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Fallout 4 and the Breath of Life

The other day Twitter suggested I follow Sarah Silverman. This surprised me, because I strive to avoid celebrity accounts. I even go so far as to avoid people who retweet celebrities, even if I think those individuals might otherwise be agreeable human beings. Needless to say, I am not a popular person on Twitter. Still, out of morbid curiosity I clicked on over to her profile. Her bio caught my eye.

“We’re all just molecules, Cutie.”

Alright, Sarah. You didn’t get my follow, but you did get a little smile.
I’m sure she wrote that in good humor, and it is amusing to think of ourselves simply as collisions of atoms, an accident of some ancient quantum event, that are no more than the sum of our parts. Is there anything we can’t excuse or justify on that basis? Flatulence at a formal dinner, for example. “Our host insists I apologize for my untimely eruption, but I must refuse. I am a mere amalgamation of molecules, slave to their reverberations in time and space. I can no more control my sphincter than a falling apple can control gravity. I cannot and will not take responsibility for that. Besides, as the old code says, ‘He who smelt it, dealt it.’”

Are we all just molecules, though? Are we no more than a happenstance coalescing of dust and energy? I think many people may believe this on an intellectual level, but few really believe it on a practical level; molecules do not love, and for both the atheistic humanist and the Christian, love is central to life. Just as we cannot multiply by zero, we cannot expect that increasing the size of our pile of molecules will cause an abiogenesis of love. Certain celebrity biologists might wave away higher abstract concepts like love as evolutionary traits or complex, programmed patterns of cells, but at the end of the day these explanations cannot account for our relationships in satisfying and meaningful ways.

… there is a fundamental question that is never asked in the game: Why does anyone deserve to be treated with dignity?

Imagine the conversation in that household:

“I love you, honey, and by that I mean our relationship is based on my inheritance of strong traits of species altruism and is conditioned by environmental factors beyond my control, and cannot be empirically attributed to an act of free will.”
Whether we admit it in our Twitter bios or not, being human means more than being an assembly of parts. So what then does it mean to be human?

And here is where the Fallout 4 main-narrative spoilers start in earnest.

Fallout 4 takes up this question, and in the concluding chapters of the narrative, forces the player to make a decision and act on it. Three factions with irreconcilable ideologies vie for control of the dry bones of a post-apocalyptic Boston. The transhumanist Institute, buried deep beneath the ruins of M.I.T., fights for a future where man and machine are combined, manufacturing synthetic humans (“synths”) for experimentation and covert missions on the surface world. The Brotherhood of Steel, a warrior cult marked by an extreme species altruism, is dedicated to obliterating any life that isn’t pure homosapien—whether synth or mutant, despite how much more human these “aberrations” act than the cold, merciless Brotherhood. Then there is the Railroad, an underground abolitionist movement dedicated to freeing synths from the Institute’s iron grip. At first glance the Railroad may seem to be the noble party, but it quickly becomes apparent they will shed much human blood in pursuit of their goals.

If the player takes sides with one of these factions, the other two will be destroyed. This campaign to wrest control of the Boston wasteland serves as the third and final act of the game’s narrative. Unless you base your decision on material concerns (“Who will get me the coolest gun?”), your decision will rest on what you believe constitutes a person. The Institute has dogmatic faith that science will manufacture the perfect human, but they have little love for the poor and downtrodden folk of the wasteland. The Brotherhood has great compassion for the humans of old Boston, but they are ruthless towards synths and mutants, among whom the player will find friends and allies throughout the game. The Brotherhood and the Institute mock the Railroad for believing that synths are something more than parts and programming—but if we’re all just molecules, isn’t that us, too?

The Railroad fascinated me. The faction is based on the Underground Railroad, the system of safe houses used to escort escaped Southern slaves to the free lands in the North. They embody American democratic ideals, and it was easy for me to be sympathetic towards their cause of treating synths as equals. I’m a patriotic guy. I’m a former Marine. I tear up during the national anthem. The Railroad’s rhetoric of equality and freedom tugged at my heart strings.  However, there is a fundamental question that is never asked in the game: Why does anyone deserve to be treated with dignity? What is the key principle at work that means synths and humans alike should receive rights?

In other words, why are any of these characters more than molecules? Fallout 4 never offers its opinion beyond some appeals to nostalgia for America’s past. From a philosophical standpoint, the game gives no compelling reason why I shouldn’t be a bloodthirsty maniac who marauds his way about the landscape, killing indiscriminately and taking every ear of corn I can find (corn is very important in the far future).

Let me suggest an answer. Actually, I’ll let the Declaration of Independence do so.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Fallout 4 doesn’t ask you why you have your values, but rarely do we ask that of ourselves.

We are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. That is, we are all children of God. In the book of Genesis, God created man in His image. Adam is made from clay, and God breathes life into him through his nostrils. We are more than molecules. We are body and spirit, and each of us indelibly bears the image of God.

In a world devoid of this divine mark, this breath of life, I personally find no rationale to sacrifice myself for others, human or synth. If there is only nature and I am only a machine of organic programs, why should I not follow my natural desires, my lusts for power and pleasure? Not everyone inherits a strong altruistic trait. That’s just nature. Don’t blame me for murdering your village and stealing your all corn. I didn’t get “nice guy” genes in the great cosmic lottery. I’m just molecules, and so are you.

But that philosophy is wretched, and we intuitively know it. At least we feel it, even if we don’t admit there are intellectual flaws with it. Fallout 4 doesn’t ask you why you have your values, but rarely do we ask that of ourselves. Most of us rush through life, doing good as we see fit on the assumption that our definition of good is a universal constant. Not everyone believes in a transcendent, universal good. Nietzsche didn’t; he thought that universal mores made men weak. I think he’s wrong. There can be no sane world without moral truths that transcend the fallibility of human reason, memory, and desire. If we are all just molecules and moral goodness is only a matter of perspective, then each of us is forever both an insurgent and a tyrant, fighting against one order and imposing our own on others. It is a world of both madness and chaos. Like the world of Fallout 4, I suppose.

True, there are factions at work with the power to bring the lawless wastes to order, but in the three cases above the player is asked, “Which is worse: the disease or the cure?” The player’s reaction depends on their beliefs on what it means to be human, and that itself is a question rooted in your ontology of the universe. Are we only accidental piles of dust, or are we the sons and daughters of God, carved and brought to life for communion with our Creator?

As for the humanity of the synths: Androids with human-like artificial intelligence are too much of an implausible counterfactual to take serious real world philosophical stands. However, the few synths you meet in the game—particularly the artificial private eye, Nick Valentine—are indistinguishable from humans in thought and manner. They exhibit curiosity and compassion, and they are capable of both fear and bravery. “They’re just programmed that way,” says the Brotherhood. Yet the naturalists say the same thing about you and I.

As for me, in this fictional world the synths are the children of men, and therefore they are the grandchildren of God. I don’t know how, but they carry the spark of life within them, passed on from God to man to machine. Both human and synth bear the imago dei, and both are more than mere matter and energy. That, in my mind, makes them both worth fighting for.



Associate Editor
Chris Casberg is an Associate Editor for Love Thy Nerd, veteran of the United States Marine Corps, and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He writes from his home in Central Oregon, where he lives with his wife and daughters.

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