Transcendence

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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.

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“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.

3 thoughts on “Transcendence

  1. “and a rather silly ending.”

    Oh, how I disagree. I am a brother in Christ- Jesus is the lover of my soul, and I as one who seeks to be a missionary, I mean no ill. But please allow me to disagree with some of your opinions, which I feel are very stereotypical ones that lack research. I feel so often these days, Christians are either secular and tech-savvy, or conservative and anti-tech. :(

    “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?” (Logan)

    Well, one story much less movie cannot tackle all the questions in the universe, and there are other stories that more directly tackle the question of can a person be uploaded into a computer (though, I think this movie poses the question quite aptly of- even if a person is uploaded into a computer, how will we really know it is them? Some will be convinced it is not, some will be convinced it is).

    “. 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. ”
    I belive that the movie makes a clear choice to focus on some specific things. You seem to expect this movie to be a dissertation of some sort- really, do you expect an 8 hour movie? A good movie has to be focused and to the point – this movie chooses its point very specifically, some key topics, and hones in on them while brushing against other topics.

    “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.”
    I call you on this! I think you lack proper scientific understanding. I am a devout Christian, conservative – I believe the Bible is the living word of God. But I also do not believe that we can reduce what God has created into such simplistic ideas that most of us seem to have – science is, in my opinion, man’s attempt to understand God’s creation, and there have been many Christian scientists throughout history. God IS the creator, and He gave us this urge and gift. We are discovering quantum mechanics and realising that, somehow, an electron can be in two places at once- philosophy and science meet, and you get some pretty incredible things happening that almost appear like magic (as we see in this movie). But it isn’t magic- it is the world God made. The Bible gives us what we need to know for the purposes of salvation – it never purports to contain everything.

    While our purpose on this Earth is not to learn everything, but rather, to bring other to Christ, I do believe God, the creator, who made us in His likeness, gave us a desire to investigate and create as well. I think you are boxing up science via ignorance and making Christians looks bad. I believe God created the Heavens and the Earth, and while I don’t know exactly how He did it- I know that we’re only touching on the amazing ‘science’ that HE used.

    I belive the mind -can- evovle more rapidly with more resources at its disposal : look at the Garden of Eden, and the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. People are born with all levels of intelligence, and I believe this is a physical property – it differs from the soul. You CAN increase and evolve intelligence, and if we were capable of offering a new platform it could effect us on the physical side. We have a spiritual and physical balance – I’ve noticed how medication can effect my brain chemistry, which effects how I feel, which effects my view of the world, and everything. I think too many people lean too far to either extreme- either extreme science, or extreme spirituality, but God is in the middle.

    As for your reference in Corinthians, you got it wrong. Are you really a professional blogger? It is 1 Corinthians 2:11, NOT 2 Corinthians 2:11 “so that Satan will not outsmart us. For we are familiar with his evil schemes.” I don’t suppose this is an ironic warning? Are you using this movie review as a platform to get a philosophical opinion out that has nothing to do with the movie really?

    ” 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” … for now. That may soon no longer be the case, if you keep up with your science, which I do not think you do (watch more Morgan Freeman “Through the Wormhole” episodes, read Wired and Popular Science some too)

    ” 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.”

    Our minds are full of electrical activity, and which involves electrons, my dear Watson. If you know anything about new physics, and things like quantum physics, you will thus also know that this means that there is a scientific basis for the idea of things like quantum computers (shown in this movie) and more. Our is physical but acts like a computer, it creates a neural network- and that neural network has a magnetic field, and electricity, and electricity has electrons… and quantum physics kick in.

    I’m not saying I know how it all works. But I am saying, for you to over-simplify it makes us Christians look stupid. The premise of transendence is hardly false.

    Is it the right direction to go? Neither am I saying that – because the wrong person could misuse it. However, I think this movie shows us that it is WE who are our own enemy, not technology. Our own paranoia and suspicion, our fear of what we do not understand, will hurt us.

    The Bible teaches us to reach out and show love, to trust first – and if we get hurt for it? So what- Jesus died on the cross. Stop living in little Christian bubbles, and start living Christ OUT!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Coroloro, and for the opportunity to discuss! I understand your concerns but I’m going to give you some push back on your disagreement with the review, if that’s okay.

    First, since you’re familiar with quantum mechanics then you know that the point of view you offered is assuming that the Copenhagen interpretation of QM is true. But what you didn’t mention is that Copenhagen is one of many interpretations that all work out mathematically, and no one knows (as many scientists have admitted) which is accurate. The problem with taking the Copenhagen view is that there is no explanation for why subatomic particles act indeterminately while macro level structures do not. I think a more reasonable position to take on QM is to suggest that Bohm was right and indeterminacy is epistemological rather than ontological. In other words, the “mystery” of QM is in our own understanding at this point in time, not that subatomic particles appear and disappear like “magic” since, if that were the case, whole objects like the moon should pop in and out of existence at random (as Einstein famously pointed out).

    Second, your characterization of the review’s disagreement with neuroscience (and the film) — as a simplification from ignorance — is a misdiagnosis, as it were. The philosophical arguments against the idea that the mind is the brain are not only valid but lay the groundwork for a correlative relationship (not equivocal) between the mind and the brain. You mentioned Wired and Morgan Freeman. That’s great that you pay attention to their ideas. But I would respectfully challenge you to see the arguments against their conclusions (from the likes of J.P. Moreland, Charles Taliaferro, Richard Swinburne, Biola CCT, Thomas Nagel, etc.) before deciding that the mind is a physical substance.

    Third, it’s a little unclear but it appears that you’re suggesting that the brain and the mind are physical and the soul is not. If you are suggesting a form of substance dualism but just drawing the metaphysical line between the physical mind and the immaterial soul (as opposed to the immaterial mind from the physical brain) then I’d say you agree with the review more than you think. Let’s grant, for argument’s sake, that your view is correct. The question then becomes: If the physical mind dies with the physical body (as the physical always does at God’s appointed time) then we’re left with (under your view) an eternal soul that has no thoughts, intentions, beliefs, etc., a spiritual zombie-ism that the Bible in no way (when it discusses the afterlife) describes. A solution to this problem would be then to draw the metaphysical line between the mind (that contains all mental events described in the review) and the physical body (which contains the physical brain)… which is exactly what the review has done.

    So there you have it, Coroloro. Some friendly push back from a fellow believer. Thanks again for the interaction and may God bless you in your ministry!

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