Films That Make You Go Hmm

I think therefore I am. Cogito ergo sum. The most famous phrase in philosophy, and one of the most famous sentences in all of thought. But what does it have to do with cinema?

A glowing lantern in the tide.
Lantern in Water | Films That Make You Go Hmm | Philosophy of Film

For as long as it’s been possible to record movement with light, humans have been using film to record and evaluate our experiences. To get philosophical. Where there is film, there is something trying to be conveyed. Where there is something trying to be conveyed, there is meaning. In this way, film is essentially visual philosophy, and for the past century it has been used to visualise those most philosophical of things: thought experiments.

What now? ‘Thought experiments‘? What on earth are they?

Thought experiments are a tool used by philosophers to test the logical implications of their argument. Just like a chemist will create a scientific theory and rigorously test it in a laboratory to prove its truth, a philosopher will create a philosophical theory and rigorously test it in a thought experiment to prove that the logic of it is sound.

An example of one such thought experiment is Theseus’ Ship, which is used to highlight the problem of personal continuity over time. It goes as follows:

There is a ship owned by a great Roman warrior that has been sailing for decades. Over time, each piece of the ship has been replaced: every single wooden plank making its decks, and all the ropes used with its masts and sails – eventually no item that comes to make the ship is original. To anyone's eye, it is the same ship, and when anyone talks about Theseus’ ship they are referring the ship in question, but is it the same ship?

The Theseus’ Ship thought experiment shows that what constitutes personal continuity through time is often subjective and a matter of degree: argue too extreme for no changes and your argument quickly falls apart under scrutiny, but argue for many changes and your argument also suffers the same fate. For example:

1. If you argue that only the original ship, as it was made in the warehouse, constitutes Theseus’ Ship then what about if the ship was slightly chipped on its launch from the dry dock? The ship has been changed, however slightly, by having a splinter of its hull knocked off and is no longer exactly the same as when it was made in the warehouse. It therefore fails to meet your standard for what constitutes being Theseus’ Ship and cannot be referred to as such – this seems absurd.

2. If you argue that the ship can be called Theseus' Ship so long as it is still recognised as Theseus’ Ship, then what if the ship were to still be around in 1000 years? By this point every single part would have been replaced and nothing about it will have come from that original warehouse, yet it is still determined to be the same ship – this also seems absurd.

As you can see from Theseus’ Ship, a thought experiment is a metaphorical embodiment of the logic of a philosopher’s argument and is used to prove that argument. If the philosopher’s argument is sound, the thought experiment will necessarily lead you to accept that argument’s conclusion. Whereas if their argument is not sound, the thought experiment will quickly highlight flaws in its logic.

It is precisely because thought experiments straddle the knife edge of whether an argument fails or succeeds, they have become the source of inspiration for so many films. As demonstrated in a previous post – Sympathy: Under A Story’s Spell – films are used to convey the beliefs of a creator on a particular subject. The Death of Stalin concludes that excess power leads to one’s downfall; Chinatown shatters the optimistic belief that all problems are solvable so long as you just keep going; and The Emperor's New Groove shows that the richest man is still the poorest without friends and family. Hence, because films are used to argue the beliefs on a particular subject by their creators, and thought experiments are designed to prove the logic of one’s arguments, filmed thought experiments have become an ideal way for creators to prove the logic of their ideas.

Indeed, examples of thought experiments having been turned into films are not hard to come by:

  1. The Matrix – The ultimate ‘thought experiment movie’ which takes Cartesian ideas of the Ghost in the Machine and the untrustworthiness of our senses in order to give a profound message on the reality of human experience.

  2. Arrival – Uses Wittgenstein’s thoughts on how language can shape the way we perceive the world to suggest our use of language is also tied to how we perceive time. The film argues that, if we communicated in non-time dependent concepts, we then might not perceive time as linear at all.

  3. Inside Out – Whilst this film purposefully tackles the problem of teenage depression, it accidentally becomes, like The Matrix, a Ghost in the Machine film because of the idea that the mind is separate from the body and controls it like a robot.

Whilst these are just three examples of films showing thought experiments, and the film creator’s adopting the logic of thought experiments to prove their own theories, these films help demonstrate that movies are constantly pulling ideas from philosophy into their own narratives.

But it’s not just films that deliberately borrow ideas from established philosophical thought experiments which can be said to deploy them in their narratives. The use of thought experiments goes much further to the point where we can even go as far as to suggest that every film is a thought experiment, and, by extension, its own philosophy.

If we go back to the creation and purpose of philosophical thought experiments, I suggested a thought experiment was "a metaphorical embodiment of the logic of a philosopher’s argument that is used to prove that argument”. This very point is the key to how every film can be said to be its own thought experiment.

Just like the creation of a new thought experiment involves a philosopher creating a theory and using a metaphor by means of a thought experiment to show the logic of that theory, the creator of a film has a belief about the nature of the world and uses the film’s story to show the logic of that belief.

If we take the example film of The Emperor’s New Groove, the creator will have held the belief about the world that increased wealth doesn’t equate to increased happiness. They will have then used the story’s narrative to prove the logic of this belief:

At the beginning of the story, the protagonist Kuzco is a wealthy child emperor with enough money to buy everything he could possibly wish for. Everything, that is, except friends – he’s bitterly lonely. During the story, he loses his wealth and his image (as he gets turned into a llama by a curse) and finally learns the true value of friendship when he befriends a local peasant – someone he previously saw as below him. Hence, by the end of his ordeal, Kuzco learns that no amount of wealth is worth more than a single friendship and vows to become a better person.

As we can see, the narrative of The Emperor’s New Groove is a metaphor for its creator’s belief that increased wealth doesn’t equate to increased happiness, and it forces you to accept the logic of this belief. And, in exactly the same way, every film will attempt to do the same thing: having its story’s narrative attempting to create a sound metaphor to back up its creator’s belief about the world.

Hence every film, indeed every story, is a way for a creator to impart to, and then prove to, the audience their theory on the way the world is. The creation and purpose of a film in relation to the film creator’s argument is exactly the same as the creation and purpose of a thought experiment in relation to the philosopher’s argument. Therefore, if a thought experiment is used to prove a philosopher’s philosophy, and a thought experiment is to a philosopher what a film is to a filmmaker, then a film is used to prove a film maker’s philosophy.

Film is inseparable from philosophy because it is philosophy. A different kind. A visceral kind. A visual kind. Whereas the works of the known philosophers have relied on metaphor and logic to impart their wisdom, the philosophy created through cinema has a third trick up its sleeve: emotion. It’s what makes it visceral. It's what makes it powerful.

Film, indeed art in general, is just philosophy donning an emotional guise.

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