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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Thinking Too Hard About Forbidden Planet... the "plastic educator" as a thought experiment towards epistemology and theology

Fred Wilcox's Forbidden Planet (1956) is a sci-fi classic. It's imaginative premise carries it, in my opinion, into the realm of sci-fi horror, and into the jurisdiction of this blog. My project tonight is to develop further the argument I got into after I saw it. I don't intend to detract at all from the film, only to use it as a jumping-off point.

The action takes place on planet Altair IV, as an expedition arrives to investigate what happened to an early expedition crew on the planet. Two inhabitants, Dr. Morbius and his daughter, remain after an unknown force destroyed the other members of their expedition nearly 20 years prior. Morbius is engaged in the study of the Krell, a race that lived on Altair IV but disappeared completely in a single night 200,000 years earlier, immediately after making their ultimate technological achievement. That piece of technology is the "plastic educator," which allows for the 3-dimensional projection of thoughts from the user's mind. What killed the Krell, what destroyed Morbius's expedition crew, and what threatens the new expedition, are revealed to be monsters from the id (the Freudian subconscious). One monster was created by the Krell when they first used the plastic educator, and Morbius inadvertently did the same when he used it.

The monster that is created by the plastic educator is a three-dimensional manifestation of the id of the user. So here is my essential question:

Let's assume that the plastic educator operates like a three-dimensional printer, but with access to any raw material, such that it could theoretically, with appropriately detailed instructions, "print" a living thing... Assuming the theory behind the machine is sound, could it work?

I think not, because of the limitations of human knowledge, which are insufficient instruction for even an advanced technology such as this. This impossibility, I think, points us at the philosophical underpinnings of Christian creation mythology.

The Limits of Human Knowledge
It is a common contention to argue that man cannot interact with the world itself; that his perceptions are always mediated by the the limitations of his senses. As such, he always perceives phenomena, not as they are, but as they appear to him. The most that man can know about an object he encounters is merely the surface character of the object. Any object has a horizon; the viewer, confined to a single perspective, cannot perceive, for example, both faces of a playing card at the same time. The way that the viewer assimilates these surface impressions with prior experiences (that a card has two faces, and that the hidden face continues to exist when not in view) is referred to among phenomenologists and psychologists as "apperception." Man's interactions with the world are solely his apperceptions of sensory phenomena interpreted through the history of the individual's experience.

What does it mean for man to "know" an object? Given that a corporeal object has objectively real characteristics, the problem remains that man cannot know them. He has an apperceived representation in his mind of what a "playing card" is, but he cannot, with exactitude, fully know the objective qualities of the jack of clubs. He does not know what the shape of the card is, really. He can use a ruler and protractor to measure the lengths of the edges and the curvature of the corners, but this is merely an analogy, an interpretation through the constructed language of numbers and committed to memory after the measurments have been made. Making a mathematical analogy is the probably the best that we can accomplish, but it is not a true knowledge.

Accordingly, the plastic educator from Forbidden Planet cannot work, because the thoughts of the user cannot contain instructions sufficient for the creation of the monster. The machine's user would have to have a true knowledge of the biology of the beast. Without instructions of a perfect specificity for the nervous and circulatory systems of the monster, the machine can only actualize as much as man's representational apperceptions will allow. Furthmore, with this monster in particular, there would have to be knowledge of the biology of invisibility, which really only "exists" as the analogy "the opposite of visible."

Note that language is all that man has as a way to interact with the world. In apperception and representational thought, he creates and deals with a symoblic system of interchangeable and related words and images.

Granted, the film posits that the plastic educator exponentially increases the intelligence of the user, so perhaps that the secret that makes the machine "work." Perhaps the user is able to harness a symbolic language of a complexity equivalent to the complexity of the objective world.

Some Theology by way of Gadamer
What would be the opposite of man's limitations? The following is an exploration of Gadamer's concept of the Holy Trinity as a solution to the problem with which man is confronted when he recognizes his own finitude does not comport with his notions of "creation."

In his Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer discusses the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity as a contribution to the philosophy of language. Gadamer sees the Trinity as a response to the recognition of the problem of language and thought. In Christian theology, God stands as the opposite of what man recognizes in himself, giving him something to measure himself against.

Gadamer demonstrates three essential differences between the word of man and the word of God. The first difference is that the human word represents potential, whereas the word of God is pure actuality. Man forms his words as tools for the expression of his thoughts. God needs no such tool, as His word is His thought, and He requires no intermediary. The second difference is that the human word is incomplete. Man requires many words to give expression to something, and his expression is always inadequate. This contrasts with the word of the divine mind, which expresses everything in one word. The final difference is that the word of God is immediate, while man’s word is temporally defined. This dichotomy implies the infinity of man’s mind, which cannot be expressed in a lifetime of finite words, whereas the divine mind expresses everything into existence perfectly and immediately.

The analogy between the word of God and the word of man is an attempt to determine what “expression” is. Man’s life is an undertaking in expression. His creative capacities are all expressive. When he speaks, he is expressing a thought or concept, and that expression is treated as a tool or as a sign for what he is trying to communicate. When he crafts something, whatever he constructs is mediated by it being an expressive tool (a chair starts as an idea, not as wood). There is a lack of fit between this understanding of how things are expressed and how it can be that the world is a perfect creation.

The Holy Spirit is an explanation of perfect knowledge. Perfect knowledge is the missing link between man’s inadequate expressions and the perfectly formed divine word. Gadamer discusses how Greek thought maintains that “the adequacy of the word [expression] can be judged only from the knowledge of the thing it refers to.” For man’s expressions to fully realize that to which they refer, he must have a perfect knowledge of the thing, but that knowledge is always mediated by his experiences (Gadamer discusses at length how human knowledge is never transcendent, but is instead a fluid, autobiographical understanding of things as they are interrupted and modified by other interactions). What remains for the possibility of unmediated experience is a definition of perfect knowledge as being the object known. Where man can only "know about" the earth or the sky, it is solely God who knows them, being them as the Holy Spirit. This distance between man and the object of his knowledge is a great frustration to the lust for unity.

The immediacy of the word of God undercuts the mediation of time on man’s expressions. When man has a half-completed project in his possession, or a half-articulated sentence hanging in the air, the imposition of time on his expression is evident. The word of God is not mediated by time, because to attempt to understand God temporally raises more difficult questions. The theology that Gadamer considers treats creation in the sense of “In the beginning there was the Word,” a stranger concept than that of God as a craftsman laboring for six days. The understanding of the creation as a word indicates that the world and its articulation are simultaneous. This is key to understanding the world and God in as close a sense as possible. God is greater than man because He truly expresses, whereas man only gestures.

The Christian tradition relies on the mystery of God for its explanatory power. God is understood as what is, and the Trinity is what must "be" (in the verb sense) for God to "be" (in the existential, always-existing sense), and likewise it is the explanation for a world that does not conform to man’s understanding cause-and-effect Being. Man’s understanding of what "is" requires manifestation, and so God must manifest in three contradictory forms, satisfying the requirement of existence in order to serve as a solution to the problems of man’s finitude.

Back to Forbidden Planet
The user of the plastic educator can only actualize his knowledge if he truly has a deific knowledge of his creation. If the film relies on the premise that such knowledge is possible by increasing the capacity of man's intelligence, then it sort of suggests that man is on the same continuum as his god. That is certainly interesting, at least.