The Knowledge of Human Existence Essay
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Movies provide the audience with a unique experience. Not only do they entertain, they allow the audience to explore their own preconceptions. The most vital preconception that movies allow the viewer to explore and interact with is the definition and formation of knowledge. For centuries man has grasped for the true definition of knowledge. In this struggle many have fought for a unifying definition, this great conflagration of discourse and study did not lead to a unified definition of knowledge.
Moreover, it leads to the question that still beats in the hearts of the philosopher and the movie-goer.
What can human beings know about the experience of existence? How do we define it? Man’s struggle with the definition of knowledge and how we define existence is a driving force behind the questions asked by philosophers throughout history. From Plato to Descartes, from Aristotle to Kant, the understanding of existence became nearly an obsession of the great philosophical minds.
It is this “obsession” that drives Hugh Jackman’s character, Robert Angier in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.
In this “obsession” Angier finds his match with Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo in Andy and Larry Wachowski’s The Matrix, whose transformation from computer hacker to an almost God like position of knowledge, stems from his obsession with defining his existence. While it is the character Neo who is lead or rises to a position where it is possible to fathom the nature of existence, it is the audience whom Christopher Nolan guides to this level in The Prestige.
Before an understanding of existence can be examined, it is important to define the role of the audience in Nolan’s The Prestige. While Nolan’s characters are subject to an “obsession” directed towards the knowledge of each other’s methods, the true character receiving knowledge is the viewer. Cristel Russell in a piece titled, “Rethinking Television Audience Measures: An Exploration into the Construct of Audience Connectedness,” written for Marketing Letters in 1999 discusses the degrees of connection a television audience has.
While Russell’s piece is intentioned for an understanding of the relationship between a television audience and the images on screen in the sense of how to market to the audience, the similarity of the mediums allow for this to be an example for the filmic experience as well. Russell’s study asserts the strength of the connection the audience has, “viewers often reported that they imitate some of the intangible aspects of their television show, from the lifestyle of the actors to the philosophy portrayed by the character,” (Russell, 1999, p. 401).
Russell chooses the word “their” to suggest a possessive, included, position that the viewer takes with the images portrayed on the screen. It this suggestion of inclusiveness that suggests that the viewer becomes part of “their,” show. No longer is the viewer simply an audience member; they are a part of the cast chosen by the director and as such they become a necessary medium for explication of “philosophy” as is suggested by Russell. Nolan’s audience is not simply viewing, they are interacting with the film, and as such they are guided by Nolan to a realization, just as Robert Angier is.
While, Angier’s “obsession” for knowledge is limited by his insatiable desire for revenge, he ascends on a philosophical scale. While this may seem reminiscent of the story of Plato’s cave, where a man trapped is freed by realization that his existence is limited to projections on the wall of his cave, Plato’s example does not serve Angier. It isn’t until his death at the hands of his old enemy that Angier is able to transcend to the realm of knowledge necessary to understand existence. It is in this moment that he realizes that all the tangible evidence of how his rival’s tricks were performed, were not the true illusion.
The truth that Angier in his final moments is lead to believe, is that sacrifice is a necessity for perception to become actual existence. In his dying moments Angiers defines his own understanding of his purpose, while the film-maker paints it in a romantic sense, it provides the viewer with the true understanding of individual existence. It is just that. Individual. While shaped by the collective experience, the only thing a human being can say for certain is that their existence is their own, folding too completely into an empirical collective experience is as unfulfilling as life without death.
Hence, Angier must die by the end of the film. (Nolan, 2006). Knowledge cannot be limited solely to a scientific explanation of why things are and why things aren’t. John Cottingham’s piece, “The Question,” from The Meaning of Life provides the seeker of knowledge with an explanation for the limitedness of scientific inquiry. In the piece Cottingham highlights “religious discourse” throughout time as necessary force for further investigation into the why that creates the human need for knowledge of existence.
While “religious discourse” may not provide an exact answer to what existence is, this is inconsequential as according to Cottingham, “But its advocates would urge that it none the less assuages the nausea, the ‘nausea’ as Jean-Paul Sartre called it, that we feel in confronting the blank mystery of existence,” (Cottingham, 2003, p. 9). Here Cottingham’s inclusion of “religious discourse” as essential in understanding the “blank mystery of existence,” seems to undermine a definition of existence based entirely on science. “Science” as discussed in Cottingham’s discourse should be understood as empirical knowledge.
Based upon Cottingham, this empirical knowledge, the tangible is limited in its ability to assist human beings in their understandings of existence. It is into this gladiatorial arena where Rene Descartes jumps as a opponent of a solely empirical understanding of existence. Rene Descartes provides a rational approach to the problem of understanding existence. Descartes rationalism is based upon his definition of the “material” of existence. Rather than being bogged down in the definition of “material,” Descartes comes to the conclusion that, “Consciousness is the essential property of mind substance,” (Collinson, 2006, p.81).
Descartes’ definition of the “essential property” as espoused in Diane Collinson’s Fifty Major Philosophers opens the door for how human existence is defined. The “essential property” of existence is not based on tangible experience. Collinson highlights Descartes suggestion that the mind experiences the empirical sense of the body, but not because of direct physical experience, rather that, “ideas of primary qualities are not derived from sense experience but are innate,” (Collinson, 2006, p 83. ).
This idea of “primary qualities” can be applied to the question of existence as experienced by Neo in The Matrix. Neo’s character ascends from a plateau of empirical existence in the beginning of the film. He does not know that he is actually being deceived, that his definition of existence is a computer created dream state. This dream state although realized to be a manifestation of a computer program, is seen by Neo in his earliest iteration as real.
He does not know he lives within a deception, because the computer-generated Matrix maintains all the “essential qualities” of existence in Neo’s mind. It is not until he meets Morpheus that what he considers existence is a facade. While he maintained a certain amount of skepticism, Neo’s first iteration as Thomas Anderson does not suffer to greatly from the problems that Descartes mused about in the sense of “dualism. ”
Neo before meeting Morpheus is happy to accept his existence just as it is because without the outside of influence of Morpheus’ experience, the Matrix holds up to the ideal of the innate nature of existence. Similarly, the audience of The Prestige is like Neo.
They are lead astray from the true realization of existence, in particular the truths revealed at the end of the movie, by Nolan. The audience does not know that there is a form of deception taking place. Sure, there is the acknowledgement that the other characters practice in deception, but as the audience is intertwined into the film as an additional character, they are unable to see the greater deception at play. Like Neo, the viewers of The Prestige must go through further iterations in order to understand that while seemingly “innate” in the sense of Descartes, that the existence portrayed is not the truth.
In both cases, an outside influence contends against the assumed support of the rationalism proposed by Descartes. As Neo is awakened into the real world by Morpheus, he ascends another rung on the ladder to an identifiable definition of what composes existence. As Morpheus instructs Neo in the realities of the computer dominated manifestation he had accepted as existence, he is in fact reflecting what Kenneth Westphal refers to as, “the Humean objection, that the appearance of physical objects in space and time is a deceptive illusion produced by our imagination,” (Westphal, 2006, p. 781).
In this direct reference to David Hume In his piece,” How Does Kant Prove That We Perceive, And Not Merely Imagine, Physical Objects,” written for Review of Metaphysics, Westphal endorses Morpheus’ claim to Neo that his imagined self when inside the Matrix is just as real as Neo in the real world. If Neo dies in the Matrix, even-though his computer generated image is simply a construction of the mind, he also dies outside of the Matrix. The creation of two distinct images of the same person, with equal mortality seems to suggest a dichotomy, that deception and perception are interchangeable.
That the tangible and the imagined are one and the same when it comes to defining existence, but this understanding is only reached by a communal understanding of existence. Neo was perfectly fine with accepting his previous understanding of the world and his violent initial reaction to Morpheus’ suggestion, points to this. This notion rather than serving to clarify how existence is determined actually muddles the idea. It almost works to endorse a sense of self-deception. (Wachowski, 1999).
The concept of self-deception and the reality of the imagined is examined by through the audience’s viewing of the truth behind Angier’s final downfall in The Prestige Angier buys into the imagined and as a result must be destroyed. The final scenes of the film refer the audience, now so deeply involved in the deception to the introduction by the character, Cutter, “Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled,” (Nolan, 2006). This suggestion that the viewer doesn’t “really want to know,” explains the downfall of Angier.
He was so hopeless caught up in his desire for revenge that he limited his imagination, he only placed importance on the empirical evidence, that his enemy had been hung. He allowed himself to be deceived. Similarly, the character Cypher in The Matrix, desires to allow himself to be deceived. Rather than endorsing an empirical knowledge of existence in this desire, this “obsession,” it does quite the opposite. Both Cypher’s desire and Angier’s downfall in contrast to the admirable outcome favored upon Christian Bale’s character, Alfred Borden, endorse the idea that deception is as real as existence.
The ability to choose between to two, between the intangible, (elucidated here as deception) and the tangible is the defining notion of human existence. This seems to reinforce a Kantian understanding of existence. Kant’s definition of the human experience while seemingly based in sensory information and in that regard would be subject to the same deceptions of the senses that plagued Rene Descartes. However, Kant’s argument trumps this understanding. Diane Collinson brings forth Kant’s understanding of experience and existence, “Things-inthemselves cannot be known ‘even if we could bring our intuition to the highest degree of clearness’.
They are the non-sensible causes of what we intuit,” (Collinson, 2006, p. 123). Kant’s theory on knowledge, at least in part, suggests that although senses provide humans with a lens to view the world, that this is limited because in truth the perceived “cannot be known” no matter what level of ascendency the viewer reaches. This first portion of Kant’s definition of the knowledge of human experience is reflected in the downfalls of both Neo and Robert Angier. Both must fall in order to support this theory, but in falling they are able to transcend and realize that they were unable to fathom their experiences.
Angier had to have his rival’s mystery elucidated for him. Neo had to die in order to reach a position similar to that of a demi-god where he was no longer limited by the human existence. The agents in The Matrix repeatedly call attention to this by discussing the weak and vileness of the humans they have enslaved. In order to transcend to this level of knowing both characters had to fail. They had to realize that experience and existence cannot be known simply from the sensory or the perception.
It requires sacrifice, but the knowledge that comes out of the sacrifice is limited to the individual. Immanuel Kant endorses this assertion of the individual in existence. Moreover it Is in his acceptance of the individual’s lack of ability to discern between perception and the empirical Kant provides an argument against the aforementioned “Humean objection. ” Whereas Hume argued that the knowledge of the physical is a deception produced by the imaginative capacities of the human mind, Kant dispelled this conjecture of Hume’s.
This facet of Kantian idealism is reflected in his next contention against the Humean, “but Kant regarded Hume’s strategy as inadequate since it left the causal principle without any justification. His own account establishes a third class of propositions, one whose propositions, like those stating matters of fact, tell us something about the world and are synthetic rather than analytic but which are also necessary in that they have an a priori element, that is, an element that is not derived from sense perception,” (Collinson, 2006, p. 124). Collinson highlights Kant’s transcendence of Descartes’ and Hume’s positioning of sense perception.
By allowing for “synthetic” propositions or ideas about the world, including that of human existence, Kant opens up a window to air out the farce that perception and the empirical are the measures by which existence is judged. Existence in this sense being “synthetic” is entirely based upon the individual. The individual, although knowledgeable of the deceptive nature of perceptions can choose to limit their knowledge of existence to those perceptions, as did Robert Angier. Or the individual can create their “own” synthetic perception of the world, if they understand that they cannot fully understand existence.
Both characters ascend the scale of knowledge, but in order to truly understand the purpose of existence, they must fall. It is in this final fall, that both are allowed to finally acknowledge, to finally understand, the truth of their existence. In both movies, the characters, including the character of the audience in The Prestige, are guided to make a choice. The implications of this choice while not entirely revealed to the character upon deciding, reflect their decision to define their own existence. The character just like the human being, chooses what to make of their existence in whatever time and place they reside.
It is not a communal definition of existence or an all-encompassing one. The knowledge of what existence is limited solely to the individual. Works Cited Collinson, Diane and Plant, Kathryn. “Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804). ” Fifty Major Philosphers Routledge, 2006, pp. 121-127. Collinson, Diane and Kathryn Plant. “Rene Descartes (1591-1651),” Fifty Major Philosopher, Routledge, 2006, pp. 79-84. Cottingham, John. “The Question,” On Meaning of Life, Routledge, 2006, pp. 1-31. Nolan, Christopher (Producer), Nolan, Christopher (Director). (2006). The Prestige [Motion Picture]. United States: Touchstone Pictures.
Russell, Cristel Antonia and Puto, Christopher. (Nov 1999). “Rethinking Television Audience Measures: An Exploration into the Construct of Audience Connectedness. ” Marketing Letters 18 (4). Retrieved from: http://www. jstor. org. ezproxy2. lib. depaul. edu/stablett Silver, Joel (Producer), Wachowski, Andy and Larry (Director). (1999). The Matrix [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Brothers. Westphal, K. R. (2006). HOW DOES KANT PROVE THAT WE PERCEIVE, AND NOT MERELY IMAGINE, PHYSICAL OBJECTS?. Review Of Metaphysics, 59(4), 781-806. Retrieved from: http://web. ebscohost. com. ezproxy2. lib. depaul. edu.