Let’s get existential for a bit!
One particular thing that has stood out to me lately is the emphasis on the concept of the human soul across “nerd” fiction.
My first encounter with the idea came with Jonathan Hickman’s House of X/Power of X miniseries, followed by Ernest Cline’s follow-up Ready Player Two, and most recently the latest installment into the Sword Art Online franchise.
I wanted to take a look at the three versions and discuss the science fiction approaches to the idea of the soul.
X-Men: In this miniseries we learn that mutants have not only struck a deal with the living island of Krakoa to form a new home for their kind, but have also approached innovative uses of their abilities to basically create immortality.
By taking five mutants with powers of healing/regeneration, time acceleration, egg creation, reality warping, and snychronization, mutants have learned to hatch identical physical copies of their bodies.
Cerebro, the famous mutant detection machine of Xavier, is now used as a psyche backup system to store the thoughts, memories, and personalities of all mutants. Once the egg hatches and the mutant’s body is “born” the backup of the mind is uploaded into the husk and thus rebirth occurs.
The first question to this approach is, is what makes us us nothing more than our physical appearance along with our memories and personality? Though that can be replicated, what becomes to the version deceased? Is it really a transfer of ones soul?
Ready Player Two: An alright sequel to the first installment. Where it most caught my attention as a reader came at the book’s conclusion. After gathering pieces of the “siren’s soul” the heroic team learns that what they have gathered is the “soul” replica to the one true love of the creator of the Oasis. By using updated VR devices that were introduced to the world, humanity was not aware that they were constantly creating copies and updating their soul (like cerebro).
What Parzival could now do is two things; one, he could create a digital copy of a person in the Oasis with the backup files, and, technically, bring them back from the dead into the Oasis with the same back up file once their physical selves had died.
He essentially copies every Oasis user’s self, including his own, and uploades them into a space ship carrying human embryos traveling to a distant planet to restart humanity. As they are digital version of themselves, they do not need food, sleep, or water. They are the AI that runs the ships indefinetly.
Sword Art Online: The third season of the popular anime introduced us to the fluctlight; the portion of the human brain that is responsible for the soul. A company has learned how to digitally copy the fluctlight into data and thus, artificial intelligence much like RP2.
The issue these scientists encounter however is that since the “soul” is an exact copy of the human, once it digitally goes active it begins to panic swearing it is the original copy. This causes the digital file to malfunction and go offline. In other words, “top down” AI creation, or copy of an adult psyche, is not possible without a system crash.
What the scientists then do is to copy the fluctlight of babies and upload them into a blank virtual world known as the Underworld. There they have been raised and have established their own society in accelerated time under the servailance of the company.
What all three of these ideas share is that they are all scientific explanations for what makes us ourselves and eliminates the spiritual component of the self as well. In each version these reincarnation systems are nothing more than copies of the original. In other words, the actual replication or regeneration of the self is not possible.
Personally, there is no doubt in mind that some day science will evolve to the point that it will learn how to digitize human consciousness. I am sure of it. Once this happens it could very well mean not only the creation of artificial inteligence but immortality. However, it is immortality at a price.
Like all three fiction examples, the eternal life can only be done by the copy and not the original. Meaning, a replication will be the one to carry our identities on.
Or will they?
Something that Ready Player Two makes clear and Sword Art Online without direct address, is that though a copy can be made of ones “soul” it is only an exact copy for a moment. Eventually, both versions of the self will go through different experiences, traumas, choices, and conclusions. Meaning over time your copy, though it may look like you, will be its own individual with its own agenda and ideas.
So is that really the soul? Does this eliminate the possibility of the soul being real? Or does it make it concrete that the soul is something beyond our ego and identity. Perhaps our soul is nothing more and nothing less than the very life force that lets us breathe? It cannot be recycled nor are WE the individual really the soul…
I think Ready Plaer Two left enough room for another installment to follow the digitized copies. As for X-Men, we are still in the process of addressing these questions of resurecction and a new X-title focusing around Nightcrawler will seek to answer more of them.
For now, I am curious if other authors and creatives are addressing the conversation around the soul and what conclusion they are drawing in respect to it.