PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Philosophy of science, holism, environmentalism
CHARACTERS: Jack Edwards (Sam Waterston; politician), Thomas Harriman (John Heard; poet), Sonia Hoffman (Liv Ullman; physicist), Kit (Sonia's daughter).
SYNOPSIS: “Mindwalk,” like “My Dinner with Andre,” is a dialogue-driven film, which explores basic philosophical questions. In this case, the principal subject is holistic vs. atomistic ways of viewing the world. The film was directed by Austiran-born Bernt Capra, a Hollywood production designer. He also wrote the story behind the film, which he adapted from the popular book The Turning Point (1983) by his brother Fritjof Capra, noted physicist and environmentalist. This is Bernt Capra’s only film as director. The film’s setting is an island monastery in France, the Abbey of Mont St. Michel, where three vacationers meet and engage in discussion. Jack, a “conservative Democrat” presidential candidate, was just defeated and, disillusioned, awaits his forthcoming campaign as a senator. Jack’s poet friend Thomas is himself disillusioned from his fast-paced life in New York City. Now living in Paris, Thomas reluctantly invites Jack to France. Touring the monastery, they meet Sonia, a disillusioned physicist who advocates a holistic view of physics and the environment. She explains her views to the two men, who find them compelling. Thomas, though, is too self-consumed to do much with the ideas. Jack continually asks for ways to put Sonia’s views into practice, and even invites her to join his staff. She refuses, wishing instead to remain in the ivory tower of the monastery. Jack leaves wondering if this is a critical turning point in his life.
1. A monastery tour guide makes the following statement regarding the town’s graveyards: “This is why the dead are placed in the middle of the town among the houses; death is a part of life, not separate from it.” This is similar to Heidegger’s point that human nature is defined by our movement towards death. Heidegger also feels that we all too often ignore this fact, and thus live improperly (or inauthentically). Is it really so important to continually have death before our minds, and, if so, would graveyards scattered throughout town really facilitate this?
2. Meeting the two men in the monastery bell tower, Sonia states that the clock “became the model of the cosmos, and then they mistook the model for the real thing. People got the idea that nature was just a giant clock, not a living organism, but a machine.” She says that Descartes was the primary architect of this view – particularly his conception of the human body as a machine. Would Descartes plead guilty to this charge?
3. Sonia argues that many of life’s problems – starvation, rainforest depletion, health problems – are interconnected, and they can never be solved by looking at each in isolation. Jack responds “Supposing you’re right and everything is interconnected with everything else as you say. Still you’ve got to start somewhere, don’t you. So that’s the real political question here: where do you start?” Sonia answers “By changing the way we’re seeing the world. You see, you’re still searching for the right piece to fix first. You don’t see that all the problems are fragments of one single crisis, a crisis of perception.” Why can’t Jack’s approach serve as a solution to this “crisis of perception”?
4. Jack argues that the non-holistic model of things works just fine in many areas, such as medicine. A man complains of gallstones, has the gallbladder removed, and his pain is gone. Sonia responds that the problem might have been avoided by emphasizing prevention – more exercise. Is Sonia’s solution really “holistic”?
5. Jack feels that, even if Sonia is correct, it would be politically impossible to initiate dramatic holistic agendas. For example, a special tax on beef might decrease its consumption and thus reduce health and agricultural problems. However, this would hurt businesses, which would lobby hard against such proposals. “So I do what everybody else does from the lowliest congressman right on up to the president of the United States. I pick a few crucial issues – that I think are crucial – a part of your whole, and I persist and persist until I get somewhere if I’m lucky. And for the rest I mark time, I wait, I go along, I trade off.” Isn’t this the best that policy maker can do – even Green Party politicians?
6. Sonia notes Francis Bacon’s view that “scientists with their new mechanical devices had to torture nature’s secrets out of her.” Don’t holists also have to “torture nature’s secrets out of her” to understand how everything is interconnected?
7. Playing devil’s advocate, Jack offers several standard criticisms of extreme environmentalism. Perhaps human-caused damage isn’t nearly as harmful as that which nature herself causes, such as with the ice age. Perhaps nature has a built-in healing mechanism, which allows it to bounce back from problems such as increased ultraviolet light through ozone depletion. How might a holist such as Sonia respond?
8. Sonia argues that there are two fundamental principles in nature, one male which is aggressive and dominating, the other female, which is nurturing and gentle. In the past they were kept roughly in balance, but now men “have created the tools, the weapons – both intellectually and physically – to bring these two principles way out of balance. We have been placing mechanistic tools in the hands of power-oriented patriarchal people. I’m saying you men are out of control now. I, you, we – we all are the victims. So what’s the risk? What’s wrong with giving the female principle an opportunity?” Is environmental destruction really a guy thing as Sonia suggests?
9. Thomas gives two quotations from William Blake: “May God us keep from single vision and Newton’s sleep,” and “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is: infinite.” What’s Blake’s point?
10. Sonia explains what matter consists of at the subatomic level: there is only empty space with probability patterns of interconnections. She states, “The essential nature of matter lies not in objects, but in interconnections.” As these interconnections extend out from objects, all things are then interconnected at the subatomic level. “Ultimately, whether we like it or not, we’re all part of one inseparable web of relationships.” Even if Sonia’s view is true, we nevertheless draw clear moral and legal boundaries between ourselves and others, such as regarding property and bodily integrity. Once we grant individual moral autonomy, doesn’t Sonia’s rigid holistic view of things collapse?
11. Sonia states that she gave up her job as a physicist because, as she states, “I got tired of seeing my work fed to the U.S. Defense Department.” Most scientists would not opt out of the system as Sonia did. Is there a more realistic way for scientists to address concerns such as Sonia’s?
12. Sonia states that, as a physicist, she feels responsible for the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima – and more directly for the military uses of her own discoveries in physics. Jack responds that neither she nor other physicists were responsible for such consequences: “scientists are supposed to figure things out; its up to the rest of us to figure out what to do about it.” Is Jack right?
13. In defense of her view that scientists are responsible for the consequences of their discoveries, she notes that some Native American tribes made all of their important decisions with the seventh generation of their descendents in mind. This, she believes, is how scientists should think about their work, instead of simply as pure research. As with utilitarianism, doesn’t the Native American perspective fall prey to the problem of omniscience, namely, that we need to know a lot about how the future of the world would be affected by our various choices?
14. Kit, Sonia's daughter, says to her mother, “I can’t stand you talking about what’s wrong with the world, and your new vision of reality, when what I hear and what I think is that you’re talking about your own problems, and how you yourself feel disconnected. I mean you can’t even relate to me.” Is this a reasonable assessment of the psychology behind holism?
15. Jack asks Sonia how her ideas translate into politics: “wouldn’t it take some kind of totalitarian regime to put ideas as comprehensive as yours into effect?” Sonia responds with more theory (specifically “systems theory” which espouses ecological interconnectedness). Eventually, though, she says that we should always act with future generations in mind. Considering that businesses are oriented towards the short term, wouldn’t Sonia’s future-looking approach require a totalitarian regime as Jack suggests?
16. Life, according to Sonia, is self-organization. By this she means that it is self-maintaining (depends on one’s environment, but not determined by it), self-renewal (replacing new cells), and self-transcending (evolutionary change). Isn’t this definition of life more Cartesian than holistic?
17. Jack walks away feeling compelled by Sonia’s views. “Even the parts I didn’t understand felt right. So, should I just go with it? Is this one of those turning points?” The scene has an almost religious tone in which a sinner is wavering on conversion. Is holism the kind of thing that can be accepted in a conversion experience – or a “turning point” as Fritjof Capra titles his book?