Spiritual versus Technological Transcendence in Avatar

by Dan Dinello

Sparkling woodsprites flutter in the forest and bioluminescent willow tendrils illuminate the strange ritual that ends Avatar. Human Jake lies head to head with his human-Na’vi hybrid avatar. Fine hair-like organelle threads have emerged from the Tree of Souls, fusing both bodies to the forest floor and connecting them to each other. Concentric rings of blue-skinned Na’vi people are entangled with the tree. They merge with its roots. Covered in translucent silken shrouds of cilia, the two Jakes lie motionless. The Na’vi sway in unison and chant hypnotically. Through this biological-spiritual ritual, Jake’s human mind is transferred to his Na’vi body. Neytiri, his mate, removes human Jake’s exomask, which protects him from Pandora’s poisonous (to human beings) atmosphere, and gently kisses his closed, now-dead eyes. Embracing Na’vi culture, abandoning his human body, and rejecting the monstrous aspects of the human race, avatar Jake opens his Na’vi eyes.

Jake is resurrected as a scientifically created, superhuman “transgenic”—an artificially fashioned organism, containing genetic material from two different species. Some viewers might see Avatar as advocating science and biotechnology as the salvation of a doomed humanity. If this view is correct, the movie would be reflecting the techno-utopian philosophy known as transhumanism.Here’s how philosopher Max More summarizes the transhumanist program:

“We challenge the inevitability of aging and death. We see humans as a transitional stage standing between our animal heritage and our posthuman future . . . This technological transformation will be accelerated by genetic engineering, life extending biosciences, intelligence intensifiers, smarter interfaces to swifter computers, neural-computer integration, worldwide data networks, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, artificial life, off-planet migration, and molecular nanotechnology.

Inspired by scientific materialism and tortured by the prospect of senescence and mortality, transhumanists profess a belief in the almost-divine power of scientists to engineer a new technologically enhanced species that eventually will supersede humanity. “When technology allows us to reconstitute ourselves physiologically, genetically and neurologically," says More, "we will transform ourselves into posthumans—persons of unprecedented physical, intellectual and psychological capacity, self-programming, potentially immortal, unlimited individuals.”

Like transhumanism, Avatar views the human species as corrupted and endangered, though (as we will see) for different reasons. Moreover, transhumanism and Avatar both hold out the promise of some form of transcendence or salvation for the human race. And along with transhumanism, but unlike much contemporary science fiction, Avatar presents science in a positive light, dramatizing the development of a biologically enhanced posthuman creature that offers humankind hope for survival. Yet on a deeper level Avatar subverts and eclipses the transhumanist viewpoint and criticizes its implications. Exalting spiritualism, pantheism, and nature, while sounding an alarm about the dangers of technology and scientific materialism, Avatar ultimately endorses a positive philosophy antithetical to transhumanism.

Not-Mad Scientists

In Avatar, human scientists genetically engineer human-Na’vi hybrid bodies—avatars—so incredibly sophisticated that they function naturally on the Na’vi’s home, the moon Pandora. Grown in vitro from a genetic splice of human and Na’vi DNA, these transgenic creatures—“hum’vi,” if you will—exist as mindless inanimate organic pods floating in synthetic amniotic fluid until a human driver takes control. In accord with the transhumanist viewpoint, the film presents the scientists and the consequences of their cloning and genetic engineering positively. The human-Na’vi clones are a non-violent way to smooth relations between the natives of Pandora and the human corporation that wants to mine their planet’s valuable ore, Unobtainium. The avatars also allow the scientists to interact with the Na’vi people in order to study them and their culture.            

The scientists may work for a rapacious corporation, but they are a charming, likeable, empathetic, and pro-Na’vi group. They’re a sharp contrast to the racist corporate administrator Parker Selfridge, his violent chief of security Colonel Miles Quaritch, and their private army of “trigger happy morons,” as Dr. Grace Augustine, head of the Avatar Program, describes them.  These scientists not only walk a moral high ground compared to most other human beings in Avatar, but they also differ markedly from the mad or misguided scientists who populate most science fiction. From Frankenstein (1818) to the recent movie Splice (2010), science fiction often portrays scientists as hubristic zealots, eager tools of corporate and military profiteering, or reckless experimenters who are oblivious to the dangerous consequences of their deeds.

These unflattering depictions of scientists encourage us to think critically about the ethics of scientific research and the potentially negative effects of technology. 
Avatar, on the other hand, is likely to effect viewers in the opposite way. By presenting the scientists so positively, especially in comparison with the extremely unlikeable corporate and military personnel, Avatar discourages any moral questions about the scientists’ work. No one asks how or from whom the Na’vi DNA was harvested. No ethical qualms are raised about growing insentient bodies in a vat as slaves or artificial zombies. No experimental failures are shown, such as mutations discarded as organic garbage or artificially created organisms that had become conscious of their plight.

Aside from their scientific investigations, which led to a book deal for Dr. Augustine, the scientists’ mission involved at one time building a school and teaching English to the Na’vi, who needed neither. There’s no critique of cultural imperialism, since the intentions of the scientists are presented as benign. The Na’vi themselves express no negative feelings toward them. The only criticisms we hear of the scientists come from a morally compromised source: corporate administrator Selfridge. He disparages the Avatar Program as a “puppet show” and points out the hypocrisy of Dr. Augustine criticizing the corporation’s strong-arm tactics when it’s the quest for Unobtanium—at whatever price—that pays for her beloved science. But however beholden Dr. Augustine may be to the corporate purse strings, in the end she and her colleagues act heroically to oppose the forceful corporate-military take-over of Pandora. 

In its highly favorable depiction of scientists, cloning, and genetic engineering, Avatar trumpets the values of scientific materialism, even in its most extreme transhumanist version.  Reflecting her belief in the supremacy of scientific knowledge, Dr. Augustine initially believes that Na’vi spiritualism can be completely explained in biological terms, without invoking any kind of “pagan voodoo.” In many ways, the movie seems to side with her exclusive veneration of science. In fact, it seems to endorse a techno-utopian transhumanist philosophy that hopes for the day when human scientists will design a technologized, posthuman species to replace the flawed, disease-prone, death-susceptible one that transhumanists believe is at an evolutionary dead end. The human-Na’vi hybrids possess greater strength, resistance, resilience, athleticism, and vision than normal human bodies. They are striking examples of how science can create a positive, posthuman techno-enhanced species.

Science as Salvation: Über-Na’vi Messiah

Avatar initially seems to reinforce the transhumanist technological vision of posthuman salvation and dramatizes the amazing promise of biotechnology and neuroscience. Paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully is drafted to “drive” an avatar because its human DNA had been derived from his dead twin brother. As Jake explains, every driver must be genetically matched to his own avatar in order that “their nervous systems are in tune.” Once Jake is linked to his avatar, the results are spectacular. After a few comically clumsy missteps, he masters avatar operation in short order without any training other than reading a manual. He runs and jumps gracefully, makes elaborate facial expressions, and controls his tail—all complicated maneuvers. Even more astonishingly, Jake’s long, braided “queue”—with its fiber-optic-like hair follicles that writhe with their own life—interfaces perfectly with the planet’s biota. Using his Na’vi queue to connect neurally with the antenna of his personal mountain banshee, he bonds without the slightest technical glitch. Of course, a native Na’vi does this naturally, but Jake’s avatar is not a native Na’vi—it’s a complex, manufactured, genetically designed, transgenic product: created on earth, grown in a tank on a space ship, and operated by a remote control “psionic link.”

The planet’s divine force, Eywa, even sanctifies this biotechnologically enabled Jake. His anointment occurs at a propitious point in the story, only minutes after he first meets Neytiri. Having just saved his life by killing several direwolves, she angrily blames him for the deaths of the animals and for failing to appreciate the sadness of their demise. She calls him “stupid! Ignorant like a child.” Dismissing him with a flourish of her hand, she says, “You should not be here,” and turns to walk away. Suddenly feather-light woodsprites float down and, pulsing with purpose, alight on Avatar Jake. They dance gently around his shoulders, then spread over his arms, legs and head, imbuing him with grace. Neytiri identifies them as atokirina’, “Seeds of the Sacred Tree. Very pure spirits.” He becomes a glowing, sparkling mass of light, which Neytiri interprets as a sign from Eywa. That they should alight on Jake seems odd, since he’s there as a spy for Colonel Quaritch. Apparently they recognize his courage, his capacity for compassion, and his potential to transcend his spiritual corruption as a deceptive spy and cultural interloper serving imperialistic interests. They see in him what Neytiri sees: “a strong heart. No fear.” She brings him to her village, sheltered inside the giant Hometree, where smelly alien dreamwalkers are not allowed. There he meets Mo’at, the clan’s Tsahik or spiritual leader, who decides to let him be instructed in Na’vi ways, confirming his worthiness by tasting his blood. This bioengineered human-Na’vi clone has become the Chosen One after a single day on the planet.

Remarkably, he learns to ride a banshee and hunt as skillfully as a native, despite being an artificial Na’vi. His physical abilities are a testament to the power of the biotechnology that created his body. “I have to trust my body to know what to do,” he says, as he masters the Na’vi acrobatic style of running, climbing, and leaping, as well as more refined skills like recognizing the forest’s tiniest scents and sounds. There doesn’t appear to be anything a Na’vi body can do that Jake’s avatar body can’t do just as well. Even the avatar body of nerdy, unathletic scientist Norm Spellman performs impressively, riding and handily controlling a direhorse during the battle with the SecOps forces.           

Jake becomes a Super-Na’vi, a Toruk Makto, Rider of the Last Shadow, earning the respect of his romantic rival Tsu’tey, who salutes him with grudging admiration. Controlling the Toruk, the gigantic red aerial predator that the human scientists call the Great Leonopteryx, Jake vindicates Eywa’s endorsement by duplicating the legendary deed of Neytiri’s “grandfather’s grandfather” and successfully leading the Na’vi insurgency against the human invaders. Human Jake becomes Avatar Jake, the messiah, reflecting the original meaning of “avatar” as an incarnate deity who descends to earth—or, in this case, Pandora. His ability to fulfill this role results from a combination of his human virtues, his rapidly maturing Na’vi identity, and a first-rate body that he owes to the power of human technology, specifically to genetic engineering, cloning, and the psionic-link technology that knits it all together. 

Transhumanist Mind Transfer and the Ghost in the Avatar

Belief in the inevitable development of mind-transfer technology—whereby our minds could be “uploaded” to another platform—is a central creed of the transhumanists, who see it as a means to life extension and possibly immortality, their ultimate goal. As transhumanist Ray Kurzweil, in The Singularity is Near, explains:

When our human hardware crashes, the software of our lives—our personal “mind file”—dies with it. However, this will not continue to be the case when we have the means to store and restore the thousands of trillions of bytes of information represented in the pattern that we call our brains. Ultimately software-based humans will be vastly extended beyond the severe limitations of humans as we know them today.”

Desiring escape from bodies they considered to be dead-meat relics of natural evolution, transhumanists hope that downloading our human identities into enhanced posthuman bodies will liberate us from the physical limitations of aging, disease, and death.

The concept of mind-transfer addresses one of the most perplexing, persistent, and fascinating issues in the history of philosophy: the mind-body problem. What is the mind and how is it related to the brain and body? The French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) offered an influential answer to this question with his doctrine of dualism. Famous for his dictum “I think therefore I am,” Descartes divided the world into two different kinds of substances that can exist independently of each other—mental substances and physical substances, minds and bodies. As long as we live, our minds “drive” our bodies through a special “link” with the brain. Operating as part of the body’s machinery, the brain is material. Operating beyond the laws of matter, without size or shape, the mind is immaterial and potentially immortal.

British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, in his The Concept of Mind (1949), attacked Descartes’ distinction between mind and body as a “philosopher’s myth.” With what he admitted was “deliberate abusiveness,” Ryle dubbed Descartes’ dualism the “dogma of the ghost in the machine.” As an alternative, he endorsed materialism—the theory that the mind and the brain are the same thing, rather than two separate substances. All that imaginative, smart, witty stuff we think is nothing more than brain activity.   

The transhumanist position occupies a peculiar middle ground between Descartes and Ryle. It proposes a quasi-dualistic materialism that fuses a belief in an immortal mind with a materialistic worldview. Simply put, the brain is a computer, the mind a software program. Viewing the brain as an information-processing meat machine while rejecting both classical materialism and ghost-in-the-machine spiritualism, transhumanism puts its faith in the notion of an independent mind whose patterns can be severed from our flawed flesh, transduced into a digital signal, and transferred into another organic or silicon brain.  

This theory of digital mind transfer rests on a shaky foundation of unproven and even fantastical assumptions, however. The theory assumes that mind or consciousness is a sort of “vaporous afterimage,” said Erik Davis, in Techgnosis (1998), emerging from complex patterns of electro-chemical machinations; that these complex neuronal patterns can be identified and precisely mapped; that they can then be replicated in a digital signal and coherently transferred into an artificial simulation of someone’s brain or a cloned duplicate; and, finally, that these digitized patterns that constitute that person’s mind will awake into consciousness with its memories, personality, and identity intact.

Initially, it appears that Avatar is endorsing the possibility of mind-transfer technology. When Jake links to his avatar, his brain is first scanned into a computer, digitized, and “phase-locked” with the brain of his hum’vi. As he sleeps, his identity—his personality, memories, and skills—streams through a pulsing tunnel of light and imprints the avatar brain. Jake’s human mind animates his avatar body, controlling its movement and perceiving the world through its sense organs. His consciousness seems to be transferred between the avatar and his human body. Closer examination, however, shows this is not the case.

When Norm’s avatar is mortally wounded, he immediately wakes up in his human body. But if his human mind had been really transferred into the avatar, killing his avatar would have killed him, just as destroying a computer destroys all the files it once contained. In fact, the avatar link technology doesn’t transfer a “mind file” from a human brain into the hum’vi, but allows the “driver” to operate the avatar by remote control using what is described as a “psionic link.”

Psi or psionic refers to psychic phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis. Psionics or psi phenomena appear in several other science fiction and fantasy worlds, such as Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, Ubik by Philip K. Dick, Akira - the anime and manga, the Star Trek universe, and the Starcraft videogame series.

Somehow, perhaps by infrared, radio, or psychic signals, the wireless psionic interface extends the human mind into the avatar, receiving sensory stimulation from its environment that it feeds back to the driver’s brain. The implication is that a human mind is linked to a particular human body and yet also independently extendable to a second avatar body. In a sense, a human ghost pilots the avatar.

Disappointing though it may be to the transhumanists, Avatar’s science can’t accomplish complete mind-transfer, as we learn when Dr. Augustine’s human body is mortally wounded.  Her fellow scientists make no attempt to save her through a mind-link to her avatar, since the hum’vi works only if a living human mind operates it. When her human body dies, there’s no more mind to be linked or transferred to her avatar. In Avatar’s 2154 vision of human science, a mind cannot be severed and transferred out of its original organic substrate.

“Through the Eye of Eywa”

Of course, as we saw at the beginning of this chapter, Jake is able to achieve a complete and permanent transfer of his mind “though the eye of Eywa” and into his avatar body. But this differs from the transhumanist version of mind-transfer, since it’s not accomplished through technology but through a biological-spiritual-religious ritual. More specifically, Na’vi mind-transfer involves the cooperation of the natural world and the intercession of a divine force, two things that tend to be disregarded or even repudiated by transhumanists. Listen to Dr. Augustine explain to Parker Selfridge the natural or biological aspect of Na’vi spiritualism:

"What we think we know is that there is some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees, like the synapses between neurons. And each tree has ten-to-the-fourth connections to the trees around it. And there are ten-to-the twelfth trees on Pandora. . . . It’s more connections than the human brain. Get it? It’s a network. It’s a global network, and the Na’vi can access it. They can upload and download data. Memories." 

If they can upload and download memories, presumably they can do the same thing with whole minds. The Na’vi’s biological communion with nature—their access to this “global network”—is made possible by a convenient plug—their neural queue—through which they can physically and neurally unite with trees and other animals, as well with one another. 

But the mind-transfer we witness at the end of the film involves more than just biology. It’s ritualistically mediated by a religious ceremony, replete with chanted prayers, rhythmic music, and Na’vi bodies swaying in unison—all beckoning Ewya to facilitate Jake’s rebirth as Na’vi. If the interconnected system of roots is like Pandora’s brain, then Ewya is its global mind, an independent spiritual force that is more than the sum of her biological parts. Dr. Augustine’s dying words speak of her encounter with this reality, which express a spiritual vision rather than a scientific observation “I’m with her, Jake. She’s real!”

With the Na’vi on the brink of annihilation by the technologically advanced human beings, Eywa responds to a prayer from Jake with a unified attack from Pandora’s fauna. Swarms of mountain banshees darken the sky with their gigantic leathery wings and ram the airships; a wall of hammerheads—the six-legged shark-like rhinoceroses with sledgehammer skulls—and vicious viperwolves, with flashing teeth and monkeylike-agility, crash out of the foliage and stampede in human-crushing waves. Emerging out of the smoke, a bellowing Thanator, a glistening three-ton black demon with an armored head, kills with razor claws and nightmare jaws. This attack reveals Eywa as a powerful, unifying, global intelligence with an independent volition, connecting and integrating Pandora’s many life forms.

Through this depiction of Eywa, Avatar expresses the theme that nature is sacred. The Na’vi reverence for their mother goddess is in striking contrast with the attitude of the human beings, whom we’re told have poisoned their planet through greed, selfishness, and arrogance. Recall how Jake prays to Eywa, warning her about the Sky People who are preparing to attack: “See the world we come from. There’s no green there. They killed their Mother. And they’re gonna do the same here.”

Transhumanism does not view the natural world as sacred, but only as a resource to be exploited and then abandoned.  “Humanity will become largely de-coupled from terrestrial nature,” predict transhumanistsGregory Paul and Earl Cox in Beyond Humanity (1996). “No need to worry about floods, drought, disease, and pest-causing famines.” In the future envisioned by the transhumanists, technology will eventually free us from our dependence on the natural world. But if we regard nature as irrelevant to our future, we will see the world as merely something to be used and discarded. Avatar’s RDA corporation offers a picture of what BP or Halliburton might be like if they could operate on an interplanetary scale. Having done its part to ravage the environment of the earth, RDA still hungers for profit, growth, and power. It employs its monstrous technology to rape its virgin rainforest, leaving lifeless craters and slaughtering the forest’s inhabitants. They are sacrificed as collateral damage in RDA’s drive to extract Pandora’s valuable Unobtanium deposits. As Selfridge says, “Killing the indigenous looks bad, but there’s one thing shareholders hate more than bad press, and that’s a bad quarterly statement.”

If the actions of RDA and its private military force bring to mind examples of American imperialism and environmental exploitation, perhaps it’s because our own world is poisoned by similarly perverse values. RDA’s attempt to wipe out an indigenous population to clear a path to exploitable natural resources looks a lot like our genocide of Native Americans, as well as our ongoing decimation of the rain forest. At times, RDA’s attempt to suppress the Na’vi insurgents evokes the jungle war of Vietnam. “Look, you’re supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of the natives,” says Selfridge to Dr. Augustine, repeating a phrase often used during the Vietnam War to describe effort by the military to win the support of the local population. At other times, RDA’s ruthless lust for the natural resources buried beneath the Na’vi’s feet, not to mention its seamless integration of economic interest and armed aggression, serve as a barely veiled allegory for the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. “Our only security lies in pre-emptive attack,” says Colonel Quaritch, echoing the argument made by President George Bush during the run up to war. And, just in case we miss that clear allusion to Iraq, Max Patel further underscores the comparison when he refers to the attack as a “shock and awe campaign.”

Spiritual Evolution: Transcending the Human

Contemporary philosopher Richard Tarnas could have been offering a summary of Avatar’s critique of transhumanism and scientific materialism when he wrote in Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View

The soul of the world has been extinguished: Ancient trees and forests can then be seen as nothing but potential lumber; mountains nothing but mineral deposits; seashores and deserts are oil reserves; lakes and rivers, engineering tools. Animals are perceived as harvestable commodities, indigenous tribes as obstructing relics of an outmoded past. At the all-important cosmological level, the spiritual dimension of the empirical universe has been entirely negated.

Avatar shares with transhumanism a dark vision of the human future, but for very different reasons. Transhumanism places the blame for humanity’s woes on organic flaws such as aging, disease, and death, while Avatar points to spiritual degeneracy as the cause of our troubles. Both respond with visions of human transcendence. Avatar’s hope for the apotheosis of humanity rests on social evolution and spiritual transformation. In contrast, transhumanism desires to perfect each of us in isolation from our social matrix and eventually to secure our liberation in a post-biological form of existence. Emphasizing technology as salvation, transhumanists propose to enhance or replace our individual organic bodies, all the while denying or ignoring our pressing spiritual, ecological, and social problems. In short, they envision a technological utopia outside the world of nature.

Avatar dramatizes an alternative worldview. Jake’s transformation may initially be enabled by genetic engineering and cloning, but its consummation is brought about by Na’vi spirituality, with its emphasis on community and its reverence for nature. In his prayer to Eywa, Jake voices his concern that human beings as a species are engineering not their enhancement but rather their extinction through their destruction of the natural world. Though somewhat stereotypical in its presentation of a peaceful, primitive people uncorrupted by literacy, cell phones and civilization, Avatar rightlystresses the importance of community, empathy, and respect for nature—values that much of humanity ignores. Rejecting the anarchic capitalism, speciesism, and militarism of the RDA corporation, along with the transhumanist plan for technological transcendence, Jake transcends humanity by embracing the spiritual salvation that comes from loving the natural Pandoran world.



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