Playing existential detective

I finally got around to seeing I ♥ Huckabees. It was mostly just kind of silly, with a few good moments (my favorite is noted below). But it was a reminder of the kind of thoughts and concerns that students bring to philosophy classes that we mainstream teachers of philosophy don’t address so much.

There are probably two of these that are the most central and straightforward in the movie; the first we essentially ignore, and the second we talk about only in a roundabout way.

The first is the search for meaning in coincidence, and more generally the idea that we might find purpose and unifying meaning behind the events of our human lives. Few mainstream philosophers seem to take seriously at all the idea that the apparently contingent events of our ordinary lives — like who we fall in love with, what opportunities for action we face, and the like — are the way they are because some cosmic force is enforcing a fate or purpose on our lives. Even the religiously inclined (a small minority) don’t tend to assign to God such a role (for understandable reasons that I’ll talk about some other time). And for me (and, I think, many others) the idea of anything like fate is one of those ideas that just seems crazy, and the less said about it the better. (OK, I say a little about “fatalism” in order to contrast it with determinism in teaching the free will problem; but even there it’s used as a kind of wacky possibility used to map the terrain rather than a real possibility that somebody might actually believe.)

But like the characters in Huckabees, I think many students come in not only tempted by or even believing such a view, but also inclined to think that such a view is exactly the sort of thing that a “philosophical” view would provide them with or make sense of.

The second is the idea of seeing the “real” or “deep” nature of “reality” or “the universe” as opposed to seeing just the “surface” that we normally focus on. In Huckabees, the views that compete as candidates for the “real” view of “deep reality” are, on the one hand, a suggestion that everything is a connected and unified whole, and so there are no “real” divisions between me, you, chairs, and cheese balls; and on the other, the view that there is no unity at all, so that everything — including our selves — is a cloud of chaos, and no “human-level” descriptions “really” apply to anything. Roughly, it’s holism vs. nihilism.

Of course, standard intro-level philosophy will typically cover appearance ‘n reality issues, but overwhelmingly it’s in the guise of talking about skepticism and the possibility of having any knowledge at all. And it seems the concerns that students bring are often less that we can’t have any knowledge, but rather that we can have some real “deep” knowledge, but our ordinary “real world” apparent knowledge both (a) isn’t such at thing, and (b) is really somehow mistaken in some way, especially when we see it in contrast to the “real” and “deep” knowledge we “might” somehow get. In the end, I’m not sure we (or I, anyway) very directly address that inclination (perhaps because it seems to rely on some kind of “magical” thinking).

I also think both of those inclinations contribute to a real resistance to their taking anti-skeptical arguments (like some version of transcendental argument) very seriously. After all, if you hold onto the “true, deep, real knowledge” as contrasted with the knowledge of reality, skepticism seems almost trivially true.

Anyway, it also seems that the two themes in the movie (looking for underlying fate or purpose behind life, and looking for the “hidden real structure” of the world) share (not necessarily, but in practice) a suggestion that finding these hidden aspects of the world not only sheds light on existence, but that they in some way invalidate or conflict with the facts of ordinary human experience. But even if these were legitimate in themselves, why should they invalidate the other? Is it just the “call of The One” — the idea that there should be one fundamental set of truths about the world? And if not, then what is it?

OK, enough. I’ll end with my favorite bit in the movie: Jason Schwartzman and “Marky Mark” Wahlberg are smacking each other in the face with a big inflatable ball, and noticing that for a second, it silences the reflective anxiety and brings you to a pure and unreflective awareness. Marky Mark says “So we just need to do the ball thing all the time.” The “existential” mentor says “Don’t call it ‘the ball thing’; call it ‘pure being’.”

I think I’m gonna call it “the ball thing” from now on.

01. January 2006 by Ron
Categories: movies-n-tv, philosophy | 1 comment

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