Interstellar and Entangled Ethics

Interstellar and Entangled Ethics December 3, 2014

EarthI watched Interstellar over the weekend and reflected on some of the reviews. My favorite review is by David Brooks in The New York Times titled “Love and Gravity.” Brooks highlights themes in the movie that also stood out to me. In a world where people all too often function as if we are still operating in a Newtonian-like framework of cogs and atomistic parts where individuals and their tribes compete for survival, I found the movie refreshing and metaphysically appealing. Here is what Brooks had to say about the movie, which he takes to be “something of a cultural event”:

After Newton, philosophers conceived a clockwork universe. Individuals were seen as cogs in a big machine and could be slotted into vast bureaucratic systems.

But in the era of quantum entanglement and relativity, everything looks emergent and interconnected. Life looks less like a machine and more like endlessly complex patterns of waves and particles. Vast social engineering projects look less promising, because of the complexity, but webs of loving and meaningful relationships can do amazing good.

Brooks is able to see the universe (i.e. forest) from the various planets and dimensions (i.e., trees) in the movie. No doubt, he is able to put in context the oft-criticized lines by Hathaway’s character about the reality of love in a world of scientific observation and fact. Regardless of whether or not one takes issue with Hathaway’s delivery of the lines about love being real, observable, powerful and transcending time and space, one should not take issue with love, as one reviewer observed. In “Why Do We Reject Love as a Powerful Force in Interstellar?” Natalie Zutter writes about Hathaway’s lines (included in the article to which I link here) and the theme of love,

Look, it was a cheesy speech designed to seed in a later plot point. I won’t deny that. But the emotional factors shouldn’t undermine the idea that love is just as concrete and powerful as the other forces making up our universe. It’s no more unstable than certain radioactive elements, it pushes and pulls us better than gravity ever could, and it endures through time.

Brooks mentions that we live in the era of “quantum entanglement.” Quantum entanglement (sometimes wrongly construed as “spooky action at a distance”) signifies that life is interconnected near and far (see these articles on quantum entanglement and time and matter). Instead of looking at life as atomistic and mechanistic monads or self-contained entities competing against one another, we need to see life as a web, habitat, and ecosystem where anything impacts and depends on everything.

Interstellar is about humanity’s attempt (through NASA) to pursue survival in solidarity on another planet, not a competitive exercise where superpowers like the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. competed for supremacy in outer space (which the movie references). All too often we compete with one another for survival here or elsewhere. We could learn a thing or two from quantum entanglement for our own cultural and ideological conflicts. Would it not be advantageous to think of ethics in this way, too? In what follows, I springboard (hopefully it is not a quantum leap in logic) from Interstellar and quantum entanglement to ethical musings.

The Christian prophet Martin Luther King, Jr. approached people of varying ideologies in search of common ground. It was as if he was developing the implications of quantum entanglement for ethics. In his message “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” King took issue with America for its attack on Communism while being entangled with a political-military leader (Nguyen Cao Ky) whom, King claimed, considered Adolf Hitler his greatest hero. It was not that King affirmed Communism. But the solution to triumphing over Communism was not war, but a “positive revolution of values” involving “a positive thrust for democracy” on behalf of justice. King claimed in “Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence”,

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.

As King shared in “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” what was needed was to share our lives with those we objectify as our enemies, know them, and hear their heart cry if we ever wish to attain a meaningful, lasting solution to the conflict in Vietnam. King argued that the good news is for all people, not just some. Jesus loved his enemies so much that he laid down his life for them, not just his friends. King’s non-violent confrontation in search of beloved community nationally and globally in which he called for America to move beyond tribalism (in which it viewed itself as God’s messianic global policeman for the whole world) to search for a global ethic involving people of various paths. King thought in terms of entangled ethics, where we approach all of life’s conflicts in light of a moral ecosystem.

The philosopher and Buddhist Owen Flanagan speaks of ethics as human ecology.[1] Generally speaking, human flourishing involves treating everyone well in one’s habitat, if one and one’s in-group wishes to flourish. Where King and Flanagan would likely differ is that for King treating people with love and compassion is necessarily good. For Flanagan, it appears that such is not the case: his account of human flourishing framed in terms of human ecology, while appealing and advantageous in many ways, “is not a proof or a demonstration that it is necessarily good to be loving and compassionate.”[2] No doubt, their differences are bound up with their respective Christian and Buddhist metaphysics and/or related notions. In King’s case (and my own), it is bound up with his Christian convictions centered in Jesus’ cross and resurrection, the truth of the Bible, and belief that the universe is bent toward justice (given that God Almighty is just). King declares at the end of his “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” speech,

And I’ve long since learned that to be a follower to the Jesus Christ means taking up the cross. And my bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter. Before the crown we wear, there is the cross that we must bear. Let us bear it–bear it for truth, bear it for justice, and bear it for peace. Let us go out this morning with that determination. And I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I can still sing “We Shall Overcome” because Carlyle was right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant was right: “Truth pressed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell was right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.” Yet, that scaffold sways the future. We shall overcome because the bible is right: “You shall reap what you sow.” With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid because the words of the Lord have spoken it. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all over the world we will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!” With this faith, we’ll sing it as we’re getting ready to sing it now. Men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And nations will not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore. And I don’t know about you, I ain’t gonna study war no more (Here is the link to the transcript of the sermon).

In my estimation, King expresses the cogency of Christian ethics by pointing to what he and I would take to be sufficient, necessary grounds for acting self-sacrificially and compassionately in our world today.

I have written elsewhere at this blog on Christian and Buddhist conceptions of justice (“What’s Wrong with Justice? Addressing Some Christian and Buddhist Concerns”). It is not my intent to argue at this juncture for what I take to be the Christian faith’s sure and necessary grounds for an ethical stance that is sacrificially loving and compassionate as modeled in King’s life. Rather, my intent is to pursue collaboration where possible with those of other ethical systems, including Buddhism, for the sake of promoting human flourishing in our global habitat. Perhaps it is the case that what is true in the realm of physics in view of quantum entanglement has a bearing on metaphysics and ethics.

In his discussion of “Metaphysical Insights” arising from quantum theory, scientist-theologian John Polkinghorne claims that

The togetherness-in-separation manifested by the EPR effect runs counter to any notion of a naïve reductionism, simply treating the whole as the separable sum of its individual parts. To our surprise, we find that the subatomic world is one that cannot properly be treated atomistically. The implications of this remarkable discovery still await their full exploration.[3]

Perhaps the implications of this remarkable discovery await further exploration in the field of ethics, among other domains. While we should not relativize various ethical systems such as those arising from Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Aristotelianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Kantianism, Utilitarianism, and the like, we should probe to find out how they may connect in service to a global ethic. This will include drawing from the fundamental differences to foster healthy debate in order to strengthen and sustain our shared resolve in promoting the common good.[4] We need to move beyond moral tribes[5] to a global enterprise in ethics that gets us beyond us and them.

A great deal is at stake in learning to move beyond “us and them” to just “us” in the ethical ecosystem. Instead of competing over who can first get to the moon or some distant planet, we need to compete against the “survival of the fittest” moral tribe and collaborate with one another so as to survive together in compassionate co-existence on this globe. Like gravity, love and hate are forces that have incredible power. Sometimes it takes movies like Interstellar to remind us of this truth. To the extent that we take it to heart, Interstellar will be what Brooks calls a “cultural event.”


[1]Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of the Soul and How to Reconcile Them (New York: Basic Books, 2002); see the chapter “Ethics as Human Ecology,” especially pages 293-294.

[2]Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul, page 293.

[3]See John Polkinghorne, Science & Theology: An Introduction (SPCK/Fortress Press, 1998), page 33.

[4]An example where I seek to model such charitable and critical engagement can be found at my Patheos blog post in honor of the Dalai Lama’s ethical stances applied to scientific issues: “Thank God for the Dalai Lama”.

[5]See Joshua Greene’s book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them (Penguin Press, 2013).

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