BOOK REVIEW: Like A Splinter In Your Mind: The Philosophy Behind the Matrix Trilogy

splinter

The 1999 film The Matrix (and its sequels – Reloaded and Revolutions in 2003) made the subject of philosophy attractive again for many people. With Like A Splinter In Your Mind, Matt Lawrence joins the scores of philosophers that have endeavored to explore the myriad questions arising from The Matrix trilogy (as well as the video game Enter the Matrix, and the collection of animated shorts called The Animatrix). The book covers quite a few topics in a body only 185 pages long. Lawrence treats one to two philosophical topics per chapter including skepticism, mind/body dualism, artificial intelligence, free will, foreknowledge, time theories, gender issues, ethics, existentialism, Taoism, and eastern meditation. Added to this body of material are a cast list and glossary – both including symbolic elements in the film – as well as a list of the philosophers covered in the book.

The author’s purpose in writing the book is “not to fill your head with a bunch of philosophical facts and jargon, but rather to ‘turn your soul’ a bit, so that you will be able to see the philosophical puzzles that abound in these films for yourself.” Lawrence states that doing philosophy is to help one “wake up” (p. 2). One is not to come to this book for answers as it is “essentially a book of questions” (pp. 5-6). This is a fortunate contribution to the available literature which can be rather inaccessible to the average reader unfamiliar with philosophical subjects.

The goal of the author is certainly an admirable one, and to this end Lawrence presents a decent survey of contemporary thought on issues raised by the movie usually including arguments for both sides. Splinter also covers some areas that other books have disregarded – such as gender equality issues and time theories with regard to foreknowledge. Lawrence does a good job pointing out and explaining much of the symbolism found in the character names, places, and even the ships in the movie. His primer on the stories, and his thoughts on several lingering issues within The Matrix mythology are also appreciated.

There are a few areas where I believe Lawrence falls short of his goal, however. Despite his claim to be raising questions rather than providing answers, in several chapters he quite clearly pushes more vigorously toward some conclusions over others, e.g., skepticism over what he calls naive realism, and mind-body materialism over dualism (as confirmed in a great conversation we had). While it is certainly not unacceptable to argue for specific positions when writing a book on philosophical issues, in this case the author specifically claimed to not be doing so. Further, the positions Lawrence pushes are not always in agreement with those of the film (e.g. materialism and hard determinism – although these positions may be represented by certain characters). This might be confusing in a book sub-titled “The Philosophy Behind the Matrix Trilogy,” if by that one assumes that it is only the film’s conclusions that are being expounded.

There is also a noticeable dearth of classical philosophers. With the exception of a reference to Plato’s Cave and a chapter on Taoism, Lawrence focuses exclusively on modern philosophers (i.e. beginning with Descartes) although it is not as if no one prior to the 17th century had anything pertinent to add to the discussion (and this may be due in part to the Wachowski Brothers own philosophical leanings). This is highlighted by claims that “most” contemporary philosophers / scientists agree on these subjects (e.g. pp. 35, 37, 76).

The failure to consider classic philosophy helps explain several questionable conclusions that might be found wanting by readers. Lawrence favors skepticism regarding our ability to know reality, materialism with regard to the existence of the soul, the possibility of emergent artificial intelligence, determinism with regard to free will, metaphysical idealism, and gender blindness (including the elimination of “social pressure toward heterosexuality”). Lawrence defines faith as “believ[ing] something on insufficient evidence” (p.138), and advances Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” when he describes Morpheus’ faith (although he told me that he personally believes that “religious belief can be grounded on much less radical forms of faith, on emotional connection, or on reason itself” – which is certainly the case). Lawrence concludes his book with an appeal to eastern mysticism as a way to transcend the “prison of our minds.” He does argue for moral objectivism, which is appreciated, although he fails to adequately account for it. I would argue that much of this is simply the product of modern philosophy which cannot extricate itself from the problems of its own assumptions and methodologies.

These considerations should not be taken lightly. Splinter clearly targets those unfamiliar with philosophy (Lawrence himself uses it as a college-level introductory textbook), and while both sides of the issues are often presented, they are not always presented without bias, or in a way that Christians should find satisfying. Overall, Like a Splinter In Your Mind serves as a good launching pad for delving into the questions that for some time have only interested philosophers. It is a good book for introducing beginners to the questions of philosophy, but should be read with caution considering many of the answers that it offers.

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