Which Philosophical Problems Should Be Made Into Movies or TV Shows?


There are already lots of philosophical fictional movies and television shows, but not as many as there could be, and perhaps not as many as there should be.

Some philosophical problems get a lot of attention from the filmmakers, such as knowledge of the external world (The Matrix, The Truman Show, Vanilla SkyInception). Others, not so much, such as nominalism vs. realism regarding universals.

This may be owed to differences in the degrees to which the problems lend themselves to stories, or to stories that benefit from being told in a visual medium. But it may also be owed to a lack of familiarity with certain philosophical problems and how they might be an important part of a story.

So here is a chance to share your own, “Wouldn’t it be cool if they made a movie about _____________?”

If you can, give us a one or two sentence sketch of a story, too, or at least a line about how it lends itself to story that would make for a good movie or television show, if it’s not obvious.

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Scott
6 months ago

Cinema could be an interesting medium to explore paraconsistent logic, Russell’s paradox, Žižek’s Non-All, etc. Words alone make it difficult to express the implications of true contradictions or dialectics qua metaphysics, especially the psychological implications, but a film could use cinematography and soundtrack to communicate aspects which mere words cannot.

I could see this being done in something grounded, like a biopic of Kurt Gödel, or something fantastical, like a science fiction movie about someone breaking into the “code of the universe” and trying (and probably failing) to fix the bugs.Report

Barry Lam
6 months ago

I would hazard to guess that personal identity and possible worlds metaphysics are more prominent in film than the problems of skepticism. There are good films about time travel and determinism and free will, future contingency and fatalism. I’d say that many films, including the ongoing Captain America vs Shield or vs Tony Stark are about competing normative ethical theories. Children of Men is about the meaningfulness of life in the face of human extinction. Under-represented but open to fictionalized storytelling I would say is the hard problem of consciousness, justice behind the veil of ignorance (an episode of Dr. Who). I think problems of causation would make for good fictionalized storytelling.Report

Live from Bill Murray's immune system
Reply to  Barry Lam
6 months ago

I think this view of things sets the bar too low. It can’t be enough just to match a plotline to an area of philosophy. Is Osmosis Jones supposed to count as a cinematic exploration of levels of organization? I’d hope not…Report

Last edited 6 months ago by Live from Bill Murray's immune system
Paul Wilson
6 months ago

“Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers” by David Edmonds and John Eidinow seems ripe for dramatization. Based on Karl Popper’s October 25, 1946 presentation at the Cambridge University Moral Sciences Club , “Are There Philosophical Problems?”, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s reaction and Popper’s response were dramatic, to say the least.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wittgenstein's_Poker

David Edmonds discusses Wittgenstein’s Poker on YouTube
https://youtu.be/MkSlikovszM

There surely must be a dramatization I’ve missed.Report

Last edited 6 months ago by paulscrawl
Tony Sandy
Tony Sandy
6 months ago

How about identity? Take away my social identity and who am as an individual, outside those perimeters? Where religion meets quantum physics perhaps?Report

Peter Alward
6 months ago

Speed 3: The Trolley Problem

Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves star in a film about a trolley hurtling (at 50 mph) towards 5 people further down the track. Can they divert the trolley to an alternate track with only one person on it? Will they?Report

Paul Wilson
6 months ago

William James, William Kingdon Clifford, and Joseph Conrad on the first and last voyage of a doomed transatlantic ship discuss ethics and options with captain, engineer, owner, and various people of faith.Report

Jeff
6 months ago

John Rawls meets Jumanji. A group of colleagues on a business trip find a board game called “Original Position.” What they think is a simple board game becomes their reality. Those who show little interest in considering life from the bottom of a society’s hierarchy live there while our hero Maximin ends up creating a world better than the one we currently live in.Report

WiseGuy
6 months ago

“The real problem of pure reason is contained in the question: How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?”

This one, please. Thanks.Report

Kenny Easwaran
6 months ago

Parfit’s teletransporter cases are of course inspired by Star Trek. Parfit-style fission cases are explored in fiction in various ways already. But I don’t think Parfit-style fusion cases have been explored, and that could be particularly interesting.

Trolley problems come up all the time. The Dark Knight did a good job of subverting them, when the Joker turned out not to be quite telling the truth about the results of various decisions. But it might be interesting to explore Frankfurt-style cases where a person has a sort of free will, though there’s a hidden force that will nudge their decision if they don’t choose right.Report

James C. Olsen
James C. Olsen
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
6 months ago

I think Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series is an interesting portrayal of Parfit-style fusion.Report

On The Market
On The Market
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
6 months ago

There’s a Voyager episode (“Tuvok”) with a fused character. The characterisation of the fused personality is actually quite well done, but overall the episode’s handling of the situation is poor.Report

On The Market
On The Market
Reply to  On The Market
6 months ago

Sorry, “Tuvix”Report

Samuel Cantor
Samuel Cantor
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
6 months ago

My favorite Star Trek personal identity episode is the DS9 one where O’Brian is replaced by a psychological duplicate saboteur who gradually realizes that he’s not the real O’Brian. Really hellish stuff if you think (appropriately originated) psychological continuity is defeasibly sufficient for survival!Report

Alastair Norcross
Reply to  Samuel Cantor
6 months ago

That was one of my all-time favorite Star Trek episodes. Colm Meaney is a wonderful actor.Report

Louis F. Cooper
6 months ago

There are of course a lot of WW2 movies, but, other than Casablanca, how many have been made about the philosophical or ethical dilemmas posed by questions of resistance under occupation, etc.?

I’m thinking of Sartre’s example known as “the student’s dilemma” (h/t Menand’s The Free World, which I’m slowly making my way through): a young man comes to him asking whether he should join the Free French forces or stay home and look after his mother (his brother has already been killed). Sartre, of course, just tells him to choose freely. The setting wouldn’t have to be WW2, since the specific dilemma could occur in various contexts.

(This is, needless to say, a different problem than whether to obey unlawful orders or carry out immoral acts in war — movies have been made about that, I’m sure.)Report

Alastair Norcross
6 months ago

The Office: Jonesy-Fordy Browny-Barcelona
Our plucky hero, Smith, spends his time at work daydreaming about achieving not merely true beliefs, and not merely justified true beliefs, but actual 24-carat, government approved, genuine knowledge about his coworkers. One day a genie named ‘Ed’ appears to tell him that he will grant him three wishes, and a better parking spot, if he can come up with one thing that he knows, really knows, about his coworkers’ transportation choices and current locations (it has to combine the two). Smith has heaps of evidence (portrayed in endless flashback scenes) that one of his coworkers, Jones, owns a Ford. He also knows that another coworker, Brown (whose violent backstory is filled in with many slow-motion gruesome fight scenes) is currently on vacation. Ed reminds Smith that the information in his piece of knowledge has to be specific (it can’t merely be ‘Brown isn’t here’). Smith glumly realizes that he has no idea where Brown has chosen to vacation. He is about to resign himself to failure, when he recalls taking introduction to logic in college (more backstory, involving scenes of Smith attempting to sing a madrigal at a fraternity party while accompanying himself on a guitar, only to have the guitar snatched away and smashed into small pieces by a popular seventh-year senior, and then vowing to himself that, if he ever gets offered three wishes by a genie, one of them will be to have his guitar restored to perfect condition, and another will be to force the guitar smasher to listen to his sung recitals of every Elizabethan love song ever composed, while staring at a beer keg that is forever an inch beyond his grasp). He remembers that any proposition whatever, yes any!, can be disjoined with a true proposition to construct another true proposition (montage scene of the young Smith, still heartbroken from the loss of his beloved guitar, struggling to understand addition, repeatedly failing, but finally, to the accompaniment of suitably triumphal music–either the Hallelujah Chorus or the Teddy Bears’ Picnic–succeeding and tearfully embracing his wizened old logic professor). All is not lost, thinks Smith (hopeful John Williamsy music, summoning images of plucky Rebels turning the tables on the Evil Empire). He plucks a location out of thin air (fantasy sequence of locations floating around Smith’s head, waggling their mountains, valleys, and peninsulas at him invitingly: Smith narrows his choice down to Boston, Barcelona, and Brest-Litovsk, all of whom whisper in his ear, promising him various rewards, such as never having to clean the coffee pot, that no red-blooded office worker could resist. Barcelona secures his favor with an offer of a key to the middle-management restroom (2-ply toilet paper!)). Having secured his location proposition, Smith almost falls at the final hurdle when his recollection of the name of the logical rule, ‘addition’, prompts him to first construct the proposition ‘Jones owns a Ford and Brown is in Barcelona’, which he writes on a post-it note. Slow-motion scene of Smith handing the note to Ed, with plenty of ominous music playing. Finally, in another, emotion-drenched flashback, we see the wizened professor, who looks a lot like Ed, writing ‘P and Q’ on the blackboard, erasing the ‘and’ (to the accompaniment of the screeching effects from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels), writing in ‘or’ instead, and pointing his stick of chalk directly at Smith (the camera). Back to the present, Smith pulls the post-it away from Ed’s outstretched hand at the last second, hastily crosses out the ‘and’ and replaces it with ‘or’. Triumphant music plays over a fantasy scene of Smith running up the steps of the Philadelphia Public Something-or-Other and waving his arms in the air. Cut to close-up of Ed’s face as he reads the post-it note, with a sly, evil smile forming, while the music slows and gets progressively more and more out of tune. Ed explains that, while Smith’s belief is true, and justified, it isn’t knowledge. How can this be, howls Smith, still standing at the top of the steps of that place in Philadelphia. Ed explains that Jones doesn’t own a Ford after all, and demonstrates, by means of more tedious flashbacks, how Smith’s evidence was in fact misleading. However, the disjunction is true, because Brown just happens to be in Barcelona (a few blood-soaked scenes of Brown getting into fights over the question of whether Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo is the better player, and whether white sangria should really count as sangria). Smith makes one last attempt to get at least two wishes granted, by Meatloafing the (bat out of) hell out of the office karaoke machine with his own off-key rendition of ‘Two out of Three Ain’t Bad’. Ed just shakes his head sadly, and disappears in a poof of smoke as Jones, in the next room, wonders aloud how many coins he has in his pocket (setting things up nicely for the sequel). The final scene is of Smith in the future, lying in an alley surrounded by bottles of cheap vodka and white sangria, and covered in his own vomit. He has clearly never recovered from his abject failure to know. The closing credits play to the accompaniment of the Meatloaf classic, altered to that the crucial line becomes ‘two out of three is bad, it really is bad’.Report

AMS
AMS
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
6 months ago

Although I should ask about the casting, I would like to sign up to produce this. Please? Pretty please? With either a cherry or two coins in a pocket on top?Report

Fritz Allhoff
6 months ago

Regina v. Dudley and Stephens (1884). Some guys stuck on a raft, kill and eat the weakest member. Convicted of murder but released early. Origins of the necessity defense and obvious connections to utilitarianism, theories of punishment, moral/legal responsibility, etc.Report

Jef Delvaux
6 months ago

Nozick’s Experience Machine

A society comes to hold the belief that the experience machine is real, but they don’t know which side of the experience machine they are.

Although the disagreement about what the ‘real’ world is, persists in the society, most think that we should prioritise the real world.

The movie then demonstrates that the popular view makes an illicit assumption. There is nothing like a one-and-true metaphysical reality. There are only overlapping mutually supporting structures.

The society is left confused about whether or not this means that they should go to the other side of the experience machine or not.Report

Captain Hollister
Captain Hollister
Reply to  Jef Delvaux
6 months ago

There is a episode of the British sci-fi sit-com ‘Red Dwarf’ entitled ‘Better than life’ that has an experience machine which ends up generating a nightmare experience because of one characters unconscious self-loathing…Report

Justin Kalef
6 months ago

For a TV series: each episode begins with some respected authorities and their supporters feeling very confident on some point. About ten minutes into the episode, they inevitably run into the main character, who is always hanging around in some prominent place but who does not claim to have the answers to any of the big issues, just a lot of questions that the respected authorities often find very frustrating.

The show could be called ‘The Sea Lion’, after a nickname the irked authorities give to the less confident person who keeps raising questions and objections.Report

Olivia Cunningham
6 months ago

Utilitarianism vs. deontology, is killing always wrong. (Kinda what Batman is)

Or something on all the Omni’s of god. Can he make a rock so heavy he can’t lift it? Is he capable of evil? If so, is he not all good? But if he can’t, then he’s not all powerfulReport

Matt LaVine
6 months ago

I’m also bummed about the lack of connection between pop culture, public discourse, and philosophy.  I also think there should be more of a connection.  I gotta say, though, I can’t really blame the disconnect on pop culture and public discourse (although I did do this in print a little over 8 years ago—I have a piece coming out next month calling myself out on that).  As sad of a state as these are often in, philosophy seems to me to be in the sadder state.  Surely one of these days we’re going to recognize (i) there’s a real world out there, (ii) it’s crumbling, (iii) it’s crumbling in wildly racist, sexist, classist, and generally oppressive ways, (iv) philosophers historically have some significant blame to take in the ways it’s crumbling, and (v)  philosophers have something to offer to trying to help it not crumble!   Report

Gene Glotzer
6 months ago

A league of villains called the “-isms” is fracturing society for their own benefit. A band of Philosophers and their historian sidekicks are the only ones who can stop them.Report

ShirleyIcan'tbeserious
6 months ago

The most important philosophical problem of all these days:

How to obtain philosophy majors and keep your department from being shut down. A department chair makes a deal with the devil (or the Koch foundation, basically the same thing) and must sacrifice his or her own soul and his or her first-born child in return for a steady stream of new majors. As in Maturin’s ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’, s/he’s only allowed out of the arrangement if s/he can trick someone else into accepting the deal instead.Report

No way
6 months ago

A sci-fi drama about the first human to acquire a prosthetic brain through a soritical process of neuron replacement (e.g., to prevent the onset of some disease). The protagonist struggles with the ensuing philosophical questions, and, soon enough, their sanity. Eventually, convinced of the merits of functionalism, they regain a sense of normalcy. But the film ends with a twist: it is revealed that the old neurons have been used to reconstruct the original brain, a la Hobbes’s version of Theseus.

Another story: emergentist radicals attempt to bring a malevolent God into existence, by selectively destroying/rearranging matter until it instantiates a complex mind (think Block’s “Chinese Nation”). We follow a detective, as they uncover the plot and try to stop it before it’s too late. Once again, the film ends with false optimism: the cultists finish their terrorist acts and are dismayed to see no evidence of success—until, seemingly at random, people begin to drop dead.

(I like pessimistic twist endings.)Report

Last edited 6 months ago by No way
Phil
6 months ago

Wouldn’t it be cool if they made a movie about philosophical zombies? It could follow a protagonist that can “read minds” only to wonder if he is actually reading minds, or projecting his own thoughts onto others that might, in fact, be just blobs of flesh that only seem to have minds.Report

Frank
6 months ago

The Utility Monster:

A cosmic horror descends upon earth to torture and feed off the suffering of its inhabitants. Our heroes descend into the monster’s lair only to discover that it’s being protected by thousands of cultists who are willingly torturing themselves for the monster’s pleasure.

It turns out that all of them have previously tried to kill the monster, but before they do so, the monster let’s them experience a single second of the pleasure it receives from someone’s suffering. The pleasure is so mindblowingly indescribable that all those who previously sought to kill the monster now come to believe that the world would be better if they tortured themselves for the rest of their lives for the monster’s benefit.

Our heroes too get a chance to kill the monster, but not before they get to experience it’s pleasures. Will they kill it and end humanity’s suffering? Should they kill it? Find out in The Utility Monster.Report

Republic
5 months ago

Surprised nobody suggested that Plato’s Republic should be made into a mini series (word for word) with lots of good visuals of the hypotheticals.Report