The Philosopher at the End of the Universe

Author: Mark Rowlands
Ebury Press
RRP 7.99
ISBN 0 0919 0388 2
Available 07 July 2005

The Philosopher at the End of the Universe demonstrates how anyone can grasp the basic concepts of philosophy while still holding a bucket of popcorn. Mark Rowlands makes philosophy utterly relevant to our everyday lives and reveals its most potent messages using nothing more than a little humour and the plot lines of some of the most spectacular, expensive, high octane films on the planet...

The Philosopher at the End of the Universe is a pretty ingenious concept. Take a bunch of popular summer blockbuster movies (of which almost everyone on the planet will have seen or be familiar with the plots of) and use them to illustrate one of the many great (or not so great) philosophical arguments.

The first big mistake that author Mark Rowlands makes is trying to justify why he is using popular movies instead of arthouse cinema. He claims that he is a big fan of these forms of movies - that entertain the masses - because they are films that you can just sit back and enjoy without having to think too much. But isn't that what he then does in this book? If these movies are indeed, as he claims, mindless fun, then he's spent an entire book waffling on about nothing. Wouldn't it have been more honest for him to admit that it is because he is hoping to reach a wider audience and sell more books? This is a philosophy book for the novice and as such he needs to start with a common base with which everyone is familiar.

Another problem is that the movies don't all feature that prominently in his arguments. He tackles a film, takes an idea and then goes off on a tangent, leaving the reader confused as to how we got to where he's taken us.

Having said that, this book is supposed to be a simple introduction to those who have always thought that philosophy was above them. And for that, Rowlands deserves much praise. He always shows several sides to the arguments so that you can make up your own mind, or come up with your own theory.

Some of the other problems I have are to do with some of the philosophical arguments themselves. There is a great explanation about Libet's experiments (basically he asked people to randomly move their finger while looking at a clock. They were asked not to think about it, but do it spontaneously. The results showed that the subjects brains recorded a response before (in some cases several seconds) their finger moved. This, they concluded, meant that the issue of freewill was under question. Actually it proves nothing of the kind. As the subjects knew that they had to move their finger they were already subconsciously aware of the fact that they would move the finger at some point - it was just a question of when. So surely your brain would be thinking about moving your finger because the subjects knew it was an act they had to do.

This also brings around the question of free will. There is a philosophical argument that goes something like this: We are a product of our past. We have been shaped and formed by our past experiences and so therefore for me to be sitting here now writing this review thousands of different events have had to happen. If just one of those had failed to have occurred I would be doing something else. This implies that our life's are mapped out for us and we can't change our future. But what if to disprove this theory I do something completely out of the ordinary like type a random rude word in this review? Well, no. Apparently my past experiences have also pushed me towards that rather silly action. This is a fantastic philosophical argument, because you can't disprove it. Of course our pasts will shape our future, but whether the arguments presented our credible is questionable.

The question of death and the soul is raised. The author clearly believes that when we breath our last breath there is nothing more. How sad a view that is. It makes a mockery of why we are here. To live and die and that be all we have seems pretty pointless.

Rowlands also tries to explain about moral values and states that if murder were seen as a good thing, and everyone was out there killing each other all the time we would never leave our homes. I see his point, but if we truly believed that murder was a good thing we would not fear for our lives as we would be out there killing too. And surely if we saw murder as an acceptable act then the consequence, death, would not be feared.

I have always taken great comfort in the fact that, as since the day I was born I have seen the world through my eyes, the way I see the world is unique to how every other living thing sees it. Of course my personality and views are also shaped by those that I come into contact with, but at the end of the day if I haven't experienced something I can never be certain that it existed. To this end, when I die the world will die with me. As far as I am concerned the world will cease to exist too.

My criticisms about this book are not to be taken negatively. It's like having a philosophical argument with a friend. You can argue into the small hours of the morning and not see eye-to-eye, yet the next day you won't think any less of them. Some things will fit your perception of the world as it is, and others won't. This book should be used as a starting point to entice you into your own philosophical take on life, the universe and everything.

This is certainly one of the most interesting and thought provoking releases I have read in a very long time. Let's hope it inspires many who would previously have stayed away from any philosophical thinking to stretch their mind a little bit further.

Darren Rea

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