Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Philosophical Fringe (a cultural engagement by an orthodox rebel)

The TV series Fringe is definitely the new X-files (except it's not as dark, and its lead character doesn't have the personality of a plank of wood). Since I'm more of a movie/animation man, I don't really watch it. My family does, however, and thus my DVR queue is plagued with various episodes of Abrams' and Carter's love child, robbing my of the pure aesthetic delights found in Whose Line is it Anyway? and Teen Titans. But I digress.

The current season has the main character, Olivia Dunham, trapped and confused in a parallel version of Earth. Due to a series of unfortunate and convoluted events, Olivia and her parallel self have switched universes: her alternative self works reconnaissance for her parallel universe boss while Olivia has been brainwashed into thinking that she is her parallel self and goes about living her (that is, the alternative her) life. Got it?

Of course, our stalwart (and rather lovely) hero can't stay trapped forever. Her old self keeps trying to break through, making her do little things that her alternative self wouldn't do. On top of that, her old life keeps visiting her in the form of hallucinations shaped like her friend (and new love interest) Peter Bishop. If your keyboard isn't soaked with the drool of intrigue by now, then that means that you still have a soul.

During one of her hallucinations, Peter tries to tell Olivia that she is not a part of this world and that she knows it. Olivia gives the typical denial response of "You're not real." To which, the quick-witted hallucination replies, "Reality is a matter of perception." That, apparently, is his metaphysical slam dunk, because Olivia has nothing to say back. End scene. End episode. I wonder what's gonna happen now, kids.

I really wish that Peter hadn't said what he said, because he didn't mean it. How do I know? Because if he meant what he said, then he wasn't making any sense. What he said was, "Reality is a matter of perception." What he meant was, "Reality is a matter of fact. Illusion is a matter of perception."

You see, Peter is trying to convince Olivia that what she thinks is real is not so; it goes against the facts, facts that are true and immutable. Her current "reality," however, is not based on the facts. It is based merely on her perception, which has been twisted and distorted, and thus is producing illusion. He is trying to get her to wake up from the illusion and back to reality.

Think about it: If Peter really meant what he said, then Olivia is doomed. If reality is only a matter of "perception," then reality is merely a matter of the mind perceiving it, which is to say that reality is only a matter of the individual mind. The source of reality (the logos, if you will) is your own mind. This kind of reasoning is called solipsism, and it is extremely dangerous. If reality is merely a matter of your own personal perception, then you are never in touch with reality (i.e., the facts); you are only in touch with your perception of it.

Furthermore, if you are only in touch with your perception of it, then you can never get outside of your perception to view actual reality and measure it against your perception to see if your perception stacks up to it. Thus, there is no way for you to know if your perception is the truth, i.e., if it conforms to the facts. You could very well be trapped (forever, I might add) in a world of self-created illusion. That is why it would spell doom for Olivia. There would be no escaping her perception, because she cannot escape her own mind.

Mere nitpicking, you say? Hardly. Peter Bishop is advocating reality over illusion. He is (in a sense) a visual demonstration of a solution to solipsism: if you are totally trapped away from reality, then the only hope for you is if reality comes to you. There are all kinds of philosophically Christian considerations in such a solution (viz., the Incarnation), as well as all kinds of virtuous thoughts (viz., reality is good and reality is attainable).

All of those thoughts and considerations, however, are lost under a pile of slip-shod writing. "Reality is a matter of perception" positively reeks of  post-modern sentimentalism and sloganeering. It communicates nothing of the hardy and proper philosophy that Peter is actually trying to convey. That is what annoys me. Something true and good was being presented, but it was lost. Its communication failed. In its place was an extremely noxious notion that exalts illusion to primacy and banishes reality to the fringe.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010


  1. At first this post pissed me off. But then it started to make sense. Congrats.

  2. That's why I'm here: to anger you into understanding. 8^D