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Book Review: The Philosopher At The End Of The Universe by Mark Rowlands

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Most books on philosophy are a bore because a) unlike art, which is ideas in motion, philosophy is merely ideas (no matter how wonderful or complex they may be), and b) most philosophers (who claim that title in primacy) are simply bad writers — the two most notable exceptions to that rule being Plato and Friedrich Nietszche.

And one of the main reasons why most philosophers are bad writers is that they eschew the notion that good writing (or good art, for that matter) has to entertain, as well as enlighten. Often the medicine must be put into a sugar lump, or, the exact opposite way the modern publishing industry, and Hollywood studios, work.

A notable exception to this comes in the form of a 2003 book by philosopher Mark Rowlands, called The Philosopher At The End Of The Universe: Philosophy Explained Through Science Fiction Films, which takes its name from the Douglas Adams book, The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe, part of the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

The book takes the novel approach of explaining some of the basic ‘big’ problems of philosophy via some of Hollywood’s biggest sci fi smashes. While Rowlands admits, early on, that he is no great wordsmith, in the sense of being able to craft prose that poesizes itself into the nooks and crannies of mind and soul (thus I will not be quoting from it, as I would merely be recapitulating the same things available in the Modern Library’s European Philosophers From Descartes To Nietszche), his book is well written in the most prosaic sense. It is concise, cogent, and witty. There is precious little waste in the small book’s 258 pages (excluding a glossary of handy philosophic terminology).

While I would have liked to have seen the inclusion of such sci fi classics as Star Trek, The Planet Of The Apes, Solaris, Forbidden Planet, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, for all of those films and series raise serious philosophic queries, none of them has an overarching theme the way some of the films Rowlands describes (decidedly lesser films, but better didactic examples of simply laid out problems) do, for they are necessarily more complex and multifarious, as well as being more grounded in purely scientific (or sociological), rather than just philosophic, conundra.

The book has a good Introduction to Rowlands’ ideas and methods, then has nine formal chapters, dealing with specific themes:

1) Frankenstein: the meaning of life (actually Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).

2) The Matrix trilogy: the certitude of ontology.

3) The Terminator 1 and 2: the mind/body problem.

4) Total Recall and The Sixth Day: identity and reality.

5) Minority Report: free will as illusion.

6) Hollow Man: the will to morality.

7) Independence Day and the Alien series: the limits of morality.

8) Star Wars: the concepts of good and evil.

9) Blade Runner: death as the key to life.

Now, I will briefly comment on these themes and film choices, but I won’t delve more deeply into them, for any agreement or not with Rowlands’ posits is besides the point of a critique of the book. The matter is whether or not Rowlands conveys these thoughts and ideas well, even if the ideas may not sit copacetically with the reader.

That stated, just peer at the film titles and ask yourself, if you watched any or all of these films, how many of you would have made such connections? I doubt many would have. Rowlands also displays his best witticisms when skewering his own claims, such as positing Arnold Schwarzenegger, filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, and sci fi writer Philip K. Dick as philosophic giants.

I have some minor quibbles, here and there, with Rowlands, such as sections 6 through 8, where he makes no distinction between religious morals (that imposed from without), and secular ethics (that immanence that emanates without), for using the term moral interchangeably with the term ethical is simply confusing, but, as most modern dictionaries likewise make little distinction between the two, this is not a grave flaw of Rowlands’, nor his book.

To go chronologically, the Frankenstein chapter gives one of the better descriptions of the Sisyphean dilemma, and opens the book with the biggest question — being the meaning of life. Some may quibble that why life rather than not, or why anything rather than nothing, are more empirically based queries, but the meaning of life is certainly at the root of many epistemologies.

When hitting The Matrix, Rowlands gets even funner (deal with the word), as he muses on the ability to ascertain any level of reality. This objective/subjective debate is one of those groaners that often leaves the laiety wishing all philosophers would die, because it’s a Catch 22 sort of argument. Nonetheless, Rowlands entertains as he enlightens, and the fact that he, as so many before him, cannot end the debate, is leavened by the smile the chapter leaves.

The Terminator chapter has one egregious error, and that is equating a cyborg with a robot, when a cyborg is a robotically enhanced living being — think The Six Million Dollar Man. The chapter also runs through classic ideas like dualism and materialism (philosophic not financial).

The Total Recall and The Sixth Day chapter deals with individuality in a very easy way, the idea being that there is a multiplicity, or river, of selves, rather than one single self; i.e. that we are, in every moment, the son and father of selves just past and about to be.

The Minority Report chapter deals with free will and determinism, but, Rowlands neglects to mention chaos theory in this section, which seems a pretty big omission for a 21st century book. And, on a purely aesthetic level, I would have preferred that he sometimes riff on not just the ideas behind the films, or the works the films derive from, but also how they sometimes fail to portray the ideas well. The works of Philip K. Dick are a good example, as almost all of the films of his that are based on short stories are way better than Dick’s original works, which were all neat ideas written in a very ham-handed and clunky style.

The chapter on Hollow Man – a quite bad film – deals well with the Hobbesian ideal of man as a brutalist. This chapter also raised an objection on a philosophic level, to me, and that was Rowlands’ claim that immorality is somehow inconsistent, while morality is not.

Again, leaving behind my morality/ethics objection, immorality is far more predictable than moral behavior, on many levels. If one knows that the immoralist has that nature, it is far easier to predict the negative consequences of said actions than it is the negative consequences of moral actions — the road to hell is paved, and all.

The chapter on Independence Day and the Alien films was the least involving chapter. It had the least depth of argument, the most stretching of the facts of the films to fit the chapter theme, the least philosophizing, and the most emotional appeal.

The Star Wars chapter has a repeated misspelling of Darth Vader’s name as Annakin Skywalker, when Anakin is correct. That repeated typo aside, the best explanation of Plato’s Cave that I’ve read is housed within, as well as the best explication (and defense) of the major ideas of Nietszche, free from demonization; especially when he explains creativity as being born of sublimating negative drives toward higher purposes, the hallmarks of the übermensch.

The Blade Runner chapter brings the book full circle back to life’s meaning, and Rowlands’ attempt to answer that by positing death as the giver of meaning. Naturally, he does not posit the actual meaning given, although some might take issue with that, and claim he does. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, and state that he leaves it sufficiently open.

Overall, the book entertains and uses the idea of the films in service to the idea, while sometimes the reverse might have been the better approach. Although he disdains art films, one cannot help but wonder what Rowlands would make of some of the classics of Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Mizoguchi, Angelopoulos, and films that do not merely reflect a philosophic idea(l), but immanently employ it.

Nonetheless, The Philosopher At The End Of The Universe is one of the best primers on the world of ideas that I’ve ever read, making a nutritious meal out of the junk food of Hollywood, i.e. getting something from nothing, creatio ex nihilo. Oh, wait, now that’s theology. One wonders the filmic references a book like that could make!

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