Sunday, December 27, 2009

Machines vs. Biomachines

Last week I went with my father and brother to see James Cameron's Avatar—in 3D no less. I have to say it was a well made film. The visuals were amazing and the plot well drawn if cliché: highly entertaining. The characters weren't all that deep, but then one doesn't see an action film for deep characterization. Technically this is what a Hollywood action film should be. (No spoilers in this post, with the exception clearly labeled below of the single paragraph on the final scene.)

From a philosophical point of view however, the film was highly deficient. Conservative commentators will no doubt remark on the rather overt environmental, anti-capitalist, and even anti-human message of the film.1 (As one might expect from Hollywood, there are even a few allusions to U.S. tactics in current Middle East conflicts.) Frankly if the cruelty in the service of greed depicted in the film were typical of humans, it would be rather difficult to be pro-human.

But below the message about the relationship of rational (humanoid) creatures to their environment is a subtler message about their relationship to the world, in particular to their bodies. The human-wielded machines are clearly departures from nature, but Cameron's conception of "nature" is a far more insidious danger to the natural world.

The film sets out a conflict typical in science fiction: an advanced, technological civilization attacking a primitive, nature-loving society.2 The humans are exploring exoplanet Pandora first of all to exploit its mineral wealth, but secondly to scientifically investigate its flora and fauna, including the indigenous Na'vi people. The main protagonist, Jake Sully, is a veteran marine (now paraplegic) sent to take the place of his recently deceased twin brother, who was part of a scientific mission to Pandora. The planet is hostile to humans, including an unbreathable atmosphere, so the scientists explore through remote-control "avatar" bodies. The bodies need to be hybrids of indigenous Na'vi and the human operator/driver (the actual words used in the Pandorapedia) so that a mental link can be established for full immersion into the Na'vi body's world. (The genetic hybridization makes it plausible for each avatar body to physically resemble its driver, conveniently linking the bodies/characters in the audience's mind.)

So effectively, these bodies are puppets. Immersive puppetry has disturbing consequences brilliantly spelled out in Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich. Naturally what is true of immersive puppetry extends to the relationship between our own (human) bodies and souls: our bodies aren't really "ours" in the sense of being essentially connected (one body-one soul: anima forma corporis), but "ours" in the sense of possession, that is, demonic possession. Likewise, Avatar has a strong theme of mind-body dualism: thanks to modern science, bodies are somehow interchangeable and what defines a person is the untouchable, invisible and wholly transcendent mind or "personality." Cameron conceives of ourselves as having very little to do with our particular bodies: really our identities must have a broader corporeal basis than a few DNA similarities.

It would seem that the film is opposing nature and technology: humans use mechanistic technology, while Pandorans are close to nature. But look again. The "nature" of this world is likewise created in the image of the machine. For one the neuronal "linkages" between the Na'vi and the mounts (direhorses, mountain banshees) via the Na'vi rider's queue and the mounts' antennae is a simple reflection of the linkages that typify the internet age. The connection between the mount and the rider is different from that of the Amplified Mobility Platform (AMP) suit and its operator (cf. the power loader in Cameron's Aliens) only by being through neurons instead of mechanical sensors and electronics.

Pandoran bodies are likewise similar to machines. The mountain banshees have "air inlets, or spiracles, face forward at the front of the chest cavity, like the engine intakes of a jet fighter" with "unidirectional flow, venting aft through gill-like slits." The Na'vi are about twice the height of humans. It would be reasonable to attribute this fact to gravity half as large as Earth's, but the gravitational difference makes no noticeable visual difference to physical motion in the film. To overcome the scaling problem and make such oversized and extraordinary creatures structurally plausible, Cameron invokes "naturally occurring carbon fiber" to strengthen the bones of Pandoran animals.

Nature seems to take a back seat to politically correct doctrine as well. In Na'vi society, both women and men participate in the warrior culture. One has to wonder who takes care of the children (ironically, the ones whose lives the humans are supposedly so careless about late in the film). Of course it is possible that the grandparents or other relatives care for the children. But still, has it ever been known for a primitive society to disregard sex roles? If anything these differences tend to be more pronounced in more primitive societies: childbearing here is essential to community survival. It is only rich, "advanced" societies that can (apparently) afford to blur sex roles.

**SPOILER** Most morally troubling is the final scene, in which Jake, through the power of Eywa (the Na'vi diety) in the sacred tree, "uploads" his consciousness into his avatar body.3 Note that, unlike the earlier similar attempt with Dr. Augustine, Jake is not dying. Clearly then in this transfer, Jake (his body) is put to death so that his "mind" can "live on" in the Na'vi dummy. Notice that Jake's only physical problem is his paraplegia. Aside from the euthanasia in the simple sense of putting someone to death, there is a disturbing overtone that a handicapped person's life is less worthy of living.4

The final verdict is the movie's opposition of machine vs. nature is a false facade. The "nature" the film presents is a mechanical reconception of nature along mechanical, dualistic lines. The result is a technological view of the world as infinitely open to human manipulation and a consequentialist take on ethics.

Now, one might object that the film is surely to be understood as a work of fiction and not meant as a reflection of reality, especially with the world of the film clearly a fantastic, mechanical playground of the imagination. Whatever the intention, the photorealistic computer imagery, not to mention the 3D and souped-up audio undermine any audience detachment. Art, but particularly visual art, is very good at forming the imagination, especially of children, but very much of adults as well. Given the widespread currency of mind-body dualism, this film can only cement the dominance of this paradigm into our cultural mindset.


1. Similar to the "straining a gnat and swallowing a camel" of criticizing the lyrics of rock music while passing the music itself.

2. Here is an insightful (if politically correct) piece on how the film represents a privileged white male perspective. Speaking of PC, the MPAA rating says, "Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking." Yes, it's fine to saddle young people with a fallacious worldview that it will make it impossible for them to find happiness—just as long as they don't smoke!

3. From an Aristotelian perspective, it seems nearly inevitable that the driver would eventually "go native"—that the soul is the form of the body means it's not so much our souls that control our bodies (as if from far away), but our bodies and their senses, desires, and habits that dominate our souls, that in some sense constitute our souls. To be immersed in a world is to take that world as real.

4. Equally, Jake's paraplegia could also be a symbolic statement about the human condition, one that feeds into a gnostic view of the body as a prison. Such a view would explain Cameron's anti-Christianity, as evidenced by his 2007 film The Lost Tomb of Jesus.

James Cameron, Avatar (Twentieth Century Fox, 2009).

Update January 20, 2010: David Brooks has an insightful and superbly written piece on the film in the Times: "The Messiah Complex." Here's one particularly well written passage: "The peace-loving natives are at one with nature, and even have a fiber-optic cable sticking out of their bodies that they can plug into horses and trees, which is like Horse Whispering without the wireless technology. Because they are not corrupted by things like literacy, cellphones and blockbuster movies, they have deep and tranquil souls." The bottom line:

[The White Messiah fable the film embodies] rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

I hope to post a philosophical analysis of Avatar in the next few days. In the meantime, enjoy a blessed celebration of our Lord's Nativity!

Just a reminder: the world may tear down its Christmas decorations tomorrow, but Christmas is more than a single day:

  • The Octave of Christmas ends January 1 with the feast of Mary's Divine Maternity;
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas end on January 6, the traditional feast of the Epiphany, which this year happens to fall on the same day in the new calendar;
  • The Christmas season ends with the feast of the Baptism of our Lord, January 10 this year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Baconian Temptation

Last post I discussed how in Baconian (i.e., modern) science, truth takes a back seat to useful production. It recently occurred to me that the inevitable consequence of setting results (or desire) over truth is the cultural chaos we now live with: in which everyone exalts himself as a little god to reinterpret the world (reality, life, texts, other people) as suits his whimsy or to be pampered by our consumer culture.

Bacon identifies knowledge with production1: man does not so much receive already created forms into his mind, as impose his will on moldable material. To say that we only know in making is to set ourselves up over the whole universe—to usurp a Divine prerogative.2 The simple fact is that only for the Creator is knowledge everywhere identical to production.

The promise to be as gods was first spoken by the Serpent in the Garden. It is likewise the Baconian temptation to which modern man has succumbed, and with whose consequences we now tragically live.


1. This assertion is the basic premise of the modern project, which goes back to Machiavelli, who put ends before truth, but even before with the Nominalists like Occam, who put the will before the intellect.

2. Of course, strictly speaking man creates nothing: he simply rearranges preexisting things. So it should be no surprise that modern philosophers, who take Bacon's premise as an implicit starting point, should conclude that we can likewise know nothing.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

British Climate Memos: Baconian Science as Usual

With the UN's IPCC now doing damage control—er, staging an investigation, the "Climategate" controversy over the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit (CRU) continues to heat up. The public is understandably shocked by the revelation that "science" is possibly being manipulated to further political ends.

The public might not be so surprised if it knew the seedy origins of "science."

"Open-source" Science

There has been much good commentary on emails as manifesting the problem of science being done behind closed doors. This Slashdot story has a lot of interesting commentary. John Tierny notes how these inept attempts at manipulation are backfiring:

In response to the furor over the climate e-mail messages, there will be more attention than ever paid to those British temperature records, and any inconsistencies or gaps will seem more suspicious simply because the researchers were so determined not to reveal them.

Andrew Revkin even quotes climate scientists who see this scandal as an opportunity for more openness:

Mike Hulme, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia and author of “Why We Disagree About Climate Change,” said the disclosures could offer a chance to finally bring the practices of climate researchers and the intergovernmental panel into the modern era, where transparency — enforced legally or illegally — is inevitable and appropriate.

“The I.P.C.C. itself, through its structural tendency to politicize climate change science, has perhaps helped to foster a more authoritarian and exclusive form of knowledge production,” he said in an e-mail message, “just at a time when a globalizing and wired cosmopolitan culture is demanding of science something much more open and inclusive.”

The call for more transparency is nearly universal. We live, after all, in a democracy (as opposed to an aristocracy). "We the people" need to be rightly informed so that we can decide. Scientists lashing out from elitist frustrations with their fellow citizens' ignorance and thickheadedness won't win any converts. Perhaps scientists at a university could condescend to educate? (This would seem particularly apt given the public funding many of these scientists receive.) The secretive strategy is rather short-sighted.

Which Science Is Betrayed?

But even the perspicacious commentators on the problem of scientific secrecy have missed a critical point: public manipulation in the name of science is no betrayal of science—as long as one means by "science" modern science, whose primary goal is "useful" production, instead of the classical, more general conception of science as (not necessarily productive) knowledge.

As far as modern science is concerned, this scandal is not that much of an aberration. The popular perception is that science as we know it seeks truth. In reality it seeks "fruit" or results.

Much of modern science's blueprint was drawn up by Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who was not so much a scientist as a politician: before discovering anything about the world, science is a human endeavor and therefore a political project. The modern project is above all political. Bacon asserts that the “true ends of knowledge” are “the benefit and use of life.”1 His aim is to “lay the foundation… of human utility and power”2 and seek in knowledge “a rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.”3 Most pointedly Bacon criticizes the Greek philosophy then regnant as having “the characteristic property of boys: it can talk, but it cannot generate; for it is fruitful of controversies but barren of works.”4

To Bacon then, truth is not the highest value, but production: what 'works.'

Certainly, Bacon avowedly seeks the benefit of all mankind. Unfortunately, the goal very easily slides from "benefit mankind" to "benefit my scientific career" or "benefit a political program." The arguments go something like this:

  • "But I'm a part of mankind, am I not? So what benefits me, benefits mankind, no?"5, and:
  • "Our political movement is full of good people who, unlike our opponents, seek to make the world a better place. So regardless of the falsehood of this particular argument, its advance helps our movement, which helps mankind."

Indeed, in Bacon's New Atlantis, the members of Salomon's House (the scientific research institute of his utopian story) manipulate the people with illusions (e.g., light-shows to promote Christian religion) and keep secrets from even the state. Baconian scientists seek to manipulate not only nature, but also their fellow citizens and their country.

From its inception modern science has elitist, secretive tendencies.6 In the CRU scandal, these tendencies have merely been exposed to the light.

Science and Democracy: Uneasy Allies

Tocqueville has some insightful observations on the linkage between democracy and practicality in the sciences:

Men of science at such periods are consequently carried away towards theory; and it even happens that they frequently conceive an inconsiderate contempt for practice. "Archimedes," says Plutarch, "was of so lofty a spirit that he never condescended to write any treatise on the manner of constructing all these engines of war. And as he held this science of inventing and putting together engines, and all arts generally speaking which tended to any useful end in practice, to be vile, low, and mercenary, he spent his talents and his studious hours in writing only of those things whose beauty and subtlety had in them no admixture of necessity." Such is the aristocratic aim of science; it cannot be the same in democratic nations.7

Lust for practical results is common to both democracy and Baconian science. On the other hand, democracies, to function well, require open and honest debate, while as we've seen, Baconian science is intrinsically elitist and manipulative—that is, at odds with the basic requirements of democracy.

It seems then that democracies will love the products of Baconian science, but that such science will undermine democracy. The net action is that science is one instrument that democracies use to undermine themselves.8

Somehow the public hasn't gotten over what many in the postmodern academy might regard as an unsophisticated love of truth. "We the people" in our earthy naivete are drawn toward the real meaning of "science," but have mistaken modern science for the occupant of that office. Baconian science disguises itself under the regalia of classical science, that is, science in the sense of philosophy or systematic truth. Is it possible that modern science can cast away the baggage of its rough parentage and truly fill the throne it occupies by popular confusion? Can modern science be turned to seek truth more than products?

With our economy structured around scientifically motivated technical innovation, the odds are against such a reform in the near term. However there are many conceptual seeds to be sown now that will only fully sprout in the cultural desolation of a civilization turned entirely technical. Who knows?: Some of this new growth may take over before the old has entirely died away.


You can find a searchable database of the CRU emails online here (h/t What's Up with That?).

News summary, up-to-date as of Thursday, December 3: "Storm contiues to swirl around Climategate, as multiple investigations get under way "


1. Francis Bacon, “The Great Instauration,” New Atlantis and the Great Instauration, ed. Jerry Weinberger (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1980), 16.

2. Ibid.

3. Advancement of Learning, Book I, v, 11

4. Bacon, “The Great Instauration,” 8.

5. A related dimension that's often lost in the climate change controversy (and so many stories about science) is the often self-serving nature of science's dramatic claims. As I commented in the last post (regarding DNA), from the time of Galileo, science has been about self-promotion; scientists need funding to carry on their research. (Galileo's claiming more for his theories than he could actually observationally support is a large reason he got in trouble with the Church—as Cardinal Bellarmine's statements make clear.)

6. Closely related to the transcendence of the Cartesian 'mind' over the physical world.

7. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol 2, ch. X.

8. Yet another more general way to look at this: democracies prefer short-term results (products) to long-term goods (such as truth); they get short-term success and long-term failure. Cf. Toqueville's "self-interest rightly understood"—only truth is a self-interest that transcends the self and whose discipleship sometimes requires complete abandonment of "self."