Phenomenology and Neon Genesis Evangelion: an ethical reflection on mind-control technologies 

The Technology 

Mind-control technologies (not the brainwashing stuff) are a technology that connects humans’ brains to external technology. The idea behind this technology is to create a system that monitors and interprets the electrical activity in the brain with external electrons. The electric activity is transformed into signals sent to the related technology, and once there, they are translated into movements. In easy words, by using this technology, you can control whatever technology is connected with just your mind. 

In the last two decades, several research has been made on the subject. The biggest success until today was accomplished by Honeywell Aerospace, a US company that was able to connect the mind of a pilot to a C90 Beechcraft ( a twin-engine plane), making it move. All this is definitely exciting; the dream of some to have telekinesis power is becoming real. However, some ethical considerations must be made. 

In my understanding, this technology is an enhancement technology. In fact, when having electrons attached to the head, you can move a plane just with the power of thought, an ability that in my normal body functions I would not have. Exactly this increase in ability related to mental capacities makes me question the ethical consequences behind the technology in relation to the perception of the self. My argument is that because our perception of the self passes between a distinction from “us” and the environment, in which with “us” I refer to the interaction of mental activities channeled and expressed through the body, if another body (let’s say a plane) is connected to our thoughts, also the perception of the self changes. This could maybe not be a problem for a short exposition of the technology, in which a new identification and understanding of our boundaries cannot take place because of time, but issues could arise in the long use of the technology, leading the subject to identity crises. 

In order to explain my argument, two paths are made: first, I will create a philosophical reflection on the self by using a phenomenological perspective. Second, because it is technology underdevelopment and we still don’t have a case study to analyze, I will use an example from pop culture. What is interesting about pop culture, and in this case sci-fi culture, is that it usually anticipates reality (at least to some extent); for this, I will use the cult anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. The reason for the choice is that the main team of the series is a psychological investigation of the self in relation to the subject and to the other. In this investigation, technology (as a mind-control type) plays a relevant role, offering important reflections on the essay topic. 

Phenomenology and mind-control 

I’m interested in reflecting on the subjective experience in this article concerning ethical considerations. To do this, I use a phenomenology standpoint. In general, phenomenology can be described as the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The body has a crucial role in phenomenology, which is clear when looking at Husserl’s work, the father of phenomenology. According to Husserl, the body is a thing “inserted” between the rest of the material world and the “subjective” sphere; in this way, the body becomes the instrument that orientates humans through their experience of the world. In this role, the body has a mediator function; it becomes a gate between the world and the subjective interpretation of it. There is a personal interaction with the world wherever there is a body. For symmetry, the world becomes subjective within the personal body. The world is created subjectively (i.e., gains meaning) only through personal interaction. This creates a description of the self in which there is a privileged focus on the embodied and subjective experience. Merleau-Ponty describes this as the body being the pivot of the world, emphasizing that the consciousness of the world comes from the body. This implies much more because the body has a position in the world and is the not-world that makes the body. Therefore, the body makes me different from the world (i.e., I’m the body). But if the self is made from the experience of the world mediated through the body, what happens when the body changes? According to phenomenology, if the body also changes, the self changes. The issue of body change is directly related to the key issue of psychological continuity. Psychological continuity means the continuation of being yourself under a subjective experience. Psychological continuity is directly connected to a person’s identity; it is the process that makes us recognize ourselves in the child that we were and in the adult that we are. The body changes over the years, but it is gradually one, and its capacity stays in a related domain. By linking the self to a different body as a technological artifact (as a plane) and is not a gradual change, the time frame and the capacity factors are disruptive compared to normal perception, leading towards a possible sensation of a stranger in one own subjectivity. 

True is that research has proven that the brain is not a static entity, and thanks to neuroplasticity it has a great capacity to change and adapt. But if this is true on a biological and organic level, research has also proven that it is difficult to say if the same is valid on a qualitative level of subjective experience. Qualitative considerations are difficult to measure, and the reason for this is due to the subjectivity given by personal interpretation. 

Relating what has been said to mind-control technologies, this essay suggests that because this type of technology changes the type and capacity of the body in which the self is channelized in a short time frame, the psychological continuity could be interrupted, leading to a crisis of the self. Today, the technology is still under development and empirical cases still did not occur. For this reason, the next section will explore mind-control technologies in the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion by seeing what kind of reflection it offers. 

Mind-control in pop culture 

The anime Neon Genesis Evangelion is cult sci-fi series of the middle ‘90s. At first look, the story seems like a classical Japanese mecha anime series, in which mega robots, piloted by fourteen years old children, have to fight against the classical kaiju (big monster Godzilla type) to protect humanity in a post-apocalyptic future. But from a closer look, the anime tells us much more, and it offers an impressive existential reflection of the self and the relationship with the other. Long story short, humanity is threatened by the invasion of these Kaiju monsters (in the series, they are called Angels), and the only hope for humanity is these mega robots (called Eva). The technology used to pilot the Eva can be understood as mind-control technology. The pilots have to wear special electrodes on the head (similar to modern earphones) and get inside the command cabin of the Eva. This creates a connection, and the pilot can control Eva with the mind. The Eva becomes the new body of the pilot. 

In the first episodes, everything seems cool and working out. Shinji, the main character, immediately defeats an Angel his first time on Eva; by this, he saves humanity. But, going on in the series, the psychological investigation of the characters becomes deeper.

The Eva starts to have a more symbiotic relationship with the pilots, starting to shape their perception of the self. Due to the complexity of the relationship, Shinji starts to have an identity and neurotic crisis. He does not know who he is anymore, losing his connection with himself. Going forward with the series, Shinji doesn’t want to be a pilot of Eva anymore, but he is unable, and this is because the psyche and subjective experience is strictly related to the Eva. In a certain way, and this becomes even clearer in the series with Shinjin’s fellow pilot Asuka, the subject becomes the subject (completed of all the parts) just when it is inside the Eva.

Even more interesting in the anime, is that while the whole narrative is taking place, in the background, there is always the reference to a project called human instrumentality. It is only in the last episodes that the meaning of it is disclosed. The idea is that humanity has to evolve; the only way is by disappearing as an individual and being united as a whole. In this part, metaphysics, religion, and psychoanalysis motives come into play. What is important for this essay is that in order to achieve the project, the disruption of the ego (i.e., the self) of the pilots must first occur, and this is possible only inside the Eva. The reason shown in the anime is that by connecting the pilot to the Eva, a new self is created, destroying the individual one of the pilots. In the series, the pilots and the Eva constitute a new self; without Eva, the pilots suffer an identity crisis on a psychological level. This is due to the creation a new psychological body that interrupts the natural psychological continuity. This is a straightforward connection to mind-control technology and points out the ethical issues that concern my reflection on the argument. 

Summing everything up, thanks to research, mind-control technology has done incredible progress. The idea of moving an external technology with our own thought is exciting; however, as phenomenology argues and how Neon Genesis Evangelion represents, issues could arise when looking at the perception of the self in relation to these technologies. This essay suggests that further ethical considerations are needed. 

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