A Ghost In a Shell: Reflecting On Consciousness

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If you’re a movie fan, then you probably know that a live-action “Ghost in the Shell” movie will soon be in theaters. Starring Scarlett Johansson, previews hint that the live action version will adhere quite closely to the classic Anime (that may turn out to be false, of course). The original Ghost in the Shell (GitS) Anime, itself based on a manga (comic) series, stands as perhaps the greatest Anime of all time. It’s not just the world-building, music, animation, and plot that make this Anime such a classic, but also the way it forces us to question human nature.

Before I go any further, let me warn you, I am going “spoil” some things if you haven’t seen the original film. If you haven’t seen this Anime, I personally recommend you stop reading right now, rent or buy a copy, watch it, and then check back in. If you plan on seeing the live action film, but haven’t seen the original, be warned: I might ruin some things for you.

In GitS souls are referred to as “ghosts”, and shells can be thought of as bodies. The mind-body debate is one of the oldest debates in the history of philosophy. Is our soul or consciousness separate from our body? Or are they one and the same? In GitS, ghosts are most certainly separate from shells, and can even be transferred from shell to shell.

This brings us to GitS’s  protagonist,  Major Kusanagi. Major is a human ghost but resides in a fully synthetic cyborg body. An accident as a child destroyed her human body and her ghost was transferred to a robotic shell.  Over time Major begins to wonder if she’s human at all. After all, she lacks any human body, and has spent most of her conscious life as a robot.

Major also wonders if her own memories are all a lie, programmed in to make her believe that she’s human. How could Major’s memories be fake? In GitS memories are quite easy to tamper with. In this future world, many humans are connected to networks through implants.

A hacker, the “Puppet Master”, has found a way to hack people’s ghosts, or brains. This hacker has also figured out how to implant memories, and even to get them to carry out his will. The Puppet Master is GitS’s primary antagonist, and Major is on the hunt for him. Instead of directly confronting Major and the government agency she works for, Section 9, the Puppet Master hacks various people’s brains, implants memories, and makes them due his bidding.

After Major confronts a human controlled by the Puppet Master and realizes how easy it is to hack a ghost, she’s forced to confront her own synthetic nature. Is she truly human? Are her memories actually hers? Could her ghost be a hack, or could it perhaps be entirely synthetic, a computer program?

Major spends much of her time contemplating these types of questions and what it means to be human. And in a world where people are increasingly connected, and where even their souls (ghosts) can be hacked, it’s fair to wonder what really makes a person human.

Major has an entirely synthetic body, and yet she has a human consciousness.  But what makes a human consciousness a human consciousness? And how can Major ever really be certain that she is human, or that she has any free will or soul? Can she really be certain that she’s not simply a software program?

These questions come to a head when viewers learn that the Puppet Master is most certainly not human. Turns out that the fearsom antagonist is actually a rogue computer program. And what is the computer program’s end goal? Not to take over the world, but instead to enjoy an existence as a free and sentient being. His attacks are more efforts to gain freedom from the government’s computers, and to live a separate existence.

I’ve already spilled the beans on the biggest plot twist. Just in case you haven’t seen the Anime, I won’t spoil the ending. Needless to say, however, it raises even more questions about ghosts, consciousness, and life in general.

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