Rick and Morty: Meaning in a Meaningless Multiverse
by Danny Krämer
The American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars diagnosed a conflict between what he called “the scientific and the manifest image of man-in-the-world.” The scientific image contains things like quarks, bosons, and black holes. By contrast, the “manifest image” is our everyday way of viewing the world full of tables, art, values, persons, and animated sitcoms.
Speaking of sitcoms, everyone’s favorite animated sitcom Rick and Morty elaborates upon this theme. The show depicts the intergalactic adventures of Rick, an alcohol-addicted but ingenious scientist, and his grandson Morty, a stereotypical teenager. Not only can they roam the cosmos in Rick’s spaceship, but they can also travel in other dimensions of the multiverse with the use of a portal gun. The multiverse in Rick and Morty is filled by all kinds of crazy creatures, landscapes, and technologies. Every possibility is an actuality found some place in the multiverse of Rick and Morty. It’s a philosopher’s dream!
Rick seems clearly entrenched in the scientific image. For him, everything can be explained by science, and he is obviously a great scientist. Rick looks behind our everyday understanding of things and our attachment to them. He even tricks the devil using science. At the same time, the rest of his family is trapped in the manifest image. Consider Morty’s father, Jerry. He is a simple man, who is satisfied with his life, even if it could be just a simulation (as in one episode it totally is).
Sellars said: “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term” (p. 1). That also means we have to develop a “synoptic view” (p. 34) that tries to integrate the scientific and the manifest image in a coherent world view. In this sense, Morty is the locus of philosophical development in the series. As he learns that the multiverse is much stranger than he could have ever imagined, he starts to handle the new crazy situations better and better. In the beginning Morty is completely overwhelmed by all the different possibilities and situations, but later he confidently uses the portal gun himself. Indeed, he learns more and more about the world in a scientific sense from Rick, but he does not lose his perspective on the things of the manifest image like morality, family, and emotions.
Rick and Morty and Neuroexistentialism
Existentialism has always tried to find meaning in a world that gets more and more disenchanted. Nowadays, some philosophers and scientists call themselves neuroexistentialists. These philosophers focus on the threat to meaning in life that comes from science and especially neurobiology. The more we find out about our brain and how our mental life is encoded in it, the more we seem to be just complicated animals. We come to see ourselves more as biological robots than as the free, noble, and rational beings we always thought we were.
As Rick memorably says, “Listen, Morty, I hate to break it to you, but what people call ‘love’ is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard, Morty, then it slowly fades, leaving you stranded in a failing marriage.” Viewing ourselves from a purely scientific perspective there seems to be no place for values and meaning above and beyond the needs of a biological species. The universe is a meaningless mess and we are just grains of dust in it!
Rick and Morty explores two solutions the conflict between the scientific image and the manifest image. Let’s call them neuro-absurdism and neuro-existentialism. Neuro-existentialism believes that we should seek our own meaning in life while confronted with the inherent meaninglessness of the universe. Neuro-absurdism accepts, like Camus did, that there is just no meaning to have. The absurdist strain is most obvious in Rick’s hunt for the Szechuan sauce. It is totally absurd to confront all these difficulties for just a pack of chicken nugget sauce. Indeed, it calls to mind Sisyphus, who rolls his rock up a hill every day only to have it roll right back down. But if the absurdist is right, the world and life are absurd anyway. So who cares? The existentialist strain is most obvious in the scenes where Rick embraces his family and sees a value in life with them, where he seems to finally value at least something as purposeful.
Maybe Morty handles this conflict better. As the series progresses, he accepts the neuroexistentialist insight, learns to live with it, and tries to find value in things that make him happy. As he says, “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everyone’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”
The show’s writers seem undecided whether Rick and Morty will ultimately be existentialist or absurdist. The pendulum swings in one and then in the other direction. In the end we must wait and see whether we will get a plot that provides us with a solution to the question of meaning in a meaningless world or if we just need to dwell in the absurdities of the multiverse.
Danny Krämer is a PhD candidate at the chair for theoretical philosophy at the University of Erfurt, Germany.
Sellars, Wilfrid S. (1962). Philosophy and the scientific image of man. In Robert Colodny (ed.), Science, Perception, and Reality. Humanities Press/Ridgeview. pp. 35-78.
Caruso, Gregg & Flanagan, Owen (eds.) (2018). Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals, and Purpose in the Age of Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.