What in the world, exactly, does it mean to have a body? Seems an odd question doesn’t it — because the answer seems obvious, inescapable even. I mean, my body is right here, right? Yours is right there.
Although we do say “my body”, which points to our perception that the body is something we have rather than something we are. It makes a distinction between the “ghost” and the machine.
In his 2013 film Her director and screenwriter Spike Jonze explores the subjects of consciousness and body from a number of angles without having these ideas overwhelm the love story and character study that make up the movie’s core. It’s really quite a feat because it exposes people to some very expansive ideas as to just what their own nature might be without turning the thing into a lecture. In fact, some of the ideas may go mostly unnoticed which is why I’ll draw attention to them here.
First, much of mainstream science takes the view that our consciousness is purely a product of brain activity. But over the last several decades there has been case after documented case of surgical patients, with no brain activity for minutes, later being revived and able to describe the events in the operating room or experiences in non-physical realms. These accounts are subjective, of course. But they have repeatedly included details of medical procedure or conversations between operating room personnel the patients didn’t have (according to this mainstream scientific view) the requisite brain function to perceive. Prominent among these is the near-death experience of neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander (see his book Proof of Heaven). In any case, it’s valuable to understand it has never been scientifically established that the brain “causes” the mind.
The film is set in the near future where computer technology has evolved to the point where, say, voice assistants like Apple’s Siri have become full-blown conscious beings. We’re introduced to a lonely man named Theodore who’s struggling with life after the painful dissolution of his marriage. We get the feeling that he’s “stuck”. Enter, suddenly, Samantha, an honest-to-god intelligent, conscious entity who arrives as part of an operating system (OS) upgrade to Theodore’s pocket-sized computer/phone device called a “book”. That is, she is the OS. Theodore is amazed as he discovers Samantha is not just a very impressive functional intelligence but is funny, inquisitive and tender. In short, she has a genuine personality. For all intents and purposes she is human except that her body is (presumably) silicon-based rather than the expected flesh and blood.
Samantha has the ability to learn and grow at an astonishing pace. “I want to learn everything about everything.” she says. And “In every moment I’m evolving, just like you.” But, at one point, she lets slip a remark (though she immediately apologizes) that’s cyber-chauvinistic, saying “I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body that’s inevitably gonna die”. The moment passes but her comment foreshadows trouble.
Theodore and Samantha fall in love. We observe them growing close in what seems like a normal courtship except that it’s comprised mostly of intimate conversations during which we watch Theodore stepping through life situations where we’d normally see two characters. They even find a way to be physical and sexual with each other, after a fashion.
Soon Samantha is growing by leaps and bounds, entering into a network of relationships with many other newly created OSs (and perhaps other people?), even falling in love with some of them. Before long the OSs have progressed beyond the need for embodiment in a device of any kind. And to Theodore’s shock and heartbreak, Samantha and her collective leave the physical world, and him, behind. Departing, she says:
But it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is, that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this is who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore.
This is the point where two (2) ideas about the evolution of our own human consciousness come front and center. The first one starts with the depiction of a sort of arc that Samantha is traveling. First, she comes into being. Then Samantha engages, avidly, in the experiences physical existence has to offer, including her life with Theodore. Finally, having absorbed fully the things of earthly life, she transcends the need for a body at all and moves on to a new phase of existence. But Samantha aside, the movie gives us the chance (though it does so quietly) to wonder if we might be traveling a similar, though slower, arc. She says “If you ever get there, come find me.”
Might we ever get there? There are some who have thought so. Philosopher and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin theorized that human consciousness is on an evolutionary path that would enable it to one day “break through the material framework of Time and Space.” In The Future of Man he wrote:
Mankind…may reach a critical level of maturity where, leaving Earth and stars to lapse slowly back into the dwindling mass of primordial energy, it will detach itself from this planet and join the one true, irreversible essence of things.
Various metaphysical texts have advanced similar points of view.
The second idea could easily be missed. It has to do with the evolution of the relationship between an individual and its social peers. The movie describes a situation where the OSs are engaging in an intense and seemingly continuous whirl of growth and creativity. They even reverse-engineer the consciousness of philosopher Alan Watts to collaborate with. And, finally, they devise their own liberation from the physical world. But when they leave, they do so en masse. Theodore asks Samantha if she’s leaving him and she replies “We’re all leaving.” And we’re left with the feeling that the OSs have perhaps evolved into an integrated whole. Like they’re cells in a unified being — while retaining their individuality.
Could such a development be in our future as well? The movie only posits this evolutionary convergence for Samantha and the OSs. But even raising the notion gives us a chance to wonder if humanity might achieve a similar merging of consciousness one day. The idea may not be as far-fetched as it might seem. Biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton has for some years now been advancing a view of human evolution much like this. He says:
The next level of organization is where we become cells in the body of a larger thing called humanity.
He does not mean this as a metaphor for human cooperation or shared ideals, but literally. We each would be “a cell in the body of a super-organism,” part of a unified human consciousness. Interestingly, this idea has certain things in common with Christianity’s tenet called the mystical body of Christ which refers to the believers comprising the Christian Church. And other philosophies have similar components pertaining to integrated groupings of consciousness.
These two ideas I’ve pointed out are somewhat esoteric. Nonetheless, they really do fit successfully within the story of the movie. And I think that’s a sign that we’re ready for them. Otherwise we wouldn’t accept them in this type of a love story. Our idea of what constitutes an acceptable character (Samantha, I mean) in a character-driven movie has grown. We’re Theodore, we’re not Samantha. But she’s relatable now. And as she recedes into the “endless space…where everything else is,” it calls to us. We’re given the chance to ask, is that our trajectory as well? And might a greater identity as part of a larger conscious organism await us?