Thursday, July 09, 2009

Knowing Without Meaning May Not Be Enough

In Knowing, ingenious director Alex Proyas presents the tale of an astrophysicist who is convinced by a number list "randomly" presented to his son that he can predict and prevent disasters.

When John Koestler's son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) comes home from school with a list of numbers scrawled out by a youngster 50 years previous, John (Nicholas Cage) insists that he must return it as quickly as possible.

Upon more closely examining the page, however, John recognizes that 9/11 is predicted on it -- right down to the number of people killed on that fateful day. As he continues to examine the list he finds that each one corresponds to every major disaster of the previous 50 years, including the one that killed his wife.

According to the philsophical principle of determinism, everything that happens occurs for a reason. It insists that there is purpose and meaning to everything that unfolds in the universe.

Determinism is at the heart not only of many theistic religions, but also of many works of historical study. Theological scholars, like historians, often look for underlying causes for any particular event that would render them inevitable.

John Koestler doesn't fully believe in determinism, even though his father is a pastor.

John eventually concludes that the number series is a warning meant for him. He concludes that he must be able to prevent these incidents from happening, if only he can discern what they are. And yet, despite his best efforts, they continue happening. These events may be pre-determined to the extent that not even his intervention can prevent them.

In Preempting Dissent, Andy Opel and Greg Elmer argue that preemptive action is based on a principle of inevitability.

Aside from the minor detail that inevitability suggests that an event cannot be prevented -- whereas most of those who offer justification for preemptive action insist that it's necessary in order to prevent something from occurring -- the determinist philosophy of which Koesler speaks of seems to be deeply ingrained within Opel and Elmer's thesis.

This element of determinism is unmistakable. It should be remembered that Elmer and Opel don't necessarily incorporate this determinism as part of their own personal beliefs, but rather attribute that determinism to the beliefs of others -- in this case, those who make important policy decisions.

While that determinism may not be as pure as the version described by Koesler -- purely considered, determinism ascribes meaning and inevitability to events through a combination of natural and human factors -- this impurity actually suits the needs of Elmer and Opel's argument. Opel and Elmer's thesis is best related to human factors alone.

In Knowing, there is much more to the list than it would seem. In its own way, the list very much is a form of otherworldly intervention. It very much does have meaning and purpose, even if the events it predicts actually cannot be averted -- even one that seems like it may be the end of the world.

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