The Anti-Gospel of ‘The Matrix’

by John Ellis

In the spring of 1999, while sitting in Greenville, SC’s now extinct Haywood Road Cinemas, I contemplated the meaning of the red pill and the blue pill. In the weeks and months to follow, The Matrix’s philosophical puzzles posed interesting avenues that my burgeoning atheism was happy to travail. Vague and sophomoric enough to allow for molding to specific and simplistic existential circumstances yet connected enough to legitimate philosophy to have heft, the movie’s questions and attempted answers appeared to play nicely with my new worldview. For me, first and foremost, the red pill and blue pill plot device was a metaphor for my escape from religion. Having already swallowed the red pill, I thanked …, well, I thanked myself for having escaped a life deceived by myth. The question that emerged, though, and a question that eventually grew into the proverbial fly in the ointment of my worldview, steered me into the oft confusing world of philosophy of mind and, of course, epistemology.

Years before I became versed in Cartesian dualism, Spinoza’s Parmenidean monism, and definitely long before I had heard of John Searle, much less read his works[1], The Matrix opened my eyes to a problem entrenched in post-Enlightenment modernity – the existence of epistemic skepticism. How can I know, with any level of certainty, that what I’m experiencing is real?

For me, way back in 1999, the problem darkened when I realized that even having taken the red pill, there was no way for Neo and the other occupants of the Nebuchadnezzar to know that their reality untethered from the matrix was, indeed, reality. Who’s to say that there’s not a matrix within the matrix? Using terms/concepts I was unaware of at the time, once monism is accepted as the solution to the mind/body question, you find yourself in an infinite regress, epistemically speaking. Nothing is knowable, including that statement[2]. Neo could not, with any level of certainty, eat the gruel without wondering if the gruel was, indeed, real. This raises the question, a question not acknowledged by the Wachowski brothers, then why take the red pill?[3] If reality is unknowable, then why not live in the most comfortable, pleasurable version of reality you can find?

Ultimately, without an epistemology that grounds an individual in knowable reality, nothing is off the table. Ethics are nothing more than a philosophical Golden Corral where we get to pick and choose based solely on our personal preferences, current inclinations, and what seems to have been placed on the buffet most recently (click here to read more of my thoughts on ethics/morality). Most folk epistemologies, though, are not sophisticated enough to contain definitions, categories, and concepts that are conversant with the philosophy of mind’s intersection with the blue pill/red pill metaphor, much less the metaphor’s philosophical parentage – noted 20th century Princeton philosophy professor Gilbert Harmon’s brain in the vat problem. My intent isn’t to unravel the brain in the vat problem. Instead, I want to shoehorn into our collective folk epistemologies the argument that white evangelicals have been shaped by Cartesian ontologies and Kantian epistemologies and, as such, have ethics that are shaped far more by the blue pill/red pill metaphor than most of us realize.

I was jarred into compulsion to write this article after seeing a meme shared by Nate Pyle on Twitter. The meme, generated by Lifeway, is a pie chart breaking down the answers to a question posed to evangelicals: Who do you hope your presidential vote benefits the most?

No worries, I’m not going to mention any particular presidential candidate nor party. Because regardless of whom you vote for, if you side with those who answered, “Me and my family” or those who answered “People nationwide who are like me”, you’re revealing that you are steeped in a worldview that can’t wait to swallow the blue pill or a worldview that believes that it’s chosen the red pill but without realizing that the only difference between the two pills is the color. Christians should refuse both pills. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

To his credit, disturbed by the rise of epistemic skepticism, Descartes locked himself away, whether in an oven or merely a room with an oven only Descartes and God knows, in order to clear his mind, enabling him to solve the problem(s) as he saw it. Emerging with, among other things, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes introduced the world to his version of rational deductive reasoning (as well as analytical geometry, but I know next to nothing about that subject). Unwittingly, he also introduced the world to a sharper individualism than had been previously articulated. To be fair, he believed that he had created an unshakeable apologetic for the existence of God – if I exist, he thought, and my thinking about my existence proves that I exist, then God exists because, well, classical apologetics, etc. – as well as believing that proving the existence of God means that we can know reality; God wouldn’t lie to us, after all. However, Cartesian dualism is ultimately a Neoplatonist prison. If my starting point for epistemic certainty is the proof of my own existence, that pokes holes in basically everything else, including classical apologetics – look no further than the brain in the vat argument for one example among many. The only thing I can truly know is that I exist. At that point, I am the center of the universe, whatever that universe may actually look like. You don’t have to accept monism to reduce reality to coterminous with the human mind.

Moving forward in history from Descartes about one hundred and fifty years, and another renowned philosopher was disturbed enough by skepticism to attempt to solve the problem. Responding to David Hume, Immanuel Kant, among other dense and important things within the pages of In Critique of Pure Reason, spliced apart things (noumena) and our experience of those things (phenomena). In other words, our knowledge of things terminates in our experience. Taking up the challenge posed by Hume’s belief that all that we know is mediated solely through sense-experience (empiricism), Kant claimed that using a priori knowledge (reason/rationalism) we construct what we believe/know about our experiences (his combining of rationalism and empiricism is often referred to as transcendental idealism). Now, to be fair, poor Kant probably shouldn’t be held responsible for all the epistemological (and ethical) shenanigans that his work spawned. Kant would be appalled if he stepped inside a 21st century university philosophy class. However, my objective isn’t to defend Kant; it’s to point out that whether he would like it or not, those of us living in 21st century America have absorbed Kantian epistemologies – epistemologies that nourish hyper-individualism via the belief that what we know is dependent on us. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? In fancy terms, the world/things (noumena) are mind dependent.

For the biblically literate, deep reverberations of elevating humans, specifically the all-important “I”, to the throne room of the great I AM ring out when you read/hear “mind dependent” or, even, “I think, therefore I am.” We shouldn’t be a surprised, though. Our first parents wanted at least equal billing with their Creator, if not top billing. Our fallen nature steers us into the post-Enlightenment ontologies and epistemologies that produce self-focused ethics. Truly, we believe that we are the center of the universe. My needs. My wants. My fears. My dreams. Who/what serves my needs, places my wants within reach, quells my fears, and allows me to fulfill my dreams? My experience is the scale by which my ethics are weighed. Meaning is determined by me. This can be seen in the ways in which white evangelicals, seemingly in mass, are seeking to construct the most comfortable reality they can, even at the expense of Kingdom ethics – circling back to The Matrix, they’ve selected whichever pill they believe best serves them. To paraphrase Neil Postman, we are amusing ourselves straight into hell.

The blue pill/red pill metaphor tells us that reality, on some level, is fungible, and that our response is, at the least, one of the more determinative factors in deciding how we interact with the reality we want. We are masters of our own destiny. Gods of our own world. Sovereign over our own ethics. The reason why The Matrix resonated with audiences, many of whom are unfamiliar with philosophical intuition pumps like the brain in the vat problem, is because our social imaginary turns all of us towards hyper-individualism. Unfortunately, as the Lifeway poll, demonstrates, evangelical Christians are not immune.

Willfully mounting the cross, our Savior, and the One in whose image we are being conformed, thought little of himself and much of those whom the Father had given him. And in God’s economy, His Word and Christ’s ethics impose meaning on us, our neighbors, and the world around us. Our calling is to submit to that meaning, even though it will be at the cost of our own felt needs and experience.

This raises the question: Is it simply a matter of subtracting post-Enlightenment ontologies and epistemologies from our worldview? In a word, no. In a couple of more words, it is impossible to avoid breathing in the social imaginary in which God has placed us. Combatting aberrant philosophies isn’t as simple as naming them and then culling them out. To be sure, that’s a good starting point (if it’s even possible). And that’s the point where I am at. In time, my further questions, thoughts, and conclusions will be set down via my keyboard, Lord willing. Hopefully, sooner rather than later. Most likely, sooner rather than later since I think best with my fingers. In the meantime, join me in recognizing, naming, and beginning, by God’s grace, the process of replacing the aberrant philosophies that are conforming us into the image of the all-important, mind dependent “I” instead of the image of the Son of the great I AM. By God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit, love God and serve others, even those whom you don’t consider your neighbor.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Don’t allow the title to distract you. I’m not claiming that Christians shouldn’t watch The Matrix. I mean, I’m not claiming that you should watch it either; that’s between you and God. In the issue of full disclosure, I rewatched it about two months ago, and enjoyed it.

[1] I am aware and appalled by the sexual assault allegations against Searle, and my mention of him is not intended to be received as a minimizing of the pain and trauma he inflicted on many people throughout his career. Likewise, yet far less important, the inclusion of his name is not a wholesale endorsement of everything he wrote/believes. While acknowledging his heinous actions, though, it’s not possible to write my journey into the wonderful and often weird world of the philosophy of mind without at least mentioning Searle’s impact on my journey.

[2] The gleeful argument of “that’s a self-refuting statement” that is present in many apologetic tactics is often not as honest an argument as many Christians seem to believe. The use of it likely reveals a lack of understanding of what epistemic skepticism actually is and is not. The claim that “nothing is knowable” is usually a self-aware statement when made by atheists. In fact, the surface self-refutation is actually the point. 

[3] Yes, Cypher regrets taking the red pill, but he does so with the belief that he knew and experienced reality. His problem wasn’t epistemic; his problem was ethical. He knew (thought he knew) what was real but wanted to enjoy the fake.

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