Sartre and Batman

“If I choose to kill Brisseau, I am defining myself as a murderer… By choosing my action, I choose it for all mankind. But what happens if everyone in the world behaved like me and came here and shot Brisseau? What a mess! Not to mention the commotion from the doorbell ringing all night. And of course we’d need valet parking. Ah… how the mind boggles when it turns to ethical considerations!” – Woody Allen, “The Condemned”.

In response to my earlier blog post “Kantian Morality”, my geeky friend left a comment (in my old blog) and ended it with a question. She asked, “Another sage (Descartes?) one wrote that “I think, therefore I am.” Do you?”. When Descartes asked that question, his point is to proof that we exist, that we are not a figment of our imagination or other people’s imagination. How do we know that we really exist in this world? Well, according to Descartes, the fact that we think of this question is proof enough that we exist.

I often think about this question when I was a lot younger, when we still have time for fanciful thoughts and the heart is still not hardened by the realities of the real life, so to speak. I sometimes wonder if the tree that I see is really there, how do I know 100% sure that the tree really exists? After all, we are a culmination of our feelings. We think that the tree exist because 1) We see it with our own eyes, 2) We can go and feel the tree and indeed it is there, 3) Other people who also sees it confirms that it is there, 4) When a car rams into the tree, we hear the sounds, etc. But remember, we get all these because signals are sent to our brains that will then interpret the signals, i.e. when we see, we don’t really “see”. It is just that through a complex chemical process, the data or information is translated from our sensors to our brains that then interprets it and let us know what we see. Given this, how can we be 100% sure that what we see is what is really out there?

Well, after all these years, I gave this up and just take things as they are. I am pretty sure that the tree is there and even if my brain decides to trick me, I don’t think I want to test it by knocking my head into it. So, yeah, ok. The tree is there. But at the back of my mind, I try to be careful when I experience new things or when I face questions or situations. From my experience, really, what the brain and the senses tell you is really wrong. One really has to have that judgment but that will come from experience.

Now, I am more of a Sartre and Nietzsche person but not really wholly an existentialist. Instead of “I think, therefore I am”, it is more like “I am, therefore I think”. There is a whole world of difference. Now, I believe that I exist above all, that this is what there is and I better make good use of what exist now. I am responsible for my own actions and so is everyone else. When everyone is responsible for their own actions, everyone will be happy. So the fact for me now is I am able to think now BECAUSE I exist. Not that I exist because I think. Come to think of it now, “I exist because I think” sound rather foolish, isn’t it? It has to be the other way round. Or does it really make much difference? Aren’t they both sides of the same coin?

After one watches the latest installment of the Batman movie, THE DARK KNIGHT, one cannot help but be philosophical. At least a little bit. This is really great because when was the last time one watches a Hollywood blockbuster which is a sequel to a comic book adaptation that is a top grossing movie but is at the same time well made, deep and inspire philosophy? Whoa, a long time ago if you ask me. Despite a couple of things that annoy me re this movie, most notably the horrible Hong Kong linked story and the cliched Chinese bad guy, I think that this is really a superb movie.

Above all, it raises a lot of moral and ethical questions. Are human innately good or evil? At the face of extinction, will human remain good or will there be anarchy and to each his own? I have heard many times that when there is really no food, when mankind fights for survival, well, as Darwin will put it, only the fittest will survive and thus there will bound to be anarchy. All moral foundations will collapse and the only thing that will be in person’s mind is to live another day. Is this really the truth? If you ask me, I think this is not. Because if I put myself in that situation, I would rather die than survive in such a horrible world. I don’t think I am alone and if really everyone thinks like I do, then there is bound to be solutions to our problems. When all of mankind can decide to die together, I think nothing in this universe can match that power. Maybe.

The DARK KNIGHT’s two main characters are of course the Batman and the Joker. Supporting them are Gordon, Rachel, the two faced man Harvey, Fox and Alfred. Each of this characters is distinct in itself and each represents a different philosophical proposition, so to speak.

[What is ahead may contain spoilers]

Batman’s purpose is to create law and order in the society but he can only choose what he defend and he cannot defend everything. By taking the law into his own hands, he is himself an outlaw and the citizens of Gotham demands that this outlaw be put to justice, even though all he does is to protect Gotham from the bad guys. This image that he created “inspired” a legion of Batman wannabes, and like Batman, they take the laws into their own hands and creating chaos. Batman knows that his existence is important to the order of the society there but he also knows that he cannot continue to be Batman, the hero that is an outlaw that lives and works at night. He knows that he must give way to the proper and correct way of justice, via the constitution and the law and their enforcers. Only then can real justice and peace be attained. To pass the baton to a person capable of doing that is his retirement plan and he found that candidate in Harvey Dent and plans to pass the baton to him.

However, here comes the Joker from practically nowhere. His origins were not said although some of his dark histories are pointed at when the Joker proudly tells the story of how he got the “smile” on his face. “Why so serious?”. The Joker is the opposite of what Batman is. If Batman is for law and order, the Joker is for anarchy (or so it seems). If Batman is for certainty, the Joker is for surprises. If Batman believes that mankind is innately good and can self-govern, the Joker plans an experiment to prove to Batman that he is wrong, that mankind is selfish to the core and will kill for survival. Ultimately, we see the struggle of the two opposing forces throughout the movie and how that played out. There are no right or wrong answers and there are no clearcut win or lose. It is a process of mankind’s self discovery, of the understanding of their own nature. In a sense, the Joker is very successful in pointing us towards that direction of discovery.

Ultimately, there is no black and white answers. The truth may not be the Truth and the Truth can be hidden for the better good of mankind. Is this right? Should the Truth always be told no matter what? I think perhaps this utopian idea that the truth must be told 100% of the time is truly not practical in this very complex world that we live in. We need to sometimes not tell the Truth so that the world can be a better place, so that Mankind can still dream and can still have hope. But then again, who should have the power to tell or not tell the Truth? Who can say that he is perfect and can be the guardian of Truth and can be relied on 100% of the time that what he does is 100% for the benefit of mankind? Maybe God? So, when Lucius Fox got to know that Batman has used the ultrasound technology to map the city, he said that no one, not even Batman or himself, should have this kind of power.

I think, in short, this is why THE DARK KNIGHT impressed me, by being bold and asked these questions, have the guts to not answer the question but instead make us think and at the same time, make an insane amount of money in the box office. Wonderful eh?

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5 Comments

Filed under Movies, Philosophy, Thoughts & Commentaries

5 responses to “Sartre and Batman

  1. Yehuda Kovesh

    Growing up in Australia, I was profoundly influenced by Sartre and his philosophy (which took years to understand, going through various stages), but the entire idea of romantic involvement was heavily influenced by his relationship with Simone Beauvoir.. More than once I sit, as I visit Paris often, at Cafe Deux Magots and look at the picture of Sartre and beauvoir.. But at least it bgan a long affair with French Philosophy..i have loved Foucault, DeLeuze and Derrida and now reading Luc Ferry.
    Rene Descartes, has had a profound influence on the thinking of the western world and also on Modern medicine (even the “modern medicine” practised in your hometown), by what is called the cartesian dualism.. separation of the mind and the body, as a revolt againt the church’s hegemony over the body and the mind.. to separate mind and the body..
    Most physicians, in KL or NY, separate mind and the body, for different purposes altogether and with detrimental results.
    You cannot doubt your existence but you do agree that we can doubt about the existence of thinking among many people around us..
    I think, therefore I am..

  2. fallingstones

    Dear Dr. Yehuda, thanks for the comments ;-) Indeed, your observation is really true, the existence of thinking is becoming more and more of a rare commodity and as my friend YTSL has also said, the education system here in Malaysia is not making any good of this.

    Re Sartre, indeed I still don’t understand a lot of his philosophy, having tried to read BEING AND NOTHINGNESS for many times but each time failing to finish the book from cover to cover at least once. I have then to make do with starting and ending at odd chapters but I really hope to be able to read the book again. But it is really too hard for me.

    When I visited Sartre’s and Simone Beauvoir’s grave in Paris, a big emotion welled inside me, two such talented and fateful person and their brilliance is simply humbling. I too, lazed around and sat every morning at Cafe Deux Magot and start to think of Sartre there. Maybe it is a touristic thing to do but my and my wife really enjoyed sitting there and watching people and there is this old man that we saw every day, sitting at his reserved table and kept on reading and writing. He really reminded us of Sartre. How I wish to be able to visit Paris again and do the same things all over again, laze around the cafes, visit cemeteries, sit around and stare at paintings, looking at lovers at Place Dauphine….

  3. Dear Falling Stones and Yehuda,

    I’m no philosopher, so pardon me if my comments are not so profound. This post is interesting since it rekindles some introspection I had a long time ago but couldn’t voice out. Hope my thoughts do justice here…

    I think, therefore I am:
    Such a philosophy implies an changing entity…i.e. me…. As my thoughts change, so do I. Innately, I am able to progress, improve and acheive something more, be something more, unlimited by the slow decay of my body… Perhaps, some part of my thoughts may even survive the decay of this corporal entity, I call my body…

    I am, therefore I think:
    For me, this implies an unchanging entity rooted in time and space…. My thoughts do not (largely) affect me. As I am independent of my thoughts, am I not limited by my corporal existence? How can I be something more, if all I am is this flesh and body?

    Coming back to your example of reality…I think looking at the physical DVD is instructive. Is it really just a flat circular piece of material made of silicon? Or is it much more? Is it just a DVD or is it more? Put it in a DVD drive, it becomes something else entirely…

    So, for me: *I* think, Thefore *I* am…

    Definition of *I* = The sum of the Net Present Value of all my karmic actions

    So, I will forever change based on my actions and thoughts, depending on the time period referrred to.

    Ahh… I don’t know whether I make sense, so do pardon me. It’s a long time since I’ve attempted to articulate my own philosophy into the meaning of life.

    Rgds

  4. fallingstones

    Hi Avatar! Sorry for the late reply…

    I like your definition of *I* ;-) NPV of all you karmic actions. I have never thought of it that way.

    I think in this sense, we are what we are because we think and choose our actions. But the case now is really that if you as a physical object dis not exist in the first place, there is no thinking at all. *What* is think? You must exist physically first to give rise to thinking and action. Then your thoughts and actions will *Define* you.

    So when Descartes said I think, therefore I am to prove the existence of *I*, it should really be the other way round, imho, because *I* must exist first to give rise to thoughts and actions. But the duality and separation of thought and body is a really significant idea. And when the Buddha asked “Wherefore does the soul rest?”, the existence of the Soul is questioned, which to me is another major idea.

    I think you are right, i.e. the definition of *I* as the NPV of all your karmic actions will change because it is a function of your actions and this comes really close to the idea of the existentialists, i.e., you are born to be free, to be free is a burden because you are solely responsible for your own actions.

    My two sen ;-)

  5. Hehe… I thought you would like the NPV analogy :)
    I’ll have to reflect more deeply on what you just said though…

    Cheers…

    BTW – Maybe you should schedule your posts in advance. It’s a good way to keep up with weekly posting and yet find time to manage between your busy work life, practising Go and blogging :)

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