Saturday, January 24, 2015

Interstellar (Part Two): The Meaning of (Human) Life

This is a continuation of Interstellar (Part One): Utopian Dystopia.  Part Two is far longer and contains bigger spoilers.  If you haven’t seen Interstellar and you hate spoilers, stop reading now! 

Are they gone?  Okay, let’s get back to business.

In popular consciousness, philosophers sit around all day talking about the meaning of life.  In fact, we mostly talk about other things, although the meaning of life has been a serious topic for a few contemporary philosophers.  (Many respectable professional philosophers wouldn’t be caught dead talking about anything so wooly-headed as the meaning of life, but that’s another story).

Interstellar is deeply philosophical in that it prompts not merely the question of the meaning of my life, your life, or an individual’s life, but the question of the meaning of the life of the human race as a whole.  Among all the time-bending, mind-rending wildness, the story relies fundamentally on the continuation of individual humans’ genes, projects, and memories, as with Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Murphy (Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain) as well as John (Michael Caine) and Amelia (Anne Hathaway).  There is also a theory put forward by Cooper that the beings who made the tesseract at the end of the film are “us from the future” – a theory that provides a larger-scale reflection of the father-daughter relationships.  Parents are continued by their children (although general relativity sees to it that Cooper’s daughter is instead continued by him); human beings in the present are also continued by human descendants, presumably in the very far future (I don’t see us building tesseracts inside black holes with parts from Radio Shack or even from our fanciest space programs anytime soon).

So, we survive, apparently for a very long time.  The idea that the survival of the human race is a desirable and meaningful state of affairs seems to be a fundamental philosophical presupposition of Interstellar.  For individuals haunted by the recognition of our own mortality, this is an extremely powerful idea that provides much of Interstellar's emotional weight.  I am reminded of Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium on the innate human desire for immortality through children and/or “spiritual” things like works of art, ideas, and so forth (or as I say when I teach the Symposium, the desire for real babies and soul babies).

But will humanity survive forever?  Would we want to?

Some reflection on the nature of time and the universe suggests that we will not, in fact, survive forever.  Even if we manage to survive war, famine, asteroids, disease, alien invasion, black holes, etc., remember that most species that have existed on Earth are extinct.  Our descendants will eventually evolve into something non-human.  Furthermore, even if we escape our solar system and even if we accept our non-human descendants as our own, the universe itself may expand and suffer heat death, it might contract in a Big Crunch, or … who knows?  Only time will tell.  Or will it?  With the possibilities suggested by the tesseract, maybe our very notions of past, present, future, permanent, and impermanent are fundamentally mistaken, but this is so speculative I can’t, at this time, form anything like a coherent question to ask about it.

As far as I can tell, time is, as the Bhagavad Gītā says, the “vehement destroyer of worlds…” (11:32).  This is the verse that Oppenheimer quoted as the first atomic bomb was tested in New Mexico in 1945, although his translation took the Sanskrit word kāla to mean death, rather than time.  Same thing, I guess.  On a similar note, Buddhists count impermanence as one of the three marks of existence (along with suffering and non-self).  Buddhists say we erroneously expect things to last forever, and we suffer when they don’t.

I wonder if we would do well to accept the impermanence of the human race as well. Contemporary philosopher Susan Wolf has suggested that philosophical worries about absurdity from Albert Camus and Thomas Nagel arise from an unhealthy preoccupation with permanence at the individual level.  It may be that Interstellar encourages an unhealthy obsession with permanence at the level of our species.  There may come a time when, contrary to the almost obnoxiously repeated refrain of John Brand (Michael Caine) by way of Dylan Thomas, humanity ought to go gentle into that good night.  Perhaps just as a single human life only has meaning if it, like a good story, comes to an end, so does the life story of the human race require a proper ending.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t for the time being continue to have children, to create, to dream, to think, and to hope that some humans will be around a bit longer.  I’d like the human story to get renewed for at least several thousand more seasons even though I won’t be around to watch it.  Maybe Interstellar is simply telling us our story isn’t meant to be completed on Earth.  Nonetheless, I think it’s wise to temper the desire for permanence.  Death and extinction don’t mean that our lives or our species aren’t meaningful in some sense.  Far from it.  In fact, we may need to accept the transience and impermanence of ourselves, our loved ones, our descendants, and the human race if any of these things are to have meaning at all.

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