The Philosophy of Altered Carbon (or Why Netflix is More Philosophical than you Think)
*I’m taking it for granted that you could write an entire book on this concept, therefore these are just some thoughts and this is probably a little scatterbrained
A growing trend in our culture is transcendence. Netflix has just released a show about this aptly titled Altered Carbon. The premise of the show from which all else follows is that humanity is now able to live across millennia. This is achieved by uploading human consciousness into a disk that is able to survive bodily death. As long as the disk remains intact, a person could exist from century to century partaking in different bodies. Before we think this is too far out to come to fruition, let me put forth Elon Musk, our resident super-genius, who is building a company to literally achieve that same thing. Immediately after the show was released, the show was criticized for transporting a man from an Asian body to a white body. And here lies the crux of our cultural problem: we have no idea how to frame why that is worthy of criticism. I love that this happened because it gives us a great piece of cultural analysis. Here is what our culture can’t pinpoint: a lot of our cultural milieus can be related back to the common thread of a neo-Gnosticism. To extrapolate what I mean however is going to take some leg work.
It’s entirely understandable that most people in our day don’t understand what that word means. Simply put, Gnosticism is an ancient religious conception of the world. At the risk of oversimplification, Gnosticism basically conceives the world in two dimensions: the spiritual and material. Gnosticism then says that the key to become more spiritual is to gain gnosis (knowledge). The whole goal is to get the secret knowledge of how to become more unified with the divine. There are many problems with it, but the one I want to point out now is that if we have to become more “spiritual” that generally makes the material, physical world less valuable. This then affects everything. For example, out of Gnosticism you could make sex seem repulsive because it’s too material and “unspiritual” or you can make it a way to grant new secret knowledge and then sex becomes a way to the divine. The whole point of Gnosticism is that we need to transcend our human limitations and become.
What’s interesting is that for the Christian, much of our faith is grounded in a rebuke of Gnosticism, 1 John starts out with this:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
The fleshiness of the Gospel is startling to a Gnostic. The spiritual and material realms rub up alongside each other. Contrary to Gnosticism, spirituality isn’t leaving the world but rather God entering His Creation to redeem it. The Gospel hinges on Jesus being the God-man. Now why does this matter for a show such as Altered Carbon?
Modern culture and atheism have a big problem. If there is no God, then what gives life meaning? The big problem however is that modern culture hasn’t figured it out. The need to transcend in humanity is ubiquitous. Ancient Gnosticism said that the way to transcend it to leave the material and gain secret spiritual knowledge, Christianity says that God comes down to creation and grants freely knowledge of salvation. Gnosticism says that the material is of no benefit, Jesus promises that he is coming again to redeem it. But a new type of Gnosticism is penetrating culture. Yes, you can point to Scientology as a form of Gnosticism, but the more hazardous one is technology. So much of our current modern way of transcending isn’t to transcend to the spiritual but to transcend time. Disembodied existences. Altered Carbon is the premium example, literally escaping a material body to live forever. In doing so, it runs the risk of devaluing everything about humanity… which is why the show then resorts to graphic nudity, because bodies don’t ultimately hold any importance. But what is again striking is the pushback against an Asian man being imported into a white body. That doesn’t make sense in a neo-Gnosticism that is pervading our culture. And yet it remains a lynchpin for the Gospel.
Our culture will always ring a dissatisfied note with leaving our bodies. We are not supposed to. It doesn’t even make logical sense, our body is intimately tied up with our experience. The experience of a black man in America cannot simply be put in a disk and given resonance in a white body. The woman who has lost her hair from cancer cannot simply be transported into a different body without experience tied up with her past body being dredged up. God did not create souls and separately create bodies. He created body-souls. Or vice versa, which is exactly the point that Get Out is making. (Neo-Gnosticism is more pervasive than you think).
The Gospel is the only way of dealing with time while still being embodied souls. Your skin and the culture it carries does matter in the Gospel, the Gospel is making one people of every ethnicity. The Gospel doesn’t call the material inherently bad, how could it? God created the earth good. When sin mars the creation, God doesn’t annihilate the creation but instead enters the cosmos for the redemption of the cosmos. The answer that the world is running after in its quest for transcendence might be to get away from our bodies to master time, and yet the beauty of the Gospel is that the answer isn’t to leave our bodies. No, the answer is that Jesus will come for the saints to grant new bodies that will never be destroyed and this all by the blood of Christ. The Gospel deals with the horrors of cancer, while holistically redeeming the body. The Gospel deals with the pain of the girl who feels nothing except the blade cutting her wrist by giving the Savior his stripes of blood that heal us. The Gospel deals with the hopelessness of a barren womb by pointing forward to the day when all things will be new. We don’t have to escape our bodies, instead we await the redemption of the cosmos longing for our bodies to be made new.