As we all know, the Matrix is one of those films that basically reshaped parameters of movie-making and visual storytelling. It achieved many technical firsts and effects that movie viewers had never seen before, winning several Oscars for best film, best effects, and best sound, among others. It is an aesthetically impressive film with a mind-bending storyline that turned it into a cult classic, and as far as cult films go, it’s one of my favorites. But it’s “awesomeness” does not stop at visual and special effects. It’s also a deeply philosophical film that illustrates some of the most interesting questions of human thought.
One of the most ancient of all philosophical questions illustrated in the Matrix is known as the “determinist question.” The determinist question is a question of causality and, ultimately, how it affects human life. Though this might sound very complicated at first, it’s actually pretty simple.
Basically, the (ontological) principle of causality states that every effect necessarily follows a cause. Following Kant’s example (loosely), this is best exemplified with an apple. Why did the apple fall? Because of gravity. Why is there gravity? Because of the laws of attraction. Why is there attraction? Because Einstein said so in 1915 in his general theory of relativity. I’m kidding, of course, with the last bit. But what the apple example illustrates is that for every “why” there’s a “because” and this ancient little discovery that seems obvious when we look at it today was actually one of the keys to advancing both science and philosophy alike; and it is also underlying in Neo’s conversations with the Oracle and later with the Architect.
In moral philosophy, the person who really put the principle of causality in the scene was Aristotle. But the two philosophers who milked it the most were Kant and Hume, both of whom posed the question of how this principle affects moral agents, i.e. someone (in the sense of “being” not in the sense of “human person”) who is capable of telling right from wrong. Like Kant and Hume pointed out (as did many others, though Kant and Hume usually get all the credit), if for every “why” there’s a “because,” then to what extent are moral agents responsible for their actions? Let’s look at an example. Why did Cypher kill Dozer? Because he was working for Agent Smith. Why was he working for Agent Smith? Because he wanted to get plugged back into the Matrix. Why did he want to get plugged back in? Because he was unhappy in Zion. Why was he unhappy in Zion?… We could go on forever finding causes for each and every action, even those of a killer, leading to the logical problem of infinite regress.
Did Cypher kill Dozer? Yes, of course. But to what extent can he be held accountable if all these other causes (beyond his control) led him to killing Dozer? If our actions are a product of determined cause and effect (and not free will), then where do we stop the regression? How do we identify which causes are relevant and which are are not? How can we justify certain social institutions, like the criminal law system, if everything’s mere cause and effect over which agents have no control? Forget Cypher and think of anyone else who has ever killed, harmed, robbed, etc. If you extrapolate this line of reasoning to modern society, what do we do with rule-breakers if their actions are mere products of causes they can’t control? That’s the question Kant and Hume both pointed out from different points of the philosophical spectrum (Kant’s theory being deontic and Hume’s being somewhere between deontic and consequentialist, at least as presented in his Treatise of Human Nature). So determinism is deeply connected with questions of science, on the one hand, and questions of free will and moral agency, on the other.
It’s very easy to understand determinism and accountability when we look at them from the point of view of criminal law. We do, after all, use force against rule-breakers (imprisonment, solitary confinement, physical punishment in some countries, death penalty in others, just to name a few). So legal philosophy has had to find a way around the determinist question to be able to morally justify our criminal systems. But what about translation? Why am I writing about this on a translation blog? The answer is again pretty simple. Because determinism is playing a pretty fascinating role in translation. Why are so many translators struggling financially? Because (insert whatever cause you like here, but if your cause is somehow external to translators’ own actions or free will then you are giving a deterministic answer). So the market, the translation portals, the bidding wars, the knights of low end translation, etc. are all deterministic answers to the question of why some translators aren’t making living wages. And they are all very attractive explanations with several underlying levels of truth to them, but what about our own role and responsibility as moral agents in the direction our profession is taking?
If your professional life is something that just happens to you, to what extent are you responsible for your own professional choices and actions? I mentioned earlier that legal philosophy had to find a way around determinism to morally justify our criminal law systems. Look around you, wherever you are in the world right now, there is a legal system (with criminal laws). So we have managed to find several ways to work around cause and effect; and we did so by simply advancing the concept of free will and moral agency. Like Richard Rorty, I also believe that Plato got moral philosophy off on the wrong foot; however, that sneaky and somewhat clumsy philosopher of yore gave Kant and Hume the key to overcoming determinism: rationality. To the extent that humans are rational animals (and not, in Plato’s terms, featherless bipeds), humans can be their own cause; and thus, they can be held accountable for the effects of their actions… and that’s game! Well played, Enlightenment thinkers.
Rationality, that thing that supposedly separates us from other animals (you know, that and opposable thumbs!) is empowering and frees us from any deterministic ties. If you are a rational moral agent, then you make choices, choices that cause effects, some are good, some are bad, most are somewhere in between (and no, I’m not going to get all Nietzsche, don’t worry!); but they are non-other than choices (Enter Neo and the Architect).
Seeing ourselves as rational moral agents means taking charge of our own lives. It means being responsible for our own actions and the effects they have caused. It means that you are not a victim of the world. If you don’t like something you can change it. If you want clients, you can go get them. If you want higher fees you can up your game. It means you can be flexible, adaptable, and paraphrasing Rorty, you can transform your own reality. That is, in essence, what it means to be human, at least in the eyes of the heavyweights of human thought.