Does science fiction allow for the possibility of a soul or is it taboo to have a soul in modern sci-fi TV shows and movies? (2010)


With all the avant-garde trends in sci-fi television and movies to allow for cloning and downloading, it poses a mind-bending question: what about a person’s soul? Perhaps no two television series have addressed so thoroughly this impossible question than the sci-fi dramas “Dollhouse” and “Caprica.” Both are dependent upon the idea that a person’s persona or personality can be saved onto a computer chip and downloaded into another being – whether it be human or robotic.

But as we watched the collision of personal identities between Echo (the imprintable doll) and Caroline (the person) in “Dollhouse,” how can we say which was more entitled to the physical body than the other. As interesting as it is to believe that Echo was more entitled because she was the evolved consciousness, what about Caroline’s soul? Does the soul evolve too? Or is that soul now cut-off from the body it was attached to because a new identity (person) has taken residence?

While many may argue that discussion of what happens to a person’s soul is entirely too theological or philosophical for mere science fiction shows, I disagree. After all, both “Battlestar Galactica” and its prequel series “Caprica” delve deeply into religious theology and what it means to be human. In “Caprica,” even the avatar version of Zoe understood the importance of the fact that she was a trifecta of existence: the persona of Zoe, her avatar version and her robotic body. Just like in the Judeo Christian religion which allows for a trichotomic existence, in science fiction, it also allows for the possibility of a 3-tiered existence melding three unique spiritual and physical forms: the emotional (the soul), the physical (the body) and the mental (the downloadable persona aka memories). The soul being perhaps the most essential part – it is what makes a person unique – it is what makes them who they are. But, as we have seen, a physical body can be cloned or replicated and memories can be stored and transferred like data on a computer hard-drive — at least in science fiction. That only leaves the soul as unique and un-copyable.

In the age-old debate of nature versus nurture (whether a person is formed by who they are at birth versus shaped by their environment), we have seen illustrated in films like “Groundhog Day” how a person can be molded into almost another human being entirely simply by repeating the same experiences over and over again and learning from those repetitions; we have also seen how in “Dollhouse,” a person can be shaped by their experiences due to residual imprints of other identities surfacing and becoming part of the stem identity; then in the classic sci-fi film “Blade Runner” and the more contemporary film “Moon,” it was explored whether a clone can even be a person with its own self-identity.

It is fascinating to explore whether and how a person’s identity can be imprinted, shifted, altered and manipulated. Can a person’s “persona” actually change or be replaced? Then what happens to the soul? Is the soul then imprisoned by the shifting “persona” which it inhabits or does it become detached – set free, if you will – because an alien host has taken up residence?

Looking back at the examples cited above, in “Dollhouse,” it is not clear whether Echo and Caroline were the same person, with Echo simply being an evolved version of Caroline due to the melding of all the imprinted personalities. Thus, was Caroline’s soul actually the same as Echo’s soul? Given that Caroline was one of the base personalities of Echo, it is arguable that Caroline’s soul and Echo’s soul were one and the same. But it was never clearly addressed or discussed so it is conceivable that once Caroline was “stored away,” that her soul went inactive and may not have reactivated so long as Echo was in possession of her body.

In “Caprica,” it is much more clear. Zoe actually died. She was blown up in the terrorist suicide bombing. It is merely her avatar (computer generated conglomeration of her memories and experiences) that still exists – albeit, a mighty sophisticated avatar capable of artificial intelligence, which ultimately leads to the creation of the Cylon race. So it is much more easy to distinguish that whatever soul the original Zoe had, it lives outside of and beyond the avatar-version of Zoe that was placed in the Cylon-body.

In films like “Groundhog Day,” there is no such separation of body, consciousness and soul, instead it is merely the same person with soul intact that repeats the same day over and over again until fate/destiny determines that they have learned the specific lesson to be learned.

But in cloning scenarios, like in “Moon” and “Blade Runner,” it is very dubious that the clone can even have a soul. According to religion and theology, a soul is granted or bestowed by God. It is not something that can be man-made or created out of nothingness. Thus, in the case of Cylons and clones, they are soulless. In science fiction, this is very perplexing. These beings may walk and talk like a human, but they are in essence just a machine: something man-made – not created by God — and thus not bestowed with a soul.

So we are left to wonder how can something that looks and acts human, not be human? Science fiction asks us to stretch our imagination and accept the impossible, which we happily do. But are we ignoring a fundamental fact: has it eliminated the soul? Is there no room for a soul in science fiction? Does science fiction choose to ignore one of the most vital parts of what it means to be human? Does it posit that we actually should not consider the soul? However, what is key are the dilemmas faced in “Dollhouse,” “Caprica,” “Blade Runner,” and “Moon” which only arise because we are looking for the soul. We are trying to figure out how these beings can exist without it and who they actually are with or without a soul. Are they real?

The conflict and moral/ethical dilemmas only originate from that specific quandary: what does it mean to be human? Can artificial life (artificial bodies and artificial consciousness and artificial personas) be real? Will God bestow a soul on a man-made creation? Not likely. God does not appreciate man attempting to mimic his ability to create “life.” But does God allow for the possibility of shifting a soul from one body to another if a person’s consciousness is downloaded or imprinted into another body? This is after all one of the possibilities that the Bible does allow for: if the human body dies, the human soul is set free and will be later put into a new and perfect body after Judgment Day. This very concept of soul-shifting or another variation of downloading into another body has a foundation in a very deep religious tenement. Who is to say that while a clone can’t have a soul that God did not allow for the possibility of a soul one day inhabiting it? It seems far-fetched and sacrilegious, but in science fiction, there is the possibility.

One could say that science fiction at its core is all about the exploration of the new and impossible — and the examination of what we would do in that wondrous universe. Downloading, imprinting, transfer of personas from body to body, cloning, and avatars – it is simply mind-boggling and intriguing all at once. But closer examination does indeed reveal that, while it looks on the surface that science fiction does not allow for a person’s soul, it is in fact the foundation of many sci-fi shows and films. We are constantly trying to determine if artificial life (avatars, clones and dolls) are real people. It is the question that haunts us and challenges us to think about what it means to be human. Undoubtedly, it is not a question we will be able to answer any time soon as science and science fiction continue to present new ways to explore humanity and artificial life. It is indeed a wondrous universe of possibilities.

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