Spider-Man and Philosophy: Red or Black

What is your self, really? And also, I guess, when Spider-Man puts on the black suit, does he change into a different person?

No. That isn’t me giving an answer because I think it’s obvious, and it isn’t the answer the essay gives, either. The essay references the black suit’s effects on Spider-Man a lot, but never actually makes the argument that Spider-Man becomes a different person by putting on the black suit. It kind of implies it will at some point, but then it doesn’t.

But what is your self? Your emotions? In practice, we tend to refer to our emotions as things that happen to us, and to which we can be prone, but not really what we are. You do not become a literally different person because you are angry. Your thoughts? How does that work? Do you cease to be every time one thought completes and another begins? Memories? But we don’t usually think of amnesiacs as being a new person walking around in the old one’s body, but rather as someone who can’t remember who they used to be.

The essay wanders around talking about biopsychosocial connections, but ultimately the answer here is that your self is the persistent consciousness which experiences things. Peter Parker and Eddie Brock both are the same guy before and after bonding with the symbiote, because their consciousness has not ceased. This is kind of a cop-out answer, though, because we have no idea what the consciousness is, where it comes from, and can’t even prove that there’s more than one. I know that am conscious and experience things, but I don’t know if anyone else does. Presuming you are, in fact, conscious, you know that you are conscious, but you don’t know for sure if I am. I assume you’re conscious because you behave more or less the same way I do, so I expect you have that quality in common with me as well, but there’s nothing I can measure to know for sure, and indeed it’s not clear how I could possibly test that, or you test me for my consciousness.

Punting to consciousness is kind of like punting to quantum physics, in that it’s an unknown thing that could therefore theoretically be responsible for anything, but in this case it really is most consistent with how people use the concept of “self.” It’s just not a very satisfying answer, because we understand almost nothing about it.

Spider-Man and Philosophy: Why Is My Spider-Sense Tingling?

Philosophers never tire of reminding people that all of science used to be considered a specific sub-branch of philosophy, and there is no faster way to agitate a philosopher than to remind them how much of their field has been devoured by science and of the looming threat that more might bite off a chunk. I’m pretty sure ethics is safe forever (even if we determine through neuroscience that all humans secretly have the same ethical code – and that would be an extremely surprising discovery – there is still the question of whether it would be right to change it), but questions like “do I see the same green that you see” and “what is happiness” have turned out to mainly be questions of photons and brain chemicals and philosophy is never getting them back no matter how many whiny essays PhDs write about it.

In fairness to today’s philosopher, Andrew Terjesen, this isn’t an essay about “what does it really mean to sense something” so much as it is about the history of philosophical conversation on that subject, back when science was primitive enough that it even made sense to have a philosophical conversation on the subject. Plus, pondering the nature of Spider-Man’s spider-sense is probably always going to be fodder for philosophical debate of a sort, on account of Spider-Man isn’t real.

Nevertheless, this is mainly an accounting of people lacking access to the body of scientific knowledge necessary to understand perception making blind guesses as to how it works. I can admire how close several of them managed to get using only the senses themselves, but it’s still a long string of wrong explanations until eventually it turned out that this was actually the domain of science, which is distinct from philosophy in that it can rely on exact measurements. For example, John Locke divided sensory input into two categories, primary qualities and secondary qualities. Primary qualities included things like size and texture, and could not be mistaken. Secondary qualities included things like color and sound, and could be mistaken. There’s no fundamental difference between the photons that communicate color and the bumps and grooves that communicate texture, though. The difference lies within, in our brains, which are more prone to inaccurately interpreting visual data than touch data. Heat is not a “secondary quality,” it’s every bit as absolute and measurable as size. The reason why lukewarm water feels simultaneously hot and cold if you had one hand in a pot of cold water and another in a pot of hot water before putting both into the lukewarm, that’s because of how our neurology works, not some property of heat.

Also, there’s a bit towards the end where Terjesen claims that morality can’t be relative because he would find that to be personally upsetting, and therefore comes to the conclusion that Spider-Man’s spider-sense must be somehow capable of measuring the evilons produces by objectively immoral beings and objects (including things like bombs, since the spidey sense can detect those). This is dumb. While it is, in some sense, true that a mind control villain who rewrote everyone’s brains so that no one cared about infant murder would have made infant murder “moral,” the brains we have right now strongly object to that kind of mindfucking, which makes the initial act not only wrong on account of violating the autonomy of every individual of the world, but also wrong because it is presumably the prelude to some infant murder. The use of specifically infant murder to make the point also rather suggests that Terjesen is relying on shock value to carry the argument. Regular murder would’ve worked just as well and been far more within the realm of actual Spider-Man villain plots, but that lack of shock means it would not have had any chance of disabling people’s reason.

This may explain why Terjesen is married to 17th- and 18th-century philosophical explanations for subjects that science has since gobbled up: Science and reason tell us pretty unerringly that not only is there no such thing as objective morality, such a thing cannot even plausibly exist. When asked to describe what objective morality actually means, no one is able to deliver a cogent answer except “the belief that my feelings are more important than other people’s.” When pressed for what actual, objectively real thing they could possibly be positing as the root of objective morality, those who defend the notion reliably give answers that are something like “the existence of an all-powerful supernatural entity who agrees with me on everything” or “the existence of a form of radiation as-yet undetectable to science whose emissions perfectly match my personal predictions of what is or isn’t moral.” Neither of these suggests anything about morality, just that at least one person, by pure dumb luck, happened to have morals that lined up with some bizarre natural phenomenon. And it’s noteworthy that none of the adherents to so-called objective morality are ever willing to bet money that science will confirm their allegedly objective correctness under any timeframe.

People who claim to believe in “objective morality” are consistently unable to describe what that actually means, and when pressed, if they do not simply evade the question forever, will ultimately give an answer that boils down to “brute force is employed to subjugate other people to my morality,” whether that brute force comes in the form of a specific supernatural entity tormenting and/or obliterating dissidents or just from the universe itself having some natural process that, slowly but surely, requires everyone to agree with the “objective” moralist. In the end, objective moralists reliably turn out to simply be people with weak convictions and a cowardly nature, who need to imagine the backup of omnipotent and omnipresent enforcers to call something “right” or “wrong,” who lack the fortitude to, when asked “but why is it wrong?” to answer “because believe it is.”

Spider-Man and Philosophy: With Great Power Comes Great Culpability

Is Spider-Man responsible for Uncle Ben’s death? He let the thief who ultimately shot him escape. Had he done the right thing, Uncle Ben would be alive. But, like, come on, how was Peter Parker supposed to know that this thief was violent enough to kill anyone, let alone specifically Uncle Ben? Is Peter really culpable for Uncle Ben’s death due to what amounts to dumb luck?

That’s how the law works. Not in the sense that Peter is legally responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, even under Good Samaritan laws (which I don’t think New York even has, but I didn’t check), but in the sense that if you do something that could have resulted in negligent homicide and nothing happens, you’re off the hook, but if you do something that does result in negligent homicide, you’re going to prison for at least a year. Even for intentional crimes, we hand out lesser sentences for trying to kill someone and failing than for actually making it work. This seems weird no matter how you slice it. In terms of both retribution and rehabilitation, someone who tries to do a murder and just isn’t very good at it is equally disturbed, whether we want to punish them for their wickedness or heal them of it, for deterrence, the action we’re trying to deter is, in fact, attempting the murder, since obviously the would-be murderer cannot know in advance whether or not they’ll succeed, so attempted and successful murder should be deterred equally, and for incapacitation, murder frequently carries a life or even death sentence, which are the only two sentences that make any kind of sense from the perspective of incapacitation (assuming we’re unwilling to hack off limbs), whereas attempted murder almost never does, so what gives.

But look at the negligent homicide example again. Someone fails to get their brakes checked, even though they’ve been acting up for a while. After a few months, they finally roll into the mechanic and get them fixed. The mechanic tells them that they could’ve really hurt someone due to being unable to brake, and the driver shrugs and gets on with their life. No crime has been committed. Someone else does the exact same thing, accidentally kills someone, and because the brakes were a known issue that they intentionally ignored, they’re going to jail for at least a year (depending, I’m sure, on jurisdiction). Putting them right next to each other, it doesn’t seem fair, but what’s the solution? Do we let the guy who killed someone because he couldn’t be bothered to get a mechanic to check his failing brakes for months off the hook? Or do we punish everyone whose actions could have resulted in negligent homicide with a minimum of a year in prison? Granted, you might think the American prison system is sufficiently barbaric that subjecting someone to a year of it (possibly many) is disproportionate, but substitute whatever punishment you think is justified for actually killing someone through negligence. Should everyone who could potentially have killed someone through a negligent action be punished this way? Most people wouldn’t say so.

Also, although it’s only relevant to a minor detail of the article that I’ve glossed over in my summary, TIL that in the comics Aunt May got in an argument with Uncle Ben that led to his leaving the house, which resulted in his fateful encounter with the burglar. She actually blames herself for Uncle Ben’s death as much as Peter. I won’t say this redeems undoing Aunt May’s death, which is, like, the only good part of the Clone Saga, but hey, at least in the twenty years since hitting that reset button we have had one moment that was actually at all useful. Did you know that reversing Aunt May’s death was apparently a signing requirement for a creator who turned out to suck anyway? First clue should’ve been that he insisted on reversing a really well done death scene to bring back a character that Spider-Man had outgrown.

Anyway, ultimately Peter Parker’s culpability in Uncle Ben’s death is an open question, because while you could reasonably predict that letting an armed robber go might result in violence, it’s hardly a straightforward chain of causality, Aunt May is definitely just guilt tripping herself because the connection between arguing with your husband and him being murdered could not possibly have been predicted by any given reasonable person, and John Byrne should be tried at the Hague.

Spider-Man and Philosophy: Does Great Power Bring Great Responsibility?

These essays are grouped together by theme again, and naturally the whole “power and responsibility” thing invites a lot of related essays. Since these guys aren’t the writers behind Into the Spider-Verse, expect a lot of direct, on-the-nose references to the line rather than subtle allusions to it that avoid exact quotes.

This essay examines the famous quote itself. Sure, power, responsibility, yada yada, the general vibe is certainly accurate, but brass tacks: Spider-Man is obligated to save people from super villains because that sells movie tickets. If he ever decided he’d done his good in the world and didn’t need anymore, that’d be the end of a lucrative franchise. Whether or not Spider-Man is actually morally obligated to help people is totally unrelated to whether his franchise will behave as though he’s morally obligated. But is the conceit of the franchise, coincidentally, correct? Regardless of the real reasons why Spider-Man movies claim Spidey is morally obligated to fight super villains, do their given reasons also just happen to be true?

As another way of putting it, when Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko made the comics, they presumably picked the whole “power and responsibility” motif because they knew they were writing a super hero, tried to come up with a good heroic motivation, and decided this qualified. Was that decision philosophically sound? Does it survive scrutiny?

The essay goes on to explain two basic theories of responsibility. In the first, you are responsible for not harming people, and it’s noble to additionally help people, but you aren’t required. According to this principle, the Good Samaritan who helps a random stranger (of an enemy tribe, even!) back to safety after discovering the aftermath of a vicious robbery, that guy is heroic, but it wouldn’t be villainous to just leave him on the side of the road. From this perspective, if someone is plummeting to their death and Spider-Man is swinging by, it’s nice if Spidey saves him, but it isn’t required. If Spider-Man declines to save him, he hasn’t behaved nobly, but he hasn’t done anything wrong.

This seems kind of weird. Like, it wouldn’t even be that hard for Spider-Man to save that guy. It’s like a thirty second detour. If someone prizes thirty seconds of their own time over someone else’s life, that seems pretty villainous. Thus, the essay segues us into our next perspective. The essay doesn’t attribute the first perspective to anyone in particular, but it does attribute the next philosophical paradigm to John Stuart Mill, a utilitarian. In John Stuart Mill’s perspective, what matters is whether or not you are causing harm overall. A hypothetical sinister Spider-Man who cares more about being briefly inconvenienced than about someone else’s life isn’t just someone who has failed to be heroic, but someone who has committed an act of villainy. The greatest good for the greatest amount of people is what matters, and willfully ignoring an opportunity to increase the greater good is always wrong (especially when the trade-off is this obvious).

The essay also examines the question of vigilantism: Is Spider-Man justified in taking the law into his own hands? Super hero stories almost never address the problem of a masked vigilante whose motives are even slightly impure. Even the Punisher is portrayed as exclusively targeting violent, organized criminals and never hurting anyone with a stray bullet. In season 2 of Daredevil, he talks up his USMC training and how it has magically made him so preternaturally accurate that he can fire multiple shotgun blasts in a hospital and still be certain that no one but his target will get hit (despite failing to hit his target with every shot), or unload on a cafe in the middle of a densely packed city on full-auto and somehow be certain not only that the target cafe is totally empty of civilian targets, but that every other building in the cone of potential danger is totally empty, and that starting gunfights with dangerous criminals in the middle of populated areas won’t result in the criminals’ stray bullets ever hurting anyone, bearing in mind that Punisher’s backstory is that his family were killed by stray bullets in a gang war. The Punisher kills people and that’s supposed to make him morally grey, but never do we see a vigilante whose recklessness inflicts civilian casualties as collateral damage, or who take it upon themselves to kill criminals that “everyone knows” are guilty and end up killing actual innocent people.

Regardless of that, though, Spidey doesn’t personally stalk random black kids and threaten them to leave the neighborhood because he assumes they’re burglars. He patrols for violent crimes actively in progress and half the time he fights super villains mid-bank robbery. Spider-Man is personally too morally upright for his taking the law into his own hands to be a problem. He isn’t accountable to the public, but he happens to be sufficiently responsible that he behaves the way we’d want law enforcement to anyway. Also something something Civil War something anti-registration. The essay contends that Spider-Man can do more good disregarding the law, even though upholding the law is usually a good idea. In the comics, this is definitely true, but only because there is that bizarre lack of costumed vigilantes being outright villains. At worst, they are anti-heroes who thwart violent criminals with violent force, often even tracking them down to their hideouts to kill them – but since they never hit the wrong target, who cares? The actual danger of rising vigilantism, that of people taking the law into their own hands and subsequently going mad with power, overtrusting their crime fighting abilities and injuring or killing people on a hunch, that never even comes up. Since the bad side effects of vigilantism arbitrarily fail to happen, of course Spider-Man is justified in engaging in vigilante justice. There’s no downside! The police may as well be disbanded and people left to enforce the law on their own initiative, because in Marvel-world that somehow just works out.

That whole tangent wasn’t in the essay, it just occurred to me while I was writing about it. The actual essay just concludes that Spider-Man’s vigilantism is justified, and furthermore, even under the strictest (reasonable) interpretations of responsibility, Spider-Man’s willingness to fight villain team-ups like the Sinister Six, enemies against whom he faces serious threat of death, mean that he’s going far beyond the demands of responsibility. He is a hero, doing more than is necessary just to be considered a decent person.

Spider-Man and Philosophy: “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”

Back in Final Fantasy and Philosophy, I discussed the game theory problem of deciding what topic to pick for a Pop Culture and Philosophy series essay when you don’t know what anyone else will be choosing. Do you pick B-list material relevant to the topic, confident that few, if any, of the other essayists will pick the same material? Or do you go for the obvious, A-list material and hope that everyone else went for the B-list material, allowing you to stand out, but risking being utterly smothered if the A-list material is indeed dogpiled?

Well, Adam Barkman took the A-list gambit and lost, being one of four essays that directly reference the Uncle Ben quote in the title alone. That’s nearly a quarter of the book before we even get into all the people who reference it in the text but not the title of their essay.

Also, Adam Barkman isn’t really endearing himself to me with this second paragraph:

We can appreciate the importance of this toward understanding Spider-Man if we consider the reason for the unpopularity of two manga adaptations of Spider-Man, in which this moral reason for his transformation, as well as other features of his moral depth and gravitas, are completely lacking. The main reason audiences were disappointed with the manga adaptations is that Spider-Man stripped of his Christian ethic is no longer Spider-Man at all.

I can’t wait to hear Adam Barkman’s explanation for how brown people were secretly responsible for the Clone Saga.

Continue reading “Spider-Man and Philosophy: “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility””

Spider-Man and Philosophy: “My Name Is Peter Parker”

This is another examination of Kantian deontology versus utilitarian consequentialism that does not understand even the basic premise of utilitarian consequentialism. Christ, what is it with these philosophy essays that the basic idea of “judge an action by its outcomes” is so goddamn difficult to grasp?

In this case, the failure is an inability to understand (or acknowledge) human ability to recognize and exploit patterns. Specifically, the argument is made that since consequences are unpredictable, you can’t use them as a guide to making ethical decisions. This is dumb. Just because you cannot flawlessly predict the future doesn’t mean you can’t make educated guesses, and then update your model of reality to account for new evidence when one of your predictions turns out wrong. The heart of consequentialism is not “always do what brings the best consequences,” it’s “do what brings the best consequences to the best of your ability.” Consequentialism doesn’t consider it wrong to ever do something that accidentally leads to poor consequences, rather, consequentialism considers it wrong to give up on predicting consequences because it’s hard.

The essay also uses the comics Civil War to frame this discussion, which is great in general, except we’re specifically talking about Spider-Man, which means this is actually a discussion about One More Day, in which Marvel Satan offers to undo an action that Spider-Man has taken in exchange for dissolving his marriage to Mary Jane. Not the relationship they had, just the legal marriage. The essay tries to frame this as “Peter Parker has to give up the love of his life to reverse the damage to his friends and family caused by unmasking himself,” but what actually happens is that some legal documents were destroyed and in exchange Spidey got his secret identity back. All the actual adventures Spidey had that were in any way affected by his relationship with MJ happened exactly the same, they just happened to not be married. A marriage is just a commitment to behave in a certain manner. If two people behave in that manner anyway without having technically made the commitment, nothing has changed!

But also this essay makes the same mistake that every criticism of utilitiarianism I have ever encountered makes: It uses the consequences of actions to claim that measuring morality by the consequences of actions is wrong. This is self-contradicting! Look at this:

Peter begins to doubt his deontological convictions— obeying the law is usually right, but not always.25 When Peter learns more about Tony’s activities implementing registration—such as the negative zone prison for antiregistration heroes, as well as the windfall profits Tony makes from no-bid contracts to build it—his doubts are confirmed.26 The death of Goliath at the hands of the clone of Thor (“Clor”) that Tony and Hank Pym develop is the last straw. At the funeral for the fallen hero, Reed notices Peter, MJ, and May hunched together and asks Leonard Samson, “Is it just me or is Peter Parker acting very, very suspiciously?”27

Spidey initially thought he was doing the right thing, but then the consequences of his actions convince him otherwise. The side he’s supporting builds a negative zone prison for anti-registration heroes and kills one of their enemies, and this convinces Peter that he’s taken the wrong side. This is consequentialism! Peter changes sides because he re-evaluates his model of reality: He no longer trusts that Tony Stark is doing the right thing.

The essay tries to frame this as Spidey acting with disregard for the consequences of his actions, but it only lists personal consequences: It puts Aunt May and MJ at risk, because the pro-registration side knows who they are and where they live and could have them arrested as accomplices, and since everyone now knows who he is, it would require Peter Parker to pretty much give up being Peter Parker because he’s now an outlaw. But consequentialism isn’t about personal consequences. It’s about all the consequences. This essay delivers an impassioned critique of Randian self-interest and tells us that it’s basically the same as consequentialism and hopes that the reader doesn’t know enough about philosophy to notice – and since this is a pop-philosophy book, they might be right!

Spider-Man and Philosophy: What Price Atonement?

The fundamental premise of the first bit of this essay is an exploration of the concept of “infinite debt” in Christian ethics, i.e. the idea that because God created everything, everyone who exists owes everything they have to God, which means every transgression against God cannot ever be repaid because everything was owed to God in the first place. This whole line of argument begs an important question: Why should gifts indebt someone to someone else? And also: Why is the arguer so eager to provide justification for any amount of heinous acts committed in the name of a nominally benevolent God? Someone with a relentlessly transactional approach to morality could reasonably come to the whole “infinite debt” conclusion without propping up authoritarianism in the name of God, but in practice most Christians end up in one of two categories (three, if we count the “I only go on Easter and Christmas” types whose beliefs impact their actions so little that they’re basically atheists anyway): The “what would Jesus do” types who use God as an example to live up to, and the ones who imagine God as their personal attack dog, allowing them to get the last word in every argument by subjecting everyone who makes them angry to a thousand years of torment. If someone starts expounding upon how you are infinitely in God’s debt, it’s pretty good odds you’re talking to the second type.

A related concept is the idea that only God, who did not owe anything to himself, could incarnate and build up goodwill with which to pay the debt on behalf of humanity. This is dumb. If God can repay the debt to himself on behalf of other people, he can also just forgive the debt.

Kierkegaard makes this point, the next section of the essay explains, that it seems weird to ascribe ethics based entirely on accounting to an allegedly omnibenevolent God, that it is utterly bizarre that the Christian God, of all people, should be so stringently opposed to the concept of forgiving debts.

The essay then wanders through a few more ethical frameworks for Christianity: Being a good Christian means helping other people, love one another and all that. But then aren’t we all destined to fail, even if we have the preternatural ability to always choose correctly? Sooner or later we’re gonna have to pick between helping one person and helping another, and then we’ve failed to help someone no matter what we do. Maybe being a good Christian is fulfilling Christian morals, but apparently true selflessness requires suffering and being generous simply because you like helping people doesn’t count for some reason.

But mostly there’s a lot of gobbledygook that’s trying way too hard to be profound. Like this:

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) called the kind of infinity we are dealing with here a bad infinity (schlechte Unendlichkeit), one that is characterized by everlasting lack, rather like the line that can be extended indefinitely, yet never finds completion anywhere. Against this bad infinite, Hegel set the true infinite, which signifies a fullness of being, of which God as described by Anselm forms the exemplar.11 Such a superior kind of infinity is like the circle, ever complete in itself, and it is toward this sort of fulfillment that we should strive.

Now, in context, this paragraph makes sense. But in context, this paragraph is also irrelevant and can be cut from the essay completely with no consequences. As far as I can tell, Taneli Kukkonen just wanted to talk about lines and circles for a bit. The essay relies a lot on use of metaphor in place of argument, saying X is like Y, and then founding the next two pages of discussion on the assumption that this is true without ever bothering to justify the metaphor. In the end, this essay is terribly concerned with sounding profound and not so concerned with communicating ideas, and the further into its length it goes, the more it disappears up its own ass and comes unmoored from the more salient points being made by the philosophers its quoting. Anselm’s “infinite debt” might be a bad idea, but at least it is an idea, clearly stated.

Spider-Man And Philosophy: Does Peter Parker Have A Good Life?

We’re returning to the Pop Culture and Philosophy series for this one, firmly cementing this series as good standbys to bust out whenever I can’t think of what else to read in time to get a post out. This time we’re looking at Spider-Man and Philosophy, whose first essay is given to us by Neil Musset, returning to us from D&D&P, where he wrote a pretty good examination of the philosophy of the origins of evil that was marred by his insistence that the definition of Chaotic Evil given to him by a guy he knew in high school was and should remain absolutely universal no matter how poorly it matched up not to just one, but to every philosophy of the origin of evil he examined. But really, if you’re going to get either the “Philosophy” or the “Dungeons and Dragons” bit wrong in Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy, you’re better off messing up the latter to get the former right, so while it is flawed, I still think Neil Musset’s previous essay was a good read. Also, I call it “previous,” but Spider-Man and Philosophy was 2012 and D&D&P was 2014, so we’re actually going back in time here.

Neil Musset is taking the same basic strategy here as with D&D&P, in that he examines multiple different philosophical interpretations of some philosophical subject through the lens of Spider-Man. As the title suggests, our philosophical subject this time is what it means to live a good life, and our lens is whether Peter Parker has one.

Philosopher number one is Paul Kurtz, who believes that the ancient Greek dispute between the hedonists – who believed happiness was pleasure – and the eudaemonists – who believed that happiness was excellence – was missing the point, and happiness is actually having both of those things. But Peter Parker is pretty short in the pleasure department, what with his financial troubles, his romantic troubles, his academic troubles, and so on. On Paul Kurtz’s count, Peter Parker isn’t living a good life.

I don’t know why Ayn Rand was included. She’s not generally well regarded in the philosophical community, anyone with the barest knowledge of her ethics knows that Spider-Man stands in more stark opposition to them than perhaps any other similarly popular character, and while you would still want to include her in an absolutely exhaustive analysis of philosophy, I double checked Wikipedia and it turns out there are more than five philosophers in history.

Epictetus is the most famous of the Stoic school of philosophy, whose fundamental belief regarding happiness is that only you can choose whether or not to be happy. Most people who parrot similar phrases today tend to shut up when you ask them whether they think Holocaust victims were just a bunch of whiners, but Epictetus was a slave taken from his homeland and hobbled in captivity, so while he never saw the industrial horrors of modern atrocity, he’s definitely had a legitimately difficult life and isn’t bullshitting when he says he believes that happiness is always a choice that someone makes for themselves. When he says “happiness is something you can choose to feel,” he doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be held responsible for his actions because his victims are ultimately responsible for the unhappiness he’s caused them, he means that he reminds himself every day that every pleasant thing he has, right down to his friends and family, could perish tomorrow, and ultimately he will be okay with that. Peter Parker, according to Epictetus, chooses unhappiness by wishing for a stable relationship with Mary Jane, wishing to keep his Aunt May safe, and wishing for academic (and perhaps financial) success.

On the other hand, Epictetus’ tales of stoically enduring having his leg broken in slavery are of unknown veracity (we know he was hobbled, but accounts differ as to how), whereas Viktor Frankl was verifiably a victim of the Holocaust. Viktor Frankl’s theory of happiness is an expansion upon the Nietzschean theory “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” a quote that Viktor Frankl was fond of. To Viktor, meaning is the root of happiness. Suffering with meaning is sacrifice, and makes life richer. Spider-Man is undeniably leading a good life according to Viktor Frankl, because he finds meaning in the good he does. If he didn’t, he would stop. There’s no outside force compelling him to keep going, after all. If he wanted to stop being Spider-Man he could. He’s even tried a couple of times, but he can’t stick to it, because using his powers for good is what gives his life meaning. He feels bad if he doesn’t.

Aquinas took Aristotle’s virtue ethics and swapped in medieval Christian virtues for the ancient Greek ones Aristotle used. Given how medieval Christendom worked out for all involved, you might think the result was pretty barbaric, but the virtues enshrined by medieval Christendom were things like “charity” and “humility.” Feudalism was more responsible for how much the middle ages sucked than Christianity (Renaissance Christianity, on the other hand, was so corrupt that 80s movie villains would find the level of cruel decadence to be distastefully gauche). Because Aristotle’s view is that being virtuous is living a good life, and because Peter’s right in line with the specific list of virtues Aquinas supplied to that system, Aquinas would argue that Peter Parker is indeed leading a good life. Also, Neil Mussett does a whole lot of fanboying over Aquinas in this bit, but it’s not so bad that it makes the philosophy impenetrable, so other than being a little distracting, it doesn’t really impact the experience.

Neil Mussett’s formula for these is really effective and a whole book that just relentlessly drove it into the ground would probably turn out better than FFP and D&D&P did, just because there’s enough philosophers and philosophical questions to ask that you could probably pump out fifteen essays in this format without running out of material. Using a fictional character to examine a bunch of different philosophers’ takes on the same basic question is pretty much exactly what these pop philosophy books should be doing.

Dungeons and Dragons and Final Fantasy and Philosophy

I never did a round-up post for D&D&P, so now that FFP is wrapped up, I’m doing a two-for-one.

Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy

Sympathy for the Devils
Paragons and Knaves
Is Anyone Actually Chaotic Evil?
Save vs Death
To My Other Self
Player Character Is What You Are In The Dark
Imagination and Creation
Dungeonmastery as Soulcraft
Menzoberranzan: A Perfect Unjust State
Who Is Raistlin Majere?
Expediency and Expendability
By Friendship or Force
“Kill her, kill her! Oh, God, I’m sorry!”
Berserker in a Skirt
Others Play at Dice

Final Fantasy and Philosophy

The Spiky-Haired Mercenary vs. The French Narrative Theorist
Kefka, Nietzsche, Foucalt
Judging the Art of Video Games
The Lifestream, Mako, and Gaia
Gaia and Environmental Ethics in Spirits Within
Objectification of Conscious Life Forms in Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy and the Purpose of Life
The Four Warriors of Light Saved the World, But They Don’t Deserve Our Thanks
Shinto and Alien Influences in Final Fantasy VII
Kupo for Karl and the Materialist Conception of History
Sin, Otherworldliness, and the Downside of Hope
Cloud’s Existential Quest for Authenticity
Is the Fear of Stopping Justified
What’s In A Name: Cid, Cloud, and How Names Refer

You may have noticed that this post is 1) three hours late and 2) on a Sunday. My wifi access is tepid this entire week, so while I’ll try to keep up an average of one post per day, you may end up actually getting those posts in weird bursts. For example, there should be a video GM’s guide post within six hours of this post going live.

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: What’s In A Name? Cid, Cloud, And How Names Refer

Despite the lack of coherence across FF games, some peculiar features may arouse curiosity from a longtime fan. For instance, the name “ Cid ” appears in many of the FF games. More paradoxical is the case of Cloud Strife, who appears to be the same individual, referred to by the same name, in different FF worlds — FFVII and FF Tactics .

I am extremely skeptical of this essay’s ability to wring a genuinely interesting philosophical point out of easter eggs.

This essay begins by throwing out the idea of direct reference theory, the idea that names refer directly to specific objects or ideas in the world. This seems straightforwardly true at first, but an example (taken from Final Fantasy, natch) quickly reveals its limitations: The name of the protagonist of FFVIII is Squall, and the name of the somewhat grumpy mentor figure from Kingdom Hearts is Leon. Those who don’t pick it up immediately from character design have it confirmed pretty soon in the story that Leon is Squall. So what’s the problem? Under direct reference theory, because Leon and Squall both refer to the same person, stating “Leon is Squall” is trivial, no more informative than saying “Squall is Squall.” But that’s obviously not the case. While some people pick it up from his similar (but distinct) character design and for others it doesn’t click until dialogue makes it explicit, all players of Kingdom Hearts eventually realize that Leon is Squall, and that is new information for them. You don’t automatically know that Leon is Squall just because you know that Squall is Squall.

Bertand Russell has a better theory of names: Names are shorthand references to longer, more cumbersome descriptions. So, “Squall” is shorthand for “the gunblade-wielding protagonist of Final Fantasy VIII who was trained by Garden in a secret plot to hunt down the villainous sorceress Ultimecia and who was rivals with a fellow student named Seifer who [insert entire plot of Final Fantasy VIII here].” “Leon” is shorthand for “the gunblade-wielding mentor figure of Kingdom Hearts originally from Radiant Garden who came to Traverse Town seeking the Keyblade, who Donald and Goofy were instructed to seek out in Traverse Town and who found Sora as the Heartless were [insert every part of Kingdom Hearts’ plot involving Leon here].” Simply describing every fact we know about a specific object, being, or idea takes all day. Even describing enough facts to narrow it down – “the gunblade-wielding protagonist of Final Fantasy VIII” rules out everyone except Squall, although we cheated by using another name, “Final Fantasy VIII,” to get there – is way longer than just saying “Squall.”

So when we say “Leon is Squall,” we’re taking one set of facts about the mysterious grumpy adventuring mentor from Kingdom Hearts and adding a critical new fact, that this is the same entity as the gunblade-wielding protagonist of Final Fantasy VIII. The new fact is that every fact applied to Squall applies equally to Leon.

This stands up well when we consider the case of Cid, as well, which also fares poorly under direct reference theory. Every Final Fantasy game has a character named Cid (although I think Cid from Final Fantasy 1 may have been added in only in remakes? Certainly he is only referred to by dialogue rather than actually being present in the game), and all of them are different people with different backstories and personalities. Under direct reference theory, “Cid” must refer to some abstract idea that each of these individuals somehow inherits, which breaks down because anything that applies to every Cid (i.e. is good with machines) always applies equally to other, non-Cid characters. Under Bertrand Russell’s theory, “Cid” is a shorthand reference that refers to fifteen and counting different characters. So, it’s not a very good shorthand reference, but it usually works in context, and in any case, that is actually how discussions about Cid work.

This is where the easter egg gets brought in, and yes, it is dumb: Is Cloud in Final Fantasy Tactics the same Cloud as the one in Final Fantasy VII? Answer: No, because the Cloud from Tactics is a non-canon easter egg with purely mechanical function, whereas the Cloud from Final Fantasy VII is an actual character. Like Cid, the same shorthand label is applied to two different characters, who in this case also look the same and have similar abilities, but are distinguished by the fact that one has a personality and a backstory and the other is just a hollow reference to its original.

But objections to Bertrand Russell’s theory aren’t limited to failing to understand how easter eggs work. The essay goes on to give the example of a hypothetical version of Final Fantasy X where Braska, the summoner who (temporarily) killed world-wrecking kaiju Sin just a decade or two before the game’s beginning, didn’t actually do that. Someone else kills Sin anonymously, and Braska steals the credit. Of course, killing Sin with the Final Aeon (the method Braska allegedly used) requires dying so Braska has to figure out a way to steal the credit from the real hero despite the fact that he has to already be dead in order to make his story plausible. But it’s a hypothetical situation, so just roll with it. He ropes Auron, the surviving member of his party, into propagating the deception somehow. Whatever.

This means that one of the “facts” people use the name Braska to refer to is “the man who most recently killed Sin using the Final Aeon.” In this hypothetical example, however, Braska didn’t actually do that. But Braska did actually live and breathe and used that name long before it was associated with a lie. Upon the people of Spira being deceived into thinking Braska killed Sin, does the name “Braska” suddenly stop referring to the real man and suddenly begin referring to the hypothetical Braska who actually did the things people believe he did?

Here’s a simpler example. If Cloud Strife had brown hair, would he still be Cloud Strife? In an alternate FFVII where Cloud Strife was completely identical to the Cloud we know, but also had brown hair, is he now a different person? When we ask “what if Cloud never defeated Sephiroth” are we talking about a different person from the Cloud from Final Fantasy VII?

Side note, the example used by the essay:

What if Cloud Strife died at a young age in Nibelheim and never went on to join SOLDIER?

He didn’t. Jesus, Cloud’s not having been part of SOLDIER was a major turning point for his character and the game is over 20 years old. Just referring to Cloud as a mysterious badass is missing the point of his character arc, but describing him as having joined SOLDIER is just completely inaccurate. Like, did neither Andrew Russo and Jason Southworth actually get through the entire game, or even think to look up its plot on Wikipedia? Why not just stick with examples from games they’ve actually completed? It’s not like you couldn’t have this exact same conversation using what-if scenarios about Squall.

End side note, because despite that rant, the philosophical point brought up here is that if Cloud had died at Nibelheim as a child (not part of the Nibelheim Incident much later but just because, like, he fell off a roof while trying to impress Tifa or something) and Tifa wound up picking up a buster sword and killing Sephiroth, does this mean that “Cloud Strife” the name now refers to Tifa, because she is now a buster sword wielding protagonist of FFVII who defeated Sephiroth? Obviously not, seeing as how in order to make that sentence comprehensible I had to refer to her as Tifa.

Of course, you don’t have this problem if you just assume that “Cloud Strife” refers to a much longer description. If we use Cloud as a shorthand description for everything we know about Cloud, then Tifa can’t yoink that whole description just by picking up a buster sword and killing Sephiroth.

But is hypothetical brown-haired Cloud a different person to the blonde Cloud we got in the actual FFVII? Why not? Like, sure, if Cloud dyed his hair brown we wouldn’t say he’s a different person, but that’s because his hair color changed as a result of something that happened to him (he put dye in his hair – not an earth-shaking event or anything, but it did happen). Hypothetical brown-haired Cloud isn’t the same person as actual Cloud, and you can tell because I have to refer to them by different names in order for the sentence to make sense. Just like with Cid, “Cloud Strife” can reasonably refer to two different things, with which is which being made clear by context. When we talk about both of them at the same time, however, we need to expand their name to distinguish between them, making them clearly different entities.

But, okay, new example: Squall as a child lived in an orphanage with all of his future party members. He then became an amnesiac due to the magic system of the game and re-met his party members at Balamb Garden, the special school that trains high school kids to be mercenaries. Is child Squall a different entity from teen Squall? I had to refer to them separately just now, and a different set of facts applies to each of them. Child Squall has his memories intact, but teen Squall can use magic superpowers. And in fact, most of us think of our younger selves as separate entities. It’s not uncommon (not ubiquitous, but not uncommon either) to imagine hypothetical conversations with past versions of yourself, and the conversation goes differently depending on whether you’re talking to 5-year old you or 15-year old you – which is why we have to refer to them with separate names.

Ultimately, the only limit on when a different name has to be applied is when we need to refer to a different entity, and entities can be subdivided almost endlessly. I can’t imagine a non-contrived circumstance in which “Chamomile in his kitchen” and “Chamomile in his bedroom” would be distinct enough to be worth bothering to refer to us separately, particularly since one can become the other with about five seconds of effort, but if such a circumstance arose, we would in fact use different names to refer to one and the other. In a certain context, even the minutest of differences can qualify entities as separate from one another, even when we usually consider them the same.