In Defense of Cypher

by F.

Cypher, you’ll recall, was one of the antagonist characters in The Matrix, played by Joe Pantoliano. When given a chance by the Agents to be re-inserted into the Matrix, he went for it. “I’d choose the Matrix,” he says to Trinity, explaining that “the Matrix can be more real than this world.” And we, the audience, think “YOU FUCKER! YOU SUCK!” I mean, that was my reaction. “Little bald-headed, soul-patching, Trinity-jilted bastard!”

But, really, we would all make the same choice, given the chance. The reason we think Cypher is a coward concerns the way we suppress thoughts.

Now, if I were Cypher, and I woke up in the Matrix, and my memory had been erased (which was part of his deal with the Agents)—including the memory that I had made the choice to be reinserted—then, provided I was in a good situation in the Matrix (healthy, rich, loved, large fluffy cat who purred loudly and used a litter box), life would be quite good. It would be as good as it felt, in fact. But the key is that I would have to not remember that there was another “real” world and that I might “wake up” into it.

So, when we imagine the choice Cypher makes, we think, “OK, I’m back in the Matrix, and I don’t remember being outside the Matrix.” And that’s impossible to imagine because of the way we suppress thoughts. We aren’t very good at it. Daniel M. Wegner (now at Harvard) has studied this phenomenon and describes it in his wonderful book White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts:

An experiment was conducted where people… were isolated in a laboratory room, seated at a table with a microphone and with a bell like the one at a hotel desk. The person was asked to spend five minutes saying everything that came to mind into the microphone…. At the end of this period, the experimenter came in and asked the person to continue… but this time, not to think of a white bear. If the thought of the white bear came up anyway, the person was to ring the bell and go on. On average, people in this predicament rang the bell more than 6 times in the next five minutes and mentioned the white bear out loud several times as well. (4; emphasis added).

And it gets better. After this, the experimenters told subjects who had been suppressing thoughts of the white bear to think about a white bear. What happened? The suppressors thought about the white bear more than those who hadn’t been suppressing! As Wegner says,

[t]he irony, then, is not only that people found it hard to suppress a thought in the first place, but that the attempt to do this made them especially inclined to become absorbed with the thought later on. (4).

Ouch.

Now, what about Cypher? When you imagine going back into the Matrix, you have to suppress the thought “I know I used to be in the real world.” And you probably can’t, which is why it is hard to imagine the choice correctly.

What is the correct way? It’s this: Imagine being healthy, rich, loved, having a nice cat—whatever your deal is with the Agents. Now, how would you feel? You’d feel great, of course. Period. End of story. So, given the choice, Cypher did the rational thing.

The reason Cypher is a shitbird is that he double-crossed Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus as part of the deal. His shitbirdedness has nothing to do with his cowardly choice to be reinserted. So he’s still a little bald-headed, soul-patching, Trinity-jilted bastard. But not a coward for being reinserted.

Now, as most people know, this choice of Cypher’s isn’t new. It’s in Plato, described in terms of The Cave. And Robert Nozick, as many will know, too, posed the same problem in terms of The Experience Machine: a machine which will allow them to have any experience they choose, and in addition will make them forget that they chose to be hooked up to the machine. Nozick concludes that no one would hook up to the machine:

Someone whose emotion is based upon egregiously unjustified and false evaluations we will be reluctant to term happy, however he feels.

Bullshit. This “argument” only gets traction due to a failure of imagination. When we think about The Experience Machine, or The Cave, or The Matrix, we can’t suppress that nagging thought: “I am not experiencing reality—I’m hooked up to a fucking machine!” Once that thought goes away, it’s all good. Literally.

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