On Film and Philosophy: Transcendence and the Existence of the Soul

Much more often than many people realize, philosophy is communicated through the art of film, the usual subjects being ethics and metaphysics–the branch of philosophy that deals with the question: What exists? The metaphysical discussion that fascinates me more than any other is the case for and against the existence of an immaterial soul. So, when I became aware of the recent Johnny Depp  film, Transcendence, and the subject matter it addresses, it went to the top of my must-watch movie list. You can see the Transcendence trailer HERE.

In the film, Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is a brilliant,  famous computer scientist working in the field of AI (artificial intelligence). His mission is to develop a truly sentient (self-aware) quantum computer that will transcend the collective intelligence of humanity–a point he calls “the singularity”.  The dual goals being to unlock the secret of human consciousness, what Dr. Caster justifiably calls the “deepest mystery of the universe,” and create a biotechnological utopia on earth.

After an attack from an anti-AI extremist group, Caster is mortally wounded and given only a few weeks to live. His wife–who is also his research and development partner–and his best friend, another researcher, devise a plan to “save” Castor’s life by uploading his consciousness into part of his company’s super-computer. The metaphysical assumption made here is that the human mind is nothing more than–and reducible to–its collection of electrical impulses and stored memories, which a powerful computer system should be able to precisely replicate, thus providing a conduit for a person’s consciousness.

The underlying question that runs throughout the film is whether or not the seemingly self-aware, freely-acting computer entity IS Dr. Will Caster, or if it is just a digital simulation of his consciousness. In other words, is the human self an immaterial entity (a soul), or is it only a mass of electrochemical patterns in the brain that could persist through a non-biological medium? The wife and the best friend have conflicting views on the situation.

Philosophers of mind and neuroscientists have debated the nature of the human person for a very long time. There are strict materialists as well as proponents of an immaterial soul in the higher ranks of each of these disciplines. As much as many materialist scientists would like to make this a scientific question only, it isn’t. To approach it that way is egregiously naive.

Imagine that we eventually develop the AI technology necessary to digitally upload a person’s brain patterns into a computer, every bit identical. This doesn’t involve killing the person, so the biological entity could exist alongside of the computer entity. Suppose, for example, we do this with Stephen Hawking. We scan his brain activity for a period of time and then upload the comprehensive neurological information into a computer capable of running and interpreting the patterns correctly. The obvious questions would be: Which one is Stephen Hawking? Where does his self now reside? Is it only in the body, or is it now in both the body and the machine? Does the computer have self-awareness? If so, who is it?

One major point to understand here is that the self is not divisible or multipliable. Hawking would not be consciously present in both the body and the computer, exercising free agency and thought in both at the same time. When we say “I” in reference to ourselves, by definition we mean a single, whole being. The computer may have an exact copy of Hawking’s brain patterns, but it cannot also house Hawking’s actual self, which resides in his body, experiencing the sensations (sight, touch, sound, etc.) of that body. Once Hawking’s biological body dies, his self doesn’t somehow migrate into the computer. Basically, this demonstrates that the self is not a person’s collective material brain states. Those states could, theoretically, be identically replicated by a machine, yet the machine would not be a second Hawking self. Furthermore, the material brain or the material computer is divisible, meaning it could be physically broken up into parts. You could remove a percentage of Hawking’s brain, but that would not remove a portion of Hawking himself. He would still have his whole self; he would still be a complete person in the metaphysical sense. Yet, the brain patterns are theoretically multipliable in the sense of being reproducible.

If it is simply your brain that is conscious, then an exact duplicate of your electrochemical brain activity in this hypothetical quantum computer should also duplicate your consciousness, your self. But first-person introspection is a singular phenomenon. Do we simply deny the existence of the self altogether?

Further compelling support for the existence of an immaterial component is the phenomenon of a person’s intentional brain state manipulation. This can, over time, lead to a physical “rewiring” of the brain itself.  We can consciously choose what to think about, thus manipulating our own brain activity. In other words, we are agents that can consciously change the physical pattern of our neural pathways.

The question arises: Who or what is acting upon the physical brain? It is the self. But because of the law of identity, the self cannot also be the brain. In logic, the law of identity says that for A (the brain) to be identical with B (the self) they have to have all the same properties, no exception. For example, if the self is the agent that desires to think about purple-feathered dinosaurs and then does so, the self is manipulating the electrochemical patterns in the physical brain to visualize a purple-feathered dinosaur. The self is the agent, the physical brain is what the agent is acting upon and what undergoes change. The two cannot be one and the same thing. The agent is not the brain. Note that this is not to say that the brain cannot impact consciousness. This is what happens in psychological disorders–abnormal brain states giving the person false beliefs. But a causal relationship, in one direction or the other, does not indicate they are one and the same thing, and a dependence of one upon the other doesn’t, either.

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a neuroscientist and physician (Buddhist I believe), has written fascinating case studies about this. Experimentation with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) patients has shown that over time, intentionally choosing not to think about a particular thing (the object of the OCD behavior) can eventually change the patient’s neurochemical pathways and drastically reduce the person’s drive to perform the obsessive-compulsive actions. The patient is the conscious agent exercising free will to change the material brain. The brain doesn’t have free will. So, if you give up the concept of the immaterial soul, you give up free will (yes, despite what advocates of emergent consciousness claim).

I won’t spoil the movie for you, and I won’t tell you what philosophical conclusion the characters reach by the end. But I encourage you to check it out along with a few videos on this topic. First, futurist/technologist (and atheist) Ray Kurzweil, whose ideas the film seems to be based upon, has a series of interview videos on the Closer to Truth website. CLICK HERE and then you can scroll to the bottom of Kurzweil’s profile to watch the series of short videos. Next, I encourage you to watch Dr. J.P. Moreland’s lecture on the existence of the soul, which I include here.