The Philosophy of Fallout 4 – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of Fallout 4, where we explore many of the political themes from previous installments, plus a new philosophical question with the introduction of Synths to the world of the wasteland: What does it mean to be human? Drawing from philosopher Donna Haraway’s essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” we discuss the ramifications of how we define what is “human” – both in the Wasteland, and in our own world.
Written and Directed by: Alec Opperman
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Post-Production Assistants: Sarah Haver, Martin Green, and Sierra Valdez
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
The Philosophy of Fallout 4
Hey everyone, Jared here, and today we’re talking about the blackhole that devoured weeks of my life: Fallout 4. Like many of its predecessors, Fallout 4 follows a vault dweller bravely traversing the post-apocalyptic Wasteland. Unlike Fallout 3, which features a vault dweller in search of his father, Fallout 4 chronicles a weird inverted Oedipal scenario where you kill your son and destroy his legacy. All Fallout games feature super mutants, Deathclaws, and feral ghouls menacing the human race. But in Fallout 4, there’s a new danger: synthetic humans. And while the perils of the Wasteland still pose an existential threat to humankind, Fallout 4 introduces a new, purely philosophical threat that is: What does it mean to be human? Though the synths, the game makes us question everything we know about our very humanity.
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of Fallout 4. The synth-creating Institute serves as the primary antagonist to the rest of the Commonwealth. The Institute was built when the surviving scientists of a fictionalized MIT, known as CIT, dug themselves underground to shield themselves from the ravages of the irradiated surface. Dedicating themselves to research and the advancement of humanity, they quickly scrapped their plans to improve life on the surface, and instead opted to create serene waterfalls and creepy synthetic children. The Institute’s synth program draws suspicion from the inhabitants of the Wasteland, who believe – correctly – that the Institute is replacing their loved ones with synthetic counterparts. It also sets them at odds with the Railroad, who believe the synths are sentient and being exploited by the Institute, and the Brotherhood of Steel, who feel the synthetic humanoids are another case of technology gone too far. The fundamental question about synths, and our relation to them, falls into two camps. There’s “humanism,” a philosophy centered on, surprise, the “human,” and “posthumanism,” the deconstruction and decentering of what it means to be human.
As the player, one choice faced in the game is to believe, as Father does, that the synths are mere robots. Or you can believe, as the Railroad does, that because they’ve developed sentience they’re deserving of rights. We could see the synth storyline as an uninspired, lazy, cliche about discrimination, but it also does a great job of exploring the line between human and non-human. Nowhere is this divide explored more explicitly than in the ideology of the Brotherhood of Steel and their opposition to the Institute.
The Brotherhood are, for lack of a better term, synth racists; they believe the cybernetic organisms are an abomination to nature. And it’s not just the fear of them being used by the Institute to spy on society, even the rebellious synths shepherded to freedom by the Railroad are targets of Maxson’s soldiers. Walking around Brotherhood territory with Valentine, an early-version synth, subjects you to a deeply unsettling level of harassment. The Brotherhood ride around on the “Prydwen” led by a guy named Arthur – a reference to the ship and hero of the tales of King Arthur. Their ranks emulate medieval Europe, with titles like Knight, Paladin, Scribe and Squires. This is perhaps the best indication of how they perceive themselves: chivalrous knights out to battle monsters and protect the helpless remains of humanity and its purity.
The Brotherhood adopts a kind of classical morality. They believe in “the human” as a pure, inherently valuable entity worth defending. Conceived in a womb of a loving mother, au natural, you get the idea. They can be roughly described as “humanist.” Now, there’s a ton of different kinds of humanisms who all believe different things, but we’re really just using the term “humanist” to stress a set of assumptions they share with other humanists: that there is a basic human nature, and that the human, as opposed to the inhuman, are the primary subjects of the world. If the Brotherhood is so bothered by synths – it’s because this amalgam of man and machine threatens the very identity that defines them and the humanity they seek to defend. Long before the Brotherhood, humanity was obsessed with defining themselves by what they are not. We’re not like animals because we use tools, think abstractly, and use emojis. Back in the days of Ancient Greece, this anxiety mainly manifested itself in interspecies creatures like centaurs and minotaurs. The combination of species disrupted the traditional boundaries of Greek society – between man and animal, polis and nature, etc.
Today, that anxiety about the boundaries of the “human” creeps into our relationship with technology. Instead of human vs animal, it’s more like human vs animals/machines/microbes and holy shit the world is scary stuff. A quick survey of the scifi genre will reveal a ton of movies scared shitless about human genetic manipulation, machines overtaking humans, machines fucking humans. You get the idea. In her essay “The Cyborg Manifesto,” philosopher Donna Haraway investigates our construction of “the human” and how this chasm, between “organism and machine,” is always enforced by a kind of “border war.” We defend the figure of the human against degradations, impurities, infections, and so on. It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that back in the day, people argued dialysis was an unsavory attempt to play God, an unholy marriage between man and machine. Life-saving technologies are often considered undignified.
In order to preserve their idea of a pure humanity, the Brotherhood wants to exterminate the synths, who threaten these boundaries. The Brotherhood’s defense of “the human” isn’t all that new, and their response to synths isn’t too surprising. They’re essentially railing against miscegenation, or the mixing of races, using the same invocations of purity and nature that have always worked so well when being dicks to entire groups of people. However, the Brotherhood’s idea of “human” is deeply flawed, and full of contradictions. It’s here that Fallout gets pretty smart, even if inadvertently. The game, through the Brotherhood of Steel, shows the distinction between human and inhuman isn’t so black and white, and calls into question several myths surrounding the very idea of “the human”.
The first myth the Brotherhood runs into is about the purity of the human body – shunning the mixture of flesh and machine as we discussed earlier. The problem is — they’re literally cyborgs. If you want to rail against the posthuman, let’s talk about your suits of power armor that you wear around everywhere. The power armor enhances the human body like any implant could – it can augment your vision, your strength. For Proctor Ingram, it even fills the void of the missing legs she lost in battle. For Haraway, this boundary is always a fiction, and the biggest enforcers of the border between human and inhuman are gleefully ignorant of how porous that border is. Those things that make us human – using tools, language, etc., are seen in both apes and birds. We’re also molded, according to Haraway, by the environment. In real life, the “pure” human body is full of foreign DNA and bacteria. Likewise, the radiation wreaking havoc on the DNA of Wasteland survivors makes them as “impure” as the synths created with “untainted” DNA from Sean.
The second myth is about human nature and morality. Maxson argues against Danse’s humanity on the grounds that: “Those ethics that it’s striving to champion aren’t even its own. They were artificially inserted in an attempt to have it blend into society.” For many humanists, there’s either a human nature which makes us innately good, or at the very least, a free will which enables the possibility of ethics: unlike animals or machines, we can “choose” to be virtuous. Maxson criticizes Danse for having “artificially inserted ethics”, the irony of this, coming from a man raised in a heavily regimented military organization where higher powers dictate a code of ethics to a set of subordinates, to be lost on him.
For Haraway, our entire being is crafted by the cultures, societies, and environment that we come into contact with. For instance, exploring Kellog’s memories, and his traumatic upbringing, can tell us as much about who he is as his cybernetic implants. If the Institute inserted a set of ethics in Danse, is it all that different from the ethics instilled in us by our parents, our church, or our schools? Technology invading human nature is a constant fear in real society – and constitutes the third myth espoused by the Brotherhood. Using tools is what allowed us to evolve into who we are today, and the technologies we developed along the way like agriculture, architecture, and manufacturing shaped us as much as we shaped the world with them.
Before the synths, the Brotherhood manifested this fear in their distrust of technology: believing the pursuit of science to be a reckless transcending of human limitations and control. Yet, at no point does it register for them that flying around a blimp stocked full of nukes might also be an act of hubris. The figure of the synth creates a rupture in our understanding of the human, complicating these myths. For Haraway, this is a good thing: our rigid conception of “human” is what allows people to ostracize ghouls and enslave synths in Fallout, and has justified centuries of oppression against racialized others. Haraway argues for a “cyborg politics” one that rejoices “in the illegitimate fusion of animal and machine.” In other words, instead of denying that we are cyborgs, we should embrace it. We are not only the fusion of flesh and machine, but society, history and culture.
The Institute, even if accidentally, manages to confront us with this pollution of “the human.” Father leaves you a synthetic version of himself for you to raise as your own child. The Synths, who we’re told are mere automatons, bristle for freedom regardless of their categorization. Even the fact that Synth’s are built using actual human DNA further blurs these boundaries. Valentine, who is aware he is living with somebody else’s memories planted into his artificial mind, struggles with what it means “to be” knowing that he, and his past, are fabrications. And there’s this speech from Danse: “It’s true, I was built within the confines of a laboratory, and some of my memories aren’t my own. But when I saw my brothers dying at my feet, I felt sorrow. When I defeated an enemy of the Brotherhood, I felt pride. And when I heard your speech about saving the Commonwealth…I felt hope. Don’t you understand? I thought I was human, Arthur.”
Perhaps the most interesting lesson we can draw from Fallout 4 comes from the story of Pinocchio. In Pinocchio, a wooden marionette strives to become fully human. It’s only when he learns the human traits of selflessness and honesty that he is finally transformed. Fallout offers us a few parallels: there’s Curie, who wants to become a real human, but settles for her brain being downloaded in a synth. Then there’s the relationship between Father and the synth Shaun he built, which somewhat parallels the relationship between Gepetto and Pinnochio. Both Danse and Valentine ground their claims in humanity, like the story of Pinocchio, in their human values.
And what better metaphor for what it means to be human than a puppet who only becomes a human after he learns to obey his father and accept society’s rules?