Ancient heresies find new expression in “Westworld” and “Altered Carbon”
Neo-gnosticism is not a term that most Christians—let alone most casual TV watchers—know. And yet some of TV’s top sci-fi dramas, like “Westworld” and “Altered Carbon,” are shot through with neo-gnostic assumptions. That is, they assume what makes us human is something internal, which is ultimately separable from our body. These assumptions can be brought to light by looking closely at how these shows answer a single question, one that weighs on the mind of Christians and non-Christians alike: “Do you want to live forever?”
It might seem odd to go looking for talk of death and eternal life in television dramas. Upon closer examination, however, it is clear that these matters are never far from the minds of the shows’ creators. The release of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s letter, “Placuit Deo,” in February 2018 prompted me to think more carefully about this recurring theme. As it turns out, in the worlds created by these TV dramas many of the concerns animating the C.D.F.’s letter lurk just beneath the surface.
Some of TV’s top sci-fi dramas are shot through with neo-gnostic assumptions.
Netflix’s recent hit “Altered Carbon” is a great example. (Spoilers to follow.) Takeshi Kovacs has been reincarnated in an unfamiliar body 250 years after his death to solve a murder. Kovacs is an “Envoy” and his consciousness has been imprisoned for two and a half centuries for taking part in “the Uprising” and fighting back against a new world order. This new world order is built around a piece of technology called “stacks,” which enable the transferral of human consciousness to a piece of hardware implanted at the base of the brain stem. Stacks are now standard issue for all humans once they have reached their first birthday. It is precisely the neo-gnosticism critiqued by the C.D.F. that makes the world of “Altered Carbon” thinkable in the first place.
Stacks, as it turns out, not only allow human consciousness to be stored but also transferred between bodies—“sleeves” in the show’s dialect. As long as a person’s stack remains intact, it is possible to live forever. Male, female, adult, child—the “sleeves” are interchangeable, with nothing but a few hours of “re-sleeving sickness” as side effects. But endless “re-sleeving”—and so eternal life—is a luxury reserved only for the extraordinarily wealthy. One of these super-rich immortals, a man named Laurens Bancroft, brings Kovacs out of cold storage to take advantage of the unique set of observational skills possessed by Envoys. He has been brought back from the dead to discover who murdered one of Bancroft’s own sleeves.
As “Placuit Deo” recognizes, neo-gnosticism is a tendency rather than a simple retelling of the ancient heresy of gnosticism. This is true for the show, too. Why? Because the technological means by which a consciousness can be stored and transferred in “Altered Carbon” assumes an exclusively material cosmos. By this I mean that, presumably, if a unique, human consciousness can be backed up to a piece of hardware, we have entirely abandoned the idea of an immaterial, spiritual soul. This is what makes neo-gnosticism so fascinating: there is nothing spiritual about it.
The technological means by which a consciousness can be stored and transferred in “Altered Carbon” assumes an exclusively material cosmos.
Once you recognize this feature of the imagined world of “Altered Carbon,” its relations to a number of recent science fiction shows become increasingly apparent. Take, for example, HBO’s “Westworld.” The first season is a daring, bordering on avant-garde, romp through a consequence-free Wild West theme park. The park is populated by simulacra of human beings. Havoc and mayhem, as well as (one supposes) your fair share of cattle rustling, poker playing and whiskey drinking transpire. All this without risk of dysentery, famine or venereal disease. This is the theme park’s draw: casual violence without danger, sexual misconduct without legal or moral opprobrium. After all, the “hosts,” upon which all this is perpetrated, are just machines.
It is not until the second season of “Westworld” that the plot turns its attention toward the possibilities A.I. technology holds for the extension of human life. The big reveal of the second season (spoilers again) is that the park’s immersive fantasies are a cover for the real aim of recording human decision-making processes in real time. One of the purposes of doing so—perhaps the most realistic element of the entire show—is to generate targeted advertising for Westworld’s parent company, Delos Incorporated.
The second, more sinister purpose for surreptitiously cataloging human decisions is to model the activity of the human brain. With enough data, it would be possible to do more than just mimic consciousness in “hosts.” Big data would also make it possible to reconstruct particular human persons. In fact, the show’s artificially intelligent protagonists discover, we humans are not as complicated or as interesting as we seem. We are told, “The truth is, a human is just a brief algorithm, 10,247 lines.”
Like “Westworld,” “Humans” on UK’s Channel 4 deals with an imagined future in which synthetic humans (“synths” for short) attain consciousness. The first season, again like “Westworld,” focuses principally on human and machine interactions—some more hopeful than others. But the second season quickly jumps to the possibility of “consciousness transfer.” Again, it seems, the possibility of engineering a solution to death is just too tempting for your average A.I. scientist to resist.
There is a common thread in all these shows. Each of them, to varying degrees, depends on portraying a world emptied of spirit. None has a place for a vision of the human that is more than the sum of its physical parts. Ironically, this physicalism leads, perhaps even more rapidly than the ancient gnostic heresy, to a devaluation of the human body. Bodies become no more than hardware, capable of being changed out with mechanical replicas or endlessly replaced with fresh human flesh.
The cosmos, once an object of wonder, is now nothing more than the condition for the possibility of technological advancement.
According to “Placuit Deo,” neo-gnosticism, like the gnosticism of old, seeks “to liberate the human person from the body and from the material universe.” The cosmos, once an object of wonder, is now nothing more than the condition for the possibility of technological advancement. The body is treated as “foreign to the fundamental identity of the person” instead of an integral part of who we are as creatures of God. Humans, freed from the limitations of the flesh, find themselves adrift in a world wholly of their own making. Liberation from the material proceeds by means of the material conditions of a hyper-technologized world.
In “Altered Carbon,” the neo-Catholics are the constituency most adamantly opposed to the possibilities opened up by the show’s technology.
It is this denial that humans are creatures of both body and soul that makes “Altered Carbon” the ideal myth for the late-capitalist West. It allows for a substantive critique of the consolidation of wealth and power in the “meths” (short for Methuselahs) who have accrued the material resources to live forever at the expense of everybody else. At the same time it plays into the collective fantasy of those who, in the words of “Placuit Deo,” imagine salvation is simply a matter of “liberating the inner reality of the human person from the limits of the body and the material.”
“Altered Carbon” is at its best when it is critiquing this vision of the world. This, combined with its straightforward recognition of its metaphysical presuppositions, lends it a kind of charm not shared by all shows in this growing genre. Some of the main characters come to recognize that death puts an important limit on the will to power. One can almost hear echoes of St. Ambrose’s "On the Good of Death," where he says, “It’s more burdensome to live for sin than to die in sin, because the impious man heaps up sin as long as he lives. If he dies, he ceases to sin.” The Church Fathers often described death not only as a punishment for sin, but also, as Ambrose indicates, as a release from sin. After all, there is nothing more horrifying than living forever as a fallen, unredeemed creature. Don’t let these shows convince you otherwise.
One final, delightful detail: In “Altered Carbon,” the “Neo-Cs” (neo-Catholics) are the constituency most adamantly opposed to the possibilities opened up by the show’s “stack” technology. They receive religious coding that prevents their stacks from being “spun back up” after sleeve death. Death for a Neo-C is real death.
One thing the show does not explain is what makes these folks Neo-Catholics. My own hope is that the leaders of the old Catholic Church refused from the beginning the reductive vision of human persons entailed by stack technology and ended up as martyrs. That the show identifies the church as the entity most likely to be ill-disposed to excising spirit from the cosmos gives me great joy. “Placuit Deo,” by affirming the traditional teaching of the church in the face of the neo-gnostic heresy of our own time, makes such a view appealingly plausible.