Monday, February 24, 2014

In honor of Harold Ramis, a repost (with additions) on Groundhog Day

Ironically, the class I teach, a class centered around philosophical themes explored in film, has as this week's movie, Groundhog Day.  I couple the film with a discussion of Plato's Ring of Gyges. There are many philosophical approaches to the film, a veritable cottage industry has grown up around it. It is arguably one of the best American films, certainly Ramis's best.  So, here are two prompts I use for discussion in class and in Blackboard discussion forums:

Prompt 1:
In "Groundhog Day" Bill Murray's character, Phil, a cynical and bored TV weather man finds himself living through the same day for an indefinite but quite large number of times. During the course of this very long series of temporal loops, he realizes among other things, that his actions have no carry over consequences into successive days.

As it dawns on him that he cannot harm people, it also occurs to him that there are no longer any reasons for him not to manipulate others for his own ends.  What is more, as he repeats the day over and over again, he compiles an amazing amount of information about the other folks in the film, and is able to use that information in his manipulations, and later in his more altruistic endeavors. He is also able to learn a skill, (piano) and use it in successive repeats of the day. This raises a question: If you were given some such power, and were also put in a situation where no negative feedback from other people was logically possible, vis your own actions, would there by any reason not to react as Phil initially does, living it up, and milking the situation for all it is worth?

Plato asks (and answers) just such a question in the Republic, with his "Ring of Gyges" thought experiment. He essentially argues that there is a very good self-interested reason NOT to react as Phil initially does.  The answer is premised on the fact that Gyges (and Phil) do suffer 'negative feedback,' not from others, but from themselves, for they persist through the repeated days (notice, very much unlike the situation would be if he were to himself reset every day, along with the reset of the surroundings). Because they persist, their choices and actions impact them, corrupting character, and ultimately moral mental and emotional health. For that reason, Plato argues, they have very good reason to resist the temptation to use others as mere means to their own ends, even though there is no chance that in so doing they inflict lasting harm on those folks.

Now, consider this 'on the other hand' response: 

We see that Phil derives a sense of satisfaction and a sense of purpose toward the end of the film, and becomes selfless in his love. When he attains this, he is released from the temporal looping. This is a sort of happy ending, a film with a positive moral. But, suppose though, that he reached that turning point and had NOT been released: He would now live through repetitions of Groundhog day, doing his good deeds and seeing each day end, only to be replaced by a reset of that same day, and the same folks in exactly the same circumstances, open to being helped in the various ways he does. Nothing of lasting consequence comes from his actions, day after day. While it is true he would not suffer the guilt of seeing himself behave in scumbag manner, it is also true that he would see the futility of everything he does. Nothing would have lasting significance for anyone except himself. 
Would he devolve back into a cynicism or depression as we see him do in the middle of the film, when he no longer derives any pleasure from acting like Gyges? Does a person of good will, who sees that he or she cannot possibly affect anything of value via his/her actions, run the risk of becoming despondent?  If not, why? If so, why?

Prompt 2:

Suppose you get this message from God (booming voice from the sky or quiet voice in your head, take your pick):

"Someday in the future (you don't know exactly when) you will be sent through an indefinitely long series of temporal loops (repetitions of a single day) just as Phil endured in Groundhog Day. You don't know where you will be at the time; you don't know how long I'll leave that switch in the 'on' position. Heck, you don't even know if I will ever switch to 'off.' BUT HAVE NO DOUBTS THAT THIS WILL OCCUR.  Be prepared!”

God continues:

“The questions I have for you: 

What will you choose to do with your life during that indefinite period of looping?

What do you choose to do with your life until that moment when I flip the switch?

What will you do IF I turn the switch off?

What will you do if it goes on and on, and looks like I’ll never switch it off?

I am not asking what you think I WOULD WANT YOU TO DO. Not at all.

I am asking for a frank assessment of what you would REALLY do.  Now, being the metaphysical big guy, I know everything, so, I'll know if you're feeding me a line. I also want to assure you that I will not do anything to you based upon your answer. Honest. (And, yes, I know that you know that I already know what your answers are. Just humor me, OK?)

So, lay it on me Clyde; what would you do?"

Think about how your answer will differ depending on your circumstance in life when God flips the Groundhog Day switch (young, middle aged, old, married, single, etc.)  

Give as detailed answers as you can, along with justifications.