Forms in Light
The Portal villain GLaDOS, a giant black and white robotic arm, hangs from the ceiling awaiting a final fight with the player.

Weaving the Bountiful Threads of Being

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #172. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.


Architecture and games.


Throughout the centuries, fundamental questions about the nature of life and human existence have confounded the curious, whether we call them scientists, philosophers, theologians or anything else. While navigating the open seas of self-discovery, one of the main movements to have emerged from our endless introspection has been materialism, a concept which asserts that all of reality can be reduced to mere matter, meaning of course that everything in the world including consciousness and thought can be considered if not explained through the lens of its physical properties. This idea turns up rather frequently in the field of new media, especially videogames, either directly or indirectly, primarily in the form of robots and cyborgs, ranging from Portal to Cyberpunk 2077. The problem posed is basically at what point a bucket of bolts either begins or ends being a person.

In terms of traditions, materialism as a philosophical perspective posits that all phenomena including human existence can be explained through the properties and interactions of matter. The roots of materialism can be traced at least back to ancient Greece, proponents along the lines of Democritus, Epicurus, Protagoras and Strato purporting that all things including the mind are composed of miniscule grains of matter, particles or molecules confusingly called atoms, a term later adopted by the founders of microscopy. Materialism on the other hand eventually moved beyond this rather limited meaning, encroaching on a variety of different scientific disciplines, mainly neurobiology and psychology, although the influence on history and political economy should never be understated. What emerged was a holistic perspective on human nature, emphasizing the interconnectedness of our biological, psychological, and social dimensions.

Johnny Silverhand from Cyberpunk 2077, played by actor Keanu Reeves. He wears a black tank top and aviator shades. The lower half of his left arm is cybernetic.

The central tenet of materialism challenges the traditional concept of the self, in other words a metaphysical entity distinct from the physical body, also known as the soul. Materialism considers the self or ego to be an emergent property of the brain itself, a product of mental activity and the interplay between millions or even billions of neurotransmitters. When looked at from this perspective, the reality of consciousness, typically seen as the essence of identity, is quite simply a manifestation of the machinery within a living body, most notably the brain. The fields of neuroscience and neuroimaging have made significant strides when it comes to unraveling the mysteries of consciousness, mapping neural pathways correlating to various mental states. Advanced imaging technology such as functional magnetic resonance and electroencephalography offer a glimpse into the silent symphony of our thoughts, emotions and perceptions. This provides a very different picture of the soul from what theologians have postulated in the past. The notion of a permanent, undying soul has become increasingly untenable as materialism gained ground over the years, consciousness now being seen as an evolving construct formed through biological processes, personal experiences and a range of external influences. This of course represents a paradigm shift in popular culture, calling into question what it means to even be human, let alone a person.

Emotions are often described as the essence of human experience. Instead of spiritual compulsions, these are now considered to be the result of biochemical reactions occurring within the physical confines of a brain. This perspective carries implications for human evolution, emotions being understood by materialism to be mechanisms of survival and perhaps even reproductive success. The feelings we all know as love, happiness, anger and fear can be deconstructed into their biological components, revealing the material underpinnings of our emotional repertoire. Theologians would of course argue that reducing emotion to a mere chemical reaction diminishes their significance with respect to interpersonal relations, but materialism contends that understanding their biological basis actually enriches our appreciation of the human experience, inviting a deeper exploration of our subjectivity.

Ripperdoc Viktor Vektor from Cyberpunk 2007. He wears a blue button-up shirt and sunglasses indoors and is there for all your cybernetic implanting needs.

Materialism extends well beyond the individual into the complicated realm of culture, social structures being seen as emergent properties of human interactions and the material conditions that shape them. Politics and economics converge to provide a materialist lens through which we can examine these dynamics, an often-ignored field known as political economy. The most pervasive aspect of human society, inequality, can be scrutinized through the materialist perspective, something known as historical materialism. Instead of attributing social disparities to metaphysics, materialism directs our attention to the distribution of resources including access to education, along with various other opportunities. The material conditions of society play a pivotal role in shaping the social fabric, determining the possibilities available to people within a given society. Materialism sees human endeavors including religious practice and artistic expression as products of the historical context from which they emerge, pulling at the seams of cultural exceptionalism. This posits that even the loftiest expressions of human creativity and spirituality are in fact rooted within the material reality of the societies which produce them.

Taken as a worldview, materialism stands in stark contrast to metaphysical explanations that invoke supernatural entities or transcendental planes of existence, carrying profound implications for morality, ethics and even the meaning of life. Seen from this perspective, ethical frameworks are grounded in human wellbeing and the tangible consequences of our actions rather than supernatural pronouncements or divine commandments. They result from the interplay between social norms, empathy and especially reason. This pragmatic approach calls for us to reevaluate our ethical principles in light of their impact on the real world, a controversial understanding of morality, even today. The notion of cosmic purpose and teleological explanations of human existence are called into question. Within such a world, the search for meaning is redirected toward our collective responsibility for shaping the future we hope to experience. The emphasis shifts from seeking a predetermined personal purpose to actively contributing our efforts to the wellbeing of countless generations to come.

This much maligned understanding of the world, materialism, offers a guiding light which illuminates the interconnected network of our biological, psychological and social selves. The materialist perspective challenges many of our most profoundly ingrained beliefs, encouraging us to view ourselves not as divorced or set apart from the physical world but as active participants in a fundamentally physical existence, hopefully developing a deeper understanding of our nature and a renewed sense of purpose, a conception of self-grounded in tangible reality as opposed to ethereal order. This of course complicates the perhaps forever unresolved questions posed by videogames like Portal and Cyberpunk 2077, turning the attention away from the divine gift of a soul towards the physical processes found within the world around us.


Justin Reeve is an archaeologist specializing in architecture, urbanism and spatial theory, but he can frequently be found writing about videogames, too. You can follow him on Twitter @JustinAndyReeve.


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