The Philosophy of Rick and Morty
Welcome to a special edition of 8-Bit Philosophy, where classic video games introduce famous thinkers, problems, and concepts with quotes, teachings, and more. This week – The Philosophy of Rick and Morty.
Ep.40: The Philosophy of Rick and Morty
Written by: Alec Opperman
Created & Directed by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
The Philosophy of Rick & Morty
Hey guys, it’s Jared – one of the creators here at Wisecrack. Today we’re talking about one of the best shows on TV right now and a personal favorite- Rick and Morty. We know you’re probably jonesing for some new episodes after the year-and-a-half wait was announced, so we wanted to hold you over with an analysis of Rick and Morty so far: the philosophy, the science, and everything you missed while you were laughing at the dick jokes.
Rick and Morty chronicles the exploits of a mad scientist and his naive grandson as they go on deeply irresponsible, and awesome, space adventures. It’s more or less the plot of Back to the Future, but Doc is a gassy alcoholic – Marty, er-Morty never tries to hit on his mom, and the duo travels through alternate dimensions rather than time.
Rick and Morty is deeply rooted in the traditions of sci-fi horror, often paying homage to things like Ghostbusters, filmmaker David Cronenberg, Nosferatu, and Freddy Kreuger to name a few. The show even references Zardoz- a camp classic and guilty pleasure of mine. Nowhere else will you get to see Sean Connery in a futuristic space thong. But seriously. See this movie. It’s actually really smart.
while the show pays homage to a wide spectrum of sci-fi and horror, it has an affinity for a particular sci fi tradition- cosmic horror. Pioneered by literary horror legend HP Lovecraft, the cosmic horror genre emphasizes the the terror of that which is outside our grasp to comprehend. Like Lovecraft, Rick and Morty uses the cosmos as a way to explore deep philosophical questions by imagining what lies hidden in the black depths of space. The show opening even makes a visual reference to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.
Cosmic horror goes way beyond cheap jump-scares- it presents us with the vast unknown and unimaginable- The simultaneous feeling of fright, disgust and dread that we feel as that which lurks in uncharted, incomprehensible space suddenly comes crashing into our own reality.
Rick’s portal gun is constantly confronting us with this unknown; as he jumps head-first into other realities the results are sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes both.
Occasionally, that reality comes to us- Particularly, in the episode “Get Schwifty.” Earth is approached by a giant space head whose sheer gravitational mass causes mayhem on Earth’s eco-system. The giant head commands the entirety of Earth to show him what they’ve got. A cult soon develops to worship this cosmic entity and Rick, realizing the head is a Cromulon, informs the president that they have to come up with a hit song and win the intergalactic equivalent of The Voice or be disintegrated by a giant space laser.
Giant floating cosmic entities aren’t anything new in the science fiction universe. Our old friend HP Lovecraft used the idea constantly – developing a race of “Great Old Ones” who he describes in books like “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Dunwich Horror.”
There’s a few interesting questions that big floating scary things bring up. First, cosmic horror begs the question: are we significant? Most science fiction is convinced that humanity is, metaphorically, the center of the universe. Whether we’re battling the empire or trying to get all the aliens to just be friends, humanity, or things that look like humanity, take center stage. Cosmic horror inverts that premise and asks the question: What if the universe doesn’t give a shit about us?
For the Cromulons, humanity is merely an object of entertainment. Annihilating a planet is not an act of spite or cause for concern – it’s just something you do. Cosmic horror is full of these giant entities that demonstrate just how insignificant humanity actually is, and that’s what is really terrifying – or in the case of Rick and Morty -kind of hilarious in a dark, dark way.
In the book “In the Dust of This Planet,” Contemporary American Philosopher Eugene Thacker describes this “Cosmic Pessimism” prevalent in the horror genre that imagines a “world-without-us” and thinks through the universe as “absolutely unhuman, and indifferent to the hopes, desires and struggles of human individuals and groups.”
The show embodies this cosmic pessimism almost perfectly. Rick and Morty even die, only to be replaced by one of the infinite other versions of themselves in an alternate reality. Not only are we but a speck of dust on a tiny blue marble in the cosmos at large, we’re also like one of an infinite amount of the exact same speck of dust. Rick and Morty doesn’t want us to be terrified of our own insignificance, it want us to laugh at it.
Even though we are but specks of dust to these cosmic horrors, we too are the cosmic horrors to other specks of dust. In “The Ricks Must Be Crazy,” we learn that Rick’s car battery is powered by a micro-universe whose sole purpose is to perform an inane task – produce energy. And, in that universe, they invent another mini-universe. And so on, and so on. Rick might as well be one of Lovecraft’s cosmic deities to the denizens of the microverses. It’s like cosmic inception, brah.
In a world beyond our comprehension, with infinite possibilities, values and meaning start to slip away. All that can remain is pessimism.
That brings us to our next section, on the Existentialism of Rick and Morty.
Rick and Morty addresses the question of our very existence in almost every single episode.
On one hand, we have the cosmic insignificance of humanity as a whole, and on the other, we have the frivolity of individual human life. The show offers us two examples of how to respond to our pathetic existence through Rick and Jerry.
First, we have Jerry, who is seemingly oblivious to the soul-crushing mediocrity and pointlessness of his own life. He is literally more happy in a poor simulation of the world than his actual life. Or, as Arthur Schopenhauer might well have described Jerry’s life: “The life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general, and when only its most significant features are emphasized, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy.” Jerry is a failure: he’s unemployed, his wife hates him, and he’s not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. But one can argue that Jerry is better off than the belligerently drunk Rick, because he’s simply too dumb to realize that his life is utterly pointless. But in this ignorance, Jerry seems content toiling away for the sake of nothing.
Then, there’s Rick, who understands the meaninglessness of life and accepts it. But despite Rick’s sarcasm and non-chalant attitude towards pain and suffering, he’s also an alcoholic whose catchphrase means “I am in great pain.”
The pure rationalism of the universe furthers the feeling of insignificance of our own lives. We’re left with a paradox. Science allows us to make some sort of sense of the universe through formulas and theorems, but we as humans are left confronting the bleak, arbitrary nature of our own existence. Science can reason away any sense of sanctity or emotion and turn the human experience into something meaningless. Rick takes time out of avoiding his own pending death to explain, mathematically, that Summer and Morty are both pieces of shit. Rick goes on to rationalize away his feelings for Morty, explaining that their bond is only an easy way to hide Rick’s genius brain waves from the intergalactic po-po. In another episode, Morty, as Roy, grows up and dies in a video game. After losing, he briefly forgets his own existence. The audience is left to question what exactly separates the fake reality of the “Roy” game to his own existence. After all, if Morty remembers his “fake” life and experiences all the emotions and sensations that constitute our own consciousness, what’s the difference? Rick and Morty is constantly playing with this dichotomy between meaningless simulations and our actual life.
If we recoil from the idea of living a “fake” life inside a video game, it’s because we ascribe some meaning to the authenticity of our own. But Rick and Morty is quick to display for all to see that this is a giant crock of shit. What’s the difference between killing the memory parasites whom the family feels genuine emotion for and shooting, say, Mr. Poopybutthole?
This crisis of values, of our own meaning in life, is taken up by tons of existentialists, but Friedrich Nietzsche is particularly helpful here. Nietzsche tells the parable of the madman, who comes into town screaming “God is dead!..And we have killed him!” What Nietzsche was really trying to say that is after the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, the big being in the sky that gave value to our lives was no longer relevant. After the death of God in philosophy, what remains is nihilism – a void of meaning.
This struggle over the lack of meaning is what defines Rick Sanchez. Rick’s scientific gravitas has demystified everything. Love is just a set of chemical reactions. He even beats the devil and, in a way, actively plays out the death of God. We’re constantly left wondering: what does Rick care about, if anything at all?
Rick’s character embodies a tension between a kind of active and passive nihilism. The passive nihilist, for Nietzsche, is resigned to the hopelessness and meaninglessness of life. The active nihilist, however, actively seeks to destroy the old values and start anew. It’s clear that something makes Rick tick, we’re just not sure what. After all, he’s labeled as an international terrorist fighting for something and eventually gives himself up to save his family. Rick’s action may seem paradoxical, if only because he himself is struggling to make meaning out of the universe.
The show also does its part to interrogate our own sense of morality, refusing to draw clear lines between right and wrong or good and evil. Morty’s attempts to be a do-gooder are always thwarted. After freeing a group of people from the body-snatching Unity, a nipple-driven race war commences between the now-freed rabble of pedophiles and prostitutes. When confronted with the grim consequences, Summer aptly replies “I didn’t know freedom meant people doing stuff that sucks.”
Here lies another existential question: What is biological life without “living?” “Listen Unity I don’t think my sister is trying to say life would be perfect without you, it would just be ya know.. life”. If we the audience are repulsed by the thought of body-snatchers, the show also makes us consider the fact that our irrational attachment to freedom is what allows us to live in a world that’s oh-so-terribly fucked up.
Another way to look at the existential question in Rick and Morty is through the work of Albert Camus, specifically in Meeseeks and Destroy. The central tenant of Camus’ “absurdism” is that life consists of two irreconcilable facets: The human tendency to find meaning in life, and the universe’s complete indifference to our existence. In Rick and Morty we see the antithesis of this in the Meeseeks “Meeseeks are not born into this world fumbling for meaning, Jerry! We are created to serve a singular purpose for which we will go to any lengths to fulfill!”. For Camus, human life was exactly the opposite, as illustrated in the myth of Sisyphus, the king who was sentenced to spend an eternity pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to fall back down upon completion. Or, for Jerry, it’s not a boulder, but his golf swing. And then, there’s this:
Many characters in the show, rather than seek meaning for their own existence, simply resent their creators for bringing them into the world. We see this Frankenstein complex not only in the Meeseeks, but in Abradolf Lincler – “Rick. You brought me in to this world, a suffering abomination, tortured by the duality of its being. But I should finally know peace when I drain the blood from your wretched eyes!”, Morty Jr, and, of course, Frankenstein himself makes an appearance.
For Camus, we are perpetually frustrated by our floundering attempt to find meaning and purpose and life and our inability to do so. He offers, as an alternate, to embrace the emptiness of the absurd. Or, as Rick says: Or, to quote Morty:
The fictional and sometimes almost-real science of Rick and Morty allows us to explore all of the ways that, despite our love of Rick, our lives are as sad and pathetic as Jerry’s.
But the science in the show also works as an excuse for some really nerdy jokes. Some are obvious, like the entire episode loosely based off of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This principle from quantum mechanics, pioneered by a notable meth dealer, states that it is impossible to know both the location and momentum of a particle. That’s because the tiny objects that make up our universe are at the same time waves and particles. If that’s confusing, it’s because it is. And people complain philosophy is too complicated. Rick and Morty draws humor from a superficial reading of science here, claiming that this uncertainty of quantum mechanics can cause our own realities to split. Outside, a sea of Schrodinger’s cats are floating around, a reference to the 1935 thought experiment by Erwin Schrodinger. It ponders: in a quantum world where particles can be two things at once, is it possible for a cat rigged with an elaborate quantum booby-trap to be both alive and dead at the same time – because Austrians have dark, dark imaginations.
This tenuous relationship to scientific truth could be viewed as a jab at the science fiction genre for constantly inventing scientific mumbo-jumbo to justify unlikely plot points, like stupid and smart brain waves canceling each other out. In another episode, Rick is seen traversing tiny climates on a tiny planet which is…not at all how that works. In the same episode, the show’s creators poke fun at the trust we place in TV narratives by making a joke about forced perspective
The show also exhibits a unique kind of atheism that constantly invalidates religious figures by boiling them down to pure science. It also acknowledges the frequent misuses of science by those with religious agendas. In “Something Ricked This Way Comes,” Jerry’s “personal” interpretation of science leads him on a crusade to reinstate Pluto’s planethood. He is greeted by the Plutonians, who have not-so-subtle crosses in their eyes, drawing a comparison to religious fundamentalist. Of course, it’s all a ploy to manipulate Plutonians into thinking the destruction of their planet by their corporate overlords is totally not a big deal. Hm…
Rick and Morty is a show that holds nothing as sacred. By exploring the absurdities of a purely rational universe and pushing the boundaries of decency in a sci-fi horror setting, we get to ask all sorts of fun, depressing questions like “Why am I here?” and “What’s the point of it all?” We’re not really sure where the show will go with Rick’s character. Will he finally do something for the greater good, or is his latest move just another bleak self-serving ploy?
Thanks for watching, wub-a-lub-a-dub-dub.