Sunday, 27 April 2008

Horton Hears a Who

Last week I watched "Horton Hears a Who" with my kids. It is a fun movie which captures the spirit of the Dr Seuss book on which it is based. What intrigued me were the philosophical themes in it. Horton (an elephant) hears the noise of a microscopic civilisation of Whos. The planet of Whoville exists on a speck of dust in Horton's world. This leads to a debates about the existence of things which can not be seen or heard or felt. The "Sour Kangaroo" is the antagonist who is determined to rid her jungle of the kind of nonsense Horton is spouting. She sounds like a logical positivist, but also like the accusers of Socrates, saying that Horton is poisoning the minds of the children with his fantastic claims. The same debate takes place in Whoville, where only the mayor hears Horton and has to convince others to believe him.

The epistemological message is not anti-realist, since both debates are resolved by evidence. In Whoville it is a scientist who first believes the mayor because she starts to see some evidence. The point seems to be that a closed mind which refuses to consider evidence for realities which are not already obvious to us is a recipe for missing much of reality. That is a point that Christians could make something of.

The book was written in the 1950's during the McCarthy era and seems to comment on the danger of "thought-police".

The other intriguing line is the narrator's repeated comments that "a person's a person no matter how small". This is said about the Whos, who are microscopic, so the parallel with the abortion debate seems obvious. The line comes from the original book and has been used by pro-life groups, against the wishes of Harry Geisel (Dr Seuss). Whatever his own views, the line has an obvious resonance in the debate.

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