Consciousness and pop stuff

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Posted in Brain+mind dualist by Trevor on April 24, 2016

The Avengers universe is surprisingly mystical for an ostensibly science fiction world.

Perhaps the producers, who are plugged closely into the emotional needs of their mainstream audience, don’t want to imply a worldview which is too atheistic; deep down the audience want to feel that there is something supernaturally special about the human soul, even in a world where robots outstrip us in every other sense.

On the other hand, now I remember reading the comics as a kid, the Marvel universe was always a bit kooky; there was always sort of magic things alongside scientific things. Being for kids it didn’t matter, inconsistency was ok. Thor the god with his supernatural hammer could rub shoulders with Reed Richards the Fantastic Four scientist, and no-one cared much. So perhaps it’s a bit too much to ask for cosmic consistency in the movies.

Still, it’s odd how skittish Hollywood can be on this topic. I wrote earlier about how the Transformers movies, despite the famous tagline “robots in disguise” doesn’t actually have any robots in it – the Transformers themselves are spiritual, dualist beings. And The Matrix movies also draw a strong distinction between the algorithmic program of the AIs and the free will of the humans.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is similarly supernatural. There are two points where a new conscious mind is created in the lab and the film-makers pretty much take the mystical route on both of them.

The first case is the creation of Ultron himself, the villain of the movie. It happens like this,  Tony Stark (AKA Iron Man) investigates the magic stone which was the source of the quasi-god Loki’s power in the previous Avengers movie. Inside it he finds something like a computer program, though he’s not sure exactly what it is.

He immediately decides that this is exactly what he needs to power his new earth defense system; he must extract the intelligent super-code, the instrument of evil in the previous film, and put it in charge of a powerful weapons array. What a great idea. I can’t see what could possibly go wrong there.


What the internet looks like to Ultron

The code is “too dense” to be downloaded so Stark plugs the stone directly into his systems, the internet, his automated manufacturing unit, everything. The code in the stone “wakes up” and, while Stark goes out to get ready for a party, it infuses itself into a robot body. Thus “Ultron” the super-intelligent baddie is begotten.

We know that Ultron is conscious because we see things from his point of view – especially in his first scene where he sees the internet from the point of view of … whatever he is. You can see the scene here – this is looking at the internet from Ultron’s subjective point-of-view.

So. Is Ultron an artificial intelligence? Or did something magical happen? It isn’t quite clear. His origins in a magic stone make him a bit mystical for mine. The fact that the stone is plugged into the hardware means it doesn’t have to be a machine intelligence. There’s enough wiggle room for a supernatural interpretation. So the verdict here is … maybe.

Thor's quasi-god powers

Thor’s godly special effects

So let’s go to the second case. This one is less ambiguous. It occurs when Stark tries to load his machine-intelligence personal assistant JARVIS (which stands for Just A Rather Very Intelligent System) into the quasi-plastic body which Ultron had fashioned for himself. Were this to success then it really would be a case of non-mystical machine intelligence being loaded into a robotic body.

But instead the writers take a mystical route. Various other Avengers question the wisdom of Stark’s activity and punch-up breaks out. During the kerfuffle someone cuts the power to the whole system. But somehow, mystically, without electricity or even a wire going from one system to the other, the JARVIS code is transported and transformed across a Sistinesque gap and into the plastic body. Then to seal the deal, godly Thor jumps up and blasts the whole setup with a big dose of magicky, hammer-glow-energy-effects. This completes the process and hence the character called The Vision is begotten.

The Vision looking

The Vision looking


Verdict here: supernatural substance dualism, bang to rights.


So there you have it – Brain+Mind Dualism in one case, and iffy-maybe magic-stone dualism in the other. So I’m calling it a Brain+Mnd Dualism verdict overall.

As I say, Hollywood science fiction can be surprisingly philosophically conservative. Not always. But more often than you’d think.