There is no spoon: The Matrix and Buddhist philosophy

In this video by The Film Theorists Youtube channel, a compelling plot theory is proposed for the movie The Matrix and the entire Matrix franchise created by the Wachowski Brothers. In this theory, Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) and the movie’s heroes of Zion, the last refuge in the real world of free humans not enslaved by machines, are actually still trapped inside the Matrix. This explains Neo’s powers outside the Matrix that are seen in the later movies in the series.

However, I believe this interpretation misses many important elements. For instance, the Matrix itself isn’t real either. It’s just a movie.

Did I blow your mind yet?

Here’s what I mean: these kind of plot-specific theories about the Matrix miss the symbolic character of the movie. I believe the Matrix should be interpreted not just as a science fiction movie with philosophical elements thrown in, but as a philosophical statement in and of itself. Why is Neo able to use his powers outside of the Matrix? Because its a movie! It’s all an illusion, and we as viewers are meant to see that Neo is just as imaginary as anything on screen. However, we participate in that illusion, even to the point of trying to make theories about the film in order to make it a consistent, logical reality. Sound familiar?

This isn’t just a metacommentary on film as a genre, some kind of ultimate fourth wall reference. In fact, the Matrix is simply a large commentary on the actual nature of reality itself, not the reality of the movie. In short, the point we should draw from characters like Morpheus doubting the reality of Zion is that “there is no spoon” also refers to “real” world.

The Matrix also evidently borrows from Buddhist metaphysical and philosophical concepts. This is not just idle speculation; it is evident from the directors’ comments and movie plot (not to mention the fact that Keanu Reeves is a Buddhist and starred as the Buddha in the movie Little Buddha). The bald orphan in robes who delivers the famous “there is no spoon” line is an obvious homage to Buddhist monks and the philosophy of sunyata, or emptiness. More on emptiness later, but the proof is also in the words of the Wachowskis themselves. Take this quote from a 2003 interview to the directors when they were asked if Buddhism influenced making of the Matrix:

“Yes. There’s something uniquely interesting about Buddhism and mathematics, particularly about quantum physics, and where they meet. That has fascinated us for a long time.”

The intersection of Buddhism and physics has fascinated many scholars, including the Dalai Lama himself, who wrote about it in his book The Universe in a Single Atom. What is usually discussed in this context is the uncanny resemblance of several interpretations of quantum mechanics and the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness. Emptiness, or the lack of inherent existence, is a fundamental Buddhist concept that essentially posits that reality itself is an illusion, in that because all things are temporary and subject to time, nothing really exists independently and thus nothing has any fundamental substance. This seems to be born out by our modern understandings of physics at the most elementary level. Not only are particles like atoms already made up of 99.9% empty space in which a few elementary particles are whizzing about, but these elementary particles themselves are non-substantive because their nature as particles or waves is dependent on a variety of factors (in some interpretations, even whether they are observed or not, although the technical meaning of the term observation is still subject to intense debate among physicists). This physical phenomenon is known as wave-particle duality. Wave-particle duality is also supplemented by the famous Schrodinger equation, made famous by the Schrodinger’s cat analogy in which an elaborate quantumly-determined death trap is set up so that a cat in a box can be dead and alive at the same time. This fundamental indeterminacy of the quantum world (referred to as the probability functions of quantum particles), among many other features and theories of the quantum world, is why Buddhist teachers and physicists have been able to have many prolific discussions. It has also led some physicists to propose that “fundamental particles” do not actually exist: they are merely human interpretations of the strange and indeterminate world of the smallest scales of reality.

However, the Matrix does not only reference the quantum world. In its “levels of reality” schema, the Matrix sets up a situation in which worlds or dimensions are inside of other worlds, layers upon layers of illusion. This bears a striking resemblance to the Buddhist doctrine of interpenetration, which is explored most distinctly in the Buddhist scripture called the Gandavyuha Sutra, a part of the larger Avatamsaka Sutra. Interpenetration is most clearly represented by the metaphor of Indra’s Web, the god Indra’s infinite web of jewels in which jewel reflects all the other jewels. This infinite net of reflections creates the eternal illusion of reality itself. To put his metaphor in the language of the Matrix, there is no escape from the Matrix because we are eternally caught in Indra’s Net. Indeed, the Matrix is Indra’s Web. Who created the Matrix (Reality itself)? There is no answer because all is illusory: this is the answer we are given over and over by the sutras, the Zen patriarchs, the Tibetan tantras, and all Buddhist masters and yogis of the ages. Another way of expressing this ineffable truth is “nirvana is beyond concepts”. 

Something else that must be explored is the idea, foundational to Mahayana, of non-duality. Non-duality is most eloquently articulated in texts such as the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. In these texts, such ambiguous and mind-breaking teachings (for a Buddhist) are explicated, such as:

“There is no Nirvana, there is no Buddha, there is no Dharma [teachings]”

“Nirvana is Samsara [impure cyclic existence, our world]”

These paradoxical teachings seem to imply that the foundations of Buddhist philosophy, including the promise of freedom, are also fundamentally illusory. Therefore, is Enlightenment, the goal and promise of Buddhism, a lie? No: rather, enlightenment is realizing that nothing like Enlightenment exists as such. This must not only be temporarily realized, but integrated into the fabric of one’s mind, and all subtle traces extinguished.

How does this parallel with the Matrix? In the theory offered by the Film Theorists channel, the people of Zion (a Biblical reference to the promised land) are unaware that they are also in a dream, a fantasy created by the Matrix. In the movie, we are led to believe that this is a nefarious plot, an elaborate version of the Cartesian “brain in a vat” problem (how do I know if I’m not just a brain in a vat somewhere?). While the Matrix absolutely draws on Western philosophy as well as Eastern philosophy, the inconsistencies and paradoxes of the later movies are best explained not as a plot-hole or an in-canon larger technological conspiracy, but as a purposeful philosophical statement by the Wachowskis. Thus, the people of Zion are still metaphorically attached to the illusion that they exist, and so are we. 

And so, the most abiding question of film theorists and Matrix fans, “what is the Matrix?” can be definitively answered in philosophical context:

The Matrix is you. It is everything. It is Us, trapped by our own illusions and misinterpretations of reality. We are the ones who should take the “red pill”, while realizing that in reality, “there is no red pill”. In the words of the Heart Sutra:

” Form is empty. Emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form is also not other than emptiness…in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no discrimination, no compositional factors, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no visual form, no sound, no odor, no taste, no object of touch, and no phenomenon. There is no eye element and so on up to and including no mind element and no mental consciousness element. There is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so on up to and including no aging and death and no extinction of aging and death. Similarly, there is no suffering, origination, cessation, and path; there is no exalted wisdom, no attainment, and also no non-attainment.”

There is no You, no Me, and there is no Matrix either.

What should we take from this? I believe there are many answers. One, I believe that we should take what the makers of movies who have something to say about us, about our world, more seriously, even if what is offered on the screen is an illusion. On the one hand, the general viewer must be faulted for not taking the movie seriously enough, or seen in another view, for taking it too seriously (as a coherent story with a narrative that must make sense). The way we watch movies is thus reflective of society as a whole and the way we perceive reality: it can therefore be changed and is not necessarily inherent. The Matrix should therefore also be seen as a cultural commentary, and there are many layers (particularly with respect to the effects of technology on society) that should be explored in more detail, perhaps by other commentators. However, I believe that the proverbial heart of the Matrix lies with its timeless message about reality: that things are not as they appear.

Or are they? It all depends on your point of view.

Check out my other article on Avatar: The Last Airbender and Buddhist philosophy





Preliminary thoughts on Bruno Latour’s Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies

More and more when I delve into the subject of the interpretation of science this question keeps popping up: What is Reality? Does Reality exist? Moreover, does Objective Reality exist? Are those two terms different?

Now often, I jump the gun, I have barely scraped the introduction of Latour’s Pandora’s Hope and already I know what he is going to say (probably because I read the back of the book). I’m also simultaneously watching a talk by string theorist Leonard Susskind and reading the opening chapters of a book currently being written by quantum physicist Ron Garret. But I need to get my thoughts out on paper before I lose them, or they change given new information. Here goes:

Latour was inspired to write his book when a psychologist asked him “Do you believe in reality?” The intention behind the question is obvious- are you some kind of postmodernist that doesn’t believe in reality at all, undermining all of science? Latour answered of course he does (followed up by asking what’s your point) and he was offended because he thought scientists should understand that those doing science studies were trying to make the sciences even more objective. Then Latour realized the political dimensions of saying that scientists are fallible human creatures, etc…If I am stretching or misrepresenting what Latour thinks, I apologize, but I’m previously acquainted with his views in We have Never Been Modern.

Latour asks on the back cover- why did the idea of an independent reality free of human interaction emerge in the first place?

Here’s my answer to that, as yet uninfluenced by what Latour has said:

The idea of reality as independent of human interference is essentially a Western construct, necessary for the very existence of science in the first place. It was basically a postulate used to try investigating reality itself, to the point where reality and objective reality are synonymous.

However, now scientists have to deal with “observer bias” and all sorts of phenomena in which human interference changes the parameters of what’s being observed. It’s no secret that everything is connected- it’s intuitive! This doesn’t imply anything strange or mystical at all, its very simple. Step in a river, and its a different river than it would have been if you had not stepped in it (maybe not by much, but it is different). This principle goes for social sciences like psychology and anthropology as well as the hard sciences such as physics.

Therefore, quantum physicists, through various phenomenon that have to take into account the physical effects of observation, and the various laws that come out of that like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, were the first to abandon this notion of objective reality, or reality independent of human “observation” (I clear up some of the New Age misinterpretations of this in another post). What I’m getting at is that some scientists may be turned off to the notion of denying that there is such a thing as objective reality because our terms have been conflated. We are essentially talking at cross purposes. The other reason may be that like Latour says, it threatens their very reason for existence.

To me this is not rocket science at all. This is because from a young age I have learned the all the terms of Buddhist metaphysics, namely, dependent arising, interdependence, cause and conditions, the lack of inherent existence of any phenomenon, etc. This last one, the lack of inherent existence of any phenomenon (shunyata), or the lack of independent existence of any phenomenon, is what the lack of something called “objective reality” I think really means. No need to invoke general relativity at all. Its perfectly clear to anyone given enough thought, and every single student of Buddhism has had to be led through this “insight” meditation. Through a certain traditional “thought experiment” the student comes to realize that because no object is independent of any other, the designation of that object as an object as such is relative. This is the literal term that is used! In Buddhist metaphysics, there is absolute reality (in which there is no things as such) and relative reality, in which there are things that exist relative to other things and relative to our minds.

Maybe its because I have been sort of inculcated in Buddhist ways of thinking, namely the Middle Way school of thinking common to Tibetan Buddhism, that I find these debates about whether there is reality outside of human interaction generally very boring.

And this comes back to my original “critique” of Latour. My critique of Latour and company wasn’t that I disagreed with them- I do agree with them! It’s that the way they come up with their conclusions is basically reinventing the wheel. I contend that the only reason we were able to get outside this Western philosophical frame of reference (starting with Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc) is exposure to the non-West. It’s well known that Schopenhauer was one of the first to study Buddhism in Europe seriously based on new translations, and Schopenhauer was one of Nietzsche’s primary influences, etc.

What I am saying is this- if Latour came to his conclusions independently using science studies and his own “genealogy of thought”, then I give him all the credit in the world. A quick look through his index reveals references to Foucault, Leroi-Gourhan, Lyotard, etc. All people who have influenced me- but all I’m saying is that Latour is still using in what me and fellow philosophy blogger Landzek at Constructive Undoing are attempting to call the “scholar’s paradigm”, which is basically a reliance on Authors and Authorities with a capital A (something Foucault and Derrida, incidentally enough, wrote a lot about).

So what does Buddhist philosophy have to say about independent objective reality directly? Buddhist philosophy, before talking about reality in general, usually approaches the topic of emptiness of inherent existence by way of talking about selflessness, or the lack of an inherent self or “I”. The primary Buddhist philosophical text (as opposed to a strictly religious text or sutra) that relates to this concept is the 7th century philosopher Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way. In the Eighteenth Chapter of that treatise, Nagarjuna states that:

“If the aggregates were the self, it would be produced and disintegrate. If it were different from the aggregates, it would lack the aggregates’ characteristics”. 

This is a formulation of emptiness in terms of selflessness. In the commentary it explains that this verse means that because there is one self, because the self is made up of many aggregates, then it cannot be identical to its parts. Similarly, if it something completely different than the parts, then it would lack the characteristics of the parts. Seeing that humans lack an inherent identity is much easier to show then an object’s lack of inherent existence, however.

Nagarjuna goes on to say that:

“Whatever arises relying on something else, is from the outset not that. Nor is it other than that. Thus it is neither non-existent nor permanent.”

This is a statement about causality. A cause is neither completely identical to nor completely different than its effect, because the cause transforms into the effect. In the words of the commentary on the text, “dependently arising nominally imputed phenomena  are neither inherently one with nor inherently different from their causes and conditions or parts and their mode of existence is between the two extremes in that they are neither totally non-existent nor do they have any reified existence”.

This great tradition of the Middle Way (Madhyamika) school of philosophy founded by Nagarjuna was studied for at least 4 years by every monk in many great monasteries of Tibet. Maybe you will say that I am appealing to another kind of authority in asserting that Buddhist philosophy has something to say about this problem of objective reality. My biases aside, I can tell you that these fundamental truths are not dependent (funny enough) on any religion, they are truths about reality itself. But Buddhism has and will continue to have more to say on this subject precisely because it has been the topic of intellectual for well nigh two millennia. The idea that they were just all sitting around chanting in monasteries for two thousand years is a false one based on lack of exposure to the tradition. Many other  Eastern schools of thought have other things to say about this, namely Zen, Taoism, etc. It’s the lack of a single reference to Eastern philosophy in something like Latour that really bugs me, and it just furthers our Western mythology of scientific objectivity that Latour is trying, whether he likes it or not, to undermine.

Despite all I’ve said, I’m sure that I will thoroughly enjoy Latour’s book. To be accepted, Latour generally has to go through certain conventions and hoops, and I perfectly understand that. His project of science studies is something different than a rethinking of traditional Western ontology through Buddhist categories. My hope is that one day the name Nagarjuna will be cited like Hegel in an academic bibliography. Then maybe one day my job as an anthropologist has been accomplished.


A collection of aphorisms

I am going to do this post in Nietzschean aphorisms because, I feel like it. They are all connected, but cover a wide range of topics.

  1.  All paradoxes about the infinite are not really paradoxes- all seemingly illogical conclusions that come from infinities and the mathematics of infinite series only seem that way, but actually there is a deeper intuition at play. The infinite must contain all within itself and yet be able to add more- that is the definition after all of infinite. Correspondingly, all mathematics about infinities is not fascinating, just simply boring.
  2.  This is what Nietzsche meant by the fact that “mystical explanations are thought to be deep, the truth is they are not even shallow.” However this aphorism itself will be misunderstood by those who think that Nietzsche only thought that religion tricked the foolish. Nietzsche elsewhere in his corpus praised the surface of things, the shallowness, as opposed to pretensions of being “deep”. Therefore, paradoxically, Nietzsche’s statement is a praise of mysticism, or rather, a recognition that those who have “mystical insight” only have relative insight to the “herd”.
  3. One could misinterpret Nietzsche’s above-mentioned aphorism as pretentious, as a claim to immediate understanding of all metaphysical insights. But rather, Nietzsche understood that mystical understandings of the world precisely work from taking what is everyday ordinary experience and making it uncommon. We all have experienced those moments (which may be profoundly uncomfortable) where suddenly we see something we thought we knew very well and suddenly it seems frightening or strange.
  4. Human beings only learn through experience. The constant sensory flux of information, combined with the overwhelming amount of stuff that is in the world and the fact that the world is always changing, means we only learn through repetition. (Oh there’s that thing again- what was it called? Cow!)
  5. This is what Tantric Buddhism or Zen means by the fact that ordinary mind is the basis for everything, or rather, why the ordinary itself is brought out as something to be exalted. Because behind what we view everyday, if we alter our perception, are entire worlds. Like in the scene at the beginning of Blue Velvet by David Lynch, where a dead man is laying on the ground, and they gradually begin to zoom into his ear, and one begins to see the bugs crawling on the grass. Behind our normal human way of viewing the world, there are things that are normally beyond our perception.
  6. Much of the unseen world has been conquered by humanity, through microscopes, telescopes, infrared detectors, or simply exploring places that were ignored, forgotten, or previously uncharted in our own world, like the bottom of the ocean. Most of the world is now aware of things that are invisible- how incredible is that! Things like viruses, bacteria, etc. Therefore, one day, humanity will not only be aware of levels below that of the microbiological (the protein, DNA), but one day organic chemistry will also become ubiquitous, even though it is generally still specialized knowledge.
  7. Most of the world is aware of the atom, probably because of the advances in nuclear physics that led to nuclear reactors and the atomic bomb. But the quantum world is so new of a discovery, that humanity hasn’t had time to situate it into its understanding of the world. With discoveries of phenomena like the Planck length, we have seemingly hit the bottom of the barrel. History should show us that there is no bottom of the barrel. The human can transcend the human, but not through merging with technology. Humanity will simply no longer apply to what we have become.
  8. Through all of the change that humanity has undergone, we are still mortal beings of flesh and blood for whom death is no abstract concept, but an ever-pressing reality. Science will not save us from this. But perhaps now the difference is this- in days gone by humanity accepted the infinite, made peace with it. Now it stands as a dark chasm that is both threatening and a challenge waiting to be explored. The question now is- will we, or have we, already reached those limits? Is knowledge of humanity’s theoretical limitations a prerequisite for a full understanding of what it means to be human?
  9. Heidegger undertook a project of full ontological understanding of Being, through the lens of understanding humanity, or Dasein. One was necessary for the other. Dasein is fundamentally, for Heidegger, a being towards death. If this is Dasein’s fundamental nature, can other aspects of Dasein be changed? Our lifespan? The way we act in the world? The way we relate to each other as a species?
  10. I think of Star Trek every time I want to understand what humans could be someday. The Vulcans are just a picture of what we could become, a society wholly based on logic, with an understanding of who they are in the cosmos. As knowledge continues to build over time, could we not, in some sci-fi future, approximate the Vulcans? Couldn’t all of humanity be given, from the time of birth, the tools to go through the world and all knowledge from prior generations, like the Vulcans do in their Science Academy? In my mind, what humanity has yet to achieve is a kind of worldwide planetary society.
  11. A worldwide planetary society would not be homogeneous, or tell everyone what to do. But it would instead allow the entire world to thrive, and create an end to things like hunger through automatic restitution of lost crops due to natural disasters, etc. It would require basically a UN that we pay taxes to, and is fully functional with no dominance of one nation (cough cough the United States). Only then could humanity look back collectively on our dark past and basically say- what the hell happened?
  12. Zizek is right when we say we need to go further and not admire local organization. We need new international solutions to our problems- international laws with real teeth, levels above the state level that can coordinate things with a degree of actual consistency. As it is, our fledgling attempt at world order has failed- it did not stop Rwanda, it did not Bosnia, or Darfur. And it certainly won’t stop Syria, because we have yet to let go of the doctrine of national sovereignty