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Seeing the World sub specie aeternitatis in The Matrix Reloaded

March 9, 2013

During our discussion of 2001: A Space Odyssey talked – at some length – about seeing the world sub specie aeternitatis. It’s worth noting that this theme comes up again in The Matrix Reloaded.


Here’s the relevant conversation between The Oracle and Neo.

The Oracle: Do you see her die?
Neo: No.
The Oracle: You have the sight now, Neo. You are looking at the world without time.
Neo: Then why can’t I see what happens to her?
The Oracle: We can never see past the choices we don’t understand.
Neo: Are you saying I have to choose whether Trinity lives or dies?
The Oracle: No, you’ve already made the choice. Now you have to understand it.
Neo: No. I can’t do that. I won’t.
The Oracle: Well, you have to.
Neo: Why?
The Oracle: Because you’re the One.

Notice the difference the film makes between seeing the world sub specie aeternitatis and being omniscient. The Oracle claims that Neo’s vision is limited not by time but by understanding. He can see what we would, intuitively, call the future.  But he can’t see any farther than his own future actions which he hasn’t yet wrapped his head around. It’s an interesting take on an old problem, which goes something like this:

  1. If X knows now she’s going to do F in the future, then it is true that now that she is going to do F.
  2. And if it true now that X is going to do F, then X is not free not to do F.
  3. But if X is not free not to do F, then X’s doing F is not free either. (I.e., freedom to do a thing entails freedom to do otherwise.)
  4. So foreknowledge presupposes a sort of denial of freedom of the will.

Of course there are lots of ways to try to get out of this one, including the denial of 1, 2, or 3 or the denial that they support 4. I’m not quite sure how to characterize The Matrix Reloaded’s takes on this. But the idea seems to be that Neo cannot but make the choice to save Trinity (“We’re all here to do what we’re all here to do”), but that choice is still a genuine one for him, one in which he sees the alternatives as genuine, until he comes to understand why he must save her (” You just have to make up you on damned mind to either accept what I’m going to tell you, or reject it”).

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