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The Philosopher At The End of The Universe
Philosophy Explained Through Science Fiction Films
By: Mark Rowlands
Excerpt by: Johnny Lone
The Nature of Reality from THE MATRIX
Good and Evil from STAR WARS
Morality form ALIENS
Personal Identity from TOTAL RECALL
The Mind-Body dilemma from TERMINATOR
Free Will from MINORITY REPORT
Death and the Meaning of Life from BLADE RUNNER
Cultural Relativism from LORD OF THE RINGS
A search for knowledge about ourselves and the world around us with a star-studded cast that includes: Tom Cruise, Plato, Harrison Ford, Immanuel Kant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigourney Weaver, Rene Descartes and Keanu Reeves
Introduction – Sci-Phi Philosophy, From Socrates to Schwarzenegger
If you want to find out about someone – if you really want to understand what makes them tick – then the last thing you should do is ask them to tell you about themselves. People make up all sorts of stuff about themselves, often without even realizing it. What you do is ask them to tell you about the world. The world as they see it is always a reflection of them, and staring back at you in what they tell you about the world is the person they really are.
Philosophy is not about knowing, it is about doing. As Lawrence Fishburne puts it in The Matrix, it is not enough simply to know the path, you must be able to walk the path. And, as Nietzche put it, one repays a teacher poorly by remaining a pupil all one’s life.
Frankenstein – Philosophy and The Meaning of Life
The idea of absurdity revolves around a clash of two perspectives we have on ourselves – a view from the inside and a view from the outside. The clash is between the significance of our actions to ourselves, and their significance to others. Or, put another way, the clash is between what we think we are achieving in making the speech, declaring our love, squeezing our significant other, and what we are actually achieving.
Philosophical problems arise from this peculiar combination of must and can’t. Things must be this way, but things can’t be this way. Whenever we have this combination of must and can’t, we have philosophy.
The true horror of Sisyphus’s punishment lies neither in its extreme difficulty nor in his hatred of it. The horror of the task lies in its futility. The task aims at nothing. It is empty; as barren as the boulder it so centrally involves.
Supppose there was a point to Sisyphus’s labours. Suppose that instead of rolling the same boulder up the hill, he was commanded to roll lots of different boulders. And suppose these did not roll back down the hill. Sisyphus’s task was to use these boulders to build a temple, or a pub, or whatever. Sisyphus, we can imagine, did have a deep desire to build this temple/pub, a temple/pub that would be strong and beautiful and/or serve delicious ale. And, after ages of grim and dreadful toil, we might imagine our Sisyphus succeding in his task. The temple/pub is now complete; his work is done. He can now rest on that high mountain and enjoy the fruit of his labour. Or several of them if it turns out to be a pub.
Now what does he do? Would our Sisyphus not now be bored? Eternally bored? If he was foolish and built a temple, would be not oh so wish he had built a pub, just so he could ameliorate his boredom by getting plastered? The horror of infinite and eternal labour has now been replaced with the horror of infinite and eternal boredom. Just as Sisyphus’s existence in the original telling of his tale has no meaning because it has no purpose, so too, in our retelling, Sisyphus’ life loses its purpose as soon as his goal is complete. His life on that high mountain, gazing forever at a goal he can neither change nor add to, is as meaningless as his life rolling a huge and intransigent boulder up a hill only to see it roll back down again as soon as he reaches the summit.
The Matrix – Can We Be Certain of Anything?
There is no way of telling, from within a dream, whether we are or are not dreaming.
And this is (one of) Descartes’s points. We cannot be certain that we are not, at any given time, dreaming. Therefore, we cannot be certain that our whole life has not been a dream. Therefore, we cannot be certain that what we call the real world actually exists. And if we cannot be certain of this, then we cannot really know it, because, according to Descartes, to really know something means that you have to be certain of it.
Cogirto, ergo sum. Translated into English, it reads: I think, therefore i am.
Now, this doesnt mean anything silly like we exist only as long as we think. Descartes was no fool. Think about it this way. Inspired by the dream and evil demon conjectures, or by the Matrix, we can think all sorts of things. You can think that the world around you does not really exist, and you can think that you dont really have a physical body at all. You can, that is, be sceptical about the existence of both these things. These sceptical thoughts may not be true, but they are coherent – they are, that is, genuine possibilities. But can you also – coherently – think that you do not exist? Try it! If you think that you dont exist, then who is it that is doing the thinking? Thinking that you do not exist, it seemed to Descartes, is enough to guarantee automatically that you do in fact exist – because you cant think that you dont exist unless you are around to do the thinking. Or, to put the point another way, doubting your existence automatically guarantees your existence, because otherwise you couldnt be around to do the doubting.
Therefore, Descartes thought, one thing of which you can be absolutely certain, one thing that you cannot doubt, is your own existence. That you exist is one thing that, in his view, you can know and know with certainty.
According to Nietzche, all we can really be certain of is that there are thoughts, we cannot be certain of the existence of the person to whom the thoughts, supposedly, belong. Perhaps there are just thoughts, and no person to whom the thoughts attach; but in any case, we can only be certain of the existence of thoughts, not of the person to whom the thoughts, supposedly, attach.
But no matter how good a theory, no matter how well it has stood the test of time, it is still possible that it is incorrect.
Morpheus: Why did i beat you?
Neo : You are too fast.
Morpheus: Do you think that my speed has anything to do with my muscles in this place? … Do you think that is air you are breathing?
But this means you cannot be certain whether it is air-thoughts that you are now thinking, or thoughts about a computer-generated feature that merely seem as if they are air-thoughts.
Turbaned boy: Try not to bend the spoon, for that is impossible. Instead, try to realize the truth.
Neo : What is that?
Turbaned boy: That there is no spoon. Then instead of bending the spoon, you see that what is really bending is yourself.
The spoon is not a real physical entity. Instead, it is a construction of the mind. This is why bending is possible. This is a version of idealism.
Look around you at the world. You will, presumably, see various things. But what is seeing? According to the view we are looking at, seeing is having experiences – visual experiences. So what you are immediately aware of, when you look at the world around you, is not the world itself, but your experiences or ideas of the world. To the extent that you are aware of the world itself, this awareness is mediated awareness – you are aware of the world by virtue of being aware of your experiences.
We have arrived at the claim that we can never know anything about the world as it is in itself – the supposedly physical world – because we can never get outside our experiences and get at this world as it is in itself.
Color is no part of the physical world. Colour is a purely mental entity – an experience of some sort. Colour is part not of physical, but mental, reality.
Total Recall & The Sixth Day: The Problem of Personal Identity
‘You cant step into the same river twice.’ Take a river – say Thames. The water molecules that made up this river a month ago are completely different from the ones that make it up today. The ones of a month ago, of course, flown down to the sea.
From the point of view of our identity, it is not so much what the brain is that is important but what it does. If we could find some replacement – based on focal stem cells, artificially constructed organic or inorganic chips, etc – that did exactly the same things as our original brain, then it seems, we would survive. So our identity is carried by what the brain does rather than what it is.
Instead of thinking of person in terms of identity – what makes you the same person from day to day, what makes you different from anyone else – think of them in terms of the notion of survival. There is nothing, nothing at all, that makes you the same person from day to day. And there is nothing, nothing in any absolute sense, that makes you different from everyone else. Rather, the you of today is a survivor, a very close survivor, of the you of yesterday. It is a survivor, though a slightly more distant survivor, of the you of last week, and a much more distant survivor of the you of last year. In a single body is not one self or person, but a successon of selves, a river of selves, each one a survivor of the one that went before. To the extent we can talk of the self, we are talking of something that has the character of a river, of a process, not a thing.
If we accept this, then we have a neat explanation of the duplication objection. Neither clone 1 nor clone 2 is identical with Adam Gibson. But they are both very close survivors of Adam Gibson. This should not make Arnie sad. None of us is ever identical with ourselves – we are all just survivors, very close survivors of the person we were a moment ago. There is no you – there is just a succession of yous, all of which are very, very close descendants of the you that preceded them.
At best, there is simply a succession of mes, a stream of river of Is which succeed each other with a seamless but astonishing rapidity.
Minority Report – The Problem of Free Will
Whereas our actions may be influenced by preceding events, they are not caused by those preceding events, and so are not made inevitable by them. Our actions, choices and decisions may be influenced by all sorts of things, but this does not mean that they are made inevitable by them.
According to compatibilists such as Hume, the opposite of freedom is compulsion, not causation. Therefore, they claim, my action is only not free if it is compelled. It can be caused and still be free as long as it is caused in the right sort of way.
Independence Day & Aliens: The Scope of Morality
Suppose you are a chicken. First you are born. And that, i’m afraid, is about as good as it is going to get. If you are born a ‘layer’, but are male, then your flesh will be deemed not good enough for eating and your life will, accordingly, be short. If you are lucky, you will be gassed. If you are not so lucky, however, then you will be thrown into a plastic sack and allowed to suffocate under the weight of other chicks. Alternatively, you may simply be ground up while still alive.
If, on the other hand, you are a layer and female, your troubles are just beginning. First, probably when you are between one and ten days old, you will find yourself being debeaked. That is, a guillotine-like device with a red-hot blade will slice off your beak. Just be thankful you were not born in the 1940s: then it would have been burned off with a blowtorch! But this wont hurt, will it? After all, arent beaks simply horny outgrowths? Isnt it just like cutting nails, or something like that? Actually, no. Under the beak is a highly sensitive layer or soft tissue, infused with nerve endings. It is something like the layer of skin under the human nail. So, debeaking would be like trimming nails if your preferred method of doing so involved ripping through half your finger as well.
Following a second debeaking, you will be moved to a battery cage in a laying facility. If you are in the US, the cage will be approximately 12 by 20 inches; if you are in the EU it will be approximately 46 by 51 centimetres. You will share this rather palatial residence with anywhere between three and six other birds. This, admittedly, is a little cramped. Being a bird of average size, at rest you need a little over 630 square centimetres to be able to sit down comfortably. If you wanted the luxury of turning around, then you would require just under 1700 square centimetres. The standard 12 by 20 inch cage, share with four other chickens, give you about 300 square centimetres. Total. Just to be clear on the sort of dimensions we are talking about here, 500 square centimetres is about the size of a sheet of A4 paper. If you are a very lucky bird, and share your cage with only three others, then you have 375 square centimetres. Either way, you can forget about stretching your 30 inch (75cm) wingspan.
Stretching and turning around are not the only things stymied by your close confinement. Any possibility of normal social interaction has also pretty much gone. Chickens have evolved as social creatures, and essential to the stability of any group chickens form is a social hierarchy, known colloquially as the ‘pecking order’. In more normal conditions, chickens lower down the order stay out of the way of their more dominant con-specifics. But it is a little difficult to stay out of the way of anything in a 12 by 20 inch cage. So lots of chickens are going to get pecked, and the chances are you are going to be one of them. Indeed, if you are at the bottom of the caged mini-hierarchy, then you may well be pecked to death.
Now, of course, the reason for your debeakings becomes clear. If too many chickens get pecked to death, profits drop. This is a pattern that is repeated time and time again in animal husbandry. An animal is raised in unpleasant and unnatural conditions, and this causes it to behave in unpleasant and unnnatural ways. But do we change the conditions? No, that would be unprofitable. Instead, we butcher the animal so that the damage caused by its unpleasant and unnatural behaviour does not eat into our profits too much.
After a few months of constant rubbing against the cage, and other birds pecking at you, you will have lost many, maybe most, of your feathers. Your skin will be red and raw, especially around your tail. You will be suffering from a severe form of osteoporosis, so much so that even being handled by a human may result in the snapping of your legs or wings, and the caving in your ribcage. By now, you and your cage-mates are demonstrably hysterical, almost certainly insane, and are very probably developing a penchant for cannibalism. After a year or two of this (if you are still alive – 35 percent of your cage mates will not be), your productivity will wane, making it unprofitable for the factory owner to feed or house you any longer. You will be delivered to the processors to be turned into stock cubes, frozen pies, or pet food. Such is the life of a battery hen.
If you are born a ‘broiler’ rather than a layer, then you are a little more fortunate: you wont live as long. A day-old chick, you will, along with anything from 10.000 to several 100.000 other chicks, be sent to a broiler house where you receive the mandatory debeaking. The broiler house is a large, windowless shed. If you are lucky, you will be allowed to live on the floor of this shed, although some producers use tiers of cages to get more birds into the same size shed. At first, you may have some room in which to move around; you and your shed-mates are still small. As you all grow, however, conditions become progressively more cramped. By the time you reach slaughtering weight, after about seven weeks, you may have as little as half a square foot of space.
As you all grow, of course, what grows with you is the mountain of excrement that covers the floor and the acrid stench of ammonia that fills the air. The ammonia itself is a serious health problem. You will, in all likelihood, be suffering from hock burn and breast blisters. How bad can things get? You are being burned by your own (and others’) urine. Also littering the floor in gradually increasing numbers are the bodies of your shedmates. Naturally enough, you are made unhappy by these unnatural conditions and develop various ‘vices’. Unable to establish a natural social hierarchy in a flock of 50.000 or more, you have a tendency to fight with you shed-mates, and, like your laying sister, a rapidly developing proclivity for cannibalism. But cannibalism, if you will forgive the pun, eats directly into the profits of the owner. So what does he or she do? Ameliorate the conditions that cause your behaviour? Allow you to live in more natural conditions? Give you more room? No, that would reduce profits. Instead, you are debeaked, and the light around you artificially controlled. In many system, this means that the light is reduced to as little as 2 lux (candlelight is approximately 10 lux). Thus, since reduced lighting has been shown to reduce aggression, you are likely to live out your last few weeks in near darkness.
Basically, it is no contest. Faced with a choice between a life like that and having an alien burst out of my chest, i would invest in some plastic tablecloths and go with the alien every time. And notice that i havent even gone into our worst abuses of the animals we eat – the sort involved in raising veal calves or intensively reared pigs, for example. Nor have i gone into the ways these animals die, which is not the painless, antiseptic death most people imagine.
Chickens and pigs are, typically, less intelligent than us – but to regard this as a relevant difference would run bang into the problem of marginal cases. Humans with moderate to severe brain damage, human infants, humans with degenerative brain disorders and so on need be no more intelligent than the average pig – which, despite a bad press, is, in fact, an intelligent and sensitive creature. So, would we treat these humans in the way we now treat pigs? Not unless we were total psychos. They cant use language, and so cannot tell us of their suffering. But this is no more relevant than our inability to communicate telepathically in the Independence Day scenario, and the same is true of many humans too.
The horrors that the aliens inflict upon us pale in comparison with the horrors we inflict on billions of animals every year. And, even overlooking our greater barbarity, the aliens have a much better excuse for their treatment of us. When the aliens lay their eggs in us, this is in aid of a vital interest of theirs: reproduction. Reproduction, continuation of yourself and your species is, unarguably, a vital interest of any living thing. Why, on the other hand, do we eat chickens and pigs? Is this a similarly vital interest of ours? Do we need to eat meat in order to survive? Or to be healthy? Of course not, as the existence of millions of healthy vegetarians all over the world attests. We eat meat for one reason and one reason only: we like the taste.
Star Wars: Good and Evil
The idea that evil is not a real, independent feature of the world but simply an absence of good has a long and distinguished philosophical history, stretching all the way back to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428-348 BC) and possibly further. According to Plato, ultimate reality consists in a sort of pure and perfect goodness. To the extent anything diverges from this, it not only becomes less good, it becomes less real too. And the ultimate goal of human life is to attain true knowledge of what he called the form of the good.
So, in addition to the ordinary physical world, Plato asserted the existence of a non-physical world of forms. However, according to Plato, not only does this non-physical world of forms exist, it is, in fact, more real than the ordinary physical world. He had two reasons for this. The first was based on his preference for the eternal and unchanging over the shifting and ephemeral. The ordinary physical world is constantly changing, things coming into existence and going out of existence, and altering in countless ways through time. But the real – that is, the really real – for Plato, must be eternal and unchanging. This cant be the ordinary physical world; therefore it must be the world of forms. So it is the world of forms that is (really) real, and reality of the physical world, to the extent that it is real at all, derives from the world of forms. Secondly, any individual thing – say a circle drawn on paper – is what it is only because of its relation to a form. What makes the thing drawn on paper a circle is that it somehow resembles the form of circularity, pefect circularity. So, Plato concludes, what makes any physical thing the thing it is, is its relation to a form. But the same is not true of forms. Any form is the form that it is completely independently of its relation to physical things. And this, Plato concludes, shows that the forms are more real than physical things.
Plato used a famous analogy to explain the derivative and secondary status of the physical world: the analogy of the cave. Imagine you are prisoner in a cave. There you sit, chained to a post with a group of other prisoners. Worse still, you have lived your entire life as a prisoner in this cave. The only source of light in the cave is a fire, and this casts shadows on the wall behind you. Because of your predicament, you mistake these shadows for reality. You know no better; your life has been one of shadows. This is the situation of the average person – a prisoner in the physical world mistaking shadows of reality for reality.
One day, however, you escape from your chains and make your way to the mouth of the cave. At first, the light is too harsh, and you have to content yourself by looking at the shadows on the cave wall – this time cast by the sun, not the fire. Eventually, after suitable preparation, you are able to venture into the outside world and see not shadows but the real objects that are their source. One day, you may even be able to look directly at the sun. Escaping from the cave is analogous to the process of becoming a philosopher. Gradually, step by step, you are able to acquaint yourself with thingss that are more and more real. The visible objects you are eventually able to look at correspond to the forms, and the source of their visibility – the sun – corresponds to the form of the good.
So according to Plato, ordinary physical things and the ordinary physical world derive whatever reality they have from the world of forms – as shadows derive whatever reality they have from that which casts them. And so the physical world, for Plato, is real only to the extent that it relates to the world of forms. The reality of the world of forms is primary. The reality of physical things depends on the extent to which they resemble the relevant forms. And in so far as they deviate from their relevant form, they not only become less perfect, they become less real.
However, as we have seen, the most important of the forms, and hence the most real, is, for Plato, the form of the good. So, according to Plato, in so far as things deviate from the form of the good, they become less real. There is no form of the bad, no form of evil, at least not according to Plato. Evil is simply an absence, a hiatus, a lack: it is the absence of good. And what this means, for all intents and purposes, is that evil is unreal. Evil is an illusion. The more evil something becomes, the less real it also, thereby, becomes.
Attempt at repudiation and rejection is both futile and unhealthy. Drives – and the power they contain – can never be destroyed or renounced, merely converted into another form. And if they are not given outward expression, they will find an alternative form of inward expression. In particular, the failure to give expression to a powerful drive results in that drive being turned back against the person who has it. The typical result of this is illness – psychological, physical, or both.
Greatness, in Nietzche’s view, is going to be achieved neither by repression nor free expression of your most powerful desires and drives. Rather, it requires something quite different: sublimation. The basic idea is that powerful drives and desires can be transformed into something else- into quite different and, in Nietzche’s view at least, more worthwhile drives and desires. Their ultimate outward expression, therefore, can be very different from the drive or desire that provides its underlying force of power.
The key to greatness is the ability to transform these desires according to your will.
A war on your primitive drives and desires will leave you depleted, and in all likelihood diseased. Free expression of your drives will leave you, above all, average. The possibility of greatness requires sublimation, rather than repression or expression, of your primitive drives and desires.
The person with strong basic drives, who has attained the ability to sublimate these drives continually into higher and higher forms, is what Nietzche refers to as an ubermensch: an overman or superman. An overman is, basically, a highly sublimated bastard.
In Nietzche’s epigram, ‘Dionysus versus the Crucified’, Dionysus represents the overman, the person with powerful basic drives who continually sublimates these drives into increasingly higher and higher forms. The contrast with ‘the Crucified’ could not be more stark. The Crucified represents the person who wastes his or her life in a futile and self-destructive attempt to renounce and reject these drives.
‘Only as an aesthetic phenomenon is life and the existence of man eternally justified.’ We should, Nietzche claims, lives our lives as works of art.
The drives to dominate, control and destroy are all fairly primitive drives. Lord Vader seems far more concerned with simply expressing, acting upon, these primitive drives, rather than trying to sublimate them into something higher. The result is not an overman but an unbalanced megalomaniac.
Blade Runner: Death and The Meaning Of Life
Most of us, at least to some extent, have a tendency to ‘live for tommorrow.’ Much of what we do in the present we do not do for the sake of the present but for the future.
The more you have invested in the future, judged in terms of organization, orientation, disciplining and regimentation of your present behaviour and desires, then the more you lose when you lose that future.
Death harms us because it takes away a future. But we have a future only because each one of us is being-towards-a-future. Each one of us, in our essence, is a being who is directed towards the future. This, and only this, is why death can harm us when we are no longer around to be harmed.
We started off with the idea that death is the limit of a life, and so not an event in life, as the limit of visual field is not something in that field. But we can make the same sort of point about each moment in life. Suppose we divide a person’s life up into an arbitrary sequence of time-slices. It doesnt matter how long these are, but we will call each time – slice a moment. So, instead of considering a life as a whole, consider each moment in a person’s life, however long that might be. Now, consider what happens when one moment passes over into the next. At the transition point, we have the limit – the end of the previous moment and the beginning of the next. But, as a limit, this transition point is not part of either moment. If it was, then it could not be the limit of each moment. A limit cannot be part of that which it limits. The death of each moment of a person’s life is not part of that moment.
In these terms, to say that we are being-towards-a-future is to say that at each moment we are connected to future moments – even though they do not yet exist – because of the way we are in the original moment. This is what makes these future moments ours, and this is what makes these future moments that are ours succeed each other in a linear way. This is what makes the birht of one moment the death of the moment that preceded it. Our idea of a linear time derives from the sense we have that the birth of something that is mine is simultaneously the death of something that is also mine. And this sense of linearity is the key.