November 01, 2006

Movies about Magicians that Raise Philosophical Issues that Can't Be Discussed without Spoilers: An Occasional Series

Just saw The Prestige, which I recommend highly (though if you don't like Christopher Nolan's dark twisty movies you won't like this). The movie raises some philosophical questions, which I can't explain without utterly spoiling it, and I think you should see it without having it spoiled. So I'll mention that in comments, which I expect to be a spoiler-full zone.

Jim Henley has a spoilery account of an alternate way that the movie could have gone, which (as I explain in his comments and maybe in mine) I think would've been better in one way but in another way worse.

Anyway, SPOILER in comments. I may post more thoughts about the movie in comments eventually.

Posted by Matt Weiner at November 1, 2006 12:55 PM

Serious, total spoiler. I'm warning you. See the movie.

The issue is: Is the person played by Hugh Jackman by the end of the movie really Angier anymore? It's a classic teleportation problem, with the proviso that the original survives briefly after the duplicate materializes in the back of the theater.

That doesn't go beyond the standard personal identity literature, but a couple of other interesting points are raised about how Angier should feel about the fates of the various duplicates. When Michael Caine realizes what Angier as done, he tells him (as revenge) that he previously lied about drowning being a peaceful way to die. So Angier knows that the original Angier (and previous copies) died in agony. But should this distress Angier? It is clear that by then he cares for no one's suffering but his own; should the suffering of his exact duplicate bother him?

On the other hand, Angier talks about the courage it takes to step into the machine not knowing whether he'll be the one who takes the bow or the one who winds up in the box. On one level this seems wrong. Angier knows exactly what will happen: The body that is in the machine will drown, and a duplicate will appear with memories of his past life. But this seems to be getting at something too, as though the rational attitude to take is that you have a half chance of suffering each fate.

Interesting to note the different treatment of personal identity here and in Memento. In The Prestige Angier has continuity of memory but not bodily continuity; in Memento Leonard has bodily continuity but not continuity of memory (after he gets hit on the head).

Posted by: Matt Weiner at November 1, 2006 01:08 PM

I was disappointed because I thought the revelation of nightly drowning, though clever, made Angier out to be either suicidal or philosophically confused about his own survival: It suggested he was content to kill himself every night and be replaced by a clone. Even if he mistakenly thought he would go peacefully, it seemed too selfless. "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying." -W. Allen

While puzzling over the remark about his courage at the uncertainty, it occurred to me that it could be in doubt whether the machine worked by leaving the original intact and creating a remote duplicate, or by teleporting the original (molecule for molecule, as one says, so the original matter moves) while synthesizing a duplicate in its place. I took for granted the former was implied. But I guess the evidence would be the same in both cases.

Clearly Nolan has read philosophy of personal identity -- perhaps too much. I thought Memento much better (and The Illusionist as well).

Posted by: Anders Weinstein at November 1, 2006 02:02 PM

But I don't think Angier is confused; at worst he holds a different theory from yours. I would say that, given the rapid destruction of the old Angier, the survivor is still Angier. I'm not sure that the teleportation of the original molecules would make a difference here, although it might on some theories.

And selfless isn't exactly the word; it seems as though Angier is willing to commit a kind of suicide in order to have (and enjoy) his revenge. That's why I thought Henley's alternate ending (on which Tesla's machine is a scam, and the body in the tank is Root, on whom Angier is also revenging himself) was inferior as an ending to the movie even though it was superior as a twist. We need to appreciate how horrible Angier's obsession has become; he'll commit a kind of suicide in order to bring Borden down.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at November 3, 2006 12:36 PM

I much preferred The Prestige to The Illusionist, btw. In some ways The Prestige is closer to the original story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," though that may be jsut that there's a rival magician in the story and not in the movie of The Illusionist.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at November 3, 2006 12:39 PM

I can't get over the idea that on the implied understanding of the machine, he should unambigously envisage that he will fall through a trapdoor into a tank of water and coexist for a short time with a clone while drowning. True he could hold Nozick's closest continuer theory, in which case this constitutes enough for personal survival. Or he could be so unhinged by obssession that dying to achieve his revenge while his projects are carried on by a clone is OK with him. But what he expreses is the 50-50 uncertainty you also criticize. The teleportation of his matter would at least make a Ship of Theseus type conundrum out of the situation.

Distrusting all movie deaths involving a magician, I had toward the end assumed the corpse was going to be revealed to be Root. So I do give the ending points for achieving a genuine, enjoyably grisly surprise. But it also turned the film into a kind of joke to me.

Posted by: Anders Weinstein at November 5, 2006 03:13 PM

Tesla suggests that the two bodies have an equal claim to be the original ("they are all your hat"), and perhaps Angier takes Tesla seriously, although that seems like the kind of theory only a weirdo or a physicist would believe.

The default assumption by a reasonable person would be that the body that remains in place is the original self, and the body removed in space is a mere copy. It may be significant that on his first experiment, Angier arranges for the stationary Angier to have a gun with which to kill the transported Angier, not vice versa. It would require a certain philosophical courage to do the opposite.

However, consider the position of Angier after he has performed the stage trick a few times. Whatever his reasoned beliefs on the matter, his "gut feel" may now be that only a copy is killed, and he, the real self that enters the cage, will appear on the other side of the theater. After all, that's the way it's always happened before.

Posted by: Richard Mason at November 5, 2006 11:52 PM

The Prestige was miles better than the miserable Illusionist.

I will be interested to see what Philosophical Issues that Can't Be Discussed without Spoilers will be raised by Carter Beats the Devil, The War Magician, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Posted by: Richard Mason at November 6, 2006 12:03 AM

After all, that's the way it's always happened before.

I like this induction!

Anders, I agree that the 50-50 fear seems confused; but in a weird way it also makes sense. Think of it this way: If Angier goes into the machine feeling that there is a 50-50 chance that he will drown, then after the teleportation half of all people with that fear will drown, which seems accurate. (If you hold to a branching-time model of probability, like some people I know, then this is not unlike what actually happens in a Schrödinger's cat experiment; one cat lives, one cat dies, they're just in different branches of time. I think the branching-time theorists I know do not actually accept this interpretation.)

Richard, I have sympathy for Nozick's closest-continuer theory, which may leave it open that which one is Angier depends on what happens immediately afterwards. The first time, the original remained Angier because he killed the duplicate; afterward, the duplicate was Angier because he survived. I think you're right about the philosophical courage though.

I wouldn't call The Illusionist miserable -- I enjoy Norton and Giamatti -- but fluffy, for sure.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at November 6, 2006 09:29 AM

By one of life's funny little coincidences, just shortly before seeing The Prestige, I was watching this Saturday morning's episode of "The Batman" cartoon.

In this most recent episode, Batman faced the Everywhere Man, who was able to make copies of himself, and copies of copies. (The lower-case "e" on his costume might stand for Everywhere Man, but I prefer to think of it as Euler's constant.)

As you might imagine, this story touched on some of the same issues as The Prestige. In a Saturday morning cartoon way...

At one point, the Everywhere Man ordered his entire army of copies up to the penthouse roof to fight Batman. It seems that if you order all your copies to converge on one location, you're really, really missing the point of being the Everywhere Man.

Anyway, my point is, this Batman cartoon gave more credit to its audience and had more unpredictable plot twists than The Illusionist.

Posted by: Richard Mason at November 7, 2006 01:29 PM