Publishers vote on such queries not by pumping their arms, but by pumping out books. Judging by the growing dimensions of the Matrix secondary literature (see box for information on the three best collections), we're only minutes away from "Philosophy 101: Intro to Matrix/Zion Theories of Justice," or "Philosophy 507: Neo-lithic Ethics." Matrix tomes could become - talk about turnoff - required reading.
On Saturday, you can lower yourself deeper into the rabbit hole thanks to Temple University, which is hosting William Irwin, editor of The Matrix and Philosophy, and two other experts in a "Matrix and Philosophy" talkfest (see box for details).
What would a talkfest be without talking points? Here are three:
1. The Matrix films aren't philosophy. They're "poster films" for philosophy.
Everyone disagrees about what philosophy is. You can too. The first film pushed the usual buttons on philosophy types. In Irwin's volume, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek says The Matrix is "a kind of Rorschach test" for philosophers. Irwin himself sees alliances, writing that "Hollywood and Athens agree, the unexamined life is not worth living." Cutting-edge cybernovelist Bruce Sterling, in his contribution to Exploring the Matrix, sees a "postmodern philosophical movie" in which cliched "fragments" of philosophy - bits of French thinker Jean Baudrillard, Buddhism, Taoism, Christian eschatology, Gdelian mathematical metaphysics - do a dance that's "a real mess" but hugely entertaining: "You get all the intellectually sexy head-trip kicks of philosophizing without any of the boring hassles of consistency or rigor."
Is that the real thing?
2. The Matrix "mentions" and "references" philosophical ideas but doesn't explore them, test them, critically work them out.
In the first film, Keanu Reeves' Neo says, "I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life," but he doesn't articulate the upshot, or always act as if he feels that way. Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus tells Neo the Matrix "is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth," but also asks Neo, "What is real?" as if he's not sure himself. A supposed booster of human freedom, Morpheus unquestioningly accepts the Oracle's prediction that "the One" will come to deliver that freedom. Consistency, here, seems abandoned to hobgoblined little minds. Morpheus' notion of inference is also less Socratic logic than Bushian fiat: "If you are not one of us, you are one of them."
Philosophy or partisanship?
3. In "The Matrix Reloaded," characters keep jumping to philosophical conclusions instead of explaining how they got there.
Determinism - the idea that humans lack free will, that all choices are already causally determined and fixed - runs through the sequel even more than the original. "We're all here to do what we're all here to do," we're told. "Choice is an illusion," we're warned. "Causality, there's no escape from it," goes the scare talk. "There are no accidents," Morpheus believes. And Neo is informed: "You've already made the choice. Now you have to understand it."
But if Neo doesn't know he made a choice, we wouldn't call it a choice. And the most intriguing philosophical work about free will argues that "causation" and "free will" aren't necessarily contradictory. (See, for instance, Daniel Dennett's recent book, Freedom Evolves, far subtler than scrolling green computer code.)
So what do you do after Temple's symposium if you still want to spiral down Rabbit Turnpike? See The Matrix Reloaded 10 times, sure that it's really Crouching Plato, Hidden Kant, just accessibly titled so the Wachowskis can bust box-office records? See it once and pore over these three books in the time saved?
Saith the Oracle here: You already know what you should do. Now understand why.
If free will, the meaning of life, and the nature of reality truly bother you, accept a modest suggestion, good on weekends and weekdays: Never send a movie to do a philosopher's job, even one with a cameo by Cornel West. Not even if you swoon over bullet time slo-mo, and cool black latex in all the right places.
Take the philosophy pill. Read. Think. Argue. Vet the evidence. Philosophy requires a sharp knife, not a spoon. And it doesn't pitch a penny toward the Wachowski brothers' pockets.
Talk about freedom.
Contact book critic Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or email@example.com.
"The Matrix: A Millennial Masterpiece or Postmodern Pastiche?" Sponsored by Temple University's School of Communications and Theater, Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m., Multimedia Theater (Room 201), Tuttleman Learning Center, 13th Street and Montgomery Avenue, Temple Main Campus. Phone: 215-204-7476.
The free event will feature: Barry Vacker, assistant professor of broadcasting, telecommunications and mass media, Temple University; William Irwin, editor, The Matrix and Philosophy; and Reed Mercer Schuchardt, professor of media studies, Marymount Manhattan College.
The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real
Edited by William Irwin
Open Court. 280 pp. $17.95
Taking the Red Pill:
Science, Philosophy and Religion in "The Matrix"
Edited by Glenn Yeffeth
BenBella Books. 277 pp. $17.95
Exploring the Matrix: Visions of the Cyber Present
Edited by Karen Haber
St. Martin's Press. 271 pp. $24.95