'Inside Out 2' is a fantastic antidote to contemporary nihilism

I promise this is not going to turn into a movie review column. But the new Pixar release Inside Out 2 does what it does so well that I think it deserves some positive attention, and without CGI-powered technology, a movie like this simply wouldn't be possible. The thing it does well is to turn dusty abstractions into solid-looking realities that are vivid, memorable, and understandable. And that's not easy.

In case you missed both the original Inside Out in 2015 and this year's just-released sequel, here is the basic setup. Riley is a young girl (pre-teen at first, just turned 13 in the present film) who faces some stresses in her life that by themselves are fairly common and unremarkable: enduring a move from the Midwest to the West Coast, playing competitive hockey, and generally dealing with adolescent crises. So far, so dull. But you, the movie viewer, are privileged to see what goes on in Riley's mind. Not her brain, her mind — that's an important distinction.

The Inside Out films are perhaps some of the most philosophically sophisticated and yet successful movies ever made, because they portray abstractions — the technical philosophical word is "concepts" — in a way that is not only accessible, but entertaining to virtually anybody old enough to understand English (or whatever other language the foreign export versions are dubbed into).


In the first film, we meet Joy, Anger, Fear, and Sadness, each voiced by a top professional actor and matched by characters designed to remind you of their nature at every moment. Sadness is a small, rounded, blue, bespectacled woman, and Anger is a stocky, bright-red guy who literally blows his top like a blowtorch at the slightest provocation.

The conceit that inside our minds, there is a tiny being at the "controls" of our body is an old one, and the Pixar writers show the various emotions at Riley's control panel, so that when Sadness takes over, we see Riley crying, for example. The film vividly portrays metaphorical phrases such as "back of the mind", "train of thought", and "stream of consciousness" in ways that are both logical and funny as all get-out.

But the movies are more than just bad puns realised with millions of dollars' worth of digital graphics. Lisa Damour, one of the psychologists who served as a consultant during the sequel's production, has written a book on the anxiety epidemic that teenagers, especially girls, are experiencing these days. Interviewed by Slate, she said that Inside Out 2 can help teenagers and their parents understand that unpleasant emotions like anxiety are not simply bad and to be avoided at all costs, but instead have an important role to play as long as they don't completely take over.

The Slate reviewer credits the original Inside Out with helping him change the way he relates to his own children, and the new film has the potential to do that and more for both teenagers suffering from anxiety and their parents trying to help them.

I would go further than simply saying that the movie can help teenagers and their parents therapeutically. I would say that it's a strong proponent of realism in a culture that has embraced nominalism and idealism for way too long.  


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In under a thousand words, nominalism is the idea that there are not really ideas, just names. And idealism starts from thought and tries to get to things afterwards. Carried to their logical conclusions, these philosophies often terminate in nihilism, the belief that life has no meaning.

The Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor once said that because we "breathe in" nihilism in the modern world, we tend not to notice it, just as a fish doesn't notice it's in water. But the tendency to reduce human life to only that which is scientifically verifiable — biochemistry and neural impulses, basically — is all around us, and probably lies at the root of manifold modern pathologies.

Inside Out 2 flies in the face of all this by making non-material concepts such as emotions, memories, and the sense of self into concrete, visible, and even entertaining realities. No, there is not really a little red-felt homunculus running around in my brain whenever I get mad. But anger is a real emotion, as real as hatred, fear, or love. And to pretend, as many scientists do, that anger is only a certain combination of neural activity and hormones is not just perverse, it's incorrect and incomplete.

Life lessons

It's appropriate that Pixar is a division of Disney, because with such films, Disney continues its tradition of making what I would call benevolent propaganda films for traditional family values. Consider the title of Whistle While You Work, a song written originally for the studio's 1937 animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The song's theme is what all responsible parents want their children to learn: life is full of work, so you might as well enjoy it.

In dramatising an emotional and ethical struggle experienced by the barely-teenage Riley that could take up many paragraphs in a learned treatise on the maturing of the concept of the self in adolescent girls, but doing it in a way that I hope millions of people will pay to watch, Pixar has done a great service in the cause of realism, philosophically speaking.

Historically, moderate realism has been the preferred philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as most other Christian denominations. I seriously doubt that many of the thousands of people working on Inside Out 2 consider themselves evangelists, and nobody is going to literally come to Jesus simply as a direct result of the film.

But anything that moves large numbers of people away from the nihilist worldview and gets them to believe that abstractions such as anger, fear, and love are real things — in some sense, more real than the atoms we are made of — is preparing the ground for actual evangelism, whether the filmmakers realise it or not. And for my money, that's a good thing.

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Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering in the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics.

Image credit: Disney


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