Skip to content

Occasional Writing for T26 – Pi: Faith in Chaos

March 28, 2013


Okay, this isn’t exactly a sci-fi film. In fact, it’s not easy to find a genre into which this films slides easily. But it addresses many of the topics we’ve considered this term, and it does so in a way that appeals to characteristic sci-fi tropes: (self-conscious) computers, conspiracies, goofy psychic phenomena, and shut-ins who have odd relationships with their landladies and garbage. Here are three prompts for you:

  1. Max restates his “assumptions” on a number of occasions in the film: “(i) Mathematics is the language of nature. (ii) Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. (iii) If you graph these numbers, patterns emerge.” On the basis of these assumptions, he concludes “Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature.” Is Max’s inference valid (in the sense of valid that philosophers use the term)? And does he reject this conclusion later in the film when he tells the Rav Cohen, “It’s not the number! It’s the meaning. It’s the syntax. It’s what’s between the numbers. If you could understand you would. But it’s not for you! I’ve got it. I understand it. I’m going to see it!”?
  2. Though the words “free” and “freedom” do not (to the best of my knowledge) appear anywhere in the film’s script, Max is constantly struggling with forces that seek to control him. They seem to represent, very crudely, religion (Lenny and the other Hasidim), science (Max’s former teacher, Sol), and brute force (Darcy and her Wall Street goons, perhaps the ants as well). Even Max’s body seems determined to compel him to do (or not do) certain things by punishing him with terrifying migraines. Does Max ever become free? Be as specific as possible about the nature of freedom in your response and consider using the Lucas reading to help you here.
  3.  Just what is Max trying to find, and what, if anything, does he find by the end of the film?

Please choose one – and only one  – of the prompts to write on. As always:

  • Please limit yourself to 300-500 words;
  • Please post your assignment as a comment to this blog entry;
  • Please do all of this no later than 24 hours before class begins on T26

From → Assignments

  1. Micah Patten permalink

    Max is trying to find the answer. There is no particular question, but if one was to frame it, it would look something like, “what is the meaning of existence” or “how does one understand chaos” or even “is there truth behind faith.” He attempts to come to this conclusion by using numbers, much as science has tried to explain existence. He seems to also think that he will find peace in himself when he discovers this answer. However, there is one crucial flaw to his mathematical reasoning; numbers and even science only represent something, they do not explain it. One can find patterns and relationships among numbers, but they can never explain what something is, only identify it in regards to other things, just as language cannot give meaning to a thing, only describe what it is in relation to similar things. This seems to emerge in the end when he explains that it is not the numbers but what is between, the syntax and such. The number only represents something, it is not itself something. There is also somewhat of a mystery about the number as well, because it seems to have some sort of power to destroy him, or power to destroy anything that tries to contain it such as the computers that melted. Ultimately, Max finds something entirely different and yet much closer to what he originally sought; peace. The saying “ignorance is bliss” seems to take on a very real meaning at the end of the film. He went from seeking total knowledge to being completely content in total ignorance. This may say something about humanity; for thousands of years, we have sought all the answers to everything and knowledge of every single thing, but the more we know, it seems as though the more difficult it is to be peaceful and happy. Some things seem to even be meant to never be known, because they have the power to destroy one’s mind. In the film it was a number, but in reality, it could be violence or pain. PTSD is an example, and in a bad enough case could destroy a person based entirely on knowledge.

    • pythagoras permalink

      Maybe it should be called “The Answer,” rather than “the answer.” Either way, there’s probably something to be said for clarity regarding the question one is trying to answer. The problem – at least as I see it – is that if you aren’t clear about the question you’re asking, you’re unlikely to know whether you’ve got the right answer. But the fact that I see this as a problem might suggest a limitation in myself. Perhaps the answer is not propositional in nature (“2 + 2 = 4” or “Bachelors are unmarried men”). Perhaps what one comes to know by way of answering the question is not a fact but a thing. Check out chapter 5 of Bertrand Russell’s “The Problems of Philosophy” for more on the distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. Good stuff.

  2. Uddit Patel permalink

    3.) Max was trying to find some connection that makes the whole world understandable and predictable especially the stock market. However through the process, Max encountered many problems such as anxiety attacks, headaches, and paranoia. This thing Max was trying to find is causing problems to Max’s state of mind and his overall health. Max is encountering problems like his teacher Sol Robeson once did. Although Sol gave advice “this is insanity, Max…There will be no order, only chaos,” Max decided not listen and continue to work on the problem until the very end. At the end of the film, Max finds freedom from his daily problems. Max is able to sit in a public park where many people are passing. Max is able to forget the numbers, and about the number theory he was once obsessed about. Max is able to live his life like any human being. The determination to find the number connection has led to more problems in Max’s life than he expected. However, by the end, Max is able to put that life behind him and start a new one where Max can be a normal person to society. Instead of having the anxiety attacks, and people chasing him, Max is able to confront those people by ultimately drilling that part of his brain so he can forget the numbers. Forgetting the numbers will lead the people to stop disturbing him, and Max can now stop having constant delusions, and he can stop worrying about people chasing him.

    To put this film in perspective, Max always says “When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So once when I was six I did. The doctors didn’t know if my eyes would ever heal. I was terrified, alone in that darkness. Slowly, daylight crept in through the bandages, and I could see. But something else had changed inside of me. That day I had my first headache.” This ultimately represents the quest for Max to find something new or do something that no individual has done before. While doing this, Max has encountered the consequences. As a kid Max looked at the sun, and as an adult Max tries to find the connection for the world. Though this experience, Max gets himself into a lot of physical and emotional trouble that leads him to his goal but also to his freedom of no more headaches and his freedom. Max was able to get the 217 numbers, and hide a majority of them by drilling his brain. The drilling of the brain can be seen as Max’s way of saying that he is done doing things out of the ordinary like looking into the sun when told not to. The drilling of the brain can also be seen as “daylight crept in through the bandages, and I could see”. Max could live normal life and Max could stop being worried of the people around him. Max could enjoy life, and interact properly with the people around him like Devi and Jenna. This quote Max repeats lets the viewer understand what Max is doing and how he first was trying to rebel and find the numbers but once he does, he understands that there is no need to find them, and hides them so they get in no one’s hands.

    • pythagoras permalink

      “This ultimately represents the quest for Max to find something new or do something that no individual has done before.”

      That’s an interesting take on this. I wasn’t thinking about Max’s quest in terms of originality. It seems like, initially at least, he’s drawn to his quest by the fact that it’s forbidden to him (think Adam and Eve). Ultimately, he has other motives (I think) than his original one, but this is a nice point.

  3. kim cory permalink

    (Watching how Max processes daily events and how he views the world, it made me to think about the movie “The Beautiful Mind.” Comparing the main character from “The Beautiful Mind” and Max helped me to come up with the answer for this question.) In the movie, he sums up the world in regard to numbers as, “One, Mathematics is the language of nature. Two, everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. Three, if you graph these numbers, patterns emerge. Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature.” When he reads newspapers, instead of reading articles or words, he reads numbers. He figures out what the letters represent and interoperates words into numbers. I think by doing so, he is trying to figure out the final answer to this world, so he can stop working, or so he can be “freed” from his life mission and be normal like others. In the movie, the answer has 216 numbers. After numerous failures to figure out those numbers, at the end he finally figures out. Although he finds the answer, he burns the paper which he wrote the numbers down on. The movie starts with Max’s monologue, and one of the things he tells is “When I was six, mom told me not to look into the sun. But I did. I looked into the light.” At first, this does not seem that important, but at the end, he tells the exact same story and the movie ends. The difference between these is that when he first tells the story, he has migraines and he works everyday to figure out the number. However, when he tells the story at the end, he does not any more. He cannot even do calculation, which he was able to do before – even three digits multiply by three digits. When he realizes he cannot do the calculation, he does not seem upset; instead of being upset, he show a peaceful smile and looks at the sun. Thinking about all these different scenes, I think the literal answer to the question is Max wants to find the 216 number, and he finds by the end of the film. But I think the deeper meaning of my answer is he wants to find the answer that can explain how there are patterns everywhere in nature. And he finds the answer by becoming normal with no psychological or physical pain by getting rid of the obsession and the pain due to that obsession.

    • pythagoras permalink

      “A Beautiful Mind” = good catch. There’s certain a fly-bottle element to Max’s search. One take on Max’s, which you hint at here, is how are the patterns we see in nature possible? Are the patterns there to be discovered? And if so, how did they get there? Was it an accident, or is there some intelligence who put them there for us to discover? Or, conversely, do we simply impose these patterns on nature?

  4. Simeon permalink

    To begin I’d like to start off by stating this movie is incredibly confusing and difficult to peg. That being said, I would like to take on the third prompt, what Max gains or attempts to gain through the film. I believe that Max is seen in four phases, initial catastrophe, a sense of realization and misleading success, a absolute tearing down of that success and realization, finally ending with a sort of peace. In the beginning of the film, he blatantly points out that his goal is to achieve some sort of logical sense through his observations of the stock market. He uses his profound numerical genius to attempt achieving this goal, but throughout the movie seems to be just inches away from it. Later in the end, he seems to stumble upon an answer, but this answer is so large it puts his search for the stock market answer to shame, as it would appear he knows “the true name of God”. I believe two things about this movie’s tale: first, that the stock market is an analogy for life. The stock market is made up of numbers, all resulting from many human actions, and should be easy to figure out due to its composition, but actually is just enough elusive to keep Max in the dark. I believe life can be described similarly. Secondly, I think that Max in trying to use mathematical and analytical means to solving the “stock market” puzzle is also trying to bring about some peace and understanding to his own existence by using the same mathematical means. I do not think he ever found this understanding. In fact, I believe that instead, his mathematical approach was his main hindrance to peace with himself. After beholding the great knowledge he stumbled upon by the “true name of God” concept, I believe he met a realization that he did not need to know or use the answer he discovered. Whatever the outcome of this new knowledge, I think the most important concept as I mentioned before is that his mathematical approach was a hindrance over all to his peace. This is demonstrated in his drill scene. His headaches, the direct cause of his pain and suffering was isolated in one region which he then drilled into. After this, he can no longer compute math as he could before, but this seems to no longer bother him, he is at peace. Without a insatiable drive towards some mystery answer driven by his overeager curiosity and finally no longer armed with great mathematical knowledge, he was no longer bothered with the troubles of wanting to know. It seems ignorance became his peace.

    • pythagoras permalink

      You’re right; the film is very confusing at times, though I think its outlines become fairly clear after awhile. One thing that makes the film confusing is that we often take Max’s point of view, and he is – let’s face it – a little crazy and not, perhaps, the most reliable narrator.

  5. Matthew Drake permalink

    Prompt #3
    Max spends the entire film looking for an answer. He doesn’t know what the answer is or what it represents. His only concern is that he figures it out. This represents man’s quest for knowledge. Mankind is always trying to find an answer, even if there is none. What makes the world spin? Why does 1+1=2? When Max states that numerical patterns are in everyday life, he is trying to find a logical explanation for phenomenon that we have no understanding of.

    Max is trying to find an answer. In his quest, he runs into several obstacles. For example, he is hindered by his constant and frequent migraines. This, to me, represents how mankind can hurt itself and hinder its quest through violent means. Nuclear weaponry is a prime example. As soon as we found the technology for nuclear power, we found a way to weaponize it and deploy it on our adversaries. Another hindrance was the constant visions of himself as a physically damaged individual, i.e. the Subway man and the brain on the concrete. In his quest for knowledge, he sees the imminent future of him hurting himself.

    When Max finally finds what he is looking for it starts to do damage to him. He sees the answer everywhere. Life has no more mystery, and he can’t unlearn something. He finds an answer. We don’t necessarily know if it is The Answer, but it is an answer. He finds a number that meets the criteria presented by the Jews and his former teacher. At the end of the film, Max gives himself a sort of lobotomy. He wishes to forget the answer and start enjoying life. But everyone else wants to know the answer as well. Some feel as if God intended for them to know it, and some are willing to kill to find it. But once someone reaches the final answer and there is nothing else to know, there is no more meaning in anything.

    • pythagoras permalink

      Nice point – A lot of sci-fi makes the case that *as a practical matter* our quest for knowledge might have bad results. We might destroy ourselves with nuclear war and create an artificial successor species that will wipe us out. But one rather unusual thing about “Pi” is that it considers the possibility that the acquisition of knowledge itself might destroy us. Yikes!

  6. K.Rengan permalink

    Max is trying to find a pattern that explains human behavior. His starting evidence is from the Pythagorean spiral which seems to show up in many aspects of natural world. Max’s argument is that as we live in an ordered universe then we too must have an ordered existence whose patterns can be observed and understood. Max narrates his observation saying: “If we’re built from spirals, while living within a giant spiral, is it possible that all of human behavior, if it could be quantified, is in the form of a spiral. Then, maybe, extensions of our behavior like the stock market… is infused with the spiral pattern.” The logic of material implication used by Max (A=B, B=C, then A must equal C) is what he wants to exploit to find the patterns in numbers. At the end of the movie, Max discovers not the numbers but the meaning behind the numbers which represents the fugue of the patterns in the giant spiral of the universe. With Sol’s death the realization that the numbers (especially the 216 digit number) represented a pursuit of something intangible was recognized. The patterns repeat again and again, but through the life cycle of both Sol and Max –and maybe the Hasidic Jews and Wall Street. Sol’s obsession with looking and constantly trying to discover the meaning of the numbers, repeated with the obsession of Max to do the same. In many aspects, the meanings of the number may be something to unfathomable to comprehend, as Max notes to Sol, but the movies use of repetition in repeating Max’s basic assumption, in the day to day routine that Max goes through, highlights the consistency of the endless patterns of the cyclical nature of life. Max discovers that the knowledge leads to physical and psychological pain, a truth that may one day destroy you, which happened with the progression of Max’s headaches becoming worse and worse towards the end of the movie.

    • pythagoras permalink

      There may be an interesting counter-example to the transitivity of identity (that is, if A=B, B=C, then A must equal C). Consider personal identity. Suppose I suffer now from a condition that will slowly but surely cause me to lose most of my long-term memory. In 10 years, I’ll have no idea who you are, what USAFA is, etc. Arguably, I’ll be the same person tomorrow as I am today, and I’ll be the same person the day after tomorrow as I will be tomorrow, etc. But I’m *not* the same person I’ll be in 10 years (or so it seems). Hence, transitivity fails. Convinced?

  7. Max’s assumptions re valid in the way he is using the assumptions. He is saying that mathematics is the language of nature, everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers, and if you graph these numbers, patters emerge. The assumption that mathematics is the language of nature is valid in the sense that mathematics is the only collection of symbols, with meaning behind them, that make sense of what is naturally occurring in nature. I believe that Max is searching for a why, an answer, a way to make sense of the phenomena of nature and the fact that everything involving nature seems to be connected, have a purpose, and to be flowing in one way or another for some overlying purpose. As a human, I think Max is relying on the small symbols and equations of mathematics in order to attempt to find connections, reasons for connections, and the overall why of nature. Max understands that there are patterns everywhere in nature, and feels the need to explain those patterns to other humans; mathematics is the only real language that humans can understand and relate to nature because the concept of patters is included in both mathematics and nature. I think that Max, in a way, is rejected with his statement that it is not the actual number, but the meaning of the number, because he is no longer saying that mathematics is the language of nature, but he is now arguing that mathematics is the representation of nature. Later in the film, Max understands that the numbers involved in mathematics are mere marks on paper without the pattern that connects the numbers and makes them a unique language that can closely explain phenomena, such as nature. Looking and understanding what the why is that is hidden within the multitude of numbers is how we are able to advance in science because it makes sense of the patterns in nature.

    • pythagoras permalink

      I’m not sure whether Max’s reasoning is valid or not, but I’m certainly suspicious. Part of the problem is with the word “pattern.” In the second assumption “pattern” seems to denote some kind of meaningful relationship between variables. There’s a pattern in the relationship between temperature and pressure (subject to the usual qualifications) *because* temperature just is mean kinetic molecular energy (again, subject to the usual qualifications). But I’m not sure that’s what “pattern” means in the third assumption. Some patterns that emerge (like that between the stock market and solar patterns) aren’t meaningful. So…I’m not sure Max is thinking clearly here.

  8. Monica Hottle permalink

    In response to prompt 1, I find validity to Max’s “proof” of ultimately how there are patterns everywhere in nature. Max not only comes to this conclusion himself, he has several encounters that leads him to have the conclusion that the eventually comes to. One example is his encounter with the man who demonstrates how the Torah has number patterns, or rather how Hebrew can be considered a strain of numbers. He uses examples such as how the Hebrew words for father and mother “add up” to the Hebrew word for child. Another instance in the film is when Max is learning about the goh board, and how the board can come off to show a simple, overall universe, but it can be understood as the game is played that the board can actually show a large, endless and chaotic universe. However, Max concludes from that assumption that as the game is played, there are less options that the player can take, which shows that the universe can become smaller and less chaotic. There are patterns; there are events that in a sense have some predictability, like how a pattern has predictability. As a vague example, we can look at history. There is the saying “history repeats itself.” There are trends in history that we can look at and can come to realize “oh, that is a good trend” or “oh no that didn’t turn out so well.” From trade patterns to past foreign relations, we can look back and make a plausible prediction, not a shot in the dark. There are patterns to weather, there are patterns to human nature (as unpredictable as that is), there are patterns to eating habits, et cetera. I think there is truth behind Max’s statement that there are patterns in nature.

    • pythagoras permalink

      You’re right. There are *some* patterns in nature. But you might wonder whether Max is right to see patterns *everywhere*, as he does. It might be helpful to assume that there’s a pattern out there when you’re trying to understand some phenomenon (the price of a stock tomorrow, the time that birds will migrate south, the place of the next super volcano in North America), but that might best be understood as a kind of working hypothesis. Whether it’s really true or not is, I think, something closer to Max’s heart.

  9. Caroline Martin permalink

    3rd prompt: Max is looking for perfection. In a more specific sense, he is looking for perfection in the form of patterns. This search is emphasized within his assumptions which, in summation, assert that numbers are everywhere, and visual patterns emerge from those numbers. Although the film cross-references several different religions, Max’s mathematically based search continuously points towards one similar religious aspect: the existence of a higher being. Initially, Max is merely searching for perfection through patterns, but, as the film develops, he sees this “perfection” epitomized by various religious allusions, eventually creating a search for divine perfection. For example, Max begins his narration with an anecdote about how, when he was a child, his mother told him not to stare at the sun. In response, Max stared at the sun only to eventually achieve severe eye injury. To parallel Max’s anecdote, Saul, his teacher, names a fish “Icarus” after Max. In this manner, Saul compares Max to the mythological Greek character who flew too high to the sun. By the anecdote and Saul’s comparison, the sun is representative of the divine perfection that Max is trying to achieve. The most obvious indication of Max’s divine search is his encounter with the Jews, who are desperately seeking the 216 digit number that correlates with the “true name of God.” The person who knows the name of God is said to be “pure,” and this purity is something that Max feels he has received by the time the Jews interrogate him. Another thing I would like to address is the consistent reference to Max’s narration and action of “press return.” I argue that, by “return,” Max is essentially referring to platonic epistemology, which claims that before birth each person is in possession of a “good and perfect knowledge” that can be recalled in life. Therefore, Max wishes to “return” to this state of knowledge. Does Max ever succeed in his search? Yes. In part of his rant to the Jews, Max exclaims, in his supposed state of purity, “It’s not the number! It’s the meaning!” Max finally practices this higher knowledge at the end of the film when Jenna asks him to solve a multiplication problem in his head and he answers her with, “I don’t know.” In this moment, Max demonstrates his knowledge that the “syntax” and “meaning” of his and Jenna’s interaction is what truly matters in life, not the numbers. Honestly…I could really work on developing this last part of the question a little better, but I’m not really sure how to start.

    • pythagoras permalink

      “Max is looking for perfection.”

      That’s a really nice way to put it. There’s an long tradition of trying to connect the concept “god” (or “God”) with the conception “perfection.” The idea – very roughly – is that god is a (the) being which is perfect in every way possible. One kind of perfection, goes this line of thought, is existence. Something which exists necessarily is more perfect than something which exists contingently or not at all. Hence, god exists necessarily. Q.E.D. The film certainly does seem to be playing with this idea.

  10. Ben Vowell permalink

    I do not believe Max is ever truly free in the film. Just as we are all bound by the limits of our bodies, Max is bounded and his actions are determined. At the very least, he seems to be bound by psychological and physical determinism. These are both types of determinism that Lucas hits on. The condition he suffers from seems to determine most of his day to day behavior. It causes him to not be able to hold stable relationships with most other humans. Additionally, his psychological abilities seem to force him to study numbers, even to the detriment of his own health. His intelligence manipulates him to the point where he is like a prisoner in his own mind, constantly searching for patterns. This manipulation is something the Lucas touches on in his essay.

    Physical determinism is something we all grapple with in a large picture. We are all bound by the physical universe; we simply do not have the freedom to do whatever we want physically. While Max has control over his immediate actions, in the long run, his actions are predictable and patterned. In the film, Max’s days are presented as being very pattern-like, i.e. working on his computer program, migraines, awkward human interaction, and occasional meetings with his mentor. In fact, everyone in the movie seems to be following pre-determined patterns.

    One might try to argue Max is free at the end of the film. However, he seems to have simply played into a predictable outcome. While he is happier at the end of the film, he has only freed himself from super-intelligence. He is still bounded by the physical properties of his life and his now less-intelligent brain. I think my main point here is that I don’t think anyone is truly free, in the sense that they are able to know and do whatever they desire at all times, without constantly following pre-determined or predictable patterns of behavior. At most, we are as free as an animal might be “free” on a refuge.

    • pythagoras permalink

      One possibility is that Max is free at the end of the film in the sense that the Oracle discusses in the “Matrix Trilogy”: He understands the choice he makes at the end of the film. Of course, the film can’t quite communicate that understanding directly, but Max does have a moment in which he’s bathed in light (“When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun”) and seems to get the numbers that we’re just a puzzle before. It’s only after that that he goes for the drill. I’m not at all sure that’s right, but it’s certainly something to think about.

      “Max’s days are presented as being very pattern-like.”

      Nice observation.

  11. Theodore Kruczek permalink

    Question 3: What Max is trying to find is meaning in the world. His method of finding that is to examine the world around him in terms of numbers and quantitative data and then use the patterns he finds to explain why things are the way they are. The reason he struggles to find this meaning is because meaning is something attached to ordinary things by humans. As the movie progresses and he examines the world in terms of how many, how big, and how old he cannot find any meaning because he is only observing the world and there is no meaning in the natural world. There are plenty of coincidental patterns and some simple cause and effect reactions (there are always clouds before it rains), but to find the answer to questions like why we are here or why the world is the way it is, Max will have to accept that there is no answer beyond one that he arbitrarily attaches to it.

    While some can (and did in earlier comments) argue that the reason for Max’s sense of content at the end of the film is because he has found blissful ignorance, I believe what he found was blissful acceptance. He went from observing the world and trying to find meaning from nothing, to accepting there is no meaning and finding happiness in simple acceptance. The only meaning that Max needs is to identify why he wakes up and why he continues living, and that meaning is blissfully open to whatever answer he wants. Only he can create the answer, it can not be found.

    • pythagoras permalink

      “What Max is trying to find is meaning in the world. His method of finding that is to examine the world around him in terms of numbers and quantitative data and then use the patterns he finds to explain why things are the way they are.” That’s plausible, though when you put it that way, Max’s search seems a little misguided. I’m not sure where I’ll find meaning in life, but it’s probably not is, for example, a table of irrational numbers or logarithms! Even if I find a pattern in the numbers, there’s such a huge gap between pattern and meaning. At best, the patterns suggest that something capable of meaningful behavior was acting. But that’s a slightly different matter.

      “there are always clouds before it rains”

      Not in Colorado Springs!

  12. John Decker permalink

    It seems as though Max is trying to unlock a mathematical secret to the world. First with his pursuit of the 216 digit number that he believes will allow him to predict the behavior of the stock market. Also, he pursues an explanation of the way that things around him and why they are that way. He believes that nature is a series of mathematical patterns and are all related somehow to each other. With this he figures that he can predict the ways of the world through patterns and will be able to use mathematics to in a way to find peace by knowing what is coming in the future and why things are the way that they are. However, this pursuit only drives him to the point of pure physical and mental exhaustion. It almost seems that the “world” does not want Max to unlock its secrets, if there are any. At the end, though, Max does achieve what I believe he was looking for. He eventually is at peace. Being so brilliant and curious has seemingly cursed him to living a life unsatisfied because he cannot figure out what it is he is trying to solve. However, the end scene of observing nature shows that he has finally come to terms with the fact that he will not be able to solve this problem and now he can finally relax and enjoy the wonders of the world for the surface impression that they give off.

  13. ricardochavez permalink

    Max binds himself to the goal that he is going to find the 216 digit number. It takes over his life and eventually begins chipping away at his psychological stability. Max tries to almost figure out life with how vague that is, by using mathematics to find patterns and try to come to this empirical conclusion. Max knows that numbers are everywhere, but the meanings behind these mathematical answers seem to be less fulfilling then portrayed. People think that there is one concrete thing to make them believe they lived a fulfilled life, however Max is the perfect case that failure to do something teaches something more valuable in the long run. The world would kill to see the answer that max comes up with at the end of his calculations, but eventually what would we make of it. People would see the patterns of life that happen all around us, but of course they must internalize it or it becomes dispensable information. Max’s struggle to unlock these universal patterns are menial compared to the comprehension of what his life is worth and why people find value in things they were not seeking for in the first place.

    • pythagoras permalink

      Nice point about indirect pursuit of certain goods. Whatever it is that Max understands at the end of the film, it’s much more human, much more three-dimensional than what he sets out to understand. Maybe whatever moment of peace he has wouldn’t be the kind of thing that (we?) could attain if we set out to get it.

  14. Seth Rodgers permalink

    Prompt 3
    As Max put it himself, “I’m not interested in money. I want to understand the world.” For that reason, he chooses to live on the fringe of understanding, near the boundaries of knowledge. Even as a six year old he defied his mother– staring into the sun to quench his insatiable curiosity for illumination:

    “It’s math, numbers, ideas. Mathematicians are supposed to be out on the edge… that’s where discoveries happen. We have to go out there alone, all alone, no one can accompany us.”

    Although he faces the blinding light of uncertainty, Max still keeps faith that there is an underlying pattern beneath everything in the world. For him to understand the world in its entirety, there must be some coherent meaning encapsulated by a discrete form. This digital perception of reality contrasts with Sol’s analog realizations that pointed him towards an “extremely chaotic universe…[that] can’t be easily summed up with math.” (Interestingly, Sol translates into Sun in Latin).

    Nevertheless, using the Go board as an analogy, Max continues to argue that “maybe, even though we’re not sophisticated enough to be aware of it, there is an underlying order…a pattern, beneath every Go game.”

    Max further concludes that “It’s the meaning; the syntax. It’s what’s between the numbers.” After all, meaning entails connection: something is meaningful to us when it connects to something else in our minds. And for that connection to exist there must be some overlap of information; recurring data– in other words, patterns. To Max, the numbers are not the meaning themselves, but rather dots that, when connected, constitute an immerging property which transcends their individual values.

    To summaraize, Max is searching for the ultimate source of meaning: a predictable pattern that everything is connected to.

    However, he eventually realizes that such a pattern is simply beyond his understanding once the pursuit kills his mentor and plagues him with debilitating migraines and paranoia. The final scene reflects Max’s peaceful resignation as he laughingly admits, almost with a tone of relief, that he doesn’t know the answer to little Jenna’s math problem. Finally, he no longer feels the need to know or understand everything; perhaps anything for that matter.

    In a sense, Max comes to accept the irony he discovered as a child: though knowledge (patterns, ideas, numbers) provide guidance for our minds to navigate through the darkness of life, we are unable to stare into the overwhelming source of intelligence itself without destroying our minds in the process.

    • pythagoras permalink

      Lots of good points – just picking up on a few.

      First, must meaning and pattern go together this way? Could there be meaning in mere chaos, mere random order? Or must there be some kind of underlying structure?

      Second, yes, I think there’s a return to the beginning at the film’s conclusion, though what else would you expect from a film whose name describes a circle?!? But that’s probably too simple. Unless Jenna stares at the sun, this is a story that begins where it ends but doesn’t start again.

  15. Cory Johnson permalink

    Max’s search for the patterns in chaos is reminiscent of the search that many different mathematicians have made for “order in chaos,” all starting with Edward Lorenz’s MIT weather simulations lab. Until this movie took a turn for the strange I was convinced that this was a semi-biographical movie about Benoit Mandelbrot. Mandelbrot’s search for order in chaos took him to look at things like fluctuations in commodity prices and animal populations (which were mentioned in the movie). Nothing that Mandelbrot did closely approximated a single number though, but it did remind me of Mitchel Feigenbaum’s Feigenbaum constants, which in some sense do distill chaotic randomness down to single numbers.

    Then, well, all of these half-baked ideas fell apart when I realized that this movie was searching for something a little more…out there. It seems that Max’s search has not only given him this “magic number” that explains chaotic randomness, but also an understanding of how all this fits together. He has become Laplace’s demon in human form, at least that’s what the movie seems to imply. For this reason he kills himself, because the overflow of information and understanding proves to be too much for this mere mortal. This is all a bit silly to me because simply having the cypher to peer through quantum randomness is useless without the availability of perfect information. One of Laplace’s requirements is knowing the position and speed of every atom in the universe, which Max obviously does not have.

    If my hypothesis is correct then the makers of the movie lack an understanding of what chaos is. Sensitive dependence on initial conditions means just that, there’s no way to “crack the code” because the tiniest fluctuations in the system will cause it to perform drastically different. This is why we’re still having trouble with fluid dynamics and why weather predictions still are still not much good past the three day forecast.

    • pythagoras permalink

      I had occasion to think about Benoit Mandelbrot this morning when I saw this:

      Anyway, I share your worry about the role of non-linear dynamics in the film. You’re right that if we have a genuinely chaotic system, then there’s no way to get any really interesting predictive norms out of it. The Wall Street thugs are just out of luck. But there’s still a question about knowing what equation correctly describes the system in question. Even if we can’t know the (long-run) outputs of the system with any certainty because of problems with the inputs (Pi = 22/7 or pi = 3.1415? It makes a huge difference in a chaotic system!), we might at least be able to give a correct mathematical description of the system that generates the outputs. Of course, that’s not quite what Max is looking for in the film, but it’s not a bad second prize!

  16. Amy Vander Wyst permalink

    In an epically convoluted answer considering all three questions:

    It makes perfect sense that there are patterns everywhere in nature. One does not even have to bring up the fact that there could be infinite time and finite matter, therefore everything that will ever occur will actually come to be, and will be forever doomed to repeat itself at some point in time. The universe as we know it is governed by certain rules, otherwise entropy would rule and there would ultimately be no point to anything. If there are rules, there are restrictions. If there are restrictions, similar patterns and ways of following those rules are going to occur. To be ironic, it’s a mathematical guarantee of probability that these patterns will eventually emerge given adequate time and investigation. I have a problem relating his “assumptions” with his conclusion later in the film. Specifically his words, “It’s not the number! It’s the meaning. It’s the syntax.” The *meaning* is not in the syntax. The *meaning* or the *understanding* is in the semantics. Whether this was an error on the part of the writers or an intentional flub to create deeper meaning on Max’s essential insanity, the absurdness of this statement completely removes it from connection with the assumptions.

    I recently read a short story that has me questioning everything I thought I understood about “freedom”.

    “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. Nothing don’t mean nothing honey if it ain’t free…”

    These lyrics are the chorus to a ‘70s song by Janice Joplin. Regardless of her personal intentions behind the lyrics, I prefer to take my own philosophical approach to it. In Max’s case, yes, he definitely has many forces attempting to control him. I would go so far as to claim that these forces ARE controlling him. They are affecting his decisions, which then dictate his actions. He changes his decisions and actions based on *their* decisions and actions. Throughout his crazy journey in this film, I do believe that Max finds freedom. Whatever truly happens in the end, whether he lobotomizes himself, kills himself, or perhaps something else entirely, his world becomes infinitely simpler. Relating to the quote above, when he is searching for his answer and struggling against his controlling forces he has everything to lose. The search has consumed him and become his entire world. Therefore, while he is entrapped both by the prison of his search defining all his actions, and those trying to control him, he has no freedom what so ever. Regarding the second line of the song, one could only have “nothing” left to lose if you don’t have to give anything away or sacrifice anything in which to get it. For example, everyone commonly pays for their food, they must give and take in a relationship, they must confine their actions to social norms in exchange for social acceptance, etc. Even for actions that are deemed selfish, which you could mistake for a free choice, there is ALWAYS something being traded. If you are given a gift, it is accustomed to give thanks in return. If you chose to ignore this mores, you are sacrificing your reputation, your good standing in the minds of others etc. The cost does not necessarily even lie within your control in this way. Therefore, there is a cost for everything. “If it ain’t free…” then “nothing” doesn’t mean that it’s nothing; it means that it is something and has strings attached. Does Max become free? To return to my original point in this paragraph, yes, I do believe that he becomes free. In whatever version of life we see him in at the end, his mind is not warped or consumed by his search, he doesn’t have the pain of headaches to deal with, and not knowing the answer to a math problem implies for me that he doesn’t understand how to even do math any longer. If he doesn’t understand math, by his own assumptions he therefore understands nothing of life or the universe. If he doesn’t understand life, can he truly “lose” it? At the end, I see a character that by every definition has “Nothing left to lose”, which for me is another word for “Freedom”.

    Continuing my overly expanded answer, on to question 3: what is Max trying to find, and does he get there? To be a complete dork, he is truthfully searching for “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”. He is trying to unify the world, “find the mind of God” so to speak, to find the central truth. I do not think that it exists, and by the fact of it not existing and the end state of Max, I think he finds it. Max essentially does not “exist” at the end of the film. He has accomplished his goal of finding his answer by becoming his answer. He will never know that he completed his work because he no longer understands it. He is free of the constraints of the world because he no longer understands them, nor understands that they exist either. He lives in a world of non-existence, the only ultimate truth… that doesn’t exist.


    • pythagoras permalink

      “epically convoluted answer”

      My favorite kind of convoluted answer (something on which I am an expert)!

      Great points about freedom here. They relate nicely to something I’m trying to wrap my head around in the film. Max is trying to understand the patterns in nature (among other things). And these patterns have to be determinate or the order is illusory. But he can only understand the patterns because he himself is a manifestation of them. So he himself is a part of the system. So he himself is determinate. So Max would have to know his own future (or at least be able to predict it in principle) in order to understand what he wants to understand. But if he could predict his own future, he’d already know what he came to believe about the patterns. Hence, he’d have to understand the patterns in order to come to understand them. That looks about as circular as you can get.

      BTW, Wikipedia comes to the rescue: “‘Me and Bobby McGee” is a song written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, originally performed by Roger Miller.’

  17. Taylor Warren permalink

    Religion seems to play a bigger role in the film than is recognized here. After all, in the end, religion is what pushes Max over the “edge” he claims to be on. As far as the definition of being free/having freedom, Max seems to operating entirely on free will. Although, Sol encourages him to stop, he is adamant about continuing his research until his has “answers.” Darcy on the other hand, seems to be stalking him and eventually coerces him to help them with some research (we never do find out what it is). The Jews are also trying to get him to help, but do it in a nicer way. For philosophical purposes, the nature of freedom could be defined as the absence of influence. I picture the Cave Allegory where people are chained up and forced to look at images—these people clearly are not free. But what about people who have physical freedom—is there mental, spiritual, and emotional freedom to consider? It seems the only logical way to achieve true freedom, absence from any influence, is to be a Monk living in a convent or some kind of space-creature that lives in a vacuum. These influences, especially those of his own mind/body, seem to controlling his entire life, or at least hindering it in some way. The argument could be made that it enhances it, that these influences are what push him to finally find his answer, but his violent death makes a stronger argument for the former. It would seem that in the end, on the park bench with the little girl, that Max has finally found peace and total freedom, but does death (or an afterlife) count as freedom in the sense that we are talking about?

    • pythagoras permalink

      Right, I think the film makers use even more judeo-christian mythology than most sci-fi films. The earliest thing we know about Max is his Adamic act of rebellion (When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So once when I was six, I did). Max has something that might be thought to resemble the mark of Cain on his head. He suffers all sorts of agonies (self-inflected, in a sense) before achieving a kind of redemptive peace through a sacrifice, not of what makes him human, but (inverting Christ) what makes him stand out from others, his extra ordinary mathematical skill. Yeah, religion got a lot to do with it!

  18. I believe what Max looks for is order, something that can take all of the apparent randomness around him and qualify it, in an “anti-matrix” of sorts. Instead of creating a false world which instills order with numbers (coding, equations, etc.), Max seeks to create order in the real world, through numbers and pattern analysis. These ties into the religious imagery and themes throughout the film serve as a manner of giving this dichotomy a religious twist. In a way, Max represents man’s pursuit of God and an understanding of his omniscience. Given that everything is made by God, Max’s interest in defining patterns in nature strikes us as a desire to explain the unexplained and see if God is a being as rational and predictable as humans are. The people who help could been seen as spiritual guidance (though Max receiving the “Ming Mecca” almost seems like a false Deus ex Machina, a very non-Christian idea, and a reference to the Muslim faith) on a journey not to find a Christian God or a Hasidic Jewish God, but instead to find the nature of omniscience that pushes everything into action.
    This understanding could be a scientific understanding (which would explain the variety of religious references in the film) in which Max, regardless of a search for God or not, could be searching for proof of a science-perpetuated universe that could be understood by all. The more interesting idea, though, is that it could be the search for an omniscient God that is the all-knowing. But, as a skeptic myself, this omniscience most clearly would represent a scientific understanding of the world, the universe created by the Big Bang and life on Earth being propelled by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution/Natural Selection. This creates patterns in the face of existing adversity, much like Max attempts to do. This form of evolution seeks to take the beings who best fit the “pattern” and allow them to continue perpetuating it, much like a conclusion that Max seeks to find. The use of religious imagery and references, however, convinces the viewer that the search is for the one and only God. And perhaps Max’s turmoil exists in that “space between the numbers” – God, or perhaps the human understanding of God as a being, is impossible.

    • pythagoras permalink

      “In a way, Max represents man’s pursuit of God and an understanding of his omniscience.”

      Good, but notice the possibility of paradox here. Omniscience is knowledge of everything. In one sense, I can understand what “omniscience” means without myself knowing everything. But this is second-hand understanding. It’s like my understanding of Ancient Egypt or of Saturn. I’ve never been either place and never will. I only have educated guess of what it would be like to be in either (time and) place. In order to have first-hand understanding of these things, I’d need to have the right kind of experience. Likewise, the only way I could have first-hand understanding of omniscience is to have the experience of omniscience. Good luck! But maybe that’s what Max gets a glimpse of near the end of the film.

  19. pythagoras permalink

    Am I only person who got the feeling that Max was dead at the end of the film? Taking a drill to your skull can’t be good for your health, And he is looking rather dreamily off into the heavens. Moreover, Sol warned him that his computer died right after spitting out the 216-digit number. Just sayin’.

    Sorry – this was meant to be a reply to John Decker.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: