“Because I am fearfully and wonderfully made”

Frankenstein is at least the great-uncle of the zombie story. The alternate title of Shelley’s book is The Modern Prometheus and we can’t quite decide, when it comes to necromancy, whether it’s more frightening to have Prometheus, Frankenstein, Faust and all the rest fail in their quest or succeed.  Somewhere along the way, our Frankenstein’s creatures acquired a lot more hardware than the bolts in the neck. Today, Shelley’s story has more in common with HAL and cyborgs than it does with the simple reanimation of the dead.

Today’s zombie aren’t so much about hubris. Sometimes scientists have gone too far and “am playgods!” but, even when this is the case, they’re more likely to have gone wrong by wanting an evil like bioweapons, than lusting after knowledge and mastery in the wrong ways. Sometimes there’s no explanation of the cause at all; life is natural to the human form, so it’s not quite surprising when it recurs, especially if we don’t think the conservation of life requires an external Cause.

So, today’s mad scientists don’t play God by creating life. Life is abundant and dull. The frizzy-haired person in the white coat is creating intellect. We don’t animate flesh, we build AI. And here, part of the mystery is how much we can pare off and still have a human. Airplanes didn’t turn out to need flapping wings to fly; what kind of interface with the world does a rational soul need? What does it need to be human?

In the play, the Creature was intensely embodied. In an interview clip shown before the show, Benedict Cumberbatch explained that he developed the physicality of the Creature by watching footage of stroke victims in physical therapy. In the opening scenes, when he discovered his body and set about learning to use it, I was reminded of an infant, who is enraptured by the simple pleasure of possessing a foot. But instead of growing into partnership with his body, the Creature develops an enmity.

He’d love to slip out of his body and into another for the sake of companionship. The body he possesses isn’t his, it’s his prison. When the blind man cannot see the Creature, he knows him better than any other character. There’s no hint that true companionship would require recognition of the Creature’s body as well as his intellect and feelings.

Cyborgs are more frightening than Frankenstein’s creature, because we’re acutely sensitive to the question of what kind of piece of work is man.  When we fear a computer, our terror takes two contradictory forms. We’re afraid of something greater than ourselves that will have no special regard or love for us. What use are we, if they’re something/someone faster and clever than us? But we’re afraid of even building something that matches us.  If we can comprehend ourselves, how interesting can we possibly be?

In The Most Human Human, Brian Christian notes that when machines have achieved a task that we thought required a particularly human intellect, we haven’t congratulated the programmer but have just defined the skill as boring in retrospect.  But the solar system isn’t diminished when we can put a model of it in our science class.  The fun and mystery isn’t drained from a relationship when we know a friend well enough to predict what she’ll like and can get thoughtful presents.  If the machine is interesting, how can the schematics be boring?

The appropriate reaction is that of the Creature in the beginning — that of a child.  Goodness, a foot!  Full of bones and other fleshy things!  What happens if I do this?  Oh dear! Wow!  Neurons, action potentials, remapping sensations into a phantom foot!  Proprioception!  Boy howdy!  We might want to tweak or train our bodies, but we won’t end up despising them and we’ll be more curious instead of fearful to see what other shapes intelligence might take.

But, when we look at Frankenstein, we’re afraid of a creature cut off from its Creator, and we scrutinize him carefully, making sure we’re not similarly abandoned.  Or we decide that its his relationship with a Creator that was so destabilizing.  If he were content in himself, without companionship, without claims or duties, he might have been happy, but he would not have been human.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • jose

    You mean God is what makes catholics -and only catholics- human.

    • leahlibresco

      No, I don’t.

      • jose

        So what’s the relationship between the creature and its creator all about in the last paragraph then. If people were content in themselves, say, without supernatural companionship (in other words, good without god), without attending the duties of catholic morality, they may be happy, but… that.

        Otherwise I don’t see what all this is about at all. o_o

        • Benjamin

          Jose

          I find the best way to read religious blogs is to translate.

          So maybe Leah as a Roman Catholic means by Creator and by Goodness all that that would imply from a Catholic standpoint.

          Now, we know Leah is wrong, but that doesn’t mean what she’s ought be taken in the way you’re reading it.

          The way I read this post is by substituting ‘Creator’ for Goodness/our existence as social animals defined by relations (Creator-Creation i Leah’s post, but we could just as well read this as Person-Social Group. The point she is making that a Person Alone is missing something of what it means to be human).

          Perhaps my method of reading Leah means I don’t engage her work on her won terms, and this then is would be a problem.

          But it does at least mean that i don’t come off as confrontational, as being to confrontational can interrupt our ability to understand works that contradict our worldview.

          It would be silly to think that someone who grew up in an atheist home would blog about how no one can be happy unless they are Catholic. It is helpful to remind oneself who is writing this blog.

          • Benjamin

            It’s getting late in my part of the world, sorry for the spelling errors

          • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

            Now, we know Leah is wrong

            Know? Nope. Have faith. Believe strongly. But no, ‘know’ doesn’t work here.

            Otherwise, yes, I endorse attempting to actually understand before criticizing. Sounds like a good plan.

          • jose

            This blog is like another bible. Who knows what these parables mean.

          • Brandon B

            I think that translating in this way does lose some of the meaning. This post does bear on relationships and how they affect our humanity, but in particular it talks about our relationship with our body. You can talk about our relationship with our body without believing in God, and in a world with obesity, eating disorders, and bodybuilders there is plenty to talk about. You’re not going to end up at the same conclusion as Leah, however, if you don’t believe that God exists.

            To address Jose’s objection: “God is what makes people human” is something I would agree with. “God only makes Catholics human” is not. Humans are neither self-creating nor self-sustaining. To the extent that we are human, we are receiving God’s help, whether we realize it or not. However, people who aren’t Catholic are not SOL. God loves all his creatures, not just the ones who have been baptized.

            Even though we can receive God’s help outside of the Church, or without paying any attention to God at all, much of the effectiveness of God’s help is lost if we reject it (either directly or through apathy). A lot of what the Church does is encourage and help people to deliberately accept what God is offering. Even though things aren’t hopeless outside of the Church, we need all the help we can get.

          • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

            I confess I am somewhat baffled why anyone would need to ‘translate’ this. Given that Mary Shelley wasn’t Catholic (by any stretch of the imagination), why would a description of Frankenstein’s creature in terms of a creature’s relationship with its Creator — which draws on the terminology and categories used in the story itself, so it’s not like it’s an artificial imposition — need to be ‘translated’ from Catholic terms in order for an atheist to understand it? Surely atheists are perfectly capable of understanding the works of the Shelleys (who were freethinkers themselves) and exploring what their works suggest about human moral lives, without ‘translation’; just as they can understand the moral implications of George Eliot’s portrayal of the Visible Madonna in Romolawithout needing it to be ‘translated’. All it takes is actually to read the book (or see the play, as the case may be), and think it through. I must be missing something here.

          • Benjamin

            @Brandon W. I mean to say this blog post comes at Shelley’s work from a Catholic perspective, quite clearly a Catholic perspective. Furthermore, I found Jose’s understanding of this post to be so off the mark that I thought it best to try and offer him some method of understanding what Leah was saying. So forgive me for being confusing. I do agree with you that we can deal with the text as it is.

            @Brandon B. I think you’ve cleared up Jose’s confusion much better than I did.

            @Crude. I mean ‘know.’ When I talk about knowledge, I understand knowledge to be a conjectural thing. So like in natural language, at least the natural languages I speak, when we say we know something it is understand that we could be wrong. Some knowledge may be certainty (mathematical axioms and what derives from them) but not all that counts as knowledge is certainty.

      • Val

        It may be the case that entirely self-sufficient is in some way being less than fully human, but it is not at all necessarily the case that the deepest connection that matters is with one’s Creator. It may be sought (or feared) by some, but those for whom the idea has no meaning are in no way stunted or isolated.

    • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

      So now we can just declare Leah into the position we find most convenient rather than arguing her into it? Neeeeaaat!

      Just so you know Leah:
      - You are a frequentist.
      - You favor pi over tau.
      - Skinny Lister is your favorite band.

      No use denying it, or else I’ll change your opinion on Miracle Mineral Supplement.

  • Benjamin

    This was a good read.

    People are defined by, and in, relations. A common critique of Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance is that he is painting a picture of the human person absent a set of social relations. I don’t think it’s a very good critique, mind you, but it is very interesting.

  • Kyle S.

    “Fearfully and wonderfully made” is such a lovely phrase. It’s a genuine shame that I now can only ever think about this when I hear it:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maPL70f_9Mo

    You can never unhear Lil Markie.

  • Joe

    This post brings to mind Helen Keller.
    http://larouchepac.com/node/17207

    • ACN

      I often find myself saying that whenever I think of Helen Keller, I can’t help but also think of the glory of LaRouche.

      • Joe

        I should have been more careful about the links I post. I have never even heard of LaRouche until you brought him to my attention I just read the article and thought it was kind of interesting(mostly for the Hellen Keller quotes) and didn’t really think about were I was getting it. I didn’t realize the site was promoting an eccentric politician.

  • Darren

    ”Sometimes there’s no explanation of the cause at all; life is natural to the human form, so it’s not quite surprising when it recurs, especially if we don’t think the conservation of life requires an external Cause.”

    That is a really interesting conceptual shift: a Materialist worldview making the occurrence of zombies more plausible. Pre-Romero, zombie as the product of black magic or nefarious spiritual forces, post-Romero, zombie as natural phenomenon.

  • http://paraphasic.blogspot.com Elliot

    This reminds me of the mild intellectual horror I had at imagining the existence of the Rats of N.I.M.H. Can you imagine making sense of your existence when you knew you had only been caused by a laboratory experiment? Such futility.

  • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

    The point about the subtitle is interesting. It occurs to me that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound were written almost contemporaneously, so there’s almost bound to be some sort of interesting connection between the two; I wonder if this has been discussed much.

  • LeRoi

    I read this post as revisiting Leah’s old transhumanist preoccupations through Catholic eyes.

    Typical transhumanist questions are: What makes us “us”? What if we start changing the parts little by little until we are computers – are we still human? That prospect causes some to fear we will lose our human essence by too much change or too much reduction. Leah: “If we can comprehend ourselves, how interesting can we possibly be?”

    Leah recasts this fear of loss of our humanity as a fear of the loss of loving relationship. Q: What is it to lose ourselves? A: To lose our relationship with our Creator. With love, even a newborn machine-human can be relatable.

    I don’t say that this is my approach, but I think it is Leah’s. She still has her old preoccupations and questions, but she is revisiting them with the aid of Catholic philosophy. Which makes sense.

    • Val

      Unfortunate that the preoccupation has so thoroughly taken on an explicitly religious tone. Metaphysical angst is only one possible factor in the Uncanny Valley.

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