Film, Metaphysics, and a Prolegomenon to Understanding Explanation: Thoughts on Temporal Chronology, Causation, and Order in the World

When I was a kid, way back when The Lion King came out, I experienced quite a bit of confusion the first time I watched the film.  I must have been eleven years old or so, and I have always been bad at making assumptions that the vast majority of humans of normal cognitive levels of function tend to make; so I missed something that everyone else seemed to understand.  As the move arrived at its final scene, I wondered, “Why, this can’t be!  Scar is dead.  This is all wrong.”  In my disarray, I exclaimed to my mother approximately the foregoing quote, at which she rebuked me with haughty disdain —she was never one for ill-reasoned conclusions.  My conclusion was that the movie was starting over, and I had taken the circle of life to be a literal thing, wherein the first scene of the movie was the last scene, and vice versa.  That the movie could not replay from its ending point, given that Scar was dead (among other things), put me at odds with my understanding of the meaning of the movie’s end.[1]  Not long before then, on a walk to school, I had discussed with my sister the feeling of having been somewhere before, even though one had never been; the feeling of deja vu.  My conclusion was that maybe we had been here, and had done all of this before.  My reasoning was that memories might be the part of us that gets destroyed when we die, but the emotions and things like them go on through life all over again.  Looking back, this is all very much like the Buddhist notion of samsara and Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence of the same.  However, neither of these proposes, as far as I know, the idea that emotions go back through the cycles of life.  In reflecting on this all, just the other day, it made me think about order and structure in life, and how we impose structure on the world, no matter how cacophonous the arrangement in time and space may be.  Film is a particularly good indicator of this, and we see more and more films that partition time segments of a film and rearrange them.  (If anyone has a substantial list of such films, or ones not named in the following, feel free to post them in the comments/reply section of this blog.)  There is an obvious imposition in my example of The Lion King, but there are much more interesting examples.

Probably my two favorites are Pulp Fiction and Un Chien Andalou.  Before going into these, it is worth noting my error in attribution of order in The Lion King, and further noting how the human mind tends to be such that it naturally infers the kind of things, like structure, that are intended to be assumed in natural settings; or, perhaps, I was one of the few or only individuals correct in presuming that the end of the film was the beginning, and we simply live in an internally incoherent world —popular opinion and the commonsense, I am sure, will hold me to have been in the wrong.  In examining Pulp Fiction, isn’t it fascinating how, in retrospect, it is not at all difficult to order the scenes.  In fact, there is not a single scene which seems impossible to place in a chronology that carried from beginning to end in a linear path.  After the fact, few are left in a state such that they cannot determine the general progression of events.  Such is the power of the human machinery that orders our reality.  In fact, I really wished Quentin Tarantino had thrown in something that didn’t fit.  I have viewed the film numerous times, with my mind geared specifically toward the chronology (though I have never reconstructed it), and there seems to be no whole segments that cannot be reconciled within the larger framework of the film (click for chronology).  Does this concern anyone that this is such an easy thing to do, this reordering of events to make sense to the viewer?  In Un Chien Andalou, it seems like something similar could be the case, but Dali’s work pushes the mind much, much harder than Pulp Fiction does, in order to establish anything like order.  Many people, with whom I have spoken about the film, not knowing that there was intended to be no order or story, I found created stories in their own mind.  This is interesting: numerous people I have chatted with insisted that they had “found” the order in Un Chien Andalou, or some similar film like Eraserhead; but no constructed story of either film corroborated another story.  What I like about this particular potpourri of film titles is that there is a gradual increase in intellectual capacity to get scenes and elements of each film to cohere and congeal.  Consider the most banal story, maybe something like a biographical movie, whose design is strongly embedded in a chronology, and consider films of varying gradation in order, be it space or time.  What distinguishes the most ordered story from the most difficult to order?

Hume, perhaps, has the answer, and it is the philosophical upshot of all of this.  One has to be concerned with the metaphysical glue that holds any set of scenes together, primarily, because this glue seems to be in the head, not in the world.  Film seems to illustrate this, as the capacity of the human mind is pushed to the limit to bring together the scenes of the most fractured set of cinematic sequences.  What assurance do we have that there is even a real order in the biographical film, which is intended to mirror the world with which we are most familiar.  For the student of philosophy, none of this is new.  Hume was the first to challenge that we have never determined or found where precisely the necessity of causal connection lies in events.  What helps us put things together in Pulp Fiction is that the phenomena which lend themselves to us in such a way that it still feels a bit natural to predicate a causal connection between them.  In fact, it is this sort of idea of project causation upon the world that led Kant to take the idea and run with it, suggesting that there are stock categories that must be imposed on the world by the mind; and for Kant, these causes were still real things.  This leads us to the frustration of the question: Are there causal connections or not in the real world?  If film is any indication, it seems to be the case that Kant was wrong —though, as a scientist, I sympathize with him greatly.  I think what can be said is that, if there are such things as causes in the world, and determination of the presence of causes works anything like Kant thinks (it probably would have to), there is still something missing; and, if anything, statistical inference goes quite a bit further than the consideration of film in showing so much.

Since I have recently read Autopoiesis and Cognition, it may be worth the readers while for me to note that Maturan and Varela side with Hume, even insofar as emotion is involved with memory and learning.  On pages 35 through 38, they discuss the imposition of stimuli on the autopoietic system (living organism) induces a certain degree of incorporation of changes in the system, which can then be recalled to serve to inform future behavior.  They say, “An organism cannot determine in advance [a priori] when to change and when not to change during its flow of experience, nor can it determine in advance which is the optimal functional state that it must reach; both the advantage of any particular behavior and the mode of behavior itself can only be determined a posteriori, as a result of the actual behaving of the organism subservient to the maintenance of its basic circularity” (pg. 36).  This is really quite compelling, and they later attribute emotions to discern in times of uncertainty (pg. 37) and as an important primer in learning —which makes a tremendous amount of sense, given that things we are passionate about and emotionally charged in learning seem to come to us much more simply than things we don’t want to learn.  This last point is a page right out of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature.  Still, there are problems with it, such as the fact that human needn’t have certain precise (yet basic) types of experience to know to avoid behaviors in particular context.  Even so, the autopoiesis doctrine doesn’t expressly say that a Lamarckian kind of acquired organization can’t be passed on.  However, there are very, very unique phenomena that a naïve realist (who is a scientific anti-realist, like van Fraassen) would claim was never foreseen by a system’s organization, so it is inexplicable that an organism knows to avoid them.  One such case might be the first ever fission bomb: one need never have experienced the phenomenon to know not to be near one before it detonates, and so it seems that the individual knows something a priori.  Thus, in a somewhat circuitous, but not abstruse, manner, we see that there seems to be a kind of need for something like metaphysics —a metaphysics that tells something about phenomena, before that phenomena ever occurs.

The upshot of the foregoing is that there seems to be a kind of clash: On one hand, observed phenomena do not yield necessary causation and, as it seems to be, the mind can make all sorts of shit up to rationalize any series of events into a coherent whole.  On the other hand, it seems next to impossible that we simply and merely know only those things that constitute our experiential history, even if this is broadly construed to include a Lamarckian heritability of acquired characteristics, stored in the organization of the autopoietic system.  (Maturana and Varela argue further, but I find their argument wholly unsatisfying and even unacceptable, so I implore inclined readers to defend their position, if you like.)  As of right now, I am inclined to maybe side with a Humean kind of account that admits Meillassoux’s facticity; but if Kant is right, there must be some variation on his understanding to accommodate for errors in attribution of cause, such as those found in rationalizing the chronology through causal relations in Un Chien Andalou, one that is geared toward making sense of causation in causal thickets, particularly statistical inference, where nothing in the ways of explanation and prediction can be said about individuals in a statistical distribution (contra Hempel’s covering law).  In any case, examining chronology in film provides an interesting approach to understanding whether there is an ordered structure to reality, and whether things like causes are real.

[1] The change in names, between the start of one cycle and the next bothered me, but the issue of identity did not.  I may write a post on Kripke’s thought in relation to this matter, at some point down the road.


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