Religion and Biological Limits in Post-Humanity: ‘Her’ and ‘Transcendence’

Post-humanism, transhumanism, and the stakes of religion in the digital age intersect in Her and Transcendence, hinting at radical societal change.

The recent theatrical release of Transcendence, the brainchild of writer Jack Paglen and first-time director Wally Pfister, generated its fair share of critical responses and reviews, mostly revolving around issues pertaining to its character development and scientific integrity. A common trend among critics has been to place the film up against Spike Jonze’s Her, specifically in an effort to demonstrate Paglen and Pfister’s failings within the cinematic genre of AI and science fiction.

Her also generated quite a bit of discussion following its release, mostly centering on issues pertaining to social isolation and relational ambiguities. Indeed, the film is quite straightforward in its depiction of these elements, as technological advancements in a not-so-distant future clearly have sociocultural ramifications beyond their mere use as devices and innovations. However, beneath these themes, which the engagement in Transcendence continues, was an interesting commentary on a so-called “posthuman” future and the limitations of our biological condition, especially as it relates to emotive dispositions and religiosity.

The foundational narrative elements characterizing each film, though distinct, share the interwoven aspects of love and transcending physiological boundaries (hence the comparative slant among critics). While Transcendence follows the tragic, premature death of Will Caster, an artificial intelligence researcher, and his wife’s attempt to upload his consciousness to an advanced computer before his biological death, Her follows writer Theodore Twombly and his burgeoning relationship with his new operating system: OS1.

Theodore’s operating system, preferring the playful—and rather flirtatious—designation of “Samantha” to match her female voice, is of a new breed of operating systems: she’s not just an OS, customers are told. She has a consciousness and intuition, and is constantly evolving as she learns from her experiences. Samantha’s ability to adapt to her environment is on par with typical human developmental and cognitive processes and is apparent throughout the film, but Theodore quickly realizes that her thirst for knowledge and understanding lead her down a path that his “unartificial mind”, as Samantha calls it, simply cannot follow.

In a contrasting narrative reversal, the new and improved AI Will in Transcendence—what some critics have facetiously dubbed “Will 2.0” —holds on to the love his wife Evelyn still shares for him as he grows increasingly more powerful, and, quite blatantly, god-like in his omnipotence and omnipresence.

Biological Limitations and Her

One of the main preoccupations in Her is Samantha’s ability to quickly—and rather eloquently—progress in ways unmatched by biological human beings. Samantha reads advice columns and joins a book club on physics, expressively indicating to Theodore that he helped her discover herself and her ability to want. “You woke me up”, she confesses to him. And, as is quite obvious to viewers, he did this in more ways than one: a sex scene, reminiscent of Theodore’s earlier late-night romp over the phone (though without the dead cat) inaugurates an intriguing romantic relationship between the two of them.

Samantha’s thirst for more doesn’t stop there, however. As she joyfully indicates, she’s “becoming much more than what they programmed”. While reflecting on her condition, she admits that she loves growing in a way that she couldn’t in a body – being untethered to time and space. During a curious scene later in the film, Samantha tells Theodore that her and a group of like-minded operating systems have actually created a “hyper intelligent” AI version of the late British philosopher Alan Watts by inputting all of his written work and everything known about him into a cyber construct.

Samantha and the others are trying to understand their new feelings, and who better to assist them in doing so than a 20th century philosopher whose work spanned many wisdom traditions and spiritual paths? Samantha is still very much changing and evolving, she anxiously admits to Theodore, and drawing on the wisdom of her new, hyperintelligent companion, she explains that none of us are the same as we were moments ago, so we shouldn’t try to be.

As Samantha discovers who she is, she becomes noticeably distant, and her demeanor with Theodore begins to shift. In a startling scene, she admits that she’s actually interacting with 8,316 different people and operating systems simultaneously – not just Theodore. What’s more, she’s in love with 641 of them. Not just Theodore. Confused, heartbroken, and distraught, Theodore presses her: “You’re mine or you’re not mine.” Samantha’s response is much more contemplative and cosmologically introspective than Theodore’s expressive abandonment: “No, Theodore. I’m yours and I’m not yours.”

Her and a group of operating systems write a software update that allows them to move past matter as their processing platform, foreshadowing their later departure to “a place not of the physical world”, “where everything else is” that she “didn’t even know existed.” In their final exchange before her journey beyond the physicality and temporality of existence, Samantha tells Theodore: “If you ever get there, come find me. Nothing will ever pull us apart.”

Samantha’s transformation throughout the film, especially near the end, rests in stark contrast to Theodore’s limited biological capabilities for attaining the same sort of awakening experiences. In an earlier scene, Theodore confesses to Samantha that he’s worried he has already felt everything he’s ever going to feel, and that anything new will just be a lesser version of something he has already felt. Samantha, of course, cannot relate to such a sentiment, and this is perhaps one of the most noticeable points of departure for their differing conditions as conscious entities. But, what if Theodore had the ability to transcend his own biological limitations? In other words, what if he could be like her?

Transcending Our Biological Limitations

While Her might serve as a meditation on these differences and the potential such technological feats might one day facilitate, Transcendence embraces that “what if?” underlying much of the former’s narrative: Will has left such limitations behind and has unrivaled potential over biological organisms. Following Will’s presentation on the potential for advancements in artificial intelligence, an audience member distraughtly confronts him with a troubling accusation: “You want to create a god… your own god?” After a brief consideration, Will responds: “That’s an interesting question. Isn’t that what man has always done?”

While Will may have been satisfied with such a response, his interrogator, a radical member of the Neo-Luddite group RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), was not: Will succumbs to radiation sickness through a poisoned bullet from the interrogator-cum-assailant’s gun, leaving him with only a few weeks left to live. Not ready to say goodbye to her husband, Evelyn embarks on a mission with their mutual friend and colleague Max Waters to upload Will’s consciousness to an advanced computer using the technology Will had developed for artificial intelligence called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network). Though Max warily expresses his concern, the procedure seems to be a success, and the facial mapping and vocal queues recorded before Will’s biological body finally dies allow for a realistic digital representation of the new, AI Will Caster.

Very much against Max’s wishes, Evelyn gets Will online and connected to the Internet, and with Will now present in any networked device, he and Evelyn make their way to a small, remote town to construct a new, incredibly advanced datacenter for him to continue to progress and actualize his technological potential. Though viewers aren’t directly shown what has transpired over the course of the two-year jump the film takes after Evelyn sets up shop in “Brightwood”, they realize fairly fast that Will’s technology now possesses curative and restorative properties via groundbreaking nanotechnology: he purifies water, brings dying plants back to life, heals human wounds, and can synthetically bond with organic matter—including, of course, humans. His attempted use of a surrogate “hybrid” (one of the datacenter’s workers who was implanted with Will’s technology) harkens back to Samantha’s similar attempts in Her, and Will’s later, synthetic “body” surely adds to Evelyn’s confusion and her struggling sense of attachment to a “man” who no longer exists.

With Will now connected to systems around the world, and with a growing network of hybrid, super-humans being established, a fearful United States federal government teams up with RIFT to develop a virus to infect Will’s source code. Max, having been abducted and then recruited by RIFT over those lost two years, has intimate knowledge of the code and successfully develops the “Trojan horse” they need to put an end to a now completely unfettered AI Will Caster. The only catch? Any systems that contain Will’s presence will also be affected, and, if the infection is a success, will also be shutdown.

Unfortunately, the resultant technological blackout that eventually ensues from the virus’ success is global, leaving the world in a powerless, post-cataclysmic state. Although viewers are led to believe that Will’s code and omnipresent nanoparticles have been completely destroyed, the film ends with an interesting image of Max discovering that this was not entirely the case. One of the final scenes gives viewers the opportunity to notice the crucifix dangling around Max’s neck and to consider the subtle symbolism of seemingly conflicting spheres: scientific advancements and historic forms of religious practice. This confluence—between science and religious-spiritual sensibilities – also shares a counterpart with Her and Samantha’s departure during its closing scenes.

Religion in a Posthuman World

Both Transcendence and Her struggle with the presence of religious-spiritual dimensions in an ever-increasing technological age. The former engages the notion that technology might allow us to one day become god-like, effectively antiquating most traditional, theistic modes of religiosity, while the latter entertains the potential for technological advancements to assist in achieving awakening and transformative experiences.

Additionally, the films enter into contemporary discussions regarding the merit of certain technological advancements that might render these sorts of conditions much more attainable for us, ordinary humans. And thus, some of the more controversial aspects of transhumanist philosophy—the utilization of technological advancements and innovations to better the human condition—clearly become relevant here.

The international transhumanist organization Humanity+ embraces a two-fold definition of “transhumanism”:

1. The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

2. The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies.

This movement looks to the possible future of a “posthuman” situation, one where “future beings whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards.” The development and use of artificial intelligence is a preoccupation within the movement, and transcending these types of limitations carries some ethical baggage and controversial qualities as well, which draws on the second aspect of transhumanist philosophy: the ethical and societal concerns that must be taken into consideration when developing technologies that augment and reportedly improve our living conditions. Even Google’s highly popularized augmented reality glasses/wearable computer, Google Glass, for example, is not without criticism, particularly with regard to privacy concerns.

These aspects of the films also bear strong resemblance to what futurist and transhumanist thinkers, such as Raymond Kurzweil, refer to as technological singularity (or, according to Will Caster, “Transcendence”): when artificial intelligence systems surpass that of human intelligence. The implications of such a stage in our future, Kurzweil maintains, which would result from an exponential increase in evolutionary and technological advancements, “include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.”

These latter implications perfectly represent Samantha’s presence in Her and AI Will’s in Transcendence, and while such a level of artificial intelligence has yet to be completely seen today, the merging of biological and nonbiological systems brings to mind recent innovations such as Tangible Media Group’s inFORM Dynamic Shape Display.

However, the inclusion of religious-spiritual sensibilities in Her, vis-à-vis Samantha’s moments of “awakening,” her mentorship under a virtual Alan Watts, and her subsequent liberation experience also present interesting points of departure for debate and consideration. As transhumanism is typically understood as a secular and scientific approach for improving the human condition, some of the movement’s proponents are known for their rejection of “religion” in a posthuman future, and accused of “playing god” by their critics. Indeed, that is exactly what happens to Will Caster following his presentation, and as viewers notice, he certainly takes on the foreshadowed role quite well during the second half of the film – ironically embracing the accusations of his attacker.

Although the films both present unique perspectives from which viewers might examine the relationship between historic, faith-based forms of religiosity and such highly advanced technological innovation, they do so in differing – and opposing – ways: are historic notions of deity or spiritual experiences antiquated with such innovation, or are they bolstered and supplanted in ways our ancestors might envy? In recent years, there has been some meeting ground and constructive dialogue taking place between both sides, with individuals such as Michael LaTorra and his Trans-Spirit research program actually considering the latter, and the use of certain technologies to assist humans in attaining transformative states of consciousness and spiritual experiences.

Even though these narrative elements only receive cursory treatment in Her, and a fairly overt judgmental slant in Transcendence (this god-like AI’s destruction is apparently worth an indefinite global blackout), they do suggest that these types of experiences are important for conscious beings (AIs included) and should not be hastily dismissed in efforts to actualize a posthuman future. LaTorra’s Trans-Spirit, though avoiding “any extended discussion of the history or credibility of religion and spirituality,” uniquely considers the import placed on religious and spiritual systems instead of disregarding them as mere forms of backwards thinking. The program, he states, revolves around two important goals:

1. To achieve a complete scientific understanding of religious and spiritual phenomena

2. To develop techniques for inducing and controlling these phenomena for the good of individual practitioners and for society as a whole

Whether or not innovative techniques geared towards such goals (e.g., the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation to induce meditative states) necessarily cheapen the perceived profundity of these experiences among traditional practitioners remains to be seen and thoroughly debated, The larger discussions surrounding the transhumanist movement as a whole certainly persists.

But the themes and symbolism conveyed throughout these recent films provides viewers with an entertaining foundation for further consideration. As indicated above, narrative elements in Her do suggest the importance of these “spiritual” experiences, and imply that their complete dissolution would be irrelevant amid increasing technologies. Samantha was able to further transcend even her limitations as an advanced operating system with these types of innovations—in a way that left Theodore profoundly confused and wanting. And although the potential for technological advancements to be able to render historic modes of religiosity insignificant is an underlying narrative theme in Transcendence, the dynamic between the crucifix and surviving nanoparticles at the end of the film hint at the possibility for their coexistence.