Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Hydra: Descartes’ Nightmare Scenario
By Armond Boudreaux
The current story arc in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (AoS) uses a computer-generated artificial environment called The Framework to explore what might have happened if Hydra had succeeded in taking over S.H.I.E.L.D. Besides giving us the opportunity to see some of our favorite heroes at their worst, the story also raises interesting philosophical problems, questions that were anticipated centuries ago by philosophers like René Descartes. Specifically, the Hydra story explores problems associated with epistemology, or the study of what we can know and how we can know it.
An Alternate Reality?
The idea of The Framework in AoS presents us with an epistemological thought experiment: the main characters have to decide between two alternative realities, and although we—the audience—know which of the realities is the true one, the characters themselves find it impossible to prove by normal logical means what’s true and what isn’t. If some of this sounds like a rip-off of The Matrix, that’s okay. The idea isn’t really original to the Wachowskis, anyway (as I’ll discuss below), and the AoS story adds an interesting wrinkle to the simulated-reality scenario.
Aida, an android created by Dr. Holden Radcliffe, has turned a S.H.I.E.L.D. computer-simulated training environment called The Framework into a full-fledged world populated with artificial intelligences as well as the minds of real people. Her goal is to create a perfect world in which everyone can be happy and correct their greatest regret. Unfortunately, the result of her altering people’s greatest mistakes is that Hydra has replaced S.H.I.E.L.D. and now rules America like a fascist state.
The epistemological crisis begins when Aida starts to replace S.H.I.E.L.D agents with android copies of themselves (called Life Model Decoys, or LMDs) and to put their real consciousnesses inside The Framework. At first, this leaves Daisy Johnson and Jemma Simmons, the only real people left on the team, unable to distinguish friend from foe. The LMDs have all the personality traits of their friends, and they look utterly convincing. Aside from tearing them open, there’s no good way to know whether they’re copies or not.
Even after they sort through this problem, things get even more difficult when Daisy and Jemma deliberately insert their consciousnesses into The Framework so that they can locate their friends and extract them. Aside from its altered history, the world of The Framework is completely indistinguishable from the real world. Worse, the kidnapped characters don’t know that they’re inside a computer simulation. They have memories of their entire lives inside The Framework, and their sensory experiences are exactly like the experiences one would expect to have in the real world. So, as of this week’s episode, the challenge facing Daisy and Co. is how to convince people that everything that they know is a lie.
Though most people don’t think very much about their own epistemological beliefs, it’s probably safe to say that most of us are empiricists by default, meaning that we assume that all our knowledge comes to us through our senses. For that reason, it is nearly impossible for Daisy or Jemma to prove rationally that the world of The Framework isn’t real. When you’re inside The Framework, all of your sense experience tells you that it is real. There is no empirical evidence to show otherwise. That’s why when Daisy finally convinces Phil Coulson that he isn’t really a high school instructor who teaches Hydra propaganda to his students, she does so by conjuring up residual memories that he still has from the real world; not by offering him any empirical proof from inside The Framework.
Descartes’ Evil Demon
The philosopher René Descartes can help us to make (some) sense of what’s currently happening in AoS. Descartes is perhaps most famous for his book called Meditations on First Philosophy, in which he sets out to find a solid foundation for all knowledge. He does this by first trying to doubt everything that he thinks that he knows, in order to discover what knowledge is certain. What he concludes is that he can reasonably doubt everything that he knows through sense experience (because our senses can be deceived), but there is one truth that he cannot doubt: his existence (or, rather, the existence of his mind). For Descartes to doubt anything, Descartes himself has to exist. As he famously sums up the idea in another of his works: Cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”).
Although he cannot doubt his own existence, Descartes can doubt the existence of the world around him. After all, in his dreams he has believed all sorts of things that weren’t true. And even though it might sound far-fetched, he could be living in a false world, an illusion created by an evil demon. Theoretically, that demon could make deception so convincing that everything Descartes believes could be false—everything except his belief in the existence of his own mind. That he cannot doubt. He goes on, however, to reason that the evil demon scenario could not be true by proving the existence of God. Once he does that, he argues that since perfection is one of God’s attributes and that deception is an imperfection, God cannot be a deceiver. Therefore we have to be able to trust at least most of the things that we believe about the world (as long as we are using our faculties of reason well).
Most philosophers have rejected Descartes’ proofs or God’s existence, however, and the apparent absence of God in AoS raises significant problems for what can be known, because in Aida we have an analogue to Descartes’ evil demon. She has created an utterly convincing false reality and imprisoned real people inside it.
This problem is highlighted in a scene involving Agent Fitz, who in The Framework is the chief scientist for Hydra, as well as Aida’s lover and right-hand-man. Fitz, who has wholeheartedly given himself to Hydra, finds himself caught between two people who try to convince him that their reality is the real one. Aida tells him that the place where Daisy and Jemma come from is a “false” world, while Holden Radcliffe tries to convince him that The Framework is the real lie. Neither Aida nor Radcliffe can offer any empirical proof, so both appeal to his emotions, and the decision that Fitz ultimately makes is the one that seems most rational and empirically verifiable.
It’s significant that Fitz is the character who will prove most difficult to convince of the truth. A scientist and an empiricist right down to his bones, Fitz can only believe what the empirical data tells him. Unfortunately for him, the whole idea of The Framework creates a seemingly insurmountable philosophical obstacle. If all our knowledge comes from our senses, and if our senses can be completely deceived by Descartes’ evil demon, then how can we ever be sure of any knowledge at all?
Mind and Body
The Hydra story in AoS raises another interesting epistemological problem as well. There are people inside The Framework who once existed in the real world but who died before The Framework was created. Most notably, Grant Ward and Antoine Triplett are alive and well in The Framework, apparently having been created as artificial intelligences by Aida.
The existence of such people inside The Framework poses an epistemological problem (as well as several other philosophical conundrums that I won’t get into here) because we can’t know for sure whether or not the two men are “real” in the sense that they are free persons. Do they act only according to digital programming that is out of their control? Are they merely products of the algorithm that governs the world of The Framework as the laws of physics govern the real world? If so, then Ward and Tripp are little more than super-advanced versions of Siri, not persons but clever imitations.
On the other hand, could they be free agents—persons—in the same way that the real people taken from the real world are persons? Some might object that they can’t be “real people” because they don’t have real bodies. They’re just “pieces of code,” as Jemma tells one character in The Framework.
Philosophers like Descartes might disagree with her about that, however. One of the key features of Descartes’ philosophy is mind-body dualism, the idea that humans are made up of two distinct but intimately related parts: the body, which is made up of material substance, and the mind, which is made up of non-material substance. This might strike some as a strange notion, but it’s perfectly logical by Descartes’ starting premises. If the only thing that I can know with absolute certainty is the existence of my own mind, then I can’t even take for granted that my body exists. My body might just be an illusion created in my mind. Therefore, Descartes concludes, the mind is a non-material substance distinct from the body.
In fact, The Framework sounds a lot like way the philosopher George Berkeley saw the universe. A philosophical idealist, Berkeley thought that the material world only existed as ideas or sensations produced in the minds of persons (God and human beings).
If philosophers like Descartes or Berkeley are right, then it is possible for a mind to exist that is independent of corporeal reality. In that case, it might be true that the artificial beings inside The Framework are “real” minds in the sense that they have true freedom of the will as well as “real” sensations and experiences.
It’s an interesting conundrum because there doesn’t seem to be a good way to say on purely empirical grounds whether or not Ward and Tripp are real. And to add another layer to the mystery, the show seems to be heading toward the artificial creation of human bodies for the two men so that they can escape The Framework and exist in the real world.
What All This Says About Us
The current storyline in AoS is trying very hard to be politically topical in ways that are sometimes clumsy and ham-fisted. In the fascist reality of The Framework, for example, characters frequently drop lines that are meant to identify Hydra with the Trump administration; in this week’s episode, for instance, Coulson accuses Hydra of selling “alternative facts.”
What’s more interesting and perhaps more truly relevant to real life about AoS, however, is its exploration of the effect that technology has on questions of epistemology. It says a lot about us and our world that we’re so preoccupied with Descartes’ evil demon scenario. We’re surrounded by sources of knowledge and truth that contradict one another, compete for our attention, change their stories every other minute, and––yes––sell us “alternative facts.”
At the same time, we’re surrounded by technologies that become increasingly able to imitate personhood. And without really stopping to think about the consequences of our actions, we’re hurtling toward a world in which machines might equal or surpass us in intelligence. Will we ever really know whether or not we’re the ones who are in control? Will we be able to distinguish artificial intelligence from human intelligence?
It’s no wonder we keep revisiting Descartes’ nightmare world: after all, we seem intent on creating his evil demon.
Armond Boudreaux is a writer and assistant professor of English who lives in Georgia. He is the author of That He May Raise, Animus: Little Gods, and the forthcoming Titans: How Superheroes Can Help Us Make Sense of a Polarized World. He writes about superheroes, politics, and philosophy at http://www.aclashofheroes.wordpress.com. You can read more about him at http://www.armondboudreaux.com.