The Worldview of ‘Inside Out’

Burgers on the grill, fireworks in the air, and blockbusters on the screen: these are a few of summer’s favorite things. And it’s the hit movies that provide year markers by which many of us situate our summer memories. For example, I remember the summer of 1983, not so much because of any major headline news, I was only six years old, but because of an unforgettable outing to the drive-in theater to watch the debut of ‘Return of the Jedi.’ My siblings and I sat on top of the family car blanketed in sleeping bags spellbound by the Star Wars sequel.

I’m not too pious to admit that I still enjoy a good show. Operative word: good. And some of my favorite films these days are animated. Mostly because I have young children. That’s my excuse, at least. The real reason, dare I admit, is that they are typically the most clever, the most entertaining, and certainly the most wholesome of all the cinematic options.

Inside Out: The Worldview

Every movie is a worldview production. Every film is driven, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, by philosophical assumptions. Animated or otherwise, none are exempt from exposing the intellectual commitments of their creators. The digital apple never falls far from the metaphorical tree.

The new Pixar movie Inside Out is no exception. Instead of focusing mostly on the actions of the main character, Riley, an eleven-year-old girl from Minnesota, it explores the why behind what she does. Driving her daily behavior are five personified emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. The genius of the Pixar team is on full display in the comical cultivation of every character.

Inside Out: Physicalism 

But the ideology behind the movie is dangerous. Inside Out implies that the human experience can be wholly described with physical explanations. The philosophical term for this position is physicalism. It teaches that we are nothing more than our bodies. We are the sum of our parts. Our mind is the same thing as our brain, just another part of our body. But it’s the part that tells us what to do. We don’t control it — it controls us.

The real question raised by the movie, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, is whether there is anyone in charge of the various emotions. As silly as the personification of the various emotions might be throughout the movie, as humorous as they are, it is clear that they are the ones running the show. The issue is which emotion will win out in the end. They’re simply doing what emotions do, and Riley is at their beck and call.

That’s exactly how the celebrity atheistic author Sam Harris frames the issue in his overlooked little book Free Will. “You can do what you decide to do,” Harris writes, “but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.” His point: we are puppets and our brain is the puppeteer. As Harris says, we can be free but only if by that we mean we love our strings.

Our actions can be traced back to our emotions. Our emotions are attributed to chemical reactions in our brain. And these chemical reactions are the real CEOs of our lives.

The Alternative: Dualism

The alternative to this view is known as “dualism,” which recognizes that we are more than just a body. Our mind is more than some emergent property of brain matter, but is an immaterial part of us that is our true essence — what Christians call the soul. This soul is the non-physical part of the human makeup that allows us to have a will. Our will sits above our emotions and allows us to make decisions instead of simply obeying our instincts.

I once had a conversation with a skeptic friend who didn’t believe in the will. In our conversation he encouraged me to change my mind on the issue. My obvious question was “how?” How might I change my mind as an act of the will if I have no will? On his view, it is my mind that changes me, not the other way around.

An understanding of the will is critical. Just consider our judicial system. We don’t punish brains. We sentence people who make bad decisions, people whom we hold responsible for their actions. But if people really don’t make decisions then we cannot hold them morally accountable for their actions.

Moral responsibility only makes any sense, or has any sort of grounding, in the Christian narrative which places humanity at the apex of the created world as image bearers of the Creator. If humans are purely physical beings controlled by physiology then there is no real basis for morality. We might try to find arguments for morality based on utility or empathy, or confuse the issue by making it entirely about moral language, but we certainly won’t find a compelling way to make such claims absolute or truly objective.

If you want to see where this sort of view will take us then just read this short excerpt from an article written in 2006 by famed atheistic author Richard Dawkins:

But doesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused’s physiology, heredity and environment. . . . Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing?

Worldview Application

While Inside Out is an entertaining movie with a positive theme, as with most good animated films, it is built on a perilous presupposition. If we are mere machines controlled by our biology, our brain and our emotions, our heredity and environment, to quote Dawkins, then we are not free, we are not ultimately responsible, and we are not morally accountable. At bottom this is an atheistic perspective. While not all atheists are physicalists, I believe only the Christian narrative offers a consistent and compelling basis for dualism.

On the other hand, to be fair, I think some Christian leaders are too quick to dismiss the influence of biology on our actions. But a robust view of the Christian narrative affords us with an understanding that no matter how powerful our emotions can be, or our psychological predispositions, there is an immaterial part of the human makeup, the soul, that gives us an operative quality not wholly subjected to our physiology. We are not machines. We are more than the sum of our parts.

At the core of your identity is not a genetic code, or a biochemical reactor, but a precious and eternal soul. Unlike the movie Inside Out there really is someone at the helm of the ship in the storm of your daily emotions. It’s you. The real you. Not the sum of your parts, but something more.

I certainly wouldn’t tell Christians not to see this movie. I obviously saw it. You’ll probably enjoy it. I did. But don’t miss the philosophical teeth buried within the plot.

Make this an opportunity to share the Christian view of the human condition. We cannot be reduced to our physical bodies. We are more. We are endowed with a soul that will last forever. And this is precisely what God offers to change from the inside out.

If you are going to watch Inside Out with your children click here to download a short discussion guide.