Reflections on Dualism in Blade Runner 2049

*Disclaimer: this is a film analysis and contains spoilers*

Is it possible to know what wanting to be desired is without a soul? This thought-provoking question is grappled with throughout the film Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017). The protagonist Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a Nexus-9 replicant who works for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and secretly yearns for real humanity, at least within his programmed limits. His love interest (Ana de Armas as Joi) is but a hologram, yet in her final moments, she attempts to utter the words “I love you.” Before she can finish, her virtual presence is wiped from existence, her data permanently destroyed. What would it have meant for her to love Officer K, if they are both products of technological development? 

The essence and perhaps importance of soul/body dualism is central to this sci-fi film. Dualism is the understanding that the soul and body constitute separate entities, though different constructs of this dualism hold varying explanations for the relationship between the two. It is characteristic of neo-Platonic traditions, for example, to privilege the soul over the corporeal, and for this reason, they have been criticized to snowball into the rejection of flesh. What does this paradigm look like in Islam? What related metaphysical themes woven into Blade Runner 2049 merit deeper reflection?

Soul/body dualism

Greek philosophers found it necessary to take the unity of the senses into account in their theories of the soul. Plato argued that “we consist of something incorporeal, whether one calls it ‘mind’ or ‘soul’, which for the time being is somehow united with a body that is part of the physical world.”[7] The relationship between the soul and body to him is only accidental and nominal, and in that he, and his successor Descartes, fail to explain the natural and essential relation between the two. Aristotle forwarded his opinion that “the human being actually has two countenances which are body as matter and soul as form.”[8] In this way, Aristotle saw the soul as something of a different ontological type – though not independent – from the body. He writes:

“There is no need to investigate whether the soul and the body are one, any more than the wax and the shape, or in general the matter of each thing and that of which it is the matter; for while “one” and “being” are said in many ways, the primary [sense] is actuality.” (De anima 2.1, 412B6–9)

Al-Ghazālī took a similar stance by touching on the ontological difference between the soul and body, albeit being fused together. Like most Muslim philosophers, al-Ghazālī put the soul on a pedestal, saying,“this subtle tenuous substance is the real essence of man.”[1] Al-Ghazālī’s dualism is illustrated by this quote in his work The Alchemy of Happiness:

“The soul should take care of the body, just as a pilgrim on his way to Mecca takes care of his camel; but if the pilgrim spends his whole time feeding and adorning his camel, the caravan will leave him behind, and he will perish in the desert.”[9]

This analogy mirrors examples found in Western philosophy, like Plato’s “the soul is bound fast in a body as an oyster in its shell”[9] or Descartes’ “the soul is not present to the body in the way a seaman is present to his ship”[9]. Ibn Sina, in contrast to al-Ghazālī, was much more Cartesian in his thought: he believed in a sharper dualism, though he also recognized close ties between the soul and body. 

A very important difference between Aristotle’s conception of the soul and that of Muslim scholars lies in the essence of time. For Aristotle, the soul is not eternal but generated and subject to corruption. Muslims, on the other hand, believe the soul will be resurrected. The soul transcends the confines of a worldly clock. In rather colorful language, philosopher Daniel Dennett describes souls as “immaterial and immortal clumps of Godstuff that inhabit and control our material bodies rather like spectral puppeteers.”[1] In the Islamic tradition, souls are not only immaterial and immortal, but also indivisible and unchanging. 

In his text The Incoherence of Philosophers, al-Ghazālī argues against the ability to prove the separation between body and soul through pure reason. He posits that it is enough to accept the soul as revelation. According to the Ash‘ari ‘aqidah (creed), a human person consists of a soul and body, with the soul serving as a locus of personal identity.[1] Macksood Aftab, editor of the Journal of Islamic Philosophy, argues that Ibn Sina’s construction was less about committing to a belief in strict duality and more about solving conundrums like free will. In other words, dualism was a convenient tool in scholastic theology to address certain philosophical problems. In “Is Islam Committed to Dualism in the Context of the Problem of Free Will?” he cites 19th-century philosopher Muhammad Iqbal who wrote:

“It is impossible to draw a line of cleavage between the share of the body and that of the mind…Somehow they must belong to the same system, and according to the Qur’an they do belong to the same system…This does not obliterate the distinction of the soul and body, it only brings them closer to each other.”[1]

The rūḥ (spirit) is a composite creation, though not in an Aristotelean sense. The late Muslim thinker Fazlur Rahman states:

“The Qur’ān does not appear to endorse the kind of doctrine of a radical mind-body dualism found in Greek philosophy, Christianity, or Hinduism; indeed there is hardly a passage in the Qur’ān that says man is composed of two separate, let alone disparate substances, the body and the soul (even though later orthodox Islam, particularly after al-Ghazālī and largely through his influence, came to accept it).”[4]

Professor Absar Ahmad talks about the “efficient self” in place of dualism. This form of self, according to him, “has no aboriginal nucleus of its own that exists prior to its action; it arises and takes on existence as it acts, as it undergoes experiences.”[1] Yet despite the fact that Officer K in Blade Runner 2049 performs actions and demonstrates all attributes of an efficient self par excellence, his lack of a soul affects his ability to find true purpose. The bondage between his flesh and consciousness means nothing in the face of those whose inner substance is transcendent of neurons.

What makes a human

Souls are a part of the ghayb (unseen) that cannot be proven to exist by our external senses. Dr. Hatem al-Haj writes, “Muslim scholars have argued that there is an internal sense (ḥiss baṭin) with which we perceive real extant feelings of fear, sadness, joy, and so on.”[2] Without a soul, can a character like Officer K feel complex emotion? 

At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to one of Officer K’s targets, a rogue replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). Morton looks him straight in the eyes and says, “You’ve never seen a miracle.” Officer K freezes. These words strike him. A “miracle,” that which follows divine will, is another aspect of the ghayb that intrigues the main character. Officer K is quite taciturn, certainly far from having an animated personality. Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), a real human, fears that a war between her people and replicants could erupt if a certain truth is exposed. She orders Officer K to kill, or retire, older models of bioengineered humans. One night, they have a conversation in his apartment that, for once, steps outside the cycle of reporting back with findings and being notified of new tasks. While their relationship is strictly business, Lt. Joshi allows some room for a casual heart-to-heart. She asks K to share what one of his childhood memories are, even though they may have been implanted.

Officer K goes into detail about a time he was being chased down by a group of boys trying to steal his toy horse. He ran as fast as he could and hid by a fire pit. On the bottom of his toy horse was a numerical code, which K later finds out is a birthdate. His intuition tells him to keep that detail away from Lt. Joshi, and he does, but he also expresses doubt that such memories matter, since everything in his mind is wired. Ultimately, it turns out it would be a clue to the secret she was keeping from him all along. Lt. Joshi reassures Officer K that he has done just fine without a soul. K doesn’t seem entirely content with that. His dialogue with Lt. Joshi is one of the few moments in which we are able to detect the value he places on having a soul.

After investigation, the birthdate from Officer K’s childhood memory brings him to learn about Rachael, a female replicant who died during a C-section. This piece of information reveals that replicants can reproduce biologically, previously thought to be impossible, marking the climax of the movie. Officer K is ordered by his superior to kill Rachael’s child. He muses,“I’ve never retired anything with a soul before.” We then run into another philosophical question: What makes a human?

In his Letter to Marcella, the ancient philosopher Porphyry likens the reproductive processes to the idea of soul/body dualism by writing:

“The body is joined to you in the same way as the membrane is joined to embryos growing in the womb, and as the stalk is joined to the growing grain […]. So then, just as the membrane and the stalk of the grain grow concurrently, and once they mature each is shucked off, likewise also the body, which has been joined to the sown soul, is not part of a man but exists in order for him to be born in the womb, just as the entwined membrane is yoked to the body in order for him to be born on earth. (74-75)”[3]

In Blade Runner 2049, not only is reproduction a necessary criteria for humanity, but it is also tied to freedom. Freysa (Hiam Abbass), the leader of a replicant freedom movement, states that reproduction means “we are our own masters, no longer slaves.” Another replicant and fellow freedom fighter Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) follows up with, “More human than humans.”

In his analysis “The Real and Unreal in Blade Runner 2049” for The Atlantic, David Sims writes that “K’s heroism…is not defined by his parentage, but by his gradually evolving free will.”[5] He argues that Officer K becomes more in tune with humanity because of this perceived expansion of autonomy. Yet Sims seems to overlook the significance of parentage that the film itself highlights.

Freysa speaks in the context of being enslaved to real humans, since bioengineered humans were created to do labor work. Aristotle spoke of the difference between man and male, and between woman and female. To him, men and women are free, rational beings, while males and females are irrational slaves. By this construct, replicants may be male/female adjacents, though not for the same reasons Aristotle put forth. Aristotle believed some humans were meant to be slaves because they were incapable of ruling over themselves. Despite his hierarchy (slave males are less rational than free women, but free women are still less rational than free men),  we know that the humans he spoke of were still equally human to one another. The rebellion in Blade Runner 2049, on the other hand, is the result of a distinct clash between soulful and soulless beings.

In Freysa’s rebellion, even those who are not fully human recognize the power in man and woman joining together to bear offspring. The film’s antagonist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who wants to use replicant reproduction for interstellar colonization, goes so far as to invoke God directly when he says, “God heeded her and opened her womb,” in reference to Rachael. These instances speak volumes about the intrigue surrounding nature, meticulously designed by Allah and described in Surah Al-Hajj:

“We settle whatever embryo We will in the womb for an appointed term, then bring you forth as infants, so that you may reach your prime. Some of you may die young, while others are left to reach the most feeble stage of life so that they may know nothing after having known much. And you see the earth lifeless, but as soon as We send down rain upon it, it begins to stir to life and swell, producing every type of pleasant plant.” [Quran, 22:5]

When Lt. Joshi thinks K is being resistant to her command, he replies that he wasn’t aware “no” was an option. Officer K does end up defying her, and while his heroism cannot be owed to the influence of relatives, as far as we know, or to genetic transmission of courageous traits passed down from his forefathers, he cannot truly be free, or have the degree of free will that original humans do, without descending from Adam’s line set by God. The heart of the film’s conflict lies in the fact that the potential reproductive capacities of replicants were kept secret from them, because a recognition of personhood would disrupt the caste system. It is eventually revealed that Officer K himself might have been born. It also cannot go ignored that Niander Wallace professes God explicitly. The “free will” that Sims mentions in Blade Runner 2049 is intrinsically tied to the womb, itself attached to God. And God is He who creates souls.

Freysa adds another condition, “Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do.” Thus, a human is someone who can reproduce, is free through this ability to preserve the human species, and is capable of freely rationalizing moral axioms, even those worth self-sacrifice. But do humans need a soul?

In Mafātī al-ghayb, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī says, “…the creation of the human is only complete with two things: first of all, his uprightness, and then the breathing of the spirit into him.”[4] Even though it was only until after al-Ghazālī that mainstream Islam came to speak of a dualism in concrete terms, the Quran does remind us of a distinct non-physical entity within us (see 32:9, 15:29, 38:72, 21:91).

In Blade Runner 2049, Officer K questions what is real, and his standards for “truth” go beyond empirical knowledge. Rick Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) dog looks like any other dog, yet Officer K is unsure if he is the product of nature/God or man.  And that discernment seems to matter. If materialism is true, which is the prevailing worldview in Western society, then we would be able to measure dimensions of pain, thought, love and other mental states the same way we do with spatiotemporal substances such as the kidney, brain, and heart. Blade Runner 2049 is a good representation of this, because no amount of rebooting allowed humans to prevent deep seeded reservations about artificiality in replicants, who saw the significance of having a soul.

Works Cited:

[1] Aftab, Macksood. 2015. “Is Islam Committed to Dualism in the Context of the Problem of Free Will?” Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics 3 (1): 1–12.

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Between-God-Prophets-Philosophers-Reflections-ebook/dp/B085PZNQRB 

[3] Sipe, Dera. “Struggling with Flesh: Soul/Body Dualism in Porphyry and Augustine.” CONCEPT 29 (2006).

[4] Shakir, Zaid. 2018. “The Human in the Qur’an.” Renovatio: The Journal of Zaytuna College.  

[5] Sims, David. 2017. “The Real and Unreal in Blade Runner 2049” The Atlantic. 

[6] Menn, Stephen. “Aristotle’s Definition of Soul and the Programme of the De Anima.” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 22 (2002): 83-139.

[7] Broadie, Sarah. “XIV—soul and body in Plato and Descartes.” In Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 101, no. 1, pp. 295-308. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001.

[8] https://www.al-islam.org/articles/mind-and-body-problem-plato-sadra-descartes-arifin 

[9] Druart TA. (1983) Imagination and the Soul—Body Problem in Arabic Philosophy. In: Tymieniecka AT. (eds) Soul and Body in Husserlian Phenomenology. Analecta Husserliana (The Yearbook of Phenomenological Research), vol 16. Springer, Dordrecht.


About the Author: Sabrina Amrane is a journalism and political sciences student. Her interests include Maghribi history, literature, and philosophy. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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