Monday, May 24, 2010

The Metaphysics of The Fly

David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly is one of the two most disgusting movies I have ever seen; the other is John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. I love them both. I hadn’t seen the former in years, but I watched the Collector’s Edition DVD the other night. (Here’s a tip: Do not do so while eating Thai food.) Part of the fun of movies of this sort is, of course, the philosophical questions they raise. To be sure, I am of the opinion that the philosophical value of science-fiction scenarios is overrated. Too many modern philosophers begin their inquiries into the nature of things with thought experiments about what they take to be at least metaphysically possible. From an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view (which, as my regular readers know, is my point of view) this has things precisely backwards. We must first determine what a thing’s nature is by considering what it is actually like, and only afterward can we determine what might be possible for it. Still, the point of at least “hard” science-fiction is to speculate only on the basis of what is actually known; and while most science-fiction movies hardly count as “hard SF,” the better ones at least rise above the level of sheer conjecture unworthy of philosophical reflection. Anyway, let’s pretend the one in question does, so I’ll have something to blog about today.

The Fly raises at least two philosophical questions. The first concerns what kind of thing it is Seth Brundle (the Jeff Goldblum character) has become by the end of the movie. Having had his genetic material accidentally spliced together with that of a housefly, he gradually transforms into something more and more fly-like, albeit at a (repulsively) human size. So is he still a human being by the end? Or a fly? Or of some new, hybrid species?

Part of the problem in answering questions about even the most carefully thought-out scenarios of this sort is that we simply have no actual facts to go on. The scenario might be inspired by reflection on certain bits of factual knowledge, but it is not itself factual. Moreover, such scenarios are typically under-described in crucial respects. What does Brundle’s interior anatomy look like at different stages in the transformation? How many human-like organs remain by the end? Is a basically vertebrate skeletal plan preserved throughout? (Presumably so or he’d have collapsed into a puddle of goo.) And what does the “Brundlefly” creature’s genetic make-up actually look like? There is no fact of the matter, and even if the movie had given an answer it would have been sheer speculation based on a “splicing” set up (the teleportation device) that is itself at best only tenuously related to any actual scientific knowledge. But, to go along with the gag, let’s speculate based on what we do “know” from the movie. (Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, be aware that certain key plot points will be revealed below.)

The classical definition of a human being, one central to A-T traditionally, is, of course, that man is a rational animal. That does not mean that every human being actually reasons or is even capable of exercising his power of reason. Injury or genetic defect might impede the exercise of this power. Still, the power is always there to be impeded as long as we have a human being. A severely brain damaged human being is a brain damaged human being, and not (literally) a “vegetable,” even if he is reduced to his vegetative functions. He is still the sort of thing which when in “good working order” will reason. Contrast this with a dog, which never can reason even if it is healthy and whole.

So, even if Brundle at the end of his transformation had had no exercise of reason, that would not by itself show that he was no longer a rational animal. But as it happens, he does exercise reason to the bitter end. To be sure, after Veronica (the Geena Davis character) accidentally tears off his jaw and thereby (apparently) triggers the sloughing off of his other remaining human facial features to reveal a gigantic fly-like head (see above), he loses the power of speech. But he continues his attempt to carry out his scheme of splicing himself with Veronica and their unborn child to create a bizarre new three person/one fly hybrid. (More on that below.) He is, of course, completely mad by this point, but to be mad is to be irrational, not non-rational. Moreover, after his failure to accomplish the splice and the associated accidental merging of himself with part of the telepod, he is clearly “begging” Veronica to put him out of his misery when he grasps the end of the shotgun she is holding and raises it to his head. This is obviously meant to indicate that Brundle is still “in there.” So, he is still a rational animal, even if an absolutely horrific one.

But how could he thereby still be human given how radical his transformation has been? Wouldn’t he be some other, non-human sort of rational animal? There are two reasons to answer in the negative, one biological, the other metaphysical. To take them in order, first, as we have said, Brundle retains reason throughout; and while from an A-T point of view, having something like a functioning human neurophysiology is not a sufficient condition for being a rational animal (since the intellect is immaterial), it is a necessary condition. Since flies have nothing remotely like that, it is evident that “Brundlefly” has a more or less human nervous system. Add to that the fact that he must surely also have a human-like skeletal and muscular structure in order to do the things he does, and no doubt other human-like anatomical features as well, and it is plausible that what he is is essentially a severely damaged human being who has acquired certain fly-like features as a result of the genetic alteration he has undergone, rather than something essentially non-human.

But second, even if one insisted on judging him to be something other than a damaged Homo sapiens sapiens – though again, there is little in the way of “hard evidence” from the movie to go on – it wouldn’t necessarily follow that he isn’t human in a deeper, metaphysical sense. For I’ll see your David Cronenberg and raise you a David Oderberg: As the latter David argues in the section of Real Essentialism on the Porphyrian Tree, human is best understood as a metaphysical category under which any rational animal would fall even if it did not have a body plan or genetic code like ours. Though the point is, I think, moot. For “Brundlefly” is not merely a rational animal; given the evident psychological and bodily continuity he manifests throughout his radical transformation, there is no reason to doubt that he is the same rational animal as the rational animal who existed pre-transformation. And since that rational animal was a Homo sapiens sapiens, so too is the post-transformation Brundle.

So that’s one metaphysical question the movie raises, and there’s my answer to it. The other question it raises concerns the issue of personal identity, though only by implication. Again, there isn’t really any question that the creature as he actually exists onscreen is one and the same person, Seth Brundle, all the way through the movie, certainly given what has been said (and even if one wanted to divorce – as one shouldn’t – Brundle “the person” from Brundle “the human being”). But suppose Brundle had been able to carry out his scheme of “splicing” himself via the telepods with Veronica and their unborn child? Who would the resulting person have been?

Since we’re not given even a hint of how this disturbing scenario would have played out, there’s even less to go on in answering these questions than there was vis-à-vis the question already dealt with. But we can certainly imagine various outcomes – one in which the grotesque amalgam that walks out of the pod has a mixture of man-like, woman-like, and fly-like characteristics, one in which it is considerably more human-looking than “Brundlefly” was before but more androgynous and still somewhat fly-like, one in which the resulting creature appears to have competing personalities vying for control, one in which it appears to have a single personality with both Brundle-like and Veronica-like aspects, and so forth. As is typical with weirdo thought experiments of the kind personal identity theorists delight in, though, the “correct” interpretation of such fantasies cannot be determined from imagined behavioral and physiological phenomena alone. A metaphysics established on independent grounds – and in light of actual, normal cases – must be brought to bear. And from an A-T point of view, what we can know independently of all such thought experiments is that the human soul is the substantial form of the living human body, and (unlike other forms) an immaterial, subsistent form. (See Aquinas ch. 4, or Oderberg again, ch. 10.)

Hence, given the worked-out A-T hylemorphic conception of the soul, if we had evidence of both Brundle’s and Veronica’s psychological traits in whatever amalgam walked out of the machine, the correct interpretation would seem to be something like this: Both Brundle and Veronica will have survived as separate individuals in the amalgam, since their souls have each evidently survived and (being immaterial) cannot themselves intelligibly have gotten jumbled together. (The same thing will be true of Veronica’s unborn baby, even if it is not yet capable of manifesting any psychological characteristics.) But their bodies have gotten entangled, in a way that is more radical than, but still properly interpreted as an extension of, the sort of entanglement we see in the case of Siamese twins. In the Siamese case, there are two persons and two bodies, even if the bodies have been intimately linked and/or one or both have not been completely formed. And the same thing is true of the imagined Brundlefly/Veronica/baby splicing, even if the entanglement is more thorough and the disfigurement of the respective strands (the Brundle strand, Veronica strand, and baby strand) more radical.

So, that’s my take on the metaphysics of The Fly. Maybe I’ll get to The Thing some time. (It’s spaghetti you don’t want to eat while watching that one. And no orange crispy beef while watching Aliens. I’ve got a list…)


  1. Fascinating and entertaining. Thank you.

    (It's amusing to imagine thought experiments like this becoming part of a "manuals"-like renewed scholastic tradition.)

  2. the other is John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. I love them both

    I knew we were kindred spirits. Now I really want to study A-T. :) You might enjoy EegahInc's blog, The B-movie Catechism

    Scott W.

  3. The Perplexed OneMay 25, 2010 at 5:39 AM

    Very interesting. Actually this ties in very neatly to a brief discussion some of us were having on your previous post about the recent work of Craig Venter and colleagues in making artificial genomes (summarised very succinctly here: )

    He claims that he has "created" a whole new species of bacterium by synthesising an artificial genome and inserting it into a bacterium that's had its own genome stripped out. On the other hand I, and many of Venter's scientific critics, maintain that all he's really done is more-or-less reproduced the bacterium he got the genome from, via an extremely complex artificial process.

    My question is: what perspective does A-T bring to bear on this?

    Is the bacterium a new species just because its genome was built up in a laboratory from a pre-existing natural template?

    Or are there other considerations to be borne in mind here?

  4. Dr. Feser...
    Please do me a favor and watch the movie "Session 9".


  5. But second, even if one insisted on judging him to be something other than a damaged Homo sapiens sapiens – though again, there is little in the way of “hard evidence” from the movie to go on – it wouldn’t necessarily follow that he isn’t human in a deeper, metaphysical sense. For I’ll see your David Cronenberg and raise you a David Oderberg: As the latter David argues in the section of Real Essentialism on the Porphyrian Tree, human is best understood as a metaphysical category under which any rational animal would fall even if it did not have a body plan or genetic code like ours.

    Edward, you need to read Orson Scott Card's "Ender" series - Enger's Game, Speaker for the Dead, and Xenocide. There is an interesting little theory introduced (in one of the two later books, can't remember which) which discusses alien intelligent species, and puts them into categories that reflects how they are, or are not, of such a nature that we can become fellow beings with common cause with them.

    I have often wondered whether "human being" was to be considered by definition as the totality of all beings rational animal, and therefore including any putative intelligent aliens. At this point, my conclusion would be in the negative, because I see lots of problems. For instance, an alien species that does not have sexes at all, or has more than 2 sexes fundamentally. Back when Genesis says "male and female He created them", it seems to be saying something about humans that is so deeply part of humanity that anything that is a-sexual (but completely healthy) would seem to be outside the human order.

    A similar sort of issue can be made of Card's first set of aliens, which are really merely separate component parts of one large organism (kind of like ants, but much more so) which controls the component parts with instantaneous "communication" that doesn't need to be expressed as distinct thoughts spoken. In theory such a being might not even develop language as such, and would therefore would be rational in a manner so wholly other than the human mode that it would be odd to classify them as human.

  6. Ed,

    what about some potential intelligent extraterrestrials? I don't believe they exist, but if it turns out I am wrong, if they really did exist, would they qualify as human beings? According to the classical definition (rational animal), it seams they would. I find that somewhat counterintuitive.

  7. Ed,

    what about some potential intelligent extraterrestrials? I don't believe they exist, but if it turns out I am wrong, if they really did exist, would they qualify as human beings? According to the classical definition (rational animal), it seams they would. I find that somewhat counterintuitive.

  8. What a disappointment. I thought this post was going to be about tailors and the slacks on which they work.

  9. Haha very interesting post, thanks! Maybe you can do another post on Cronenberg's Videodrome... not necessarily discussing any metaphysics, but rather just trying to figure out what the hell it's about.

    Oh, and by the way... apparently they are currently filming a Thing remake or prequel or something.

  10. Hi Edward, have you seen the cover of the current edition of "The Economist". It is to do with the "synthetic life" made by Creig Ventner's researchers. I was wondering whether you have looked into this topic and have anything to say? I am myself a biochemist and from my point of view this is NOT a synthetic life. They took a living cell (with its many components-the plasma membrane, different lipids, proteins, RNA etc., all in its proper place) and replaced its genomic DNA for genomic DNA they themselves synthesized. And then they argue that since DNA is the most important part of the living cell (its "information") and we replaced it with DNA synthesized chemically, we have chemically synthesized a cell - but of course they did not. And even if they did, by simply putting all the necessary components in their proper place (a bit like a human being created by a lightning striking a rubbish bin, which you mention in your book)-would they create a life from non-life? What are your thoughts on this topic? What I currently think about it is mainly influenced by Oderberg's "Real Essentialism" and De Konnick's "Hollow Universe", which I think are bouth great.

  11. Didn't Cronenberg also do The Brood?
    He has some odd takes on flesh.
    Ever notice that? All of his movies have some weird thing with desecration of flesh:
    Brood, Videodrone, Existenz, Shivers, The Fly.

  12. For those Interested (since he was mentioned by mtrekking). Heres's a link to some free essays and book snippets, from the work of Charles De Koninck.

    They call Cronenbergs work Body Horror, he is said to almost have invented it. Its based upon humans own fear and discomfort of there own body's,(and the psychological affects of these emotions) such as fear of disease, infection, old age and sexual contact. Cronenberg is a hardcore Darwinian as well and you can see this thread going through his works, hence his obsession with the animalistic characteristics of humans, and the frequent fixation with biology in his films.

  13. But...

    Why are we only talking about the human in the equation?

    What about the fly?

    Did the fly retain its nature?

  14. But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast. We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar, and therefore wonderful.
    -- Augustine, City of God, 16:8
    commenting on the blemyae, centaurs, sciopods, and dog-heads of travelers' tales.

  15. This is precisely the question of the so-called "New Mass" of Paul VI.

    It is a question, in other words, of the monster. What makes something monstrous is precisely the juxtaposition of at least two aspects or features not normally juxtaposed.

    The "New Mass" of Paul VI (actually the Mason Bugnini), which replaces the Mass handed down from the Apostles in what Roncalli himself called the "Church of the Second Pentecost" retains enough of a shell of Catholic liturgy in order to deceive the non-thinking, but turns out to be as monstrous as the human fly.

    So, a Novus Ordo Catholic, watching the fly, would most likely answer Professor Faser's question in the following way: "While the human has been somewhat transformed, it is still human enough for government work, and even has the advantage of 'opening' the human to the insect world and is therefore more 'inclusive'; therefore, it is perfectly acceptable to embrace the new fly as human as if nothing has really changed at all. In fact, the new fly merely proves that the human was wrong for the past 3000 years for defining itself so narrowly, since humanity has now 'evolved' to the advanced state of the new fly."

  16. Dan Brown wrote: "The "New Mass" of Paul VI (actually the Mason Bugnini), which replaces the Mass handed down from the Apostles..."

    You said it! St. Paul could never have foreseen, nor his ear heard, what would happen to the beautiful Tridentine Mass he invented! Let's face it, if God had meant for us to use the vernacular, He wouldn't have dictated the Bible in Latin, now, would He???

  17. Dr. Feser,
    don't forget to watch "Session 9".

  18. I swear I could write a post about Lance Berkmen's batting average and someone would find a way to turn it into an anti-Paul VI liturgy screed.

  19. Hype, I'm definitely going to check out Session 9.

    And speaking of hype, yes, I've seen the Venter story, and yes (and as cooler heads have already been saying publicly) it has been oversold. The suggestion that it involved "making life from scratch" is preposterous. (How Derbyshire could suggest with a straight face that it was more or less made "from nothing" I have no idea. He hath drunk deeply from the Kool-Aid cup of scientism.) Certainly there is nothing in it that conflicts with what I said in my recent "origins of life" post. Anyway, I will comment on this in more detail in the future.

  20. Dr. Feser,
    Please let me know what you think of it after seeing it.

    Also "The Road" with Viggo Mortensen was incredible. Did the book more justice than most movie-books stories do.

  21. Hi Hype, I watched Session 9. You're right, a great flick, thank you for recommending it!

    I'll look for The Road next...

  22. Awesome!
    Glad you liked it.

    That Simon character at the end of the movie: "I live in the weak and the wounded.....doc".

    It was such an eerie movie. The scene where the guy in the abatement suit is standing at the end of the corridor.... the camera slowly approaching him. Then the camera quickly swivels around and that voice says "Hello Gordon" with the blood splattered all over the front. DANG!!

    That director, Brad Anderson, did another film you might enjoy called "The Machinist".

  23. The Machinist is the one with Christian Bale, right? Terrific actor. I've thought about renting it. Now that I know both Bale and Anderson are involved, I will definitely do so.

    You're right about the eeriness of Session 9. That's very hard to pull off and I think most movies that try fail. I'm always looking for something that does it well. (My own favorite from this one is the scene with Hank trying to get out of the tunnel, where e.g. he just catches that glimpse of a sillhouette in the background. That's a "hair standing up on the back of the neck" moment!)

    Good twist at the end too. About 15 minutes before the end, the "false flags" the movie sends up had me fearing it was going to fizzle, but I was pleasantly surprised.

  24. That scene with Hank was great.
    I really liked that one as well.

    That scene and also where the kid (Mullet) was stuck in that corridor as the generate was failing. With his fear of the dark, and the lights sequentially starting to turn off as the darkness slowly envelopes him.
    Just very well done.

    Brad Anderson is directing a new movie called "Vanishing on 7th Street".

    So glad that you like the movie........ Doc. :)

  25. I just became aware of this piece. Thanks for tackling horror and metaphysics. You might find my blog of interest where such topics are routinely examined.

  26. The worst is drinking Hawaiian Punch while watching The Shining...

  27. I've just re-watched The Fly, for the first time as a practicing Catholic. I loved this movie both times, even if my reading of it has completely changed. Here are some notes (a decade late, I know):

    1. I think the film aged very well, he way Brundle operates his computer is actually very similar to how contemporary voice assistants and LLMs work (the "inference" done by the computer is actually very noteworthy). Perhaps Brundle's errors was also because he put too much trust into his computer?

    2. I think it's arguable that Brundle died after teleportation, because matter was actually decomposed in one pod and then recomposed in the other. This would have happened even if the fly did not enter the pod. I think this affects what was written about the soul, even if I am not sure it's something worthy of consideration because it might never happen.

    3. I think the movie is very realistic and also moralistic. It clearly makes a reference to the AIDS crisis of the time and shows the personal hells of all those who live driven by their passions and the consequences of sin. The film is (sadly, because it's one reason I'd not recommend it) filled with sex scenes in the hellish environment in which dr. Brundle lives. Impurity and its consequence, jealousy (due to Ronnie's past relationship with her editor Borans), makes Seth Brundle act irrationally and get drunk to the point of losing his mind and irresponsibly subjecting himself to the experiment. Ronnie herself seems like a ruthless person who uses sex to advance in her career and this makes her spiritually blind, almost completely devoid of morals, as is shown by her inaction about Seth, her attempt at abortion and the final euthanasia.

    4. Aside from utterances, the film does not feature religion. This could be considered perhaps a shortcoming given that it does raise some philosophical and theological issues. In any case, I think that it's one of the points of the movie that these people live like God does not exist. Brundle of course has wants to be like a god (aside from his experiments, by the end of the movie this is made very explicit when he wants to become three persons in one) and this leads him to his demise. The other two main characters go on cluessly about their lives worrying about success and sex, being unable to confront life. Ronnie visits Brundle more than once, seeing him worsen more and more, but does nothing for him. This is I think the most chilling thing about the movie.

    5. The film (in Brundle's plea to Ronnie to carry on with the pregnancy) clearly affirms that abortion is about killing children. I think Brundle's speech today would be labelled as politically incorrect and perhaps be cut.

    I've watched the majority of Cronenberg's movies and I would say that many of them have a moral message, despite the presentation (especially the explicit sex and violence). No wonder that he sourced noted Catholic author McLuhan for Videodrome, even if that film is pretty much unwatchable for said presentation! I think Cronenberg is not the secular materialist many seem to make him but he is a person which expresses in his art some spiritual truths by showing us the ugliness of today's secularized world. Too bad that his movies can easily become themselves occasions of sin.