Mar 5 2012 5:00pm

Understanding Hegel with Philip K. Dick on the Thirteenth Floor

Critics and academics often employ theories and philosophers in order to help them understand and dissect movies and books. If you’ve ever picked up a copy of an academic journal like Jump Cut what you undoubtedly found were essays written about movies like The Social Network or Avatar that approached these flicks as if these were deep mysteries that required the use of theories to unravel. I think the exact opposite is true. While I’m interested in philosophy, I find all the different theories out there somewhat difficult to get a firm grip on. Movies and novels, on the other hand, are easy to understand. So what I like to do is use pop cultural ephemera of all kinds as tools to help me try to understand philosophy. For example, I recently reread Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Electric Ant” and watched the movie The Thirteenth Floor with the hope that these could help me understand Hegel’s Introduction to his Phenomenology of Spirit.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Take this quote from Hegel’s introduction:

If now our inquiry deals with the truth of knowledge, it appears that we are inquiring what knowledge is in itself. But in this inquiry knowledge is our object, it is for us; and the essential nature of knowledge, were this to come to light, would be rather its being for us: what we should assert to be its essence would rather be, not the truth of knowledge, but only our knowledge of it.

I could never get to the bottom of that statement without help from Philip K. Dick, but when I turn to the Electric Ant Hegel starts to make some sense.

Consider this: in PKD’s story an android comes to know that he is not a real boy and attempts to free himself from his programming. He consults his computer and asks for instructions on tracking down the control mechanism inside him and the computer instructs him to open his chest and look for a punch card reader located above his artificial heart. The computer tells the robot:

This is BBB-307DR recontacting you in response to your query. The punch tape roll above your heart mechanism is not a programming turret, but is in fact a reality supply construct.

And so the protagonist in PKD’s story is able to look at what it is that gives him reality or knowing, and he’s devastated by this because he realizes that everything he thinks he sees is really an image stored on a punch card.

Hegel says that when we take our knowledge as an object we end up discovering not the truth about knowledge, but rather that truth is unreachable. He’s saying that even our own knowledge of our knowledge is unknowable, and this claim can start to make sense when you consider Dick’s robot.

"[The robot] thought, ‘If I control that, I control reality. My subjective reality…but that’s all there is. Objective reality is a synthetic construct, dealing with a hypothetical universalization of multitude of subjective realities.’” - PKD, The Electric Ant

So Philip K Dick’s robot finds the source of his own knowledge, the punch tape roll in his chest, but when he looks at it he’s presented with a real problem. If his reality is only holes in a punch tape roll then that means that the punch tape roll is only a series of holes stored in itself. And while we might think this story is solipsistic, that it’s a story about how the whole world is just the subjective experience of an Electric Ant, but what we’re really given in Philip K Dick’s story is a lesson in how solipsism is impossible. After all, if all the people the robot has encountered are really specters created by the punch card tape, so is the robot, and so is the tape.

Watching The Thirteenth Floor also helped me understand Hegel, and it helped precisely because the movie wasn’t very good.

This movie tells the story of a scientist who builds a reality simulation and then discovers that he is already in a reality simulation. He falls in love with a woman from the third level (the real), and there are all sorts of interesting political metaphors in the movie. For instance, when the woman from the third reality enters his simulation she takes over the consciousness of a checkout girl at the supermarket, but once this check out girl has a real consciousness she becomes rich and can stay in 4 star hotels and play politics with major corporations.

There is a murder mystery plot that carries us along as we explore the ramifications of reality simulators and what it means to be living in a virtual world, and there are some bits in it that might help me understand Freud someday.

The way The Thirteenth Floor falls down is what is most helpful. It fails when it reaches the third level, when it reaches what we might think of as the real reality. The hero finds himself in the future, finds himself in a condominium utopia set in 2024, and the story deflates. There is a sense that we’ve come all this way, stomached some really hammy acting and a syrupy love story, and arrived nowhere at all. There is no reason to think this final image of a utopian reality is any more trustworthy than the other simulations we’ve encountered in the picture. And worse, it’s not very interesting.

A truly Hegelian ending for The Thirteenth Floor would’ve depicted the scientist reaching a third level filled with simulations who knew that they were unreal rather than, as it stands now, a future utopia that is nothing more than an imagined photo shoot from a near future Better Homes and Gardens magazine, even the flatness of The Thirteenth Floor, the emptiness of it, is helpful as as a tool for thinking.

Hegel might even argue that the failure of The Thirteenth Floor was a necessary error. After all, Hegel he thought that error was imminent to truth, that truth needs error. Hegel would say that in order to understand the world we need our mistakes.

Me? I need science fiction.

Douglas Lain is a fiction writer, a “pop philosopher” for the popular blog Thought Catalog, and the podcaster behind the Diet Soap Podcast. His most recent book, a novella entitled “Wave of Mutilation,” was published by Fantastic Planet Press (an imprint of Eraserhead) in October of 2011, and his first novel, entitled “Billy Moon: 1968” is due out from Tor Books in 2013. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.

1. DavidJB
I love this essay and the way reverses the usual hermeneutics of suspicion that to plumb the depths of the film we must wheel up the philosophical machinery. If we had more people teaching philosophy like this it would be a much more popular subject. MUCH more.
Filippo bia
2. filippobia
Fantastic reading. Just uncertain now if i'm really posting this comment or is just my punch, hegelian tape to let me think so...
3. Jerry Lentz
I enjoyed reading this so much I reread it two more times. This quote from Stanley Kubrick kept popping up in my mind while reading, "I'm not interested in photographing reality, I want to photograph the photograph of reality."
4. tbrem
" (...) but when he looks at it he’s presented with a real problem." - Or a punch-holed problem for all we know.

I agree with you (or is it Hegel) about the ending of "13th Floor". You are making me re-watch the German production (available on arthaus), because I think it's much closer to that than the hollywoodyfied version. But thankfully your post does not make me read Hegel. I will continue to plow through PKD, though.

Now I need a coffee and I sure don't care if it's punch-holed, as long as it's hot and strong. Which kind of makes me a level 4 type, doesn't it? I wonder what level 5ers are like.
5. images10dream
@DavidJB: Plenty of proffessors use movies in there philosophy courses, and many universities offer science fiction and philosophy courses as well. As a philosophy instructor, films can be used to help students learn about philosophical issues; (I also abhor the Simpsons and Philosophy, Avatar and Philsophy seires; they are terribly written and usually excuses for the author to write about their own philosophical views that have little to do with the media.) however, media will only take you so far. I am not a Hegelian, but I have friends that study Hegel, and no film could capture all the nuances of The Phenomenology of Spirit. The problem is that, like any discipline, (generally) philosophical issues are much more complex than they present them in film. Science fiction may introduce me to physics, but I wouldn't take it to be a great understanding what actual physicists are doing. Similarly, film can be a great introduction to philosophy, but the complexity of the issues usually cannot be discussed in the film medium; if you want to learn philosophy, you have to read the books. (of course there are some philosophical issues or approaches to philosophy that are more conducive to film).
6. Eugene R.
Any literature that is premised on deliberately altering some tenet or other of Reality, as does speculative fiction (sf, fantasy, magic realism, et al.), would offer a lot of great angles of attack on Epistemology and its discontents, I agree.

Me? I like to use humor. Woody Allen: "Is Knowledge knowable? If not, how do we know this?"
7. DavidJB
@images...Nicely put. I happen to be one such phil. prof., btw. Just wanted to note that I said "more..." and didn't intend a categorical indictment of philosophers' philosophy teaching. btw, I certainly agree that one has to read the book! :)
8. Cat Melanie
A more philosophically correct version of
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.
would be
Reality is that which infinitely regresses upon itself without ever changing once you have reached that level.
And that was the question - "What is reality" - that PKD was working on throughout his career. Once you've read Ubik, you can't forget it.
9. Andrés Valenzuela
I couldn't agree more with the use of fiction to understand things like philosophy (and vice-versa). Actually, when you are into this kind of things your mind works constantly in the hypertextual way, relating everything to everything all the time.

If you want more interesting cinematographic takes on the issue of reality, knowledge and the understanding of it, try "Avalon" by the Japanese director Mamoru Oshii (the same of Ghost in he Shell).
10. FranciscoFlorimon
In a single article you've defeated the nigthmare of a solipsism while making learning fun. That is the Douglas Lain difference!
11. Frank C. Bertrand
To use fiction written by Philip K. Dick to help understand Philosophy actually makes sense when one considers that he once wrote: "I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist; my novel & story-writing is employed as a means to formulate my perception. The core of my writing is not art but truth." Hegel, though, was not one of his favorite philosophers; Spinoza and the Pre-Socratics were. Additional insights into Philip K. Dick's fiction AND non-fiction can be found in the best serconzine devoted to PKD, PKD Otaku.
Douglas Lain
12. douglain
Frank C. Bertrand: Thanks for the kind words.

As to PKD's perspective on Hegel, I know he was opposed to Hegel. However, in my opinion, Hegel was just the philosopher PKD needed.
13. Kenneth Krabat
The ending of the 13th Floor bothered me for a long ting. It doesn't fit with the rest. I finally absolved the scriptwriter of guilt and decided it MUST be a Hollywood studio decision. A happyhappy reward for the metaphical trouble of the main characters - while at the same time needlessly fucking up the whole philosophical construct of the previous ninety minutes. As if anybody would leave the cinema troubled after this oneOhone in reality-and-its-good-buddy-Doubt! Oh Dear.
14. T-George
I'm not sure about the non-solipsism argument. The tape object sensorily represents, in his experience, the information of his world - but it is not the information itself. He can still be the only consciousness in which the universe appears. The tape, the creators of the tape, other people, can still all be figments of his imagination. The tape just gives him a visual tool to represent changing his imagination...

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