(Posted June 26, 2013)
frail, dying man lies in a hospital bed, by all indications of medical science near the very last moments of his life. His loved ones, alerted by his caretakers, have gathered round to be near him when the failing flame of his existence flickers out. But in this particular scene, there is also a kind of unexpected anticipation in these moments before his death.
In addition to the man’s technological connection to the monitors that measure such things as temperature, pulse, and respiration are other wires and cables tethered to a nearby computer. Among the other provision the man has made in his advance directive, he has planned specific arrangement for his future—and he fully intends to survive, technologically, his own death. After the cessation of his corporeal existence, he means to live on in
This is how futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil sees the prospect for humanity. He is one of a group of thinkers who are looking forward to an ultimate evolutionary transition from the human to the technological, toward what they call—almost mystically—“The Singularity.”
“By the 2040s, [Kurzweil] thinks people will be able to upload the contents of their brains to the Internet, ‘the way we back up everything now that’s digital.’ At that point, death will become a thing of the past. When the ‘hardware’ of our bodies finally fails, he says, our intelligence, experience, and identity will live on as ‘software’ in cyberspace.”1
The ever-entangling interface between humanity and computer has become a topic of fascination in popular culture. William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace” in a 1982 short story and popularized it in several best-selling books of speculative fiction, imagined human characters entering computerized virtual worlds through a process of “jacking in.” The body is left in a kind of suspended animation, and the soul enters upon a cyber cosmos in which all the senses are fully engaged. Countless explorations of cyberspace have been depicted by such films as Tron
(1982) and its sequel (2010) and the Matrix
trilogy (1999, 2003).
All of these are grounded on the concept that the human and the technological are on an inevitable course of convergence. Cool idea—and more than a little chilling.
Even some futurists are concerned about the direction of this thinking, on what is being called “transhumanism”—or “posthumanism.” “What, exactly, are we doing?” writes Karen Olson in Utne Reader.
“Will changing the boundaries of our physical existence help us to live more richly, or does it have the potential to destroy us? Over one billion people on this planet do not have access to clean and safe drinking water. Millions more need treatment for diseases like malaria and HIV. How can we justify investing our resources and imaginations in robots, computer chip implants, and designer babies?2
Fundamentally, to exist inside a computer, as Kurzweil suggests, would be an abandonment of the physical. What these futurists are looking forward to is an existence in which the soul would at some point transfer out of the decaying “meat” that it has inhabited temporarily for a few decades into a more lasting state. Increasingly, humanity would be made in the image of Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba, Lenovo, or Apple.
The idea of the human body, however, as only a mere “housing” for the soul isn’t new. Classical Greek thought considered the soul to be a divine being “fallen from a superior world into this world and . . . clothed in the ‘foreign robe of the flesh.’3
”They considered the human body to be of a flawed, inferior means of existence.
And this has had a tenaciously pervasive impact on human thought ever since. Even in Christianity, for example, it expresses itself in the almost universally accepted concept of the immortality of the soul—that heaven is just waiting for us to leave the corruption of our bodies behind so that we can enter eternal bliss. You hear people say something like “Since my father died, I miss him terribly, but I’m so glad that he’s gone to a better place” or “I talk to my departed mother every day, and I know she’s looking down on me with love.”
In the New Testament account of the death of Lazarus, it may have been tempting for his sisters, Mary and Martha, to grasp at a belief in the immediate hereafter, to console one another with the comforting idea that Lazarus had gone on to some kind of eternal reward. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. Jesus was a close, personal friend of Lazarus and his family, and when He arrived in Bethany four days too late to save Lazarus, each sister, in turn, exclaimed that if He had only arrived earlier, He could have prevented their brother from death.
In the exchange with Martha, however, Jesus assured her that Lazarus would live again. She responded that she knew he would “ ‘rise again in the resurrection at the last day’ ” (John 11:24).4
There was no suggestion in what she said that she believed her brother—in death—to be anywhere else but in the grave.
And, even before Jesus had left for Bethany, He had advised His disciples, “ ‘Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up’ ” (v. 11). The disciples, misunderstanding His meaning, assumed the conventional idea that sleep was a sign of the beginning of Lazarus’ recovery from his illness. But Jesus stated flatly that Lazarus was dead. He had described death as a sleep, an insensate state rather than a new living existence in another realm.
Whether or not Ray Kurzweil believes in the immortality of the soul as a spiritual concept, he is doubling down on what he considers to be his options by aggressively pursuing the afterlife on his own terms. He predicts that in 15 years, medical science will be extending life expectancy by a year every
year. So he is doing everything he can think of to maintain optimal health so he will still be around when the singularity is achieved: 150 pills and supplements daily and constant testing of his blood chemistry levels. His goal, as he says, is to “live long enough to live forever,” a subtitle of one of his books.
But even the goal of transhumanist thinking is not a truly new concept either. Those who designed and built the Tower of Babel were intending something that sounds very similar: the survival of the human race through technological efforts of their own. They were confident in the hope that the exhilarating genius of humanity would provide its own salvation.
All of which is profoundly unfortunate in that there has been—from the very beginning—a plan for all to “have everlasting life.”
1 “Ray Kurzweil: The Forever Man,” The Week, May 3, 2013.
2 Karen Olson, “The New Human,” Utne Reader, May-June 2005.
3 <Http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/172631/dualism/38187/Greece-and-the-Hellenistic-world>, accessed May 26, 2013.
4 Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural references in this article are from the New King James Version of the Bible.
Gary B. Swanson is associate director of the General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department.