I Think Therefore I Am:
An Exploration of Philosophical Complexities in a World Without Natural Law
Philosophers have been building off of each other more or less since Plato. Their ideas, rebutting each other, contradicting eachother, and ultimately complementing each other, have acted as major means of defining the various eras and cultures of the world. With the major exception of dialectical logic, philosophers have largely abandoned the ideas of the earliest periods. The world has gone from something experienced qualitatively, to something reasoned about logically, to something measured precisely, and out the other side into an entirely new sort of experience implied by existentialism. Nearly every philosopher has used hypothetical arguments and counter-factual situations to bring into question one assertion or another. Even change what a chair is. Common philosophical questions concerning what makes a chair a chair are easily answered by casting a summoning spell for the chairs, and all the “real” chairs would hurtle across the room towards you. Ironically, Rowling’s world is one of definite existence, despite the overwhelming inability to judge the validity of one’s senses. The only truly undefined concepts in Rowling’s universe are those of true (or perhaps, final) death, and morality. So far, we have been introduced to no spell that takes an issue of morality for granted, whereas we have seen issues of identity and truth spelled out for us. While Dumbledore is often pointed to as Rowling’s mouthpiece for moral judgment, the nature of the world she has created is more aligned to the philosophies the Marquis de Sade, wherein the universe recognizes no entity as more important than any other, and as such no violence or perversity may inherently be a crime:
Well, as of this moment, it loses every aspect of crime; for, in order that what serves one by harming another be a crime, one should first have to demonstrate that the injured person is more important, more precious to Nature than the person who performs the injury and serves her; now, all individuals being of uniform importance in her eyes, ‘tis impossible that she have a predilection for some one among them; hence, the deed that serves one person by causing suffering to another is of perfect indifference to Nature.
Indeed, this philosophy is seen in Voldemort’s actions and is attested to as intended (as though by God or nature) by the very fact that entities existing solely to harm others, such as Dementors or Boggarts, may even exist. Ironically, however, there is evidence that one creature actually is more precious to nature than others; the killing of a unicorn brings with it a curse, not cast by any wizard but inherent to the act of killing the unicorn. This curse is not in the tradition of the rest of wizard magic, but manifests as a sort of spiritual drain. This seems to be the only shred of evidence in support of a moral absolutism existing in Rowling’s universe.
Rowling complicates epistemology as well. Mrs. Weasley’s famous saying “never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain” ironically arouses a host of very important questions. Alan Turing posited many questions about the nature of sentience, consciousness, and whether or not an artificial entity could possess them. He posited that a machine would have to be designed without meaningful intelligence and then be programmed to learn (Turing). In Rowling’s universe, however, objects are commonly imbued with varying levels of intelligence. From the enchanted portraits and paintings capable of interacting with the observer and possessed of rudimentary knowledge about what they represent and full memory of what has occurred in their presence, to the Quick Quotes Quill ™ capable of transcribing dictation in the form that the possessor would have themselves, to Riddle’s Diary, capable of actively effecting the world around it, Rowling’s universe is not one concerned with the dilemma of the reproducibility of intelligence. It does, however, seriously question the reproducibility of the soul. Portraits may possess the personalities of their image-sakes, but they do not possess their intellects, and no magical object is displayed to have a meaningful or significant will of its own, excepting Riddle’s Diary, which is later shown to contain a portion of Voldemort’s soul.
A troubling theological issue is brought up here. Although there is little or not mention of religion in Rowling’s works, there are questions of life after death, and, more importantly, there exists magic capable of affecting the soul itself. From what we have seen, the soul is irreplaceable, invaluable, and mutable. Two spells are known to directly affect the soul; The horcrux creation spell fractures the caster’s soul to create a horcrux (or Phylactery); and the killing curse, Avada Kedavra, which forcibly expels the soul from the body, causing instant death. Of these, the killing curse is significantly more benign in that it presumably allows the soul to move on to final death, whereas the act of creating a horcrux fractures a soul such that it may never be restored.
From this we get a question of what is and is not sacred (in the philosophical, not religious, sense). What can and cannot be proven, measured, or understood? Modern westerners have established ideas about what is and isn’t “real” and “measurable.” Our philosophy argues over what can and cannot be defined, and what is absolutely definable is also measurable. We can define mass, and can measure it. We define distance and time, and measure those. In Rowling’s universe, truth has an absolute definition, whether or not it has been pinned down by anyone; its real existence is proven by the veritas serum. The soul is definable, the mind is definable, and why not measurable? This seems odd to us, yet it was not always so:
What can be measured in terms of quanta is not as simple as we, who have the ex post facto advantage of our ancestors’ mistakes, think. For instance, when in the fourteenth century the scholars of Oxford’s Merton College began to think about the benefits of measuring not only size, but also qualities as slippery as motion, light, heat, and color, they forged right on, jumped the fence, and talked about quantifying certitude, virtue, and grace.21 Indeed, if you can manage to think of measuring heat before the invention of the thermometer, then why should you presumptively exclude certitude, virtue, and grace?
21 J.A. Weisheipl, “Ockham and the Mertonians,” in The History of the University of Oxford, ed. J. I. Catto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 1:639.
Rowling’s world is one where modern ideas of measurement and science are incorrect, and we are brought back to the world-view brought to us by earlier thinkers. The qualitative analyses of Plato and Aristotle are more useful and valuable than anything Einstein or Newton ever wrote. It is an England where alchemists never became scientists, and modern medicine is based upon the careful balancing of humours. The most quantitative thought that one achieves at Hogwarts is arithmancy, which is more akin to numerology than math. The wizarding world is one where science is a liberal art, and all learning is related to the development of skills. The value of education is not a questionable one: the less educated are less likely to survive economically, but also less likely to survive the equivalent of a street mugging. Society favors the elite to a degree that would make Carl Marx turn over in his grave. The upper class has every advantage, even that of superior firepower.
With a simple gesture, Rowling turns philosophy on its head. There are interesting implications of the implied reality of thought and memory. Thoughts being defined as real things through the existence of the Memory and Confundus charms, as well as the pensieve, twist Descartes’ infamous proof of the existence of God in interesting ways. Descartes’ proof of God goes something like this:
• All of my ideas have influences, and I cannot imagine that which does not exist and is not made up of parts which do exist.
• I have an idea of God, who is infinite, omnipotent, and perfect.
• I have never experienced infinity, omnipotence, or perfection.
• These ideas must have been inspired by God.
• God Exists
Or, in short: God exists because I think he does.
(Descartes 193-211, heavily paraphrased with ironic overtones added by me and developed by almost every philosopher and critic after him)
The argument is freed of its troublesome circular logic by the meaningful existence of thought, meaning that God exists at least in your thoughts, which are real things, but could someone seeking proof of God find it in the room of requirement? Alternatively, in a world filled with Dementors, Vampires, Boggarts, and the ability to sunder souls, the question of God’s existence would be much less important than that of his benevolence.
While Rowling has not necessarily considered each and every example mentioned here, there is no doubt that her classical education has imbued her with many of these ideas. Her treatment of magic and its machinations is consistent with medieval philosophy and culture, her elaborate moral ambiguities seem designed to confound many philosophers of the field of ethics, her acute parallels of modern society (American in addition to British), and her references to Latin and Shakespeare demonstrate her mindfulness of literature, philosophy, history, and sociology in her writings.
Crosby, Alfred W. The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Descartes, René. “Meditations.” Philosophical Writings. Trans. & Ed. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: Modern Library, 1958.
"Pontius Pilate." Wikipedia. 09 Dec. 2005 .
Sade, Marquis de. Philosophy in the Bedroom. Trans. Seaver, Richard, and Austryn Wainhouse: Supervert 32C, 2002.
(Electronically Published Book)
Turing, Alan. "Computing machinery and intelligence." on Abelard.org. 1999. Accessed 09 Dec. 2005 .
Originally published by Oxford University Press on behalf of MIND (the Journal of the Mind Association), vol. LIX, no. 236, pp. 433-60, 1950