Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Borg... or Highlanders?

Mac Tonnies has been discussing life and death, in his own inimitable, post-human way, over at his blog, The Posthuman Blues. As I find the subject fascinating, for a variety of reasons, I've decided to take part in the conversation... but here at The Other Side of Truth. You can see Mac's original post here.

While in California I phoned an author acquaintance to say hi. We ended up talking about Kurzweilian life extension, which my friend thought indicated an unhealthy fear of death. I offered that, without definitive proof that there is an afterlife, radical life extension -- perhaps via mind-uploading -- is both sensible and justified. My friend, the author of a nonfiction book dealing with spiritual matters, countered that one can achieve subjective validation that consciousness is more than epiphenomenal. In other words, some aspect of our awareness persists after biological death -- but, so far at least, it's impossible to prove this to anyone who hasn't experienced his own sense of cosmic rapport. Fair enough.

So how to experience consciousness as an abiding energy (if such it is) and not merely as the output of millions of synchronized synapses? Drugs, perhaps -- although I've been warned that the "tripping" experience is confused and noisy, leading to false positives and replete with neurological static. Meditation seems a better, safer route. Still, how does one know that a moment's spiritual insight is anything more than an experience cooked up by the brain as a way of appeasing our incredibly deep-seated fear of death and obliteration? Not having experienced any deep insight into the nature of consciousness, I have no choice but to remain agnostic.

Even if awareness transcends death, how does life-extension obstruct spirituality (for lack of a better term)? It seems to me that a longer, better life can help facilitate a more intimate understanding of consciousness and its ultimate role. It's been argued that an upload isn't the same as the original mind, rendering the point moot. I'm not convinced. Just as a person with prosthetic limbs and artificial organs is still a human, a person whose brain architecture has been methodically supplanted with newer, more durable components is still the same entity -- just less vulnerable to the threats that routinely kill or incapacitate meat-based humans.

Rather than hindering development of "soul wisdom," a machine substrate just might provide the processing power needed to realize the mind's true potential. If so, "posthumans" may be richly more endowed than their predecessors. Instead of the shambling caricatures encountered on board "Star Trek's" Borg (or other cinematic attempts to grapple with the posthuman condition) our machine-based descendants may be unexpectedly sagely, free of the biological clutter that contemporary gurus spend their lives attempting to jettison.

"Spiritual" arguments against transhumanist technologies (and especially attempts to equate life-extension with simple fear of dying) strike me as suspiciously hollow, no matter how well-intentioned. I don't think the medium matters; the process is what we should seek to preserve if we choose to remain at least partially true to our brief, embodied tenure as Earth's dominant species.

My response:
I think we have already crossed the proverbial Rubicon when it comes to using technology to enhance and even extend our lives - organ transplants, artificial hearts, drugs, even the dreaded iron lung - all of these things are man-made inventions, many of them mechanical in nature, that keep us living longer than nature, or God, intended. Indeed, if there is a God (and like Mac, I'm a hopeful agnostic on this question), then surely He gave us our superior intellect (well, superior to squirrels at least) in order that we would use it, for a whole bunch of things - including, I would think, living longer, better lives.

Really, it's just a matter of degree, isn't it? Today an artificial heart... tomorrow, an artificial body (I'll take the Jessica Alba model, thanks - and if you have to ask why, you don't know me very well).

What is the "soul" anyway (or, for the non-religiously inclined, "consciousness")? Beond this plane of existence, who knows, for sure? In the here and now, however, isn't it the sum of our experiences that matters? What harm in transferring that to another body, i.e. a clone, or perhaps a cyborg, should our technology someday allow it? I don't think we're defined by the outer shell - indeed, any religion that I know of views the body as a mere vessel. It's what's inside that counts, and I see no reason why that couldn't be transferred, whole, to another vessel (well, no non-technological reason, at any rate).

About that Jesica Alba remark, above - seriously, if we could bounce from one body to another, would that not open up some intriguing possibilities about the nature of sexuality, race, etc., which might explain why religious types don't much like the idea (to say the least), but why it might be a good thing for humanity in general. Perhaps not the Jessica Alba model - perhaps the Halle Berry model? Wouldn't that drive home the message that we're all just humans, and that it's who we are on the inside that counts?

Here's another thought - what if we are working our way back to a sort of Garden of Eden, with near immortality the goal? As we increase our life spans, do we not bring ourselves closer to God / the divine / an understanding of the universe (pick one)?

Perhaps this is what's meant by "finding the kingdom of heaven" - maybe we are meant to create it here, on Earth (or, should we travel to the stars, "out there" as well), on our own?

Think of it this way - perhaps God is the ultimate "Posthuman", just waiting for us to catch up.

Regardless, life is about challenges - getting off of Earth and out into space is one of the few great challenges left. Cheating death - or at least delaying it as long as possible - is another. Not because we fear death (the final adventure, in the sense that we have no idea what comes next), but because it allows us a greater opportunity to explore the ultimate mystery on this plane of existence - ourselves.

And here's one other advantage - by extending our life-spans as much as possible, we make it more likely than ever that we can actually travel the great distances between stars... and maybe even encounter someone, or something, else.

That's called "living" two birds with one stone!

Paul Kimball


Mac said...

Jessica Alba and posthumanism -- you can't go wrong.

Paul Kimball said...