Friday, July 24, 2015

Self/Less, Selflessness, and Gullibility

Like Robert J. Sawyer's Mindscan and many other science fiction stories, the new movie Self/less revolves around the idea of moving a person from one body to another.  Mindscan explores this idea with some degree of philosophical sophistication; it's not up to the standards of a philosophy journal, but for a mainstream science fiction novel that will be read by more than ten people (unlike most academic journal articles) it's not bad.  See my review here.

Self/less, on the other hand, begins with a similar premise and does almost nothing interesting with it, with one possible exception that I'll discuss toward the end.  I have a history of liking "rotten" movies on Rotten Tomatoes; see, for instance, my discussions of Jupiter Ascending and Terminator Genisys.  I liked Self/less more than most critics (it's currently at a paltry 21% fresh).  As a somewhat interesting action movie with a bit of mystery and exciting chase scenes, it's not bad (although I don't think it passes the Bechdel Test).  And Ben Kingsley's portrayal of a sort of actually classy Donald Trump is quite good.  But I do share the critics' critique of the philosophical bits: namely, there aren't enough of them!

Personal identity and selflessness

What if your mind were transferred to another body?  Would that new mind-body complex be you?  Could there be more than one person inside a single body?

Those are the big questions that I was hoping to think about when I walked into the theater to see Self/less.


Unfortunately, the audience is pretty much spoon fed the answers: yes, of course, the new person is the same person after the "shedding," and there can't really be two people in one body at the same time, but there could be some weird hallucinatory images leaking into the new person's mind.

The issue of personal continuity is better explored in Mindscan, which I discussed in my review of that book.  If you agree with Lockean psychological continuity theories, then the issue is whether Damien's (Ben Kingsley) memories and sense of continuity continue in the new body (Ryan Reynolds).  The movie leaves little doubt that Damien has continued.  Also, Buddhist philosophers would likely say that he is conventionally the same person even if we are all selfless at the ultimate level (based on the title I was hoping for a movie about Buddhist metaphysics!)

There is slightly more doubt, however, about whether the new body houses one or two people.  I don't want to spoil more than that, but I did find this aspect of Self/less somewhat interesting.

However, the best film to explore the two-persons-one-body issue is hands down Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990), which ramps up Philip K. Dick's original short story with egregious violence, some of Arnold's best one liners ("Consider that a divorce"), and plenty of crazy to go around.  (I pretend the lame 2012 remake doesn't exist).  My pick for a distant second for movie explorations of personal identity topics goes to The Sixth Day, another classic starring Austria's greatest philosopher (sorry, Wittgenstein).  Last year's Transcendence would deserve an honorable mention if the second half hadn't devolved into stale paranoia about artificial intelligence.

Gullibility in service of the Self

When Damien is introduced to the process of "shedding" one body for another, he sees the new body and asks where it came from.  The scientist in charge (Matthew Goode) gives some hand waving explanation about growing it in a vat.  Damien apparently accepts this explanation and agrees to the procedure.

It would be totally reasonable to see this as one of the stupidest parts of the movie.  That was my original thought.  I mean, magic magnetic mind Xerox machines aside, does Damien really believe you can just grow functioning bodies in test tubes that somehow possess no brain functions?  Isn't it far more likely that this just is or used to be a living person?  (As the trailer indicates, this question becomes the source of the drama.)
One Ryan Reynolds, fresh from the lab?

But what if Damien's gullibility is itself one of the deepest points of the movie?  What if his willingness to believe such an implausible explanation could show us something interesting about ourselves, namely, that we will believe almost anything if it is in service of the Self?  He believes because he is grasping at selfhood, desiring that he continue despite all indications that he, and indeed all of us, will not.

How much do we actually know about about the origin of our food, our smartphones, our computers, our entertainment, and all the products and services we consume?  How much effort do we make to investigate the ethical dimensions of our consumption?  How often do we, just like Damien, believe implausible, hand waving explanations simply because it serves our self-interest to believe such absurdities?
Damien (Ben Kingsley) ensnared by the concept of Self

So rather than one of the dumbest plot points of a movie spiraling into stupidity, Damien's gullibility actually becomes the real philosophical weight of the film.  Whether director Tarsem Singh or anyone associated with the film intended it, I think the real issue of the film has little to do with personal identity.  It has much more to do with the ethical components of the Buddhist notion of selflessness: grasping at the ultimately illusory Self is one of the main causes of suffering, both for ourselves and others (see also my post on the atomic theory of human nature).

Maybe the movie is called Self/less not because it represents the struggle between two selves in one body, but because it represents the struggle of the very idea of self against a universe that is selfless.

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