A deadly game has begun. Kirito and thousands of other players have been trapped within the Virtual Reality MMO called Sword Art Online. Kayaba Akihiko, the game’s creator, has removed the ability to log-out from the game as well as to revive fallen party members. The only way to return to the real world is to clear the game by defeating the bosses found on each of the game’s 100 floors. But there is a sinister catch—if a person’s game character dies, then he or she also dies in real life. So, for the first time, death in a video game means death in real life.
With such a harrowing specter cast over the entire frame of the VRMMO, panic is bound to ensue. Mistrust is bound to breed like lice. Video game exploitation is bound to take on a nefarious hue. But what about the mechanism that causes death for the players? What, if anything, does that mechanism say about the type of philosophy of mind present in SAO? Given the circumstances surrounding the nature of game-related death in SAO, it seems that SAO is subtly pushing for a physicalist theory of mind.
I. A Lesson in Philosophy of Mind: Presented by Sword Art Online’s Villains
Consider the scene when Kayaba Akihiko informs his little pawns that they are all prisoners in a death game. In this scene (pictured above), Kayaba Akihiko tells all the players that they will not be able to log-out of the game until someone clears it. On top of that, he tells the players that if anyone tries to remove their NerveGear (the device that creates the nearly realistic virtual world) in the real world, a microwave burst will be sent through their NerveGear and into their brains, which will completely fry their brains. In other words, if they try to manually escape the death-trap, they will find death all the same.
When all the drama is peeled back from this scenario, a physicalist theory of mind seems to emerge. After all, what is a human being without a well-functioning (or, at the very least, functioning) brain? Everyone acknowledges that if Klein were to take a microwave burst directly to the brain, he would most likely not survive and, even if he did, he would be seriously impaired. So, if the brain is lost, then the life is also lost. That seems to be the dominant philosophy of mind that is being pushed in SAO.
Consider another rather harrowing example from Sword Art Online, though. In this rather disturbing scene, Sugou (pictured above as his VRMMO counterpart King Oberon) announces that he has been conducting experiments on 300 human minds that are trapped within the ALfheim Online (another VRMMO). He has worked on inducing emotions, altering memories, and even creating/implanting memories and emotions. Also, note the words he uses in what he thought was his victory speech: I’ll achieve what no one ever has, control of the human soul. What Sugou is essentially saying, then, is that the “human soul” is just the brain: by altering the brain, he alters the subject’s soul; by controlling the brain, he controls the subject’s “soul.” In other words, the soul is reduced to the brain.
So, in both cased, the villains in the anime are pining for the same philosophy of mind: physicalism. Now, as was discussed in the Philosophy of Mind Series, there are many different varieties of physicalism. These different versions of physicalism entail somewhat different consequences for our understanding of the mind and the world as a whole. What seems to be happening in SAO, though, is a reductionist physicalism, where mental properties and states just are brain states. In other words, if the pain region lights up in the brain, then that particular brain is in a pain-state (Now, whether or not the host of that brain is conscious of the pain is another matter entirely).
We even see this reductionist account represented in the anime. When Asuna sneaks out of her cage and accidentally enters the lab, she finds holograms of brains floating above canister/pod-type apparatuses. Each of the 300 brains she saw had different regions lighting up in response to different kinds of stimuli. An indicator was also shown next to the region that highlighted things like “fear” or “pain” or “excitement.” After seeing these experiments, Asuna concludes, “They’re suffering!” Her reaction coupled with the presentation of the experiment Sugou and his henchmen were doing strongly supports a reductionist theory of mind. Furthermore, given the indicators and identifiers presented, it almost seems like the villains in Sword Art Online are pushing for the mind-brain identity theory, where the “mind,” this nebulous thing that we constantly reference as if it is somehow distinct from nature, is just the brain, properly understood.
II. What Remains to Be Explained?
On this understanding of the mind, what is left for the “soul stuff”? If the soul is independent of the mind, then why does a person’s personality change when he suffers brain damage? The “soul” does not get hurt along with the brain, right? So, shouldn’t the personality remain intact? In theory, shouldn’t it be possible for a person to survive significant injury as long as his or her soul remains intact? Why is it, then, that no “soul” has ever kept a person alive after brain failure? What “syncs” the soul to the brain—or even to the body? Does that type of explanation even make sense? (See the post on Dualism in the Philosophy of Mind series for a discussion on this topic.)
According to the villains’ philosophy of mind, the real question to be answered is: what remains to be explained? Their accounts of philosophy of mind seem to explain everything that needs to be explained. Talk about “souls” or “soul stuff,” though, only seems to complicate the matter and provide us with a lot more seemingly unsolvable mysteries than potential answers. So, as theorizing goes, if one theory explains a lot and another theory makes the issue more complicated but does not explain nearly as much as the first theory, then shouldn’t the second theory (in this case, “soul stuff”) be thrown out? Or does Sword Art Online try to resolve this question for us?
III. The Loophole
SAO, as a good anime should, complicates this question of which philosophy of mind is being advanced in the story. The little caveat that SAO throws in, though, comes in the final battle between Heathcliffe and Kirito. Kirito has been defeated, his HP dropped to zero, and his “data” shatters—but then, suddenly, his data re-materializes and he is able to slay Heathcliffe. Apparently, Kirito surpassed the “laws” of the game’s world through sheer willpower alone. In fact, right when Kirito is about to admit defeat to Sugou (while Suguo is…doing creepy and terrible things to Asuna) in ALO, Kayaba appears to Kirito and says, “Our battle showed me the power of the human will.” And, of course, Kirito is then able to overcome Sugou’s Gravity Magic and completely dominate Sugou.
So, those wrinkles in the story leave us with the following questions: what is will? How does it work? What bearing does it have in our life if the proverbial “soul” is nothing but a dated way of referring to the brain? Does Kirito represent a different understanding of mind (or, a different philosophy of mind)? If so, does that mean that one of the real messages of Sword Art Online is the battle between physicalist and non-physicalist (maybe even dualist) accounts of mind, of what it is to be human? If SAO is understood in lines of that last question, then the anime takes on a whole new meaning and the conflicts mean something entirely different. In a sense, then, SAO could be said to depict a struggle between Modernism and Post-Modernism on one hand and traditional and ancient understandings on the other.
To borrow a line from USA’s former hit show Psych, “I’ve heard it both ways.” I will let you decide what to do with the information and the various interpretations presented in this entry. Which one do you think is better? What do you make of the “aims” of the villains juxtaposed with the fascinating wrinkle of Kirito’s “will”?