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Total Recall

Antony Tomlinson recalls Nozick’s Experience Machine.

A key tool in philosophical investigation is the ‘thought experiment’. A philosopher imagines a situation to assess whether a given philosophical idea is plausible within that scenario. Often the scenarios are far-fetched and rely on imaginary technologies. Unsurprisingly, then, philosophy frequently finds itself reflected in science fiction. Even Hollywood blockbusters can be great philosophical thought experiments. For instance Hollow Man (2000) portrays a scientist who achieves invisibility. Being invisible, he realises he can commit crimes without detection. Free from all threat of punishment, he soon questions whether he has any reason to act morally at all. This film is, in fact, a presentation of the ‘Ring of Gyges’ thought experiment from Plato’s Republic. Other onscreen thought experiments include The Matrix (1999), which updates René Descartes’ scenario of the deceiving demon, and The Prestige (2006), which portrays the type of teleportation thought experiments key to British philosopher Derek Parfit’s work on personal identity.

One of the most striking examples of an onscreen philosophical thought experiment was sci-fi action thriller Total Recall (1990). A remake was released in 2012, directed by Len Wiseman. The remake explores many of the same ideas as the original, but provides a radical change of style. Let’s look at the philosophical ideas at the heart of Total Recall, before assessing the new film’s success as a piece of philosophically-inspired entertainment.

The Experience Machine

The remake of Total Recall is set in a dystopian future in which factory worker Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) commutes (through the centre of the Earth) between a tedious job and a cramped flat in a land ruled by an exploitative government. Quaid faces drudgery, powerlessness and prejudice every day of his waking life.

Then he’s offered an escape. For a price, a company called Rekall will plug him into a virtual reality machine that creates realistic illusions. Rekall customers can request any experience they like. Their brains will be connected to this ‘Experience Machine’, and their fantasies made subjectively realistic. Furthermore, while they are plugged in, they will believe that everything they experience is reality. Quaid jumps at this opportunity. He asks to be plugged into the machine and be given the life and experiences of a daring secret agent.

Just as Quaid is being plugged into the machine, the action kicks off. A squad of armed police burst into the room. Quaid fights them off using combat skills he never knew he had. Soon he’s on the run from government agents, aided by a beautiful freedom fighter. He later discovers that he is not really a factory worker at all, but a spy whose memories have been suppressed. And as his adventure continues, he works out his true identity… To the viewer, it may seem obvious that Quaid’s escapades following his visit to Rekall are fantasies: every fight, chase, or kiss he experiences is in fact an illusion being fed into Quaid’s mind by the Experience Machine. So while Quaid thinks he is living the life of a spy, he is in reality lying on his back, plugged into a computer. However, the film plays with the viewer, leaving open the possibility that Quaid’s experiences are real.

A similar Experience Machine plays a key role in a thought experiment by American philosopher Robert Nozick in his masterpiece of ethics and political philosophy, Anarchy, State & Utopia (1974). While Nozick’s thought experiment may not have directly influenced Total Recall (which is based on a 1966 story by Philip K. Dick), the film closely parallels its central ideas.

Nozick devised his experiment to test hedonism as an ethical theory. Hedonism is the ancient and popular view that the only valuable thing in human life is pleasure, and the only thing of disvalue is pain. (Here ‘pleasure’ is taken generally, to mean mental states that feel good to us, and ‘pain’, mental states that feel bad.)

At first sight the hedonistic view might seem reasonable. We spend our lives seeking pleasant sensations – the taste of good food, the bliss of good music – and avoiding painful ones – hunger or depression. And although people do choose to endure unpleasant experiences in the short term, perhaps they only do so as a means to ensure better experiences in the longer term – for example, we have unpleasant dental check-ups to avoid future toothaches. For hedonists, it seems obvious that pleasurable experiences are the only things of value.

However, we can imagine cases in which we seemingly value goals other than pleasure. For example, William Wallace in Braveheart (1995) calmly decides that he would rather be tortured to death than renounce his freedom. Surely this hero values freedom more than pleasure and the avoidance of pain? In reply, the hedonist will argue that freedom is valuable only because of the sensations one gains from it: perhaps a sensation of pride in Wallace’s case. Thus, the hedonist can always tell a story which explains our goals in terms of our seeking pleasant sensations or avoiding pain. It was to respond to such intellectual manoeuvres that Nozick introduced his Experience Machine thought experiment. How it works as a response to hedonism can be seen through examples from the film.

In Total Recall Quaid has numerous desires. He tells a friend that he wishes he could play the piano. He also wishes he were braver and more dynamic, rather than a downtrodden failure. Finally, he wishes he were no longer living under an oppressive regime. After being plugged into Rekall’s Experience Machine, Quaid’s desires are all realised. In one scene he sits down at a piano and discovers that he can play with beautiful skill. He also gains a strong and decisive personality which enables him to face danger and lead others. Finally, he fights for, and achieves, freedom.

Nozick asks, could an Experience Machine really fulfil such desires? Let’s imagine for example that I cannot play the piano, but wish I could. The people at Rekall tell me, “If we plug you into this machine, you will feel as though you are an adept piano player.” Does this give me what I seek? For the hedonist, the answer must be yes. The hedonist holds that the only reason I value gaining this skill is the positive feelings (pride, satisfaction) I would enjoy if I were to master the piano. The machine guarantees these sensations, so I should have no hesitation in choosing to plug in. However, for most people, this would not give us what we want. To simply be given the illusory experience of having the skill does not fulfil my desire to be a pianist. Pleasurable pride may be a positive side-effect of mastering the instrument, but it is not my aim. My aim is to actually learn to play the piano.

Or imagine I am a downtrodden failure, but I wish I were brave and dynamic. The people at Rekall say, “If we plug you in, you will think that you’re a hero.” Does this give me what I seek? The hedonist would again have to say that it does, since for the hedonist, we only value being brave and dynamic for the pleasant feelings we enjoy through having such a personality – pride perhaps, or confidence – and the machine produces that.

However, Nozick notes, this does not seem right. Becoming a brave and dynamic person may give me pleasure as a side-effect, but this is not what I am aiming at. I do not just want the experience of being a hero. My desire is to actually be a hero. Indeed, most of us would rather believe we were failures and really be heroes, than think we were heroes and really be failures. And although in my fantasy experience I am a hero, in reality I am still a failure, lying plugged into a machine. The Experience Machine again fails to fulfil my goal.

We can apply Nozick’s Experience Machine experiment to freedom too. Imagine that, like Quaid, I am oppressed but wish to be free. The people at Rekall tell me, “If you plug in, you will feel free.” Does this give me what I desire? Again the hedonist must say ‘yes’, for the hedonist believes that the only reason we value freedom is the feelings it can yield us. However, that seems wrong. I do not just seek a sensation of freedom. While I may look forward to pleasure as a side-effect of being free, I want to actually be free. We cannot believe that William Wallace chooses to endure torture for the sensation of being free: it is freedom itself he screams for. I would be horrified to think that, while I’m plugged into a machine enjoying apparent freedom, I am in truth oppressed. Again, the machine does not give us what we want.

The Experience Machine offers a powerful challenge to hedonism. Hedonists argue that the only thing we value for its own sake is pleasant experience. In the Experience Machine scenario, we are offered the chance to be given those experiences. Yet, as Nozick argues, most of us are not tempted by the machine. For we value things other than simply sensations or feelings: real achievements, being certain kinds of people, real states of the actual world. Total Recall portrays this idea strikingly. While we are lost in the action, we see Quaid as skilled, brave and fighting for freedom. However, as soon as we suspect that all is fantasy, nothing Quaid does matters any more. We feel sorry for him, lost in an artificial illusion.

Total Remake

Having touched on the film’s philosophy, let us ask how it fares as entertainment.

The action in this Total Recall is fairly diverting. The fight scenes do become repetitive, but it has enough thrills to pass the time. Colin Farrell convincingly portrays a man lost in illusion. Excepting the underused Bill Nighy, the rest of the cast are forgettable, but adequate. The film was clearly made to cash in on the recent trend for high-concept sci-fi thrillers, as seen with such films as Inception, Repo Men, Limitless. With the same darkened tones as many of those films, it looks starkly impressive, but offers few innovations.

A more interesting question is how the new Total Recall compares to the 1990 original. Not well, unfortunately. The original Total Recall, directed by Paul Verhoeven, is a delightful romp through the solar system packed with wit and satire. Verhoeven’s trademark mix of intelligent scripts and trashy action movie clichés works brilliantly, infusing the 1990 film with an air of irony that compliments its central idea of unreality. In contrast, the 2012 Total Recall is devoid of humour, and in its desperate attempt to be taken seriously, ends up saying less than the colourful original. In an attempt to be fashionably dark, the 2012 film makes Quaid’s daily life tough and dreary, and he escapes into the Experience Machine as a kind of suicide. In the original film, advertising tempts Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) into the Machine. Like many consumers, he is lured by promised pleasure. That film sees Quaid travel to Mars to meet exotic characters, uncover ancient mysteries, and face thrilling danger in a variety of memorable scenes. Schwarzenegger’s Quaid is living an exciting fantasy. The temptations of the Experience Machine are far more obvious. However, Quaid’s adventures after entering the Machine in the 2012 film are brutal and gruelling. It is hard to see why anyone would request such sensations.

While the 2012 Total Recall is a decent introduction to the Experience Machine idea, a far better exploration of Nozick’s idea is provided by the 1990 film. Indeed, Verhoeven’s Total Recall is arguably one of the most philosophical films ever made, also exploring issues in epistemology and personal identity. So I would recommend ignoring the relatively bland 2012 film and revisiting the original. And while watching, ask yourself: would I plug myself into the Experience Machine?

© Antony Tomlinson 2013

Antony Tomlinson taught philosophy at Lakeland College, Japan, and writes language-teaching materials for the University of Cambridge.

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