Friday, December 10, 2010

toward a zombie cyborg theology

Because cyborgs are cooler.

But also because zombies, as cultural figures, are inherently anthropologically dualistic. Think about it: you take a human person, give'em a zombie bite, and the person dies but their dead body, who is not the person you used to know, becomes reanimated by an external force of some kind and then tries to eat your brains. This is precisely why, of course, we can kill zombies with impunity and without remorse: they are not human anymore. They are not the person they were; that essential self is gone, and the body that looks like the person you used to know is just a dead vehicle being driven by something else. --You just don't get more dualistic than that!

So it's curious to me that the read of The Walking Dead in the blog post from religiondispatches.org, "Toward a Zombie Theology," is that the working anthropology is materialistic:
"But even with Christian overtones the writers of Walking Dead end up coming down in favor of brain-based consciousness. In death, including the death of the brain, Dr. Jenner says, “Everything you ever were, or will be…[is] gone.” 
Note: I haven't been watching this show, so the interpretation of the show may well be right on target...which means that the writers of the show should be wrestling with how to reconcile the inherent dualism of zombies with their attempt at materialism. In any case, my point is that zombies, as a symbolic monstrous posthuman figure in our cultural landscape, are much more at home with garden-variety dualism of body/soul than they are with materialism of any sort, reductive or non-reductive.

Whereas cyborgs, on the other hand, are resolutely materialistic. What makes a cyborg? Some sort of bodily merging of biology and technology--flesh and machine. Now, we think of human persons and machines as categorically different, not least because machines don't have "souls"--which we can just define here very loosely as that essential inner thing which animates a creature. Machines are not animated; humans are--basic categorical difference. So, what the cyborg does, conceptually, is render that categorical difference highly questionable. If a single creature is part human and part machine--then what is the difference between human and machine? And if we can create (and we regularly do, let's note) humans that actually are to some degree "part machine" and they are much better off thus--that is to say, able to flourish as humans because of their part-machine-ness--then, part of being human includes the potential of interfacing and merging with technology and making it a functional part of ourselves. Here, then, the definition of human shifts into one with an emphasis on embodiment, and the surprising ways our bodies are configurable. That's moving away from dualism with a vengeance.

So the question posed in response to zombies is actually much better posed in response to cyborgs:
"So does this leave theology out in the cold? The dominant theological understanding for anthropology in Christianity is still dualistic, a synthesis of the physical body and an immaterial spirit or soul, but in recent years those advocating a monistic view of human nature have arisen, articulating a perspective they call “nonreductive physicalism.” This view, advocated by scholars like Fuller Seminary’s Nancey Murphy, recognizes the significance of the cognitive neurosciences that have cast doubt on philosophical and theological concepts of the soul, but argues for human significance and the divine as opposed to materialist interpretations in the field."
Do we need a concept of the soul in order to faithfully interpret the biblical canon and the Christian tradition? I would argue, rather, we would probably do better to dump it in order to better understand both our own scripture and Christian tradition and the best available (and constantly evolving) scientific witness on the anthropological question.

6 comments:

Richard Beck said...

It seems to me, when I read these discussions, that the big skeleton in the closet is determinism. That is, we seem to want to posit a soul (or some dualism) to rescue a strong notion of free will. So I guess my question is: Did you wrestle with free will in your dissertation? Because it seems a move toward the cyborg makes this issue more acute. What are your thoughts on this (i.e., free will, causality, materialism)?

JTB said...

I talk a bit about free will in the diss, in the context of the categorical difference we typically draw between humans and nonhumans (both animal, a la Descartes, and machine). I don't wrestle with it in any deep way, though.

My working theory at this point is that definitions of free will that rely on non-material substance to undergird them are just plain unworkable, and also that they presume a definition of free will that doesn't describe anything remotely like what we actually do or experience in real life. Decisions don't get made in vacuums by floating heads, so any notion of free will that ignores the constraints of material reality just doesn't seem to me to be worth bothering with, at this point. I don't think this makes me a "determinist" in any way, but it does mean that I assume the free will is an embodied process rather than an intrinsic ethereal capability that proceeds from a "soul," the way that it gets categorized in, say, Thomas Aquinas.

Dude, the facebook discussion stuck to zombies...

Richard Beck said...

I'm totally with you. But here's where I go with this and I'd like your take (if you have the time or inclination).

It seems to me that as we move more toward an embodied or physicalist view of volition we start to realize that our "wills" are not radically free but very contingent. Upon genetics. Learning history. Or even if my blood sugar is low, or I'm tired, or hungry.

And if this is so it puts a lot of pressure of Arminian soteriological systems. If will is radically contingent then "responding" to the gospel becomes a biological and environmental issue (to some, I think large, degree). Suddenly, a Reformed notion of election seems, for purely neurological reasons, more tenable: God has to "give" or "enable" faith in the believer.

But I find Reformed soteriology offensive on theological grounds.

So I'm in a bit of a pickle. Neuroscience makes Arminian systems nonsensical (or scientifically naive) while Reformed systems are theologically odious.

In short, I think advances in neuroscience, as they affect conceptions of the will, have huge implications for soteriology (let alone theodicy). And I don't see a lot of people talking about that. They do talk a lot about embodiment, but few get around to the soteriological and theodicy implications of embodiment.

JTB said...

I would love to see a session on some of this at the 2011 CSC. I'm not volunteering or anything--but wouldn't it be great if someone else did all the work...

Yeah, I see your pickle and sour it certainly is. Maybe one way out would be a sortof Barthian universalism. The reformed notion of election and the gift of faith is odious when it is formulated in arbitrarily exclusive ways--but might could be reformulated without the arbitrariness and exclusivity. So first option is, faith is gift, but given to all (at some point in some form).

Or another way out might be to question why, or rather if, a conscious and voluntary "belief in" God (or to sharpen the dilemma, and make it CofC relevant, correct "belief in") God, salvation, etc., is a prerequisite to redemption. (There's a wonderful line in the novel Keys to the Kingdom by AJ Cronin that has been stuck in my head ever since first reading it: "Atheists won't all go to hell. Hell is reserved for those who spit in the face of God,"--uttered by a rogue priest, of course.) Certainly we know we're not going to get it all right, and so we trust that our best efforts will be received with grace and our imperfect faith counted as righteousness and all that. If that's the case, then how much is "belief in" really functioning as a requirement? And if it's not, really, then we can read God's redemptive purposes as indeed cosmologically universal. So second option=faith is gift but not prereq to redemption.

Or, from another angle, this makes the community of the church and its catechetical function hugely important--a la Schleiermacher-- this becomes the means by which our embodied wills are formed into faith. The conditionedness and contingency of our choices is pretty well captured in his formulation of the doctrine of sin, and the practical answer to the problem he sets up there is found in his ecclesiology.

Richard Beck said...

That's sort of where I've ended up. I lean toward universalism because the neuroscience is pushing me in that direction, soteriologically speaking.

And while that is heresy for many, I think, on a practical level, as you note at the end, it really places spiritual formation front and center. If volition is embodied then faith itself is embodied (even synaptically), inculcated through the Incarnational practices of the faith community. The Imago Dei imprinting, quite literally, itself on my mind/body. A new sort or programming/software? Gives Romans 12.1-2 a whole new twist.

Thanks for the conversation. Stay warm up there.

JTB said...

Heresy? Nah. "Heterodoxy," as Schleiermacher would label it. :)