I'm hoping to develop a hybrid genre setting for a game, a 'post-singularity' situation developed from a traditional fantasy/magipunk world - though the allegory doesn't fully encompass what I want, think "eclipse phase or John C. Wrights 'golden age' via eberron".

The key themes I'm hoping to explore are the usual ones of identity in a world where it can be as arbitrary and artificial as one wants, based around the standard tropes of:

  1. Identity or mind is no longer bound to body; minds can be shifted between receptive vessels as needed
  2. Identity is no longer unique and inviolate; minds can be recorded, copied, forked, altered, merged, or even built from ground principles (at various levels of sentience) a'la an A.I.

However I want to explore these tropes as an outgrowth of a magical understanding rather than a scientific one.

Fantasy ~tends~ to run towards a dualism vein, where identity is separate from the physical form anyway - body/soul format. Its pretty easy to extend that to meet trope 1, decouple the soul and implement a ghost/possession system (c.f. the d&d ghostwalk setting).

Trope 2 is a lot harder to meet from that starting point; souls are usually considered pretty inviolate (barring themes like contamination or corruption), and very unique (I can't think of any stories with soul-copying that results in a full-fledged duplication; plenty of soulless abominations, but no total clones).

The good news of course is that I'm not locked to a generic dualism in my culture, so what are my alternatives?

Sci-fi post-singularities (at least the ones I'm familiar with) stem from a hard materialist theory of mind view; ultimately all ones thoughts and personality etc are emergent from a physical phenomenon - duplicate the phenomenon, duplicate the individual. Compounding this is that the knowledge to build an actual model of how we'd go about this stems from advanced physiology, biology, and physics.

Unfortunately, I'm constrained by my own culture, where widespread acceptance of a materialistic view is relatively recent (and may or may not be dominant even now depending on the beliefs of your local culture, though it does seem to be growing(?)), and access to the scientific models is very recent indeed.

Obviously some of this can (and will) ultimately be handwaved - ultimately a wizard will do it, and magic will stand in for sufficiently advanced science - but I'd still like an idea of how to get 'here' from a more traditional pseudo-medieval (or pseudo-renaissance) fantasy mindset...

Thus my question, as above: what cultural beliefs could my basic fantasy settings have held originally, to encourage them to have a sufficiently materialistic theory of mind in the past, to have developed such a post-identity society now?

As a further, leading thought (though I'm totally open to, and very keen to hear, answers that reach a conclusion from a different starting point), I suspect that I need an original belief in some alternative to a 'soul' that lends itself more towards materialist metaphors.

edit: Though it will push this even further towards an open question that (I presume) this community doesn't like, I'm early enough in my designs that I'm not wedded to anything settingwise, and happy to look at frame-challenging answers that allow me to achieve the effects above.

I don't mind if the solution is a sci fi recording of electrical impulses and a justification of how a fantasy society realised that, or whether the solution is soul copying and a viewpoint that makes that relatable and not totally alien to a reader/player.

  • $\begingroup$ It might help to define materialism in your context. At least in the US, materialism is at least somewhat synonymous with consumerism. $\endgroup$
    – Stephan
    Dec 22, 2017 at 0:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yeah, materialism is unfortunately an overloaded definition; I am referring to the theory of mind rather than any economic sense. I've updated the question to refer to the wikipedia page for that definition of it. $\endgroup$
    – crcroberts
    Dec 22, 2017 at 0:15
  • $\begingroup$ While I disagree with my counterparts who have voted to close the question as primarily opinion-based, I'm having enormous trouble overcoming the feeling of, "you want to do WHAT?" I'm an engineer, not a psychologist, and though I understood the Wiki page, I spent most of my time wondering that people have too much time on their hands and lamenting that they're getting paid for it. Therefore, if this question doesn't boil down to "how do my people convince themselves there are no spirits and no soul" then this question is waaaaay too broad, IMO. Can it be so simplified? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Dec 22, 2017 at 1:11
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH I think the question does boil to what beliefs will establish a secular worldview and a materialistic concept of mind exist in a fantasy world. It's main problem is the excess of discussive and tangential ponderings around the concept. People can't see the forest for the trees. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Dec 22, 2017 at 1:29
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH Possibly I've focused too much on the materialism aspect; which I'm asking for as its the required "way of thinking" I'm familiar with to even consider such things a possibility. Probably just a rephrase of the existing question, but would you consider "What cultural context could a pre/early technological society possess to open them to the idea of recording/copying/editing artificial minds" a better question? $\endgroup$
    – crcroberts
    Dec 22, 2017 at 1:32

5 Answers 5


Your society's cultural heritage is that of Animism.

Animism encompasses the beliefs that all material phenomena have agency, that there exists no hard and fast distinction between the spiritual and physical (or material) world and that soul or spirit or sentience exists not only in humans, but also in other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind and shadows. Animism thus rejects Cartesian dualism.

Dualism is what you do not want: that the spirit has an existence separate from the body. Animism is an older world view than the dualism found in current world major religions (Abrahamic, Hindu, Buddhist). The idea that the spirit is a manifestation of the thing itself will work perfectly as the cultural background for the materialists you want your society to be now.

Animism might still be lurking in the background...

  • $\begingroup$ I am wondering if animists have each part of the body with a spirit. A tooth on a necklace definitely has a spirit. Do each of the teeth in my mouth have a spirit? Is my own spirit some kind of confederacy? $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Dec 23, 2017 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ As is traditional, there are multiple submitted answers that have given me solid consideration points. I'm accepting this one because a) it answers at the broadest position i requested (a culture type), and thus i can layer other specific examples on and through it, and B) because it pre-emptively suggests answers to some other questions I had in follow up. $\endgroup$
    – crcroberts
    Jan 7, 2018 at 21:57

A creation myth that allows for mutable 'souls' or identities would seem to be the shortest route to take. Rather than an appeal to an underlying and divinely perfect Platonic/True identity, one that emphasizes how an identity ungoes changes in its lifetime, or is composed of degrees of various traits, may be the trick.

For inspiration: In contrast to Abrahamic and other creation myths in which Man's identity is perfect or corrupted by the physical world, the Zuni people of the American southwest believe that the first humans were horribly ill-suited to the world and had to be changed:

[H]ere they could see themselves for the first time because the sky glowed from a dawn-like red light. They saw they were each covered with filth and a green slime. Their hands and feet were webbed and they had horns and tails, but no mouths or anuses. [...]

[...] So when they were asleep, the bow priests sharpened a knife with a red whetstone and cut mouths in the people's faces. The next morning they were able to eat, but by evening they were uncomfortable because they could not defecate. That night when they were asleep the bow priests sharpened their knife on a soot whetstone and cut them all anuses. The next day the people felt better and tried new ways to eat their corn, grinding it, pounding, and molding it into porridge and corncakes. But they were unable to clean the corn from their webbed hands, so that evening as they slept the bow priests cut fingers and toes into their hands and feet. The people were pleased when they realized their hands and feet worked better, and the bow priests decided to make one last change. That night as they slept, the bow priests took a small knife and removed the people's horns and tails.


I'm not certain you actually need any pre-existing cultural beliefs to permit the development of post-singularity magic. After all, it's magic. Depending on what kinds of more primitive magic are available to start, it might just be blatantly obvious that, at the very least, souls are not immutable and unique; and possibly, that they are completely materialistic. E.g., maybe you have a spell for duplicating things. Some wizard decides to try it on a person, and hey! It works! And after some observation, it's determined that you really can't tell which one is the copy, and he's certainly not a soulless abomination, so....

Outside of the realm of magic, perhaps they practice brain surgery. (This is not quite as completely ridiculous for a pre-industrial society as one might think; lots of such societies in real life have, after all, practiced trepanation.) And as a result, they are well aware that there is a direct connection between messing with the physical material of the brain, and psychological effects. This doesn't preclude a belief in dualism, but it does certainly strongly suggest materialism. Having magic in the setting potentially makes pre-industrial brain surgery much safer, and therefore more practical and more common, than it was in our world.

Put those two things together, and you're well on your way to figuring out how to build brains from scratch, and how to instantiate minds in other substrates.

But, if you really want a strictly cultural explanation, here's the best I've got: a belief in the death of gods. After all, if there's an immortal soul separate from the material body, then after the body dies the soul has to go somewhere--maybe heaven, to hang out with the gods, maybe some sort of underworld (which may be looked over by a god or gods anyway, like Hades). And dead souls clearly can't die, because there's nowhere else to go--they're already dead!

But gods don't have bodies / already inhabit the place where dead souls go. They are, in a sense, already "dead". So if a god does die... where does it go? The only option for a god to really die is to simply cease to exist. And if gods cease to exist when they die, and humans are so much less significant and less powerful than gods... why did we believe that human souls go anywhere in the first place? And if they don't, then do we even souls at all?

Of course, this depends on having some specific pre-pre-existing beliefs about how the afterlife works, and what the nature of gods is, and then also having a belief that a god or gods have actually "died", and then actually bothering to critically examine that belief. No real-world society I know of has taken that route; real religions either don't believe in the death of gods at all, or have some "out"--i.e., that the god has been / will be reincarnated, that heaven is separate from the underworld and dead gods go there just like dead humans, that there are multiple levels of afterlife and dying in one just takes you forever onward into the next, and so on.... But, you really only need one intrepid wizard, or a small group, to start wondering, and that's the best I've got.


What if in your culture magical tricks with souls and sentient beings are as old as any other technology? There are magicians who can create people artificially, copy and swap souls. There is nothing sacred in the act of creation. A schoolboy can do it. There is nothing sacred about human mind or human soul. It can be manipulated or created with ease.

Quite a strange world, I would say. But or course you can explore it.

  • $\begingroup$ This is similar to where I want to end up, I'm just trying to figure out how they plausibly got to that point, since as you note its quite a culture shock from what any audience would be used to $\endgroup$
    – crcroberts
    Dec 22, 2017 at 1:40
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    $\begingroup$ The magic in this world would just work that way and the people would not know any different. On Earth, spiritual and material worlds can be seen separately and it is not clear which one is superior. In this world, any spiritual effects can be easily achieved by material manipulations. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Dec 22, 2017 at 8:11

I find that it's very easy to design such systems if you treat the nature of identity as something to be questioned, as opposed to something assumed.

There's a famous thought experiment on materialism involving teleporters. In this thought experiment, there is a "teleportation" process that operates at the speed of light. Your body is scanned, encoded, transmitted as data (on EM waves), received at the other end, and then reconstructed. Once your body is reconstructed, the old body is destroyed. For your purposes, where minds can be recorded/transmitted as well, treat those minds as part of the body (which is natural for materialism, but unnatural for dualism).

Because you are seeking a trope where such transport is possible, we'll assume this just works. Now for the fun questions. Let's transport ourselves from Earth to Mars, but the completion signal never arrives. Now we have two copies, one on Earth, one on Mars. So what happens? A purely materialist approach would be to say that the Earth and Mars individuals are copies of each other. Each has the same "importance" as the other does. This is fine, although you're going to have to rewrite property law from scratch because you now have two individuals with the same rights to the same property. A dualist approach would argue that the Earth individual has precedent because it's essence is that of the original individual.

(If your path starts going too dualist for your taste, the next version of the teleporter malfunctions, and instead of sending you to Mars, it sends you to both Jupiter and Venus, then the completion signal destroys the Earth body. Now which has the essence of the original?)

If there are no questions, then this is easy. Either one individual is "more important" than the other, or isn't. However, what if this isn't an obvious answer. What if there's questions? What if the teleportation process seems to copy everything perfectly, but it's not 100% clear whether anything is "lost?" The depths of those questions let you tailor the world to your particular level of materialism. You can have it where everyone is really confident this teleportation process works, but every so often there's something peculiar, like a "failed to thrive" teleport. Or someone who just doesn't seem to be the same. Hard to tell if that's a machine malfunction, or if there was something missing.

Another approach is to redefine individual. Language is a slippery thing. Individual means something, and we generally agree upon what it means in normal environments. You're building a spectacular environment. Perhaps individual has a more nuanced meaning here. Consider that most people use the word "individual" to describe something unique, and would feel uncomfortable using it to describe something copyable. Perhaps the word "individual" moves away from body/mind entirely, and stays with the unique thing: the information. This, of course, is not a new problem:


We living creatures reproduce. We spread our DNA from copy to copy. We obviously see the uniqueness in each individual body, but from some perspectives, we're all just statistical samples of what happens when a 99.9% shared pattern of DNA gets to operate on an egg cell. Yet we consider "the human species" to be a thing. The information stored in that 99.9% of the DNA is treated like an individual in some ways. Your "post-identity" society may use the same rules. Copies all share the same identity which is the information associated with the body/mind. This solves the teleporter problem not by deciding which body is the real you, but by suggesting that you now have one identity which is expressed in two body/minds.

For a more nuanced version, take a look at family. Family is truly ephemeral, and yet it is often considered to be harder than steel, and it is constantly evolving.

Another useful tool I have found is Holon Theory. Holon theory explores things which are both simultaneously a whole and a part of something else. Your copied bodies may be treated as holons: each is their own whole, but they are also part of a bigger identity. Unconsciously, we tend to use holon theory when considering our own cells. Each one is a whole, but you can't make sense of it without considering it as part of a system. Each one is a part of a system, but you can't make sense of it without considering it as a whole as well.

For more of a magic feel, consider the special case of individuals who have chosen not to undertake this copying process. There are obviously risks to this: you only have one body. However, there are advantages. As an extreme example, it's not possible to torture 30 of me before getting one to crack. You have to get the information in the first try. These may seem obvious, but to a culture which is steeped in copying, these may be considered to be substantial advantages. They might even be enough to start a myth that un-copied individuals have supernatural powers. That's all you need to start the fantasy world going.


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