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.