It’s no great secret that science fiction often reflects cultural beliefs at a given time. A good example of this is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 Walter Wanger Pictures, Inc.; directed by Don Siegel) based on a book of the same title by Jack Finney. I prefer the book to the movie, but I like both. The 1978 version (MGM; directed by Philip Kaufman) with Donald Sutherland put more of an emphasis on the horror aspect, and this covered up the theme I am emphasizing in this post.
Without giving much away, the plot is centered around alien pods which have the remarkable ability to copy any life form that holds still long enough for them to reproduce its molecular structure. For a human, this means that he or she has to be asleep near one of the pods. The original disintegrates and is replaced by the copy. The “pod people” aggressively try to place pods next to other unreplicated human beings. It has been claimed that this movie is a veiled reference to the Red Scare of the 1950s, but that isn’t what I want to discuss, either.
The theme that most intrigued when I read the book as a teenager is the one that resonates with me now as an older adult: the existence of a nonmaterial soul. While the book and subsequent movies are in no way religious, the theme is still there. It is chillingly emphasized in the book in various ways. The one that stands out most in my memory is a scene in which the narrator overhears a conversation between some neighbors/pod people. Their exchange is mechanically sterile with some degree of intellect present but almost no emotion. It is apparent that something human, something which is not physical, is missing.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
The most heart-grabbing example in the 1956 movie occurs when the girlfriend (played by Dana Wynter) of the town doctor (played by Kevin McCarthy) falls asleep while they are hiding in a cave.
The scene where he realizes he is kissing a mere shell when he tries to rouse her is perhaps the emotional peak of the movie.
Alright, I gave it away, but it’s old. Watch it, anyway. It’s worth the time. The point I’m making is that there was a more widespread belief in a nonmaterial, human soul in the 1950s than there is at present.
Contrast this with the approach taken in Oblivion (2013 Universal Pictures; directed by Joseph Kosinski). In this, clones that have had different experiences are capable of sharing the memories of the original human after which they are patterned. This reflects the more current opinion that mind is body, a pattern of electrochemical activity moving through evolved neural circuitry.
Is the brain the source of what we call the soul, or is it a transmitter? The materialist explanation is simpler, but does that make it true? If one smashes a phone, does that mean that nobody was on the other end? It strikes me that evidence against the existence of a nonmaterial soul is based on examining the smashed phone. I leave with this quote from What’s Wrong With the World by G. K. Chesterton.
No man could say how his animal dread of the end was mixed up with mystical traditions touching morals and religion. It is exactly because these things are animal, but not quite animal, that the dance of all the difficulties begins. The materialists analyze the easy part, deny the hard part and go home to their tea.