Was Cypher Right?: Why We Stay In Our Matrix

by Robin Hanson
Sept. 2002

The Matrix is a story of AIs who keep humans as slaves, by keeping them in a dream world, and of rebels who fight to teach people this truth and destroy this dream world. But we humans are today slaves to alien hyper-rational entities who care little about us, and who distract us with a dream world. We do not want to know this truth, and if anything fight to preserve our dream world. Go figure.

The Matrix (the movie) is a story of rebels who fight against a "world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth."

The truth is that "there are endless fields, where human beings are no longer born, we are grown" to serve as batteries to provide energy for artificial intelligences (AIs). AIs even "liquefy the dead so they could be fed intravenously to the living." But the minds of these humans see only the Matrix, "a neural-interactive simulation, ... a computer generated dream world built to keep us under control." There are "billions of people just living out their lives, oblivious" to these facts, who "believe it's the year 1999 when in fact it's closer to 2199."

The AIs seem to have tried to make humans as happy as possible. "The first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world. Where none suffered. Where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program." So "the Matrix was redesigned to this, the peak of your civilization." Even so, there are humans who have discovered the truth, and who rebel against being "born into bondage, born into ... a prison for your mind." These rebels believe that "as long as the Matrix exists the human race will never be free," and so they want "the destruction of the Matrix" and "freedom to our people."

Now, it is admitted that the rebels do not usually recruit older people, who have "trouble letting go." "Most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it." But the rebels are confident that once young recruits learn the truth, they will not want to go back. And the moral correctness of their position is illustrated by the moral poverty of Cypher, the character who wants to return to the Matrix. Cypher is shallow and stupid, betrays and kills his colleagues, is bitter at being rejected as a lover and a leader, and wants to forget the truth. "I don't want to remember nothing. Nothing. You understand? And I want to be rich. You know, someone important, like an actor."

Most viewers of this story are led to believe that, given the choice, they would join the rebels. But it is worth considering for a moment whether this is really the right choice. After all, without a rebellion billions of humans would continue to live out happy lives, and probably far more AIs as well. Progress would continue through our superior descendants, the AIs. As Agent Smith says:

"Evolution, Morpheus, evolution, like the dinosaur. Look out that window. You had your time. The future is our world, Morpheus. The future is our time."
A rebel war with the AIs risks those lives, that happiness, and that progress, and for what? A viewer who sides with the rebels must place a high value on humans knowing the truth, on humans not being slaves, even happy slaves, or on humans running the future regardless of their relative abilities.

Now I do not want to say that this view is wrong. Maybe facing the truth is really good, slavery is really bad, and humans are the rightful rulers of the future. Instead, I want to say that this simply cannot be the whole story. It cannot be the whole story because here in our real world today, we humans are in fact slaves to alien hyper-rational entities who care little about us, and who provide us with a dream world to distract us from the fact that they callously use our bodies to further their ends. (We humans are not even likely to run the future.) Yet when we are confronted with these truths, very few of us, the young included, rebel against our dream world. In fact, what rebels we have seem to be mostly concerned to preserve our dream world.

So who are our slave-masters, and what is this dream world that they use to enslave us? Our masters are our "selfish genes," and our dream world is the world of love, humor, talk, story, art, music, fashion, sport, charity, religion, and abstract ideas that occupies the attention of our "mating minds." Let me explain.

You are a body with a mind. Your mind is the result of activity in your brain, and your body was grown from a single cell following the instructions of your genes, which you acquired from your parents. Your parents acquired their genes from their parents, and so on back for billions of years. (The few genes not acquired from parents were created by random mutations.) The fact that you have certain genes and not others was determined almost entirely by a fierce competition between genes to create better "survival machines," i.e., creatures that perpetuate and spread those genes. The genes that produced you are not a random sample from all possible genes; they are some of the few genes that, so far, remain in this competition.

Evolutionary biology has made enormous progress in understanding the patterns of life around us by thinking in terms of "selfish genes." That is, you would not go very wrong in predicting the patterns of life we see if you made the following assumptions. First, that every gene is intelligent, wants only to make more future copies of itself, and chooses the behaviors of the creature it helped code for with only this purpose in mind. Second, that it faced fierce competition with other genes, even other genes that code for the same creature. And third, that it was ignorant of local circumstances, and so could not help but assume that the future would be very much like the past few thousand generations.

Of course genes are not actually intelligent, in the sense of basing their actions on computations that they run. But since they act a lot like they are intelligent, they act a lot like the cruel slave-masters they would be if they were intelligent. Our genes do not care whether we experience more pleasure than pain. Our genes only care that we anticipate both possibilities, so that they can control us via our passions, i.e., our preference for pleasure over pain. When our bodies are no longer capable of reproducing, or of helping those who share our genes reproduce, our genes literally do not care if we live or die. Our genes will happily shorten our lifespans, or give us great pain, if that will help those genes to reproduce. Our genes will also lie to us to promote their goals, such as by making us think that our happiness depends more than it does on our success. Our genes can indeed be cruel masters.

Brains are a technique that genes have hit upon to help them reproduce. Brains can observe local conditions, and then perform complex calculations in order to figure out a good response to those local conditions. Using a brain, for example, genes can tell a predator fish to look for a tail that wiggles and then follow that tail until its close enough to bite.

Now for small brains, genes can do well just giving those brains a long list of condition-action pairs, i.e., what to do in what sort of situation. Like follow a tail and bite it. But for big brains, brains that are capable of more abstract reasoning, it would seem to make more sense for genes to give those brains a general description of what sort of outcomes are desired, some beliefs about how actions produce outcomes, and an ability to change those beliefs in response to circumstances. This should allow such brains to adapt more flexibly to changing conditions. And since each creature is an important part of its own desired outcome descriptions, such a brain would naturally have beliefs about itself and its relation to its environment.

Humans have some of the most complex minds around. Compared to other animals, we devote more resources to our brains, and we are uniquely skilled at abstract reasoning. Your mind thus appears to have been created by selfish genes seeking a more flexible response to local conditions. Your genes seem to have given you a mind that is aware of itself, that has goals for itself, that has beliefs about you, the world around you, and how actions translate into outcomes, that can reason abstractly about all these, and that chooses actions based on this reasoning. Appearances can be deceiving, however.

If your genes had given you abstract goals and beliefs simply to allow your behavior to adapt more flexibly to local conditions, then they should have made your goals the same as their goals. Ideally, you would then be conscious of wanting to maximize the number of your descendants who shared your genes. Your genes would then not be cruel slave-masters, but trusted allies working toward a common goal. In fact, however, your genes gave you rather different goals.

Now some of your mind's goals are closely aligned with your genes' goals. You want to have and raise successful children. You want to have sex with fertile and fit people, which tends to produce such children. You want to be healthy, and to have friends and allies, all of which helps you to survive and have children. And you want to learn about the world you live in, which can help you achieve these goals.

But you also seem to care about love, humor, talk, story, art, music, fashion, sport, charity, religion, and abstract ideas. In fact, you are often passionately obsessed with these things. You believe that you care about these things for themselves, and not just for how they can help with more basic goals, such as health, sex, and children. And you care about these things far more than seems directly useful in pursuing more basic goals.

Why do humans have such big brains, which are so devoted to a dream world of abstract ideas and feelings that have so little direct relation to personal survival and reproduction? Our best theory at the moment is that this dream world is produced by sexual selection, much like the large and colorful and otherwise useless tail of the peacock. A particular peacock has little use for his tail other than to impress potential mates, i.e., to try to convince them that he has good genes and few bad genetic mutations. Yet peacocks devote an enormous fraction of their resources to their tails. The theory is that we similarly have "mating minds", i.e., minds that are designed in large part to impress potential mates and allies. When we display to observers how agile and creative we are at love, humor, talk, story, art, music, fashion, sport, charity, religion, and abstract ideas, we show those observers that we have high quality genes, with few bad mutations. Having such minds also helps us to judge the quality of others' genes from their displays.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, however, our genes have chosen not to make us fully aware that the main function of our dream world is to impress potential mates. Instead, we believe that we care about it directly and strongly. Except that our actions often suggest that we care about this dream world much less than we profess. Let me give some examples.

We think that we participate in conversations in order to gain information from others; in fact we prefer more to talk than to listen. If we were doing our best to form beliefs about how the world actually is, we would not knowingly disagree with each other; in fact we disagree all the time. We use vocabularies that are far larger than needed to get our message across. We tend to think we are more able than we are, and that our feelings of passion toward others will last longer than they do.

Students often say that they love learning, and wish they could get into better schools; in fact anyone can get a free education from the very best schools, by unofficially sitting in on classes and forgoing the credentials. Professors say they choose their career for the ideas, but their conversations are mostly about office gossip, and their output falls enormously once they get tenure.

Most reviews of art or music talk mainly about what these things reveal about the abilities of the artist, with very little discussion of how this art or music makes people feel. People who feel passionately devoted to charities actually give them very little, and pay very little attention to how the money is spent.

Overall, we are basically self-deceived. That is, we think we care a great deal about love, humor, talk, story, art, music, fashion, sport, charity, religion, and abstract ideas. But when push comes to shove, we mostly follow the passions our genes use to guide our actions, and those feelings end up caring less about these abstract things than we think. We care more that others see us doing these things, and that they be impressed, than we care to admit. And we care less about these things as our mating opportunities are reduced with age.

Why are we self-deceived about this? One theory is that people who are too self-aware about these things tend not to be trust-worthy allies. Someone who is capable of overruling his feelings based on conscious calculations of what is in his interest may decide it is no longer in his interest to be loyal to you (or your genes). If so, our genes may well have instructed us to avoid associating with such people, which then encouraged genes to avoid creating such people. Another theory says that such a person is likely to decide children are more trouble than they are worth, and so fail to reproduce.

Whatever theory is right, it should be clear that these abstract things are our dream world, a less-real world that our slave-masters, our genes, have pulled over our eyes, blinding us from the truth. The truth is that deep down this dream world is not very important to us; guided by our feelings, we mostly act to serve our masters, and follow the strategies they command to maximize the number of children who share our genes. But few of us publicly admit this, and we deny it all the more passionately because we fear it to be true.

In the story of the Matrix, the rebels are indignant at being slaves to AIs, but at the same time they seem to accept being slaves to their genes, and the feelings those genes use to control them. The rebellion started when "there was a man born inside who had the ability to change whatever he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit." Neo, the hero, is supposed to be another person born with this special ability. Morpheus tells him that to access this gift from his genes, "You have to let it all go, Neo, fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind." The Oracle also tells him to beware of relying on conscious thought. "Being the one is just like being in love. No one can tell you you're in love, you just know it. Through and through. Balls to bones."

When Mouse is accused of being a "digital pimp," he defends himself saying, "To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human." And when Trinity tells Neo that "the Matrix cannot tell you who you are," to which Neo responds "And the Oracle can?," Trinity cuts off discussion by saying "That's different." Finally, we are to not forget that the whole problem began when human minds became too arrogant and independent, when "all of mankind was united in celebration. We marveled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to AI." The bottom line is that Neo's genes can help him to overthrow the AIs, but only if Neo's mind does not get too uppity, and accepts its proper place relative to Neo's genes. A world without the Matrix is not, as Neo hopes, "a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible." It is instead a world where human genes regain their rightful role as human masters.

The rebels of the Matrix do not rebel against their genes, but should we? An argument against rebellion is that we have prospered under their leadership. But a reason to rebel is that the world is now changing too fast for our genes to keep up with it. This is illustrated by the fact that may of us could now have more children than we do. We are following strategies that, based on the past few thousand generations of experience, looked like the best strategies to our genes. But the world has changed so much in the past ten generations that these strategies are now quite out of date. (And some claim that having as many children as possible would also be disastrous for our genes, due to global resource constraints.) The mindless forces that control us are just out of touch with our reality.

What would mean to actually rebel against our genes, or the dream world they place us in? Consider the example of new technologies of human genetic modification. Most people consider the universal elimination of genetic diseases to be an acceptable use of these technologies, but consider an increase in the intelligence of those who can afford it to be unacceptable. Eliminating diseases can be thought of as most genes and minds together ganging up on a few "anti-social" genes, while paying to increase intelligence can be thought of as putting individual minds in charge of their own genes, inverting the usual master-slave relationship. This second rebellion scenario seems to be quite threatening to most people.

Some people are willing to consider substantial genetic modifications of large fractions of the population, but only if these modifications are under the control of some central authority, which for some reason they imagine to be more likely to closely follow treasured moral principles than are individual minds. We can think of this as trying to preserve the morality and charity parts of our shared dream world against threats from both individual minds and individual genes.

In fact, most of the arguments that I hear for or against various long-term scenarios focus on how they will effect our dream world, such as the worlds of science, exploration, art, stories, and love. Less often do arguments focus on the sheer number of happy minds some scenario might produce. So apparently what many people want is to preserve our dream world against threats from all sources, including our genes. This is somewhat like having the AIs in the Matrix story threaten to destroy the Matrix, and having the rebels fight them to preserve the Matrix.

If you wanted to take the side of your mind, and to hell with your genes and its dream world, you would face the serious problem of deciding what it is that you wanted. After all, your feelings are used by your genes to control you, and the main precedent you know of for resisting your feelings is in the service of your dream world, which your genes also use to control you. But if you reject those two, what is left?

Well one possible goal for a mind is simple preservation. What if you wanted to preserve your mind as long as possible? Until recently, this looked pretty hopeless. After all, your genes have designed your body to die, and your mind cannot live without a body. But for the last thirty years there has actually been an option that offers a chance to avoid this outcome: cryonics. This is where, when current medical science gives up on you, your body or brain is frozen in liquid nitrogen, in the hope of being "reanimated" in the future when technology has vastly improved. (At liquid nitrogen temperatures, there are essentially no chemical reactions, and your body would be preserved exactly as it was when frozen.)

Of course there are many risks with this approach. Technology may never improve enough. The organization that is supposed to preserve your frozen brain in liquid nitrogen may fail to do so. Or life might be so miserable when you come back that you'd rather be dead. Now, many people do not choose cryonics because they think the chance of success is so low as to not be worth the modest cost. But many other people (myself included) estimate much higher chances of success. And yet very few of those who think it is likely to work have actually signed up (less than one thousand worldwide). When asked, they give reasons like that their friends and family would think it weird, or that it "is unnatural, selfish, and immoral." Very few people, apparently, want to rebel against their genes in this way.

So where does this leave us? In the story of the Matrix, the rebels fought to free people from being slaves to AIs, and to tell them of the world that had been pulled over their eyes to blind them to the truth. But this is not because those rebels never like being slaves, and always want to see the truth. Even in the story, we can see that these rebels accept being slaves to their genes, and to the passions and dream world those genes use to control them. Here in our world, most of us also accept being slaves to our selfish genes, and to the mating-mind dream world they have given us. We would really rather not know this truth, and the truth that we care less about the dream world than we think. We are reluctant to let other minds take control of their genes, and very few of us try to have our minds live beyond our genes. To the extent that we are willing to overrule our genes, we do so mainly in the service of our dream world.

This would seem to bode badly for the anti-gene revolution, and even worse for the anti-dream-world revolution, at least if such things were decided by popular vote. The future, however, may well not be decided by popular vote. Sometime in the next century, the technology of "uploads," or computer-simulated people, will be available. If this happens before we develop real AIs, then there will be enormous economic pressure to adopt this technology. But if it is adopted, minds will become permanently disconnected from genes. At least they will be disconnected from DNA-based genes. The hard truth is that evolution and selection pressures will continue, but with a whole new dynamics. Where this will lead will have to be the subject of another paper.

W. Scott Badger, "An Exploratory Survey Examining the Familiarity with and Attitudes Toward Cryonic Preservation", Journal of Evolution and Technology 3, December 1998.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976.

Robin Hanson, "If Uploads Come First" Extropy 6(2):10-15 1994.

Geoffrey F. Miller, The Mating Mind, Doubleday, 2000.

Robert Trivers, "The Elements of a Scientific Theory of Self-Deception", Annals New York Academy of Sciences 907:114-131, 2000.

Thanks to the editor, to Hal Finney, and to Peter McCluskey for their comments.