Science in Review — Movie Magic

Photo of movie camera and  cameraman, with actors out of focus in the background.

Wait, shouldn’t the actors be in focus? (Photo by dcondrey)

Hollywood loves the idea of a genius. Amadeus, The Social NetworkA Beauiful Mind, to name but a few cinematic portraits of brilliant men, men who apparently have a direct line to the rarified realm of mathematics and music, perhaps even the mind of God, while the rest of us dabble in the shadows. This year added The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. The latter features perhaps the ideal subject for an exploration of brilliance; ALS has removed any doubt that whatever Stephen Hawking is doing, it occurs entirely within his mind, inscrutable, and so by implication, incomprehensible.

Actually, cineplexes have recently been exploring the whole spectrum of personal achievement in the likes of American SniperBirdman, Nightcrawler, and Selma. And then there’s Whiplash, perhaps the most external counterpart to The Theory of Everything‘s take on internal greatness. Miles Teller’s drummer sweats and bleeds, pushing his body past its limits to bring it under submission. The secret to his success is clearly all in the wrists (and ankles) for all to see.

Last week, we looked at a study of how brilliance is perceived and how that influences gender equality in different academic branches. The more we believe that success in a given field requires some intrinsic brilliance that you either have or you don’t, the more that field’s demographics skew male. Movie geniuses tend to skew male too, although that may be part of a general bias towards male leads. I don’t have much insight into why we apparently perceive women as less likely to be innately brilliant. I wonder if it just a general lack of examples, either in movies or real life, because women historically have been afforded relatively few opportunities to demonstrate their mental faculties. (For counterprogramming, Interstellar features a woman succeeding at theoretical physics, and the real world version of The Imitation Game involved a number of women with mathematical talents.)

I do have theory, or at least the simple germ of one, about why we perceive different fields differently. The easier it is to watch someone do their work in that field, the less likely we are to believe their work requires special mental abilities. Thus mathematicians must be brilliant, because we never see them actually doing the math; at best we can watch them transcribe the results. Physicists sometimes have to get their hands dirty, but then again we tend to rate the best theoretical physicists as the most intelligent of that lot. Chemists are more hands-on, although we can’t actually see chemicals, so that remains a bit more mysterious than biology or sociology, where the subjects are tangible mice and people. And it extends to domains like music, where composers have a much more opaque practice than performers and thus have more of a reputation as geniuses.

And what do we call it when something happens without us seeing how it works? Magic! That’s the nature of stage magic; the tricks play out right in front of us, yet we don’t perceive the steps we believe necessary to accomplish the task. That’s the nature of movie magic too; the wires and gimbals and computers–even the camera–are hidden from view.

alan turing photo

To what extent did Alan Turing, subject of The Imitation Game, take the thinking process and reproduce it in a machine whose workings can be watched? (Photo by Mr Ush )

Like I said, it’s a simple idea. It suggests the same solution proposed by the authors of the original report: pull back the curtain and reveal the details, the mechanics, of what mathematicians and physicists actually do in order to demystify certain fields. Where I think it becomes interesting is where it intersects another topic we touched on this month: intelligent design.

I think our various reactions to the premise of intelligent design are at least partly influenced by how we perceive intelligence. The more we think of intelligence or brilliance as an ineffable quality of a mind, the easier it probably is to accept that designs are a product of minds and minds alone. But if we believe there is some definable process by which a mind produces designs or otherwise demonstrates intelligence, then it is also easier to believe that process can be replicated elsewhere, even external to a brain or mind.

And if I might be permitted to advance this line of thought one more step, perhaps our notions of intelligence are informed by what we think about the nature of the mind. I’ve gone to this well before, but I am convinced our answers to mind-body questions represent an important dimension of our perspective on many questions. In fact, I think those answers are so fundamental that it can be hard to notice how they influence our thinking, or to appreciate that it might be possible to think otherwise.

In this case, I can see where a substance dualism approach to the mind would be more compatible with a model of intelligence where the curtain cannot be pulled back, thus allowing a mind to be uniquely capable of producing designs. Monist or emergentist views, on the other hand, probably make it more natural to imagine that intelligence involves processes that can be understood and replicated, just like watching a drummer and copying his hand and foot movements. One would be more inclined to ask how a design was achieved and expect an answer.

Now, if it turns out to be possible to understand something about how the mind works, does that mean the substance dualist folks are wrong? I don’t think so; I can see room for those to ultimately be separate questions. And I’m not trying to argue for one view of the mind or another. My real goal is to ask whether our perceptions and assumptions of the mind affect how we think about intelligent design, just as apparently our perceptions of women and of different academic disciplines affect who chooses what areas of study.

How do you approach questions about the nature of the mind? Do you think that shades whatever you think about intelligent design?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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