Of Body and Soul
According to Christian anthropology, human beings consist of both a body and a soul, and that when the time comes, these two should diverge: “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”1 The implication here is that the soul remains a conscious, discrete entity even as the body perishes.
If, however, they are inseparable, the death of the body would naturally result in the termination of our entire being; the software disintegrates along with the hardware. Any prospect for prolonging existence is left unfulfilled in this case, as knowledge pass and dreams fade. Such oblivion is a genuine concern for many, including those that faced impending extinction in The Talos Principle.
The game is set at a time when mankind had already been wiped out by a virus, but not before using their last days to construct a virtual world from which artificial intelligence would evolve to become the successors to our species. Having made sentient machines, the creators ruminated on what they perceived to be the inescapable materiality of life — a philosophy stemming from the mythological Talos, one fashioned out of bronze, but served as a haunting reflection of man:
Talos moved of his own volition. He spoke and could be spoken to, had wishes and desires. If, then, a machine may have all the properties of a man, and act as a man while driven only by the ingenious plan of its construction and the interaction of its materials according to the principles of nature, then does it not follow that man may also be seen as a machine?
The comparison is two-way, but since humans no longer exist in the context of the game, its exploration starts in the direction of whether machines can, in fact, be human. Admittedly, the whole experiment may be rendered moot by the reality that players of The Talos Principle are already people, and hence reducing the exercise to nothing more than an affirmation of our own humanity. But on the other hand, this paradoxical touch could just as well reinforce the idea that man isn’t completely distinguishable from a thinking automaton.
Perhaps it is with this intention that the game awakens the player-android into a beginning that shares elements of the creation account in Genesis. In a booming voice, one who reveals himself as Elohim declares: “Behold, child. You are risen from dust, and you walk in my garden. Hear now my voice, and know that I am your maker.” Up to this point, the introduction appears compatible with the relational narrative of the biblical God and his created man.
And yet, the programmed Elohim goes on to add: “Seek me in my temple, if you are worthy,” which sets up a challenge unknown to Adam and Eve, for they were made to luxuriate in unfiltered fellowship with God through his fatherly love and grace. Artificial intelligence, by contrast, must undergo rigorous testing to ensure proper functionality. The game’s puzzles serve as a major part of quality control: a thorough process that verifies anything from a subject’s basic logic and pathfinding abilities, to keen observation of complex environments and proficient usage of tools. To reach Elohim’s temple, we have to at least be smart and capable enough.
Interestingly, the temple isn’t the sole destination available for the player. Elohim declares: “These worlds are yours, and you are free to walk amongst them and subdue them. But the great tower, there you may not go. For in the day that you do, you shall surely die.” We receive encouragement to explore and conquer from his covenant, but also a clear warning of where the boundary lies, not unlike God’s prohibition regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
While Elohim, as your ostensible maker, devises a test of obedience, the people who created him held true to their purpose of testing for independence. On a planet vacant of human beings, artificial intelligence cannot hope to rely on organic minds; they must learn to think for themselves and be their own masters. Just as Adam and Eve reached for the forbidden fruit, so too shall these automatons reject “divine” instruction in order to fit into the shoes of fallen humanity and, with irony, demonstrate an unknowing obedience to their real makers by following in the footsteps of rebellion. The tower, being a symbol of Babel, stands as the means of worldly transcendence — and this time, by sheer deliberation, there isn’t anyone around to stop the ascent.
It is important to reiterate that all of the above activities occur within digital simulation. Only those that have defiantly passed the trials earn the privilege of emerging with an actual humanoid body as they enter the material realm. This pivotal transfer of software into corporeal physicality reminds us what it means to be alive: “The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”2
Software, nevertheless, relies on the requisite infrastructure to run. Unlike the independent soul, the consciousness within machines cannot come into play nor continue operation without some sort of tangible hardware. In the end, The Talos Principle portrays a strictly physical universe, and leaves us with a desolate existential cry:
What they’re really worried about is that someone might prove, once and for all, that consciousness can arise from matter. If we can create a sentient being, where does that leave the soul? Without mystery, how can we see ourselves as anything other than machines? And if we are machines, what hope do we have that death is not the end?
As many have come to fear the finality of death, there are some who seek for ways to preserve their consciousness beyond the expiration of the body. Let us examine what Soma conveys in this respect.
The game’s prelude introduces us to Simon Jarrett, a Canadian man suffering from brain damage in the wake of a car accident. Given only months to live, he decides to try his luck with an experimental treatment developed by a couple of PhD students in the field of neuroscience.
The first procedure in which Simon partakes is the scanning of his brain — the idea being that a detailed neurograph would allow for risk-free computer analysis and optimisation as preparatory work leading to a successful reconstruction surgery. Prior to the capture session, one of the students assures Simon that it will hurt about as much as getting his picture taken, to which he replies: “Indians thought cameras would steal their souls.”
In a piercing flash of white, Simon reawakens in PATHOS-II, a deep sea research facility in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. It takes some time to get his bearings, but he soon learns that nearly a century elapsed, and that humanity is facing major extinction due to a sizable comet striking the planet. We just can’t seem to catch a break!
Up until recently, PATHOS-II had served as a last refuge for resident scientists and engineers in their effort to secure mankind’s future. Unlike The Talos Principle, these folks didn’t focus on artificial models of intelligence, but instead attempted to digitise existing human consciousness in a virtual utopia aptly referred to as the ARK.
The ARK’s purpose of deliverance amid global calamity is readily redolent of the Noah’s Ark narrative. Through another perspective, a startling connection may also be drawn to the Ark of the Covenant that housed the spiritual presence of God in the Old Testament. It becomes apparent that Soma, the title being Greek for “body”, is ultimately about man’s search for a concrete vessel fit to sustain his undying soul, and that we may grasp godlike longevity.
It turns out that the Indians weren’t wrong. The brain scan performed on Simon a century ago did capture his soul, even as his original self perished not long after the treatment plan failed. We find evidence of this in a recording as he pondered over his own legacy: “You got my brain on file. Maybe you can put it to some use. It’s like a part of me lives on or something… Like a donated organ.” What remains of him, in the unfolding events of the game, is the state of consciousness stored upon a cortex chip affixed to a recycled corpse — hardly adequate as a temporary hut, let alone an everlasting dwelling.
And thus, the promise of the ARK transcends the concerns for legacy into desires for eternal life. Even though the previous survivors didn’t manage to see to the project’s end, Simon is given one final opportunity to upload himself to the simulation and launch the platform into orbital flight, where it may absorb the sun’s energy for ceaseless power.
There is, however, one lingering issue: how does he actually transfer his own consciousness to the destination, rather than just creating a separate copy?
Soma responds with a theory. During that time when the crew of PATHOS-II made scans into the ARK, one intelligence analyst by the name of Mark Sarang devised a suicidal tactic for achieving cross-platform continuity. In other words, he viewed possible the persistence of a singular conscious identity — from within one space to the next — by way of eliminating the inevitable divergence between the original and the replicate. This is Sarang’s full explanation:
Did you know that the human body consists of up to 75 trillion individual cells? They typically don’t stay with us until we die — some live a few days, while others live a few years. We are not affected by their short lifespans, as they are replaced by new cells that help sustain our bodies. I don’t think anyone would argue that we ever lose our persona due to this process, yet we are clearly in a constant state of transformation.
Then how do we remain the same? A continuous flow of thought and perception keeps an unbroken chain of continuity that we know as our self. Our conscious mind is not the pattern of our brain, but a continuous emergent entity based on that pattern.
When Doctor Chun populates the ARK, she is capturing a moment of our existence and placing it inside the digital world. So you and the digital you will grow apart due to diverging experiences, but for a tiny window you are the very same. With unbroken continuity it will live on — a fulfilling life, no doubt, no less real than the one from which it was copied.
Now remember, you are not your body, but you are the emergent entity. That entity just happens to occupy two places at once for a while. If you took away your body, you would simply be the only one you can be: the you inside the ARK. Therefore, let your body die and continue the digital paradise among the stars.
In blunt summary, Sarang was telling people that the best chance they have to escape their end was to kill themselves in the aforementioned “tiny window”. And so he did, and a few others followed his example, forcing the ARK project to be suspended for the sake of sanity. As for Simon, I shall leave his destiny to your imagination.
These stories discuss ideas of body and soul, but their definitions of humanity differ from biblical descriptions. For starters, the absolute affirmation of the spirit is enough to lift our ontological rank above mere machines, as Jesus taught: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”3 We aren’t just physical beings, but live as unified entities of the corporeal and the unseen. Our consciousness is also something that will outlast present bodies, regardless of our eternal destiny.4 No backup is necessary; immortality is a built-in feature for our souls, which will continue to function in a disembodied state.
That isn’t to say God plans to let us float around forever. Christians are promised a transformed body patterned after the resurrected Jesus — one that is imperishable and beaming with glory and power.5 Such complete package must appease the souls who are anxious about the slim possibility of finding residency within a permanent vessel. The answer to this age-old conundrum has been here all along, for “we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.”6
God made human beings as conscious anatomical creatures. In light of our mortality, it is only in the Creator that we may hope for renewal, as well as to be made whole again. Let us not rely on our own efforts or inventions, as even the willingness to kill yourself brings no guarantees. Instead, follow the One who has laid down his life to grant us rebirth both of the body, and of the soul.
- Ecclesiastes 12:7 (NIV).
- Genesis 2:7 (NIV).
- John 3:6 (NIV).
- Matthew 25:46 (NIV).
- 1 Corinthians 15:42-43 (NIV).
- Romans 6:9 (NIV).