"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Boys from Brazil

Josef Mengele, an SS physician infamous for his inhumane medical experimentation on prisoners at Auschwitz, is in this film a character intent on furnishing the 95 Hitlers he has cloned with Hitler’s own background. Crucially, Hitler’s father died at 65. So too, Mengele, reasons, must the adoptive fathers of the boy Hitlers. Otherwise, they might not turn out like Hitler. The ethics of Mengele’s task—killing 95 innocent 65 year-olds—is clear. When Ezra Lieberman stops Mengele in his tracks, the question turns to the ethics of killing the 95 boys so none of them will grow up to be another Hitler. This is a much more interesting ethical question, and the narrative—and film as a medium, moreover—would be fuller had the script been deepened to make the question, and thus the ethical and ontological dimensions, transparent for the viewers.

Even if the boys have the same upbringing environment as Hitler, and obviously the same genetics, the world was not the same after World War II. Antisemitism cannot be assumed—even less the Aryan-race ideology. The news of the Holocaust alone changed the public discourse. Hitler’s demise meant that any aspiring Hitler would face considerable headwind in securing a dictatorship in Western Europe. In short, the leap from same-environment, same-genetics to another Hitler is unsupportable. Hence, killing the boys to save future lives and even safeguard democracy could not be justified ethically under consequentialism.

Deeper than the ethical dimension is the question of whether a clone of a person is identical to the original person from which the DNA sample is used to make the clones. In philosophical terms, the question is that of ontological identity. I contend that such identity does not hold in the case of cloning.

That no two environments (e.g., upbringings) can be exactly the same means that a cloned person cannot be formed just like the original. It follows that the clone makes different choices, and even has different thoughts. In other words, the stream of thoughts is not identical. Indeed, the consciousnesses are different. It is not as if Hitler could see or hear the world through the boys after his death. The minds are thus not identical, even though the brains are constructed by the same genetics—but environment can impact brain chemistry! Severe abuse, for instance, can alter the chemistry. Hitler’s father was stern—perhaps abusive. If so, a cloned boy whose father is distant but not abusive would not have the same brain chemistry as Hitler.

The ontological non-identity provides a strong basis for the ethical claim that killing the 95 cloned-Hitler boys to prevent another Hitler from becoming a vicious dictator would be unethical. The assumption that another Hitler must necessarily result from a shared genetics and a similar upbringing is faulty because too many other variables would be in play for such a deterministic relationship to hold.

Should it be argued that the boys should be killed to punish Hitler, who in the film’s story-time is already dead, the ontological non-identity means that the 95 boys are innocent of Hitler’s atrocious deeds. Punishing the innocent is itself unethical. That Hitler is dead when the boys are cloned means that he would not be punished. Admittedly, killing the clones would not be in Hitler’s interest, and doing something that would impact Hitler negatively has ethical merit on account of Hitler’s deeds. However, the immoral act of killing the innocent outweighs such merit, I submit, both because of the boys’ pain of death and the fact that Hitler would not be aware of the punishment because he is dead.

Ethical analysis can be complex, but it can indeed lead to definitive answers. One philosopher who criticized moral theory, Friedrich Nietzsche maintained something very close to an ontological identity—the same consciousness being absent—in positing that given infinite time and the infinite possible number of galaxies, a person just like you—in effect, you—must certainly be the case at some point—and indeed innumerable times—on a planet somewhere that is just like Earth. In fact, Nietzsche holds that the person would be you! How excruciating it must be to know that all your heartaches are to be felt an infinite number of times. So Nietzsche has a demon announce:

"This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence -- even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!"[1]

I submit that Nietzsche’s assumption of ontological identity (i.e., his use of the pronoun you) goes too far. As I argue above, even an identical genetics and the very same environment do not give the same consciousness. Physically, two (or more) brains exist. The recurrences are thus not really so. Nietzsche admits, for instance, that we have no awareness of our respective “recurrences; we don’t suffer again what we have suffered. Nor, for that matter, can we experience our past joys again. So you will not have to live once more, and innumerable times more, the life you have lived, even if that life is repeated; the reason is that the person is not ontologically identical to you.

Even in terms of physics, Nietzsche’s theory of the Eternal Return is problematic. Simply put, his idea is that infinite space means that infinite universes (each of which contains galaxies) exist so mathematically an infinite number of Earths with an infinite number of variations, including that which we experience in our lives, must be the case. In short, an infinite number is very, very large. Nietzsche applies the mathematics to physics:

“If the world may be thought of as a certain definite quantity of force and as a certain definite number of centers of force -- and every other representation remains indefinite and therefore useless -- it follows that, in the great dice game of existence, it must pass through a calculable number of combinations. In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times. And since between every combination and its next recurrence all other possible combinations would have to take place, and each of these combinations conditions the entire sequence of combinations in the same series, a circular movement of absolutely identical series is thus demonstrated: the world as a circular movement that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game ad infinitum.”[2]

In short, Nietzsche is saying that a finite system within an infinite system must occur an infinite number of times. Even though Nietzsche calls this the Eternal Return, he is not suggesting that infinity itself is divine. If space is infinite—a claim that Einstein rejects in his theory of curved space—that space is in Creation and thus not divine. Even so, Nietzsche’s assumption not only that space is infinite, but also that galaxies exist throughout that space is problematic. If space goes on and on without limit, it is possible that matter and energy cease at a certain location.

Furthermore, even a “definite quantity of force” and “a certain definite number of centers of force” can involve an infinite number of variables. One reason why the social sciences fall short of the empirical lab experiments in the natural sciences (i.e., biology, chemistry, physics) is that all the variables that go into human behavior and social scenarios have not been identified and thus subject to being held constant or adjusted. I contend that the infinite number here cancels out the infinite number of recurrences (e.g., of you). Think of “infinite” in a numerator and “infinite” in a denominator of fractions. The two infinities cancel out. In short, there has not been, is not, and will not be another you.

In conclusion, even an “absolutely identical series” applied to identical genetics is not sufficient for us to posit the sort of ontological identity that would permit us to say that Hitler recurs in the 95 clones in the film. Killing the boys would thus be unethical. In keeping the audience from knowing that the boys are cloned from Hitler’s DNA, the story does not permit much time for discussion of the philosophical issues here. Even so, the Lieberman character is of the sort who would be inclined to have such thoughts and thus ask other characters, such as his wife, questions that could get the audience thinking. Such a narrative dimension would make film that much more powerful, and thus rich, as a story medium.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), p. 341.
[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 1066.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Sound of Music: Marital Roles and Inner Transformations

Fifty years after the film’s initial release in 1965, viewers of The Sound of Music could measure the imprint of the women’s movement of the 1970s by how very different—antiquated actually—the film is in terms of marital roles. Whether Liesl in the first half of the film or Maria in the second, their acceptance of the dominance of husbands over wives stood out like a blade of grass needing to be cut in 2015 for all but a minority of viewers. Yet the internal changes that Maria and the Captain have the courage to undergo resonate in any age, being so much a part of human nature, as distinct from sociological artifacts.

Through roughly the first half of the film, Maria is an individualist bristling first against the conventionality of the convent and then the Captain’s authoritarianism. She refuses, for example, to come to his whistle on principle. In fact, the rebel asks him what signal she could whistle to call him. Meanwhile, Liesl, the captain’s oldest at 16 going on 17, sings of wanting to be needing “someone older and wiser telling [her] what to do.” She will depend on Rolf, she adds. “I’ll take care of you,” he sings in return. In 1965, this exchange would not have sounded odd in the least to most American and European audiences—yet how odd to the ears listening fifty years later. That a cultural understanding can seem like common sense in one era and yet so contrived just fifty years later ought to convince us that what we take for granted as given may be anything but.

Even within the film’s story, Maria changes remarkably from rebel to passive wife. She leaves all decisions to the Captain, including whether and when they would leave Austria. She even refuses Max Detweiler’s request that she try to move the Captain off his opposition to his children singing in public. “I can’t ask the Captain to be less than he is,” she tells Max. The internal shift is remarkable. Like that of the Captain, it happens in an instant.

When the Captain professes his love for Maria, she quickly realizes in song that in her miserable childhood, “I must have done something right.” That added self-confidence may enable her to stop fighting her negative self-image that took form in her miserable childhood. How do you solve a problem like Maria? She does, by feeling worthy of being loved. She does not have enough self-confidence to feel this herself, in spite of her singing, “I have confidence in confidence itself” on her way initially to the family’s formidable mansion. Someone must love her as she is, when her self-confidence is insufficient to kick off her negative self-image and the related rebelliousness. She gets the needed boost when the Captain tells her that he has loved her since her first day with the family—when she sat on the pinecone at dinner. In fact, the inner transformation is instantaneous. From then on, she is radically different—fully in line with the era’s values and customs and not at all independent.

Similarly, when the Captain first hears his children singing, his harsh, formal demeanor melts away instantly and he is a changed person too. He has forgotten what music was like in his house before his wife died—and it is the sound of music that instantly melts away his mourning. Only once he has undergone that inner change can he feel the love he has for Maria, which in turn triggers her realization that she had not been such a bad kid after all. In achieving an inner freedom from her self-hatred, which was fueling her rebelliousness, she willingly subjects herself to her husband’s will and command. Having dropped his command at home, he in turn leads the Von Trapp family out of love rather than from autocratic rule.

During the filming, Christopher Plummer, who played the Captain, said the story is too saccharine; he even referred to the movie’s title derisively as the sound of mucous. On the one hand, that the film is a musical means it is not cinema verité; no one should expect a musical to mirror real-life because people don’t pause several times a day to sing a song. On the other hand, Plummer had a point in that the inner transformations of both his character and Maria occur instantly and without any effort. Besides being utterly unrealistic, glossing over the process of the change compromises the character-development aspect of the film. In other words, the two main characters are rendered too plastic, and thus not readily believable.[1]

Viewing the film in 2015 rather than 1965, the film would doubtless feel even more unrealistic, given the antiquated stances of Rolf and Liesl on marital roles and Maria’s wholesale deference to the Captain as his wife. Standing between these characters and the viewer in 2015 is the women’s movement that transformed the role of women in society as well as in marriages seemingly overnight in the 1970s. Of course, this transition was hardly instantaneous, and neither was it without struggle on the individual, interpersonal, and societal levels. Interestingly, the sense of fakeness in the antiquated views and conduct would only compound the apprehension of fakeness in the inner transformations of the Captain and Maria. One day, the film may even be viewed as a fairy-tale—as a piece of art rather than a film based on a true story. 

Nevertheless, internal change freeing a person from grief or a negative self-image is of timeless value because such change is a feature of human nature itself, and therefore the story is apt to be engaging in any era. Hence the film can be said to have a timeless aura befitting such a classic of cinema.

[1] By means of comparison, Pray for Bobby (2009), a film about a gay teenager in an evangelical Christian family, highlights the mother’s arduous inner-struggle as she questions and then changes her religious view on homosexuality. Her entire demeanor changes in the process. The change is hardly instantaneous, unlike those of the Captain and Maria in The Sound of Music

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Age of Adaline: Death as No Longer Inevitable

In The Age of Adaline (2015), the age-old “fountain of youth” leitmotif springs forth yet again. In this incarnation, Adaline is forced to come to grips with the fact that everyone around her, including her daughter, is aging even as Adaline herself does not. A strong electromagnetic has altered her genes such that her cells do not divide at slower rates as they age. As she becomes aware of the repercussions, we in turn can marvel at what may be just decades away scientifically concerning the expected human life-span. In short, when the film came out, scientists were already openly discussing whether death itself may no longer be inevitable for human beings.

In an article in Biomaterials published in August 2015, scientists from the Ott lab at Harvard University provide the world with the science behind their successful effort to grow a rat’s limb from cells and attach it to a living rat.[1] Harald Ott describes the significance of the scientific feat for human beings. “Limbs contain muscles, bone, cartilage, blood vessels, tendons, ligaments and nerves – each of which has to be rebuilt and requires a specific supporting structure called the matrix. We have shown that we can maintain the matrix of all of these tissues in their natural relationships to each other, that we can culture the entire construct over prolonged periods of time, and that we can repopulate the vascular system and musculature. . . . Additional next steps will be replicating our success in muscle regeneration with human cells and expanding that to other tissue types, such as bone, cartilage and connective tissue.”[2] In other words, a person’s diseased or simply aged organs may one day be replaceable with organs grown with the individual’s own cells.

The Ott lab’s mission statement lays out the rationale. “End organ failure is the leading health care challenge in the Western World. Nearly 6 million Americans suffer from heart failure with about 550,000 new cases diagnosed annually; 25 million Americans suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) with an estimated 12 million new yearly diagnoses; 530,000 Americans suffer from end stage renal disease. Organ transplantation is the only potentially curative therapy available. However, its outcomes are limited by donor organ shortage and the side effects of harsh immunosuppressive treatments. Organ engineering is a theoretical alternative to transplantation. Whole organs could be derived from patient’s cells and transplanted similar to donor organs.”[3] If the brain is such an organ and could be grown from a person’s cells, then would such a transplant essentially end one person, or at least consciousness, and begin another? Ethically speaking, who would have access to his or her own personal “replacement organs”? Only the rich, while death is still inevitable for the poor and middle class?

To be sure, a bunch of organs does not a body make; considerably more is involved. So we must look to the research on cellular aging itself before we can anticipate death as not necessarily inevitable. Just to clarify, this is not the same as immortality. In the film, for example, were Adaline to get hit by a truck, she would not continue at the same age; she would be dead.

In 1913, researchers discovered a cause of aging in mammals that may be reversible.[4] “The aging process we discovered is like a married couple—when they are young, they communicate well, but over time, living in close quarters for many years, communication breaks down,” said Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics David Sinclair, senior author on the study. “And just like with a couple, restoring communication solved the problem.”[5] In scientific terms—now that I’ve warmed you up—“The essence of this finding is a series of molecular events that enable communication inside cells between the nucleus and mitochondria. As communication breaks down, aging accelerates. By administering a molecule naturally produced by the human body, scientists restored the communication network in older mice. Subsequent tissue samples showed key biological hallmarks that were comparable to those of much younger animals.”[6] That is, not only can the aging process be slowed down; it can actually be reversed!

The implications of the research both in growing organs and reversing the aging process at a cellular level are nothing short of breathtaking, not to mention paradigm-altering. At the time of the film’s release, some scientists were openly suggesting that death might no longer be inevitable as early as 2050. That is to say, children, young adults, and even people having reached middle-age watching The Age of Adaline in early 2015 might not experience aging themselves, even as they would naturally have memories of grandparents or parents having aged and died.[7] In the film, Adaline must come to grips with her daughter being an old woman; the implication is that Adaline would eventually have to confront the loss of her daughter, and, indeed, anyone else held dear. I believe this is why Adaline keeps herself from getting into a romantic relationship; even more than wanting to avoid the fear of trusting another person with her secret (for fear of being picked apart by government scientists) and being in the awkward situation of being young while one husband after another reaches retirement age, the deaths of one dog after another—a photo of each one being solemnly kept in an album—have taught her that death as not inevitable has a very sad downside.

Even if death is rendered not inevitable (even as taxes remain so) for every person alive, say in 2100, people would experience other living beings aging and dying. Moreover, longevity itself would doubtless have its own downsides. For those to whom life is a terrible struggle, a lifespan of even just two hundred years—the time between 1776 and Jimmy Carter as the U.S. President in the late 1970s—could be felt to be a curse. The whole notion of a life sentence would have to be re-thought, otherwise it would be intolerably cruel. So too would age discrimination need to be reconsidered. Would it even make sense?

Furthermore, would everyone in the world be at the same age? If so, would humanity consist of children and adult-children—Munchkins, as it were, only with a youthful look? Such a sight would doubtless be extremely distressing to any aliens visiting from elsewhere in the galaxy. Perhaps people could decide to stay at any given age—presumably after having reached adulthood.

Moreover, the right to reproduce in an already overpopulated world might become contentious at least as pertaining to those persons who have “opted into” death as not inevitable, though even they could of course die from an accident or natural disaster. Ethicists would likely find work. The Age of Adaline only skims the surface of the implications from what may lie in store for humanity—that is, if our species can survive the climate-change that was already underway at the time of the film’s release. My point here is that we really have no idea what some of the implications would be; the medical advances touched on above, as well as the work on diseases such cancer, may outstrip the capacity, or at least the usual habits, of the human mind to adapt. At the very least, some paradigms with deep ruts may need to be buried and new seeds sowed.

[1] Bernhard Jank et al, “Engineered Composite Tissue as a Bioartificial Limb Graft, Biomaterials (August 2015), 61:246-56. The abstract reads as follows: “The loss of an extremity is a disastrous injury with tremendous impact on a patient's life. Current mechanical prostheses are technically highly sophisticated, but only partially replace physiologic function and aesthetic appearance. As a biologic alternative, approximately 70 patients have undergone allogeneic hand transplantation to date worldwide. While outcomes are favorable, risks and side effects of transplantation and long-term immunosuppression pose a significant ethical dilemma. An autologous, bio-artificial graft based on native extracellular matrix and patient derived cells could be produced on demand and would not require immunosuppression after transplantation. To create such a graft, we decellularized rat and primate forearms by detergent perfusion and yielded acellular scaffolds with preserved composite architecture. We then repopulated muscle and vasculature with cells of appropriate phenotypes, and matured the composite tissue in a perfusion bioreactor under electrical stimulation in vitro. After confirmation of composite tissue formation, we transplanted the resulting bio-composite grafts to confirm perfusion in vivo.”
[2] Nitya Rajan, “Scientists Grow an Entire Limb in the Lab Using a Dead Rat,” The Huffington Post, June 4, 2015.
[3]Our Mission,” The Ott Lab for Organ Engineering and Regeneration, Harvard University (accessed June 5, 2015).
[4] Ana Gomes et al, “Declining NAD+ Induces a Pseudohypoxic State Disrupting Nuclear-Mitochondrial Communication during Aging,” Cell (19 December 2013) Vol. 155, No. 7, pp. 1624-638. The abstract reads as follows: “Ever since eukaryotes subsumed the bacterial ancestor of mitochondria, the nuclear and mitochondrial genomes have had to closely coordinate their activities, as each encode different subunits of the oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) system. Mitochondrial dysfunction is a hallmark of aging, but its causes are debated. We show that, during aging, there is a specific loss of mitochondrial, but not nuclear, encoded OXPHOS subunits. We trace the cause to an alternate PGC-1α/β-independent pathway of nuclear-mitochondrial communication that is induced by a decline in nuclear NAD+ and the accumulation of HIF-1α under normoxic conditions, with parallels to Warburg reprogramming. Deleting SIRT1 accelerates this process, whereas raising NAD+ levels in old mice restores mitochondrial function to that of a young mouse in a SIRT1-dependent manner. Thus, a pseudohypoxic state that disrupts PGC-1α/β-independent nuclear-mitochondrial communication contributes to the decline in mitochondrial function with age, a process that is apparently reversible.”
[5] David Cameron, “A New—and Reversible—Cause of Aging,” Harvard Medical School, December 19, 2013.
[6] Ibid.
[7] The matter of brain transplants puts this assumption at risk, for a brain grown out of some cells would not have the memories. Stretching the envelop even more, what if science eventually enables the memories and even consciousness of the “old” brain to be part of the brain being grown? It seems more likely that the experiential continuity of the person would continue.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Disney Re-Making Stories: The End of Creativity?

Politicians running for re-election may “remake themselves.” Companies “reinvent themselves.” If the company happens to make films, are the stories necessarily reinvented—essentially being retold—too? If this becomes the norm, is the implication that storytellers have exhausted the story plotlines that the human mind can conceive? Perhaps retelling old stories is simply laziness and corporate expediency at the expense of substance.

In March 2015, Walt Disney Pictures announced that it would concentrate on live-action versions of classic fairy tales.[1] That the latter had come from Walt Disney Animation Studios renders the strategy synergistic, which is to say, convenient financially. For one thing, the same market-segment is “carried along.” In the case of “Cinderella,” the operative demographic is girls. Other “reinvented” stories on Disney’s radar screen at the time included “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Dumbo.” Novelty in storytelling seems to be lost in the same old, same old—albeit in new packaging.

To be sure, some narrative creation goes with even such re-tellings. For example, the re-made “Cinderella” includes a back story explaining the step-mother’s cruelty, new stuff on the prince’s relationship with his father, the king, and a reason why Cinderella “doesn’t run from home or fight back.”[2] These additions take the basic story as a given, however, and this tendency may imply that we have squeezed out all the great plot-lines that we can possibly imagine. Even if the well of plot-types has not gone dry because they have pretty much already been lifted out into the light of day, the habit of “re-inventing” existing stories can orient energy away from narrative creativity to the extent that the empty well becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Audiences used to being spoon-fed the same story over and over may come to expect nothing more and reward the film companies that take the road most travelled. That is to say, the status quo can become a virtual black hole to which potential creative energy cannot escape. As real as the limitations facing creative storytellers may seem, at least some of the constraints may be contrived, and thus artificial.

[1] Ben Fritz, “Disney Recycles Fairy Tales, Minus Cartoons,” The Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2015.
[2] Ibid.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Interstellar: Being in Love as a Black Hole

As difficult as it is to grasp the nature of a black hole and its all-consuming gravity, Interstellar (2014) also traces the powerful yet mysterious gravitational pull of human love, including that utterly unfathomable condition we know as “being in love.” We fall in love, which is an expression that presupposes gravity. Yet such all-consuming attachment may not even in principle have as its object our species itself. Even falling in love may be dangerous—just look at Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

“You have attachments, even without a family. I can promise you, the yearning to be with other people is powerful,” Cooper explains to Dr. Mann in the film to justify getting back to Earth as soon as possible. “That emotion is the foundation of what makes us human—not to be taken lightly,” the father of two adds. We are indeed social animals. Yet we don’t seem to be hard-wired to feel an attachment for our species itself, as demonstrated by humanity’s failure to keep global warming from potentially rendering our wise species, homo sapiens, extinct. In fact, the film pits the yearning to be with another person against the species’ very survival, suggesting that being in love is very powerful indeed as well as possibly ruinous to the species.

Brand’s yearning for a man she is in love with places her in a conflict of interest in giving her recommendation on which of two planets to visit. “Love is powerful, observable,” she says. Here on Earth, we know that being in love can lead people to make drastic life-choices that are irrational by any other calculus. A person in love may decide to suddenly walk away from years of work in a field without even a threat of regret in order to be with the other person in another city. A person whose love is unrequited may abruptly change a daily routine or even move to get some distance from the other person. In addition to hopefully being “cured” of being in love with him or her as soon as possible (though time usually takes it time as a thickener of sorts), ending the fierce, unrelenting pain of the rejection is also of high priority. The continued yearning without its object and the hurt from the rejection can be agonizing if the person loves deeply.

Brand describes being in love as being profound. “Maybe it’s some evidence, artifact of a higher dimension we can’t consciously perceive,” she explains to justify her planetary recommendation being consistent with seeing the man with whom she fell in love many years earlier. Love is the one thing we can perceive that transcends the dimensions of time and space. “I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade, who I know is probably dead,” she confesses. It is as if a worm-hole exists between the two souls, rendering their connection as immediate in spite of the oceans of space between them.

Drawing on Kant, I wonder whether being in love distorts both space and time in how they appear to us. The time spent with a beloved passes must quicker, at least initially, than does the time spent apart when the heart yearns to be at one with the other. The area where the beloved lives and works takes on a drastically different meaning and value, both in itself and relative to other places. This special “bump” may even be immune from the waning effects of time due to its own warp.

Finality, such as in the beloved cutting the person still in love off from any further contact and meaning it, is inherently at odds with the love’s innate ability to massage time and space. Particularly a person who falls deeply in love with another person has difficulty in finality at such depth. It is as if the constructed wall violates fate itself, if not the very nature of the love. Yet a person in love can be wrong in sensing fate being at work; the existential feeling in “falling head over heels” in love—that such loving comes out of one’s very core being—is not the sort of thing that a person can turn off (or on). 

To someone who has never been in love, all of this must seem like something in another galaxy. Even to a person who has fallen in love but is not presently in love with the person in love with him or her, it is easy to dismiss the other person’s condition as insignificant or even crazy. It can thus be easy to walk away without any guilt for what the other person is to go through emotionally.

“Maybe we should trust it even though we can’t understand it,” Bland says as she advocates going to the planet where her beloved may still be alive. But should we? If being in love distorts time and space by means of its relentless gravity, then is it wise for other people and the person in love to trust the emotion? He or she may be wrong about fate; the beloved may not be “the one” after all. Indeed, “the one” may actually be cruel, all too comfortable with finality.

Astonishingly, the person in love may still yearn for the underlying good in the other person even as the beloved is bent on inflicting so much hurt that he or she will never have to see the person again. A person in love willing to risk such rejection to work things out demonstrates just how much he or she values love above all else. It is also likely that a person willing to inflict a maximum pain to be rid of such a person forever demonstrates just how little he or she values love itself. Lest it be concluded that a black hole of sorts resides at his or her core being, falling in love may also be quite selfish. Faced with a powerful, relentless yearning for one person, a person in love is hardly unmoved by what he or she wants. Such love, as well as such hate, may not be trustworthy, and may even be dangerous. Perhaps our species would have evolved better had we the ability to fall in love with our species rather than individuals. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Imitation Game: Machines Imitating Man?

What does it mean to understand something? Put another way, what counts as understanding? The film, The Imitation Game (2014), touches on the question of whether machines (i.e., computers) can think, but the film falls needlessly short in pursuing the question. My aim here is to show how film can be more substantive along philosophical lines without sacrificing on entertainment value.

In one scene, detective Robert Nock, bent on getting at what Alan Turing really did during his stint in the British military, interrogates the professor. The exchange essentially springs philosophy of mind on the viewers. Already having watched the construction of a machine (i.e., computer) designed to “think” faster than the group of decoders of the German coder, Enigma, the viewers have some context for the dialogue on whether machines can think.

“Can machines think?” Nock asks. “Could machines ever think as human beings do?”

“Most people say not,” Turing replies. “Well, the problem is you’re asking a stupid question.”

“I am?”

“Of course machines can’t think as humans do,” the professor explains. “A machine is different from a person; hence they think differently. The interesting question is, just because something thinks differently from you, does this mean it’s not thinking? We allow for humans to have such divergences from one another. You like strawberries, I hate ice skating, you cry at sad films, I am allergic to pollen. What is the point of different tastes, different preferences, if not to say that our brains work differently—that we think differently—and if we can say that about one another, then why can’t we say the same thing for brains full of . . . wire and steel?”

Unfortunately, the machine vs. human thinking topic ends there, truncating the film's foray into philosophy of mind. The screenwriters could have had Hugh Alexander, a two-time chess champion of the state of Britain and member of Turing’s decoding group, lsay to the professor later in the film something like, “You say that humans think differently, but you use as examples liking something and being sad about something else. You even throw in an allergy. None of these is thinking. Liking is a preference, being sad is a mood, and a person cannot think himself into being allergic to cats. These examples are not of thinking, and yet you use them as such. Clearly you aren’t thinking very clearly—professor.” 

Stepping back to the “metafilm” level, the screenwriters could very easily have developed the initial dialogue between Turing and Noch in a way that would have enriched the viewer’s thinking about the topic while still being entertained. Behind Alexander’s populist-themed, “Take that! professor” lies an advancement or development of the philosophical dimension of the film.

In fact, the development could have been continued. Not content to let Alexander, a rival in the story, to have the upper hand for long, Turing could have replied with, “I was just using those examples to demonstrate that we humans are different. In terms of thinking more specifically, do we simply manipulate words, which are only symbols really, according to rules, such as that certain verbs can go after the symbol cat?  Is understanding just arranging symbols according to rules that we have agreed on? If so, then machines that do the same thing can understand, and thus think.”

Alexander could reply with something like, “Well, when I understand something like justice, I am not just doing mental games with words and rules for how those rules can be arranged. I just know that something is just, so I don’t think that machines can understand, and therefore think.”

“So maybe the question is whether machines can think without understanding?”

This continued dialogue would essentially play out the beginning established during the interrogation at police headquarters. The viewers would have a sense of intellectual denouement while being stimulated cognitively in the process. Supporting the more explicit line, context could be provided—that is to say, the topic could be hinted at recessively while other points are front and center.

For example, when commander Denniston interviews Turing to be a decoder, Denniston is shocked to learn that Turing does not know German. Turing insists that decoding is essentially solving puzzles, which depends on being good at such games rather than knowing the language. Turing could have elaborated, such that the viewers would get more preparation for the more explicit treatment of the topic in the later interrogation discussion.

Faced with Denniston’s steadfast belief that a decoder must know German, Turing could have added the following. “Even though I don’t understand German, I can still work with the words, which are really symbols, according to certain rules. There are certain rules governing how Gutten Tag can be used, for instance. You can’t use the symbols as an opener at night—that would go against the rules agreed on for the two words. In fact, I don’t know any Chinese at all, but if given a list of characters and a set of rules on how those characters can be used, I could write sentences in Chinese that would be understandable to anyone who has learned Chinese. Does this mean that I understand Chinese?”

“No, surely not. You would be functioning like a machine,” Denniston might reply, “and people are not machines”

“I’m not so sure, at least as far as the military is concerned. But I’m not a machine; I understand decoding, rather than just going through the motions. This is what you would be hiring me for.”

The primary point of the dialogue would be whether Denniston hires Turing. The philosophical question of whether the manipulation of symbols according to rules constitutes understanding (or meaning) would be secondary, as is fitting for laying the groundwork. In this way—working with a dimension of a film (e.g., the philosophical) at various subtilties—screenwriting can be likened to writing a score for a symphony orchestra. In some places, a certain melody in the string section is foremost, while that melody is in the background in a few other places. The various depthnesses lodges the string-melody in the listeners’ respective minds more firmly. 

In terms of The Imitation Game, the viewers would be more engaged with the film even as they are entertained. Perhaps we would be more likely to think about the film afterward. Perhaps some viewers might read more on thinking and understanding, and even on artificial intelligence (AI). My point is that the film would have had more depth without sacrificing on the entertainment value. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Theory of Everything

In his doctoral dissertation, Steven Hawkins demonstrates that the universe could have begun spontaneously. That is to say, the big bang could have gone off without being triggered by a divine intelligent being, or God in the sense of the word as used in the Abrahamic religions. To say that the universe could have begun in a moment of singularity is not necessarily to vitiate the deity-concept of all content. In fact, Hawkins’ work may one day trigger a movement to hem in the concept to the terrain that is distinctly religious.

Throughout A Theory of Everything (2014), God as the Creator is depicted in a strict dichotomy with physics as only one of the two can survive intact. I submit that the “either/or” choice is unnecessary because it arises from a category mistake involving religion. In positing God as the first cause or prime mover of a physical process, we distend the religious domain onto that of the natural sciences. Characterizing God as the condition of existence, on the other hand, backs the concept of the deity away from physics, chemistry, and astronomy and thus avoids the unnecessary dichotomy.

We can go even further still, putting some daylight between the two domains. Plotinus, a second century Platonist, characterized God as extending beyond the limits of human cognition and perception. Infinite space and never-ending time, on the other hand, are within our realm and thus not particularly divine. Indeed, what we experience as existence is within our realm rather than transcendent. To claim that God as Creator is the condition of existence can be interpreted as an attempt to source God beyond the limits of human cognition and perception unless that condition is taken as the cause of a sequence of events understandable through any of the natural sciences.My point is simply that theology is not one of the natural sciences, so the choice between them is unnecessary as it stems from a category mistake wherein the religious terrain oversteps or encroaches onto that of physics and chemistry. Pruning back the ancient conception of the Abrahamic deity to the distinctly religious can save the concept from entanglements that pit it against scientific investigation. Put another way, to apply such investigation to God represents a category mistake wherein science oversteps its innate boundaries. Rather than debate if God is behind the chemical reactions known as the big bang as is done throughout the film, we might try to figure out what is distinctly religious or theological in nature.