Monday, 11 June 2012

Philosophy in Film: How do we know what is 'real'?

We live our lives accepting that the world around us is real, but should we? Weir’s The Truman Show, asks viewers to question whether life is real or could it be a simulated reality?

How do we know the world that we are living in and seeing is real? What if it is a type of simulated reality, and how could we tell? When we are dreaming, are we aware that we are dreaming, or do we have to wake up to become conscious of our reality?

The 1998 film, The Truman Show, follows Truman Burbank, who leads a seemingly normal life in a normal town. Truman has everything an ordinary life needs; friends, family and a 9 to 5 job. What Truman doesn’t realise is that his ordinary life is being watched by the world. Adopted by a TV producer as a child, his ‘father’ creates a reality show, based around the life of Truman. Every moment of his life is being filmed and watched by millions of viewers, while Truman remains completely unaware that his life is scripted.

Truman, blissfully ignorant, as he is being watched by the world
Within the show of Truman’s life, actors play the part of his wife, his family and friends, and many extras as the town’s citizens. As the only thing that he has ever know, Truman has accepted the reality that he is been presented with, as his life. As said by the creator of the reality program, “We accept the reality with which we are presented” (Weir, 1998) and that is why Truman lives blissfully ignorant in his simulated reality.

Before The Truman Show, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (Falzon, 2007) tells a similar tale of a prisoners living in a cave deep below the ground. They are bound to the spot, staring at the shadows on the wall in front of them. The shadows are the only things that they can see, and the only reality that there is (Falzon, 2007).  Just like Truman in the film who accepts what he sees as real; he has never known anything different. The prisoners are not aware that there is anything more, and that these shadows are actually caused by puppets that move up and down in front of the fire behind them. If the prisoners were forced to turn around, the fire would cause them to become confused and disoriented. Falzon (2007) adding that they are happier if left in their original position. This is shown within the film, as Truman starts to notice anomalies, such as a camera falling from the sky, and is confused but chooses to ignore it. Instead of questioning reality, he prefers the safety and comfort of the shadows. 

Truman with a fallen camera
The story shows only a few are brave enough to see the connection between the flames and the shadows, leading to their eventual escape from the cave. After many years, Truman becomes unhappy with his ordinary life and the strange restraints put on him; he begins to pay more notice to the world around him. The film shows Truman beginning to question the previously accepted reality and making these connections that lead him to liberation, or into the ‘real world’.

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge and understanding and relates to beliefs and truth as knowledge. In regards to The Truman Show, it could be asked ‘how do we know what is real’ when in fact there is very little knowledge at all. Descartes (1991) extended on this with the idea that we are all dreaming. The philosopher argued that if we could not determine whether we are dreaming or not, we cannot be certain that a real world actually exists (Descartes, 1991).

Truman leaving the set
Like Descartes (Rowlands, 2005) believed, we might not know as much about our lives and our assumed reality, as we think we do. But how are we meant to find out about? Like the prisoners in the cave, we need the courage to face the flames and to question the world around us. If only, like Truman, there was a hidden set of stairs for us to discover.

Reference List
Descartes, René, (1991). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch and Anthony Kenny, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3 vols.1984-1991.

Falzon, C. (2007). Philosophy Goes to the Movies : An Introduction to Philosophy. Chapter 1: Plato’s Picture Show – the Theory of Knowledge. Pp.99-140. New York: Routledge.

Fumerton, R. A., & Jeske, D. (Eds.). (2010). Introducing Philosophy through Film: Key Texts, Discussion, and Film Selections. Part II: the Problem of Perception. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Litch, M.M. (2002). Philosophy through Film. Chapter 1: Skepticism. New York: Routledge.

Rowlands, M. (2005).The Philosopher at the End of the Universe: Philosophy Explained through Science Fiction Films. Chapter 2. ‘The Matrix: Can we be certain of anything?’ London: Elbury Press.

Weir, P. (Director). (1998). The Truman Show [Motion picture]. Paramount Pictures.

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