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Film & TV

Greenland, Squid Game, Spider-Man: Apocalypse, Tyranny, Multiverse

Gerard Butler in Greenland. (STXFilms/Trailer image via YouTube)

I often approach the popular culture as I might a crime scene, or a foreign war, or the latest National Conservatism Conference: things best read about from far, far away. But now and then I steel myself and make a direct assay. As we wrap up our year-in-review lucubrations, and in the convivial spirit of our most pointless of holidays, I’ll mention three entertainments that left a mark.

1. Greenland. The other 2021 movie about a comet destroying the Earth. By normal dramatic standards it is, I suppose, trash. The plot is ludicrous. (Lovable but slightly dysfunctional family must somehow get to underground bunker while healing estrangements, securing insulin supply, commandeering plane, and dodging comet fragments. The fragments should have been blindingly bright, by the way, not red like lava, and moving much too fast to see, and not always hitting the ground but sometimes flattening things by way of atmospheric airbursts.)

As a creative rendering of the mass desperation, social mayhem, and official deceptions that would surely accompany an apocalyptic event, however, Greenland is riveting. Sometimes a single passage sells me on an entire multi-movement piece of music. That’s how I felt about the 30 or so seconds in Greenland when we hear a recorded message from some NASA bureaucrat as he explains that, and how, tomorrow the world will end. What’s sad is that he’s sad, and what’s chilling is that he’s calm.

I thought about him again when Wesley J. Smith informed us that Roger Crisp, a bioethicist at Oxford, thinks that the extinction of humanity might be worth allowing in order to prevent future suffering. Crisp considers the example of torture: “We have enough evidence and imaginative capacity to say that it is not unreasonable to see the pain of an hour of torture as something that can never be counterbalanced by any amount of positive value.” (What to say of 59 minutes? Is there a little utilitarian scale Crisp can lend us to weigh it?) Walter Glannon, of the University of Calgary, riffing on Crisp and throwing in some modal operators to make the argument more complicated than it needs to be, draws a distinction between “possible people” and “future actual people.” Possible people have no rights or interests, and so there’s no harm in their never coming to exist. But future actual people have “the same rights and interests in avoiding suffering as present actual people,” and so “the extent of suffering may provide a pro tanto reason to prevent them from existing.”

I can imagine how an individual who faced torture might prefer death. I can also imagine how he might not. What would John McCain say, after or before? What would you? What would Crisp if he didn’t have the word “might”? Is that an I-feel-ambivalent-looking-at-the-scale “might” or an I-don’t-actually-have-a-scale “might”?

From the fact that an individual might reasonably feel either way, it does not follow that it might be reasonable to decline to deflect an asteroid (Crisp’s example) and thereby end humanity. For this would be to decide for everyone a question about which people might, Crisp allows, reasonably differ. I think they would differ even if we could take out the little utilitarian scale and measure pleasures and pains from the future. And if we have enough imaginative capacity, perhaps assisted by this splendid B-movie Greenland, we might think that the end of the world would be its own form of torture for extremely large numbers of people

2. Squid Game. Speaking of torture. I don’t mean the sufferings of the characters, who somewhat consent and somewhat are compelled to participate in sadistic, lethal games for the entertainment of wealthy spectators. The torture was rather mine, of an aesthetic variety, as one of the more emotionally brutal things I’ve seen on a screen, episodes one through six, turned into one of the most fantastically stupid, episodes seven through nine. Partly that was because the plot became suddenly and aggressively absurd. (The show’s premise is only kind of absurd; competitions to the death for the entertainment of spectators are known to history.) But the bigger problem was that the evil masterminds turn out, when you finally meet them, to be farcical. They should have been like the masked partygoers in Eyes Wide Shut: anonymous, nearly silent, ritualistic in manner and deed, and for those reasons menacing. It’s like Hemingway’s iceberg theory. Instead, the Squid Game masterminds were like the dumbest Greek chorus in the history of tragedy — always summarizing what you’d just seen but adding no insight or emotion, and behaving all the while with a verbal and psychological simplicity that was subhuman. It’s as if the makers of the series had sat down after episode six and asked, “What can we now do to obliterate the tragedy and the horror with which we have so far so spectacularly bowled over our audience?” And the answer was to send in this preposterous clown troupe.

But episode six. In episode six, the contestants — who include sets of friends, a husband and wife, people who care about each other — pair up thinking they’ll be teams, only to be informed by a chirpy recorded female voice that one must bring about the other’s death. You have to watch them struggle with whether to manipulate and deceive each other or sacrifice themselves or leave it up to chance — the kinds of choices people make in totalitarian societies. We’ve been treated to a fair bit of op-edification about how Squid Game is revelatory of the evils of “capitalism,” blah blah blah. (Ms. McCloskey has some thoughts on that.) But what it really shows is what life can be like under conditions of absolute arbitrary authority. “Totalitarian” has become a popular term of description on the right for certain aspects of the progressive program, but some distinctions have enormous weight. I would not reduce totalitarianism to a polemical Twitter metaphor.

3. Spider-Man: No Way Home. I was surprised. I expected it to be awful in the way that Avengers: Infinity War is awful, which is that it cheats: It draws on the audience’s background knowledge from other movies to whip up emotions that have not been earned in the screenwriting. Since I lacked that background knowledge, Infinity War seemed to me like a series of melodramatic poses and weird tableaux punctuating an interminable fight scene the reason for which I did not understand.

No Way Home similarly draws on material from other Spider-Man movies, most of which I haven’t seen and none of whose plots I much recall. But that didn’t seem to matter; at the risk of being cheesy, I’ll say that I found it somewhat moving and uplifting. The writers must have done something right. The deus ex machina quality of the ending has been criticized, but a deus ex machina doesn’t always diminish a story’s dramatic power; I can imagine a good movie being made of the Book of Job. The writers could have tied up their loose ends a little better — if you think too hard about whether the plot involves a make-everybody-forget-something magic spell or a take-everybody-to-an-alternative-reality-that-includes-forgetting-something magic spell, you could get frustrated. But if you’ve ever been close to a person or to people and then suddenly had him or her or them treat you like a stranger, or done the reverse, you might find that the ending packs a particular punch.

About that multiverse, though . . . we need it why? I’m talking to you now, philosophical cosmogonist or cosmogonical philosopher. I’m not saying it isn’t fun for the theists and the atheists to spit venom at each other about fine-tuning. I’m not saying we can’t have interesting arguments about the concepts. But really, what is the explanatory problem that we’re trying to solve with the fine-tuning argument or the multiverse argument, according to our taste?

Is it scientific or existential?

It’s scientific? The physical laws and constants and initial conditions of the universe could have been very different, so why are they improbably just as they are?

Well, what do you mean by “improbably” here? It’s not like knowing what conditions must be met to cause some effect and knowing as well, from sufficient observation, that those conditions aren’t met very often. It’s not like trying to discover those conditions by formulating ever more complete hypotheses and watching as the probability of the effect given the truth of the hypothesis approaches unity. It’s not like repeatedly measuring the spin of some particle in your accelerator experiment and knowing the probabilities — though without knowing what, if anything, establishes them — of the possible measurements. It’s not like assuming that some general law is true and then knowing, again drawing on prior knowledge and observation, how likely some specific outcome is under that general assumption.

Aren’t you just imagining alternative logical possibilities — different mathematical values of constants, say — and demanding that the values in our universe be “explained” nonempirically by an act of stipulative fiat that instantiates all the values?

Are you assuming that all the logical possibilities are equally probable, so that, given their great number, any one of them looks extremely improbable? But why would you do that? What underwrites their alleged equal probability? The alleged multiverse is not, after all, a cause of some effect; it’s a collection of unrelated series of causes and effects whose cause is missing.

Or are you wanting to describe a physical process after all — cosmic inflation, say — as the cause of what would effectively be a partitioned universe, not a multiverse?

Why would every logical possibility be instantiated? Or are just some of them instantiated? Or are some instantiated in more universes than others? Why? Are some more probable than others, and some so improbable that they didn’t get instantiated at all?

Should you, then, not assume that the logical possibilities are all equally probable, but instead assume that their possible distributions are equally probable?

Why would you do that? Isn’t that just a higher-order version of the same mistake?

With humdrum empirical things that have humdrum empirical causes, if you don’t know the probabilities of the possible values, or don’t know the probabilities of the probabilities of the possible values, it’s methodologically reasonable to begin with the assumption that they’re equal. You’re proceeding from the unbiased starting point and — this is the crucial thing — nature will have every opportunity to correct you if nature is, against your starting assumption, biased. But why in the world would you make the same assumptions about an alleged multiverse when you can never observe its formation or observe the conditions in any alleged alternative universes — let alone observe multiple multiverses of alternative universes — so as to do some statistics on them? Aren’t you now turning your humble methodology with its corrigible assumptions into an a priori, incorrigible demand upon the cosmos?

*   *   *

Or is the problem existential? It’s not “Hey, look, there’s an event, or a physical type, that needs explaining” — a thunderstorm, an extinction, a spin state; a kind of molecule, a kind of organism — but rather “Wow, I am here, and that needs explaining”?

Well, why does your existence per se need explaining?

Is it that you feel very lucky? Very favored? Somewhat as if you had won a lottery? Or as if someone had rigged one for you?

Suppose you hadn’t won this cosmic lottery — in which case you never would have been around to fail to win it. You can understand the idea of a cosmos with no life forms. But since, in that imagined cosmos, you’re not there, indeed no one is there, relative to what can you understand unlucky or unfavored in order to draw the contrast with lucky or favored? If that distinction becomes meaningless once you assume the truth of one of the alternatives, were you really saying anything when, asserting the other alternative, you said that you felt lucky and wanted to explain your luck?

I feel glad that I exist. I do not know what it would mean to say that I feel lucky that I exist.

I feel lucky that, on an occasion when I might have died, I did not. I understand what it is to feel grateful to God that I did not die, and also to doubt that feeling and wonder if it was just dumb luck.

I understand what it is to infer, from the fact that I exist, that I must have parents, and that their parents must have had parents, and that there must have been appropriate physical causes of the organism type Homo sapiens. None of that has nothing to do with how I feel about existing, with the special significance I do or do not find in it.

But I have no idea why any of us should infer, from our gladness to exist and to be able to infer, that either there must be God or else we got damn lucky in the multiverse.

My presently possible future actual biographers may wish to know — beyond the fact that I hate them — that my future actual Nachlass possibly contains further thoughts on these topics. But this has been a popular entertainment, so I will wrap it up. Happy New Year.

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