Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Detestable as his persona may be the Merovingian gets the laurel

In his talk "Naturalism: The Next Step for Humanists?" (Part 2) before the Freethought Association of Western Michigan, Center for Naturalism director Tom Clark mentions the character known as the Merovingian in the movie The Matrix: Reloaded and how he debates with the "good guys" about choice and causality.

Having been a Matrix fan (of the original flick, not at all the sequels!) I was really curious as to what the Merovingian (until now I had no idea how that was spelt) had to say about causality. Here's the pertinent portion (I initially cut out the juicier section but then figured it's an essential example and so pasted it back in).

Merovingian: You are here because you were sent here, you were told to come here and you obeyed. [Laughs] It is, of course, the way of all things. You see, there is only one constant, one universal, it is the only real truth: causality. Action. Reaction. Cause and effect.

Morpheus: Everything begins with choice.

Merovingian: No. Wrong. Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without. Look there, at that woman. My God, just look at her. Affecting everyone around her, so obvious, so bourgeois, so boring. But wait... Watch - you see, I have sent her dessert, a very special dessert. I wrote it myself. It starts so simply, each line of the program creating a new effect, just like poetry. First, a rush... heat... her heart flutters. You can see it, Neo, yes? She does not understand why - is it the wine? No. What is it then, what is the reason? And soon it does not matter, soon the why and the reason are gone, and all that matters is the feeling itself. This is the nature of the universe. We struggle against it, we fight to deny it, but it is of course pretense, it is a lie. Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely out of control. Causality. There is no escape from it, we are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the `why.'

It's funny (actually not so funny) that I don't remember at all the emphasis of the dialogue on causuality. This selective attention, or more to the point, inattention is for me quite telling. At the time I saw Reloaded this matter of choice (free will) vis-a-vis cause and effect was anything but central in my jumble of interest and so I was totally refractory to what in fact was rather important to the story. But reading the script now makes me nod (albeit cautiously) in agreement with the Merovingian. While "[causuality] is the only truth" is too audacious or exaggerated a claim I believe, underscoring causality as the engine of basically all phenomena in the universe shouldn't be a brow-raising claim. It should in fact be a truism. Even Christian philosophers I think would agree (with their First Cause argument and all).

Moreover, I think the Merovingian makes an excellent point when he says that our only hope is to understand it. Confusing what it is that actually brought about something leads to all sorts of bad consequences: Superstition and post hoc errors, locking up the wrong person, attribution of various forces in nature to anthropomorphized invisible beings, etc. Hence we need a way of finding out the "true causes" of things. In that regard what is science if not in fact largely an endeavor to reliably understand causes of various natural phenomena. What is skeptical inquiry but a search for (mundane) natural causes for what some claim to be apparently supernatural or paranormal phenomena. What is engineering (applied sciences including medicine) if not the use of knowledge of causal factors in molding the world around us, in controlling and making use of our understanding of the world to cause various things to happen including the maintenance of our health and prolongation of our lives.

Our society relies on the assumption that what we understand as reliable/correct causal explanations indeed hold true today, tomorrow, a century from now, whether in Asia or in the Western hemisphere or on the sandy shores far far away where Spirit and Opportunity are dune buggying about. We wouldn't want to wake up one day and discover that nuclear fusion doesn't result in the radiation of an awful amount of heat (unless perhaps unless we've already anthropogenically caused a thermal runaway no thanks to the greenhouse effect). Then again we might every now and then cherish the fantasy that causality would cease operating in some areas: "Breaking News: Germs no longer cause infections!" Of course such a welcome report may not be a pipe dream were medical science to come up with a way of causing our bodies to become immune and resistant to any and all pathogens. Science and pretty much everyday common sense is premissed on determinism (let's not get into quantum mechanics for now, not least because I'm physics-challenged). We tacitly engage the world with the assumption that there is order in the world, that causality is real, that things don't happen without cause, even if that cause is thought to be otherworldly (or never-neverworldly) in origin and nature.

As the Merovingian only knows too well to understand causal factors is to have power, for with such knowledge one can (at least in principle) control the universe. For better or for worse that is the opportunity that science provides us, now, today. On the other hand, supernaturalism, whose causal hypotheses cannot be tested and whose claimed supernatural laws and forces are by definition beyond our ken and reach, is simply devoid of much of anything. As with the Merovingian's test subject supernaturalists don't care about the why, only the feeling, the psychological benefits that now ensue from having such a fantastical worldview. It would be well for all of us for science to discover in the soonest possible time the causes of such delusory escapades and the apparent need of some to lose themselves in the highs such irrationality affords.

(Yep, I couldn't resist capping this entry with a stab at our nemesis)

1 comment:

Bronze Dog said...

Just providing a little of my understanding (and therefore, probably not-understanding) of quantum mechanics: It's deterministic, but probabilistic. Exception I've heard: Virtual particles seem to be acausal, at least thus far.