Analysing Freedom in The Matrix

Have you ever thought about what it means to be free?

Jao Ming
14 min readJun 20, 2020
Source: Ümit Bulut

Preface

Worldwide lockdowns and prevalent news reports of America and Hong Kong’s civil unrest has got me thinking a lot about the freedom we have as citizens of a country, or even so, as a human being. What does it mean to truly be free, how is freedom measured or what even is freedom? With all these kinds of questions in my head and a soft spot for a freedom-themed dystopian film, I decided to delve into the film with a more critical perspective and pen down my thoughts on Freedom in The Matrix.

Introduction

For those unfamiliar, The Matrix (1999) is a dystopian film where sentient machines, or simply called the Machines, have overpowered the human-race and captured humans to harness their heat energy and bioelectricity. While their physical bodies are used as batteries to fuel the Machines, the minds of the humans are injected into a program created by the Machines called the Matrix. In the Matrix, the consciousness of the captured humans mentally projects themselves into a simulated reality. From the perspectives of the people’s consciousness, they are living a simulated life of normalcy when in actuality, the lives that they live are bounded by the Matrix and masked from the truth that there is a reality outside the simulated world that they reside in. The main mission in The Matrix is for the protagonist, Neo, to liberate humanity from the Matrix and fulfil his destiny of being the Messiah for mankind.

Although liberation from the Matrix is evidently seen as a form of objective freedom, the perception of a normal life to a captured human begs the question — Are you considered to be free if you are unaware that you are trapped? As objective freedom is said to be when a man is conscious of his own freedom (Shastri, 1921), this hints at the possibility of the portrayal of various other forms of freedom in the film with potentially subjective natures. Subjective freedom refers to having freedom of varying degrees instead of absolute. This is further reinforced by the nature of the film’s storyline. Unlike storylines of other films, where only 1 reality is depicted throughout the whole film, The Matrix’s storyline portrays 2 realities, and hence further makes us question the nature of freedom in the film.

In this article, I will show that the film contains multiple forms of freedom and their objective essence and further outline how the Matrix serves as a platform to reveal some subjectivity to them.

Forms of Freedom

Source: Pixabay

Freedom from the Matrix

From the viewer’s perspective, the only form of freedom depicted in the film would obviously be freedom from the Matrix. It seems obvious as the plot of the entire film revolves around Neo being liberated from the Matrix and his objective to unveil the truth to all those in the Matrix and consequently emancipating them. However, what seems to be the main indicator for this form of freedom would be Neo’s desire to understand the Matrix and Morpheus’s desire to free Neo. It is these desires that indicate that there is something to be free from and hence, showing that there is a distinct form of freedom. In the film, these desires would lead Neo to pick the red pill which allowed him to be liberated by Morpheus and subsequently reveal to the audience, for the first time, the reality outside the Matrix. In this aspect, one is either free from the Matrix or not.

Freedom from Algorithm

Looking deeper into the film, we see other indicators that point towards other forms of freedom. Firstly, a program designed by the Machines to safeguard the Matrix, called Agent Smith, mentions in his interrogation scene with Morpheus that he has desires to leave the Matrix — ‘I hate this place… I have to get out of here’. However, it seems there is an irony here, given that Agent Smith was created for the Matrix and that a program is not expected to possess the ability to desire. Lodén (2014, 35) even states that it is human nature to have desires for liberation. Explication of this irony revealed that a humanisation process occurs to Agent Smith’s throughout the film, which accounts for his desire for freedom. This desire then serves as an indicator for a different form of freedom.

Agent Smith’s humanisation moment can be seen through his expression of hatred in the same interrogation scene, where his explicit frustration and unhappiness with the Matrix and its inhabitants are shown in this scene serves as a form of emotional growth that is unexpected of any computer program. This is contrasted with earlier scenes in the film that depicts Agent Smith as a mere program, created to maintain order in the Matrix. Even the way he approaches situations is similar to that of a computer program — Logical and practical, with the goal in mind. Hence, revealing a process of humanisation in the character.

With further analysis on this Agent Smith’s human-like desire, it can be deduced that it would not make sense for him to desire freedom from the Matrix since, unlike humans, he is native to it and it is already a reality to him. Hence, it would seem that Agent Smith refers to something else when he talks about being free from the Matrix. What Agent Smith could have meant by getting out of the Matrix could be him escaping the algorithm that he has been programmed with. The scene where Agent Smith expresses his hatred for the Matrix — “I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. I can’t stand it any longer” — can be interpreted as his expression of distaste towards his tiresome and repetitive attempts to achieve the innate objective that he has been programmed with. Hence, it would seem that Agent Smith truly desires to break free from the set algorithm that designates his purpose in the Matrix and that this desire stems from his ostensibly many years of maintaining the Matrix to the point where he starts to develop a hatred for it. In this aspect, one is either free from the rules and programming of the Matrix or not.

Freedom from Reality

Secondly, scenes of a traitor from within Morpheus’s resistance, called Cypher, seem to hint towards another form of freedom. In a scene where Cypher feasts on a steak while negotiating with Agent Smith back in the Matrix, Cypher acknowledges that he knows his meal isn’t real but implied that all that mattered was that it tastes or more generically ‘feels’ real. This indicates that Cypher’s perspective of freedom would require one to actually feel free, instead of knowing he’s free. With the key indicator being the rationale behind his betrayal.

The betrayal scene where he almost managed to kill the rest of the crew revealed his desire to re-enter the Matrix as it ‘feels’ more real than reality itself — “You call this free? If I had to choose between that and the Matrix. I choose the Matrix”. Although having experienced both realities, in and out of the Matrix, Cypher perceives freedom as being back in the Matrix. This ensues from him being under constant command by Morpheus — “All I do is what he tells me to do” — and being exposed to the dismal environment in reality. His perception of freedom is particularly interesting as it is anti-praxis to the obvious form of freedom — freedom from the Matrix. Due to his human nature, Cypher is assumed to have a similar perception of freedom as Neo and Morpheus. Hence, this elicits viewers’ expectations for him to conform to the obvious form of freedom, however, the film depicts otherwise. In this aspect, it is rather interesting as it’s about whether one feels free, or not.

“You call this free? If I had to choose between that and the Matrix. I choose the Matrix” — Cypher, The Matrix.

We then conclude that Agent Smith’s humanisation and Cypher’s betrayal are the film’s indicators for other forms of freedom, such as freedom from algorithm and freedom from reality. In the next segment of the article, I will discuss how these forms of freedom could also be viewed as subjective.

Subjective Freedom

Source: Anika Huizinga

Even though these perspectives of freedom are dissimilar, their distinctions are blurred when we take into account the ideas of freedom from the philosophers’ Gravel (2007, p3) and Kmiec (2005, p35). We will come to realise that these objective forms of freedom can also be seen as subjective. In a nutshell, the definitions Gravel (2007, p3) and Kmiec (2005, p35) proposes adopt the view of freedom being subjective. This implies that both philosophers believe in the idea that freedom is not absolute but instead a scale where one individual may have a higher degree of freedom compared to another; one definition to fit all scenarios. Gravel (2007, p3) asserts that the degree of freedom of an entity is framed by the constraint of its choices. In other words, any being has a certain degree of freedom, but what that degree is, is constituted by the limit of its choices that’s been subjected to certain constraints. These constraints can be physical (e.g. I do not have the option to give birth), economical (e.g. I cannot afford it) or even legal (e.g. I am not allowed to do so). In a sense, you can say that Gravel believes that your freedom is based on what you think and are actually able to do.

Whereas, Kmiec (2005, p35) affirms that freedom is dependent on the natural laws of the individual. He believes that each individual entity has its own set of natural laws to abide, and in any complex society, such as in our reality or in the ‘Matrix’, the freedom of the entity is bounded by what the natural law dictates. Kmiec (2005, p35) explains that the natural laws are rules that guide what individuals inherently feel they are allowed and capable of doing, and that each individual’s existence is dependent on its conformity to this law. Now we show how these forms of freedom interact with the Matrix to unveil these perspectives of subjectivity.

Freedom from the Matrix

Freedom from the Matrix can be seen as subjective when the Matrix is seen as a form of constraint over the choices of those entrapped. Moreover, it is also evident that natural laws differ between simulated reality and actual reality. This difference is shown in the last scene where Neo flies into the sky, showing the full control he has over the Matrix. Hence, showing that the natural laws are different for Neo in the Matrix and in reality. Simply taking being in the Matrix as a reference, humans from the real world are shown to have a higher degree of freedom as their choices are not as restrained compared to those that are not from the real world. Reinforcing this point is when Morpheus performs insane stunts such as jumping from building to building or even wearing sunglasses that should have obviously fallen off, within the Matrix. This, of course, is in comparison with the humans in the Matrix. The choices of these humans are restricted by the programming of the Matrix itself, thus implying a lower degree of freedom. This is seen through Agent Smith’s ability to just take any human in the Matrix and morph them into himself. In a way, this depicts how even the existence of the human can easily be altered by a program in the Matrix and hence, a restrain over their choices. Morpheus’s dialogue to Neo about the Matrix — “I realize the obviousness of the truth. What is the Matrix? Control” — further emphasises on the fact that the Matrix is a form of control that would consequently limit the choices of those that reside in it. Hence, the humans in the Matrix simply possess a lower degree of freedom than the humans in reality.

“I realize the obviousness of the truth. What is the Matrix? Control” — Morpheus, The Matrix.

Furthermore, taking into account Kmiec (2005, p35) this time, the natural laws of the simulated world are set by the algorithms of the Matrix. Hence, those that reside in the Matrix are said to be free as long as they are obedient to the natural laws. However, since the Matrix can be interpreted as a restricted reality, it can be said that the entrapped humans in the Matrix possess a lower degree of freedom than those that are not trapped. Therefore, not only have we shown that freedom from the Matrix can also be understood as subjective, but we have also seen how the Matrix is responsible for this revelation.

Freedom from algorithm

The humanisation of Agent Smith has uncovered another form of freedom — freedom from the algorithm. Similar to the aforementioned form of freedom, this can also be seen as subjective when some set objective constrains the choices of an individual. Since Agent Smith is created for the Matrix, he would be bounded by his own programming and therefore would not be able to do other than what he is programmed to do. It can then be said that Agent Smith’s life is causally deterministic due to his own algorithms. This means that he is not performing actions at his own will, but instead, it is because he has been programmed to do so. Agent Smith’s algorithms that programmed him to achieve a particular objective clearly shows that he does not possess as high of a degree of freedom as other human characters in reality, such as Morpheus or Neo.

Morpheus and Neo, unlike Agent Smith, are seen to have flexibility in terms of their objectives. Where Agent Smith only does things with a set objective in mind, Morpheus and Neo’s objectives are changed depending on the scene they are in. In this regard, the film consistently portrays Agent Smith’s vain attempts to achieve his objective. At the start, Agent Smith and his agents attempt to capture Trinity, one of Morpheus’s comrades, but fails as she manages to slip away. Next, Agent Smith corners and manages to get hold of Neo at his workplace. Agent Smith interrogates Neo and places a tracker on him, ostensibly knowing that he would meet Morpheus. Yet again, Agent Smith’s plans are foiled as Trinity extracts the tracker out of Neo before meeting Morpheus. In another scene, even after getting hold of Morpheus, his plans are once again ruined when Neo rescues Morpheus. Here, we notice that there is no room for a change in Agent Smith’s objective. Conversely, in one scene, Morpheus and Neo’s objective was to meet the Oracle, a female program with clairvoyant abilities. However, when Agent Smith manages to get hold of Morpheus, Neo’s objective is changed to saving Morpheus instead — therefore showing that there is fluidity in his objectives.

The way the algorithm works on a program is similar to that of how natural law works on each individual. An algorithm for a computer program dictates what action a program can or cannot perform. Hence, Agent Smith is seen as free within the means of his programming. However, as mentioned above, since this algorithm puts him in a causally deterministic state, he is then not able to do anything other than what he is programmed to do, unlike humans in reality. Hence, Agent Smith possesses a lower degree of freedom as compared to the other characters because of the programming of the Matrix.

Freedom from Reality

The ironic and unexpected actions of Cypher draw attention to a form of freedom that’s antithetical to the obvious form of freedom — freedom from the Matrix. Although Morpheus does not explicitly mention that freedom is being free from the Matrix, he does talk about the truth that there is a reality outside the simulated reality. Kmiec (2005, p35) asserts that freedom cannot be achieved with false knowledge. Following on the topic of truth and freedom, the truth does not define what freedom is, but rather it provides information that would alter individuals’ perspectives of what the definition of freedom should be.

“I think the Matrix can be more real than this world” — Cypher, The Matrix.

Even though Morpheus and Cypher are in the same reality, after realising the truth, Cypher started perceiving freedom as being back in the Matrix. This is due to the difference in how both, Morpheus and Cypher, value freedom. In reality, although both Morpheus and Cypher are in the same environment, they are in different hierarchical positions. Morpheus’s superiority over Cypher becomes a push factor for Cypher to escape from reality. Additionally, as previously mentioned, Cypher also expresses that what he ‘feels’ in the Matrix is more real than reality– “I think the Matrix can be more real than this world”. This ‘feeling’, Cypher mentions, that is absent in reality is seen as the pull factor for him to escape into the Matrix. This push-pull factors not only account for the existence of a form of freedom — freedom from reality — but it also serves as evidence of Cypher’s choice constraint. Being under constant command by Morpheus, Cypher does not have much of a choice at what he can or cannot do in reality. Reinforcing this is the difference in material goods in the Matrix and reality. Back in the Matrix, Cypher is able to enjoy steak, and possibly other luxury dishes. While in reality, some sort of wheat-based meal is served to him instead. The dichotomy in the standards and variety of material goods between the Matrix and reality clearly shows the lack of choices Cypher possesses. Hence, it can be said that Cypher had freedom in reality, albeit to a much lower degree when compared to Morpheus. Moreover, it is this low degree of freedom that motivated him to re-enter the Matrix so as to achieve a higher degree of freedom.

Shifting over to Kmiec’s (2005, p35) perspective of freedom, there does not seem to be a difference in the natural laws between Morpheus and Cypher. Although unable to account for the subjectivity of this form of freedom, Kmiec (2005, p35) does provide an understanding of Cypher’s demise in the film. According to Kmiec (2005, p35), the existence of an individual is determined by its conformity to its own natural laws. Putting this into context, Kmiec (2005, p35) point suggests that Cypher’s demise was due to his attempt to be in the Matrix, skewing away from what his natural law dictates for him.

Conclusion

Source: Ferdinand Stöhr

In summary, we have seen that there exist indicators in the film that point towards depictions of various forms of freedom — namely, freedom from the Matrix, freedom from algorithm and freedom from reality. Freedom from the Matrix is seen throughout the main plot of the film itself. Whereas, freedom from algorithm is seen through Agent Smith’s unexpected process of humanisation. Lastly, freedom from reality is seen through Cypher’s surprising act of betrayal and desire to feel free.

Moreover, this essay further discussed how the subjectivity of these forms of freedom can be taken into account by philosophers Kmiec (2005, p35) and Gravel (2007, p3). As seen above, where their views on the nature of freedom are consistent with the forms of freedom depicted in the film. More interestingly, it can also be seen as to how the Matrix was used to uncover the subjectivity of the mentioned forms of freedom and blur the distinction between them.

The explication of the various forms of freedom in the film and their subjectivity further uncovers interesting observations. The humanisation process of Agent Smith that allowed the finding of a form of freedom begs the question — is this humanisation part of his algorithm, or is it the product of a sentient AI program? Additionally, with respect to the film’s trilogy, there seems to be a larger governing force — the trilogy’s main antagonist, the Machine’s hive mind — constraining freedom, even after achieving all the forms of freedom mentioned in this essay. This then motivates the question — When will one actually attain true freedom?

References:

Gravel, N. (2007). What is freedom?. Retrieved from http://www.vcharite.univ-mrs.fr/pp/Gravel/surveyPeil2.pdf

Kmiec, D. W. (2005). The Human Nature of Freedom and Identity-We Hold More than Random Thoughts. Harv. JL & Pub. Pol’y, 29, 33.

Lodén, T. (2014). Human nature, freedom and dignity in China and Europe. International Communication Of Chinese Culture, 1(1–2), 35–45. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s40636-014-0004-8

Shastri, P. D. (1921). Objective freedom. International Journal of Ethics, 31(3), 303–306.

The Matrix. (1999). Hollywood

--

--