Science Fiction and the Hard Problem
The hard problem of consciousness, or the question that examines the relationship between the mind and the body, is one of the most important questions our species has ever asked, and to this day there remains no satisfying answer. It is only natural, then, that there would be a tremendous influence from this philosophical inquiry on the stories that we tell and the means by which we tell them. While there is a tremendous volume of non-fiction work exploring the ontology of the mind, less discussed are the fictional accounts and stories that are heavily intertwined with the ideas that originate in traditional philosophy. A popular example in recent memory is the film Avatar, directed by James Cameron. In order to appreciate the film, one must immediately abandon any physicalist notions of consciousness (at least in the traditional sense). For strict physicalists, the mind exists solely as a combination of material states and can be reduced to the atoms comprising the mind. If this is the case, then upon consciousness transfer between the human and alien bodies, actual death occurs, and this is obviously not the intent of the film (especially when considering the final scene, and how the consciousness transfer is used as a means to avoid death). This, and many other examples, show the back and forth between metaphysics and science fiction. Philosophical inquiry and the sci-fi exploration of those concepts do not exist in a vacuum, rather they are engaging in a conversation that is ongoing to this day. Most importantly, science fiction allows for the elaboration of philosophical ideas in a context that is both accessible and otherwise impossible without the invention and exploration of strange new worlds.
Chalmers, a contemporary philosopher and avid contributor to modern mind-body discussion, said that “there is nothing we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain”.² This is one of many reasons that the hard problem is known as such, and indeed many consider it to be the most difficult question we are even capable of asking simply due to the nature of the question itself. Chalmers provides a concise and accurate definition of the problem, describing it as “the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience.”⁴
The first answer to the question that sparked the modern discourse can be traced back to René Descartes, known for his famous thought experiment in which he created a foundationalist philosophy. In his description of the experiment, he coins the latin Cogito Ergo Sum — translated as “I think, therefore, I am”. Descartes proposed an early form of substance dualism, in which the mind and body interact with one another, but are composed “of different substances”.² “Substance” meaning, in this case and hereafter, the general ontological term for existence within a space (the particulars of existence and space are left for specific interpretation). I.e., when mental substance is said to be delineated from physical substance (as in the case of cartesian dualism), the important thing to understand is that they exist separately (despite being able to interact).
It is common knowledge amongst avid sci-fi fans that any “good” serialized science fiction television show must have at least one “groundhog day” episode. That is, an episode in which one character (or a small amount of characters) experience the same day repeatedly, maintaining their memories while the rest of the world is completely unaware. The most popular work to explore this concept is also its namesake, Groundhog Day, released in 1993 and directed by Harold Ramis. Groundhog Day is a comedy film, but it expresses a strictly Dualist view of the mind-body problem. For the main character to maintain memories outside of the timeline in which he lives, the only way for this to logically work is for there to be someplace else that his memories are being stored. Because everything physically identifiable is “reset” with each passing day, the memories that the main character retains have to reside elsewhere. This concept is explored many times in many different films and series, most recently, Edge of Tomorrow gave a more explicitly science fiction take on the idea, leading to more contemporary discussion on the hard problem, with one film reviewer asking “if there was anyway the plot might work without dualism”.¹² This question can be asked for the iterations of the story that take place in any fictional world that embraces it, but the answer will always be the same as that particular film reviewer concluded: the only way for the story to make any sense is for the main character’s “mind to be separate from” their “body”, being able to “be transported and relinked” with each passing loop.¹²
In contrast to Dualism, popular television franchise Westworld (based on the 1973 film by the same name) expresses an explicitly Physicalist reality in which consciousness is not just able to be quantified by atoms and energy signatures, but by code and modifiable mathematical formulas. Materialists “argue that there is only matter”, but they are often grouped with Physicalists in discussions of the hard problem as Physicalists “include energy” in addition to matter. Despite this, both are essentially arguing for a quantifiable physical reality as the origin of consciousness.⁶ Westworld explores a reality in which we can not only quantify the mind, but can invent and modify new ones. In the Westworld universe, it is often called into question whether or not the “hosts” (robots appearing human, originally developed as sex objects and toys to entertain) are truly sentient. However, this is almost explicitly rejected as a question altogether within the show when a character claims that “there is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts” (seemingly referencing and rejecting both integrated information theory and emergentism), going on to say that “we can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist”.¹⁵ In the context of the explicit rejection of the concept of distinguishable consciousness, and the fact that there appears to be no difference between the hosts and their human counterpoints (at least intellectually), Westworld answers the hard problem fairly explicitly. What mental processes actually look like is irrelevant to physicalists, it may be a combination of matter or it may be something else altogether — but the end result is the same, and that is the reduction of the ontology of the mind to physical, quantifiable processes.
Similarly, in the short story Why The Sky Turns Red When The Sun Goes Down by Ryan Harty, a married couple who is incapable of having children elects to adopt a robotic son. This child is shown to exhibit all the traits of a “normal” human child, but we are made painfully aware of his non-human status when he begins malfunctioning. The couple is then given the option to “repair” their child, enabling them to behave more in-line with societal norms, but the trade off being that the repair would essentially alter the base aspects of their child’s personality.⁷ This is one example among many of the ethical questions that the hard problem forces us to grapple with. If the child is simply a machine, and not truly sentient, is there an ethical duty to preserve its unique attributes? And even if the child is sentient, does altering a consciousness’s physical states (especially under the Physicalist view) alter who that consciousness is?
These questions have no answers, but they serve to remind us of the importance of science fiction’s relationship with philosophy and how it can help us to examine new realms of human experience that could presently only exist in fiction. An ardent example of a philosophical concept that can truly only be explored fictionally is ZombieLand. ZombieLand (2009, directed by Ruben Fleischer), is one zombie film in an ocean of zombie films. I chose ZombieLand specifically because of a quote at the beginning of the film which describes these particular zombies as “hateful”, “violent”, and having a “really really bad case of the munchies”.¹⁶ However, it never explicitly describes these zombies as inhuman, insane, or otherwise mentally other. In fact, these particular zombies seem to simply be victims of a virus that removes control from the decision making center of the brain. Epiphenomenalism posits that we all exist in the same manner as the zombies from ZombieLand. It’s more obvious for the zombies, their physical processes only demand that they kill and consume, but for us non-zombie humans, the Epiphenomenalist view is simply an expansion of this base lack of decisions. With the zombies, it doesn’t appear that they need to make any decisions, but for those of us in the real world (and indeed, the non-zombie characters in Zombieland), Epiphenomenalism says that while we appear to make decisions, it is simply illusory, and we are just like the zombies who have no control over their next actions. The only difference between the zombies and us is that the zombies do not possess a level of consciousness to assume that they are in control, while we possess a level of complexity that almost demands us to believe that we have a say in what happens next.
Neutral Monism lies perhaps directly between physicalism and dualism. It posits that there could very well be a complete substance distinction between mental and physical processes, but that even if this were to be the case, all of these processes would exist within the greater substance. Spinoza would call this greater substance “God”, and this particular theological interpretation of the mind-body problem is known more specifically as Substance Monism.¹⁰ While many rightfully see Monism as an almost cop-out answer to the hard problem, it truly is the only realm of ontology that can accurately describe the extremely varied substance-related stories in the Star Trek universe. At times, Star Trek seems to be a victim of its own success. With decades-long series, hundreds of writers, and thousands of hours of content, maintaining a consistent philosophical view is almost as impossible as maintaining a consistently canonical storyline. In an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, the first officer’s mind is literally removed from his body and exists as a third-person energy being capable of interacting with the world but existing separately.³ It is impossible to have a more dualist take than one in which the mind is literally removed from an intact body.
Yet, in the commonly referred to “transporter problem” (touched upon far before Roddenberry even picked up a pencil, with names like Locke and Leibniz and countless others contributing to variations of the question throughout the eons), Star Trek almost explicitly states that consciousness resides physically within the body. A firm example of this is in Star Trek: The Next Generation in an episode where an entire person is quite literally duplicated through a freak accident of the transporter.¹¹ Everyone in the show then treats both of the duplicated people as human, but if the show was consistent with its dualist approach to the mind (and, with Vulcans and their “Katra”, the soul) then only one of the duplicated people could truly be considered a person.⁸ It would appear, then, that while Star Trek consistently delineates mental substance as separate from physical substance, the two are so heavily intertwined that physical substance duplication also leads to duplication of the mental substance — that is to say, ones soul is transported along with their body, and indeed, is a resultant of the physical despite being able to be separated.⁵ Suffice to say, the show provides enough conflicting evidence for every perspective on the hard problem that the only cohesive option for the Trek universe is a monist perspective that allows for complex and intricate interactions between and through mental substance and physical substance which both must exist within the greater universal substance.
Another excellent example of Monism in science fiction is Isaac Asiimov’s The Last Question. In this story, a number of compounding supercomputers are constructed and posed the question of reversing the net entropy of the universe. Asiimov eventually details the joining of all sentient human beings and the single sentient supercomputer, wherein they exist together in both real space and “hyperspace” (outside of the physical universe, though not explicitly described). Eventually, the single super-consciousness “encompassed all of what had once been a Universe”, and solved the problem of entropy by beginning the universe again.¹ In this wonderfully optimistic short story, humankind is able to quite literally become the substance of the Universe, answering rather succinctly the question of whether or not consciousness as a whole is unique to humans or can be replicated or improved with technology.
One theory about the nature of consciousness stands out as particularly far-fetched. Panpsychism posits that all “material things have awareness or mental properties, however primitive”, and that the level of consciousness is dictated only by the complexity of that matter’s arrangement.² In The Matrix: Reloaded, the Oracle (a computer program) tells Neo (a person plugged into the virtual world) that programs “watch over those trees, and the wind, the sunrise and sunset”.¹⁴ But, it is also elaborated in The Matrix: Revolutions that all the programs in the Matrix not only have sentience, but can feel love. According to the script, “Neo struggles with the idea of a Machine loving another Machine”.¹³ There are many who believe we live in a simulation right now, and if it is possible in the fictional simulation of The Matrix for the program controlling the Sun to love the program controlling the Moon, then perhaps the logical leap to Panpsychism is only impossible if one lacks imagination.
One of the offshoots of Panpsychism that is taken more seriously by the philosophical mainstream is known as Integrated Information Theory, which proposes a gradient scale of consciousness based upon a system’s capacity to “integrate information”. Information can be integrated (under IIT) “if it cannot be localised in any individual part of the system” or “is generated by causal interaction in the whole, over and above the information generated by the parts.” IIT can be seen as very similar to emergentism, which (simply put) posits consciousness as an inevitable end-result to a set of physical properties that are naturally occurring in the human mind (but could occur elsewhere). An example of Integrated Information Theory being touched upon in science fiction is the landmark work Neuromancer by William Gibson. Neuromancer gives us a look at a world in which consciousness can not only be uploaded into a machine environment, but one in which minds can be replicated, and then allowed to exist extraneously to their original physical host. Not only that, but much like in IIT, these personalities can then “grow and develop” into something more than they were originally.⁹ Their consciousness not only exists artificially, but it grows artificially as well. From a copy of a mind or a constructed and entirely artificial mind, new levels of consciousness are able to emerge and develop.
In her Masters Thesis Dissertation, Jade Hagan (now a Ph.D. Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Rice University) explains that Neuromancer gives an excellent framework to explore “Object-Oriented Ontology”, which defines “all entities as objects with withdrawn qualities” and that the novel “challenges conventional ecocentrism” through its portrayal of “boundless connectivity” and “conflation of Artificial Intelligences and humans”.⁶ The relationship between consciousness, technology, and nature is one that is explored heavily in Gibson’s novel, and Hagan goes on to elaborate that the Object-Oriented Ontology present in Neuromancer “resonates” with the aforementioned idea that sentience cannot “be reduced to physical components”.⁶ Furthering the parallels to Integrated Information Theory, Hagan says that a character in the novel “suggests that the blind consciousness of the collective is greater than that of individual consciousness”.⁶ Not only does this bring to mind ITT, but it also elaborates on the fact that many of these theories don’t exist in vacuum within a specific work of fiction (much like Star Trek), and that many authors draw from a number of philosophical ideas to build the worlds in which they tell their stories. In fact, Neuromancer’s elaboration on the subject of consciousness leads Hagan to believe that “Gibson intimates that intelligence is an underlying feature of all things.” — a view that is fundamentally Pansychist. Thus, it would appear that unless authors are incredibly focused on their depiction of the hard problem, some seem to fall into a sort of philosophical-purgatory wherein they explore too many concepts for them to be defined by a single label.
The aforementioned elaborations upon the hard problem by various science fiction thinkers serve as a collective example to the importance of science fiction on both philosophical discourse and educating mainstream society as a whole. For many, reading Descartes’ Meditations may seem to be intimidating, confusing, or simply uninteresting. By weaving tales of triumph, exploration, and love together with philosophical concepts that force one to grasp with the nature of reality, people are exposed to concepts that they may never have been exposed to otherwise. Furthermore, by making philosophy more accessible, new ideas can come from places outside of academic philosophy departments, which can have nothing but a net positive on the greater philosophical conversation that spans the length of our species inhabiting this reality. The conversation between philosophy and science fiction inarguably goes both ways, with sci-fi concepts being adopted in the mainstream philosophical vernacular (most notably the aforementioned transporter problem), but perhaps most important for the bettering of philosophy as a whole is the way in which it allows us to truly explore the ramifications of these ideas and all the possible options for the true nature of our consciousness. Presently, we do not have the ability to create sentient artificial intelligence, but because of works like Neuromancer and Westworld, we at least have an idea of what that world might look like.
- Asimov, Isaac. The Best of Isaac Asimov. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982.
2. Blackmore, Susan J. Consciousness : An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2018.
3. “Cathexis (Star Trek: Voyager).” Wikipedia, April 30, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathexis_(Star_Trek:_Voyager).
4. Chalmers, David J. “The Puzzle of Conscious Experience.” Scientific American 273, no. 6 (December 1995): 80–86. https://doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican1295-80.
5. “Covert Dualism: Science Fiction and the Mind-Body Problem by Jean Braithwaite.” Devilfish Review, August 2, 2016. https://devilfishreview.wordpress.com/issues/issue-seventeen/covert-dualism-science-fiction-and-the-mind-body-problem-by-jean-braithwaite/.
6. Hagan, Jade. “The Dark Ecology of William Gibson’s Neuromancer: Technology, Object-Oriented Ontology, and the Dawning of Entanglement.” scholar.colorado.edu, n.d. https://scholar.colorado.edu/concern/graduate_thesis_or_dissertations/8g84mm569.
7. Harty, Ryan. Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona. Iowa City: University Of Iowa City, 2003.
8. “Katra.” Memory Alpha. Accessed May 17, 2021. https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Katra.
9. “Neuromancer (AI).” William Gibson Wiki. Accessed May 17, 2021. https://williamgibson.fandom.com/wiki/Neuromancer_(AI)#:~:text=Neuromancer%20is%20Wintermute%27s%20sibling.
10. Newlands, Samuel. “Spinoza’s Modal Metaphysics.” Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza-modal/.
11. “Second Chances (Star Trek: The next Generation).” Wikipedia, May 16, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Chances_(Star_Trek:_The_Next_Generation).
12. SelfAwarePatterns. “The Mind / Body Dualism of ‘Edge of Tomorrow.’” SelfAwarePatterns, October 25, 2014. https://selfawarepatterns.com/2014/10/25/the-mind-body-dualism-of-edge-of-tomorrow/.
13. “THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS Tarry and Andy Wachowski.” Accessed May 17, 2021. https://www.scriptslug.com/assets/uploads/scripts/the-matrix-revolutions-2003.pdf.
14. Wachowski, Andy. “THE MATRIX RELOADED.” , 2001. https://www.scriptslug.com/assets/uploads/scripts/the-matrix-reloaded-2003.pdf.
15. “‘Westworld’ Trace Decay (TV Episode 2016) — IMDb.” www.imdb.com. Accessed May 17, 2021. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4458814/characters/nm0000164.
16. “Zombieland Script — Transcript from the Screenplay And/or Woody Harrelson Movie.” www.script-o-rama.com, n.d. http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/z/zombieland-script-transcript-zombies.html.