Saturday, September 24, 2011

Evolution, Morality, and Transformers

Recently I saw the movie "Transformers: The Dark of the Moon". I almost made it through the whole thing without a single thought about worldviews, philosophy, or apologetics. But, alas, near the end, something happened that my mind couldn't ignore (I pulled out my phone and immediately started taking notes).

For those who are unfamiliar with the Transformers' basic premise: there exists three species in the universe that are essentially battling for survival and a "leg up" on the others: humans, Autobots, and Decepticons. Typically, the Decepticons are trying to achieve something that would have the implication of destroying the humans and/or Autobots. The Autobots are the more "noble" of the two robotic species that join forces with the humans against the Decepticons. This particular installment had two characters that I will be focusing on here: Optimus Prime and Sential Prime (Primes are the leaders of the Autobots; they tend to be the wiser and more powerful individuals). SPOILER ALERT: the rest of this post contains storyline details that take place in the last minutes of the movie, so if you haven't seen it and plan to (and don't want it ruined), stop reading now.

The Spoiler and Morality
Near the end of the movie, a specific line caught my ear. Sentinal Prime and Optimus Prime were in a battle over Sentinal's betrayal of the Autobots to the Decepticons that put the survival of the human species in jeopardy. Sentinal informed Optimus that "All I wanted was the survival of our species- that's why I had to betray you." If the survival of a specific species is the determining factor of objective morality, then we have the survival of two species in direct odds with one another, which means that we have two "objective" moralities in direct conflict with one another. On a naturalistic worldview, there is no factor to break such a tie. Which means ultimately, morality is relative to the species. Any morality that is based on a species' survival, is ultimately relative; it is not objective.

On what grounds is Optimus Prime mad at Sentinal Prime? There are two possibilities: Survival of a species makes right or betrayal is always wrong.

Survival of a species determines "right"
Optimus obviously does not hold that morality is determined by the survival of his own species (otherwise the betrayal to continue the survival would have been right). His morality is determined by the survival of the human species. But what makes humans superior to the Autobots? Its not consciousness nor intelligence. Its certainly not size or mass. On what foundation does Optimus rise up against the actions of Sentinal? If "might makes right", then the Prime makes right. But we have two Primes in direct conflict over an action that has ethical value.

Allow me to step outside the story for a bit to look at the writers. The only way to explain such a decision on Optimus' part (which is in direct conflict with naturalism- see below), is to appeal to the writers' assumption that humanity is more valuable than any other possible species. But then, the same question that I ask of Optimus, I now ask of the writers, since they have projected their view of morality onto the character Optimus Prime. The question also stands to any naturalist who wishes to look upon Optimus' reaction to Sentinal as "right."

Betrayal is wrong at all times
It could also be that Optimus Prime was offended by the very act of betrayal- nevermind the obvious survival advantage it would provide. This ethic comes from one in which the objective good is "love". Whatever action demonstrates the most love is the right action.

Sentinal Prime tried to provide a defense for his decision. He stated that his goal was to accomplish the survival of the Autobot species. He implied that had he not betrayed the Autobots, then the Decepticons would have eliminated them. Sentinal's decision to betray would lead to the survival of his species- certainly a greater act of love than to allow them to die off.

Optimus' perspective is that betrayal shows a lack of honesty in the betrayer. It sets up a relationship of suspicion between the two parties. Certainly not an environment where love might thrive or even exist.

The problem that we have here is that we have two perspectives. One short-term, one long-term. But which one is to be preferred as "right"? How would Sentinal know if the further survival of his species would not lead to continued oppression and suffering under the rule of the Decepticons? How would Optimus know that it would not?

In the movie, it seems that Optimus is in the "right", but not for any reason listed here. But because the survival of the Autobots could be accomplished another way. What's odd is that the alternative way was not in the sight of Sentinal when he made the decision of the betrayal (a long time ago). So now, we have time playing in as a confusing factor. Without the knowledge of the alternative way, was Sentinal right in his betrayal? Without recognizing Sentinal's lack of knowledge at the time, is Optimus right in his outrage against Sentinal?

The Connection to Our World
The movie takes place in a world where all three species (humans, Autobots, and Decpticons) evolved by naturalistic means. This is how the fictional world of the movie attempts to overlap with our own to give the viewer a kind of sense of possibility (to make them more emotionally and psychologically involved with the fictional world and characters). If the connection to our world that the movie attempts to establish is correct, how can we believe that Sentinal was "wrong" in either our world or the world of the Transformers?

In the movie, Sentinal Prime and Optimus Prime are battling each other during their discussion about Sentinal's betrayal. A third option to determine if it was "right" is to see who wins the battle. Optimus Prime defeated Sentinal Prime, so his view is seen as "right" in the movie. But what if Sentinal had defeated Optimus? Would that make Sentinal's betrayal "right"? Does "might make right"? If it does, then morality is not just relative to the species or culture, but subjective to the individual (even if that individual attempts to ground their morality on one of the options above).

Many wish to say that objective morality can exist in a naturalistic universe. But, on which of the three grounds presented here is objective morality established? Is it even possible to establish objective morality in a world without God?

Christian philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig debated atheist Sam Harris on the topic of whether or not God is required for objective morality. Check the link here: William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris Debate Audio

See also: Sam Harris' Equivocation of "the Good"

For more movie philosophy and apologetics, check out the NEW Cultural Apologetics page. 


  1. Luke, I love this post!! I think you bring up some important things. I think that Optimus has always worked on an objective view on Morality. I can't remember if it was in this movie or in a previous one, Optimus defended his decision to protect humanity by his famous quote: "Freedom is right of all sentient beings." This is what motivates Optimus to lead his Autobots against the Decepticons and put his own life on the lines. I don't think he values humans more than Autobots he values all sentient life the same.

    I know there could be a huge discussion about what "freedom" and "sentience" means but no matter how you define them, you can't explain them through "natural evolutionary processes", just as you points out.

  2. Marcus,
    Thank you for that comment! You bring up some important insights that I will have to expand on a bit more in the future.

    Along with needing to define "freedom" and "sentience" consistently on a naturalistic worldview, "right" also needs to be defined.

    Let's not forget that Optimus is acting on a belief that appears nobel to humanity. But why does he value humanity's opinion and not that of the Decepticons? Why does he value the survival of humanity over his own survival, or even the survival of his species? If it is because it makes *him* feel good, all nobility (whatever that means) is lost. He's acting on a narcisstic and hedonistic (both ultimately subjective) ethic.

  3. Hey, Luke, I got to admit that I have a different view of Optimus Prime. I think his actions are based on his view of right and wrong. And he appeals to higher standard than himself. I think it's more about him wanting to protect humans and Autobots. Humans and Autobots and Decepticons are sentient therefore they deserve freedom and he's willing to destroy the Decepticons to ensure that he does protect those who can't protect themselves. It's the same ethic that drives Superman, Batman, Spider-man, Captain America, and X-Men and it should drive us. It's Biblical and those who created these characters didn't even realize the source - God.

    If Optimus Prime could give up fighting, I believe he would happily put down his weapons and never pick them up again. That's not true of all the Autobots - they are all different in temperament and personality - but they aren't evil in the way we think of evil. Decepticons want to rule the Universe and kill lifeforms that they think are beneath them - evil in other words.

    Also, I don't think that Optimus thinks neither race is more valuable or worthy of life than any of the other. The Decepticons are narcisstic and hedonistic but the Autobots are not.

  4. Marcus,
    I completely agree with you about Optimus Prime's character. In a theistic universe, everything that you stated makes sense. But it does not make sense in the naturalistic universe that the writers placed him in. I'm just saying that in his world, he has no foundation for his actions. There is no standard to determine if narcisim and hendonism are wrong, Optimus just doesn't prefer those, while the Decepticons do.

    If the Decepticons were to destroy the Autobots, then their ethic would stand. The only reason that we (in the real world) would have a reaction to the Decepticons' victory is because we live in a universe that is characterized by objective morality that states that the philosophy of the Decpticons is objectively wrong.

    If the Decepticons were destroyed, and Optimus Prime put down his weapons permanently, we would react to it as good because we live in a world characterized by objective morality that states that shedding of innocent blood is objectively wrong.

    However, in the world of the Transformers, there is no objective morality that can make the distinction between right and wrong. The only way the individual has to make ethical determinations is to look at their own feelings.

    If we are to say that Optimus Prime is actually appealing to an objective standard that is outside himself but still in his reality, we must identify that standard. We would also need to be fair to the other characters: Sentinal Prime and the Decepticons. What objective standard might they be appealing to to justify their actions?

  5. Hey, Luke you are right. I think the writers did presuppose a natural materialistic world in thy movie. Your post underscores that the movie makes no sense taken from that presupposition because of the logical contradictions you have pointed out.


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