A 2012 Sized Explanatory Gap

I guess once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.  Obscure scientist discovers odd and shocking environmental data, and from it he predicts future grand natural catastrophes.  Government either ignores it or fumbles the intervention.  The end of the world as we know it comes.  Somehow, humanity survives, and emerges more compassionate and wise as a result.  The end.

That is how, oh, about 20 other movies over the last 10 years go.  The latest incarnation is 2012.

I do admit that I was entertained watching the movie, despite the predictability of the plot.  The special effects were good, and there were some supporting characters along the way (most notably, the Russian, Woody Harrelson’s character, and the weenie plastic surgeon guy) that added color.  There were some things that bugged me, though.

First, the main character, Jackson Curtis, escapes by a hair one too many times.  It seems like at least 7 or 8 times he eludes a horrible and painful death by literally milimeters.  If it happened once or twice I would have bought it, but after he outruns the earthquake and dodges the flaming hot lava rocks for the upteenth time, the movie jumped the shark for me.

Theme-wise, 2012 also sent a very mixed and confused message.  It is clear that the “acts of God” in the movie are nothing of the sort: they are completely natural.  And though there’s this whole “Noah’s Ark” motif going on (the humans survive the tsunami’s via–you guessed it–gigantic arks), divine providence has no role in the survival of humanity.  We do it all ourselves via our own courage and ingenuity.  The religious point of view is present, but never taken seriously: it mainly pops up in crazed-eyed, sandwich-card-placard-wearing preachers roaming the street proclaiming the end of the world (oh, we’ve never seen *that* image in Hollywood have we?  Totally unique).  The whole thing is kind of a circus side show.

So on the one hand the disasters are completely natural, and humans save themselves, therefore 2012 is a sort of ode to human triumph.  It’s a very colorful “survival of the fittest” tale, if you will.  But on the other hand there is a message of compassion, trumpeted by another main character, Adrian Helmsley.

The climactic scene occurs when most of the “ticketed” passengers are aboard the arks (rather than a lottery, giving all humans an equal chance, certain people with influence are allowed to buy their survival).  With only a few minutes to spare before a gigantic tsunami hits, the doors close, and the ship prepares to set off, leaving the countless people outside to die.  Helmlsey interjects aggressively, arguing for compassion.  We are humans, he argues, and humans are supposed to show compassion.

The foil to this speech is Carl Anheuser, who argues for a more “practical” perspective.  To him, the goal in this “ark” endeavor is not compassion, but survival.  Yes, he notes, the lost lives outside will be unfortunate, but they do not have much of a choice: if the doors re open to allow the others inside, they will not survive.  The ticketing method of entry isn’t pretty, he admits, but the arks are supposed to preserve human culture.  The people who have passage aboard the ship have more merit than those outside due to what they’ve contributed to society and their functional value.  All this is quite odious to Hemlsley.

In the end, Helmsley’s argument wins the day: compassion is victorioius over survival and species preservation.

I’m greateful that was the message of the movie, but I’m perplexed because there’s a gap in the theme.  The overarching metaphysic of 2012 is naturalistic: there is no God maneauvering in the world–natural causes reign.  On this story, survival of the species is the goal.  However, human compassion wins in the end.  The problem isn’t that humans can’t be compassionate in a naturalistic view; it’s that there’s no rational reason to act in such a way.

On naturalism, what’s so special about human beings?  A particular human might help the species survive…this would confer functional value–based upon what s/he can do/accomplish–upon the person, but naturalism has no philosophical resources to confer value on a human just because he’s human.  Humans are merely animated, complex animals that inhabit a speck of dust we call earth.  There’s nothing that special about earth either…mindless cause mindlessly coughs up animated chunks of matter that live on a larger chunk of matter, and eventually, this mindless, purposeless material cause will swallow everything up again.  We might ascribe a higher meaning on all this to make ourselves feel better, but that’s the philosophic equivalent of shuffling chairs on the Titanic…the higher meaning doesn’t really apply to reality.  Only upon theism do humans have intrinsic value.

On naturalism, those the more you help the species survive, the more value you have–Anheuser represents this view–but humans don’t have value just for being human (which is Helmsley’s view).

In other words, on the naturalistic view–which casts its shadow over the movie–rationality is in the corner of survival, not compassion.  In the worldview of the movie, Helmsley wins only on borrowed capital from a theistic worldview, which is completely absent as a serious consideration in the film.

3 responses to “A 2012 Sized Explanatory Gap

  1. Isn’t theism merely one of the ways we “might ascribe a higher meaning on all this to make ourselves feel better”? Theists utilize a belief there is a god giving humans higher intrinsic value (through the concepts of “soul” or “relationship” or “similarity”—all familiar themes) but that doesn’t make it actual reality.

    It is as if you are so close to the answer. You realize humans want to give our own species greater “value” (a loaded term, of course) and go to great lengths to manufacture reasons to do so. Where you fall just shy is the failure to realize theism—the belief there is a God who “values” humans—is just one of those manufactured reasons.

    And by the way, the other terrible aspect of the movie was how many times planes “fell off” a cliff when taking off.

  2. Martin Kouyoumtjian

    I pretty much could tell just from the trailer that it was going to be a blurb of mixed messages like you describe.

  3. Pingback: 2012 Comment « The Pugnacious Irishman

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s