*Warning: presumptive spoilers for a future season of Sword Art Online Alicization*
Lingering the background of Sword Art Online Alicization has been the question of the nature of the soul. Early in the anime, the story established that scientists had narrowed down the soul’s nature to a light-based phenomenon they call a fluctlight. These fluctlights can be produced artificially and contained within computers. Leaving out the sci-fi embellishments, plenty of people today hold views of the human self similar to the one SAO Alicization sets up. There are a variety of theories, but one way or another these views all claim that our minds (or our perception of having minds), our sense of self, is ultimately a physical phenomenon. We are nothing but our bodies — there is no metaphysical or supernatural soul that transcends our bodies. But several aspects of the story contradict the narrative’s initially materialist stance on the soul and suggest it is incorrect to understand the soul in purely physical terms. Volumes 15 and 16 of the Sword Art Online light novels, Alicization Invading and Alicization Exploding, pick up where the anime left off. They effectively continue the discussion about love that began with Eugeo and Quinella, and through that discussion, the narrative pushes back against a materialist perspective on the soul.
The first development of note comes when computer expert Higa explains what happened to Kirito in the Underworld: Kirito had friends who died in the battle with Administrator, and at the time that he finally contacted the outside world, he was beating himself up over those deaths. “In other words, he was attacking his own fluctlight.” Just at that point, a power surge caused the system to act upon Kirito’s self-loathing, which rendered him catatonic within the Underworld (remember, he’s already in a coma in the real world). According to a computer scan, the part of Kirito’s fluctlight that normally contains the sense of self was just a big black hole. As a result, even though the rest of his soul is intact, Kirito was left a prisoner within himself. He’s suffering from something akin to depression, we might say, though taken to a sci-fi extreme: “He cannot process exterior input, and he cannot output his own actions… He might not be aware of who he is…unable to say or do anything…”
Higa then theorizes on how to help Kirito. “He damaged his own soul by excessive self-flagellation. So if someone else provides him with forgiveness…then maybe…” The narrator acknowledges that Higa’s idea is “vague, unscientific.” Higa admits to himself that what he doesn’t know about the soul far outweighs what he does know:
“Was the fluctlight a physical construct? Or was it some kind of conceptual phenomenon that couldn’t be explained with modern science? If the latter, perhaps Kazuto Kirigaya’s wounded and exhausted soul could be healed by some other power that surpassed science. Such as, for example, love.”
While Sword Art Online Alicization previously set us up to believe the fluctlight is a “physical construct,” the anime, at least, hasn’t directly weighed in on the question much. With Higa’s musing, the narrative explicitly raises the question it’s long been asking implicitly. Do humans have an immaterial spirit, or is our sense of self a purely physical phenomenon, something that can explained, quantified, and manipulated by science? The story offers a number of hints that the human mind is something more than science can explain, and that love, in particular, is a science-defying, reality-shaping force.
In response to Higa’s suggestion that Kirito needs love and forgiveness, Asuna volunteers: “I want to go in there and tell Kirito that he did good things. That through all the hardships and sad things that I’m sure happened, he did everything that he could.” She intends to go into Kirito’s world and save him from his own self-hatred by bringing him love. It’s a strikingly messianic development, bringing to mind the Savior who came into our world in order to provide us forgiveness and love and save us from a truly hopeless fate that we brought on ourselves. Later, the narrative adds another messianic parallel to Asuna’s character. It observes, “Her order of priorities had been set in stone years ago. She would commit any sin to protect Kirito–Kazuto Kirigaya. She would accept any punishment.” Of course, Jesus is perfect and didn’t sin in order to save us: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2.22). But he certainly was willing to accept any punishment for our sake: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us,” (Gal. 3.13) and “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5.21). Jesus himself was innocent of sin, but he took on the punishment our sins deserve in order to express his love for us. Similarly, Asuna is willing to suffer, to pay any price, because of her love for, and desire to save, Kirito. She’s no Jesus, but the Christlike echoes ring true. (Of course, one great difference is that Asuna enters the Underworld with a admin account that gives her all the glory and powers of a goddess, while Jesus “emptied himself” and entered our world an ordinary, humble baby (Phil. 2.7).) The entire endeavor of saving Kirito hinges on the soul and love being forces beyond the realm of modern science.
In a somewhat different way, love provides another opportunity to affirm the immaterial nature of the spirit when Alice meets Tiese and Ronie, the swordswomen trainees Kirito and Eugeo had worked with. Alice quickly realizes that Ronie was in love with Kirito. Ronie dismisses the idea, declaring she is unworthy of such of thing. Tiese steps in to explain how Kirito and Eugeo fought to protect them and thereby violated the Taboo Index. She and Ronie believe that if they had been wiser, Kirito and Eugeo would never have ended up getting arrested, and thus Eugeo wouldn’t be dead and Kirito catatonic. Seeing their own actions as the cause of what happened to Kirito and Eugeo, Tiese concludes “We don’t have a right to express any love to them.” When Alice protests that this perspective is wrong, Ronie answers that the villainous aristocrats “treated our bodies like their playthings, and now our dignity has been stained with sin!”
Alice counters that “The body is nothing more than a vessel for the heart,” and that the soul “is the one thing that truly exists.” Within the story, it’s technically true that Alice and the others are souls without bodies — they are artificially created fluctlights that exist within a computer. In real life, however, Christianity holds that humans are unions of body and spirit and that both body and spirit are significant. There can be no such thing as a soul without a body, except for the not-yet-resurrected dead. The greatest testimony to the significance of our bodies is the promise of resurrection. Jesus wasn’t a disembodied spirit — he was raised from the dead bodily. So also the Bible says that we won’t be ghosts floating around heaven: we, too, will be raised from the dead, our bodies and spirits reunited and transformed. Thus, Alice’s dismissal of the body may go too far, even though it’s actually true in the context of the story. But though her statement is faulty in the degree to which it dismisses the importance of the body, underlying Alice’s point is an affirmation that humans have an immaterial soul. We — and Ronie and Tiese — are not defined solely by our bodies.
Alice further argues, “The only one who can determine the nature of the soul is the self… Your body and appearance are entirely dependent on your heart… Nobody can defile your heart.” Her words bring to mind a point Jesus made, after the Jews complained that his disciples neglected to engage in certain hand washing rituals:
“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. …Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? …What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mk. 7.15-23)
Alice thus agrees with Jesus, correctly affirming that what is done to the body cannot defile the soul. The spirit’s independence from bodily defilement also indicates its immaterial nature. Jesus warns that truly corrupting evil arises within the heart, and although Alice expresses it quite a bit differently, she’s makes a similar point: the will of the heart takes precedence over the external and physical. We have the free will to decide what kind of people we will be. In arguing that the girls’ true selves were not defiled by what was done to them, Alice affirms the existence of an immaterial self.
As war begins, a series of incidents involving other Integrity Knights also point to the power of love, and concurrently continue the story’s argument for a dualistic view of the soul. When the story examines Deusolbert Synthesis Seven’s motivation to participate in the war, it looks at the Integrity Knight’s past. It turns out that throughout all his many years as an Integrity Knight, Deusolbert experienced dreams of a memory from before he became an Integrity Knight: “A small, pale hand, so white the skin seemed clear. A simple silver ring that glinted on its finger. The hand brushed his hair, touched his cheek, and shook his shoulder. There was a soft, gentle whisper: Wake up, dear. It’s morning…” Deusolbert himself had always possessed a ring that matched the one on this mysterious hand of his dreams. After Kirito defeated Quinella, Deusolbert learned the truth about the Administrator and the Integrity Knights, and realized the hand in his dreams must have belonged to a real human, and that its owner is long since dead. Amid his deep grief, Deusolbert still answers the call of the leader of the Integrity Knights:
“He would fight to protect the world in which he and the owner of that little hand had lived, no matter how long ago it had been. In other words, the source of Deusolbert Synthesis Seven’s strength, that which made him capable of holding his ground before the charge of an invading army, was the power of the one emotion that should have been erased from his mind: love.”
This love, immaterial and unscientific though it seems, somehow endured the Administrator’s manipulative powers and goes on to affect the world by giving Deusolbert the strength to fight. And he is not alone in fighting for love.
During the battle, Integrity Knight Dakira Synthesis Twenty-Two sacrifices herself to save her commander, Fanatio, from Sigurosig, chieftain of the giants and one of the leaders of the invading army. As Fanatio processes her comrade’s death, the Integrity Knight thinks to herself about the junior knights she leads:
“She had placed them under her care to train and protect them. She gave them only harsh words of discipline, but they were her beloved brothers and sisters. And now they were protecting her and losing their lives because of it… ‘It will not happen!!’ she swore, to herself, to Sigurosig, to the world. She would not allow more of them to die. She would keep the other three alive, for Dakira’s sake. This determination became a firm Incarnation of Love that surpassed Sigurosig’s churning bloodlust and shot forth from Fanatio’s soul.”
In other words, as Fanatio battles an enraged giant, her love for her junior knights manifests as reality-altering power that turns the tide of the battle at that moment. Once again, the narrative highlights love as a world-changing force linked to the soul. The story never says so, but it’s hard to escape the inference that if love can accomplish these feats, it’s also going to be able to save Kirito.
Finally, there’s the last stand of Integrity Knight Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-One. Eldrie cared deeply for his mentor Alice. He respected Alice a great deal, but also wrestled with conflicted feelings of wanting something more than just being her apprentice. He cared about her as more than just a mentor, but Alice didn’t see him in the same light. As such concerns distract him during the battle, he hears a voice:
–your desire to protect–
–needs no payment in return, does it? Love is not something you ask for. You just give and give and give it, and it never runs out. Isn’t that right…?“
Thinking on this mysterious voice’s words, Eldrie ponders why he got so twisted into knots over wanting Alice’s affection. “What got me so confused?” he asks, “That I didn’t have enough strength? That I couldn’t monopolize her feelings? That I wasn’t able to protect her? What tiny, insignificant things…” This reminder that love doesn’t depend on getting anything in return helps Eldrie realize he can act on his love for Alice even if she doesn’t respond in exactly the way he’d hoped. Eldrie finds the strength to heroically sacrifice himself to protect Alice from a massive enemy attack. Through this epiphany, love once again proves powerful enough to alter the course of the battle.
By the end of volume 16, Kirito still isn’t out of the woods, but the narrative has provided strong reason to hope that love really is powerful enough to help his soul, powerful enough to do what science cannot. I imagine the topic will see further exploration, but even now the story has clearly challenged the science-based explanation of the soul that it previously set up. Fluctlights might be containable within a computer, but the seems to be that the human mind or self ultimately transcends such strictly physical parameters. It’s fascinating to see the story explore such a profound and relevant issue. I’m sure no one gets their view of the soul entirely from reading light novels, but fiction of this sort provides a helpful venue for exploring such a philosophical/scientific question. I look forward to watching how future volumes continue the conversation.
Sword Art Online can be viewed on Crunchyroll.