BOOK REVIEW: The Philosopher at the End of the Universe by Mark Rowlands

The Philosopher at the End of the Universe: Philosophy Explained Through Science Fiction FilmsThe Philosopher at the End of the Universe: Philosophy Explained Through Science Fiction Films by Mark Rowlands

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is one of those books that’s designed to make tedious material palatable. Rowlands achieves this by conveying the concepts of erudite philosophers such as Plato, Nietzsche, Sartre, Laplace, Kant, Heraclitus, Wittgenstein, Hume, and Heidegger through the lens of popular speculative fiction movies (almost all Sci-fi.)

The book uses thirteen films as case studies to consider ten critical philosophical concepts (over ten chapters.) Virtually all sci-fi fans are likely to have seen most—if not all—of these films. They include: Frankenstein, The Matrix, the first two Terminator films, Total Recall (1990), The Sixth Day, Minority Report, Hollow Man, Independence Day, Aliens, Star Wars, Blade Runner, and The Lord of the Rings. I am not a film fanatic (though I do like Sci-fi) and I’d seen all but two of these movies (i.e. Hollow Man and The Lord of the Rings.) I can say that the book is understandable without having seen the movies, but it’s much more enjoyable when you have seen them. Although, as far as the two movies that I’d missed went, Hollow Man was easy because it’s a relatively straight-forward invisible man story, and—therefore—the link to that chapter’s question “Why Be Moral?” was simple. However, for The Lord of The Rings book I had to rely more on the synopsis the author provides to follow the chain of thought.

The philosophical issues that are addressed include: the meaning of life, what can we really know (if anything), what am I (or you or any other individual), what makes me (you, etc.) different from everyone else, is there free will, why behave morally, how broadly does morality apply (in other words, is it applicable outside humanity), do good and evil exist and (if so) what differentiates them, what does it mean to be mortal, and what’s wrong with moral relativism. If you’ve seen the movies, and give it some thought, you can probably match the movies to the questions easily.

I enjoyed this book. First of all, I will admit that it’s easier to follow the concepts and for them to stick with one when one puts them in terms of movies one has seen (in some cases, several times.) Second, the author has a good sense of humor. While Rowlands is a Professor of Philosophy, this book doesn’t read in the humorless and dry tone of academic writing. On the contrary, it’s meant for a popular audience and it reads for a popular audience. It should be noted that the humor and the exclusive focus on movies (versus literature or films) set this book aside from a number of others that are superficially quite the same. I have another book in storage back home called Science Fiction and Philosophy that is by an academic publisher, maintains the scholarly tone, goes into a bit more depth, but covers many of the same ideas (e.g. Brain-in-a-vat, etc.) using similar examples. I didn’t finish the more scholarly book, but if you’re looking for great depth but not reading ease you might pick it up for comparison.

Rowlands does overplay the “these-movies-are-so-bad-they’re-good” card, and when he does he sounds a tad professorial / pretentious. However, the book often reads like it was written by a colorful football coach rather than a Philosophy Professor. And, to be fair, in some cases it’s true that the films are delightfully bad. However, these are not B-movies like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes as one might think from the commentary.

If you’re interested in philosophy, but can’t get through two pages of Kant without falling asleep, I’d recommend this book.

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