How the Definition of Transcendence Defines the Movie "Transcendence"

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Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is the foremost researcher in the field of artificial intelligence, working to create a sentient machine that combines the collective intelligence of everything ever known with the full range of human emotions. His highly controversial experiments have made him famous, but they have also made him the prime target of anti-technology extremists who will do whatever it takes to stop him.
Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
April 25th, 2014

A movie name is chosen for a reason. William Shakespeare said, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," but does that mean an uninspired movie name is okay? Generally, a movie title gives specifics about the movie or at least points the audience in the right direction with hints about the movie. This is no different with the 2014 movie "Transcendence." In order to understand the meaning behind the title of the movie, one must know the definition of the word in the title. Without knowing what "transcendence" means, it is difficult for audiences to understand the underlying meaning of the movie itself.

What Is the Meaning of "Transcendence"?

When investigating the meaning of the word "transcendence," which is a noun, the word "transcendent," an adjective, comes up. This is because the dictionary definition of "transcendence" is "to be transcendent." "Transcendent" means "surpassing others or being supreme." Further definitions include the idea that someone or something is being above and independent of the material universe.

The philosophy of transcendence deals with an experience with the divine or God. This experience is absolute, eternal and infinite. One version of transcendent thought says that God is completely outside or beyond the world instead of the world manifesting God.

The medieval use of the word refers to the existence of unity, truth and goodness. These fall within Aristotle's ideas used to organize reality.

Different philosophers view transcendence a bit differently from each other, and Kant used the concept to derive his theory of knowledge. His ideas focus on the conditions of the possibility of knowledge itself. The meaning of being "transcendent," according to Kant, hones in on the abilities of something that understands what lies beyond human knowledge.

What Is the Movie "Transcendence" About?

In the movie, Dr. Will Caster leads a project to devise a sentient machine designed to know everything humans know while still showing human emotions. His artificial intelligence research has been controversial but has also made him famous. Those who disagree with him, specifically anti-technology extremists, try everything to stop Dr. Caster from continuing with his machine. While they try to destroy him and all his research, they actually cause Dr. Caster to become the catalyst he needs to succeed as a participant in his own transcendence.

Both of Caster's research partners, friend Max Waters, and his wife, Evelyn, wonder if they are supposed to be involved in the transcendence. Through the quest, Caster's thirst for knowledge leads him to want more and more power as his mind is basically uploaded into a supercomputer in order to have a machine that is able to think for itself. When his quest for knowledge ends is unknown. How far Caster plans to go to learn more about his own transcendence is questionable. What the audience does know is that Caster never seems to want to stop his quest.

Why Is the Movie Titled "Transcendence"?

The idea of thought, particularly passed from a human being to a machine, is the main reason for the name of this film, and it is especially important after Caster is shot for saying that man has always tried to create its own god. As Dr. Caster passes his own mind and thoughts into a computer, he enables the machine to think and have human emotions. This allows the machine to move from physical vulnerability and mortality to a different form, one that offers endless durability and knowledge.

The title of the film transparently refers to Caster, who begins as a mortal then inhabits an online realm as a computer who has human feelings and personality. Caster, in his reincarnated state, exists only as a digital image on a screen, which begs a few questions. Is it okay for computers to become human beings? Is it acceptable for computers to become supreme to human beings, the beings who created the computers in the first place? Just like the protesters of Caster implied, is it moral for a computer to play God? The movies brings forth all of these questions.

"Transcendence" stars Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, the mastermind behind the computer with human intelligence. Rebecca Hall plays his wife. Paul Bettany plays Caster's best friend, who is kidnapped by anti-technology extremists. Jack Paglen wrote the film, and Wally Pfister directed it.

With a tagline of "Yesterday Dr. Will Caster Was Only Human," the viewer must watch the film in order to see why transcendence means he is no longer human, at least not in the Homo sapiens form.