefits. Again, look at religious groups, political movements, and even the flat-earth society. Being part of such groups can provide people with purpose and social connections. In The Matrix, for example, we can see how the belief in The One binds Morpheus and his people together. The downside is that adopting opposing views as a member (even if they were true) could lead to other members ostracizing you. And here’s where the dark side of suspension of disbelief comes in. Some, if not many, are willing to turn a blind eye to the truth not just for innocent enjoyment but also out of convenience. For example, someone keeps subscribing to a false belief against one’s better judgment, just to belong or out of fear of being ostracized.
All in all, people seem pretty opportunistic when it comes to the truth. We want ‘a’ truth, not necessarily ‘the’ truth. We want ‘a’ reality, not necessarily ‘the’ reality. But the truth and the lie often have something in common: they both appear as stories. So, could it be that we fundamentally don’t want the truth, but a story: a story to believe in, identify with, share with others, dwell on, and (perhaps most importantly) provide us with a sense of meaning and belonging?
Thank you for watching.