Roger Nygard’s documentary The Nature of Existence (2010; Netflix link) was the second film selected for our October “Netflix Philosophy Movies” Not School study group, and it was the decisive element in my not proposing that the group continue into November. Here’s the trailer, which very much gives the flavor of the film, in that the film itself is edited like a trailer:
Watch trailer on YouTube.
An ongoing point of interest for me in this “Philosophy for the Street” project that PEL can be seen as is the alternate approach to the same goal which approaches philosophy through popular religion instead of through academic philosophy. After all, religion is how I got into philosophy in the first place, and I can easily see a point of view whereby all this historical detritus from Plato to Descartes to Carnap is rather beside the point in figuring out the ultimate questions of life. This approach is radically egalitarian in a sense, in that philosophy professor types aren’t in a privileged position just for having thought about these questions systematically. At the very least, they are on par with scientists and religious professions in competing for our attention with their wisdom, and ultimately, any dude on the street may have an opinion that’s fully as “valid” (whatever that means) as any expert’s, as we’re all in the same epistemic position regarding truth.
What this film presents is a collection of sound bites from 100+ interviews with people from all walks of life. There are occasional “chapter marks” indicating a new topic (e.g. religion, sin, happiness), and there’s also an overall narrative arc of Nygard’s first interviewing his friends, then looking around California, then taking some road trips, ultimately ending up in Rome, India, and China. There’s some filmmaking skill displayed in retaining any overall arc in the film at all, as the clips in themselves do not speak to each other and do not go into enough depth (being sound bites) to establish anything except bemusement and/or wonder at how many different, crazy things people believe. The film dwells on anything that is screwy, like the guy who thinks he’s King Arthur, ultimate Christian wrestling, and a figure introduced early on: Aha, a “transpersonal undoing agent,” i.e. an androgynous, often-swearing self-proclaimed mystic in California. Another point the film dwells on at some length is a gay-friendly church in Dallas, and how horrible it is that other churches kicked out these people. There are some physics and philosophy and other professors sprinkled in here, as well as some interesting film directors (Irvin Kirshner!) and other people that you might find interesting, but we get so little out of them that it’s barely worth the effort.
The conclusion of the film, as you might have guessed, is that all these interviewees have a common humanity and that we should be nice and humble and non-judgmental. SPOILER: Nygard speaks at the end: “Why were we placed on this planet to strive and suffer, only to die? The only thing I’m certain of is that nobody has the answer, not yet anyway, but we’re getting a little closer every day. The only thing guaranteed is this moment right now. How am I going to spend it? I’m going spend it by keep searching, because you and I are on a journey, and if you stop learning growing, you start dying.” This is part truism, something that we by no means needed this film to tell us, and part wrong: does the evidence in this film display that we’re “getting closer every day?” By no means; there’s not even an effort to clarify what the question is, what the question of “nature” of existence could possibly be looking for, what “Why are we here?” could actually mean. Question the questions before you shout them at a passing pope!
Nygard’s famous movie before this were Trekkies, which I’ve not seen, for basically the same reason that you should not see this movie: you already know what it’s about, and seeing some footage of lovable freaks isn’t going to teach you anything new about it. So let’s assume that Nygard is progressing on his spiritual quest. Now that he’s used this film to “consult the wise and the many,” as Aristotle would put it, he can make another film that goes into more depth on the question itself, involving some dialogue between participants, most of whom should at least be familiar with philosophy (it’s OK if they’re also theologians or physicists or porn stars or whatever). Exert some editorial authority to not just challenge us to see what’s interesting and human about people whose views seem obviously freaky and wrong, but to put some serious thinkers on the table, doing serious thinking, in a lengthy and interactive enough way that we can get something substantial out of it. I promise, this would still be an interesting movie!