One of the year's most complex action films, Scarlett Johansson's Ghost in the Shell wrestles with some of humanity's deepest philosophical questions, all while dazzling us with an array of incredible special effects. But what exactly is the concept underpinning Ghost in the Shell and what does it mean for us today?
Let's extract the ghost from the cybernetic body and take a closer look at the philosophical queries, meanings and explanations behind Ghost in the Shell — and hopefully learn a little bit about ourselves in the process.
Masamune Shirow based Ghost in the Shell on a 1967 novel by Arthur Koestler called The Ghost in the Machine. Here, Koestler explores the idea of a Cartesian duality — a mode of philosophical enquiry based on the philosophy of René Descartes — between the mind and the body. This duality essentially puts forward the idea that a mind is attached to the brain, and it is the mind that controls the brain, the two things being distinctively separate entities.
It is this Cartesian concept of an invisible and controlling mind that the analogy to the ghost in the machine is made, the mind and the ghost being interchangeable terms. This phenomena has also been attributed to the conceptualization of a soul so prevalent in religious thought, the idea that something exists within our brains that is separate from our physical form. An atheist may simply refer to this as consciousness.
Koestler, however, denies this Cartesian duality. One of the main concepts he puts forward is that the human mind is an ever evolving organism that continually grows upon its earlier primitive brain structures. Consequently, this creates great potential for conflict, with these earlier primitive layers occasionally overpowering the evolved parts of the brain, resulting in irrational anger, hatred, and illogical decision-making. The ghost, therefore, is merely an illusion created between the more primitive and more advanced states of the brain.
In Shirow's Ghost in the Shell universe, he assimilates Koestler's denial of a Cartesian dualism between mind and brain, but goes one step further, defining the ghost as not only being the result of a multilayered brain evolution, but as a phase reached within a system, which achieves a certain level of complexity.
This means that in the Ghost in the Shell, the ghost is what separates human beings from biological robots; no matter how many biological organs are replaced by robotic substitutes within an individual human body, as long as the individual retains their ghost, they also retain their sense of self, their humanity, their identity.
When a ghost is implanted into a new body, it's vulnerable to hacking. The central theme of the ghost being a result of evolution in both biological and technological spheres is essential to the philosophical underpinnings of Ghost in the Shell. However, in the Ghost in the Shell universe, evolution is defined as a process in which the most preferred elements of two separate sets of DNA are merged to create a third DNA data set — but an element of chance is essential to the procedure.
So robotic life within the universe has a level of unpredictability woven into its DNA, and in a world where cybernetic technology has evolved to a state in which an individual's ghost (or consciousness) can be implanted into an entirely new physical form, it becomes incredibly susceptible to hijacking or hacking.
Talking to Collider, Ghost in the Shell producer Avi Arad developed this idea of villains in the movie as those finding ways to abuse this super advancement of technology:
"The movie certainly addresses this whole idea of in the future, if you think about everybody’s biggest fear around technology is about getting your identity stolen (which is really just your credit record) as apposed someone hacking your brain could happen here."
Indeed, the closer the biological human merges with the technological, the greater the scope for abuse:
"The more technology gets inside of you and the more it’s woven into your life the more that people can abuse it. So there are characters, both at a criminal level and a governmental level, who are abusing technology and doing scary things."
What do you think?