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In the Matrix, which pill would you take, the red or the blue?
by David Droar
The question of which pill to take illustrates the personal aspect of the decision to study philosophy. Do you live on in ignorance (and potentially bliss) or do you lead what Aristotle called 'the examined life'...
The Matrix is a film filled with religious and philosophical symbolism. The plot supposes that humans live in vats many years in the future, being fed false sensory information by a giant virtual reality computer (the Matrix). The perpetrators of this horror are machines of the future who use humans as a source of power. Humans are literally farmed.
The central character of the film, Neo, is presented to us in the opening part of the film as a loner who is searching for a mysterious character called Morpheus (named after the Greek god of dreams and sleep). He is also trying to discover the answer to the question "What is the Matrix?"
Morpheus contacts Neo just as the machines (posing as sinister 'agents') are trying to keep Neo from finding out any more. When Morpheus and Neo meet, Morpheus offers Neo two pills. The red pill will answer the question "what is the Matrix?" (by removing him from it) and the blue pill simply for life to carry on as before. As Neo reaches for the red pill Morpheus warns Neo "Remember, all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more."
The film as a whole and especially the choosing scene is deeply compelling. Why is the choice between what you believe you know and an unknown 'real' truth so fascinating? How could a choice possibly be made? On the one hand everyone you love and everything that you have built you life upon. One the other the promise only of truth.
The question then is not about pills, but what they stand for in these circumstances. The question is asking us whether reality, truth, is worth pursuing. The blue pill will leave us as we are, in a life consisting of habit, of things we believe we know. We are comfortable, we do need truth to live. The blue pill symbolises commuting to work every day, or brushing your teeth.
The red pill is an unknown quantity. We are told that it can help us to find the truth. We don't know what that truth is, or even that the pill will help us to find it. The red pill symbolises risk, doubt and questioning. In order to answer the question, you can gamble your whole life and world on a reality you have never experienced.
However, in order to investigate which course of action to take we need to investigate why the choice is faced. Why should we even have to decide whether to pursue truth?
The answer in short, is inquisitiveness. Many people throughout human existence have questioned and enquired. Most of them have not been scientists or doctors or philosophers, but simply ordinary people asking 'what if?' or 'why?' Asking these questions ultimately leads us to a choice. Do you continue to ask and investigate, or do you stop and never ask again? This in essence, is the question posed to Neo in the film.
So what are the advantages of taking the blue pill? As one of the characters in the film says, "ignorance is bliss" Essentially, if the truth is unknown, or you believe that you know the truth, what is there to question or worry about?
By accepting what we are told and experience life can be easier. There is the social pressure to 'fit in', which is immensely strong in most cultures. Questioning the status quo carries the danger of ostracism, possibly persecution. This aspect has a strong link with politics. People doing well under the current system are not inclined to look favourably on those who question the system. Morpheus says to Neo "You have to understand that many people are not ready to be unplugged, and many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it."
The system also has a place for you, an expected path to follow. This removes much of the doubt and discomfort experienced by a trailblazer.
Another argument on the side of the blue pill is how does anyone know that the status quo is not in fact the truth? The act of simply questioning does not infer a lack of validity on the questioned. Why not assume that your experience is innocent until proven guilty? Just accept everything?
So if the arguments for the blue pill are so numerous, why take the red pill? Why pursue truth even though it may be unpalatable and the journey to it hard? In the film, Neo risks death to escape the virtual reality and discovers a brutal reality from which he cannot return. As he discovers the trouble with asking questions is that the answers are not necessarily what you want to hear.
To justify taking the red pill we might ask what is the purpose of an ignorant existence? Further still, what is there in merely existing? Simply existing brings humans down to the level of objects; they might have utility or even purpose, but where is the meaning? Existence without meaning is surely not living your life, but just experiencing it. As Trinity says to Neo, "The Matrix cannot tell you who you are."
Given the potential disadvantages of choosing the red pill, the motivation for discovering the truth must then be very strong. The film makes much of this point. Trinity says to Neo "It's the question that drives us, Neo." and Morpheus compares the motivation for Neo's search to "a splinter in your mind - driving you mad." The motivation for answering the question is obviously strong as the answer will help us to find the meaning in our lives.
What we are looking at here is the drive to answer a question, but the key to this is what drove the question in the first place. The asking of questions about our environment our experience and ourselves is fundamental to the human condition. Children ask a seemingly never-ending stream of questions from an early age. It is only with education and socialisation that some people stop asking these questions. However, we remain, as it were, hard-wired to enquire.
This is an inevitable consequence of consciousness. A being with a mind, conscious of itself and its existence, experiencing a reality, needs to organise the data that it receives from its senses. Simply observing and recording does not allow for consciousness. It is what we do with that information that allows us to think. In order to process and store the vast amount of information received, the human brain attempts to identify patterns in the data; looking for the patterns behind what is experienced. This is asking questions of the sensory information, and requires reasoning. By definition a conscious mind seeks to know. Knowing something requires more than just data, but intelligence or reasoning applied to that data. To attempt to obtain knowledge we must therefore question the data our mind receives; thus, consciousness questions.
So the metaphor of the journey to truth that Neo takes is complete. The journey starts with a question, there is a search for the answer and the answer may be reached. This shows us that the journey does not start with Neo choosing between the pills, or with ourselves deciding whether to question. The act of asking the question is itself the starting point as the aim of asking the question is to seek truth and knowledge.
We have established that consciousness is aware and seeks knowledge and that thus the conscious mind must question. To question is to seek the truth and start on the journey to knowledge. Therefore the choice between the pills is surely made for us. The fact that we are conscious appears to require us to take the red pill.
However, this can be simply countered by someone who would prefer to take the blue pill. They may wish to seek the truth in a different way, or in a less mind jarring set of circumstances. They can choose the blue pill and not deny their consciousness, but to stop seeking the truth entirely would be to deny their consciousness.
Thus we are philosophically driven to seek the truth and the act of questioning whether to seek it is in itself seeking the truth. As conscious minds we will always seek the truth. However, the choice over the red or blue pills is not solely a choice between whether to question or not, it is a personal choice on the method of discovering the truth.
Did You Know?
The Wachowski brothers gave Keanu 3 books before reading The Matrix script: 'Out of Control' by the Editor of Wired Magazine, 'Introducing Evolutionary Psychology' and Jean Baudrillard's 'Simulacra and Simulation'. Find out more about these books.