I just saw the latest Cruise blockbuster The Edge of Tomorrow. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s my kind of movie: sci-fi alien-blasting action with a smart plot that delivers satisfyingly on an intriguing premise. (Plus, I just enjoy Tom Cruise movies. Is that so wrong?)
If you liked Minority Report, Inception, and Looper, there’s a good chance you’ll get a kick out of this movie. But what I want to write about here are some of the interesting philosophical issues raised by the movie. It seems to me that the storyline makes at least five substantive (and often disputed) philosophical assumptions.
SPOILER ALERT: Some plot details are revealed in what follows. If you plan to see the movie but haven’t yet, don’t read any further! (But do come back later.)
First, and most obviously, the storyline assumes that time travel is possible. Cage (the lead character) repeatedly travels back to a previous point in time and lives through a period of time (of varying lengths!) over and over again.
Some philosophers have argued that there’s no logical objection to time travel in principle, although many will say that time travel could occur only on condition that it doesn’t involve altering the timeline, i.e., changing the past. There can be only one past, period — and nothing can change that. (“Whatever happened, happened,” as Miles puts it in the fifth season of Lost.) The Edge of Tomorrow, however, takes the stronger position (one that is more common in time-travel movies for obvious reasons) that it’s possible not only to travel back in time but also to alter the timeline by doing so.
Secondly, the storyline assumes that fatalism is false. Fatalism, as I’m using the term here, is the view that your future will turn out in much the same way no matter what you do. But in the movie things do indeed turn out differently each time Cage jumps back, and they turn out differently because of his different choices (as well as the choices of others).
One might think that the movie also assumes that determinism is false because the events that follow Cage’s “resurrection moment” (I’ll call it t0 from here on) are different each time. But determinism implies only that the events would be the same given the same state of affairs at t0. That’s not the case in the movie, because the state of affairs at t0 includes Cage’s memories and other mental states, which are not the same each time. So the storyline is consistent with determinism.
Thirdly, the movie implies that some form of mind-body dualism is true. The reason for this is obvious: Cage’s mind travels back in time, but not his body. If his mind were merely an aspect of his body (e.g., his brain states) then his body (or at least some part of it) would have to travel through time in order for his mind to travel through time. But Cage’s body clearly doesn’t travel through time, because whenever he awakes (again) at t0 his body (unlike his mind) reverts to the way it was originally at t0 (i.e., not blown to bits).
I suppose an intransigent materialist might say that Cage’s body time-travels too, and the time-jumping process somehow heals it. But that would be very ad hoc and unsupported by anything in the movie.
Fourthly, the movie’s plotline seems to assume that there are true counterfactuals of freedom. A counterfactual of freedom is a subjunctive conditional proposition about what a particular person (e.g., Tom Cruise) would freely choose to do if he were in a specific set of circumstances (say, being a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show on May 23, 2005). The Molinist theory of divine providence and foreknowledge depends crucially on there being conditional truths of this kind. Calvinists and Thomists will also affirm that there are such truths, although they will disagree with Molinists about the kind of freedom involved in these truths. In any case, there are several biblical texts that clearly presuppose counterfactual truths of this kind (e.g., 1 Samuel 23:7-14 and Matthew 11:20-24).
Why think that The Edge of Tomorrow also presupposes such truths? Cage’s progress in the movie clearly depends on (1) his knowing in advance what other people are going to do in particular circumstances and (2) his being able to manipulate (to some degree) the circumstances so that other people will do what he wants them to do. After each time-jump, in order to progress as far as he did the previous time around, he needs to be able to ‘reproduce’ most of the events of that previous iteration, including the choices that other people made, and he does so by saying and doing (approximately, if not exactly) the same things he said and did the last time. But he could only accomplish all that by relying on true counterfactuals of freedom. He could only know what people would do in particular circumstances if there are fixed truths about what those people would do in those circumstances.
Incidentally, the movie doesn’t appear to assume any particular position on free will beyond the commonsense view that people make free choices and can be held morally responsible for those choices. It doesn’t favor an incompatibilist view of free will over a compatibilist view, for example. That said, many philosophers think that if we have libertarian (incompatibilist) free will then there cannot be any true counterfactuals of freedom. If they’re right (and I think they are) then the movie implicitly supports a compatibilist position. But that’s several steps removed from the immediate assumptions of the movie.
(To be entirely fair here, I think there’s a way in which someone who denies that there are true counterfactuals of freedom could explain what we see in the movie, but it’s not a very neat explanation and it doesn’t fit well with the way Cage conducts himself in the later scenes. I’ll leave that for others to discuss!)
Fifthly, The Edge of Tomorrow seems to take a consequentialist view of ethics. Consequentialism is the view that the morality of our actions depends only on the consequences of those actions: an action is good if and only if it has overall good consequences (i.e., its good consequences outweigh its bad consequences). In the movie Cage is killed repeatedly (!) by Rita, often against his will, and with Rita showing no qualms of conscience. Her reasoning seems to be that it’s necessary for him to die in order to defeat the alien invaders and save the human race. That it can be morally justifiable (perhaps even obligatory) to kill an innocent person in order to save a great number of lives is one of the distinctive — and most controversial — implications of consequentialism. (For further examples, see just about every season of 24.)
Now admittedly Rita is taking into account that Cage will be ‘resurrected’ by jumping back in time. But her moral reasoning still seems to be consequentialist in orientation. It’s just that the bad consequences (so she reasons) are less than they would be if killing Cage left him permanently dead. Only on a consequentalist view would the future resurrection of a person be a major factor in determining whether one is justified in taking that person’s life.
We must be careful not to leap to conclusions here. The fact that one of the characters in a movie assumes a particular theory of ethics doesn’t mean that the movie itself assumes or promotes that theory. But in this case the character is one of the ‘goodies’, and none of the other characters questions the morality of her actions. Moreover, the other elements of the storyline and the dialogue seem to encourage the viewer to see Rita’s actions as morally justified. So I take it that the movie as a whole tends to assume some form of consequentialism.
I think it’s fair to say that the majority of movies and TV shows in our day reflect a consequentialist view of ethics, largely because it has become the dominant view in our culture more broadly, even though it faces serious problems as a moral theory.
No doubt The Edge of Tomorrow makes various other philosophical assumptions (as all movies do) but these five are the ones that struck me as particularly interesting.
So what lessons should we draw from all this? Perhaps only that the study of philosophy can make watching movies a more intellectually stimulating and satisfying experience!