Neo in the Spoon

The Matrix: Reloaded

Jesus, Buddha, and Gödel: Unraveling the Matrix Mythos

The Brothers Wachowski are attempting the reunification of the mythologies of East and West. And other reasons the One is an anomaly.

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What do Christianity, Zen, and formal mathematical logic have in common? If you look closely, The Matrix: Reloaded will tell you. Beneath its shiny, heavily stylized surface, the second installment of the Matrix trilogy reveals a surprisingly sophisticated mythological foundation. The trilogy’s penchant for religious iconography is, of course, already a widely celebrated phenomenon—philosophical essays on Neo’s messianic qualities began appearing in magazines and on websites shortly after the film was released in 1999—but what has yet to be understood is that Reloaded profoundly redefines the structure and scope of that symbolism. While The Matrix was content simply to update ancient myths with modern images, the release of Reloaded reveals the Wachowskis to be attempting something far more ambitious: a synthesis of Oriental and Occidental mythology wholly new to the Western literary tradition.

Full appreciation of the Wachowskis’ achievement, however, requires a serious grounding not only in Western mythology and Eastern religion, but also a basic understanding of some not-joking-around mathematical logic. Fortunately, this detour through the seemingly esoteric is worthwhile. One good thing about math is that it is, if nothing else, predictable. The Wachowskis have adhered to mathematical logic so faithfully that an underlying structure is readily visible and points to some fairly unavoidable conclusions about how the trilogy will resolve itself in its upcoming finale.

I. The Gödel Sentence and the One

Structurally, the mythology of The Matrix is patterned directly after a central finding of twentieth-century mathematical logic known as the Incompleteness Theorem, first discovered by the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel in the early 1930s. (For an excellent, mostly non-technical introduction to the Incompleteness Theorem, the interested reader is referred to Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. (Numerous websites are dedicated to the topic as well, though they vary considerably in both didactic quality and required mathematical background.)

In the early 1900s, the world of mathematics was engaged in a search for its own foundation, the fundamental principles from which all mathematical truth could logically be deduced. In 1931, Gödel provided a definitive, if unexpected, conclusion to the quest by proving that it was impossible. He was able to demonstrate that any formal system (such as mathematics) is inherently incomplete. This means, in essence, that there are truths that exist within a system that are not provable using the rules of that system. If the system is a set of mathematical axioms, then there are mathematical truths which are not provable (or “decidable”) using those axioms. Such an unprovable truth is known as a Gödel Sentence (G) and all formal systems have them (each particular system having its own unique G). Needless to say, this came as quite a shock to the mathematicians and philosophers of the day: mathematics, that bedrock of truth and certainty, was inherently flawed. No matter how diligently one worked to construct an all-encompassing mathematical framework, Gödel could come along with G and say, “Ah, very nice, but you still can’t prove this.”

Within the world of The Matrix, the Incompleteness Theorem provides the key to understanding the prophesy of the One. At heart an elaborate computer program, the Matrix is itself nothing more than another formal system—a fact made explicit by Morpheus in the first film: The Agents’ “strength and their speed,” he says, “are still based in a world that is built on rules.” As a formal system, it too is limited by Gödel’s finding. The existence of the One is thus explained. Neo, as the One, is the organic instantiation of G for the formal system of the Matrix.

As the Architect explains to Neo at the end of Reloaded:

Your life is the sum of the remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of the Matrix. You are the eventuality of an anomaly which is systemic, creating fluctuations in even the most simplistic equations.

Neo is a destabilizing anomaly inherent to every conceivable Matrix: he is the Gödel Sentence itself. The Incompleteness Theorem tells us that every system has a G just as, within the film, every version of the Matrix inevitably produces its own incarnation of the One. Neo’s abilities transcend the rules of the Matrix in the same way that the truth of a Gödel sentence transcends its encompassing axioms. And just as G cannot be contained by any formal system, the agents of the Matrix “will never be as strong or as fast as [Neo] can be.”

The correspondence between G and the One also provides an explanation for Agent Smith’s new role in Reloaded. According to the Architect’s explanation, whenever G for a particular version of the Matrix is found (that is, when the One is born) its incompatibility with the rules of the system leads inexorably to a “cataclysmic system crash.” Agent Smith is the embodiment of this progressive system failure. Notice, for example, that his “new purpose” was a direct and immediate result of Neo assuming his role as the One. Neo’s existence within the Matrix is a paradox, something absolutely intolerable to a system that refuses to acknowledge a reality beyond itself. His presence thus destabilizes the system, and Agent Smith’s continuing replication is the exponential spread of the instability (or “anomaly”) throughout the Matrix. Once it reaches all parts of the system (remember Smith admitting to wanting “everything”?) the Matrix will crash.

Fortunately for the Matrix, there is a way to avoid this disaster scenario. Mathematically speaking, any formal system can be made decidable with respect to a given G by simply incorporating that G into its axiomatic schema—making it a by-definition part of the system, thereby removing its undecidability. Of course, this simply creates a new formal system (the old formal system G) that will be susceptible to its own undecidable proposition, G’. This pattern is very clearly mirrored in the film.

G’s incorporation is accomplished by having the One “return to the source.” This renews the Matrix and saves it from the instability introduced by his arrival. This is not a permanent fix, however, for the new version of the Matrix is susceptible to its own version of the Gödel Sentence, which will ultimately lead to the birth of yet another One and a continuing cycle of death-and-rebirth of the system, presumably ad infinitum. According to the Architect, the trilogy takes place during the fifth repetition of that cycle.

That’s the end of the math, but it is only the beginning of the story of The Matrix, for while mathematics provides the foundation, the Wachowskis have looked elsewhere for the materials with which to build their mythological edifice.

II. The Hero’s Journey

As the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell describes in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, some symbols and patterns are common to myths and religions the world over, regardless of culture or era. This commonality manifests itself in what Campbell calls the hero’s journey, a cycle of separation, initiation, and return that provides the structure on which the vast majority of myth is built.

It is exemplified, for instance, by the Star Wars trilogy (which George Lucas admits borrowed heavily from Campbell’s work): Luke, the hero, leaves his home on Tatooine, proceeds along a road of trials through which he is initiated into his role of Jedi, and then returns to Tatooine to rescue his friends and, ultimately, liberate society. Another example, from ancient Greece, is The Odyssey: Odysseus leaves to fight against Troy, has a long road of adventure, and ultimately returns home to his reward. The Oriental tradition has the story of Buddha: Prince Gautama leaves his father’s home to discover the true nature of the world and in so doing awakens to his role as the Buddha. He then returns home as a teacher and guide to enlightenment. The list of examples is endless.

The fundamental difference between the Occidental and Oriental modes of the hero’s journey lies in the nature of the hero’s awakening. The Occidental hero succeeds by forging a relationship with a source of divine power external to himself (for example, Luke gets his power from the Force and Christ through his relationship with God the Father). The Oriental hero, by contrast, awakens not by communing with a separately individuated divinity but by recognizing within himself the power of the divine (recognizing the godhead within, as the Buddha would say). The Buddha achieves enlightenment in realizing his lack of individual identity or ego, recognizing that he is simply a part of a greater universal consciousness.

The differing Eastern and Western mythological traditions spring, at their most basic, from these different understandings of humankind’s relationship with the divine. The Oriental hero recognizes his own divinity; the Occidental hero, separate from the divine, establishes a relationship with it.

Neo and the Spoon
Premature enlightenment?

What is unique about the Matrix trilogy is that it blends the Occidental and Oriental modes of the hero’s journey. The “ordinary” cycle of the Matrix, as explained by the Architect, is a clear example of the Eternal Return common to myths of the Orient: a static, never-ending cycle of life and death punctuated by the repeated incarnation of a world-saving hero. The first movie was the hero’s journey in the Oriental mode (despite the popular, though inappropriate, identification of Neo with Christ in that movie). Neo succeeds via a transformative realization in which he recognizes within himself (in contrast to the Occidental mode) the unity of life and power of the divine. In that sense, the first movie was about Neo awakening to become the Buddha. Accordingly, that movie was rife with references to, and symbols of, Eastern mythology (cases in point, the bald, enlightened, lotus-sitting children dispensing Zen-koan-like wisdom and bending spoons with their mind).

Reloaded, however, breaks from this tradition when Neo refuses to fulfill his “Buddha destiny” of merging his consciousness with the Universal in continuation of the cosmic cycle, which is what would have happened had he chosen the “door on the right”—and which would have been the typical conclusion to an Oriental myth. Neo instead embraces the Occidental mode of the hero’s journey, in which the protagonist succeeds by gaining connection with the power of the divine beyond himself. He affirms his individual identity (as opposed to the egoless monad of the Oriental tradition) in the most fundamentally human way possible: he chooses the romantic love of Trinity. In so doing, he turns away from his Oriental destiny and towards his Occidental one.

It is in this sense, then, that Neo becomes a Christ figure. If the Matrix is about choice then Neo, in his role as the One, is choosing for the entire population of still-connected humanity, choosing an existence apart from the imposed choice of the Matrix. Just as Christ fulfilled the law so that Christians could be free of the law, Neo will (presumably) fulfill his choice so that humanity can be free of that choice. What that fulfillment will actually entail for Neo has yet to be seen, but it will undoubtedly involve his confrontation and destruction of Agent Smith, the embodiment of the anomaly (sin) inherent to every human.

The identification of “choice” in the Matrix with “sin” in the Christian tradition can be understood by recognizing the first “perfect” Matrix as representative of the Garden of Eden. Biblically speaking, Eden represents a state where humanity is without knowledge of good and evil and therefore without the ability to choose between them. By introducing choice into the Matrix—as the Architect explains was a necessary evolution—humanity is banished from Eden, banished without choice from the “perfection” of that Matrix. Original sin is what drove man from Eden just as the first “perfect” Matrix was doomed because of the “imperfection inherent to every human being.” Christ died to free humanity from the stain of Original Sin; Neo will die to free humanity from the bondage of imposed choice.

III. East Meets West and What Revolutions Has in Store

At their most basic, the Oriental mythological forms are far older than those of the West. Zoroastrianism, around the turn of the first millennium B.C., was the first religious system to introduce the concepts and patterns that distinguished the Occident from this older tradition (the dates ascribed to Zoroaster vary rather widely, but by the time of the Jewish enslavement at the hands of the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C. Zoroastrianism had already become the dominant religion of the Persian Empire). From that branching point began the ever-widening gap between the Occidental and Oriental religious traditions that today divide the world into East and West. In the East, the unity of life and the never ending cycle of death and rebirth held sway; in the West was the inevitability of death, the separation from God, and the yearning for return.

The interesting thing about the mythos of The Matrix is that it has managed to combine the Eastern and Western mythological traditions by creating, in Neo, a “hero’s hero” of sorts: a character who possesses the redemptive power of both Buddha and Christ, the egoless and the individuated, identification and relationship. The Wachowskis are certainly the first within the cinematic community to succeed at anything like this, and are perhaps breaking ground in wider arenas as well. They have created a proto-myth that is attempting to unify what became divided at the beginning of the Zoroastrian tradition. While within the Matrix, Neo functions in his role as the Buddha: at one with everything, able to manipulate “reality” at will. Outside the Matrix, in the “real” world, Neo will function as a Christ figure: apart from divinity but able, through his relationship with it, to direct its power.

What, then, does all this point to in terms of what we can expect from Revolutions? Nothing is certain, of course, but there seem to be some likely possibilities.

First up is the question of how Neo managed to stop the sentinels at the end of Reloaded. The mythological structure just formulated provides some answers that manage to explain this mystery without resorting to something as banal as—to take a popular online theory—a Matrix within a Matrix. Since it happened in the real world, Neo was necessarily functioning in his Occidental role as the Christ. It was therefore not accomplished through any organic power inherent to Neo himself. He was, rather, able somehow to communicate with the “god of the machines” (presumably the Architect) and through that communication affect the behavior of machines in the real world. That is, Neo (by some physical channel that has yet to be made clear—perhaps via a device implanted in his body along with his plugs and input jacks and not activated until he chose “the door on the left”) essentially “prays” to the Architect, asking him to stop what was about to destroy him. The Architect, being a benign divinity, has mercy and complies. This will require confirmation in Revolutions, of course, but it seems for now to be a reasonably satisfying explanation.

If Revolutions has Neo continuing in the pattern of Christ, he likely must die in the real world before assuming the proper role of savior (just as, to assume his role as Buddha, he died in the virtual world of the Matrix). The mechanism of that death has already been hinted at, with Bane being an obvious candidate to play the role of Judas: perhaps he will “betray” Neo by convincing the council (or even Morpheus himself) that the One’s choice has doomed the Matrix and that it can only be saved by sacrificing Neo. Morpheus would actually be an interesting choice as it would provide a compelling parallel to the New Testament: Christ was, after all, crucified at the behest of the Pharisees, the leaders of the old religious tradition. But whatever the mechanism, that death will result in Neo being sent, like Christ, to hell: presumably to be symbolized by a Matrix completely taken over by Smith. Neo will enter this hell to confront and ultimately defeat Smith, thereby banishing the anomaly from the Matrix and saving (in both the literal and mythological sense) every person still plugged in.

Fulfilling his destiny, Neo will return (resurrect) to the real world where he will assume his true role of savior: he will be a means of communication with the machines through which humanity will be able save itself from the wrath of the sentinels. He will enable the establishment of a true relationship between humans and machines, just as Christ enables the establishment of a relationship of expiation and forgiveness with God the Father. This relationship liberates believing Christians from the burden of Judaic Law just as Neo will liberate humanity from the bonds of the Matrix and spare Zion from the wrath of the sentinels.

In the garden of Eden grew two trees of particular significance: the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. When Adam tasted of the Tree of Knowledge,

God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” . . . So He drove man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every direction, to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:22–24).

As Campbell explains in Oriental Mythology, thence comes the separation between East and West:

Of the tree that grows in the garden where God walks in the cool of the day, the wise men westward of Iran have partaken of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, whereas those on the other side of that cultural divide have relished only the fruit of eternal life. And if man should taste of both fruits he would become, we have been told, as God himself—which is the boon that the meeting of East and West today is offering to us all.

This boon is what the Wachowskis are striving for: a union of East and West. Assuming Revolutions is able to finish what Reloaded has begun, that will be exactly what they will achieve. If it holds to form, the Matrix trilogy is virtually assured of becoming the definitive sci-fi mythology of this generation and, if it does things really right, perhaps even the first universal myth of the post-globalization era. What Zoroaster divided, let the Wachowskis reunite.

Eric Furze is a software engineer currently living in San Diego; he holds a B.S. in physics from Harvey Mudd College.

posted by editor ::: August 16, 2003 ::: philms ::: (12) Comments