I started out to write a review of the movie A Serious Man, released last year and directed by the Coen brothers. Seemed relevant enough. While reviews are not my specialty murking around in the depths is. My feelings about this movie (and those of many others, from what I could tell looking at reviews online) were heavy in the murky department. I am still, three days later, unclear whether it was a waste of two hours or a useful intellectual exercise.
What did the first scene mean? Was the woman supposed to be the depiction of crazed certainty, or was she a temporarily misunderstood heroine for her village? Why did the protagonist, an academic physicist, have an older brother who was pointlessly addicted to his own genius, among other things?
The “conclusion” they reach, in the context of retelling the biblical tale of Job, is predictably catastrophic. The conundrums it reveals – religious, scientific and otherwise – are grossly stereotyped. The combination on screen, and in the hands of the Coen brothers, has an uncomfortable if unsurprising effect, which is, dumbfoundedness. Some people like that feeling (rave reviews!); others hate it (insulting reviews). I am in the middle, preferring a bit more substance and less in the obscure allusions department.
I lured you along with this sparkly movie talk so I could hook you with a big juicy worm of a Revealing Tangent. (It took a tangent of this magnitude to get me to reconsider writing anything about this movie after three days of dumbfoundedness). So hang on to your holy books, because you’re going to be wondering where the answers are hidden.
An obscure branch of philosophy known as modality concerns itself with what it means about reality that some aspects of it are possible, necessary or contingent. For instance, it is possible that George Bush could have lost the 2000 presidential election. It is necessary that your parents are yours.
Really important at this point that you not “turn on the lights,” but be willing to muddle about in this darkness for just a bit. Remember, that is where mysteries about reality reside. The non-mysterious, lights-on version of reality today, when faced with the questions I want to pose, is simple: parallel universes explain all confusing aspects of reality.
It may be true that they unconfuse a confusing situation, but explain parallel universes? Go ahead. Examples would be helpful… no. Can you see this leads to a dead-end?
So, now humbled, we can get back to the tangent at hand.
First let me answer the question, what does philosophical modality have to do with the movie A Serious Man?
The reality of movies is the perfect metaphor for modal primitivism. (Tangent – I warned you!) Modal primitivism is a metaphysical interpretation of philosophical modality. It says the universe’s underlying reality is not just about nailing down the facts, so to speak, via solving enough mathematical problems or adding enough dimensions or worlds to account for everything. The metaphysics of primitivism creates an essential distinction. Some kind of carrier of necessity and possibility is needed above and beyond “modal facts,” or logical statements about cause and effect. Modal primitivism says, for instance, that connections between objects and their origins are necessary. A mental image of a chair is not a real chair. Possible outcomes are part of reality if and when they are contingent on a set of quite real initial conditions. And finally, modal primitivism suggests that existence which manifests from nothing must be possible, particularly if you wish to suggest the manufacturing of an infinite number of parallel universes (aka possible worlds) to solve every problem imaginable!
Which brings me back to movies. Movies are the closest we have come yet to making parallel universes real – a story acted out, filmed, viewed by millions. Their existence proves that modal primitivism has to be satisfied before any model of reality can be accepted as complete.
In the period just before John died he had left academic physics and was studying modal philosophy and Buddhism. But not in a human potential way you might expect. He had an agenda. He was intent on cracking open the problems that crop up in physics so often in the form of dualities, exclusion principles, and generally irreconcilability among the scales of physics.
[See my newly minted Physics Disclaimer.]
I got hints and insight about his thinking from time to time. I grew up hearing about physics from him and the people he studied with. Later we shared an interest in Tibetan Buddhism, me because of my mentor-in-the-kitchen Chonyi, him because of its ancient and varied doctrines. That was easy to continue after he was gone. But the modal philosophy proved a bit trickier. I ended up asking for help from a friend of the family, a philosophy professor, who hooked me up with a grad student who wanted an interesting thesis project, in this case, studying an ancient relic in relation to modal primitivism.
Nothing in modern physics fills this “primitive” metaphysical requirement. Or I should say nothing-ness.