It has always been my contention that an important part of being a good bioethicist is understanding the pulse and trends of pop culture. We should see clearly what our culture has to say about what it means to be human through its art, and films have a unique platform to communicate ideas to our society because of the sheer number of people who watch them.
The Matrix trilogy, which concluded this past November, portrayed a blend of Eastern and Western spiritual metaphors through complex dialogue and eye-popping action. I think part of the reason so many people went to see these movies was because they tapped into the questions many are asking about the meaning and purpose of life. EJ Park, professor at Wheaton College, suggested in an interview that the Matrix is a response to the crisis of post-modernity. Post-modernity’s message is that all of reality is merely a construct. Truth is relative—in fact, everything is relative: language, culture, love, death, etc. Park concludes that post-modernity says “everything is nothing.”
In essence this is what Mr. Smith, the Matrix antagonist, has to say in the final battle he has with the hero, Neo (Mr. Anderson): “Why, Mr. Anderson, why? Why, why do you do it? Why, why get up? Why keep fighting?... Is it [for] freedom or truth, perhaps peace—could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson, vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself.” The Matrix’s message and response to this form of nihilism is that we ought to believe in something (the connotation being that the something is spiritual or metaphysical), and by believing we bring purpose and meaning to our lives. This may be a positive trend in our culture and good news for the complex and sometimes morally gray field of bioethics. There is, however, an implicit philosophical discussion in the film describing the relationship between human and machine that I find disturbing and, as it relates to bioethics, critically important to understand.
The directors, the Wachowski brothers, required their lead actors to read three books, one in conjunction with each film. The second book, titled Out of Control, The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World, was authored by Kevin Kelly, editor at large of Wired magazine. Kelly writes, “The apparent veil between the organic and the manufactured has crumpled to reveal that the two really are, and have always been, of one being.” The third book, Introducing Evolutionary Psychology, was written by Dylan Evans, Research Officer in Evolutionary Robotics at the Centre for Biomimetics and Natural Technology at the University of Bath. In this view of psychology, “the mind is a set of information-processing machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.” These ideas work themselves out dramatically in the trilogy’s final film Matrix: Revolutions in which the protagonist Neo—who by this film has become part machine himself—does not destroy the Machine that has enslaved humans for centuries but instead makes peace with it, thereby saving all of humanity from sure destruction.
The issue here is not so much a concern about the melding of human and machine, nor is it about human versus machine—it is, rather, a discussion about the human as machine. The late Neil Postman, cultural critic at New York University, wrote about the relationship that many of us have with a very familiar machine, the computer. Postman says in his book Technology that, “the computer redefines humans as ‘information processors’.... The fundamental metaphorical message of the computer, in short, is that we are machines—thinking machines, to be sure, but machines nonetheless.” Postman’s human-machine metaphor is played out in our use of words like “virus” and “infected” to describe a poorly functioning computer and, conversely, our use of words like “programmed,” “de-programmed,” and “hard-wired” to refer to certain aspects of ourselves. It seems we have already made peace with the machine.
Metaphors aside, a concept portrayed in the Matrix trilogy (or at least an idea the directors wanted the actors to understand) is that our mind is a complex organic machine, malleable enough that significant change by natural selection or some other process could redefine our humanity. This, I believe, is a very dangerous idea. As Christians, it is our responsibility to communicate the truth that human beings have an inherent metaphysical and spiritual nature that sets them apart from mere machine.
 Evolutionary Psychology Primer. Available at: http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/primer.html (accessed December 1, 2003)
Paul van der Bijl, “Matrix of the Mind: Reflections on Matrix: Revolutions,” Dignity 10, no. 1 (2004): 1, 4–5.