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The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series

Series editor William Irwin

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and a healthy helping of popular culture clears the cobwebs from Kant. Philosophy has had a public relations problem for a few centuries now. This series aims to change that, showing that philosophy is relevant to your life—and not just for answering the big questions like “To be or not to be?” but for answering the little questions: “To watch or not to watch South Park?” Thinking deeply about TV, movies, and music doesn’t make you a “complete idiot.” In fact it might make you a philosopher, someone who believes the unexamined life is not worth living and the unexamined cartoon is not worth watching.

Already published in the series:

24 and Philosophy: The World According to Jack
Edited by Jennifer Hart Weed, Richard Brian Davis, and Ronald Weed

30 Rock and Philosophy: We Want to Go to There
Edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski

Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser
Edited by Richard Brian Davis

Arrested Development and Philosophy: They’ve Made a Huge Mistake
Edited by Kristopher Phillips and J. Jeremy Wisnewski

Avatar and Philosophy: Learning to See
Edited by George A. Dunn

The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth’s Mightiest Thinkers
Edited by Mark D. White

Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul
Edited by Mark D. White and Robert Arp

Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Knowledge Here Begins Out There
Edited by Jason T. Eberl

The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Aristotle, Locke
Edited by Dean Kowalski

The Big Lebowski and Philosophy: Keeping Your Mind Limber with Abiding Wisdom
Edited by Peter S. Fosl

Black Sabbath and Philosophy: Mastering Reality
Edited by William Irwin

The Daily Show and Philosophy: Moments of Zen in the Art of Fake News
Edited by Jason Holt

Downton Abbey and Philosophy: The Truth Is Neither Here Nor There
Edited by Mark D. White

Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy: Read and Gain Advantage on All Wisdom Checks
Edited by Christopher Robichaud

Ender’s Game and Philosophy: The Logic Gate Is Down
Edited by Kevin S. Decker

Family Guy and Philosophy: A Cure for the Petarded
Edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: The Ultimate Walkthrough
Edited by Jason P. Blahuta and Michel S. Beaulieu

Game of Thrones and Philosophy: Logic Cuts Deeper Than Swords
Edited by Henry Jacoby

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Philosophy: Everything Is Fire
Edited by Eric Bronson

Green Lantern and Philosophy: No Evil Shall Escape This Book
Edited by Jane Dryden and Mark D. White

Heroes and Philosophy: Buy the Book, Save the World
Edited by David Kyle Johnson

The Hobbit and Philosophy: For When You’ve Lost Your Dwarves, Your Wizard, and Your Way
Edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson

House and Philosophy: Everybody Lies
Edited by Henry Jacoby

The Hunger Games and Philosophy: A Critique of Pure Treason
Edited by George Dunn and Nicolas Michaud

Inception and Philosophy: Because It’s Never Just a Dream
Edited by David Johnson

Iron Man and Philosophy: Facing the Stark Reality
Edited by Mark D. White

Lost and Philosophy: The Island Has Its Reasons
Edited by Sharon M. Kaye

Mad Men and Philosophy: Nothing Is as It Seems
Edited by James South and Rod Carveth

Metallica and Philosophy: A Crash Course in Brain Surgery
Edited by William Irwin

The Office and Philosophy: Scenes from the Unfinished Life
Edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski

Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy: Brains Before Bullets
Edited by George A. Dunn and Jason T. Eberl

South Park and Philosophy: You Know, I Learned Something Today
Edited by Robert Arp

Spider-Man and Philosophy: The Web of Inquiry
Edited by Jonathan Sanford

Superman and Philosophy: What Would the Man of Steel Do?
Edited by Mark D. White

Supernatural and Philosophy: Metaphysics and Monsters… for Idjits
Edited by Galen Foresman

Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back, Therefore I Am
Edited by Richard Brown and Kevin Decker

True Blood and Philosophy: We Wanna Think Bad Things with You
Edited by George Dunn and Rebecca Housel

Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality
Edited by Rebecca Housel and J. Jeremy Wisnewski

The Ultimate Daily Show and Philosophy: More Moments of Zen, More Moments of Indecision Theory
Edited by Jason Holt

The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles
Edited by Gregory Bassham

The Ultimate Lost and Philosophy: Think Together, Die Alone
Edited by Sharon Kaye

The Ultimate South Park and Philosophy: Respect My Philosophah!
Edited by Robert Arp and Kevin S. Decker

The Walking Dead and Philosophy: Shotgun. Machete. Reason.
Edited by Christopher Robichaud

Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test
Edited by Mark D. White

Veronica Mars and Philosophy: Investigating the Mysteries of Life (Which Is a Bitch Until You Die)
Edited by George A. Dunn

X-Men and Philosophy: Astonishing Insight and Uncanny Argument in the Mutant X-Verse
Edited by Rebecca Housel and J. Jeremy Wisnewski

Avatar and Philosophy

Learning to See

Edited by George A. Dunn

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Acknowledgments: I See These People

Many thanks to all the contributors to this volume for the hard work that made this book possible. Their insights have greatly enhanced my own appreciation of the philosophical dimensions of the fantastic world that James Cameron has created and I’m sure that they will do the same for you, our readers. Special thanks to Bill Irwin, the general editor of Blackwell’s Philosophy and Pop Culture Series, who shepherded this project from beginning to end, and to everyone at Wiley who worked to bring this project to fruition, including Constance Sanstisteban, Lindsay Bourgeois, Allison Kostka, and Liam Cooper. Nick Michaud, Walter Robinson, and Ariadne Blayde also deserve special mention for their valuable assistance with important aspects of the project. Finally, I would like to thank my friend 毛一琼 (Grace Mao), for her steady encouragement: 加油!

Introduction: Time to Wake Up

Captivating movies are like dreams. They offer a break from our ordinary lives, a release from the stranglehold of mundane concerns, and a passport to fascinating worlds that exist only in imagination. This is all certainly true of James Cameron’s spectacular 2009 film Avatar. Employing state-of-the-art digital effects, motion-capture photography, and other cutting-edge cinematic technologies, many developed just for this movie, Cameron and his team of artists, designers, and technicians created a lush world of breathtaking beauty, like nothing that had ever been seen on a widescreen before.

Heightening the dreamlike quality of the movie experience was Cameron’s revolutionary use of 3D technology and the presentation of Avatar on gigantic screens in IMAX theaters – which, much like Jake Sully’s avatar, enabled audiences to step outside of themselves and temporarily inhabit the jungles of Pandora. Immersed in this fantastic new world of floating mountains, hexapods, and bioluminescence, we shared Jake’s feeling of ever-deepening intimacy with Pandora, curling up alongside him in a Hometree hammock and navigating the skies on the back of a great toruk. The beauty of Avatar and of Pandora left many moviegoers shuddering in pure awe. Some viewers even reported that they suffered bouts of depression as they went into Pandora withdrawal. After awakening from such a captivating and realistic dream, our everyday lives can seem grey and dreary by comparison. But, as Jake reminds us in the voiceover that accompanies the opening images of the movie, “sooner or later you have to wake up.”

More than a dreamlike escape, Avatar is also an allegory for events in the real world. Critics and commentators have been drawn into heated debates about the movie’s presentation of a wide range of cultural, social, political, and religious themes. Avatar is a feast for the eyes, but it also offers much food for thought on issues such as the health of our planet, imperialism, militarism, racism, corporate greed, property rights, the plight of indigenous peoples, and eco-friendly spirituality.

Just as Jake’s rendezvous with the Na’vi and his experience of the astonishingly rich panoply of strange biota found on Pandora awaken him to a new view of the world while simultaneously reshaping his loyalties and priorities, so too our experience of Avatar can help us to see the real world more truly and perhaps even inspire us to change it for the better. “Everything is backwards now,” says Jake at a crucial point in the movie. “Like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.” “Out there” is the world of the Na’vi, with their deep reverence for life and their wisdom about how to live sustainably. “In here” is Hell’s Gate – the sterile, artificial world fabricated by greedy human beings who have forgotten how to live in harmony with nature. Clearly Cameron is encouraging us to see the environmentally destructive aspects of modern industrial civilization as products of a deluded worldview, a bad dream from which we might be awakened.

Sorting out dreams from reality has long been a preoccupation of philosophers. That’s one reason why Avatar has generated so much interest among warriors of the “egghead clan,” including the contributors to this volume. In the pages that follow, philosophers weigh in on many of the most contentious moral and political issues raised by the movie, addressing topics such as environmental ethics, colonialism, war, and the conduct of corporations. But Avatar also provides fodder for reflection on a host of distinctively philosophical questions concerning the relationship between mind and body, personal identity, the possibility of truly knowing an alien civilization, empathy, aesthetics, science, technology, religious attitudes toward nature, and our experience of the world of the movies. Could tsaheylu (the bond) really be possible? Is a mind something that can be transferred from one body to another? Are trees really “just goddam trees”? Or might there be more to the world than what we can know through the methods of empirical science?

James Cameron is currently working in New Zealand on three sequels to Avatar, which will further explore the Pandoran biosphere and, according to early reports, will introduce a new indigenous undersea culture dwelling in Pandora’s oceans. These new films will make use of pioneering methods of underwater motion-capture photography that represent a major leap forward in film technology. Another dreamlike extravaganza – endowed with the power to provoke a response that is at once visceral, emotional, and intellectual – surely awaits. If we only focus on the visual aspect, though, we’ll miss more than half the picture. We need to keep our mental muscles in shape to think about the philosophical implications of Pandora. So, while we’re waiting for the next installments of James Cameron’s epic cinematic wakeup call, let’s start reading!

George A. Dunn

Part I
Seeing Eywa: “I'm With Her, Jake. She's Real!”