Wally Pfister’s “Transcendence” is a pretty good science fiction thriller with some solid acting and a promising plot. It also slightly suffers from some pacing issues, underdeveloped characters, and a rather silly ending. The premise (and title) of the film centers on what futurist Ray Kurzweil has coined “The Singularity”. This is the moment in which artificial intelligence (AI) will have surpassed the capacity of human intelligence.
Kurzweil predicts this will actually take place by the year 2045. “Transcendence” investigates how that event could potentially play out; that is, if you even buy into the premise of the film at all.
“Transcendence” begins with a prologue, that is technically an epilogue, where we listen to a rather somber narration by Max Waters (Paul Bettany) foreshadowing the events that are about to take place. Max is walking around what appears to be a city entirely off the grid, no technology and no electricity. So, basically, it’s like Portland! He reflects on what his friends Will and Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) have done to bring the world to the brink. But what have they done exactly?
Will is a science celeb working on P.I.N.N. (Physically Independent Neural Network) an AI prototype that somehow proves it’s self-aware by answering questions with a question. Evelyn is also a computer scientist who, when she needs to be, is just as capable as Will in developing AI. That is, after Will is faced with imminent death via radiation poisoning from a radical group known as R.I.F.T., Evelyn decides to upload Will’s consciousness into P.I.N.N. She employs Max’s help and begins the slow process of uploading. But once R.I.F.T. tracks her down she is forced to connect Will to the internet where he can survive without a mainframe.
The movie picks up when Max begins to doubt the identity of Digit-Will. By the way, this is the six million dollar question that the audience is meant to ask themselves: Is it really Will or just a “digital approximation,” as Max calls it? Evelyn doesn’t seem to care as she’s more focused on keeping her husband around as long as possible; and R.I.F.T. and a few others, like Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and Agent Buchanan (Cilian Murphy), are all trying to stop what Digit-Will is setting out to accomplish. I won’t bother giving away what that goal is (but if you saw “Noah” I’m sure you can guess). What I’m more concerned with are the theological and philosophical implications of this movie.
It is always a good thing when filmmakers set out to elicit intellectual and/or philosophical questions on certain issues. And the filmmakers of “Transcendence” implicitly pose some good questions throughout the film. Questions like: Does “can” imply “ought”? That is, just because someone can do something does that mean it ought to be done? What is the effect of technology on humanity? Are there any unintended consequences of fully merging humans and technology? And, as previously mentioned: How do we know Digit-Will is human Will? I am surprised, however, that some more fundamental questions were not asked, like: What is consciousness? And, is it even possible to upload a person’s consciousness into a computer?
The film already presupposes that artificial intelligence can be “conscious”. And what I mean by “conscious” is the ability to have those mental properties like beliefs, intentionality, subjectivity, etc. So, in terms of dealing philosophically with AI and consciousness, the film falls horribly flat since it never takes the time to investigate those issues. As a matter of fact it seems like the filmmakers have already concluded that, whatever identity the computer really is, it’s conscious. But this assumption trades on the view that all things, including the mind, are nothing more than physical matter. That is, our thoughts, beliefs, intentions, etc. are the product of physical events located in the brain.
Take note of this, Christians. For, if this is the case, then everything the Bible has to say about the soul is false.
Jesus clearly drew a distinction between the body and the soul in Matthew 10:28 when He said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul…” The apostle Paul noted that we can “be absent from the body and… be at home with the Lord…” (2 Corinthians 5:8). In other words there are two distinct substances that consist of our selves in this life: the soul and the body. The body is the material aspect of our selves and the soul is the immaterial aspect. Of note is a scene where Joseph and Agent Buchanan are putting together what Digit-Will is planning. Joseph says, “Clearly [Will’s] mind has evolved so radically.” This is to suggest that, since the mind is simply an aspect of the physical brain, then it can evolve rapidly with more resources at its disposal. But that’s nonsense.
Look at it this way: if physicalism is true then the mind is identical to the brain and we are nothing more than bodies without souls. Conversely, if physicalism is not true then the mind is not identical to the brain and we have souls. Christians can conclude that the latter is true via a brief thought experiment: Imagine that an expert on the neurology of hearing also happens to be deaf. This expert knows every physical fact about the brain pertaining to the act of hearing. But suppose this expert, one day, began to hear for the very first time. He would immediately learn some new facts that he never knew before – the subjective quality of what it is like to hear. Since these subjective mental facts are not identical to physical facts then the mind is not identical to the brain; and, therefore, physicalism is false.
By the way, the apostle Paul affirms this subjective nature of mental events when he said, “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him” (2 Corinthians 2:11)? Think about neuroscientific experiments on the brain. A neuroscientist can watch every physical event in the brain while you are having a particular thought. But he can never know what that thought is until you decide to tell him. This is another way of expressing the subjective nature of the mind. Only you know what your thoughts are.
So there is a distinct difference between our minds and bodies. Our minds are immaterial substances while our brains are physical. So it makes no sense to say that our brain activity can somehow be uploaded to a computer and magically turned into thoughts, beliefs, intentions, etc. This is a long way of saying that the premise of “Transcendence” is utterly false.
Now that we know this, we can watch the movie for what it is: a throwback to the 1950s science fiction, popcorn paranoia films. That is, the future singularity is as likely as an alien landing in front of our military and proclaiming, “Klaatu barada nikto!” Once that pesky question of whether “Transcendence” could actually happen vanishes, the movie can be appreciated for the aforementioned questions it raises. And also for the solid performances by Depp and Bettany.
This review was originally posted on Let There Be Movies.