the imaginative conservative logo

Black Mirror succeeds at making viewers consider the ways humanity is being changed by technology. In its last season, the show considered the idea of uploading consciousness into a computer-generated world. But can the soul be reduced to a collection of data in this way?……

Apparently starved for new ideas, the popular science-fiction television series Black Mirror in its last season fell into the habit of recycling ideas from older seasons. Granted, this will happen, particularly with science fiction, where original ideas are rare, and realizing those ideas in a compelling manner is even rarer.

Up to this point, Black Mirror could distinguish itself for treating various social and technological issues successfully, making science fiction serious and relevant again. The show’s writers took up issues like the hypocrisy behind social networking (“Nosedive”), the oppressiveness of popular entertainment (“Fifteen Million Merits”), populism fueled by technology (“The Waldo Moment”), and even a virtual afterlife (“San Junipero”). Without resorting to aliens, superpowers, or cheap comedy, every episode of Black Mirror succeeded at some level, drawing in the audience and making viewers think of the ways humanity is changing with each new device.

In its last season, however, the show became stuck on one idea: that of uploading consciousness into a computer-generated world. “San Junipero” in the third season posed this question: If a person could upload his consciousness into a happy virtual world when he dies, would he? Despite the numerous accolades critics heaped upon this particular episode—probably for the sake of progressive virtue-signaling since the show featured a lesbian couple hoping to make their love permanent in a virtual afterlife—the episode might disappoint those wanting to know how exactly one’s soul can exist outside the body and in a machine. The show assumes that this is merely a matter of funneling a person’s brainwaves into a coin-sized disc that stores a soul and plugs into a supercomputer, simulating an everlasting virtual reality.

To be fair, many science-fiction stories use this idea and fall short in explaining how this becomes possible. Isaac Asimov’s best short story, “The Last Question,” predicts humans uploading their souls into an everlasting supercomputer and charts the results over so many millions of years. The Matrix added some kung fu and slow-motion bullets into the mix, but again made the same assumption that humans could upload their souls in a computer-generated world, the “Matrix,” and not even tell the difference. Black Mirror simply follows suit and makes variations on the idea: love in a virtual world, punishment in a virtual world, war in a virtual world, or divinity in a virtual world.

While this uploading-souls-into-cyberspace scenario is a fun thought experiment, allowing viewers to reconsider what they think of as reality, it has actually done real (not virtual) harm to the popular definition of the soul. Many people, including some of the most intelligent and educated, really think the soul is a collection of data that can be put in one body as well as another.

Even Descartes, who infamously separated the soul and body when meditating his philosophy, did not reduce the soul this way. Rather, he separated the soul in order to show its superior virtues in comparison with its vessel, the body, which could malfunction or deteriorate over time. Knowing the soul’s spiritual nature, and even recognizing the body’s miraculous capacity to cooperate with the soul, he knew that the soul could not exist independent of the body.

By claiming that the soul can exist in a lifeless object like a computer reduces the soul to a material thing; it assumes that it is nothing more than the mere accumulation of data and program commands. Consequently, there is no non-material eternal soul beyond the body, but a complex set of functions inside the ultimately limited corporeal brain.

Without giving it much thought, atheists of the “scientific” variety have quickly accepted this definition, gleefully denying the existence of the soul altogether. Those like Sam Harris or Steven Pinker have instead invested their hopes in understanding human behavior through neuroscience. They painstakingly chart various flares of brain activity in order to pinpoint where humans make their decisions, and chalk up every new insight of humanity to evolution. In their view, artists like Shakespeare and Caravaggio simply acted on impulses developed over millennia, creating what appear to be masterpieces, but are in fact creative accretions of collective evolutionary psychology.

One might also wonder what these otherwise brilliant individuals consider of their own narratives and philosophies. Do they really think that the many books they write and speeches they give result from organic programming?

To a question like that, they may spew out some nonsensical academic/scientific cirumlocutions that somehow explain how a person can nonetheless act independently within a deterministic framework. Indeed, this is precisely what they do when insisting on a moral way of living despite technically lacking free will. Logical consistency would maintain that morality cannot exist if acting immorally only displays a malfunctioning brain, not a soul turning away from objective truth and goodness. Therefore, one cannot judge people as moral agents, but only their brains, which did not enjoy the same cognitive advantages as these outspoken moral atheists.

Theologically (and materialist atheism ironically tends to have its own quirky theology), assuming a material soul brings about certain conclusions about the universe. Even if God and the soul do not exist, a powerful thinking machine (the human brain) does; and if humans reach a point where they can create machines even more powerful processors and memories—which is all the soul seems to be—they can essentially create computer gods. Software engineers from Google and Stephen Hawking now harbor real fears about a computer overlord who will master the human race. For them, artificial intelligence with self-awareness and an individual will is not just a possibility but an impending inevitability.

Computer overlords aside, one might easily see the appeal of viewing the soul as a collection of neurons responding to biological programming that has evolved over billions of years. It offers many apparent solutions to the problems that result from sin. All issues, from hunger, to depopulation, to war, to modernist malaise, can be cured through clever engineering—human beings can hack their own psychologies and fix the glitches. For every bad feeling, there is a pill or therapy; for every disagreement, there is a bureaucratic solution; for every search for meaning, there is a scientist with a theory.

Perhaps the best Black Mirror episode from its last season that demonstrates this fanciful optimism in the power of technology to solve age-old human problems is “Hang the DJ.” In this episode, all the men and woman pair up with one another at the behest of a computer, telling them whom to date and how long they will be with that person. Sometimes couples stay together for a few days, or a few years, but after so many pairings and test-runs, the computer determines the statistically perfect spouse for them to live with permanently.

Many might view this episode with amusement, noting how futile and absurd it is that people resort to algorithms to find love, but many might see this as the happy conclusion of so many personality tests and dating websites that attempt to do this very thing. After all, if the soul is a collection of data denoting likes, dislikes, and regularly fluctuating temperaments, then a computer should be able to process all this data and make infinitely more informed choices than a mere human brain subject to circumstances and irrational biases.

Those with common sense—a dwindling minority, to be sure—should resist the temptation to believe in this new iteration of positivism, the nineteenth-century philosophy that believed that science and engineering could solve all life’s problems, which in turn led to the creation of social sciences. Contrary to the science-fiction writers and neuroscientists who firmly deny the soul, the soul does exist. Much like Genesis and Aristotle suggest, the soul animates the body, and the rational soul gives human beings the power to think, judge, and act independently.

Predicting that individuals can upload their souls into a computer or that computers can develop souls themselves is like predicting that putting the right combination of rocks together and zapping them a couple of times will produce life—which scientists have tried. Only God can create souls; human beings and their robot creations only create matter. Even a quantum supercomputer that cracks every mathematical mystery can never make the choice to do otherwise. They follow their programming; they do not have the free will to sin and override their own natures.

Unfortunately, this leaves humanity back where it started, quite literally, coping with freedom and facing morality and God’s judgment. No matter what popular entertainment suggests, material technology cannot make a dent in spiritual problems. People need religion for this. They need prayer and a God Who listens. And they need to embrace the spiritual life and stop reducing their souls to calculation hardware.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
1 reply to this post

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: