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Transcendent Humans

I guess what has changed—or so the writers here argue—is how we think about death now, and how conflicted the modern Western mind is when it reflects upon that inevitable day when we'll "shuffle off this mortal coil." Our current saturation with images of death for entertainment is perhaps unparalleled, yet I wonder if such a morbid fascination is simply a byproduct of our capacity, also unparalleled, to stave off the Stygian shore.

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Topics: Health, Death, Innovation
Transcendent Humans November 1, 2013  |  By Doug Sikkema
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Gearing up for Halloween, the National Post ran a spate of articles last week on "How We Die Now." Spoiler alert: we still stop breathing.

I guess what has changed—or so the writers here argue—is how we think about death now, and how conflicted the modern Western mind is when it reflects upon that inevitable day when we'll "shuffle off this mortal coil." Our current saturation with images of death for entertainment is perhaps unparalleled, yet I wonder if such a morbid fascination is simply a byproduct of our capacity, also unparalleled, to stave off the Stygian shore.

Less than a hundred years ago, infant mortality rates were higher, life expectancy was lower, and the reality of world wars and influenza epidemics rarely left a family untouched from the gluttonous maw of Death—and for such developments we can thank the developers of biomedical technology.

Yet we also might be a bit suspicious about the latest innovations in such technologies, particularly as they are pioneered by the likes of Google's Ray Kurzweil and other noted futurists. In a recent Maclean's piece, Kurzweil spoke candidly of his belief in a coming revolution in biomedical technology that will make human immortality a real possibility.

How does Kurzweil make such a bold prediction? Moore's Law. This law states that the power of computing increases at an exponential rate—doubling almost every two years—while the size of our processors decreases. Thinking of the disparity between the clunky Cold War era computers that could fill a room to the supercomputers we so nonchalantly pass off to our kids, it might seem that Moore's Law is an established fact. Yet this "law" is more of a popular observation that really hasn't been able to hold up to close scrutiny, and is more like Godwin's Law than Newton's. Nevertheless, Kurzweil is unabashed in his belief that Moore's law will predetermine humanity's future progress; he says:

We're now able to reprogram health and medicine as software, and that [pace is] going to continue to accelerate. We're treating biology, and by extension health and medicine, as an information technology. Our intuition about how progress will unfold is linear, but information technology progresses exponentially, not linearly. My Android phone is literally several billion times more powerful, per dollar, than the computer I used when I was a student. And it's also 100,000 times smaller. We'll do both of those things again in 25 years. It'll be a billion times more powerful, and will be the size of a blood cell.

I'm not denying that such a rate of development is astounding. It really is. But the underlying assumption here—that humans are computers—warrants some critique, particularly if we look at Kurzweil's end goal: the transcendent man. In Kurzweil's wildest future, the ubiquity of nano-computers will usher in a new race of men and women unbounded by the constraints of their mortality. But what might such progress look like? Kurzweil says:

In my view, it will lead to richer lives, and longer lives, but I would put an emphasis on the richer part. And I'm not just talking about financial riches. Life is getting [better] as we enrich our lives with technology. You can see that now—a kid in Africa with a smartphone has access to more information and human knowledge than the president of the United States did 15 years ago.

If we'll swallow the pill of Kurzweil's anthropology, it's easy to see this as true progress. Yet I'd bet if you compared an earthworm to the space shuttle, or an acorn to Watson (the Jeopardy! computer that bested Ken Jennings), I'm positive that the earthworm and the acorn are incomparably more complex entities. Now considering we have yet to find ways to initiate life, let alone propagate it indefinitely, how do we expect to transcend humanity (the most complex organism in the entire universe) if we have yet to find ways to transcend the amoeba?

Some people might see Kurzweil's desire for immortality as an infernal longing to be as God, but I don't quite buy that. The longing for immortality, and even the longing to expand the bounds of human subjectivity, are natural. It's partially why I hope in the promises of Christianity and love to read books. My biggest problem, though, is that Kurzweil's vision of the flourishing life is so utterly lacking in imagination.

If the transcendent man has the yet-unknown capabilities of a supercomputer, but is still mired in lust, pride, envy, gluttony, greed, sloth, and wrath, what has he gained? Like Kurzweil, I want to live forever. But who would want to simply transcend the quantity of their days if they haven't found the Way to transcend their quality?

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