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Prompt for Transcendent Man
I first became aware of Ray Kurzweil many years ago, but was introduced to this documentary about him by a student a few semesters ago. I knew his book, The Age of the Spiritual Machines, but hadn’t, up until that time, been aware of his theories concerning “the singularity.”
Unquestionably, Kurzweil is a brilliant inventor and a man of vision. His work has helped millions of people – not only those of us who use flatbed scanners, but the millions of those who can now “read” due to his work with technology for the blind. Furthermore, no one can argue the fact that technology has been experiencing exponential growth for decades. What is in question, however, is just exactly where this growth is leading us. ??
While some of those interviewed in the documentary agree that humans and machines will someday merge, others think the idea is absurd. For example, William Hurlbut, an M.D., fears what might come of this, and also thinks that Kurzweil should take a more moderate approach. Conversely, Ben Goertzel, an AI engineer, supports Kurzweil’s theory, but also warns that such a blending of man and machine could lead to some sort of dystopian society. Similarly, Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, sees a Terminator-like scenario developing, while Dean Kamen thinks that advances in technology may, in fact, make immortality possible at some point in the future.
What do you think? Is Kurzweil correct in assuming that we (humans, that is) will, sooner or later, have to be artificially augmented in order to keep up with the ever-increasing advances in technology? Would you be willing to submit to such augmentation? To be injected with nanobots in order to stay ahead of the machines? Or do you believe that all of this is just speculation on the order of science fiction – I, Robot or Blade Runner???
On another, more philosophical, level, should man strive to be immortal? It’s certainly something that mankind has dreamed about for centuries, but should we seriously attempt to attain it? What type of problems would such technology generate? Would it lead to “Artilect Wars” as suggested by Hugo de Garis? Should such knowledge, even if we can attain it, be “forbidden.” Is it playing God? Should we heed the advice of Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and leave well enough alone? As Jurassic Park’s Dr. Malcolm warns us, we all to often are concerned with “can I?” instead of “should I?” Or, is it too late, because, as Kurzweil says, one cannot stop progress?
If Shelley’s Frankenstein taught us anything it was that man should not play God. Enlightenment Man — Victor Frankenstein to be specific — is enamored of science in the gothic novel and obsessed with recreating life, or rather reanimating life. He succeeds, but fails to plan for his creation’s soul. The monster’s soul yearns for companionship, well-being, and even God — and yet all avenues to these goals seem cut off to him, one by one. Instead of peace, he ends up pursuing revenge — murdering the wife of his creator and ultimately leading Frankenstein into the Arctic, where the two are lost in a figurative icy Hell. The ideas underlying Frankenstein are that human life is precious, that it is endowed with a soul by a Creator; indeed, the essence of the novel is that God exists, that man is not God, that God has a purpose in mind for man. Though the novel does not expressly reveal this purpose, history does provide some insights — especially the history of the Christian West. For believing Christians, the purpose of life is to know, love and serve God so that we may be happy with Him in the next world. Various cultures have expressed this same view in different ways: Hindus express it in the idea of reincarnation; Buddhists in the idea of Nirvana. The point that these cultures, religions and philosophies make is that life has a purpose. Christianity explicitly states, moreover, that this mortal life here on Earth is not an end in and of itself but rather a beginning — the prelude to eternity, which is found on the other side of the grave. Choosing which eternity we will posses depends upon our disposition: we may choose ourselves and go to Hell, or we may choose Christ and go to Heaven.
For the Christian, death is not something to be avoided, but rather something that is a punishment for sin — for Original Sin — that which makes human nature fallen. AI, as Kurzweil sees it, is a way to avoid death, to escape the debt that the Christian God has placed on all creation. For Kurzweil, the myth of religion is most likely not something he genuinely feels compelled to regard as important. His interests are in science, in nanotechnology, in “the law of accelerating returns,” as he calls it (Casti 663). Not everyone believes as he does, however; some, who still maintain the traditional views of the past and of the Old World in particular are more inclined to abstain from venturing too far into a contemplation of playing God — of obtaining immortality without Him. Too many myths for ancient times (the Greeks and Romans, for example) tell what happens when presumptuous man flies too close to the sun. Kurzweil appears to be daring us to do just that. His vision is certainly bold — but it also seems to discount the whole of human history in the sense that human nature is what it is: and for those who believe that God has created man, man’s spirit is not evolutionary. It, in fact, is God’s and is called to return to God. This return is a humbling experience, as man’s pride ever since the Fall (according to the Christian narrative) is his own worst enemy, constantly leading man to consider himself an end in himself, his own passions and interests the only that matters. In his pride, he fails to consider how he must look to an infinite Judge Who is really the source of all things.
None of this matters, of course, if the world chooses to embrace the vision offered by Kurzweil. Many may seek to obtain “immortality” of the kind that machines can give (so long as they are maintained). It is unlikely that all will, however. Faith of some form will continue into the future and some humans will continue to believe that God alone suffices and can complete one’s happiness. Immortality without God is what Hell is. Kurzweil could very well be promoting Hell on Earth. Not everyone will believe that — but some will, and some have already voiced skepticism of one kind or another: those who have likened his vision to the apocalyptic nightmare of The Terminator (or any other sci-fi film of recent memory — such as Ex Machina, Blade Runner, etc.). And not everyone is interested in “learning a lesson” from literature or film — some are more fascinated as Ian Malcolm suggests in Jurassic Park with finding out what can be done and not so much with finding out what should be done.
The “should” question is the realm of the moralist — but then what is philosophy (the study of wisdom) without this question of morality? Socrates posed these questions many years ago in ancient Greece and the answers have been recorded by Plato. They served as the foundation of Western thought. The Christian ethos was erected and its Church’s doctrines in conjunction with the philosophy of the Greeks, as St. Thomas Aquinas shows in the Summa Theologica. These questions are just as relevant today as they were in the Middle Ages or in classical antiquity. This indicates that human nature has not changed. Humans have not evolved. They have always passed through ages (the Bronze Age, the Steel Age, the Age of Enlightenment, the Digital Age — and so on). Humans have built on the achievements and knowledge of the past — but each age has invariably reached its apex and humans have then pursued new ideas, new methods and manners to explore. Is the AI Age the next Age to arrive? Very likely, yes. Does that mean all will subscribe to it? That all humans will merge with machines? Very unlikely. During the Age of Enlightenment, not everyone became a naturalist. During the Age of Industry, not everyone became an industrialist. Even in the Digital Age today, not everyone uses a computer. Surely, these same kinds of people will be left behind once the advent of AI becomes popular.
Yet, that might be just fine with them. They may conclude in their hearts, minds and souls that an “immortal” life on Earth is undesirable. The Bruce Willis film Surrogates was a fine example of why such a life would be undesirable: it is inauthentic and inhuman. What does it mean to be human, one might ask? We are back to Frankenstein and his monster — back to Socrates and Euthyphro. These questions do not go away for a reason. The human mind, will, heart and soul ask them all the time. Even if we did merge with machines, would this really mean that we had merged with the infinite? I believe that Kurzweil takes a certain poetic license when he looks in the camera and says that he will never die (Tucker 60). It is more of a provocative statement than anything else. And it does provoke. But what it provokes me to consider are the “eternal” questions — the questions of what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, what it means to die.
The Greeks had no answer to death. It was a stumbling block. Their philosophers at best pointed to the idea of living for an ideal — for truth, for goodness, for happiness in virtue. But they had no answer to why man died. The Jews and later the Christians did have an answer: it was revealed to them by God, according to their religion. Man sinned; man then had to die. Before the Fall, man knew no suffering, no illness, no death. His passions were ordered and so too was all creation. After the Fall, a false note went out into the world, which harmed creation, men’s minds, their wills and their souls: they were in need of sanctifying grace — redemption — forgiveness — salvation (Laux 12). Even Shelley’s monster sought these things. Does Kurzweil not seek them? Or is he seeking them in technology, in science, in neural transmitters, in the same manner in which Frankenstein sought them? The question is a legitimate one and the answer could shed light on the extent to which one should consider the scientist’s actions as “intelligent.” After all, as Socrates showed us, we have intelligence and it comes to us from God. Socrates was not a Christian — and I am not even sure he was a pagan (the Greeks did condemn him to death, after all, for corrupting the youth of Athens by teaching of One God). Perhaps he was simply a Deist. Regardless, he was a philosopher and for anyone who loves wisdom, including Kurzweil, Socrates’ challenge that I know myself should not be taken lightly. One can spend all one’s life attempting to know himself, and still lack the whole picture.
Should man strive to be immortal? The question is valid. But perhaps man already is immortal. Perhaps man already possesses an immortal soul that will never die. Perhaps the better questions is how to facilitate that soul in its yearning for the kind of rest, peace, and happiness that even the ancient Greeks sought to obtain through a life of lived virtue.
In conclusion, Kurzweil may be correct in his assertion that man and machines will one day merge in the near future. This will not be of interest to everyone though. Some people will think of no importance whatsoever — those who seek their end in God, who seek their peace, their “shanti shanti shanti” as Eliot called it in The Wasteland — the peace that passeth understanding — are more likely to spend their time preparing themselves for death that they may meet their Creator on the other side, with clean conscience and hope for eternal happiness there in Heaven. This thought is surely no more far-fetched than Kurzweil’s.
Casti, John. “Exit Homo sapiens, stage left.” Nature, vol. 397 (Feb 1999): 663-664.
Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land.” Web. http://www.people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam312/2004/wasteland.html
Laux, John. Church History. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1943.
Tucker, Patrick. “The Cinematic Singularitariann.” The Futurist (Sept-Oct 2009): 60-61.