Philosophy of The Matrix (Part 2)

Part 2 deals with the philosophy of prophecy. Part 1 discussed the philosophy of existence and simulated realities. Later parts may cover cycles of existence, morality and ethics, and computer intelligence.

The Oracle: Prophecy

The Oracle is a sentient program who knows, or at least gives the appearance of knowing, future states of the world. First we have the intriguing self-fulfilling prophecy effect in which knowledge of a future event causes the event to happen. The question is: Would the event have occurred if the subject did not know it would occur? The following scene in the first movie is truly amazing:


			I'd ask you to sit down, but
			you're not going to anyway.  And
			don't worry about the vase.

			What vase?

	He turns to look around and his elbow knocks a VASE from
	the table.  It BREAKS against the linoleum floor.

			The vase.

			Shit, I'm sorry.

	She pulls out a tray of chocolate chip cookies and turns.
	She is an older woman, wearing big oven mitts,
	comfortable slacks and a print blouse.  She looks like
	someone's grandma.

			I said don't worry about it.  I'll
			get one of my kids to fix it.

			How did you know...?

	She sets the cookie tray on a wooden hot-pad.

			What's really going to bake your
			noodle later on is, would you
			still have broken it if I hadn't
			said anything.

	Smiling, she lights a cigarette.


In the context of the environment, it seems very doubtful that Neo would have broken the vase had the Oracle not told him to not worry about it. The scene illustrates the limitations of free will via prophecy. The realizations are quite scary. We know that the Oracle is a computer program in the matrix. Back to simulated realities for a moment, it is physically possible, because the program is running in some place outside the simulation, for the Oracle to know the future, if and only if events are deterministic. By deterministic, I mean lacking randomness or free will. This concept is more understandable built bottom-up.

Consider a universe with 100 particles moving around. Someone from another universe with more resources could theoretically create a computer simulation of those 100 particles. Now suppose the 100 particles existed only in a simulation. The scale of time in that universe is both arbitrary and meaningless. We could stop the simulation for 10 years of our time, resume the simulation, and in the point of view of the simulation, not a beat would have been skipped.

We now add one layer of complexity to the situation. Instead of the program simulating 100 particles, it is now simulating sentient beings. Those beings would have no awareness of the universe surrounding them, and hence, to them, time is relative. Now suppose the simulation is fully deterministic. It should then be theoretically possible to create a second simulation, starting with the exact same states. We may then speed up one of the simulations, or slow/pause the other, causing the faster one to surpass the other in time. Then we could technically observe what happens in the faster simulation and relate to the beings in the slower simulation what will happen in the future.

But, by telling them what will happen, we are interfering with the simulation. If in the faster simulation, a certain character, say Bob, is supposed to be involved in a car accident, but we tell the other simulation’s Bob that he is going to have a car accident, then the second Bob could theoretically avoid the accident. Therefore, the second simulation is not deterministic because an unpredictable, outside entity interfered with it.

Let us first look at two other cases of self-fulfilling prophecy, both in self-contained, deterministic worlds. For this purpose, we exit the Matrix temporarily. Consider Shakespeare’s Macbeth. If you are not familiar with the plot of this play, then look up the summary on Wikipedia or skip this paragraph if you do not want spoilers. Now, in the play, Macbeth learns from three witches that he is to be the future king of Scotland. Acting on this knowledge, he then lays a trap, murdering the current king and then proclaiming himself king. Had he not known the witches’ prophecy, he would most likely not have murdered the king and become king himself. Philosophically, this plot is deterministic. Since it is entirely possible that the witches merely made a random guess, there is no outside force influencing the plot (the visions and ghosts later on can be physically interpreted as hallucinations.) So, if you ran the universe again, the same thing would have happened.

One more example is Premonition (2007). If you actually want to see this movie (despite that it had mostly negative reviews as a film, it has a very thought-provoking plot), go ahead and skip this paragraph. Otherwise, continue. In the movie, Linda experiences non-chronological order, waking up on Thursday, then Monday, then Saturday, etc. (because of this, the movie is somewhat confusing the first time). She learns on Thursday from a sheriff that her husband Jim died on Wednesday in a car accident, and that it happened at the main road’s “Mile 220” sign. She later wakes up on Wednesday. Jim is still alive. She tries to “save” him, but ends up getting Jim to be at the “Mile 220” road. A speeding car comes by and narrowly misses Jim’s car. Although Jim survives and Linda is relieved that the accident was “avoided,” Jim’s car fails to start, and he is stuck in the middle of the road. A large truck full of gasoline approaches and cannot stop in time, exploding on impact and causing Jim’s car to explode as well. What is fascinating, however, is that had Linda not had the premonition, Jim would not have been killed.

Now, the fundamental difference between these two cases and the one in The Matrix is that in the last case, the world is not deterministic. Hence the real question is, How did the Oracle know? A computer cannot simulate something more complex than itself, that is, the total number of things to simulate cannot exceed the limits by the computer’s processing power. (A counter-argument is that the computer can run a more complex simulation at a slower rate, but the Matrix is a real-time simulation, so the counterclaim is invalid here.) In order for the Oracle program to predict what will happen in an interaction between itself and a human, it will need to be able to fully simulate both the human and itself because there is mutual interaction. But hold on a second, a computer cannot simulate itself plus something else! It is analogous to fitting the space of  a larger box completely inside a smaller one; it cannot be done.

Unless, of course, there are two layers of simulation, not one. Suppose the Earth combined with its Matrix program are being simulated in a more “real” universe. Then because the more real beings do not have to interact with our universe, our universe would be deterministic, along with everything within it. So, in the outer-universe, programmers could have run two simulations of us, and fed in information from one simulation into the Oracle program-within-a-program in the other simulation. However, there is another way to explain how the Oracle knows: the Oracle is using knowledge from previous existences.


Script of The Matrix: (Accessed 11/24/09) <>.

2 thoughts on “Philosophy of The Matrix (Part 2)”

  1. Maybe I’m missing something in your argument or about the way the Oracle works, but it seems to me that the 2nd simulation-model can still be deterministic without the “real world” being a simulation. If the Oracle of simulation 2 is just a method by which “real people” inject data from simulation 1 into simulation 2, and the method of prediction-injection falls within the boundaries of the predictive power of the model, then simulation 2 post-prediction-injection can still be modeled by injecting the prediction into a 3rd simulation and running that 3rd simulation faster than the 2nd simulation to see how the 2nd simulation would turn out. In this idea, even with prediction-injection changing the patterns of people’s behavior in simulation 2, simulation 2 is still wholly predictable and deterministic.


    1. Thanks, Jackie, that’s a really good point which I failed to mention in the post. Rest assured that I did consider it during the writing of the post. However, the one flaw with that otherwise solid argument is that, when you run a faster simulation to know what will happen to the normal simulation, you cannot simulate any outside interaction in that faster simulation. Sure, outside interaction in the past can be simulated. If a human interacted with the Matrix previously, then simply start the faster simulation after that human interaction has ended. I definitely concede that there is no reason to have to start the faster simulation at the beginning.

      But, once the faster simulation gets up and running, preloaded with all the injected information of previous outside interaction, we run into a similar problem as before. The simulation cannot predict human interaction into the future; it cannot simulate more than itself. This third simulation then becomes non-deterministic, simply because it cannot possibly simulate outside information (unless, however, the world running that simulation is itself in a simulation, and a faster version of the entire world is run in the outside universe, which is injecting information into it).


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