Ever wanted to be someone else? What would it be like to be someone else? In Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999), Craig (John Cusack), a struggling puppeteer, stumbles upon a portal that allows those who enter it the experience of ‘being John Malkovich’ – or does it?Being John Malkovich raises a host of philosophical questions concerning the relationship between mind and body, consciousness, and personal identity. Let’s start to unpack these a little.
The mind/ body problem is as old as philosophy itself. Usually, people fall into one of two camps here – materialism (monism/ physicalism) or dualism. Materialists believe that there is essentially one kind of thing in the world – matter. As such, everything – including our thoughts, feelings, and conscious experience in general – can be reduced to no more than the function of neurons firing in our brain (or whatever science tells us happens in there). Dualists, on the other hand, believe in the existence two fundamental ‘substances’ – matter and mind. Mind, they argue, is non-physical. Today, the vast majority of philosophers advocate some form of materialism and support for dualism is, sadly, waning.
René Descartes was one of the leading proponents of dualism. In his Meditations he famously stated that what we are, essentially, is thinking things. As such, mind is distinct from body. There are, as you might expect, several problems with this view. Firstly, dualism just simply doesn’t fit with the modern scientific view of the universe. For example, how can it be that something non-physical (the mind) can interact with something physical (the body)? This contravenes the laws that govern causality. In effect, whenever I decide to move my arm, and then move it, it would amount to something rather like telekinesis (think Carrie). Secondly, we never experience minds without bodies (or do we? think Casper – the immaterial yet amiable ghost). It is for reasons such as these that materialists have lampooned the idea of ‘the ghost in the machine’ (Gilbert Ryle). Here Malkovich is rich fare – how is it that the disembodied Craig who enters Malkovich’s portal [no explanation is given as to where Craig’s body goes] continues to exist inside Malkovich and, furthermore, how is it that he is then able to control Malkovich’s movements? We might make reference to Craig’s prowess as a puppeteer, however, this doesn’t account for how Craig’s supposedly non-physical mind can control Malkovich’s physical body. If we can’t make sense of the interaction between Craig’s mind and Malkovich’s body then, similarly, we can’t make sense of how we function on the dualist account.
Materialism, on the other hand, fits neatly with our modern science. It captures the fact that the universe, as we know it, (including our brains and bodies) is made up of matter. What’s more, science can tell us a great deal about the brain and how it operates. Neuroscientists can measure the brain activity that accompanies our conscious experience and can point to examples of brain damage which limit or alter this experience. People working on artificial intelligence are making vast amounts of progress towards building machines that can ‘think’ (AI, Bladerunner, I Robot). All in all, there are many reasons to opt for materialism, however, there are also some unfortunate consequences.
For one, if we are just complex material machines (physical objects in a physical universe) then the laws of physics – including the law of causality – apply to us as much as anything else. This entails that human free will is just an illusion – rather our actions must be determined by antecedent causes which are themselves determined likewise. As such, perhaps we are all puppets dangling on the strings of determinism – the problem of free will. Furthermore, there is something very different about our mental life (consciousness) that distinguishes it from the rest of the physical universe. That is, our conscious experience has aboutness (or intentionality) – it is about (directed towards) other parts of the universe. In addition, consciousness, it seems, cannot be adequately described by any scientific account. Even if we knew exactly what was going on in our brains and could describe to the smallest detail our neural activity when we, for example, feel pain – this would still not tell us what it is like to feel pain.
This idea is captured brilliantly by Frank Jackson’s ‘Mary’s Room’ thought experiment:
Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?
Jackson goes on to argue that there will be something else that Mary comes to know about colour after leaving her room – namely, she will know what-it-is-like to see colour. This ineffable quality is known asqualia – the what-it-is-like-to-have-ness of our conscious mental states. This is the subject of Thomas Nagel’s excellent article, ‘What is it like to be a bat’ (1974).
Imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.
Nagel argues that we can never know what it is like to be a bat due to the subjectivity of conscious experience. The only way we could know what it was like to be a bat would be to be a bat [and it’s likely that we wouldn’t really be thinking about it if that was the case – although you never know]. He concludes that all we can know, is that there is something that it is like to be a bat [there is, I assume, nothing that it’s like to be a bicycle].
So, what is it like to be John Malkovich? Undoubtedly, there is also something that it is like to be John Malkovich – but does anyone in Being John Malkovich find out what that is? Do those that pay to be John Malkovich for 15 minutes really know what it’s like to be John Malkovich? Do Craig, or Lester, who take control of Malkovich’s body really know what it’s like to be John Malkovich? Is Craig, when he has eventually taken control of Malkovich’s body, really John Malkovich? Do Lester et al really become John Malkovich? What happens to the real John Malkovich? Should the film really be called – as its writer, Charlie Kaufman, has stated – Using John Malkovich?
Malkovich also allows us to consider the wider issue of personal identity – that is, what is it that makes us the person that we are and secures the continuation of our identity over time? It is insufficient to say that what makes us the same person today as we were ten years ago, or will be in ten years from now, is possession of the same body or brain – the ‘Malkovich vessel’ has both – yet we are not inclined to say that Malkovick, when inhabited by Craig or Lester, is the same person that we meet early in the film. This, it seems, is due to the fact that the particular consciousness inhabiting the Malkovich vessel in these two cases is either that of Craig, or Lester et al – not Malkovich. Rather, what it is to be John Malkovich, is to have access to his subjective mental experience – to his consciousness.