Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Matrix, Wiliam James, and the will to believe

Many of my philosophy mentors speak highly of pragmatism.  One of pragmatism's classical thinkers is William James, who was in his day friends with Charles Peirce, the father of semiotics.  Below I:

1) Respond to excerpts from James's The Will to Believe: and other essays in popular philosophy
2) Paste an excerpt from my journal about The Matrix

The Will to Believe

"Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void."
I concur.  This reminds me of a quote whose source I don't recall:  "Passion thrives, not on satisfaction, but on impediment."  I remember the many years I strove to have an ant colony, complete with queen, brood and workers.  Though I'll admit how overjoyed I was to finally succeed, the years of failure played an important role in fueling a passion that persists to this day.

"truly, all we know of good and duty proceeds from nature; but none the less so all we know of evil."
Yes, this is a familiar argument.  My post, Playing God, Slippery Slopes, and the Fallacy of Naturalism, criticizes further.

"there is some believing tendency whenever there is willingness to act at all."
This reminds me of some prose in Joseph Smith's Lectures on Faith.  Provided the act is intentional, I'm inclined to agree.  Why flip the light switch without believing there is some likelihood of it turning on a light?
"religious fermentation is always a symptom of the intellectual vigor of a society; and it is only when they forget that they are hypotheses and put on rationalistic and authoritative pretensions, that our faiths do harm."
I disagree with the former piece, absent a non-classical definition of religion; also, though I would agree that religious fundamentalism does the most harm, I think non-fundmentalist faiths also sometimes do harm.
"The truest hypothesis is that which, as we say, 'works' best; and it can be no otherwise with religious hypotheses"
I could go with this, but point out that it presupposes the proper place of at least some religious hypothesis.  One could say the unicorn-eschewing dance that 'works' best is the truest hypothesis, but it's not a meaningful conclusion since unicorn avoidance is neither important nor possible to contradict. 

James constructs absolutists as those who claim we can attain to knowing truth, AND know when we have so attained. He says empiricists claim that we cannot infallibly know when we attain truth.
This has probably been my most significant philosophical confession of the last decade: I am an empiricist.  Though I think I may have realized it for many years, I didn't embrace the tenet until recently.  I think the condition of the epistemology of man is too weak to provide the warrant for knowing when we attain truth.  We may or may not hold truth in our hands at a given moment: unfortunately, we have no device that signals when we are so holding.  Metaphor: 

Blindfolded, you are given in sequence three glasses, each half-filled with a liquid.  You are told that each is water; however, one is water, one is olive oil, and one is orange juice.  At one point you held the truth, but you did not know it.  You could take the blindfold off, taste it, test it chemically, etc. to try to "get at" the truth, but these tests merely make it more or less likely that a particular sample is water, and in any case you start with an unmerited assumption that there is some essential thing known as water, and that it is possible to discern as much.  I think pragmatism is a way of just admitting our epistemological weakness, and applying tools of inquiry in appropriately humble ways, accepting things that "work well" (picture the liquid passing more and more of your "is it water?" tests) more than those that don't work as well, and being willing to venture beliefs and exercise faith sufficient to test several hypotheses.  

"Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?"
Where, indeed!  I have yet to encounter them.  

"No concrete test of what is really true has ever been agreed upon."
I think the century or so since he wrote this has not witnessed any change in that consensus.  

"the intellect, even with truth directly in its grasp, may have no infallible signal for knowing whether it be the truth or no.  When, indeed, one remembers that the most striking practical application to life of the doctrine of objective certitude has been the conscientious labors of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, one feels less tempted than ever to lend the doctrine a respectful ear."
Ah, the malodorous stench of religious fundamentalism.  This excerpt reminds me of a conversation I had last year with the BYU Advancement VP, Kevin Worthen.  I was on my "religious freedom at BYU!" activism kick, and was discussing the subject with him (I wanted LDS students at BYU to be able to change religions or choose atheism without risking their diplomas- crazy I know).  The previous law school dean talked about how students contract away that freedom when the sign the honor code and come to BYU, and continued to rationalize the religious freedom restriction by pointing out that this is the true church, so there's no good justification for leaving it.  I was appalled.  I spoke with another BYU VP on the same subject, John Tanner, who similarly justified the harsh outcome by pointing out how egregious it is for one who has made covenants in the temple to then apostatize.  In addition to other horrified responses, I thought, "What about those whose moral consciences so dictate?  What about the "we believe in worshiping God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where or what they may" live-and-let-live ideal Joseph articulated?  (See more of my rantings at one of my most-viewed posts, Religious Freedom?  Not at BYU.)  Like almost all of my activist efforts, this one summarily failed. 

"Believe truth! Shun error! - these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life.  We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance."
This is a difficult conundrum- risk being duped in pursuit of truth, or never attain truth in order to avoid ever being duped.  I tend to side with James- I'm willing to risk the horror of being duped in order to pursue truth. It's a tough one though: I also hate being suckered.

"A social organism of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs.  Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned."
Yes, there is a presumption of trust.  One of those that values avoiding error more than gaining truth would require some performance before trusting- and that would be terribly inefficient compared to the presumption of trustworthiness (unless, of course, the majority were untrusting).

"There are in most men instinctive springs of vitality that respond healthily when the burden of metaphysical and infinite responsibility rolls off.  The certainty that you now may step out of life whenever you please, and that to do so is not blasphemous or monstrous, is itself an immense relief."
Good stinking point!  I illustrate the counter case in the latter half of my post, Intention, Faith, and Net Consequence Bundles.  

In conclusion, I was impressed by (1) how clearly James communicated and (2) the relevance of his 1910 arguments to this 2011 member of his audience. 

The Matrix

Journal excerpt:
I watched Matrix: Reloaded and Matrix: Revolutions over the last couple days.  It was very moving to me on a couple levels: philosophically and emotionally.  

I found it to be profoundly
philosophical: specifically, along the lines of pragmatism.  It explored epistemological conundrums (trying to find out what’s real, and what’s true, with limited tools of observation, logic, and experience).  The main characters and inhabitants of Zion were characteristically truthful; yet, many of their fiercest beliefs and courses of action were based on lies (e.g. the visionary Morpheus accomplished incredible feats and progress because of his belief in the One, the prophecy, and the Oracle, even though she was just making it up and didn’t know what would happen).  However, that belief helped to create the reality of Neo’s role in ending the war: a reality which likely would not have been created but for the belief (William Jamesesque if I ever saw it).  James spoke about the two categories of choice: those one can be neutral on and those that one can’t.  For instance, I could choose to visit New York or Hawaii tomorrow, but I could not choose both.  I could also choose neither, thus being neutral about the New York v. Wyoming question.  There are some issues, though, on which one cannot be neutral- for instance, when one walks close past a panhandler on a lonely sidewalk, generally one cannot remain neutral towards the panhandler.  First of all, doing nothing selects the alternative of not giving to the panhandler, whose presence with an open hat or whatnot solicits your help.  Giving to the panhandler is a choice as well.  One generates a story about the panhandler in any case (he’s worthy of dismissing, or he’s worthy of a donation of a certain size, or he’ll spend it on drugs so I shouldn’t help, etc.).  

When Morpheus or Neo asked for a ship when there weren’t enough to go around, folks were forced to decide whether or not to believe in Neo and his mission.  They really could choose, and there was no particular reason why they should choose one or the other.  Those situations are boggling- there’s no present, independent truth source on which to base belief- yet the faith itself can generate, post hoc, the foundation for itself (though this power is limited- e.g. none can decide to naturally jump 90 feet straight up in the air in the next five seconds, or cease to exist just by believing, etc.).  

Most every time the important characters had a confrontation (e.g. with the Frenchman, or the Architect, or the military general), a philosophical discussion ensued.  “You know why you’re here.”  “Where others see coincidence, I see consequence.”  “You come to me without a
why?” “Is choice an illusion?”  The Oracle always asked Neo if he wanted a piece of candy- such a simple choice, yet the consequences could be very good, very bad, or neither- Neo didn’t know, but still had to choose (doing nothing selects the option of “no”).  Love that symbolism.  How truly free to choose are we, if another can so easily present us with a choice that forces us to decide?  In those situations, another’s action causes a narrowing of our freedom (eliminating the option of neutrality).  The woman who ate the dessert thought she chose to go to the restroom, and indeed she did- but her choice was the consequence of the program the Frenchman put into the dessert.  Are humans really unpredictable, or if we knew all the factors could we perfectly forecast how a person would respond to different stimuli?  Smith exploded in rage on this score when excoriating the Oracle, smashing a cookie jar and demanding to know whether the Oracle had foreseen the act.  Is human choice determined or not? (by the way, my intuition is that it is determined, the apparent experience of free conscious thought and choice notwithstanding)  

The scene at the end of
Matrix: Revolutions was especially penetrating as to what it means to be human.  Smith demands to know why Neo keeps fighting a hopeless fight that he can’t win- quickly toppling over the typical justifications (hope, love, survival).  No, it was the mere fact that Neo chose to do so- not the reason why he chose to do so- that supplies the answer to Smith’s demanded explanation.  Perhaps choices made without a sufficient basis (or any reason at all really- typical of those “must-choose, high uncertainty” junctures we meet so often) is the most uniquely human attribute.  I would also note that the movie Artificial Intelligence also explores what (if anything) is most unique about humans.  It’s certainly not survival or rationality (witness all of life’s striving to survive, or machines’ ability to behave logically).  Love?  Irrationality?  Friendship?  Believing in fairy tales?  Destroying clones so as to be unique in the universe?  

The characters and situations were so symbolic (think the Frenchman, the trainman, the keymaker, the Oracle, the governing council, Neo in front of the Architect deciding whether to save Trinity or Zion).  Each symbolized a purpose or function.  I loved that an entire world or character or scene was created just to couch a single philosophical dilemma or principle.  The Oracle, for instance, symbolized our desire to believe and our gullibility.  She also brought into relief how little we know combined with an awareness of the same (analogized to beginning Neo compared to her wisdom and experience).  Though only a program, her choice to help Neo, though there was no particular good reason to do so, helped create the reality of his special role and ability to achieve it.  (by the way, I think advanced machines and programs are capable of genuine love and genuine choice- this conclusion flows from my belief that humans are nothing more than emergent machines)
In so many ways, Matrix typified the human condition.  

In addition to the philosophical side, I found the series very emotional: especially the relationship between Neo and Trinity.  I can’t think of a more deeply sexual and romantic story.  Both are fighting to survive, to preserve a community and culture by ending a war that would destroy it, and to discover the truth (some of the noblest and most human of endeavors).  However, they demonstrate another uniquely human attribute- fierce friendship.  Their loyalty to each other, and love, protects each other.  The sexual aspects were so fitting, matching the depth and significance of their efforts with the reward, intimacy, and the relief of the safety, affection, and loyalty of each other.  The triumphs (e.g. when Trin walked off the train, rescuing Neo from being stuck in the train station forever, or when Neo caught Trin and pulled the bullet out, and started her heart) were so thrilling.  I was SO SAD when Trinity was saying her dying words, then passed away- I’m still not over it (I’ve been thinking about them and the movie pretty much ever since I finished it last night).  From the worldview that this life is it (there’s probably no afterlife), the scene was even more sad- our lives are so fragile and tenuous, and we only have one shot- making this life profoundly precious.

The moments of danger too, e.g. when the Smith-annexed dude burned out Neo’s eyes, or held the razor to Trinity’s neck, were deeply upsetting.  I felt for Morpheus too, when he learned that the Prophecy he had exercised so much faith in was a lie- how he struggled to recover purpose and the will to believe and continue acting after he lost the anchor he had bet so much on and sacrificed for.  

As a sidenote, I love the symbolism of defying gravity (as Neo does; see also superman and Wicked).  The most classic twist of all time, defying death (thank you Jesus; see also The Prestige, Harry Potter, Gandalf in LOTR, etc.) is accomplished once each by Neo and Trinity (symmetrically, they save each other).  That’s also nice. 


  1. Love it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Brad.

  2. Thanks for sharing these thoughts Brad! I also really enjoyed The Matrix, although I agree with Chris Bradford that they sort of botched the aesthetic for some of us. Chris mentioned to me that when he and his wife were watching the second film in the series they laughed out loud when the French man's paramour commented on how in love they seemed to be, because they didn't physically look like they loved each other at all. They looked like black spooks in tight clothing with lots of weapons, not lovers. But anyway, I still thoroughly enjoyed the film and also very much enjoyed hearing your thoughts on it, as well as your thoughts on The Will to Believe.


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