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?

Greeting as a Look Into the Soul

Do you pay attention to how strangers greet you? Whether they say, “Hi”, “Good morning” or nothing at all? If you do, you are likely to recognize that the one or two little words – or no words at all – people use in greeting you provides you with tremendous information about the person. It tells you what kind of person he or she is. What does he value? What’s his purpose in life? What does he think about his fellow species members? It gives you an insight into the soul of the person.

Think about it: children often greet you with a happy, “Hi”, when they pass you by, thereby showing that they haven’t been socially conditioned (yet) to speak with two words. Children just greet you in the manner they feel like greeting you: pure enthusiasm captured in often not more than a single word. You will also recognize that children will often be the ones initiating the greeting produce. They will say, “Hi”, first. They are not afraid of being invasive or in any other way disturbing another person’s “privacy”.

Now take a look at an elder person. The ones of 65+. These persons will hardly ever initiate the greeting process. And if you say, “Hi”, they will be suspicious and think you want something from them. Often they look at you slightly angry, awaiting the, “Can I have 10 dollars, please?”- question. They have built a shield in order to protect them from the sorrows and needs of others. “Just” greeting someone is out the question. There’s always a Marxian motive behind every greet. Power structures are dominating the social atmosphere.

What about the 20-35 year old category? These people are often so caught up in their own motives, goals and targets that they pretend to have no time for greeting. Moving in a firm walk, secretly hoping that they will encounter as few people as possible on their path. And the ones that want to greet them with a nod or a, “Good day”, have to be very quick. Otherwise the train of “making money” and ambition has passed you by.

People between 35-55 are slightly better. These people have come to realize that they are not alone on this world and that their lives don’t turn about money only. They absorb the world around them, slowing their walking pace and being receptive to the greeting gestures of others. Often a well-meant, “Hello”, can be heard when they are greeted.

But besides the distinction between greeters and non-greeters, the group of greeters itself can be divided again into many subcategories. Factors to look at in the greeting process are tonality, lexicon usage and facial expressions. If you do this, you are able to unravel a big part of a person’s personality in less than a second.

An example: you are walking your “morning walk” through the neighborhood you’re living. You are about to pass by a guy your age (early twenties) on the sidewalk. When the distance between the two of you has passed the “three meter-point”, you utter an enthusiastic, “Hi”, with a well-intended little smile and a nod. The person responds with an, “A good morning to you”, also with a smile and a nod. From this you can infer that he is a social person, who finds being nice to his species member important. Also, he is likely to be a Christian or in any way conditioned by a religion having taught him to greet others in a formal and decent matter. Why else would you say “A good morning to you” to someone in his early twenties? The person probably has not many friends, but the friends he has are good ones who consider him to be a trustworthy person. The person probably votes for a social party and finds his family more important than his career.

Another example: you meet a student – in his early twenties – in the center of town. You again nod and say, “Hi”, and await his response. You get a firm nod, no smile, and a split-second of eye contact. This person probably doesn’t have much faith in people being essentially good. Although he doesn’t really want to great you, but he finds it potentially dangerous not to do so, so he nods. He probably has a broad social circle, but few true friends. The person is likely to vote liberal and is planning to make a lot of money in – preferably – the banking sector.

You find this analysis of mine far-fetched? Maybe it is. But I believe that when you’ll perform this analysis for yourself, you are likely to reach the same conclusions as me.

But what do you think?

How to Interpret the Notion of Chance?

We all think we’re familiar with the notion of ‘chance‘. But are we really? And if so, what are the consequences we should attach to our interpretation of chance? For instance, are chances purely descriptive in nature – in the sense that they refer only to past events – or do they have a predictive power that might be based upon some kind of underlying ‘natural’ force producing the structured data? And why would it even matter how to interpret chance? Let’s take a look behind the curtains of a probabilistic interpretation of chance, right into its philosophical dimensions.

On average, 12,3 per 100.000 inhabitants of the USA get killed in a traffic accident. Also, 45 percent of Canadian men are expected to develop some form of cancer at some point in their lives. So, what do you think about these data? First of all: does the fact that 12.3 out of 100.000 inhabits get killed in traffic tell you anything about the likelihood that you are going to be killed in traffic? I guess not. It is merely a descriptive notion invented to condense a large amount of data into an easy to read figure. It says nothing about your future, or anyone’s future for that matter. After all: you will either die in traffic or you will not, and you will either get cancer or you will not. At this point in your life you are absolutely clueless which way it will turn out to be. For all you know, it might be a 50-50 kind of situation.

Although this interpretation of chance might feel counter-intuitive, it seems a more reasonable position to take than believing you are expected to die in traffic with a probability of 12,3/100.000. You are after all a unique person and you don’t have 100.000 ways to go. You either go one way, or the other. It is only by adding huge amounts of data together that scientists can come to compressed figures (like chances), thereby describing what has happened in the past. But description does not equal prediction, and totality does not equal uniqueness.

What are the implications of this manner of looking at chance for our interpretation of science? What about the inferences scientists make based upon data, like the one about cancer I mentioned above? Are they making unjustified claims by posing that 45 percent of men are expected to die of cancer? I believe this might indeed be the case. In case scientists want to be fully justified in getting at their conclusions, they should do away with any claims regarding the likelihood of any event happening in the future. That seems to be the only manner for staying true for 100 percent to the data available.

But watch it: this is not to say that the scientific enterprise has lost its value. Science can still be the vehicle best-suited for gathering huge amounts of data about the world, and for presenting these data in such a way that we are able to get a decent glimpse of what is going on in the world around us. And that is where – I believe – the value of science resides: in the provision of data in an easy to understand manner. Not in the making of predictions, or inferences of any kind, as many scientists might happen to believe: just the presentation of data, a job which is difficult enough in itself.

You could say that I am not justified in make this claim. You could back up your argument by saying that a difference should be made between the case of ’45 percent of men are expected to get some form of cancer’ and ‘one specific man has a 45 percent chance of getting cancer’. Where the latter might be untrue, because of the fact that one will either get cancer or not, the former might be more justified. That is because it divides a group into units that will either get cancer or not. However, although this might be true to a certain extent, it still seems to be an unjustified manner to make predictions about the way the world will turn out to be. After all, considering 100 men to be the unit of selection is only to replace the level of the individual with the level of a group. On an even higher level of abstraction, one could consider the 100 men to be one unit, which subsequently would make the conclusions reached unjustified again.

Also, when choosing to make predictions on the level of the group, why does one choose the higher- instead instead of the lower level? Why wouldn’t it be okay to say that, instead of human beings, cells are the true units that either get cancer or not? That’s only a difference in the level of analysis, right?

So, next time you read somewhere that 99 of the 100 people fail in achieving something, interpret this for what it is: a description of what has happened in the past that can inform you in making the decision about what you should do right now. So don’t interpret this as meaning that you only have a one percent chance of being able to achieve a certain goal, because that would be a totally unjustified inference to make: an inference that goes way beyond what the data can support. And don’t consider a scientific fact to be a prediction about the future. Consider it for what it is: a useful description of the past, but no legitimate claim about the future.

But what do you think?