The Philosophy Behind ‘Source Code’

by Max Andrews

Ben Ripley and Duncan Jones’ recent film Source Code is loaded with philosophical underpinnings and pushes the edge of current science.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays the role of an Army helicopter pilot (Colter Stevens) who faced a near-death injury in battle but wakes up to find himself in the body of another person, Sean Fentress, on a Chicago bound train.  Colter, while embodied in Sean’s body, needs to gather vital intelligence on the terrorist attack that is going to happen on the train in eight minutes to help prevent a future attack soon to come.  Though at times I got tired of monotonous scenes after Colter’s failed attempts the plot and philosophical and scientific edge makes a great film for those deep thinkers out there.

Inside the Source Code

This is how it works.  The Source Code is a computer program that takes the electromagnetic field from one person’s brain and allows that person to assume the role of another individual bearing the same likeness.  The personal duplication only lasts for eight minutes because that’s how much memory can be accessed by the electromagnetic field of the brain (per the movie).  The first important metaphysical question to be asked is how does this work with personal identity? For clarification I will refer to Colter’s embodiment of Sean on the train as code-world and Colter’s consciousness reflected in his personal self as real-world.  If real-world Colter assumes the identity of code-world Sean then what happens to code-world Sean at the moment Colter assumes his identity?  Now remember, code-world Sean was once real-world Sean during those real-world eight minutes Colter embodies Sean.  Also, code-world Colter was once real-world Colter at the same moment of code-world Colter going “back” as code-world Sean.  This begs the question, to whom do we predicate personal identity to Colter when he is in the code-world?  This isn’t so much of a time travel issue rather it’s related to parallel realities.  This may seem like Hollywood’s inability to be philosophically trained in consistent metaphysics but perhaps Ripley’s writing isn’t inept, perhaps it’s pushing the edge of contemporary philosophy and science!

Now let’s look at the issue of the parallel realities.  Max Tegmark is a leading proponent of the multiverse.  His is a little more extreme than many other proponents since he advocates a fourth-level multiverse, which is to say that mathematics is equivalent to physical reality.  The Source Code would be equivalent to the third-level multiverse.  The third level multiverse assumes unitary physics and that every possible physical particle interaction actually does occur.  Consider the illustration of a man and a woman who meet up for drinks.  It could go a number of ways, she could say, “Sure, let’s have a drink” or she could say, “No, I’d rather not.”  In this scenario both outcomes actually occur and reality splits and each story continues its course.  Now this model assumes that consciousness may be explained on the quantum level.  Source Code is consistent here.

The issue now is getting from one reality to the other.  Columbia University physicist Brian Greene is one of the leading string theorists and he believes there is a way to verify whether or not this can me done.  At the Large Hadron Collider in CERN hundreds of physicists from around the globe gather together and construct high energy particle experiments.  What happens is that they accelerate particle beams near the speed of light with the potential of producing 14 TeV.  These particle beams collide and reveal smaller sub-particles.  It works in a way similar to building a block made of legos and when you throw one block of legos at another block it was come apart and the smaller components will be left.  That’s how sub-particles are discovered.  Greene’s prediction is that when collision events occur and the data reveals that less energy is present than there should be then it may be that some particles, or energy, have been transferred into another brane (or another reality).  It’s not as though this idea is so far fetched or that it is unfalsifiable, branes may actually exist.  In regards to the modesty of the position this interpretation is known as the Many Worlds Interpretation (though it still faces its physical challenges and dissenters).  The MWI was developed my Hugh Everett and Tegmark is the contemporary who has carried the torch at this point.

In order for Source Code to be achieved there would have to be a tremendous amount of concentrated energy, that would be the consciousness of Colter, and specify that on the consciousness of Sean (or the electromagnetic field).  The precision and energy are almost certainly impossible to harness that energy in such a specified way to be able to determine the specified outcome of each particle interaction from one brane to another.  It’s the concepts of merely transferring energy from one brane to another that is possible.  Source Code takes the advances of modern high energy physics and fictionalizes it to be able to traverse realities.  It certainly raises metaphysical questions of identity, which are quite worth entertaining.  We shouldn’t always shape our metaphysics to what knowledge of the physical world we do have.  Our physics may not confirm or suggest certain ideas like this but these hypothetical thought experiments are great mental exercises and thought experiments.  I really enjoyed this film simply because it made me think about how this could actually work.  The physics are next to impossible but the philosophy behind it is what makes the movie worth it’s praise.  The plot and character development isn’t horrible but, hey, there has to be some milieu in order to portray the idea.


One Comment to “The Philosophy Behind ‘Source Code’”

  1. I loved this movie. I concluded, perhaps hastily (but I still think I’m right lol), that the movie takes a decidedly-physicalist view of identity. It’s clear the alternate reality has indeed become a reality rather than fiction by the end of the movie, yet Sean is not there. He is gone. What is the difference? Identity transference is done through consciousness, which apparently moves the other consciousness out. How can this be done? Only if consciousness is tied to the material body (hence allowing his consciousness to actually be gone yet still exist with his body being destroyed. It seems the only way this works is on some idea of the identity to be tied to the body. To be sure, perhaps one could suggest that there is an immaterial identity, but that it is necessarily complementary to the body (rather than synonymous with it in the way, say, brains are to the rest of the body). Anyway, I loved the movie, but I was troubled by the other dude’s being pushed out. lol

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