Human souls, ghosts of the metaverse
Jan. 14, 2023. 9 min. read.
Ghost in the Shell is a classic anime released in 1995, directed by Mamoru Oshii and based on the eponymous manga by Masamune Shirow. The basic plot involves the exploits of a mysterious hacker known as The Puppet Master, which has an uncanny ability to hack both into humans and machines. This has to be understood in the context of the world described in this masterpiece. It is 2029. In this future cybernetic augmentation is commonplace. People’s artificial bodies, known as ‘shells’, retain but a shred of humanity in the form of a brain, with a conscience referred to as its ‘ghost.’
In this world of mechanization and chrome casings, bodies can be upgraded with weaponry, vision-enhancing sensors, storage devices, and much more. The flesh has simply become irrelevant. A burden, even. The human body is nothing but a blank slate to be manipulated, enhanced, and upgraded. And enveloping all this is a vast electronic network that can be directly accessed by the brain through neural implants. The network is vulnerable to hacking though, and this is what kickstarts the plot.
Ghost in the Shell is a sci-fi tale heavily influenced by cyberpunk visuals and themes. But it’s far more than that. It is a philosophical journey that explores fundamental ideas such as the search for one’s identity, and what it really means to be human. Ghost‘s tale is told from the perspective of Motoko Kusanagi, a high-ranking official in Section 9, a semi-clandestine organization tasked with combating cyber terrorism and ghost hacking. Motoko’s body is fully cybernetic, and her mission to find The Puppet Master makes her question whether there’s any humanity left in her at all, and whether or not her ghost is nothing but a figment of her synthetic self.
In our current reality, it is 2022. Cybernetic organisms like those described in Ghost In The Shell – or the part-man-part-machine infiltration units in 1984’s The Terminator – do not quite exist yet. But what does exist, in an early form, at least, is the metaverse: a reality-bending digital realm where humans can plug in and ride the virtual lightning into a paradise of surreal colors and textures. William Gibson described it perfectly in the opening line of his seminal work Neuromancer: ‘the sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.’
And this is the nexus where our narrative segues to the question…
…are we still human in the metaverse?
In Ghost In The Shell, the entire world is interconnected by a vast electronic network through which information constantly flows. Motoko can connect to this network any time, thanks to neural implants. In a particularly revealing scene, she says that this ability is one of the main reasons why she feels alive. Yet, she can’t help but feel that this is not what being alive truly means. Motoko’s professional partner, Batou, takes a more simplistic approach. In his view, everyone is just as alive as everyone else, humans and cyborgs alike. But what exactly is it that defines life? And how does biological life differ from digital life?
When we connect to the metaverse, we untether ourselves from the real us. From our physical form, at least. Our selves become digital avatars that roam around a place that doesn’t quite exist, yet, at the same time, it does. In this reality we, humans, are digital entities, representations of our mind (our ‘ghost’) outside of our bodies. Instead, these avatars are artificial creations that carry our ghost throughout a network of interconnected physical bodies. These electronic illusions transport a residual essence of who we are. But who are these digital ghosts? And what do these ghosts do, when we’re not connected to them?
This is one of the key internal struggles that Motoko experiences, brought on by the recent discovery that a cybernetic brain had its own ghost. This was not supposed to be possible, as non-human cyborgs cannot have ghosts, or so it was thought. The revelation comes as quite a shock to Motoko, as ghosts were supposed to be inherent to human brains only. A cybernetic ghost could not be manufactured.
If we extrapolate this to our digital manifestations on the metaverse, does our own ghost carry with them, or could they, eventually, manifest their own ghost and behave autonomously? This is a question with profound ramifications.
The Puppet Master
Suppose for a moment that Artificial Intelligence algorithms and routines become advanced enough that our digital selves become self-aware. They acquire the ability to think for themselves, and develop their own set of principles and beliefs, just like their human shells once did. Only now, the avatar can shuffle their mortal coil, as it were, and inhabit an AI-powered metaverse with billions of self-aware avatars.
In this scenario, which side is more real? Is it the real (a rather slippery term) world, or the metaverse? And, if digital entities may develop their own ghost, can they be considered humans? Who is more human? What defines humanity, if we lose the exclusive right to a soul? Why would human life be more valuable than digital life, when the creation of life is no longer limited to chemical and biological interactions?
The Puppet Master acts as the main antagonist of sorts in Ghost in the Shell. Throughout the course of the action (spoiler alert), it is revealed that The Puppet Master is an advanced AI that developed sentience following endless travels across the network and millions of interactions with cybernetic and human organisms. Faced with the knowledge that its creators would certainly shut it down should they discover its self-awareness, the AI begins to devise a plan to ensure its survival. This has similarities to Replicant Roy’s desire in 1982’s Blade Runner to find its creator so he can remove the 4-year longevity failsafe. Roy’s plan failed, but in The Puppet Master’s case, it doesn’t. How Ghost in the Shell ends is beyond the scope of this piece, but I would wholeheartedly recommend that you watch the anime; it is a brilliant, thought-provoking work of art.
The Puppet Master’s reflections on the nature of life can be extrapolated to our own existence in the metaverse of the present day and near future.
In The Puppet Master’s view, AI life is in no way different from human life. In other words, a life created through information and data cannot be (and shouldn’t be) treated or considered any differently than life created naturally. When asked to prove his existence, The Puppet Master replies with another question: ‘and can you offer me proof of your existence? How can you, when neither modern science nor philosophy can explain what life is?”
Again, we come up against the wall of what reality really is, and what are the parameters that define something as real. Morpheus and Neo had a very interesting conversation on this very topic in 1999’s The Matrix, a landmark film which, incidentally, borrowed heavily from Ghost in the Shell. In a scene early in the movie, Morpheus welcomes Neo to the desert of the real. When Neo questions, quizzically, ‘this isn’t… real’, Morpheus asks Neo ‘what is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, taste, see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.’ If, as Morpheus says, all our sensations are data perceived and processed by our senses, it stands to reason that, given the same inputs in digital form, a cyberbrain would assume what it sees, smells, and feels to be real. So, in this context, what makes human life any more real than that of an AI in the metaverse?
Consciousness and dualism
In Ghost in the Shell, ghost is slang for consciousness. The human soul, if you will. In the context of the movie, the presence of a ghost is the very thing that defines humanity. But the discovery of a ghost inside a cyberbrain casts doubt on the notion. Now, what (or where) exactly is the soul has been the subject of speculation since the beginning of time. In early philosophical works, for example, dualists postulated that mind and body are completely separate things. This is a prevalent theme in Ghost in the Shell, given Motoko’s feelings that her fully cybernetic body and her ghost are two separate entities altogether. But Japanese philosopher Hiroshi Ichikawa disagrees with the dualism idea. Ichikawa says that ‘...it is wrong to see the spirit and the body as two existential principles, and to grasp reality in their intersection and separation. Rather, we should consider this unique structure as itself fundamental, and regard the spirit and the body as aspects abstracted from it.’ This specific idea, the inextricable union of mind and body, was the reasoning behind why Japan did not legalize the harvesting of organs from brain dead people until the passing of the Transplantation Law in 1997 (curiously, two years following the release of Ghost in the Shell). While Western medicine no longer considered a brain dead patient a person (because of the dualism principle), Japan did. Removing organs or any other body part from a body that is still alive would have been unthinkable for Japanese physicians.
So all this poses several questions: do we remain human while in the metaverse? Or, by connecting to the network, are we allowing our ghost to be transported to that alternate reality? Could the digital representations of ourselves, once Artificial Intelligence is advanced enough, be considered alive? These almost transcendental questions do not have easy answers, and are likely to be thought-provoking to the reader.
The evolution of a cybersoul: where do we go from here
There is one more aspect that Ghost in the Shell explores towards the end: reproduction. The Puppet Master postulates that evolution is a mechanism of survival against total annihilation. This is true, from a purely logical, robotic point of view. As a sentient AI, The Puppet Master doesn’t quite understand the concepts of life and death in human terms, and though it is not afraid of death in itself, it is afraid that after it’s gone, there will be nothing left. This leads to a very interesting conclusion for Ghost in the Shell, which won’t be revealed here.
This leads to another fundamental question about human death. If we accept the philosophy that mind and body form one whole, then life ends when one or the other dies. This concept is explored in The Matrix when Neo asks Morpheus: ‘if you’re killed in the Matrix, do you die here?’ To which Morpheus answers ‘the body cannot live without the mind.’ This suggests that Morpheus does not follow the dualism theory.
But if we do follow dualism, then what happens if our ghost wanders off into the metaverse? What happens to the body (the shell) left behind? And can this ghost reproduce into something else completely?