The Philosophy of Science Fiction and the Self
How Sci-Fi Helps answer our deepest question: Who are "you"?
By Michael Kane
Science fiction gave us robots, now we have machines in factories and Rumbas in our homes. Science fiction gave us artificial intelligence, now we have IBM’s Watson on Jeopardy! and Siri in our phones. Science fiction gave us communicators on our wrists, and now we have the Apple Watch. Science fiction gave us these, and now we have... these.
Science fiction plays a critical role in scientific discovery. It sets the framework for the hypotheses and experiments, portraying a final product after which science follows. In decades past we’ve seen micro and macro technological leaps first “prophesied” in science fiction: artificial intelligence, intergalactic space travel, flying cars, and alien life, are all topics in real-world science that have been shaped by fiction.
So how, how does this prophecy happen? It all begins in a creative place in our minds. It’s the same place that we experience wonder and curiosity. It’s the place in us where a kid dreams of going to Mars, then pursues a career at NASA to actually go to Mars. For the entire course of human history this has happened, as man’s knowledge of the world and the universe has grown. But what fiction does is provide us the language to form these ideas. It makes manifest something between concept and reality, that may be only purely fiction, but sets the scientific mind into wondering how it could actually be made real.
The latest trend in science fiction narratives have done just the same, entering even more ethereal territory: The realm of human consciousness.
Embodiment may be a new topic for motion pictures, but not for intellectuals. Ever since the Enlightenment it has been openly discussed among the greatest thinkers in the world: Descartes in the 1600’s exclaiming the cornerstone of modern Western philosophy “I think, therefore I am.” And for millennia prior, it has been discussed in some form or fashion as far back as Plato’s Republic.
In recent years we have formed a visual language to understand embodiment in narrative film/television. This trend really broke onto the scene with The Matrix, and has become prominent in more recent films like Blade Runner 2049, Annihilation, and even the darkly funny and legitimately terrifying Get Out. It most prominently stood out to me in Netflix’s recent series Altered Carbon.
The visual language of embodiment has allowed these stories to approach existential topics like incarnation, id and ego, self-creation, and self-destruction on a scientific level. Altered Carbon’s premise essentially asks the question: Exactly how do we continue our selves once our physical bodies have died?
Get Out is more outwardly talking about racism, but does so from a place which separates Self from Body. It plays with the idea of white jealousy over the stereotypical black superiority in physical gifts. Basically a bunch of rich, old white people enslave a bunch of young, fit African American men to be the white person’s new body, using an operation which transfers the consciousness of the white person into the powerful African American body.
And like good science fiction, both imply a moral question: Is this right? Think how the Terminator franchise is a cautionary tale asking whether artificial intelligence a good thing or not. Or how Alien is a worst-case scenario of what happens when we ride our scientific high-horse forward with reckless abandon. Get Out pretty explicitly considers this psychological slavery, but perhaps skips over the deeper question which is touched on in Altered Carbon. That deeper question is this: Are our physical bodies separate from our Self? Forgive me if I have become that pretentious philosophy classmate I found so annoying in college.
The visual language of embodiment has allowed these stories to approach existential topics like incarnation, id and ego, self-creation, and self-destruction on a scientific level.
Get Out simply asks, “Isn’t it terrible how they’re using this idea to continue slavery?” While the procedure in that film is the transference of consciousness, the original person (the black man) isn’t completely overtaken. They get buried in a sort of void, presumably beneath the occupier’s consciousness. This is what resurfaces at the flash of a camera. Terrible as it may be, it’s base question may be too shallow.
Altered Carbon wears its morality more prominently on its sleeve, though that morality is predominantly grey: It shows the sensual excess that would logically come from a physically “freed” culture. Though it suggests there may be something wicked about treating bodies like clothes (“sleeves” is the exact term used in the show). The presence of the “Neo-Catholic” subculture, which rejects use of sleeves and embraces the natural born-live-die-and-that’s-it life-cycle of humans, suggests an awareness that our physical bodies might be more closely tied to our Self than we think. In fact, the extensive nudity feels like an attempt to celebrate the beauty of the human form, though admittedly not always tastefully done.
Our physical bodies might be more closely tied to our Self than we think.
It’s tempting to skip over the question “is it right?” to consider our Self separate, or at least superior to, our Body for one primary reason: Death. Death is first and foremost physical. That which is “us” beyond the Body becomes limited only by that physical death, not by a death on it’s own. Our mind, our ego, our subconscious, our “Self” maintains its presence even as we physically deteriorate or experience physical damage. (Please note: Psychological damage is a real and scary thing, too, though it deserves an entirely separate article on it’s own).
Any science fiction that provides a means of escaping Death is, therefore, incredibly tempting to pursue. In Altered Carbon, as long as consciousness is digitized (which is held on a disk inserted into the different sleeves), a person essentially lives forever. Now, this is fiction, but it has given us something mind-bending to strive after.
Our mind, our ego, our subconscious, our “Self” maintains its presence even as we physically deteriorate or experience physical damage.
But should we strive after it? My short answer is this: Our Body is inseparable from our Self, therefore to continue Self while leaving the Body is a fundamental error in the approach to any science beyond it. Yeah, you’ll want to read that sentence again more slowly.
The desire to separate Body and Self has a foundation in Eastern thinking. Buddhism’s core tenant is a separation from physical attachment and physical stimuli, to achieve the higher sense of Being, which is Nirvana. But the problem present there is that it maintains a superiority of Self/Spirit/Soul over physical Body.
In a Christian context, physical death is not the end of our Selves, or even our physical Bodies. We can debate the particulars of what that “afterlife” is like, but the Christian worldview is the only worldview that acknowledges the physical world as equal to that spiritual one. In the Christian narrative, God made the physical universe and called it all “good” and after that (emphasis on the after) the Fall of Man happened and the Universe was broken by sin.
More importantly, Jesus Christ was physically incarnated. God became Man with a real, literal, physical body. He felt hunger, thirst, tiredness, stiffness, He relieved himself like the rest of us, He developed in a womb, was born an infant, grew as a kid to be a certain height and a certain weight, that weight fluctuated as naturally occurs in humans. He had a literal heartbeat that pumped blood and oxygen to real cells, and He physically died when that heartbeat stopped. He was God in the fullest sense alongside this, but there was nothing about Him in His incarnation that was less than what we are now. And of utmost importance, He was resurrected physically and literally. He did not just resurrect spiritually (for His Body would have still been in the tomb), He did not just redeem our souls and promise an immaterial existence of life in metaphorical clouds. No, He redeemed our physical bodies, assuring physical resurrection from the dead. Certainly the details of how that will happen are to be determined (we didn’t exactly get a full scientific treatise of how it went down in the Gospel or how it will go down in Revelations).
He redeemed our physical bodies, assuring physical resurrection from the dead.
All this to say, science fiction has continued to establish a language with which science will pursue to seemingly fantastical results. Scientific communities will do what they always have done, and attempt to make the greatest in science fiction a reality. For better or for worse, for real or not, that’s the direction science fiction has pointed us.