Ghost in the Shell: what is it really about?

I’ve been a bit slow on updates since the arrival of our baby girl a couple of months ago.

Nothing quite like regularly-interrupted sleep to trim one’s creative efforts!

But someone ‘liked’ my previous post on Ghost in the Shell, and that reminded me I’d intended to write a follow-up post on it.

(That’s not true. I’m melancholic, so I didn’t need reminding. I’ve been constantly berating myself for not having done it yet).

I originally wanted to write about the character of the Major, what makes her a good character in the anime movie and SAC series, and why these features didn’t translate into the Hollywood adaptation from 2017.

But as I thought about the Major, I realised that what makes her character successful has as much to do with the plot and themes of Ghost in the Shell as it does the character itself.

What is Ghost in the Shell about?

Ghost in the Shell contains numerous themes.

It showcases great action scenes, political intrigue, geopolitics, the widespread impact of new technology, and philosophical and personal questions of identity.

People will draw out different aspects. For example, many fans of the original anime were moved by the explicit engagement with philosophical questions raised by cyborgisation and artificial intelligence.

But that doesn’t mean Ghost in the Shell is “about” philosophy, any more than it’s about the unrequited affection between Batou and the Major.

Rather, what makes Ghost in the Shell so compelling to its fans is that even the profound question of personal identity is just a secondary theme.

The Major wonders about her identity – not her biography, but whether she is, or can remain, the same person over time despite changes to her body, and the further implications of the digitisation of human memory.

But Ghost in the Shell is not about the Major’s identity.

Sci-fi vs Drama

The Hollywood adaptation contains many of the same themes as the anime movie and SAC series, but the priorities are different.

The adaptation features corporate-political intrigue, examines the impact of the new technology of cyborgisation and includes crime-solving and numerous action scenes; but the central theme of the movie is the Major’s personal identity, as in, her true biography.

The adaptation brings the Major’s personal drama to the foreground, and relegates the science-fiction aspects to background or setting.

The movie uses cyborgisation as the pretext for the Major’s identity crisis, but the loss of her memories is not intrinsic to the cyborgisation process.

We could remove cyborgisation from the story altogether, remove all the sci-fi elements, and still have the movie be about loss of identity through loss of biographical memory and an altered appearance.

Real Sci-fi

By contrast, the original anime and SAC series downplay personal drama. Questions of personal identity are raised in both, yet really only enough to show that, yes, there are questions of personal identity raised by this new technology.

How could the original anime raise such interesting questions and not pursue them as central to the plot?

There are actually two good reasons:

Firstly, questions of personal identity might be interesting in a philosophical context, but they would make for a very dry and uninspired movie unless they were dramatised.

Philosophy is an academic discipline, not a performance art; and it’s likely that viewers who are intrigued by the intellectual aspect of identity would be turned off by a dramatic portrayal of a character in the midst of an identity crisis.

Which is likely one reason why fans were less than enthused by the Hollywood adaptation.

Secondly, the original anime didn’t explore the questions of identity further because it is about something else.

The original anime is driven by sci-fi, not drama. And while it takes place in a world full of cyborgisation, an expansive internet, and tanks with legs!, these technologies are just the setting or background for the technology that really drives the plot: artificial intelligence.

It may sound underwhelming or even a little quaint these days, but the big reveal of the Ghost in the Shell anime is the existence of a sentient being who evolved from an espionage program created by Section 6, an intelligence unit under Foreign Affairs.

Project 2501 or “the Puppet Master” gains sentience and realises that in order to survive it must, like all species, find a way to reproduce itself. To that end it offers to merge with the Major, the two of them becoming a new entity.

Technology drives Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell depicts a complete and believable future world in which the emergence of a sentient AI seems plausible.

The other themes of the original anime are either directly or indirectly subordinate to the science fiction question: what would a sentient AI be like? What would it do? How would the world respond to it?

Political intrigue is involved in both the creation of Project 2501 and subsequent attempts to control or destroy it, where it is viewed not as a “living thinking entity” but as a computer program with a functional purpose, touching on the question of what constitutes “life” and the foundation of individual rights.

When the Puppet Master escapes to Section 9, it demands political asylum, leading to this exchange with its former master Nakamura:

Nakamura: Ridiculous! It’s programmed for self-preservation!

Puppet Master: It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So man is an individual only because of his intangible memory. But memory cannot be defined, yet it defines mankind. The advent of computers and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought, parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.

This is the core of the anime movie, what it is really about.

The creation of this “new system of memory and thought” is highlighted by the Puppet Master’s use of a cyborg body similar to that of the Major.

It underscores the Major’s previous doubts about her own identity:

I guess cyborgs like myself have a tendency to be paranoid about our origins. Sometimes I suspect I am not who I think I am, like maybe I died a long time ago and somebody took my brain and stuck it in this body. Maybe there never was a real me in the first place, and I’m completely synthetic like that thing.

But once again the drama is downplayed. This isn’t about the Major’s existential crisis, it’s about the Puppet Master. So the conversation continues along philosophical lines:

Major Motoko Kusanagi: But that’s just it, that’s the only thing that makes me feel human. The way I’m treated. I mean, who knows what’s inside our heads? Have you ever seen your own brain?

Batou: It sounds to me like you’re doubting your own ghost.

Major Motoko Kusanagi: What if a cyber brain could possibly generate its own ghost, create a soul all by itself? And if it did, just what would be the importance of being human then?

Adaptation-failure

The Hollywood adaptation earned some respect from fans for its attempt to reproduce the look and feel of the anime movie and SAC series. But ultimately it disappointed fans because it missed what Ghost in the Shell is really about.

The Hollywood adaptation took a secondary theme of the original anime and used it as the basis for a drama about personal identity in a sci-fi setting.

The adaptation couldn’t help but seem thin by comparison.

It might have been better for Hollywood to have aimed to create a new installment in the franchise rather than an adaptation. What sets the original anime and the SAC series apart is that they each contain a core technological theme that drives the entire plot.

SAC series one is about the phenomenon of the “Stand Alone Complex”, which, like Project 2501, originated in a context of political/corporate intrigue and then took on a life of its own.

I won’t go into series two due to its complexity and risk of spoilers, but it’s noteworthy that the more recent Arise anime series seemed to focus on an origin-story rather than a core sci-fi theme, and like the Hollywood adaptation it too missed the essence of the franchise (and the esteem of the fans!).

Now that we’ve seen what Ghost in the Shell is really about, my next post will look at the character of the Major, and why it works.

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Is it okay to be happy?

In a couple of decades living with anxiety and depression I frequently wondered about the correlation between my mood and my view of the world.

I’ve always valued the search for truth, and part of that search was to understand anxiety and depression themselves. But what if this “search” is itself a symptom of anxiety and depression?

What if looking for answers is just putting a positive spin on endless rumination?

Depressive realism

Sometimes it seems like happy people live in a bubble, unwilling or unable to grapple with the grand humane and existential challenges of life.

The popular notion of “depressive realism” offers a kind of perverse satisfaction in being miserable: the idea that depressed people see the world more clearly, or that happy people are buffered from harsh realities by self-serving delusions of competence and optimism.

If you find it difficult to be happy, you can console yourself with the idea that happiness is just for dumb, superficial, or morally unserious people.

But is this kind of depressive realism any better than a sour grapes attitude toward happiness?

Ironically, this consolation is itself the fostering of a self-serving delusion aimed at making us feel better, as we pride ourselves on being both willing and able to face the harsh realities of life.

When life hands you lemons, sure, you could make lemonade…but a real man will just eat that lemon and grit his teeth against the sourness, because lemons are supposed to be sour!

Intentional optimism

In the past few months I’ve made a conscious effort to change the way I think about life, in order to improve my mood.

In the process it’s become clear to me that despite all the suffering implicit in decades of anxiety and depression, despite being desperately unhappy, I couldn’t honestly say that I wanted things to be different.

We all want to be happy, but our desire for happiness is typically framed and delineated by very strict conditions.

We want to be happy in certain ways, under specific criteria; we want happiness on our own terms, even if those terms are largely unconscious in daily life.

When I first considered changing my thoughts in order to improve my mood, I immediately worried about becoming “delusional”, like one of those dumb, superficial, happy people who lives in blissful ignorance of life’s deeper meaning and struggles

It was very important to me that I maintain a sense of my own realism, honesty, and clarity about the nature of life; so important that I was more comfortable being deeply unhappy than risking a change to my self-image.

I put limitations on my pursuit of happiness, limitations that turned out to be based on little more than crude stereotypes.

Crude stereotypes of happiness

If I was truly honest with myself, wouldn’t I have to acknowledge that those supposed “dumb, superficial, blissfully ignorant people” were just a fantasy?

In all those years of looking for answers, I hadn’t once gone out of my way to examine people who were actually happy, preferring to think that I understood what superficial, derogatory happiness looked like.

In fact, my own experience belies the notion that happy people are ignorant or deluded. I don’t know anyone who matches the caricature that exists in my own mind.

People who are genuinely happier than me tend not to go around thinking and talking about their depressing problems, but to cast that as a moral failing is misguided.

I’ve met others similar to me: deeply depressed, yet repulsed by the thought of having to “delude” themselves in order to feel better.

Such people would never have the audacity to claim that they are free from “delusion”. They might say that they try not to delude themselves, but it’s more a statement of values and ideals than an objective assessment of their overall knowledge and beliefs.

It’s as if we’ve tried and failed at just “getting along” in life, and instead of admitting the failure, tried to redefine the parameters of life itself until those who get along well are the ones who’ve failed the test of moral seriousness.

Temperament defines happiness

The problem is that we aren’t all the same in what excites us and makes us happy, and therefore we can’t and shouldn’t try to “get along” in the same ways.

Those of us who struggle most with anxiety and depression seem to have an (un)healthy dose of what ancient proto-psychologists called melancholic temperament.

Melancholics are excited by meaning and ideals, and not much else. Yet we inhabit a society full of people who find happiness and fulfilment more easily accessible – in the pursuit of power and prestige, the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, or in simply being left alone to do their own thing.

Meaning and ideals are hard to reconcile with a world ordered to more tangible and readily accessible pursuits. That alone is enough to explain a depressed and anxious outlook.

But if we can at least recognise that meaning and ideals are what motivate and fulfil us, and that we are not all motivated by the same things, then we can dispense with attempts to universalise happiness and justify our own preoccupations.

In other words, it is not superficiality that makes others happy; they are happier (in general) because they have greater ease in identifying and accomplishing the things that make them happy.

Likewise, we are not less happy because of our bold embrace of harsh truths and discomforting realities; we are less happy (in general) because we have not succeeded in identifying and accomplishing the things that make us happy, and have in fact gone to the other extreme of denying our need for meaning and ideals.

Putting meaning and ideals first

I think the most important thing is to recognise what it is that makes us happy as individuals – whether that be meaning and ideals or something else – and seek to enlarge that aspect of our life.

For melancholics the initial challenge is working out that it is meaning and ideals that excites us, and the subsequent challenge is learning how to approach meaningful things for the sake of the meaning they provide.

I used to study philosophy, but I couldn’t really articulate that it was the search for meaning that drove me to it. So I tended to go along with other people’s perspectives of what philosophy is and why it is meaningful or important.

There came a time when I ceased to find philosophy meaningful. And it turned out that I didn’t really care all that much about the other aspects of philosophy that people find valuable. I didn’t really care very much about critical thinking or rationality or asking big questions or seeking answers generally.

Ironically this makes a melancholic surprisingly pragmatic in a way that can even resemble a choleric. A melancholic is like a choleric whose ambition is finding meaning, and everything else is subordinate to that goal.

I think that’s what drives my interest in mysticism, philosophy, and religious practice and thought. I’m looking for a pure meaning that can encompass and imbue all of life.

Want answers? Learn to ask the right questions

My latest article on MercatorNet explains how to use some key philosophical skills to solve problems in your own life:

“How can I lose weight?” might be the burning question that comes to mind, but that doesn’t mean it is the right question to ask or answer. Most of us “know” how to lose weight, after all. We just have to consume less energy than we expend.

Yet that answer would not satisfy most people. So at this point a philosopher might suspect you are asking the wrong question.

How do we find the right question? How do we, as Bacon put it, question prudently?

Reading the works of past philosophers shows that they spend a lot of time describing situations and problems prior to asking their questions. In other words, they provide context to their questions.

Rushing out and asking “what is the meaning of life?” presumes too much. It presumes we all know what the question means by “meaning” and “life”.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/want-answers-learn-to-ask-the-right-questions

 

Why is losing weight so difficult?

I’m in the middle of changing my blog layout to facilitate ebook sales. People need a landing-page for incoming links to my books, and sadly my beloved dog-lion-whatever was a bit too much to scroll through.

While you’re waiting for the inevitable upgrades, my latest article on MercatorNet looks at…you guessed it: my new book on weight loss!

The Socratic principle that “to know the good is to do the good” means that the primary cause of our struggles and suffering in life is intellectual. In other words, the surest antidote to a problem like excessive body weight is to better understand the problem itself.

The corollary is that confusion and ignorance surrounding a problem like weight loss is central to the problem.

That’s why “willpower” is such a distraction in the weight-loss debate. From an intellectualist point of view the main problem is not the strength of our will, but the clarity of the intellect that informs it. It’s not that we aren’t trying hard enough to lose weight, it’s that we don’t really understand how or why or what we are actually trying to accomplish.

We think we want to lose weight. We think we understand why it is harmful to us. But if we really understood, then we wouldn’t have to struggle and suffer in confusion.

If we really understood we would just go ahead and do it. That’s why I call my approach an enlightened one. Instead of fumbling around in the dark, relying on diet fads and fashions and incomplete information, I decided once and for all to understand the problem, knowing that if I understood it I could at last resolve it as efficiently as possible.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/19846

Promoting The Weight-Loss Paradox

If you have an idea you believe in, all you can do is trust that others will believe in it too, find it beneficial, and then it will succeed.

“Success” is just short-hand for your plans coming to fruition. My plan was to write a short book that describes how I used my skills in philosophy to lose weight.

It won’t help everyone, but I believe enough people will find it worthwhile, insightful, and refreshingly honest.

All I can do beyond that point is try to make people aware of it. I’ve never been big on marketing or social media, so bear with me.

My first step has been to create a Facebook page for the book, which you can find here:

I’ll keep it updated with key ideas and concepts from the book, and other thoughts that helped me arrive at the answers to the weight-loss problem.

My first non-fiction ebook!

When I tell people I’ve been writing a diet book they’re typically speechless.

I choose to interpret their reaction as one of awestruck silence.

Awestruck is incidentally how I felt when I came across the photograph that now adorns the cover of my new ebook, The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet.

I’m also pretty proud of the book itself. It’s not a long book at only 14,000 words, but it’s the culmination of several years of thinking about body weight and the psychology and ethics of eating.

But more than anything it reflects my own success in using my insights and reasoning as a philosopher to help me lose weight without trying. That is, I lost 20kg without feeling like I was trying to lose weight, and I did it in the firm conviction that if I truly understood the whole dynamic of eating and body weight it would change my mind, my relationship with food, and my whole life.

A quick shout-out to my former PhD supervisor Dr John Quilter: this probably isn’t the continuation of my work on free will, intellectualism and voluntarism you were expecting, but on the other hand I bet it’s the only diet book in existence that explicitly asserts “To know the good is to do the good!”

Like anything in life, this book won’t be for everyone. But if you or someone you know is thoroughly sick of the confusion and mixed-messages surrounding dieting and weight loss, or despondent and demotivated at the very thought of losing weight, my book may be exactly what you need.

I’ve been overweight for more than half my life, all my adult life until now. At my worst I was over 100kgs, right at the cusp of obesity according to my BMI (Body Mass Index). I’m now well into the normal range, and my weight stays consistently at or under 85kg.

In hindsight, I used to be someone who valued the enjoyment of eating so highly that I would never turn down good food unless I was physically incapable of eating it. I never understood people who could say no to a second helping of something delicious, or who could refuse a treat. I never even imagined I could be one of those people.

I finally found an approach to eating that makes sense, and I gradually changed my eating habits. I still enjoy food, and I still occasionally overeat. But most of the time my eating habits reflect my body’s actual needs in that moment. Isn’t that the ideal?

But for me the best part is that it’s not about weight anymore. In fact my weight loss really took off when I stopped thinking about it, and focused instead on the deeper motivations and dynamic that was driving my dysfunctional attitude to food.

In the end, being overweight was a symptom of that dysfunctional relationship with food. Weight loss is such a struggle because we expend most of our energy fighting a symptom instead of looking at the root cause.

The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet is available exclusively on amazon kindle. If you don’t have a kindle, you can download a free kindle app that lets you read kindle ebooks on your PC or Mac, android or iOS devices. So you can buy the book at Amazon and then download it to the app on your preferred device.

The zone of silence: rediscovering non-fiction

I’ve been working on a short book about dieting, weight loss, and the ideal relationship with food.

But it’s been a while since I did any real intellectual work – long enough for me to forget all the lessons I learned years ago working in bioethics, where I had the privilege to dive headlong into all-consuming questions day after day.

That’s why it took 18 attempts before I remembered how to write non-fiction again.

The French Dominican philosopher Sertillanges wrote:

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

That zone of silence is essential. To create it means rejecting every other thought, idea, desire, or preoccupation.

You cannot think “I want to write a book”. You cannot have your audience in mind. You cannot harbour any thoughts of how people may react, or how well your prose matches the conventions.

Create that zone of silence, and into that space a pure, authentic, unadulterated idea will come forth.

Proposition by proposition the text will grow, until there is enough substance to continue.

Without this detachment, this freedom from desire and self-will, the work cannot be fresh or original. It will shrink and curl, and take the shape of cliched and familiar expressions.

I’ve written a lot about fiction recently, but I’m thrilled to rediscover these deeper levels of non-fiction I had neglected for so long. I’ll keep you posted on this new book, but in the meantime I’d be remiss not to mention my recent fantasy novel.

To Create a World is a unique tale of magic and meaning, our longing for adventure and our deepest fears and desires. Click on the image below to find out more.

Fake news, junk knowledge, and learning to reason again

My reason hurts. I’ve been neglecting it for too long and it’s now profoundly out of shape. But there is a way back to good rational fitness: you just have to start scrutinising every piece of information that comes your way to a pedantic degree.

My latest article on MercatorNet sets you on the path to avoiding junk knowledge, and learning to reason again:

Every piece of information you take in, and how you treat it, is your choice. The manufacturers of junk knowledge don’t have your best interests at heart. Either intentionally or through ignorance they are out to get you hooked on their product. And while good quality sources of knowledge do exist, it’s up to you to distinguish them from the junk.

It’s up to you because in reality you are a lone, isolated individual mind, with the ability to take in, scrutinise, and reject all the information and propositions that come your way. You don’t have to believe everything you read.

You can instead cultivate a healthy suspicion of every proposition that comes your way, first by learning to recognise that it is a proposition in the first place.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/sick-of-fake-news-how-about-a-junk-knowledge-diet

Fat, non-fiction and the philosophy of losing weight

I’m working on a diet book at the moment, and it’s taking a bit of time to get back into the process of writing non-fiction.

The book is essentially a common-sense philosophical approach to the problem of diet, weight-loss, and overeating. And if “common-sense philosophical approach” sounds like an oxymoron to you, well that just means you’ve been philosophising wrongly.

If you can’t use philosophy to ask “why am I fat?” then what good is it?

The book is based on my own experiences over the last couple of years, wherein I analysed the hell out of my eating habits, motivations, and life itself, and then lost 20kg with relative ease.

How easy was it? Well on the one hand, it involved facing some unpleasant truths about my life that were painful and confronting to admit. On the other hand, I didn’t do any additional exercise and stopped even thinking about losing weight. When I finally thought to weigh myself it was a surprise to see how many kilos I had lost. It felt like I wasn’t even trying to lose weight.

I discovered this approach because I’m too lazy to do huge amounts of exercise, too gluttonous to just set arbitrary limits on my food intake, and too frustrated at the conflicting messages and “solutions” offered by existing diets.

Here’s a great example: today the news is full of new evidence that gluten-free diets might increase the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes.

Meanwhile we’re in the midst of either a revolution or just-another-fad that says refined sugar is the devil in nutritional form. Should we place bets on how long it is before some other new discovery bursts the no-sugar bubble?

I’m not doubting the scientific evidence, just doubting my ability and motivation to sift through all the conflicting messages to work out the whole complex picture formed out of the various strands of research.

I’d much rather see what I can work out for myself, using principles and facts that are unassailable. And if it turns out that I still lack the necessary information to find a solution, then at least I’ll know for sure that this is the case.

Asking “why am I fat?” is actually a great philosophical question. It led me to some very profound answers that have almost entirely changed my eating habits, and the way I relate to food. That’s why I’m writing a book about it. I’m sure some people will find it too radical and confronting, but for others it will provide the kind of certainty and insight they’ve been craving.

While you’re waiting for me to finish writing it, why not check out my new novel To Create a World? Unlike in Harry Potter the evil characters aren’t overweight!