Mr. Nobody: A True Philosophical Journey

mr_nobodyI have just seen the movie ‘Mr. Nobody’, and I recommend anyone who is interested in philosophy to go see this movie. It’s by far the most philosophical and mind-boggling movie I have ever seen. The movie shows, among other things, the lack of control we have over the course of our lives. Each and every moment in life you make decisions that make you go one way or another, and this string of decisions is – in fact – what we call our lives. The movie also portrays a rather deterministic view on life. The butterfly effect, as explicated in the movie, is the prime example of this; even the smallest change in the course of history can make our lives turn out completely different from what it would have been without the change.

Each movie can be interpreted in multiple ways, and that surely goes for Mr. Nobody. Nonetheless, I believe that from a philosophical point of view there is at least one issue that is very prominent, and that is the struggle between free will on the one hand and determinism on the other.

What will follow might be hard to grasp for those who have not seen the movie yet. Therefore I assume that, by this point, you have seen the movie. At first sight, Mr. Nobody is all about choices. That is: what will happen in Nemo’s life given that he has made a certain choice (e.g., to either jump on the train or not). The fact that there is this possibility of at least two different worlds Nemo could live in (i.e., the one with his mother and the one with his father) seems to imply that Nemo had (in retrospect) the possibility of choosing either of the options. And it is this element of what seems to be some form of autonomy (the ‘free will’ element) that returns frequently in the movie. Another instance of it can be found in his meeting with Elise on her doorstep. In one ‘life’ Nemo expresses his feelings for Elise, after which they get married and get children. In another life, Nemo does not express his feelings, and his potential future with Elise never occurs.

However, the true question I asked myself after watching this movie was: does Nemo in fact have the possibility to choose? Or are his ‘choices’ predetermined by whatever it is that occurs in his environment? An instance of the latter could be found in Nemo loosing Anna’s number because the paper he wrote her number on becomes wet (and therefore unreadable). In other words, these circumstances seem to force (or at least push) Nemo in the direction of a life without Anna; a circumstance that ultimately results from an unemployed Brazilian boiling an egg, which is another instance of the butterfly effect. So although it might appear that Nemo has the opportunity to make choices, it might in fact be that ‘the world’ (as in the environment he is living in) has already made this choice for him.

The struggle between the apparent existence of free will and the ‘true’ deterministic nature of the world is just one among many philosophical issues raised by this movie. Another is that of the arrow of time: the fact that we cannot alter the past but can influence the future. It is this aspect of time (the fact that it moves in one direction only) that makes the free will versus determinism issue so difficult (if not impossible) to resolve. After all, if we could simply go back in time, and see whether we would have behaved in the same manner, irrespective of the non-occurrence of any circumstances, we might get a much better feel on the nature of free will. After all, if we would happen to act more or less the same, irrespective of the circumstances we would be put into, we would appear to have something resembling free-will. If not, determinism might be the more realistic option.

Nonetheless, this is a very interesting movie whom those interested in philosophy will surely enjoy. And to those who have seen it I ask: what did you think of it?

Time and its Prerequisite to Exist

“What time is it? It is 7:15 P.M. Hhm…then I’ve still got time to write another article. But after that; what am I going to do then? How am I going “to kill” that time? Well, I would probably watch another episode of Californication and grab a bite or something. But let’s not think about that for now; let’s stay in the present. Let’s put time on a hold, shall we?

Too bad that isn’t possible. There’s no switch around, allowing us to turn of “the production process called time”. But what exactly is time? It is intangible but omnipresent; it is always moving forward and it is limited. It is unity and difference at the same time. It is the most valuable good we have. Everything we do depends on it. Time is the creator of value and the destructor of lives. Time can cure aids or let it continue unsolved. Time is us, we are time.

But, besides the philosophical picture of time, how do we “use” time in our daily lives? As a planning device, right? We use it to create order in this mess we’re living in. Imagine that we wouldn’t have our notion of time; our notion of standing up at 7:10 A.M., taking a shower, start working at 8:45 and wander around until – let’s say – 10:30 P.M when it’s time to go to bed and start the whole cycle of time all over again. Without time we wouldn’t know when to take our children to the crèche; cook dinner or attend at a birthday party. Without time we would be trees or clocks. Although the latter seems to have a pretty good sense of time, or doesn’t it?

But who’s in control? Are we in control of time, or does time control us? We think we know what time is which makes us base our entire lives upon it. “Our” time is a human construct; it’s created by us to make sure everyone gets on the train “on time”. But this is merely a superficial reflection of Time with a capital “t”; Time as the flow of life and death; as the creative power of this earth. Without this notion of Time there wouldn’t be anything. The only things that could “be” are snapshots; frames in time. But there would be no-one to experience these frames, because experiencing takes time. There wouldn’t even be things; because for something “to be” it needs to exist in time. Without time there would be nothing; and not even that. We could chop up time in pieces and glue them together, but that wouldn’t make something exist. “You can’t step in the same river twice”, Heraclitus said, because time is always present, making the river change continuously. However, without time, there wouldn’t even be something to be called a river; not by us – because we cannot exist outside of time – but neither by the world itself, because without time there wouldn’t be “things” to divide the world into; without time there wouldn’t be a difference between a river and its water. Both are one without time. It is only within time that these “things” become what they are. It is only in time that nature shows its true colors.

Time makes us who we are but continuously changes this “us” at the same time. The “I” that exists now thinks differently than the “I” that started this sentence. The “I” that reflects upon the previous sentence thinks that this article might be getting a little too philosophical. But luckily for you, I see it’s time to go.

What do you think?

Why Are there Only Men and Women?

Have you ever heard of the New Mexico whiptail? Probably not. Well, the New Mexico whiptail is the only animal species – that I know – whose members all have the same gender: all New Mexico whiptails are female. There is no need for mating with male New Mexico whiptails in order for the females to lay eggs, which is a good thing since there are no male New Mexico whiptails. This made me wonder: why are there so few species having only one gender? Why do we human beings, and so many other animals, need two ‘versions’ of our species in order to prevent ourselves from extinction? Why not three or four? Is this number utterly random? Or might there be some reason behind it?

Before thinking about this question, I saw absolutely no reason for there to be this dichotomy of men and women ruling the animal kingdom. I always thought to myself, ‘Why can’t there just be one “type” of human – which we could then simply call “human” – that, just like the whiptails, gives birth every now and then, without requiring any “intervention” of a different sex? What would be wrong with that?’

Maybe it’s inadequate to ask whether it is ‘right or wrong’ for there to be both men and women. Nature, after all, doesn’t seem to care much about being morally right or wrong. Why else would it give AIDS to babies, who have done absolutely no harm to this world of ours? It is more likely that – assuming there is a reason explanation – there is a biological explanation for there the widespread division between men and women.

So let’s see: what could be nature’s ‘purpose’ in making two types of human? How could that ever be beneficial for so many animal species – including our own? Well, the distinction could be nothing more than a very fundamental evolutionary developed instance of Adam Smith‘s idea of division of labor. A division that appeared to be working so well that nature extinguished almost all species not conforming to this division. However, for this evolutionary explanation to be true, it would have to be the case that men and women together should be able to achieve more than only men or only women could ever do. Let’s take a look at that.

One could claim that a division of labor in which the woman carries the baby and the man gathers food (for the woman, the baby and himself) could benefit the reproduction chances of both the woman and the man. Because think about it: chasing swine while being pregnant does not seem to be very convenient. In this case, having the woman at home – safely warming herself at the fire – and having the man out hunting – not having to worry about endangering the life of his unborn child – could be a set-up benefiting both parties.

Another explanation could be that the existence of both men and women provides both parties with some sort of purpose in life: the purpose to form little groups, called ‘families’, thereby creating structure into – what otherwise might have been – chaos in the animal kingdom, or an utterly meaningless life; a structure that would make every creature better of. Because, again, think about it: what would the world be like in case there was only one type of purposeless creature wandering around? Wouldn’t that lead to an utterly unstructured and – therefore – unsafe environment? The families that provide the confines in which each one of us can life relatively safe have fallen away.

If that would indeed be the case, it might have been evolutionary beneficial for our species to ‘develop’ the distinction between men and women; simply in order to program the species members with a goal: to create that save little world they can call ‘my family’.

However, none of these explanations explains why there are only two sexes; maybe humanity would be even more organized – and even better off – if there were three, four or even more sexes. So why only two? Well, maybe nature ‘decided’ to go for only two because creating more than two might have complicated things a little too much. Now it’s at least clear what everyone has got to do: find a man or a woman, make a family, and live happily ever after.

But what do you think?