5 Mind-Blowing Academic Theories as Taught by Classic Movies
There are a few core philosophical thought experiments at the center of our most popular movies, like ancient cheat codes that filmmakers know we'll pay to see depicted on the big screen over and over again. So while you may think that you're just watching an entertaining movie, you might be pondering big, heavy ideas that have been vexing humanity's deepest thinkers for millennia. For instance ...
The State of Nature and the Social Contract
Why aren't we running around trying to kill each other right now? That's the question all the greatest thinkers were trying to answer during the Age of Enlightenment. The world was just waking up from the Dark Ages, and the best and brightest looked around and wondered who turned off the witch burnings and how to make sure nobody turned them back on.
"Lesson one: Zeus is bullshit."
It was around this time that the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes came up with a thought experiment. First, he described a version of the world before laws and society, which he called the state of nature. Hobbes' state of nature looks like one big rugby scrum, with everyone fighting and killing and trying to have sex with each other before their reproductive organs are rendered useless from blunt trauma (we're not overly familiar with the rules of rugby). While that version of existence might have been objectively awful, it was the only time in human existence when everyone was totally and completely free. Without laws, everyone had the right to everything.
To get from that version of existence to the one we're all familiar with, Hobbes speculated that those people must have agreed to what he called the social contract -- you give up your right to drop an anvil on your neighbor and take his stuff in exchange for things like personal safety and the expectation that people will follow a reasonable moral code.
Suddenly that Ben Franklin quote doesn't seem so pithy.
This process seems like a foregone conclusion to us today. Of course life got better when we decided to live together as one big happy society! Only Branch Davidians and the Unabomber would doubt such a thing. But when you look at the movies that we go to see each year, it starts to seem like we secretly regret the hell out of signing the social contract and long to return to the rugby scrum. For instance, every post-apocalyptic movie from zombie flicks to Mad Max takes place in Hobbes' state of nature. The apocalypse is just an excuse to destroy the social contract before the movie even starts.
Lord Humongous, philosopher.
One common thread in three of the most popular movies of 2012 is an obsession with the question of whether the social contract is necessary, or worth it. The heroes in The Avengers battle a villain who represents the social contract on steroids. After rounding up a bunch of classical music fans on the street and forcing them to kneel before him, Loki unleashes the following academic lecture:
"It's the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel."
"All right, now ... well, the rest of my intentions are rather unclear."
In addition to being the speech that Barack Obama gives in the nightmares of the most paranoid, anti-government militia member, that's basically a really poorly worded argument for why we need the social contract. Left to their own devices, people don't know how to act. If you asked Hobbes to make the creepiest case for the social contract he possibly could, he would have written that speech.
The villain in The Dark Knight Rises, like the Joker before him, thinks that the social contract is a sham. Bane removes the people and institutions that enforce the social contract from the equation, and Gotham immediately descends into a citywide prison riot. This is a city that's mostly populated by people who went to school and held jobs and had access to reason for their entire lives, but without anything to enforce the contract, it's back to life in the scrum.
"Welp, the cops are gone. Time to burn everything!"
As one of the old prisoners in the underground prison put it, "Without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man." OK, that's actually a direct quote from Hobbes, but you wouldn't have thought twice if it had shown up in the movie (which also says a lot about the quality of dialogue in that movie, unfortunately).
Then there's The Hunger Games, which explicitly raises the question "Is the social contract worth it?" and then sort of stacks the deck by adding that "By signing the social contract, you consent to having you or your loved ones randomly killed for the entertainment of rich people." That seems less like a movie plot than a piece of propaganda created by people who opposed the first social contract.
"And no puppies for anyone!"
And Hollywood doesn't need to create a fictional universe to question whether society is worth it. They can shoehorn the debate between the social contract and the state of nature into pretty much any type of movie, because that shit is apparently like catnip to our brains. Look at three of the six greatest movie lines of all time, according to the American Film Institute:
Interspersed with the geographical confusion that sets in after one commits residential manslaughter.
So to recap, that's:
1. A society gentleman saying that he doesn't give a damn if a woman lives or dies in a society that's been returned to a state of nature by the Civil War.
2. A mobster mocking the social contract by using the language of business agreements to describe a negotiation tactic straight out of the rugby scrum.
6. A cop toying with a criminal by bragging that he's willing to shoot him right in the middle of his face to uphold the social contract.
Three of the greatest lines ever delivered in a movie, and every single one is basically saying, "Fuck a social contract, I will literally go medieval on your ass," which is also a great movie line that also specifically brings up the very thing Hobbes was writing about back during the Enlightenment. We may play nice and help each other out in our daily lives, but turn down the lights in the movie theater and all we want is to get rid of society and its stupid, asshole rules against killing our neighbors and taking their stuff.
The Prisoner's Dilemma
So you're on the ferry home from work, minding your own business, when a crazy clown comes over the ferry intercom and explains that you and a boat full of prisoners (or if you're a prisoner, a boat full of squares) have access to a detonator that controls the explosives on the other boat. The first boat to blow up the other one's detonator gets to live. If neither boat uses it, everyone dies in an hour. What do you do?
"We can't know that the other ferry isn't filled with neo-Nazi child molesters. Really, it's irresponsible to not blow them up."
Well, the first thing you do is probably curse your luck for having been born in Gotham. After all, people in the real world don't have to deal with convoluted screw-or-get-screwed mind games, right? Actually, the Joker's scheme in The Dark Knight is a textbook example of "the prisoner's dilemma," a thought experiment that academics use to explain most of modern history, or at least the parts that matter.
The prize behind door numbers 1 through 3 may not always be a crazy clown with a detonator, but the risk and reward for cooperation or assuming the worst about the other people is the same. Think about the problem of pollution. Let's say you're the king of America, and you and the kings of all the other countries agree that you need to stop polluting the planet. So you all go to a conference and agree to stop using fossil fuels, even though it's going to hurt your economies in the short term. You all sign an agreement, you go home and suffer through gasoline withdrawals together, and everyone gets to keep living on this planet for another thousand years. Best possible outcome, right?
"You freeloading penguins had better make this up to us."
Nope! The best possible outcome is that all the other countries stick to their promise to stop using fossil fuels except for you. If you keep using gasoline to power your coffee maker and all those other countries do the hard work of developing cars with stupid little windmills all over them, everyone gets to keep living here, and your country has a huge economic advantage over the rest of them.
So, assuming that everyone else holds up their end of the bargain, the best possible outcome for your country is to screw them all over.
The worst possible outcome overall is that you do the right thing and nobody else does. You stick to the agreement and take the economic hit of weaning your country off of fossil fuels, but all the other countries are secretly making a bunch of jerk-off hand motions to each other during your conference calls. You get poorer and the Earth keeps dying. That's an F- for you.
"See me after class."
You can't risk that, and neither can they, which is why nobody is going to stick to the agreement, nobody is going to take the economic hit, and your grandkids are going to have to deal with this shit.
That's the prisoner's dilemma: a situation where you have to decide whether or not to screw over a partner you can't trust. The dilemma is that everyone is always better off screwing the other guy. If they act for the collective good, your best option is to act in your own self-interest (economic win + environmental win = A+), since if you both act for the collective good, everyone wins but nobody has the advantage (economic wash + environmental win = A). But if you assume that they won't cooperate, you're better off not cooperating (economic wash + environmental loss - 1 = F), since if you cooperate and nobody else does, you lose on both fronts (economic loss + environmental loss = F-).
The Joker's plot might seem convoluted, but economists think that this model is responsible for the Cold War arms race, the psychology of addiction (in which you're in a prisoner's dilemma with yourself in the future) and basically every war that's ever been fought (war is hell, but losing a war means that the future is hell, too). And The Dark Knight isn't the only movie that's obsessed with this idea. There's a much more common and simpler dramatization of the prisoner's dilemma that comes up constantly in movies.
The Tarantino family crest.
There's a reason that 90 percent of the conversations in action movies take place between people who have guns trained on one another. While that's a fairly counterproductive way to have a conversation in the real world, it's the perfect way to dramatize the prisoner's dilemma. From an outsider's perspective, the best possible outcome is that nobody pulls the trigger and everyone goes on living. But put yourself in the shoes of the guy who has a gun trained on him, and you realize that the best possible option is whatever gets that guy to stop pointing a gun at your head the fastest. Which is why the most likely outcome is the third option: both guys pull the trigger as soon as they have a second to think through the behavior modeling.
Of course, at the end of The Dark Knight and Mexican standoffs not directed by Quentin Tarantino, cooler heads prevail, and nobody pulls the trigger or presses the button. The Mexican standoff is a chance for us to set up and defuse the trap that we all find ourselves living inside of every day. Hell, even Quentin Tarantino learned his lesson. His first movie ends with a room full of mobsters doing exactly what the prisoner's dilemma tells us we all would, and his second, much more successful movie ends with Jules Winnfield philosophizing his way out of a Mexican standoff. The truth is too painful.
The Ship of Theseus
Have you ever wondered why movies are so obsessed with clones? Sometimes it's the only technology that will let you tell the story you have in mind -- an evil corporation needs to farm spare body parts, or the Alien franchise needs to clone Ripley back to life. But other times, like with the clone armies of the Star Wars prequels or the Jurassic Park scientists going out of their way to say that they're cloning the dinosaurs, it's almost like blockbuster movies are just looking for an excuse to get the concept of cloning into the mix. In real life, clones are pretty boring. Cloned sheep are the same as regular sheep, and on its surface, even human cloning is only as interesting as identical twins.
Or the odd army of soulless clone warriors.
But clones are actually great at illustrating an ancient thought experiment called the ship of Theseus that movies have been using and reusing to blow minds for years now. It was first posed by Plutarch, an ancient Greek philosopher who asked his audience to imagine that the ship sailed by the Greek hero Theseus was repaired so much over the generations that eventually none of the original wood remained. Is that still the ship of Theseus?
If you're failing to see the implications of that question outside of the world of boat naming, consider this: Science has determined that our cells are shed and replaced approximately every decade. So when that happens, are you still the same you, or is that person dead, and you're the replacement? Keep in mind that 10 years ago you were masturbating with a totally different set of junk.
"It's like I don't even know you anymore."
Every movie about cloning is raising that same question in one way or another. Probably the most successful version of the question is in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, in which Nikola Tesla builds a machine that spits out an exact double of whatever is inside of it and also teleports one of them across the room, like a Xerox/fax machine combo. A magician (Hugh Jackman) uses the machine to make it appear as though he's teleported across the room, but since there are now two of them, he's forced to drown the version of himself that started out in the machine. In the final scene of the movie, Jackman explains that each time he copies himself, he has no way of knowing if he's going to be the guy in the tank or the guy who pulled off the trick.
Luckily, his drowning fetish makes it a win-win endeavor.
The movie leaves us with the haunting question of which one is the original, or if there is an original. Is Jackman getting teleported every night with the double being some waste product, or is he essentially committing suicide and being reborn every night? The same question could be asked by every single member of George Lucas' clone army, and also by every Star Trek character who steps into the transporter.
After all, the transporter can't just move people from place to place. It would have to break apart their atoms and rebuild them elsewhere. So when Kirk uses the transporter, does that mean that the real Kirk is now dead and the new Kirk is just an imposter?
"Kirk to bridge. I've beamed into something younger ... sassier."
Movie protagonists tend to be improbably lucky. No one wants to shell out money for a Die Hard movie just to see Bruce Willis get killed five minutes in. That'd be super boring. Action movies are about one thing: watching a guy beat the odds and kill a bunch of dudes without getting killed himself. James Bond has made it through 23 movies despite facing odds that seemed improbable at best.
"The disease is B. Hepatitis B."
And it's not just the superhuman action heroes. In the sequence in Back to the Future in which Marty McFly first travels back in time, he is staring down certain death from a machine-gun-wielding Libyan terrorist, and then he finds himself in the sights of a farmer with a shotgun (the farmer manages to miss him three times at close range). It's almost like movies are about a bunch of people whose superpowers are just extraordinarily good luck.
As it happens, there's a thought experiment in quantum physics called quantum suicide that might explain why every one of those movies is illustrating how reality actually works. The theory arose when scientists were poking around inside the atom and noticed that certain particles appeared to move in two different directions at the same moment.
"If you keep pulling, we'll turn into hydrogen! Is that what you want?"
To understand why that should be impossible, imagine that you balanced a perfectly sharpened pencil on a tip occupied by one of these particles that spins left and right at the same moment. If the particle actually did move in both directions, the pencil wouldn't know whether to tip left or right. Or more specifically, it should tip in both directions at the same time. Now obviously, if you actually balanced the pencil in this way, you'd see the pencil tip in one of the two directions, because that's how reality works. What science hasn't been able to figure out is how reality chooses which of the two directions to make the pencil tip. The most interesting theory they've come up with states that reality doesn't choose, and instead branches off into separate parallel universes.
Now imagine if, instead of a pencil balanced on one of these particles, there are 10 of these particles connected to a contraption that fires a gun at your head if they move right and lets you live if they move left. After the first test, reality branches into two parallel universes, one in which you're alive and another where you're dead. After the second test, you're dead in three universes, still alive in one. After 10 tests, there are 999 parallel universes where a bunch of scientists are cleaning your brain matter off the wall behind you, and one universe where you're still alive. According to the "many worlds" theory, the scientists have a 99.9 percent chance of existing in one of the realities where they're about to have a lot of explaining to do. But since you no longer exist in any of those realities, from your point of view, you have a 100 percent chance of existing in the one universe where the gun never fired. You are guaranteed to continue living in one of the 1,000 universes that you just created, which is, of course, the one that you're going to be aware of.
In 999 universes, McClane was gunned down while picking glass out of his feet.
If you take the many worlds theory of quantum physics to its logical conclusion and apply it to the thousands of tiny particles bouncing around in the human brain, and in every object you encounter on a daily basis (or any gun that gets fired at you), you get what's known as quantum immortality. Basically, in any given situation in which it's theoretically conceivable that you survive, there is a timeline in which you actually survive. You're living in one of the infinite different versions of the world in which you survived. There are countless thousands of other universes in which you didn't survive, but you no longer exist in any of those. So the universe that you're aware of is one of an infinite number of universes in which you're just naturally, inexplicably luckier when it comes to not dying.
When we're watching an action movie, we might think that we're watching a protagonist slaloming through a bunch of explosions to an improbable happy ending, but it's just as accurate to say that we're watching the theory of quantum immortality illustrated over and over again. If there's even the remotest probability that the gun will jam, that's what will happen in the universe that the protagonist perceives. According to the many worlds theory, an action hero is the perfect metaphor for how we experience the world around us: He gets in a car wreck and just happens to be thrown clear. Bullets fly all around him, but none hit. Aliens attack, and crazy old Randy Quaid flies his crop duster into the mother ship. There's a nuclear explosion, and he jumps into a handy refrigerator. Regardless of the dangerous situation, the action hero will always survive. And we love watching action movies because the action hero's version of reality is the closest the movies come to our own version of reality, in which we keep getting insanely, improbably lucky.
Somewhere, a version of you has won the lottery, and that asshole won't give you a dime.
The Allegory of the Cave
Lots of epic movie sagas have a scene where the main character discovers a whole other layer to his world that he never knew existed. Harry Potter discovers the wizarding world. Special Agent J in Men in Black discovers that aliens are totally real. Neo takes the red pill and is shown the Matrix. It's a common and wildly successful movie trope that can be traced back to one man.
Three thousand years ago, Plato created what he called the allegory of the cave, in which he described a group of men who had been chained up their entire lives facing the wall at the bottom of a cave (because it's not a classic thought experiment without a bunch of people being creepily mistreated). The only thing they ever see are shadows cast on the wall by people passing in front of fires farther up in the cave. Since this is all they know, Plato suggested that they would regard the shadows on the wall as reality, and would gauge intelligence based on who could guess which shape would pass in front of the wall next.
In movies like Men in Black, Harry Potter and The Matrix, the shadows on the cave wall are replaced by what we think of as daily life. Wealth, high test scores and sports victories seem like pointless diversions once you know what Neo, Harry and Agent J find out. Of course, that was totally Plato's point as well. Plato believed that most of us go through life with only an incidental acquaintance with certain byproducts and half-truths of existence, and what reality truly means.
"Yer a wizard, Harry. You never have to worry about math again."
In act two of the cave allegory (and act two of the aforementioned franchises, every movie about superheroes, the Star Wars trilogy or the Star Trek reboot), one of these mere mortals is freed from his chains to see the truth about existence. He has a tough time adjusting at first (think Will Smith quitting before returning to take the Men in Black oath), but soon he realizes that he can't go back to the version of the world he was stuck in.
Act three of the allegory, and of most of the hugely successful movies based on it, sees our newly enlightened former cave dweller return to the men at the bottom of the cave and try to explain the truth to them. Plato came to the conclusion that the men down there not only wouldn't understand what the hell he was talking about, but they would think that he was an idiot because he was no better at guessing what shadow would be cast on the wall next.
"Mark, would you please shut the hell up about these 'boobs'?"
The movies based on his allegory are usually all over the place on the question of how the masses react. Men in Black and Harry Potter are with Plato. People either won't believe you or they won't be able to deal with the truth, and they should be allowed to stay praying to shadow puppets. The Matrix is the one movie that insists on dragging everyone to the surface of the cave to show them the sky.
For a cool real-life example, a 17th century philosopher named William Molyneux wondered if someone blind from birth would be able to recognize familiar shapes on sight if their vision was restored. We actually have the technology to answer him now, and it turns out that the answer is nope, they sure can't. They have to relearn the world by sight and tie that in with the senses they already know, just like the Force.
One thing each franchise's creator probably agrees on is that they're glad that more people don't read old philosophers, since otherwise there's no way they'd be able to get away with this shit over and over again.
For more things we've learned from pop culture, check out The 7 Worst Lessons '80s Cartoons Taught Us about Drugs and The 4 Weirdest Lessons '80s Movies Really Wanted to Teach Us.