Why “Good Will Hunting” is so Important, and Why you MUST Watch it Again.

I will warn you in advance… This blog entry contains movie spoilers.

A lot of people, it seems, have quite an emotional response to the two-time Oscar winning film Good Will Hunting. The film’s success is clearly reflected within its awards and figures, but most people who have seen the film seem to draw something deeper from it. Often it is a very on the surface account of the plot that is given by people to explain their emotional attraction to the film. It is, after all, a rollercoaster of a ride. It begins with a troubled young man – who can only be described as a genius – who works as a janitor at MIT; the film ultimately ends with him being in a much better place than he was before – a true underdog story. However, I feel as though this summary does not do the film nor the viewer justice. I would go as far as saying that Good Will Hunting is the most important Hollywood film ever made from a philosophical perspective. If viewed through the lens I am about to offer now, I think the film can give you great insight about yourself, your own life and the direction of your life and own being.

I want to focus on what I believe to be the most important part of the film (at least from a philosophical perspective): the relationship and discussions between Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) and his counsellor Sean Maguire (played by the legendary Robin Williams). Will Hunting, who is the main character, is a 20 year old boy genius, capable of effortlessly solving mathematical problems that award-winning mathematicians struggle with. Will, however, and mainly due to his history, has what one might describe as a bleak view on life; he is very nihilistic, and spends most of his time avoiding all meaning and responsibility in fear of being emotionally hurt. Sean Maguire, on the other hand, is the complete opposite to Will. He is a middle-aged man, who wears his heart on his sleeve but is also very intelligent. Sean had lived a life of meaning; he had been married to the love of his life for years, until she died of cancer. A lot of the key conversations between Will and Sean seem to revolve around love, relationships and pain.

On the topic of relationships, Will and Sean, yet again, are at two polar opposites. Will, who begins dating a girl and seemingly falls in love with her, refuses to commit himself emotionally or even admit his feelings to himself and others. Sean, as we know, was romantically and wholly committed to his wife, who he clearly loved very much. In short, Will is afraid of getting hurt, whereas Sean has been hurt in the most tragic of ways. When Will questions Sean over this, Sean says that he has no regrets, because it was worth spending all that time with the love of his life, despite his pain. This is what we call meaning, and Will refuses to see it. For anything meaningful to occur, there must be some pain along the way. To give a common and obvious example, somebody who is looking for a long-term partner is likely to experience heartbreak at least once on the road to a relationship. It is very much like the Yin and Yang symbol – there can be no white without black, no love without pain and no happiness without sorrow. But Will undertakes what Sean (and others) describe as a “super philosophy”. Will’s life philosophy was as follows: never get close to anybody or anything, never commit to anything meaningful, because that way you can’t get hurt. But, as Sean constantly tries to point out to Will, how can one lead a meaningful or happy life with such a philosophy? I would, if you have not discovered this deeper philosophical plot already, recommend watching the film again. But, instead of just viewing the conversations between Sean and Will as therapy sessions, view them as philosophical battlegrounds, because that’s what they essentially are.

But it is not only the therapy discussions between Will and Sean which are extremely philosophical, but the entire films plot within itself. What is most interesting is that the film seems to be an inflated version of the discussions between Will and Sean; or, between meaning and nihilism. Everything from Will’s relationships, education, social life and career is a constant flirtation from nihilism to meaningfulness and responsibility. He dips his toe into the pool of responsibility, but then always seems to end up refusing to take the plunge (until the very end of the film, at least).

Now, the question is, what can watching this film tell us about ourselves and our own lives? Quite a lot, I think. I’ll give you my own personal experience of this. When I first watched the film, I was about fifteen years old. At this time in my life, mainly due to personal reasons, I was very nihilistic and negative. I took a very similar view as Will in terms of how one should live life. However, from the ages of around 17-18, I undertook a huge personal transformation. I now actively seek meaning and responsibility, and in short, I would now identify with Sean’s outlook on life rather than Will’s. When I first watched the film, I found myself (for obvious reasons) sympathizing and relating to Will more. But watching the film for the second time as a nineteen year old, after this huge personal transformation, I found myself whole heartedly admiring Sean, and almost egging Will on to take the plunge every time he dipped his toe into the pool of meaning.

The film, as far as I can see, can be used as a good measure on one’s life. Given these two contrasting characters, and the running theme of nihilism vs meaning throughout the entire film, it can be used as a tool to discover where you – or somebody else – is in terms of the way they live their life and how they view more specific things such as family, friendships and romantic relationships. I found, on second viewing of the film and general reflection, that my views on life have swayed dramatically, and I am now reaping the rewards of that, and living a much fuller and more meaningful life. I would be very interested to hear how others perceive the underlining philosophical battle within the film. So, I would highly recommend watching the film again, especially if you have undergone a huge personal transformation since the last time you watched it. And, I can guarantee you, that it will reveal a bit more about yourself than you’d expect.

The “New Atheists” are Wrong.

I should perhaps begin this piece with an explanation of what “New Atheism” actually is, or at least what it is in the common use of the term. The wave of New Atheism seemed to properly reach the shores in the mid 2000’s, following the publication of books such as The God Delusion and God is not Great. As a very young thinker at the time of discovering the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris (to name just a few), the idea of New Atheism appealed to me strongly. It was sharp, venomous to the opposition and the movements “leaders”, so to speak, were charismatic and extremely articulate, and often very humorous and witty. It was, I have discovered on reflection, nothing more than an intellectual fad for myself – it was “cool” to be a New Atheist, it was smart to mock religion and spiritualism. And it is here where we discover what New Atheism actually is: it is, in essence, anti-theism; it is the belief that humanity would be better off without religion, and for this reason we should work as hard as we possibly can to persuade “believers” to step away from their God/s.

Before the accusations begin to fly around, I must make it very clear that I have not, in any way, converted to a religion. I am still an atheist in the traditional sense of the word – I do not believe in a supernatural creator of the universe, but I’m open to persuasion. But I have, since the age of about seventeen, moved away from the New Atheist movement and am now a rigid critic of anti-theism (for reasons I will explain in this piece, obviously).

It is difficult to know where to begin with such a broad subject, and I must confess that I do not intend to project absolutely every single little detail and opinion on this topic in this blog entry, because – to be completely honest – it would take far too long, and would not be suitable for blog format. However, I will underline what I believe to be the strongest and most obvious critical points against New Atheism/anti-theism. I think an obvious starting point would be the claim that religion is evil, and that humanity would be better off without it.

The argument that religion makes people partake in horrific crimes is, undoubtedly, true – I am willing to concede that point to the New Atheists. However, I always feel as though this argument is – and I can’t think of a better word – political, it reminds me of a tedious session of PMQs. When you watch a theist and an anti-theist debate the atrocities of Religion, what tends to happen is a tennis match of historical dates and figures. The anti-theist will, for example, point out that Religion is responsible for the deaths of everybody in the Crusades, and in response the theist will bring up a figure like Joseph Stalin. You could spend all day listing atrocities done in the name, or at least by the followers, of those two particular “worldviews”. If you were to find a Capitalist and a Communist, and then get them to defend their preferred economic systems against the others, you would find that the debate takes the same direction as the example above: “Capitalism kills people” says the Communist, and in response the Capitalist growls “well look at how many people Communism has killed!”, and the debate quickly turns into a mudslinging match of horrifying statistics. This is not to say that these points are irrelevant, obviously questions on human catastrophe are raised in such debates, and of course serious discussion should be had about such events. However, I do not feel as though these points, or style of debating, are constructive in the argument on whether or not humanity would improve without the aid of religion. To begin with, as I have already pointed out, both sides have had a share of ideologically driven murder. Secondly, and I know this is a cliché argument (but I believe it to be true), tarring everything with the brush is never a useful or truthful exercise, in my opinion. It would be like, as a friend put it, “saying all politics is bad because of Nazism existed”. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I do not think the world would be a better place without religion because, unfortunately, people would simply use another powerful form of community to spread their dogma and commit atrocities. Religions are, obviously, powerful belief systems, and like all belief systems, it can be used by awful people to convince others to partake in their evil agenda, in the same way they can use politics or any other ideology.

There is also a lot of criticism concerning truths when it comes to Religion, and this is greatly exaggerated specifically by the anti-theists. In the words of Richard Dawkins, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world”. Of course, whether one is right or wrong should always be what leads the debate. But, I strongly believe that a great landscape has remained unseen by both the Atheists (in particular anti-theists) and a lot of the Religious themselves. First of all, I think the debate around the Holy Books and Science is completely irrelevant. Scientific truth of the world is, to be extremely crude, a different type of truth to those portrayed through holy books such as the Bible. I will not burden you with my analysis of the Bible or other Religious texts, but I will express my conclusion from studying such texts: it is irrelevant whether they are scientifically true or not. The moral of the story, as they say, is still constant. One could argue, as Christopher Hitchens did, that it is irrelevant whether or not Socrates actually existed, because it is his message that truly counts, not his existence. Of course, both the Atheists and the Christians will argue that the resurrection of Christ, for example, does count, because whether or not it was true (in the form of historic and scientific truth) will decide the fate of humanity and the universe. I argue against this theory, simply because there is still a deep symbolic truth within the story of the resurrection, but perhaps this is where me and the Christians part ways. In conclusion, we must accept, whether we like it or not, that religion is open to interpretation; and yet again, we find it impossible tar with one singular brush.

I will conclude this blog post with what I believe to be the most important point of them all, and, as far as I can see, this is my ultimate defence of religion. I feel as though the New Atheists lack an understanding of human history and psyche. And I confess this as somebody who once identified as a New Atheist. Even the earliest beings of articulate man could not avoid the religious question, and even the modern being, with all our technological and scientific advancements, can not avoid it . For thousands upon thousands of years, the idea of God and the supernatural has been present within all societies and cultures. I tend to find, but not always, that the New Atheists bat away this historic pattern with the claim that it was simply a pathetic attempt by uneducated ancient peoples to explain the world. This may be true, but it does not explain why they explained things the way they did – each mythological story from our history contains symbolism and an unnecessary amount of detail, in the form of the stories “plot”. In my opinion, there is a imprint branded on our psyche; there is something that makes us believe there is a divine truth or state of being, which is both above the individual and the collective. I have found that we all believe in God, but a lot of people have simply replaced the traditional concept of God with an “ism”. Political ideology is a great example of this. Many people see Socialism, for example, as some kind of divine way of living.

In part, our society, and what I would describe as the human psyche (the inner self), clearly revolves around symbolism, which is very well represented within religion and mythology. Religion, mythology and spirituality are representations of the human psyche; their messages are archetypal, and often multiple randomly selected religions are more closely related to each other, in terms of message, than we expect. One common link between religions is the message that “life is suffering”. We cannot just withdraw the foundations of religion and spiritual symbolism from society and expect the core messages that have been portrayed through them to just levitate by themselves in mid-air. The truth is that we couldn’t do away with spiritual foundations if we wanted to, for mythological and mystical symbolism is entrenched within our brains. Take marriage as a prime example. Most adults within our society, it seems, are married (or at least they once were). Marriage, when you strip it down to its material basics, is nothing but two signatures on a man-made legal document. But, for some reason, we humans see it as more than just ink on paper. We view marriage as a divine declaration of love, as lifetime commitment, as a holy bond between two lovers. We must differentiate here, for I am not saying that this is evidence of the supernatural. But what I am saying is that the idea of there being something higher than just the material, the idea of God, is clearly present within us all on a psychological basis, and for that reason I do not feel comfortable mocking, degrading or heavily punching the idea of God or the paranormal, because I believe it represents far, far more than just stupidity, gullibility or indoctrination.