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

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Realive

In 2016, Robert McIntyre, a graduate of MIT, became the first person to freeze and then revive a mammalian brain—that of a white rabbit. “When thawed, the rabbit’s brain was found to have all of its synapse, cell membranes, and intracellular structures intact.”[1] The film, Realive, made that same year, is a fictional story about a man with terminal cancer who commits suicide to be frozen and revived when his illness could be cured. In the context of McIntyre’s scientific work, the film’s sci-fi demeanor belies the very real possibility that cryogenics could realistically alter fundamental assumptions about life and death even just later in the same century. What the film says about the life and death is timeless, however, in terms of philosophical value.




Diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, Marc Jarvis opts for cryogenics. His body is to be frozen and revived when technology has advanced to the point of being able to reanimate him and cure the cancer. “I’d be able to live longer,” he blandly tells his friends, who are skeptical. For this to happen, he responds, “I guess I’d have to trust humanity.” He is referring to the advent of the necessary medical technology, rather than to the question of whether global climate change might extinguish the species in the meantime. This “sin of omission” by the screenwriter is particularly strange, given physicist Steven Hawkins’ prediction at the time that the species would have at most a century left on a habitable Earth.

In the story, living longer isn’t Marc’s actual goal, so he may well be indifferent to the plight of the species as he informs his friends of his decision to go with cryogenics. He does not commit suicide with the hope of being revived when he could be cured so he could live out the rest of his life.  As he tells Elizabeth, his nurse after he is revived 60 years later, in 2084, “Suicide was my way of fighting the arbitrariness of cancer.” Suicide, he tells her, was “the only way of avoiding the agony and the uncertainty of when death would finally arrive.” In retrospect, he says that being able to end his life at his choosing gave him the power to die peacefully. He had not really thought he could be reanimated; suicide, he tells Elizabeth, “gave me back control over my life.” He had accepted death; things were fine as they were. He accepted his experience of life as that which it had been, even though he was still young (roughly 30). The fear was gone, he tells Elizabeth more than 100 arduous days after having being revived. His fear of death is still gone, he informs her as he then asks her to help him commit suicide again. He has already died once. He is once again prepared to end his life. His final wish: “To be nothing again, to disappear, to finally rest in peace.” Why? To return to an after-life existence in heaven? Or out of a preference for not existing over the pain of living?

Just after being revived, he is enthusiastic. “I was going to die,” he tells the medical team in front of his bed. “I was going to disappear, forever, and I’m alive again. I’m alive!” But he quickly realizes that his “new life” comes with some rather serious drawbacks, medically speaking. At least for some weeks, his body seems permanently “on the verge of collapse.” He records the following for future posterity: “Life, what do we expect from it? Certainly not this fragility, this half-speed existence. We definitely don’t expect a medical history full of afflictions and minor defects, a propensity for phlegmbosis, numbness in the extremities, involuntary movements, loss of equilibrium, scaling of the skin, irritation of connective tissue, respiratory insufficiency, cardiac insufficiency, incontinence, impotence. You don’t expect so many limitations so soon.” His physician tells him that he could expect a life like people with chronic diseases or the elderly, and he would have to maintain at least periodic connection to a machine that keeps him alive. In erroneously assuming that these conditions would be permanent, both Marc and his physician dismiss the likelihood that medical science would continue to advance. 

To be sure, Marc’s medical team knew Marc would lose all of his memories, after which no medical science could bring them back. You expect at least to keep your memories, Marc narrates for posterity. “What if your memories were erased as well? What will become of me once my memories have faded?” Fortunately, a device exists in 2084 that can allow people to recover memories without actually remembering anything, but he dismisses it outright too. He could still draw on those stored memories mentally—hence indistinguishable from him really having the memories—and perhaps advancements in medical science could literally grow more “gray matter” such that Marc would someday begin to accumulate new memories. In short, the static nature in the assumptions made not only by Marc, but, more astonishingly, by his medical term in 2084 is astonishing, given their experiences with medical advancements.

At any rate, Naomi, Marc’s girlfriend before he died, had herself frozen in hopes of being together with her true love again someday. Elizabeth wants to assure Marc, “Someday you two will be able to be together again like you were before; it’s only a matter of time.” Here in Elizabeth we find the openness of a dynamic assumption; medical science should be regarded as a moving target!  Yet he isn’t buying it. He knows Naomi’s bodily condition is not good; the process of freezing had not gone well. “I don’t even want to imagine Naomi if she’s trapped in someone else’s body, someone else’s life,” he tells Elizabeth. “That’s your fear talking,” Elizabeth correctly tells him. In short, Marc has lost hope—faith in medical science and even in life itself. Accordingly, he wants to commit suicide again, and he wants Elizabeth to bracket her own hope and assist him.

The nineteenth-century European philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, aptly describes Marc’s rationale for killing himself “for good” (i.e., without any hope of being reanimated again). “A man who kills himself does not take his life, it has already been taken from him. That is why he kills himself; he destroys only a semblance of himself; what he casts away is a mere shell whose kernel, whether by his fault or not, has long since been eaten away. But a healthy, normal life . . . is and should be man’s highest good, his supreme being.”[2] Marc expects a healthy, normal life; it is his god. Yet paradoxically death is not his enemy, for suicide is to him simply a preference for not existing over life without his god.

Life and death are of course the true characters in the fictional drama. Expectedly, religion is in the mix, though surprisingly only explicitly in a few instances in the film. The position taken in the film, through Marc as a witness—albeit fictional—is that life “is nothing more than a state of matter . . . there’s nothing transcendent or divine about it.” As such, life is merely biological. In fact, Marc opines that it is life that’s “scary, not death.” Life is “always on the verge of extinction.” A human life can quickly, and unexpectedly end without the person having any control over it. As for the soul, Marc figures it is maybe “the part that is lost when you freeze the meat and thaw it out again.” In short, the film adopts a materialist perspective. There is no after-life, other than revitalized, or unfrozen, life itself. In other words, being reanimated—not resurrected!—is the only after-life, or, more accurately, life after life. In between them: nothing. Not existing. How hard this is to apply to ourselves!

“Welcome back to life, Marc,” the physician says as Marc regains consciousness upon being revived. “Do you remember anything about the other side?” Is there an afterlife?, the physician wants to know. The first report of a possible “eye-witness” of heaven in human history is underwhelming: “Fear, dying, waking up,” Marc answers without a hint of excitement. Later, he makes it explicit: “Before I died, I thought there was nothing after death. Now I’m sure.” He is the only person alive immune from what Feuerbach describes as the fantasies of profligate human imagination. Marc records his (or the screenwriter’s) own thoughts as follows: “Why do we yearn so desperately for life after death? What is it that we want? Perhaps reward for our grief, or punishment for our sins. No, what we really expect to find is what we already know; what we once had and lost. If there was something, we would turn it into more of the same—the same chaos and the same beauty, the same reward for the same effort, the same tale by the same idiot. If there was something, it would probably be purgatory.” In other words, we construct, or hope for, an after-life looking all too familiar—human, all too human. The “most sensitive, most painful of man’s feelings of finiteness is the feeling or awareness that he will one day end, that he will die,” Feuerbach suggests.[3] All a person knows and experiences is premised on the ongoing—perceptually-seeming “ever” present—basis of existing, the end of which must surely be felt to be torrentially horrendous. A human’s “defense against death is the belief in immortality.”[4] People who think they know for a fact there is an afterlife might want to pause at word in italics. None of us know, which is why the screenwriter of the film has Marc’s physician ask.

The physician—a man of science!—is disappointed in Marc’s answer as it is well within the realm of biology. He wants for there to be a religious dimension so much that he over-reaches cognitively. In presenting Marc to the public (i.e., investors), for example, he refers to Marc as “the first person resurrected.” However, resurrection is a distinctively religious term that refers to a spiritual-physical body; Jesus’ resurrected body, for instance, goes through the door of the Upper Room and yet he is hungry so he asks for a fish! Clearly, more is going on here than reanimation or revitalization. Cryogenics does not even constitute the sort of miracle as Jesus performed in bringing Lazarus back to life, and yet Marc's physician refers to his successive cryogenic attempts, including Marc, as Lazarus!

In short, Marc’s (albeit fictional) body is not supernatural, and yet the physician uses terms suggestive of a religious miracle. In fact, he refers to Marc as the first resurrected man more than once in the film. It is as if man of science were driven instinctually to make what is human, divine. According to Feuerbach, “Man makes a god or divine being of what his life depends on only because to him his life is a divine being, a divine possession or thing.”[5] God is beneficent (because good), and thus of use to humans—hence petitions are made as a matter of course in many liturgies, but the underlying presupposition or basis of this belief in the divine attribute is that human life is itself of great worth (i.e., divine).

Therefore, Marc while still young and yet seemingly deprived of God’s beneficence has a knee-jerk reaction for his life to go on, albeit after some time of not existing. Alternatively, he could pin his hopes on heaven, yet he dismisses it even before he knows it to be a fantasy of the human imagination tinged with fear. Yet even in ostensibly wanting to live more, or again, it is to be on his terms.

According to Feuerbach, we are the gods—or, more accurately—our human ideals are our true gods—the potential of the species, which Feuerbach erroneously claimed is infinite. The danger in idolizing our ideals lies in settling for nothing less. Hence Marc acts rashly, I submit, in committing suicide again. His god is human, all too human. If Feuerbach was right, even the ostensibly religious deity is really just human life in its infinite potential. Yet the terrain of our experience is finite—our perception, feeling, and cognition only go so far. Even cryogenics in itself could merely extend a human life, rather than making human beings immortal.

 




[2] Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 52.


[3] Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 33.


[4] Ibid., 34, italics added.


[5] Ibid., 52.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Great Wall

William has come to China for rumored gun power, but what he really needs is trust. Therein lies his vulnerability, even if he views it better not to trust. Yet it could be that he is just afraid; Commander Lin Mae thinks so. The protagonist wants one thing, but in order to get it he must overcome a critical flaw. This is the basic form, or dynamic, of a screenplay. I submit that because film is an excellent medium in which philosophical principles can be explored and wrestled with, the protagonist’s vulnerability, raised to a principle, can efficaciously be more salient in a film than merely in the immediate struggles of the protagonist. In other words, the principle at issue in the protagonist’s flaw can play a more expansive role in a film, deepening it in the process.


Trust, to have faith. Trust is our flag. “Trust in each other, in all ways, at all times.” This is what the Chinese army is about, Commander Lin Mae tells William. She asks him to do a physical task—essentially bungie jumping off the Great Wall—to show that he can trust. He refuses the request, retorting “I’m alive today because I trust no one.” Not trusting, in other words, has served him well. Lin Mae then declares, “A man must learn to trust before he can be trusted.” Yet Ballard trusts William and Tovar enough during the first battle to cut them loose from being prisoners. They prove trustworthy and fight with the Chinese against the beasts, saving the west turret. He earns General Shao’s praise. Implicitly at least, William values trust, or at least being trustworthy; he does not have to fight the beasts. Opposing Ballard and Tovar, William decides to stay and help the Chinese army rather than escape. The former thief, murderer and liar has a character arc—he is changing—and yet Lin Mae does not trust him. Such trust only comes when he takes part in the final battle, literally saving her.

I contend that The Great Wall (2016) could have played more with the issue of trust by teasing out problems with Lin Mae’s claim that a person must trust in order to be trusted by others. The film does not reconcile this claim with Ballard trusting William by letting him go even though he did not at the time trust. Furthermore, the film could have critiqued Lin Mae’s claim that the people in the army trust each other. In such a hierarchical organization wherein giving and receiving orders are the standard protocol, does trust go beyond mere self-preservation? Lastly, does the difficulty that Lin Mae and others in the army have in trusting William mean that the army cannot be trusted? If people in the army only trust each other, which is relatively easy, can they really be considered to be trustworthy? In short, film need not be so superficial concerning a basic principle underlying the protagonist’s flaw. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Virtual Reality: Not Coming to a Theatre Near You

Virtual reality may be coming your way, and when it hits, it could hit big—as if all at once. The explosion of computers and cell phones provides two precedents. “Technologists say virtual reality could be the next computing platform, revolutionizing the way we play games, work and even socialize.”[1] Anticipating virtual reality as the next computing platform does not do the technology justice. I submit that it could revolutionize “motion pictures.” Even though the impact on screenwriting and filmmaking would be significant, I have in mind here the experience of the viewer.

Whereas augmented reality puts “digital objects on images of the real world,” virtual reality “cuts out the real world entirely.”[2] As a medium for viewing “films”—film itself already being nearly antiquated by 2017—virtual reality could thus cut out everything but a film’s story-world. The suspension of disbelief could be strengthened accordingly. The resulting immersion could dwarf that which is possible in a movie theatre. Already as applied to playing video games, “such full immersion can be so intense that users experience motion sickness or fear of falling.”[3] Imagine being virtually in a room in which a man is raping a woman, or a tiger is ready to pounce—or eating its prey, which happens to be a human whom you’ve virtually watched grow up. The possible physiological impacts on a viewer immersed in stressful content would present producers with ethical questions concerning how far it is reasonable to go—with the matter of legal liability not far behind, or in front. Watching, or better, participating in a film such as Jurassic Park could risk a heart attack.

On the bright side, the craft of light and storytelling made virtual could enable such amazing experiences that simply cannot be experienced without virtual reality being applied to film. To be immersed on Pandora in a nighttime scene of Avatar, for example, would relegate even the experience of 3-D in a theatre. The mind would not need to block out perspectivally all but the large rectangle at a distance in front. In short, the experience of watching a film would be transformed such that what we know as going to a movie would appear prehistoric—like travelling by horse to someone who drives a sports car.



1. Cat Zakrzewski, “Virtual Reality Comes With a Hitch: Real Reality,” The Wall Street Journal, February 24, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Founder

Tension between the founder of a business and the managers that eventually assume control is perhaps unavoidable. Such tension can be cut with a knife in the film, The Founder (2016), which tells the story of how McDonalds went from Dick and Mac McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, California to a nationwide corporation headed by Ray Kroc. From an ethical standpoint, I submit that both the McDonald brothers and Kroc come out as less than salubrious.
With regard to Dick McDonald, his incessant “no-saying” to Kroc’s suggestions for improvements and expansion left Kroc in a strangle-hold of sorts. This is most evident when Dick held to the 1.5% going to Kroc in spite of the fact that Ray could not cover his costs. Excessive inflexibility in a contract puts it under severe stress, and few people would blame Kroc for turning to the real estate under the franchised stores for not only needed funds, but also some control. In short, the McDonalds brothers should have renegotiated the contract at Kroc’s request.
By implication, a political leader who clutches at control at the expense of permitting even adjustment in public policy or the governmental system itself to take account of a changing society unknowingly risks losing the control so ardently desired. Even continued refusals to work with other political parties in a legislature can spell defeat at the next election for the party in power. Like gel being squeezed in a hand, the stuff will slip through the fingers if the pressure is too much.
With regard to Ray Kroc, his refusal to act on his oral promise that the McDonalds corporation would pay the brothers a royalty of 1% in perpetuity is unethical. So too is his insistence that the McDonalds name be removed from the brothers’ original McDonalds restaurant. The brothers wanted to retain that particular restaurant so they could give it to their employees. The McDonalds corporation would have had control of that location, so I suspect Kroc’s motive was to be rid of the brothers, given the tension in the relationship when Kroc was under their control. Again we see that the brothers’ tight grip on control, against virtually any changes in the restaurants, worked against even the brothers’ own interests, which included being able to retain their own name in the restaurant they managed in San Bernardino. In short, it pays to work with people in such a way that there is some give and take, even and I would say especially if a contract gives someone the right to rigidly maintain total control.  Smallness has a way of losing, eventually.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Passengers

Augustine wrote that Christians are ideally in the world but not of it. The fallen world is not the Christian’s true home. For the 5000 (plus crew) prospective colonists hibernating aboard a mammoth spaceship in the film, Passengers (2016), the planet Earth was presumably not their true home—or maybe that home was becoming climatically rather untenable and the 5000 were lucky souls heading for a new, unspoiled home. In any event, the film’s central paradigm can be characterized as “travel to” and “end-point.” That is to say, means and end characterize this picture at a basic level. The film is particularly interesting at this level in that so much value is found to reside in the means even as the end is still held out as being of great value.
For Aurora Lane, intentionally woken by Jim Preston with 89 more years to go on the trip, Earth had not been home in the sense that home is where love has been found. For her, home was mobile—moving through space at half light-speed—for she found love with Jim in spite of the fact that he had deprived her of living to see the end-point, the colony-planet. In refusing Jim’s new-found way of putting her back to sleep so she could wake again just four months before the end of the voyage, Aurora must have realized that she had found her home with Jim traveling through space. With plentiful food and drink, and no need even of money, Aurora and Jim faced a downside only in the possibility of encroaching loneliness. Headless waiters and a bottomless bartender—all robots—could not be said to give rise to any viable sense of community.

It is strange, therefore, that 89 years later, at the end of the voyage, the awakened crew and passengers do not encounter any offspring having been made out of Jim and Aurora’s love. The couple having realized that they would not live to see the new world, would they not have naturally wanted to have children who would have a chance of seeing the prospective paradise? It seems to me that the screenwriter did not think out the consequences of the couple’s decision far enough in this respect. The awakened passengers and crew should have come upon both trees and the grown children whose entire life had been in space.

In spite of having only each other, perhaps Aurora and Jim relish the peace that can be so compromised in a community (imaging having an apartment complex all to yourself!) and the freedom from the insecurity of want—two assets that could only be found during the journey. The spectacular views of space are also worthy (although it is difficult even to imagine a ship of such material that could withstand such a close pass to a sun). Yet, even so, how difficult it is for us—the audience—to understand why Aurora and Jim could possibly come to prefer a life spent entirely en route, on transportation. We are so used to being goal-oriented, teleological beings that we miss the sheer possibility that the journey itself might constitute a full life worth living.

Abstractly stated, we are so used to relegating means to an end as long at the end is viable that we have great trouble enjoying the means apart from the end. As long as the end stands a chance of being realizable, we cannot ignore it and thus fully rest content along the way.

The ability to reason about means and ends is a virtue.[1] Interestingly, virtuous actions “may be pursued ‘instrumentally’ but must be done ‘for their own sake.’ . . . They must be ends in themselves. . . . Actions truly expressive of the virtues are actions in which the means are prized at least as much as the extrinsic ends to which they are directed. . . . The telos, the best life for human beings to live, is an inclusive end constituted in large part by virtuous activity.”[2] In other words, virtues are both means and ends. A person should value acting virtuously for itself, rather than merely as a means to an end. While not a virtue-ethics guy, Kant uses this characterization in Critique of Practical Reason to claim that human beings should be valued as ends in themselves, rather than merely as means to other ends (e.g., manipulated). Can a boss ever push his use of his subordinates for his own ends sufficiently out of his mind to value those people as ends in themselves—as having inherent value?

The space voyage in the film is shown at first as only a means to a distinctly different end, the colony. Yet by the story’s end, the spaceship comes to be an end in itself too. Due to the length of the trip and the appreciably shorter human lifespan, Jim and Aurora find value in the means not as a means, but only as an end in itself.  Yet as human beings, could they ever come to disconnecting the spaceship from awareness of its end? Could Jim and Aurora ever feel a sense of ease on board without the sense that they have lost or given up the spaceship as a means? For the remainder of their lives, the colony is ahead of them. Is it even possible that two human beings could become oblivious to this fact?

Here on Earth, the Christmas season is so oriented to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that it is scarcely imaginable that the festive atmosphere during the first three weeks of December could be chosen over Christmas itself. I suspect that more adults like Aurora and Jim, being without family, would prefer the season over the holiday itself—even opting out of it. Yet can a person come to enjoy a Christmas show or attend a Christmas party without having in mind the “not yetness” and the “betterness” of Christmas itself? What if the experience with friends at the Christmas Party two weeks before the actual holiday is better than the saccharine day itself? Can the experience ever hope to get its due regard and esteem for its own sake even as it is regarded as a means?




1. Joseph J. Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996): 24.
2. Ibid., p. 25.