We Asked a Philosopher to Explain That Jaden and Willow Smith Interview
"It seems like he's going off in a bunch of different directions at once—which you might expect, given that he's a child."
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Nobody knows what the fuck was going on in that interview with Jaden and Willow Smith in T Magazine yesterday. Time travel? Babies breathing? Quantum physics? Vulture called it "Zen gibberish." The Guardian called it "utter nonsense." Lacking something constructive to say, Time magazine instead created a poetry generator using phrases from the interview, so you can make haikus that go something like:
Babies remember /
The opposite of an apple /
It was an interview that everybody read yet no one fully understood, kind of like a Thomas Pynchon novel. So I asked a professor of philosophy (who didn't want to have his name on the record for this subject) if he could translate the gobbledygook into plain English and if anything from the interview was rooted in actual philosophy.
VICE: Willow and Jaden talk a lot about time travel in the beginning. Willow says she can make it go "fast or slow, however I please" and Jaden says that "how time moves for you depends on where you are in the universe." What's that about?
Philosophy Professor: There are two things going on there. Jaden seems to be aware of the famous consequence of relativity theory, which is sometimes encapsulated in the "twins paradox." It's illustrated by a pair of identical twins on Earth, one of which goes in a rocket ship and travels super fast—approximating the speed of light—and the other of which stays on Earth. The theory of relativity says that if this one goes fast enough and stays away long enough, when he comes back, he will be very young but everyone [he left behind] him, including his other twin, will be very old. So there's a sense in which the passage of time is relative, and this is completely uncontroversial—or, at least, as uncontroversial as a scientific theory can be. So it sounds like he's well informed about this fact about physics there.
And Willow's idea of slowing down and speeding up time?
That has more to do with the phenomenology of time. Relativity theory doesn't really say anything about how time feels to us; it just makes predictions about the objective passage of time. Both of the kids, in their respective comments, seem to be making familiar observations about how the same intervals of time can seem, to the subject, to pass more or less slowly. Time flies when you're having fun; if you're in a boring class, it seems like a minute lasts an hour. That's all familiar and true enough, but it has to do with our human psychology, not the objective nature of time itself. So you can delineate the subjects—one is the physics of time, the other is the phenomenology of time.
Wow. What about when they're talking about being part of a "holographic reality"?
The holographic reality hypothesis is just the Descartes dream scenario in new garb, i.e. life in a Matrix. That's definitely something philosophers have been talking about for a long time.
Later in the interview, Jaden says, "What's your job, what's your career? Nah, I am." Is that a Cartesian thing, too—I think, therefore I am? Or is it an existential thing?
I see why you'd be tempted to draw either of those parallels, but it sounds to me more like flat-footed social commentary. I mean, at a cocktail party, the first thing you ask somebody is, "What do you do?" That can get tedious, and I think he's just pointing out that human beings get up to a lot of stuff besides what they're paid to do nine to five, and there's something backward about a culture that forces us to define ourselves by our job.
The holographic reality hypothesis is just the Descartes dream scenario in new garb.
Oh. Yeah, that's a good point.
Yeah, I think it would be a reach just on the basis of that one two-word sentence to try to draw a connection to the existentialist tradition. Though in existentialism, there are two kinds of bad faith: One kind of bad faith is not owning what you've been and what you've done, and the other kind of faith is not owning the fact that you're a free agent who has the power to do things differently in the future. So the second one sounds sort of like what he's saying, but the first one sounds sort of like what he's resisting—namely, being defined by the job that you have, what you spend your life doing. An existentialist might encourage you to own that just as much as you own the stuff that you do beyond the path that you've been pigeonholed into.
What's "Prana energy"?
Prana energy sounds like Eastern philosophy, which I don't know much about.
Fair enough. What about when Jaden talks about "double consciousness"—where does that come from?
"Double consciousness" is from Du Bois.
Oh, true, but I'm not sure he's referring to that kind of double consciousness. He's says something like, "your mind has a duality to it" and "when you think about an apple, you also think about the opposite of an apple." What does that even mean?
That's... really weird. It seems like he's going off in a bunch of different directions at once—which you might expect, given that he's a child. But one interesting epistemological idea is that you might think that if you're not capable of thinking about the opposite of something, then you're not capable of thinking about the original thing itself. For example, the idea of counterfeit currency wouldn't make any sense in a world where all currency is counterfeit. Or, a better example: I might be dreaming right now, but does it make sense to suppose that all of my experience has been a dream?
Down the rabbit hole we go...
Can we go back to Du Bois's idea of "double consciousness" for a minute. Willow mentions her song "Whip My Hair." Are you familiar with it?
Oh, yeah. Sure.
So, she's talking about the song and something she says in reference to it is that it "did so much for young black girls and girls around the world. Telling them that they can be themselves and to not be afraid to be themselves." Does that ring true with Du Bois's ideology?
Well, when you're "being yourself" in the relevant sense, you're not being caught up on how you're being perceived by other people. You're trying to transcend the double consciousness; you're not trying to see yourself through the lens of the third person, be that white colonialist or whomever. You're just trying to see yourself through the perspective of the individual that you are. So yeah, I guess there's some sort of connection there. But I'm no expert on Du Bois.
All in all, you don't think Willow and Jaden are totally full of shit?
No, sound like they're pretty well educated, if a little New Age-y.
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