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Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix, edited by Glenn Yeffeth, BenBella Books, 2003, 260 pp.

Taking the Red Pill is a collection of essays about the 1999 movie The Matrix, a book published in anticipation of the second and third Matrix movies, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, being released later this year. I was not expecting much from this book, frankly, as the level of quality for any kind of movie-tie-in type material has always been fairly low. I’m happy to report that Yeffeth has assembled a top-notch selection of articles. Overall, the tone of the book is several steps above typical gushy movie-related writing, like making-of books; in fact, this book would be quite appropriate for an introductory university-level course and perfect for anyone studying philosophy through science fiction.

The book opens with a brief introduction by David Gerrold.

The opening article is entitled “What is The Matrix?” and it’s written by Read Mercer Schuchardt. The editorial comment accompanying the article says, “If you only have time for one essay on The Matrix, this is the one to read” (5). But I’m not entirely convinced, because Schuchardt’s writing is often clunky, far more so than warranted by the introductory nature of the piece. “What is The Matrix?” is divided into four sections: Parable, Experience, Question, and Answer. Parable addresses the questions about the meaning of The Matrix, while Experience deals with the issues of sensory perception raised by the movie. Question and Answer talk further about the meaning of the matrix, and especially in the context of technology and control.

This is followed by Parts I and II of “Was Cypher Right?” For those who might not recall, Cypher was the traitorous character, who essentially traded in his humanity for a memory wipe and a luxurious lifestyle in the matrix. “Why We Stay in Our Matrix” by Robin Hanson argues that right now we have no free choice, controlled by our genes. I’m not always convinced by arguments of evolutionary biology, but Hanson makes some interesting points. The second Cypher-related article is Lyle Zinda’s “ The Nature of Reality and Why It Matters.” Zinda places Cypher’s choice in the context of philosophy and philosophical schools of thought. An excellent summary.

Two articles that place The Matrix in the context of science fiction history are next, Robert J. Sawyer’s “Artificial Intelligence, Science Fiction, and The Matrix” and James Gunn’s “The Reality Paradox in The Matrix.” Both are highly knowledgeable about science fiction in books and film. Sawyer talks about the history of robots and intelligence, making stops along the way for The Day the Earth Stood Still and Isaac Asimov. Sawyer’s article is also notable for two other things. He provides a distinctly non-standard explanation for the events of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And he’s the first of two writers in this collection to come to a similar conclusion about the nature of human captivity in The Matrix: not as a source of bioelectricity, but rather computing power. Gunn’s essay takes a more general approach, talking about the treatment of reality in science fiction. This lets him discuss time travel, Philip K. Dick, and other interesting things.

Parts I and II of “The Matrix: Paradigm of Post-Modernism or Intellectual Poseur?” argue for and against the post-modern value of the movie. These two essays are the academic heart of the book. Dino Felluga, in favour of the movie, mentions Baudrillard and how the Wachowski Brothers have elucidated Baudrillard’s theories in the context of an exciting story. Andrew Gordon argues against The Matrix, claiming that the movie misses the essential pessimism of Baudrillard: “there may be no real world left behind the simulation, no baseline reality to recover. The real is gone” (100). Both essays have helpful sources to follow up on, vital for those who are studying Baudrillard.

“Glitches in The Matrix... and How to Fix Them” by Peter B. Lloyd is a straightforward piece about flaws in the movie, and possible explanations for them. Independently of Sawyer, Lloyd reaches the same conclusion about humans as energy sources. Lloyd writes that Morpheus misunderstood or was misled when he got this information, and that instead the humans are probably used for computing power. Lloyd also talks about perceptions, consciousness, the bugbot, the bioport, and a number of other important aspects of the movie.

James L. Ford’s “Buddhism, Mythology, and The Matrix” begins with a primer on Buddhism, then goes on to look for parallels in the movie. The explanation of Buddhism is a bit condescending, and some of the parallels are quite a reach. But this essay is a nice balance to the later essay doing the same for Christianity.

Peter J. Boettke’s “Human Freedom and the Red Pill” is a bizarre essay, applying the ideas of political economy to The Matrix. This couldn’t be a more rewarding approach, as Boettke talks about issues of control, economy, responsibility, and human institutions. He makes the point that every social choice is a choice between the red pill with more freedom for ourselves and the blue pill with less. But he also uses the essay as an attack on the welfare state of all things: “The welfare state’s ‘help’ is tantamount to feeding the poor a blue pill” (153).

The aforementioned Christian essay is Paul Fontana’s “Finding God in The Matrix.” It’s crippled by a poor understanding of literature and art in general, and the essay degenerates into an allegory hunt. Fontana cheers direct parallels between The Matrix and the Bible, and is puzzled by anything else.

Two substantial articles talk about some of the basic technology issues raised by the movie, taking opposing sides. Ray Kurzweil’s “The Human Machine Merge: Are We Headed for The Matrix?” is the positive, while Bill Joy’s “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” is the negative. Joy’s famous article is the only reprint in the book, while Kurzweil has the advantage of addressing The Matrix directly. Kurzweil notes that progress on many fronts, such as computing power, miniaturization, and overall sum of human knowledge, is increasing at an exponentially increasing exponential rate. Kurzweil does the magic hand wave to pass over any difficulties and welcomes the future: “When machines are derived from human intelligence and are a million times more capable, we’ll have a different respect for machines, and there won’t be a clear distinction between human and machine intelligence. We will effectively merge with our technology” (197). Joy takes the exact opposite approach, with about as much magic hand waving, this time to gloss over any benefits and to argue only from the worst examples in history. And at first glance, the events depicted in The Matrix seem to support Joy’s point of view. The two essays form a crucial spectrum for debates that must come before technology can outstrip our wisdom.

“Are We Living in The Matrix? A Simulation Argument” by Nick Bostrom closes out the book. Bostrom prefers the term “ancestor simulation” to “matrix” and he points out that only two postulates need to be disproven before we have to assume we are living in an ancestor simulation: humans will go extinct before becoming posthuman, and secondly, posthumans will have no interest in simulating civilizations of the past. The logic is fine on its own, but it feels a little circular. And Bostrom doesn’t seem to want to address the philosophical issues that have been raised throughout the book: “the implications are not all that radical” (240).

Taking the Red Pill concludes with a glossary of Matrix-related terms. It’s not attributed, but I’m assuming it was written by Yeffeth.

Taking the Red Pill is a worthwhile collection of essays, a book of surprising depth. Now we only have to wait for the next two movies and the debates they will cause!

Added Note: Peter B. Lloyd, author of “Glitches in The Matrix... and How to Fix Them”, has written a book called Exegesis of the Matrix. It's available in ebook format, and has been updated with new material inspired by the The Matrix Reloaded and, to a lesser extent, Animatrix. The first third of the book is an extended version of his essay in Taking the Red Pill, further explaining some of the problems with the Wachowski explanations to date. He also talks about the clues in the first two movies that indicate that the Zion-reality might only be another Matrix. The second part of the book covers philosophy, with extensive references to Berkeley (a philospher Lloyd has written about at book length elsewhere), Wittgenstein, and Chalmers. The third section of the book covers religion, with some information about the religious names and themes in the Matrix movies. Lloyd moves on to a more detailed examination of the plot, and again there are some major new sections here about The Matrix Reloaded. Finally, the fifth section, and the most interesting to me, is entitled Politics, and covers some basic objections to the movies, like how to regard Neo if he murders innocent citizens of the Matrix and so forth. Lloyd also writes about some possible historical developments that could have led to the Matrix itself.

I liked how this book covers many different aspects of the Wachowskis' creation, and Lloyd writes with more authority about philosophy than I was expecting. He also makes the pertinent point that the Wachowski approach, while not always technically sound (as pointed out in the discussion of the back-of-the-skull dataport), can convey fairly sophisticated philosophical ideas in a cinematic manner. That's not something I had thought about with regards to the Matrix movies, so I appreciate that extra bit of insight.

Exegesis of the Matrix is available online at Lloyd's website, Ursasoft.com. An update is planned following the release of the third Matrix movie.


First posted: April 3, 2003; Last modified: August 12, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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