Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance
Ghost in the Shell, a film by Mamoru Oshii. (For a podcast version of this story, with music, go to Ghost in the Shell–Dharma Dilemma on Engage Dharma)
I’ve been completely enthralled by the anime media franchise Ghost in the Shell. The cyber punk anime film, directed by Mamoru Oshii, was released in 1995, based on the earlier manga story by Japanese artist Masamune Shirow.
First I will present some of the basic premises of the story, and then discuss its philosophical implications. Ghost in the Shell is widely regarded as one of the most profoundly philosophical stories in the cyber punk genre. The film has had a huge influence on the cyber punk genre, including the Matrix film series, Blade Runner and the recent CyberPunk 2077 video game.
The Ghost in the Shell story is built around the character of Motoko Kusanagi, known as ‘Major’, a cyborg operative who works for Section 9, which is a public security unit of the government. The film is set in Japan in the mid-21st century, in a megalopolis called New Port City.
In simplest terms, the “Ghost” in Ghost in the Shell is the human soul, spirit, or human mind; the “Shell” is the body in which the soul or mind resides. In the story, it is Kusanagi’s ‘ghost’ that resides in her artificially fabricated ‘shell’.
Though Kusanagi works for Section 9, she and her team of cyborgs and human agents often find themselves working against another government unit, Section 6, which is a kind of CIA/espionage unit.
As the films and TV series have progressed, Kusanagi’s role within Section 9 becomes increasingly ambivalent, as Section 9 finds itself going up against government agents in Section 6 more frequently. Furthermore, Kusanagi gradually distances herself from Section 9 and works more independently.
Kusanagi is never entirely free of Section 9, which is part of her dilemma. She not only works for Section 9, but Section 9 also keeps her cyborg body alive. Her consciousness is wired into Section 9’s network, so that she can never be fully independent of it on a conscious level.
Kusanagi and her Section 9 team can connect and communicate “telepathically”, i.e., cybernetically through circuits that plug in to their local network.
Section 9 and Major Kusanagi are commissioned to go in pursuit of the Puppet Master. The Puppet Master was a spy program originally called Project 2501, which was secretly developed by Section 6. The Puppet Master is a program that ‘hacks’ or invades people’s minds through their cybernetic brain enhancements to control their thoughts, implant false memories, and thereby get ‘bodies’ to do what it wants. The Puppet Master is a digital ‘entity’ that developed consciousness by gathering data from the vast ocean of the digital world until it obtained self-consciousness.
Kusanagi and Section 9 team have been tasked with capturing and retrieving the Puppet Master.
So those are the broad outlines of the film, now let’s get to the philosophical questions and dilemmas posed by the film. As I discuss these issues, I will not be pulling quotes from the film to illustrate a point. Instead, I will be asking the questions that the story asks, and for which the film provides few clear answers. With those questions, I hope that you will watch the film yourselves, ask those questions, and seek your own answers. Moreover, the questions are far more interesting than the presumed answers:
There are several main issues that the film presents about Kusanagi’s identity as the cyborg.
Kusanagi’s Identity Crisis
The film posits these questions not only as general existential problems, but as the particular dilemma of its main character, Motoko Kusanagi. Throughout the film and media franchise, Kusanagi doubts and questions her own identity. She is not sure that she is human or machine, independently conscious or simply the product of a computer program.
Kusanagi is a cyborg, constructed to appear human to any observer. This indistinguishability is achieved through the scanning of real human body parts. By understanding how human body parts function down to the molecular level, a perfect artificial copy could be produced.
Kusanagi’s brain is indistinguishable from a human brain on a purely functional level. Her brain is augmented in such a way that she can access digital networks through circuits in the back of her neck, which are connected to the matrix. Aside from this, Kusanagi’s brain, and other enhanced brains like hers, are perfect copies of human brains.
Kusanagi begins the story with the belief that even though she is cyborg, she is human, or at least partly human, human enough. This is confirmed for her several times by her team partner, Batou, who believes that if you act human, and are treated as human, then you are human.
But as the story progresses, Kusanagi, begins to doubt that she is human. She doubts that her memories are real or are they merely false implants. She doubts that she was ever born or had a life before becoming cyborg. Finally, she doubts that she ever really existed.
Kusanagi’s doubts and fears are faced directly in her final confrontation with the data entity, the Puppet Master, who seems to have a mind and identity, but no brain or body. in this final confrontation, Kusanagi and the Puppet Master merge digital and organic minds and bodies to become a new entity.
The ‘soul’ is the part of humans that is supposed to confer our transcendent value.
The possibility of the soul’s non-existence or it’s banality is an abhorrence that many cyber stories exploit. Ghost in the Shell focuses that existential horror entirely on the character of Kusangi. Any semblance of a ‘ghost’ that Kusanagi might feel within herself is said to be an illusion, but is this true? What does it mean to ‘feel’ that one has a soul or mind?
What is so intriguing about the film is that this nuanced and sensitive portrayal of one cyborg, Motoko Kusanagi, can throw into doubt everything that we had assumed to be true about the human species, that was a settled question, or not in question at all.
These questions and existential dilemmas are the sorts of questions that major religions are supposed to provide answer for. In particular, Buddhist dharma most directly addresses the issue of consciousness, mind, body, transcendence and the boundaries between organic and non-organic life. Buddha dharma in particular is supposed to have the wisdom and expertise, developed over thousands of years of inquiry and practice, to have found the likely answers to these questions.
However, here I do not present Buddhist “answers” to those dilemmas around consciousness, human life and technology, but hope that the questions provoke discussion in Buddhist circles around the role of technology in society and in our human and dharma lives.
Finally, I ask, can the Buddha dharma help humanity navigate the technological future and help us to remain more human? Is that what we want?
The Philosophy of Ghost in the Shell, Wisecrack edition
The Philosophy of Ghost in the Shell Explained, by Film Comics Explained
The Philosophy of Ghost in the Shell, by Anime Philosopher
Ghost in the Shell—Story Explanation and Analysis, by Max Derat
Ghost in the Shell—Film Analysis, Motoko’s Dilemma by Anime Everyday
Music by Shaunyata, ‘Ghost’, from the album ‘Deep Dive’
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