I used to love philosophy, in all its forms, but slowly got away from the habit of reading and thinking about it when I left University (where I studied it for a couple of years). Last year, I decided to dip my toes back, and searched around for simple primer to reintroduce myself with some core concepts, and see if my interest still held. The Philosopher At The End Of The Universe seemed an entertaining way to do so. Basically, philosophical concepts can be found at the core of many science fiction movies of the modern age, both big dumb movies, and notably more intelligent ones. Mark Rowlands finds some of those movies, and uses them as the basis to discuss the basic premises of philosophy. If you’re worried about why you should bother being moral, whether you have free will or not, or what reality actually is when it comes right down to it, then you might well have already studied some of the arguments in your local cinema.
Strange idea? Truly, but it works. Here’s what’s covered.
The Nature of Reality from The Matrix – What better film to guide you through ideas of what is and is not real, given that the premise was invented by Descartes tears ago.
Good and Evil from Star Wars – Is there such a thing as good and evil, or is it all a matter of perspective. In which Vader stands in for both Napoleon and Osama.
Morality from Aliens, Independence Day, Hollow Man, and The Lord Of The Rings – Why be moral? And what is morality? Don’t bad people think they’re also moral, from their own point of view? And is there an absolute morality that can be identified across cultures, which everybody recognises? These four films lay out the arguments for and against, with help from orcs and face huggers (neither of whom think they’re all that bad, when it comes down to it).
Personal Identity from Total Recall and Sixth Day – In which the intellectual giant that is Arnold Schwarzenegger argues the nature of identity. With guns.
The Mind-Body dilemma from Terminator – More from the powerhouse intellect of Schwarzenegger. What is your mind? Just your fleshy brain, or something more? If the latter, where the hell do you keep it, and how does it work? With guns and time travel, thankfully.
Free Will from Minority Report – Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg combine their skills to argue the toss over whether your choices are the result of free will, or whether that’s all an illusion and you have no choices at all.
Death and the Meaning of Life from Blade Runner – Four replicants fight for the right to live past their fourth birthday. Why? What difference will it make to them if they die? What’s so bloody great about life anyway?
Where the book succeeds is in giving a framework for these arguments (popular films) that a newcomer can get their head around, and which doesn’t involve naked old men in baths shouting Eureka. It covers all of the most important areas in modern philosophy with accessible wit (not ignoring the history of the arguments), and really did get me fired up about them again. If the book has a flaw, it is that Rowlands pushes his favourite theories to the fore, often causing readers to believe that counterarguments are incorrect simply because he says so, rather than properly pushing them to explore the various ideas further. On the other hand when the leading philosopher batting for your team is big Arnie, you might be tempted to use him to encourage your opponents to see things your way.
A good, accessible start to philosophy, that might cover everything you ever want to know, or might make you go that little bit further. After all, when your mind is engaged, itâ€™s hard to turn it off. I’ll definitely be pursuing some further reading from here.
(PS – proper update coming soon, just catching you up with what I’ve read since New Year)