There is a connection within The Matrix between levels of free will, and how they directly correlate to the extent to which humans living within the Matrix are artificial. On the one hand, by making the argument that the humans have low free will, it pushes their existence into a more artificial one as all of their actions––even within their own minds––would be completely under the control of advanced technology (artificial intelligence).
On the other hand, the higher free will they have, the closer they are shifted towards a more organic being. Being able to determine which of these scenarios is the case becomes increasingly difficult the further the idea is pushed, because the discrepancies between what is real and what is fake become an unintelligible tangled mess. I would argue that while the Matrix has a significant influence on the humans, they must––at least to a certain extent––have some sense of free will (which suggests they are more organic than artificial), and that there are examples within the text that work to highlight this idea.
In Kimball’s paper he mentions that “if the inhabitants of the virtualized world of 1997 have no autonomy, no free will, but are living out computer-generated roles, then Neo, too, is but playing a bit-part in a script that directs him to seek the cybermechanical author of his character” (181). In that sense then, everything within the Matrix is constructed and the people living within it really have no free will at all, and are just following along under the control of technology (even the ones who seem to be rebelling). But from evidence within the text, this does not seem to completely be the case.
A good example of this is given with Agent Smith explaining to Neo that the Matrix cannot be created as a sort of utopia, because humans are unable to accept such a reality: “did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost”. He goes on to basically say that humans can never accept this sort of world and believe that they are living within a dream, so they are constantly trying to wake up.
If the people living under the influence of the Matrix really had no free will, then that sort of situation would never have occurred. They would have completely gone with the illusion, accepting it whole-heartedly if that was what they were told to do. But this is not the case. They must still have at least some sense of themselves to be able to––even if it is only on a subconscious level––realize that the world they are living in is wrong (talking about why a perfect world is wrong goes into an entire tangent about human nature, but in general, it is predictably impossible for everything to go right for everyone all the time).
Still, the idea that they are living in a simulation brings in to question exactly how much free will they really have. While it does exist, how significant is it in the grand scheme of things? This situation can be analysed, for example, by thinking about the pills that Neo is offered in the beginning by Morpheus: “the choice that Morpheus presents to Neo between a programmed artifice and true reality is itself an artifact in a computer-generated simulation”.
Yes, he is being offered a choice, but the entirety of the transaction takes place within the realm of the Matrix. So even when he is presented with a choice between the real and the artificial (in the form of pills) neither of those pills is actually real to begin with, so no matter which one he chooses it is all technically “fake”. And even more so, no matter which option he chooses it is impossible to verify which is real (if any). Furthermore, once he has made a choice it is difficult to say how much of it was really his own idea, and how much of it was done through the influence of the simulation.
How much of the situations that Neo encounters are truly organic? How much has been previously scripted within long lines of code? To what extent does the free will of the humans reach? They are plugged into the Matrix, living in a simulation while hooked up electronically. Just from looking at their basic function within the “real world”, they are used as batteries to power technology. In that sense they have become pieces of machinery, and are therefore representative of organic artificiality.
One point that comes up in correlation to the fact that they are being used as batteries, is that if the humans are taken to be truly nothing more than artificial beings, then the AI that is using them for energy is basically performing cannibalism. While the technology that is in control may just be doing this because it––in a sort of sick and twisted way––“enjoys” using the humans as batteries, it really would be much easier for them to generate energy in some other way (that does not involve keeping masses of humans happy within a simulation) if they could . The fact that the system is so desperately reliant on the people is because they can do something that the AI cannot. This reinforces the separation between the artificial and the organic.
BLABLA’S paper Romancing the (Electronic) Shadow in “The Matrix” largely deals with the representation of gender and race within the film, but there is an interesting point near the end of the paper relating to the idea of free will. While the illusion of seemingly “winning” is in place after Neo absorbs Agent Smith, he is still very much within the Matrix alongside all of the other humans (who have yet to even be made aware of the fact that they are living within a simulation). Haslam states that “Neo’s attack in effect supports the continued existence of the exploitative structure itself” (105). He (Neo) “does not awaken everyone to ‘the real,’ but instead exploits the continued functioning of the Matrix, leaving the illusion intact so that he can fly” .
Neo is powerful within the Matrix. But is he really? How exactly does that work? The technology seems to be incredibly advanced which makes it hard to believe that someone could just undermine it all. If the Matrix is an artificially constructed world, then should it not be that “whoever” is in charge can see exactly what is happening everywhere at any given point of time? Why is it that the Agents have to resort to mundane methods to locate the “rebels” within the system? One possible answer is that if any human under the simulation noticed the Agents (or anyone for that matter) doing something that should be impossible, it could mess with their senses of reality. Planting the idea in their heads that they are in a dream, which would then influence them to try and wake themselves up, consequently leading to a possible repeat of the situation Agent Smith mentions earlier with the failed utopia.
Another point is that this power that Neo has, is completely beyond the realm of human capability. In this sense then, the weaker he is the more artificial he is (because then he has less free will and is under stronger control), but the more powerful he is the more artificial he is as well (because he is able to do things that no other human can do). This is a dilemma. Which one is right? It seems as though either way he is more AI-influenced than organic human.
While his actions must at least be scripted to a certain extent, he is still working against the system. This demonstrates that the simulation is working against itself. From this, it is possible to say that it is not that Neo is inherently different, but that the simulation has made him that way. In that sense then, he really is just acting as a puppet. Any person within the simulation is experiencing exactly the same amount of influence from the Matrix, it is just that the part he was chosen to play is bigger than others’. He is not more of a “synthetic human” than the rest of them.
To conclude, there is definite evidence within the text that shows that the humans do have free wills. The more of a free will they have, the less synthetic they are and vice versa. But while they may not be one hundred percent artificial, they are technically used as machines, and also do not seem to have control over their own conscious decisions. It is then possible to say that, while inherently and at least subconsciously the humans are completely organic beings, they have been modified by technology (with technology) to suit its needs.
It is difficult to go so far as to say that they really are synthetic beings, because they do not personally have any sort of control over the technology within them or the simulation they are living in. The technology in The Matrix is really just a parasitical existence. It needs and uses the humans to survive. Therefore, the humans are not synthetic beings; rather, they are the victims of a disease that has taken them into a sleep that they do not even know they are in.
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