Being a body can be a pain. We catch diseases, have accidents, deteriorate with age, and ultimately stop all function altogether. Being a mind can be a drama. We are often guided by motives hidden to us, have opposing interests and wishes, and experience unpleasant feelings we can’t always control, even with focused attention. No wonder the idea of transcendence is so attractive. It suggests there are ways to overcome the commonly painful drama of being human.
I’m all for learning more integrity, patience, compassion, and perspective, aspiring to our better qualities, even living longer, healthier lives with the help of modern science.
I’m not so drawn to dreams of taming our tumultuous nature or dispensing with our corporeal selves. And I don’t care at all for illusory immortality.
Ray Kurzweil wrote “The Singularity Is Near” (which I have not read and most likely will not). The movie “Transcendent Man” was made about him. (Available streaming on Netflix.) Ray Kurzweil is by many measures a genius. As a teenager in the 60s, he built and programmed a computer to compose music. He has pioneered computer optical recognition and text-to-speech and other electronic technologies. Ray Kurzweil is obsessed with overcoming what he feels are human biological limitations. He wants humans to merge with machines and to become immortal. He believes that attempting to transcend the painful drama of human existence through acceptance of the limitations of biology is the wrong direction to take. Instead, we should attempt to overcome through challenging, perhaps even obliterating, the fragility of our flesh. Kurzweil in fact believes that this convergence of man and machine, this “singularity,” is ineluctable.
What will we gain from this “singularity?” Nanobots coursing through our cells, our brains supplemented by implanted bluetooth wikipedia, revived graveyard DNA clones with reconstructed consciousness.
Kurzweil describes his father’s death as “unbearable.” Kurzweil’s personal fantasy is to regenerate his father’s genetic twin and download his actual father’s partially reconstructed consciousness into the clone. Kurzweil perceives this as bringing his father back to life. It seems he may have skipped class the week Frankenstein was taught in high school English.
Let’s get real. Immortality, i.e., unending existence, is not possible. Even if man were to merge with machine, what’s the longest your iPod battery has lasted? How many of us have owned a computer that didn’t experience a fatal hard drive error after a few years? Terminator movies aside, machines aren’t indestructible. Like us, they are subject to entropy.
Where will all the energy and other resources to produce, implant, maintain, update, and unendingly reproduce the enabling electronics come from? How will we dispose of the waste created by millions, if not billions, of immortal man/machine beings? What planet will all this immortality be taking place on, since our own planet will be experiencing lethal increase in the Sun’s luminosity within 1 billion years and its consuming the Earth as a red giant within 5 billion years?
Maybe Kurzweil thinks that within the next 1 billion years, we will have transformed ourselves into some kind of photon beings that stream their timeless energy around the Universe–the observable portion of which is presently 93 billion light-years across.
Does anyone really want to be immortal? We are creatures with lifespans to around 100 years at best so far. Can we truly conceptualize an ongoing logarithmic increase in our lifespans and everything that would entail?
Maybe Kurzweil didn’t mean literal immortality. Maybe he just meant a really, really long time, like 1,000 years or 1,000,000 years. How many of us want to live for 1,000,000 years? Can we actually conceive of what it would mean to live to 1,000,000 years? How many of the world’s now 7 billion people would have access to these really, really long lifetimes?
If immortality is not realistic, if we have to face the end of our individual existence at some point, why not now? Why not focus on the quality of the years we have, rather than on avoiding death at all costs–even perhaps at the cost of our humanity itself?
copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson