Monday, November 28, 2011

Tron and Various Ruminations

Okay, so I watched Tron: Legacy a while back and the movie raised some interesting philosophical and theological questions. Therefore, there will be spoilers in the words that lie ahead, so stop reading this post now if you have not watched the movie yet.

Let’s take it from the top. When the Flynns get zapped with that gun that plunges them into the Grid, what exactly happens to these human beings? Are we supposed to believe that they: a) are shrunk to a microscopic size and placed inside a computer; b) are converted to energy; c) are digitized; or d) are converted into information? In other words, what exactly is the premise that the two Tron movies are built on? If we are to take the Tron ethos seriously, (a) is not an option.

(A) is not an option in sheer virtue of the way in which computer hardware and software work. Inside your computer there is a hard drive. That hard drive stores information. That information is encoded. That information is encoded by means of pairs of magnetic polar opposites. These pairs of magnetic polarities are held by discrete, physical sections of the hard drive. Physically, there are no little Lego men running around inside your computer when you play Lego Star Wars. Instead, when you run that game on your computer the hardware of your computer is creating and using information according to the digitized commands of the persons who created that game and that computer--software contains information, the hardware responds to that information, and information is conveyed via your computer's monitor and is created as you play a new game or start a round of gameplay. So if the Flynns were turned into things which are just like the software inside your computer, then those things cannot be little men because the little men are not there--just magnetic polarities.

(B) apparently is not an option. The arena games that take place in the Tron universe are things which involve physical action (if only analogically) and where there is action there is energy. With that said, it seems completely untenable that the writers of the Tron movies are of the mindset that after the Flynns are plunged into the Grid the result is a quantity of energy here (e.g. Sam Flynn in the arena) giving off another quantity of energy to throw a disk at an opponent or to try to destroy his vehicle. Energy versus energy and using energy in order to defeat energy--this is not what the writers have in mind.

(C) is plausible only if (d) is plausible, because they are basically identical. When things are digitized, so to speak, they are reduced to a sequence of magnetic polarities. But I add the qualifier “so to speak” because we human beings really do speak analogically when we talk about recordings and translations of any sort. Songs exist, songs are played, and songs are recorded whether on vinyl records, cassettes, CDs or hard drives. When songs are recorded, do they have a physical location somewhere on the mp3 player that supposedly contains it? No, it does not. For that matter, songs are not even physical objects. Take the song “Greensleeves” for example: a kid somewhere in California has sheet music that tells him how to play the song on a guitar, and somewhere on the opposite side of the country there is a person who has sheet music that tells him how to play the song on a piano and in a different octave. Suppose they play the song simultaneously. Is the song present in two locations at once? Is it present in only one particular location? If so, where? No, that song is non-physical and has no spatial location--just as much as other universals or universal objects are widely held in academic philosophy and metaphysics not to have a spatial location.

There are universals and there are particulars. Again, there are universal objects and particular objects. Particular objects are discrete, are countable, and have a physical location; an example would be leaves and flowers. Universal objects, on the other hand, tend to be properties or qualities of particular objects and apparently have no spatial location. Green leaves and red flowers have physical locations--a yard here or a flower pot there. However, the greenness of the leaves and the redness of the flowers apparently have no discrete location anywhere in this universe. And if one were to attempt to reduce those colors to mere wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation in order to avoid the concept of universal objects, he would fail in so doing. For it must be admitted even in the case of two distinct light waves that have the same wavelengths, one wave is similar to another. In other words, there is a similarity or likeness between the two waves, and similitude or likeness is not reducible to something just like ordinary, plain ol’ particular objects. So no matter what, universal objects with their lack of spatial location seem to be real.

Information is a universal object, of which the process of digitizing things is a part. There are not one million individual propositions that grass is green whenever one million people assert that grass is green in saying “Grass is green.” No, when I say “Grass is green” and someone else says “Grass is green” we are both asserting the same singular proposition and idea. Likewise, there are not one million different rednesses out there if there are one million red roses. Add it all up, and the things which inform people and the things which are encoded for future transmissions of ideas turn out to be non-physical. (Note immediately that this does not mean that spirits and souls must be real, for it does not mean this. In fact, one should not have too much trouble finding secular philosophers who buy the concept of aspatial universals while failing to embrace the concept of souls or spirits. Still, that is beside the point.) The point is that if the Tron movies are to be taken seriously, then the Flynns are converted into non-spatial information whereas in 1982 you were maybe thinking that Kevin Flynn was shrunk or turned into energy.

Universals exist, even if they have no location on the spacetime manifold or have no location in space. This immediately raises the question, therefore, of why Kevin Flynn aged inside the Grid and spoke of the contracted passage of time on the Grid. In my mind there should be no passage of time on the Grid, but what do I know? Still, if the conversion process of the Tron movies is one of matter (and/or spirit) to information, then all of that which takes place on the Grid seems to be either analogous or just like any simulation that takes place with your computer when you have a video game running--you can start a game, walk away from it, and five minutes later when you return the machine lets you know which NPCs (or non-playable characters) got killed and how they got killed, all without your being there to make any of that happen. This would be a strange world in which to find yourself, but there it is: the world of Tron.


Now, more spoilers. Suppose the Tron ethos is real and there are computers which can map the physical location and physical composition of a particular human body with such precision that it convert a human body to information and convert information to an object which in type or sort is (virtually) identical with any human being. Now suppose that one of these computers converts information to such an object. Is this object a bona fide human being? If not, why? If so, then is it now the case that God is not aptly called “the Creator” anymore? And is it possible even to create or fashion a living being without using egg and sperm cells?

Let’s deal with the last question first. In modern medicine there are cases of someone’s apparently having died and later come back to life right there in the emergency room. Perhaps someone’s heart will stop beating, other normal processes of vital organs may follow suit, and you end up with someone who is dead according to normal medical use of the word “dead.” But then all the processes start up again and the particular human body in question begins to function according to its design. Let’s keep this in mind as we also consider the difference between the “dead” skin cells which compose one’s epidermis and the “living” skin cells beneath the epidermis. Also consider how modern medicine allows researchers to grow a bodiless human nose out of a collection of erstwhile small number of cells on a petri dish.

With all these things in mind, what is life anyway? Is it in strict terms some ethereal or immaterial object of some sort that God breathes into human beings? If so, why are plants not said to have a divine breath of life though we conceive of green plants as having life? And if life is some sort of ethereal or immaterial object, how or why is it that apparently all that is needed to grow a plant--which involves life--is to take a non-living seed and to initiate various chemical processes and reactions by means of putting water, soil, and sunlight to it? At this point it becomes tempting to conceive of life as being something which is precisely a condition of sorts. That is, when the forces of natural law sustain something with reproductive potential functions and promote its growth, it is alive. And when that thing can no longer sustain itself or rather natural law can no longer sustain it, it is dead. And the relation that obtains between the human soul or spirit and the physical human body: perhaps not a relation such that the soul is needed to make the body alive, but rather one such that human souls can interact with the physical world only by means of organs which are functional.

This is a tempting way to look at the nature of life, but then one remembers a phrase like “the living God” from the Scriptures (e.g. Matthew 16.16), and a word such as “living” seems to have nothing to do with functionality in this case. So the former concept of life must be food for thought and grounds for further research at best in the meantime. However, if one were to grow all the organs and tissues (I’m speaking analogically here) of a human body like a bodiless human nose can be grown in a lab, and if those tissues can be strung together as such tissues are bound in a human body (including oxygenated blood), and if those tissues were then shot through with the kind of electrical currents that we normally see present in the human brain and throughout the nervous system, one wonders why the result would not be like that of a seed that is put to water, soil and sunlight that apparently becomes a plant with life by means of chemical reactions. Again, one wonders why the result would not at least be a physical object analogous to a human in a vegetative mental state. That is my answer to the question “And is it possible even to create or fashion a living being without using egg and sperm cells?”

(In passing it comes to mind that someone might appeal to James 2.26 in order to argue that souls are necessary to animate human bodies. It does not necessarily follow from the verse that souls animate a body, and many analogies could be constructed to demonstrate the logic of this.)

The first question was “Is this object a bona fide human being?” Who knows? If it is made in God’s image, as humanity is, then perhaps the object is a human being. One thing that is certain is that one need not be a regular descendant of Adam to be a human being. This is something of which we should be reminded in the coming days and weeks as Christmas draws near.

I also wondered and posed the question “If so, then is it now the case that God is not aptly called “the Creator” anymore?” It is more than worth noting and remembering that the hearts and minds of all people on this planet are part of a cosmic symphony or script which God is directing or orchestrating according to his plans and his will vis-à-vis the fact that God is a god of means, as the Scriptures have told us for the past two thousand years or so. Meanwhile, if computerized formation of humans were possible then Arminians, who dread the idea of not being in complete control of their own lives, might be some of the first people to remember that God did create matter and energy while all man can do is to convert the same. Either way, idea of God as the Creator would be something that cannot totally be forgotten.


End of post. And if you survived the large paragraphs and lack of proofreading, good for you. Maybe I’ll try to clarify the entire thing later.

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