Playing God Till You Run out of Cake

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The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 9 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Because SCIENCE.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.

Scientific advancement is the entire backstory of the video games Portal and Portal 2. You play as Chell, a woman awakened from her Relaxation Vault in Aperture Science’s enrichment center, forced to go through a series of tests by the direction of an artificial intelligence named GLaDOS.

Portal takes humanity’s tendency toward advancement beyond all logic (and that’s what makes it hilarious). Not only is the entire lab run by a robot determined to put Chell through her paces and then destroy her, but the tests themselves don’t serve much purpose. Aperture’s founder, Cave Johnson, doesn’t seem to have any morals when it comes to science. In one of his speeches to the test subjects, Cave says flat-out that they have no idea what they’re doing and they’re “throwing science at the wall and seeing what sticks.”

Aperture’s motto, “We do what we must because we can,” seems completely ridiculous in light of the Portal universe (because there’s just something ridiculous about a robot chucking heart-labeled companion cubes at you and degrading you for not solving the puzzle faster).

People will always seek the power to advance and improve the world; but how far is too far?

However, I find the game an ironic insight into the human mind. God created us with minds that have this tendency to dream, adapt, and create (we just keep on trying till we run out of cake, as GLaDOS would say). We’re constantly pushing for new discoveries and knowledge. In fact, on average, the sum total of human knowledge doubles every year.

I understand the draw of wanting to know how something works and, even more, the desire to create and manipulate (hence my obsession with writing and video games).

My concern is when that desire for power goes so far that more important things are sacrificed in the name of human advancement.

GLaDOS is something like a god in the Enrichment Center (until Chell challenges her reign, of course). She has control over the entire place and has a complete disregard for human lives unless they can help with the testing process.

“While safety is one of many Enrichment Center goals, the Aperture Science High Energy Pellet, seen to the left of the chamber, can and has caused permanent disabilities, such as vaporization.” —GLaDOS

Though she is a robot (albeit with part of Caroline, a human, in her), GLaDOS represents a human tendency to want control and power, to obsess over an end goal to the point that the reason it’s important is forgotten.

***

Science also plays a huge part in the animated series Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, as alchemy is portrayed as a scientific process.

In episode 4, we meet a state alchemist named Shou Tucker (those of us who have seen the show generally cringe at the sound of his name). Tucker is known as the Sewing-Life Alchemist for having created a talking chimera two years previous. (For those of you unfamiliar with chimeras, these are creatures made by fusing, grafting, or mutating multiple organisms with a mix of genetically different tissues. Think of a centaur or Medusa.) This is a mysterious and much applauded feat because no alchemist has been able to make something that showed signs of human intelligence before. If the state was suspicious about how he did it, they didn’t ask questions.

Tucker is under a lot of pressure because his assessment day with the state is coming soon, and he hasn’t been able to produce any remarkable research since his first breakthrough; his state alchemy license is on the line.

“I have to try hard, or I will be left with nothing, again,” he whispers to himself as his little daughter, Nina, gives him a huge hug of encouragement.

Edward and Alphonse Elric, brothers who have lost much by misusing alchemy in a failed attempt to resurrect their beloved mother, make a stark contrast to Tucker. Edward is also a state alchemist, also devoted to science, and he’s determined to find a way to get Alphonse’s body back; its loss had been a consequence of their attempt at the resurrection, and Al’s soul is currently attached to a suit of armor. The brothers—one human, one metal—are at the Tucker estate to do research in the alchemist’s library, looking for anything that might help them in their quest. Edward’s overseer sends them there because he knows Tucker is a specialist who might assist their research on the philosopher’s stone.

But after hours of study, Edward discovers Alphonse playing with Nina and her giant dog. The little girl had peeked at him from around a corner, and her loneliness and desire to play was too difficult to say no to. Edward almost immediately gives in and the four race outside to enjoy the end of a beautiful day together—a girl and her dog, a boy and his suit-of-armor brother. From this lighthearted yet bizarre scene, the story shifts to Tucker, who is sitting in the basement at a desk with his head in his hands. The pursuit and elusiveness of discovery have stolen away all joy for him.

When the brothers return the next day, we see just how great the difference is between them and Tucker. Tucker reveals that the previous night, he managed to create another chimera. He has secured his place with the state. Edward can tell something is off; this new chimera, he realizes, was created by merging a live human with an animal, something that is forbidden. Two years before, Tucker had sacrificed his wife as the human component. This time, his daughter and her dog. Although both Tucker and the Elric brothers have misused alchemy, Tucker allowed his obsession for discovery to override all other values. He sacrificed the people he loved for alchemy, whereas the brothers were using alchemy in an attempt to restore someone they loved.

“I don’t see what you’re so upset about,” says Tucker in response to Edward’s righteous anger. “This is how we progress. Human experimentation is a necessary step.” He then comments that Edward and he are similar. They both took an opportunity, “even though we knew it was against the rules.”

Tucker really doesn’t seem to understand why anyone would be upset with what he had done. He had become so obsessed with science and progression that nothing, and I mean nothing, else mattered to him. Ironically, his experiment doesn’t really help science progress at all, because he is presenting false data by using a human as part of the process.

In the 2003 anime (the series that predates Brotherhood, called just Fullmetal Alchemist, but with many of the same plotlines), Shou summarized his motives by saying: “That’s the funny thing, I didn’t have a reason. I fully understood, no matter what I did, my life would be ruined. I could either do it with the science, or without. And so I chose science, to see if I could.”

Edward is, understandably, distraught at the end of this Brotherhood episode. He is largely upset because of an innocent girl’s murder, but also because he can’t stand the idea of a state alchemist doing something like Tucker did; he abhors the idea of being anything like him.

In the wake of this dilemma, Edward’s supervisor coolly comments that more cases like this one will arise again in the future; he asks if Ed’s going to shut down like this every time.

Ed’s response: “I know we’re not devils. I know we’re not gods. We’re human. We’re only human!”

It is the very fact that Edward is so affected that makes him a hero. It’s the fact that he took time off studying to play with a little girl and her dog, that he learned from his mistake in trying to be God and bring his mom back—that’s what makes him great. Just like Tucker, Edward feels like he has a purpose. But unlike Tucker, his purpose is not science for science’s sake or to gain god-like power, but to undo a horrible mistake, save his brother, and change a little bit of the awfulness in the world, if he can.

***

There is something about technological advancement that can lead us to obsessiveness. Edward says, “I know we’re not gods,” but it took him a near-death experience to come to that conclusion. I wonder if that creative power is largely the draw.

If you can manipulate the building blocks of humanity, doesn’t that make you like God?

Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse wrestles with that. It’s set on the premise that human minds can be wiped and imprinted with other personalities by those with the power to do so. The show provides a frightening and thought-provoking look into what might happen if someone played God in this manner. (I’ll give you a hint: nothing good.)

Topher Brink is the mind behind most of the technological advancements in the show. He is a genius programmer who appears to be blithely amoral in the first few episodes. He’s responsible for imprinting and wiping the Actives (or “dolls,” the employees of the Dollhouse who are hired out for a large amount of money), and he seems to look at them as though they really are just playthings rather than human beings.

Paul Ballard: So this is it. This is where you steal their souls.

Topher Brink: Yeah. And then we put ‘em in a glass jar with our fireflies. [Turns to DeWitt] Why is there a tall, morally judgmental man in my imprint room . . . ?

Topher is arrogant, selfish, and incredibly smart (which further inflates the arrogance and selfishness). He has no problem flaunting his intelligence in front of other people, and throughout the show, we see samples of his genius through his inventions and streamlining of the imprinting technology. He appears to have no moral quandary with the god-like powers of wiping a person’s mind and replacing her personality. He is one of those people who is always right, and no one else can tell him otherwise.

His perspective only changes when he realizes he’s made a horrible mistake.

One of the Actives Topher had recruited himself, named Priya, had been brought in because she was believed to be mentally ill; Actives are supposedly volunteers who give up five years of their lives for the Dollhouse in exchange for a ridiculous sum of money. But Priya was a charity case, recruited in order to “help” her.

Later Topher discovers Priya did not have a mental disorder; she had been given anti-psychotic drugs by a very rich man who wanted to control her. When Topher tells the Dollhouse overseer what he’s discovered and declares that Priya should never have been memory-wiped, he is ordered to imprint her with a docile personality and give her over to that very same man, permanently.

It’s at this point that Topher realizes he is a child playing with fire rather than a god ruling over his minions. He begins to question the very nature of the Dollhouse and how many of the Actives actually are volunteers.

Instead of amorally doing what he’s told, Topher fights for Priya’s freedom and saves her from a horrible future. His moral growth doesn’t end there, either, though he still ends up creating a piece of technology, an enhancement of the imprinting process, that has the potential to end the world and gets into the wrong hands.

Topher Brink: I did all of this. I’m the one who brings about the thought-pocalpyse.

Adelle DeWitt: Thought-pocalypse?

Topher Brink: Is brain-pocalypse better? I figure, if I’m responsible for the end of the world, I get to name it.

Adelle DeWitt: I gave the plans to Harding; I’m just as culpable.

Topher Brink: Thanks, Adelle. You handed someone a piece of paper. I invented it. Which means I have to destroy it.

Like Edward Elric, Topher realizes he’s made a mistake and strives to fix it. He realizes that power doesn’t equal happiness, either; in fact, that amount of power in the hands of a human (or in the hands of an AI) just ends in devastation.

***

People will always be striving to advance and improve the world, and I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with that. It’s when we decide that we can play with others’ lives, when that power becomes far too great, that there is a problem.

Edward and Topher were obsessed with science and power until they came to a breaking point. The slice of cake they were eating was made out of arrogance and self-righteousness. It wasn’t until they both made a horrible mistake with their power that they realized they were not the gods they thought themselves to be. They learned from their mistakes, gained some humility, and ran out of cake.

We’re not gods, as much as we might strive to be. There is only one being who can make a claim to that name. We’re human; we’re only human.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.


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1 Comment

  1. It’s sad because people in our day God-complex themselves more than you would think, not only denying that God exists, but then making decisions as though they were God. Then, when they come to the knowledge that He is real, spit in the face of the Prince of Peace, turning away from His grace. They believe that they are too good for Him because they are puffed up, making themselves like God. This is ever-present in science, especially in those key examples that you brought up. Fullmetal Alchemist was one that resonates well with me when I walked the atheist path and I have strong connections to it. Overall, great analysis and I hope to read more by you in the future!

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