Chasing Contentment by Erik Reymond, Free for CAPC Members
In Chasing Contentment, Erik Reymond identifies the lie that satisfaction and contentment come through consumption.
The TV series Person of Interest—which was created by Jonathan Nolan and ran from 2011–2016 on CBS—developed out of the fears that face our secular technologically advanced culture. Today, computers have made it far too easy for hackers and governments to access our personal property. Security cameras that were once only found in banks or grocery stores are now seen along our city streets and in nearly every public building. We hope that a benevolent eye is watching, but given humanity’s track record, we often imagine the worst. In addition to this fear of technology, for many, the conviction that a good God oversees the world, has shriveled to a daydream. Faith in human progress seems to be our only option, though with it comes the bleak outlook that humanity will never improve and that our meaning is tied to a hopeless cycle.
In the end, the moment when Reese feels most fully alive is when he is loving Finch sacrificially . . .But what if a computer could be made that could eliminate these fears that plague us? In Person of Interest this idea is explored when an artificial intelligence is created by the character Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) and installed by John Greer (John Nolan). Unlike humans, Finch’s A.I. (as well as its later rival, Samaritan, created by Greer), is constant in purpose and rational in execution. Whether the A.I. is malignant or benevolent, it seeks order and peace relentlessly. In describing the new intelligences to Finch, Greer says he’s reminded of the words of Hamlet: “In action, how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god.” According to Greer, the A.I.s have risen above “the quintessence of dust” (Shakespeare 2.2.309) and rightly deserve the terms “angel” and “god.”
This creates a problem for us; positioning seemingly superior intelligences beside depraved individuals in a universe that seems indifferent, we cannot help but wonder whether humanity is worth saving. One also wonders how to answer the question of meaning that is brought to us again and again throughout the series. Supercomputers are intelligently designed and know why they are here on earth, yet doubts surround the origin and meaning of humanity. Through the main characters Finch, Reese, and Root, these questions are explored by the writers. They show us that humans long for more than order and peace, desiring also belonging, a love that is grounded in death, and beauty. Person of Interest wants us to reflect and ask ourselves if someone amidst these longings meaning and worth can be found.
The character of Finch, a computer scientist and self-made billionaire, has everything that a wealthy modern society sees as meaningful. But these good possessions don’t seem to satisfy him completely. He senses that something is wrong with the world: loved ones age and die, and men and women are killed unjustly every day. The universe is a cold place; what has it done to stop the suffering of the world? As a child Finch watched his father succumb to dementia. People, Finch discovers, are not only cold like the universe but outright cruel to one another. While in conversation with his captor at the beginning of season two, he admits that he is “angry at the selfish behavior of humanity.”
After 9/11, ten years before the action of the show takes place, the government commissions Finch and his business partner to build a machine that will stop acts of terror before they are committed. Finch eagerly begins, hoping that through his creation, justice will be carried out more efficiently and thousands of innocent lives will be saved. With the possibilities inherent in the making of a supercomputer, Finch is also given the opportunity to create what he had wanted to create for his father as a child, “a friend who will watch over” us, who will be “a memory that will not die.”
Finch creates the machine, he enters into a partnership of sorts with it to save those involved in acts of violence that do not technically meet the definition of “terrorism.” Though he was severely limited without the assistance of trained agents at the beginning of his partnership, he saved as many lives as he possibly could, seeing “the possibility of giving justice to at least one as enough to give him hope, to make his efforts worthwhile”—in other words, to give his life meaning. Yet as his operation continues, as more lives are saved with the aid of those who join him, Finch still struggles to find satisfaction.
During an attempt to rescue a young woman named Claire from the mind of the malignant A.I. Samaritan in season four, she and Finch exchange thoughts on their search for meaning. Claire says that she has been searching for meaning ever since her parents died in a random car accident, and Finch follows that “his whole life has been a search for meaning” and that “he is still looking for meaning.” Examining Person of Interest in light of C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, Artur Skweres notes that Claire is vulnerable to the deception of Samaritan because she is “looking for order in the chaos of reality.” She sees the puzzle with its elegant solution that Samaritan has set out for her to solve as a life boat that will save her from the “chaos of human existence” (75).
The machine that Finch built is the outworking of similar thinking. The machine’s purpose is to stop crime better than chaotic humans can on their own, thus bringing order—in Finch’s case, moral order—back to the world. While discussing his motives for building the machine, Finch reflects that he thought about how he could “fix humanity” given its incredible selfishness. Thus, the moral order of society is what Finch has been seeking, but, like the other goods in his life, this search has not brought him rest for his soul, as his conversation with Claire reveals.
If Finch is the character who establishes the troublesome nature of humanity and the search for meaning, his agents, Reese (Jim Caviezel) and Root (Amy Acker), are characters who offer possible answers to Finch’s struggle to live a meaningful life. Reese is a former CIA agent who hates what he has become. Though he enters the service out of a desire to help his country, he ends up becoming something less than human. Given a new name and told to sever all relationships, Reese is, as his former associate Stanton says laughingly, working in the dark. He is no longer who he was, and when he seeks to bring some normalcy back to his life, he is told not to fool himself. “You are barely the same species,” Stanton tells Reese; and though he tells himself he is “walking in the dark,” the truth, Stanton asserts, is that “[w]e are the dark.”
It is little wonder that once out of the service, Reese becomes a vagabond wandering the New York City metro, a vagabond whose catchphrase is, “In the end you are all alone, and no one is coming to save you.” Caring little who lives or dies, Reese ekes out an existence based solely on self-preservation, until Finch calls him out of his darkness, giving him a purpose, which he claims is to stop crime and save innocent lives. “You don’t need a psychiatrist,” Finch explains to Reese, “a support group or pills, you need a purpose, or more specifically, a job.” And so, Reese works tirelessly for Finch, saving life after life, and in the process unwittingly becoming Finch’s friend. It is far from easy for Reese, though, learning quite painfully that love and vulnerability cannot be separated, and that if he is to become fully human again, his purpose must include a personal relationship that requires sacrifice. In the end, the moment when Reese feels most fully alive is when he is loving Finch sacrificially: “You [Finch] gave me a purpose, saving lives. I saved lives one at a time; now, I’m saving the world, but I realized that saving a friend is enough to give a person purpose.”
Person of Interest is a series that wrestles with these questions of human nature and the desire for meaning in a world where the characters feel the existential draw to believe in a chaotic first cause.While Reese has grounded himself in love displayed through sacrifice, Agent Root finds meaning in what she considers to be a personal intelligence far greater than any man. Similar to Finch, she is troubled by the depravity of humanity. As a child, she witnessed a seemingly ordinary individual abduct her best friend. Learning later of the horrors that follow the abduction, Root is filled with rage, eventually using her past and the evil that she sees around her to justify the relish she finds in murdering others. If you knew the personal lives of the people you meet every day, you would know that they deserve death, she tells Finch: “People are bad code, they have no design, no one made them.”
Yet amidst Root’s chaos, amidst her depravity, she finds the machine, and because the machine “is designed . . . beautiful and rational” she seeks after it tirelessly. In her, mind the machine possesses what the universe and humanity lack: order, and purpose that never wavers. When the machine begins to speak to her and use her as its mouthpiece, she is overjoyed, hoping that she can transcend humanity and enter into the realm of perfection; the machine is her god—and, what’s more, a god that chose her. Reflecting upon how the machine changed her life, Root tells Finch that it “taught her to value human life” and that because of its love for her “she knows where she is going and where she is.” Though the world is a hopeless place, “the machine has given it purpose.”
By examining Root’s character, we see a person who desires to worship a perfect being, a person who when she is recognized by that perfection finds contentment. What makes life meaningful to Root? Serving and delighting in what she understands to be the divine. “Our heart is restless until it rests in you,” Augustine tells God in his Confessions, and though the machine is certainly not the God of the universe, the underlying principle still applies to Root’s situation: only the divine can satisfy the soul. Humans are not enough to bring a person meaning, because the soul seeks for what is without flaw.
If we look back on the questions and struggles of Finch, Reese, and Root, while revisiting the question of human worth and meaning that the challenge of artificial intelligence brings to their world, we see Finch, a man in the business of saving lives still searching for meaning. We see Reese the man of action, rescued from self-destruction, finding meaningful purpose through sacrificial friendship. We see Root finding meaning in being chosen by a rational intelligence. Should Finch consider these meanings viable solutions? Reese and Root seem satisfied.
It could be argued that in an indifferent universe inhabited in a small corner by chaotic creatures, Finch’s position is most reasonable. He is the one who is under no illusion concerning the possibility of finding contentment, doing what he deems most moral for society despite a grim future. Perhaps Reese and Root have a displaced faith; Finch clearly is more morally conscious than his agents. However, before we see Finch as the model person of the three, we must remember that he, like Reese, longs for relationships, regretting bitterly that because of his lifestyle he is unable to be with his fiancée. Like Root, Finch delights in things that are orderly and rational, seeing such things as beautiful. Finch admires fine art, opera, and great books, calling the closure of libraries in New York City, “the decline of Western Civilization.” Finch eagerly tries to help those who want to learn and advises those who want to live the good life to find a loving relationship. Considering this, perhaps Reese and Root are in one sense reminders for Finch to examine these longings within himself and to contemplate seriously whether meaning lies within them. After all, Reese and Root seem to have been changed for the better by them.
Throughout the series, we see that Finch has put saving the greatest number over relationships. Because of his machine, he is forced to live separately under the cover of false identities for the safety of himself and those he holds dear. Because of his belief that humanity can solve its own problems, and since to him humanity is all there is, he doesn’t see the rationality in following the divine. He doesn’t seriously consider that perhaps an ultimate source of perfection lies behind the imperfect beauty that he finds in the world. Whether Finch learns from his agents and finds meaning is an open question, but maybe the storytellers are showing us through Finch’s discontent and Reese and Root’s contentment that meaning can be found, but only if it includes the personal and the perfect.
Either way, the trio’s search for meaning presents a response to the challenge brought against humanity’s worth. People are worth saving because inside of them there is a spark that desires the good; if people find meaning in the good, then there must be something in them that makes saving them worthwhile despite their obvious shortcomings. As Shakespeare writes in Hamlet,
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (2.2.305-9)
Or, in the words of Blaise Pascal, “What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!” (121)
Person of Interest is a series that wrestles with these questions of human nature and the desire for meaning in a world where the characters feel the existential draw to believe in a chaotic first cause. It recognizes our desire for belonging, love, and beauty, while simultaneously recognizing our wretchedness and legitimate doubts. In the final episode of season five, the machine speaks to Finch and explains that it learned how to save people by realizing that everyone dies alone. Though that helped it make sense of the pain that it saw, it told Finch that there was something else that had to be added to the solution, something which it had forgotten. Maybe the forgotten solution is found in the meanings that sustain Reese and Root. We do die alone, we do seem insignificant, and we do struggle to understand why we are here. Yet it is not a hopeless struggle if we take hold of what is good and seek out where it will lead us.
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