The Knowledge of Human Existence: Perception, Empiricism, and Reality An Analysis Contrived Through The Matrix and The Prestige

6 June 2016

Movies provide the audience with a unique experience. Not only do they entertain, they allow the audience to explore their own preconceptions. The most vital preconception that movies allow the viewer to explore and interact with is the definition and formation of knowledge. For centuries man has grasped for the true definition of knowledge. In this struggle many have fought for a unifying definition, this great conflagration of discourse and study did not lead to a unified definition of knowledge.

Moreover, it leads to the question that still beats in the hearts of the philosopher and the movie-goer. What can human beings know about the experience of existence? How do we define it? Man’s struggle with the definition of knowledge and how we define existence is a driving force behind the questions asked by philosophers throughout history. From Plato to Descartes, from Aristotle to Kant, the understanding of existence became nearly an obsession of the great philosophical minds.

The Knowledge of Human Existence: Perception, Empiricism, and Reality An Analysis Contrived Through The Matrix and The Prestige Essay Example

It is this “obsession” that drives Hugh Jackman’s character, Robert Angier in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. In this “obsession” Angier finds his match with Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo in Andy and Larry Wachowski’s The Matrix, whose transformation from computer hacker to an almost God like position of knowledge, stems from his obsession with defining his existence.

While it is the character Neo who is lead or rises to a position where it is possible to fathom the nature of existence, it is the audience whom Christopher Nolan guides to this level in The Prestige. Before an understanding of existence can be examined, it is important to define the role of the audience in Nolan’s The Prestige. While Nolan’s characters are subject to an “obsession” directed towards the knowledge of each other’s methods, the true character receiving knowledge is the viewer. Cristel Russell in a piece titled, “Rethinking Television Audience Measures:

An Exploration into the Construct of Audience Connectedness,” written for Marketing Letters in 1999 discusses the degrees of connection a television audience has. While Russell’s piece is intentioned for an understanding of the relationship between a television audience and the images on screen in the sense of how to market to the audience, the similarity of the mediums allow for this to be an example for the filmic experience as well. Russell’s study asserts the strength of the connection the audience has, “viewers often reported that they imitate some of the intangible aspects of their television show, from the lifestyle of the actors to the philosophy portrayed by the character,” (Russell, 1999, p.401).

Russell chooses the word “their” to suggest a possessive, included, position that the viewer takes with the images portrayed on the screen. It this suggestion of inclusiveness that suggests that the viewer becomes part of “their,” show. No longer is the viewer simply an audience member; they are a part of the cast chosen by the director and as such they become a necessary medium for explication of “philosophy” as is suggested by Russell. Nolan’s audience is not simply viewing, they are interacting with the film, and as such they are guided by Nolan to a realization, just as Robert Angier is. While, Angier’s “obsession” for knowledge is limited by his insatiable desire for revenge, he ascends on a philosophical scale.

While this may seem reminiscent of the story of Plato’s cave, where a man trapped is freed by realization that his existence is limited to projections on the wall of his cave, Plato’s example does not serve Angier. It isn’t until his death at the hands of his old enemy that Angier is able to transcend to the realm of knowledge necessary to understand existence. It is in this moment that he realizes that all the tangible evidence of how his rival’s tricks were performed, were not the true illusion. The truth that Angier in his final moments is lead to believe, is that sacrifice is a necessity for perception to become actual existence. In his dying moments Angiers defines his own understanding of his purpose, while the film-maker paints it in a romantic sense, it provides the viewer with the true understanding of individual existence. It is just that. Individual. While shaped by the collective experience, the only thing a human being can say for certain is that their existence is their own, folding too completely into an empirical collective experience is as unfulfilling as life without death.

Hence, Angier must die by the end of the film. (Nolan, 2006). Knowledge cannot be limited solely to a scientific explanation of why things are and why things aren’t. John Cottingham’s piece, “The Question,” from The Meaning of Life provides the seeker of knowledge with an explanation for the limitedness of scientific inquiry. In the piece Cottingham highlights “religious discourse” throughout time as necessary force for further investigation into the why that creates the human need for knowledge of existence. While “religious discourse” may not provide an exact answer to what existence is, this is inconsequential as according to Cottingham, “But its advocates would urge that it none the less assuages the nausea, the ‘nausea’ as Jean-Paul Sartre called it, that we feel in confronting the blank mystery of existence,” (Cottingham, 2003, p.9). Here Cottingham’s inclusion of “religious discourse” as essential in understanding the “blank mystery of existence,” seems to undermine a definition of existence based entirely on science.

“Science” as discussed in Cottingham’s discourse should be understood as empirical knowledge. Based upon Cottingham, this empirical knowledge, the tangible is limited in its ability to assist human beings in their understandings of existence. It is into this gladiatorial arena where Rene Descartes jumps as a opponent of a solely empirical understanding of existence. Rene Descartes provides a rational approach to the problem of understanding existence. Descartes rationalism is based upon his definition of the “material” of existence. Rather than being bogged down in the definition of “material,” Descartes comes to the conclusion that, “Consciousness is the essential property of mind substance,” (Collinson, 2006, p.81).

Descartes’ definition of the “essential property” as espoused in Diane Collinson’s Fifty Major Philosophers opens the door for how human existence is defined. The “essential property” of existence is not based on tangible experience. Collinson highlights Descartes suggestion that the mind experiences the empirical sense of the body, but not because of direct physical experience, rather that, “ideas of primary qualities are not derived from sense experience but are innate,” (Collinson, 2006, p 83.).

This idea of “primary qualities” can be applied to the question of existence as experienced by Neo in The Matrix. Neo’s character ascends from a plateau of empirical existence in the beginning of the film. He does not know that he is actually being deceived, that his definition of existence is a computer created dream state. This dream state although realized to be a manifestation of a computer program, is seen by Neo in his earliest iteration as real. He does not know he lives within a deception, because the computer-generated Matrix maintains all the “essential qualities” of existence in Neo’s mind. It is not until he meets Morpheus that what he considers existence is a façade.

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