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Netflix

The new Black Mirror (season four), which was released on Netflix a few days ago (December 29), and has the second movement of its final episode, "Black Museum," as its highest conceptual achievement (the second is the whole of the first episode "USS Callister") is aggressively (even obsessively) Cartesian. This is so disappointing. One would not expect a show that is about the near (technologically advanced) future to be so reliant on the simple notions of consciousness that René Descartes (a French philosopher) popularized in the 17th century to protect natural science from the church. But even in his day, his ideas—which essentially separated the mind from the body—were challenged, most notably by the greatest philosopher of the period, Baruch Spinoza. The science of our age favors Spinoza's embodied intelligence and his key concept that the mind is the idea of the body. In Spinoza's scheme, the two are one and the same thing or attributes that express something that, in essence, cannot be divided.

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Descartes is dead to science but not to science fiction.

He was kept alive the 1980s and '90s by cyberpunk, which imagined disembodied and downloaded consciousness streaming through the scintillating ether of the World Wide Web. This form of existence was coded a kind of heaven, a kind of liberation from the meat and matter of a fallen world. But these feelings celebrated by cyberpunk were not new. They not only went back to Descartes, but to Plato's Phaedo, which describes the final hours of Socrates. Before he dies, the father of Western philosophy feels that his soul (mind, spirit) is being released from the chains of wetware. This is all nonsense. There is no soul without the body. There is also no soul without others. The self is the biological production of a human community. But the science fiction of Black Mirror clings to what science has long discredited: consciousness as a homunculus, a little person in a seat.

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The American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett has a great name of this kind of thing, which is found in several episodes of Black Mirror, and which he dismantles in the opening pages of his most recent book From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds: "Cartesian theater."

This little person can be downloaded and exist not only in machines but also in other bodies or even in toys. The sole twist Black Mirror presents to this oldest of human yarns is the addition of a hell to cyberspace's heaven. In Black Mirror, disembodiment might actually be a worse state of existence than embodiment. Indeed, your homunculus (your mini-you—and you may not be aware a you has been extracted from you) might be exploited, or bullied, or electrocuted for eternity.

Science fiction has come close to the monism of Spinoza's god—see Battlestar Galactica (the 2004 TV series)—but not a Spinozistic conception of consciousness, which forms the foundation of my own conception: a biological point processed in time and through space; a point at which, like Gabriel Tarde's laws of imitation, the lines from multiple directions and distances (the light from a star, the words from lips) arrive, intersect, and concentrate. I think Alfred Whitehead calls this concentration "the satisfaction."