I don’t take this sort of stuff very seriously, any more than the ideas of some about man leaving earth to live on gigantic spacecraft or reach another planet within their lifetime. Intellectual masturbation abounds! Some of the ideas are impossible or too far-fetched. Others would involve killing off most of the world’s population in order to make these ideas available to the tiny elite of the hyper-rich. What is this all about?
Most of us Boomers grew up with Star Trek and Dr Who, and with the fascination of science fiction. Ever since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816, man has dreamed about being the master of life and death, the very questions religious people leave to a deity or other factors beyond our control. The Romantics grappled with the struggle between man emancipating himself from the old determinism, but at the same time bewailing the increasing mechanisation and industrialisation of their world. It is not by accident that I choose the theme of Prometheus, a theme of classical Greek mythology that is present as much in modern science fiction cinema as the poetry of the Romantics.
These speculations in the 1960’s stimulated my curiosity, only to be told that Star Trek communicators didn’t exist (they do now – mobile phones), nor did robots or bionic human-machine hybrids. Technology has advanced almost at the speed of science fiction, and there are some very frightening prospects.
In this documentary, we find two opposing viewpoints: life coming from matter and depending on it – or life / consciousness / energy being the source of everything. In the former view (materialism), life depends on physical matter and the soul is not more than an active brain. When the brain dies, life is extinguished. In the latter view, life is incarnate and takes flesh during the life we know, but is independent of it. Life and consciousness continue after bodily death. The latter view is not exclusive to religious people but is also shared by some members of the scientific community.
The subject I approach is one that is based on the materialist view, that man has to seek immortality by improving the physical body or replacing it with the use of high technology. What is reassuring is that transhumanism contains the seeds of its own failure. It promises to make imperfect humanity perfect and eliminate sickness, poverty, war, etc. Briefly, it is a utopian vision, but utopianism in itself isn’t wrong, just impossible in the world we know.
Perhaps utopia for some is dystopia for others. Imagine for a moment that such technology would “work”. Would everybody benefit? The blind or lame destitute in the slums of Calcutta or London? Would there have to be ethnic or cultural “cleansing”? Transhumanists promise a five hundred year lifespan. Why not a thousand years? If you have the world populated by people in mechanical bodies who live for a thousand years, what do you do with people who only live for sixty years and who already overpopulate the earth in relation with the resources needed for industrial and technological “growth”? Put them in gas chambers or shoot them? As for humans designed with computers, would we be all the same, mass produced? Surely, mass production would be cheaper (I assume there would still be money in the new world) like it is today for cars, computers and most things we have in our homes.
There is then the possibility of chimeras, a cross between several species. I daydreamed as a child about having the wings of a bird so that I could fly. As I went to school on the bus and I saw the beauty of England’s Lake District in all seasons, I imagined myself flying alongside the bus, over the lake and the mountains and wherever I wanted. Manipulating genes and DNA makes it possible to make a human / animal hybrid. Yes, it is being done!
The next stage is separating the soul / spirit from the brain and programming it into a computer, a computer of the future, perhaps a quantum computer. As the hardware wears out, the software is just transferred as we do today on our laptops and backup drives. Strangely, this seems to collude with the view that consciousness is not absolutely dependent on the brain. Science has devised ways of improving the body with mechanical parts. We have dentures, pacemakers, prosthetic limbs to replace those that had to be amputated. Dialysis does the job of failed kidneys, when the alternative is death. No one complains. Recently, a mechanical heart has been devised that would be just as good as a natural heart and wired up to the brain. I have a couple of bits of plastic mesh in my body, used by a surgeon to fix my hernias. I also wear reading glasses, a device that has existed for many centuries to help us see when our eyes don’t focus as they used to do. After that, there are brain implants to control neurological disorders and modern prosthetic limbs. Where is the limit? Could they just transplant a brain into a robot, and recover the data and back it up before the brain dies? Perhaps it might be possible. But, is that what we want? Can we just keep pushing the tolerance and acceptance threshold indefinitely?
Who is paying for this technology? To whom will it be available?
The next stage is connecting people’s brains to the internet and other communications systems directly. Where is the limit? I suppose I am an old fogey, but I know that I would never want my brain or soul connected to a machine. What if my body fails? The alternative is death, whether we cease to exist or continue to exist at a different level. So be it…
The increase of technology and complexity in life can only go on for so long. It certainly frightens me. The essential instinct at the basis of all this is the preservation of what we know as life at all costs. We do not all fear death, but rather accept it as the closing of one mode of existence to pass on to another. We are confronted with the prospect of this life being finite, having an end. God is infinite, perfect in everything in which we humans are not. There is every chance that I am old enough not to be concerned by the maturing of these technologies, perhaps also the young people reading this blog.
This kind of materialist utopianism was a dystopia in the twentieth century. It was central to the Nazi ideology and was aptly described in the almost prophetic writings of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. One cannot be so naive as to imagine that human / animal / machine hybrids would be allowed to be autonomous and free persons. They would presumably be controlled by some kind of master computer using something like internet and wi-fi. This utopia would involve the extermination of the majority of humanity on account of “imperfections”, race, social and economic considerations, education, etc. We have heard it all before!
I deliberately refrain from using theological arguments, because we religious folk are said to be the Luddites in this game, resisting progress and man’s ambition to excel himself. It suffices to express ourselves in purely “human” terms. Would we be happy with our thousand-year lives, our limitless perfection – but at the cost of our humanity and our spiritual souls? Such a world, like the one we know, is not immune from human evil and the danger of society collapsing. We will always have disease and pain. They are part of our condition.
The Christian in us remembers the many stories in the Old Testament about the Flood, the Tower of Babel and the many other allegorical narratives of man without God going too far and containing the seeds of his own destruction. It is the message Mary Shelley expressed in her terrifying Frankenstein so long ago. We live and experience the Prometheus Unbound of the ancient Greeks, and we may suffer greatly from the consequences. Mess about with our genes and DNA, or those of our food, and we will be in deep trouble!
I have my faith as a Christian that we continue to live after death and that we will discover new frontiers that our present life does not allow us to imagine. This faith is comforted by the kind of science that has discovered that consciousness precedes matter (or the energy that gives us the illusion of matter). That world view takes away our fear of death and the obsession of prolonging ourselves beyond what is natural and reasonable.