Neo vs. the Karate Kid


The Matrix and The Karate Kid offer two competing views of the relationship between how we learn and how we understand human nature.

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“Ten hours straight. He’s a machine.” So says a character in The Matrix about Neo, the newest protector against the evil forces trying to destroy humans. Though film viewers may be awed by Neo’s dizzying display of martial art skills and paramilitary expertise, what is even more remarkable is the method of his learning. Rather than devote long hours to practice and gradual improvement, Neo is literally hooked up to a machine through which everything he needs to know is uploaded to his brain. We see just how effective this instant education is during the iconic fight scene in which Neo, now a martial arts maestro, spars with his mentor Morpheus.

Consider for a moment how alluring this vision of learning might appear to a group of college students nearing the end of the semester. Final test in organic chemistry approaching? It’s nothing to fear—you can upload an entire semester’s worth of material to your brain in less than a minute. Need to memorize a truckload of cases for your constitutional civil liberties course? There’s an upload program for that, too. Scheduled for a final job or internship interview and want to ensure that you remember all the details about that prestigious law firm or non-profit? There’s an “app” for that.

Of course, this sort of technology is typical of science fiction literature, not reality (though a quick Google search for “brain computer interface” may surprise you). But suppose it were possible (which it may one day be). What if we could order up knowledge and “learn” in a matter of minutes and hours what used to require months and years of hard discipline and study? Is there any reason why we should not take advantage of this technology? Would doing so be clearly wrong? Or would it be not only licit but morally obligatory, perhaps required, to fulfill one’s potential? Or would it be merely optional, neither morally forbidden nor required? Having pondered those questions, consider a more critical one: what do one’s first thoughts about this near-futuristic scenario reveal about one’s conception of human nature?

Hold on to those thoughts as we move to another film, one that champions a more familiar method of learning.

The Karate Kid features Daniel Larusso, an Italian-American teenager who moves from New Jersey to a new high school in California. The cool kids at this school don’t play football or drive fast cars; they do karate. Unfortunately, Daniel manages to provoke the entire karate clique and soon has the bruises to show for it.

Enter Mr. Miyagi, the handy-man karate guru who takes Daniel under his wing and agrees to teach him. In a classic 1980s montage, Daniel arrives at Mr. Miyagi’s house only to find that his “training” is a series of menial and repetitive tasks: sanding floors, waxing cars, painting boards, and painting the house. Daniel eventually loses his temper, angrily accusing Mr. Miyagi of exploiting rather than teaching him. As the scene closes, Daniel reluctantly goes through the motions of each chore, but while he does so, Mr. Miyagi attacks him with various punches and kicks. Daniel is surprised to learn that each of the chores required him to internalize various movements that, when employed, blocked each successive attack. Daniel had unknowingly learned the basic tactics of defensive karate.

How does the Karate Kid’s model of learning differ from Neo’s in The Matrix? What assumptions does each model make about human nature and how we learn? Is one more or less true to what it means to be genuinely human? Is “genuinely human” still a meaningful phrase?

I would submit that The Matrix and The Karate Kid illustrate two competing visions of what it means to be human and to be a student. Each vision is well-entrenched in Western thought and practice.

The first vision is best typified by Francis Bacon’s axiom that “knowledge is power.” In The New Atlantis, Bacon writes about a lost group of European sailors who stumble on a technologically and morally superior community in the South Pacific, where an elite cadre of scientists has utterly conquered nature. They manipulate nature so as to mimic, and improve on, all the goods that nature provides for the benefit of humanity. Nature, in this approach, is something to be molded and seems to set no limits on human action. The underlying view of human nature here is that there is no normative claim that arises from nature, human or otherwise, and thus that “nature” is just the stuff with which we can do as we like, even if it means transforming the very human nature that defines what “we” are.

At its best, the motivation fueling this vision is the alleviation of human suffering. Given the mortality rate for most of humanity in Bacon’s day, the transformation of nature in exchange for the scientific and medical advances that have so vastly improved our health and comfort seems like a fair exchange. The troubling question arises when we examine what limits there should be if and when the alleviation of genuine suffering gives rise to the new motive of improving or enhancing perfectly healthy human capacities and talents.

Such a transition is not merely academic. Today’s college students may not have the option of uploading the works of Shakespeare into their memory, but they can, and many do, enhance their ability to study—perhaps ten hours straight—and retain information by relying on prescription drugs to alter their brain chemistry. Such practices are currently legally dubious, but they have their defenders. My colleague, philosopher Justin Barnard, often references this 2008 Nature article, in which several prominent professors lay out a positive case for a new regime of mass-scale cognitive enhancement. And why not? Nothing in the Baconian project defines a line between exercising power over nature and exercising power over human nature. Human beings are, after all, part of nature.

The second vision was first articulated by Aristotle. Here our habits make our character, and we acquire our habits by repetition. Suppose you’ve played a musical instrument for most of your life and have achieved some level of excellence. When you began, let’s say with the piano, much of what you did was composed of repetition. Scales. Endless scales. Your teacher chiding you to keep your back straight and wrists up. Nothing terribly beautiful resulted early on, but you kept at it and now you can play Chopin and Mozart. You’re an accomplished pianist.

The piano student is forced to repeat various actions and scales and postures over and over and over, until they become second nature. The same goes for the basketball player who becomes a good shooter. The basketball player started off doing drills, just like the piano player, and those drills were likely as tiresome, boring, and unexciting as the exercises were for the musician. If you have no idea how to shoot a ball, and begin to try, you’ll have to constantly remind yourself of several things. Keep your elbow in. Snap your wrist down after your release. Make sure the ball has enough arc, etc. The ball player thinks of none of those things. The pianist does not think about where her thumbs go or how to push the pedals. Those things have become second nature. How? By repetition.

Moreover, and this is crucial, neither the apprentice musicians nor the novice ball players could appreciate what it really meant to be an excellent pianist or ball player while they were buried in all of the beginning drills. They had to trust others, most likely older and definitely wiser, who knew what they were doing. They had to take it on faith that someday their work would pay off. In other words, they had to trust someone whose expertise they could not, by definition, evaluate.

Education thus described is the passing on of practices, and therefore knowledge, by those who know to those who don’t, and it is done before the young can appreciate what they’re getting into. It is, as C.S. Lewis described, older birds teaching younger birds how to fly. By now it’s fairly obvious that this is the sort of education we see displayed in The Karate Kid.

While this mode of education may seem more familiar to us given its obvious application to practices like music and athletics, its relation to the deeper purposes of education is not as clear. We have some rough idea of what it means to be an exemplary ball player, pianist, or architect. We are much more conflicted about what it means to be an exemplary human being, and Aristotle’s answer here is famously vexing.

For actions are not just, temperate, or good simply as such, but just, temperate, and good when done as the virtuous person performs them; that is, when they are done because they are good. To someone who is not (yet) virtuous, an account of what is excellent in human nature seems grounded in circularity: we know the good because that is what the good person does, and we know the good person because he or she performs good actions as good actions.

These two admittedly rough sketches are presented only to highlight the disparity between them. Each conception has its core difficulty. The Baconian project to conquer nature for humanity’s benefit cannot rely on the natural to limit its excesses. Nature is on the laboratory table to be dissected and appropriated; it can no longer offer authoritative guidance to the appropriator.

In Book V, Section 7, of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle seems to refer to a permanent natural justice that can anchor a normative sense of human nature and education. Yet in the same passage he admits that nature can change, which of course is precisely what the Baconian project entails. Without a standard beyond nature—Aristotle’s god is part of nature, not its creator—there is nothing more fundamental to appeal to when faced with the transformation of human nature. Only something beyond nature can authoritatively ground nature, an insight that Aristotle’s most famous commentator would draw upon in the thirteenth century.

Is it possible to adjudicate between these two approaches? One ought not be too sanguine about the prospects of persuading a committed proponent of robust cognitive enhancement that there is something more authentically human about the older way of learning. After all, the very notion of what should count as human is in question.

Still, one can consider these matters from the perspective of community over time. The Aristotelian/Karate Kid model elicits a generational dynamic in which we are taught, we learn, and then we teach. I submit that it is a more human and humane vision that takes into account individual weakness and limits while providing the means to pursue excellence by living closely with those who know more, and less, than we do at any particular stage in life. Some will not be persuaded by such a vision of genuine humanity, and Aristotle might tell us they have been poorly educated. Yet those of us who are persuaded will do well to continue making the case for an older approach to learning and cultivating excellence, one that is grounded in a more permanent understanding of human nature.

Micah Watson is the director of the Center for Politics & Religion and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. This article is adapted from a discussion held in May 2011 with students from the James Madison Program Undergraduate Fellows Forum at Princeton University.

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