What Does it Mean to be Human?

Last night I watched a documentary recommended to me by my brother, Rick (you met him in my blog entry about the Church of the Non-Bozos). The documentary, called Transcendent Man, was on the life of Ray Kurzweil, inventor and futurist. Kurzweil is one of those guys who blurs the line between genius and eccentric.

On the one hand, he invented the optical scanner and created the first computers that could scan a document and read it out loud for the blind. I’m pretty sure he also invented digital audio sampling. Yeah, he’s the synthesizer guy, so as a musician, I’m a big fan. On the other hand, he keeps all of his father’s old books and papers (including things like old electric bills) because he thinks he’s going to bring his father back from the dead using artificial intelligence. It’s sad, really – the way he’s driven by his own regret that his father died young – and yet, he’s not alone. There is a whole community of scientists talking about the ways in which technology will make it possible for people to “live forever” as information in a computer. (Not that it’s a new idea – have you seen the 1953 film Donovan’s Brain?)

I was actually astounded by two things in the documentary. First, I was astounded by the rampant arrogance of some of these people who can talk about concepts like immortality as if there is no God overhearing every word. Tower of Babel, anyone? Anyone…?

The other thing that astounded me is that in the whole documentary, which was almost an hour and a half, no one mentioned that it all sounds like The Terminator. In fact, Kurzweil’s speculation about the future culminates in something he calls “the singularity,” a time when the exponential growth of technology and artificial intelligence gets to the point where it can no longer be controlled. He says that at some point, the machines will get better than humans at creating better and better machines. Then the computer becomes self-aware, and well… you’ve seen the movie. But this is not about a fictional story. There were other scientists interviewed who are certain that the time will come when humans will become the slaves of superhuman computers who will take over the earth.

But Ray Kurzweil doesn’t seem concerned about that, since he believes that within our lifetimes all of the information in the human brain will be able to be uploaded into a computer, so that the “essence” of the human (which he claims is nothing more than information) will live forever in digital storage.

Now, before I saw the documentary, when my brother was describing all this to me, my mind immediately went into objection mode. I said something like, “So living forever in a computer memory? How is that living? If I’m reduced to information in a computer, how can I eat a bowl of rigatoni? How can I eat gelato?” At this point my niece stopped me and said, “Is everything about food with you?” Well, I had recently returned from Italy…

To be fair, it’s not all about food. I had some other things in mind, too (yes, including that), but I have to admit that everything that popped into my head – everything I wanted to use to define real humanity – had something to do with the body. I was trying to say that what it means to be human has something to do with life in this body, a life that is only enjoyable through the senses.

But for Kurzweil, the human body is a curse. For him, the ultimate goal is to be free of the body and live on without it. Basically, this is a form of Gnosticism. Back in the early days of the Christian era, some folks took Plato to the extreme, and speculated that whatever is of the spiritual realm is inherently good, but whatever is of the material/physical realm is inherently evil. From this, they created a religion in which “salvation” meant being free from the prison of the flesh (which for the Gnostics required secret knowledge). But Jesus taught a different kind of salvation, a salvation which he made possible, by becoming human – which meant taking on a human body. And the early Christian writers then rejected a philosophical view of the afterlife as the existence of disembodied souls, writing instead that our hope is resurrection.

Resurrection is not simply discarding the body, resurrection is being reunited with a resurrection body (whatever that means, see I Corinthians 15). Think of a caterpillar and butterfly – the butterfly is not a different individual from the caterpillar, and yet before the chrysalis it would be hard for the caterpillar to understand what a butterfly is. So it’s hard for us to understand what the resurrection body is, but my point is that at least we know that it is not a disembodied existence. The “essence” of a person is more than just a ghost, even if it is in the machine.

For Kurzweil and those like him, the body is the problem. It’s what holds us back from becoming gods. For Christians, on the other hand, the human body is a creation of God – it’s a gift of God – therefore it is good, and it’s part of what makes us human. Kurzweil imagines a future of immortality through virtual reality. But virtual reality is not real reality, and the incarnation of Christ proves that the human body is an integral part of what it means to be human. In fact it is only through the body (and the senses) that we can have relationships with other people, exactly the thing that I argue (in Spiritual Blueprint) makes life worth living.

So what does it mean to be human? I would say that what makes us human has everything to do with the ways we are made in the image of God. Like God, we are creative, we are active, we are rational, we are loving, and we are spiritual (see the introduction to Spiritual Blueprint for more on this). But unlike God, we cannot express these aspects of ourselves without a body. With the possible exception of the spiritual (the one Kurzweil seems to deny), all of these require a body. Even the rational aspect of our human nature requires a body to carry out our decisions. So being human includes self-expression, which requires an “interface” with the physical world (i.e., a body). I guess the assumption in the world of artificial intelligence is that at some point the computer can be hooked directly into the brain (which is already being done with cochlear implants, but again, this movie has already been made – it’s called The Matrix). But even if I truly believe I’m eating that bowl of rigatoni, if I only exist on a hard drive, do I really exist? In other words, just because I think, it no longer follows that I am.

However, Kurzweil claims we will become more godlike through technology. He even implies that when the singularity comes, and artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence, we will then have created something worth worshipping. When asked if God exists, his answer is, “Not yet.”

So he thinks humanity will create God. That’s very optimistic of him. I’m not that optimistic about human ability, or especially about human nature. In fact the only thing of which I am sure when it comes to the future is this: whatever new technology is coming on the horizon, someone will find a way to use it for selfish and destructive ends. And that’s why we cannot be our own savior. That’s why we need a Savior who is both the embodiment of divine intervention, and also one of us.

Jim Papandrea


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About Jim Papandrea

Jim Papandrea is an author, educator, and singer/songwriter. Visit his website at: www.JimPapandrea.com
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2 Responses to What Does it Mean to be Human?

  1. nancykrebs says:

    Great work Jim. I wish that I had something to add to your post today. The only thing aside from your insights that struck me is the thought that God infused humanity with divinity when the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity came as one of us in all aspects but sin. Therefore, to become more ‘fully’ human, we have to become more like Jesus Christ–who gave us the ultimate model for being human. If God hadn’t thought being human was worthy, He surely would’ve found a different way to redeem us. Of course, we read that He emptied Himself completely in order to assume our humanity–but that was the cost He was willing to pay. He raised us up by His willingness to become like us, and gave us the title of brothers and sisters when He told us to ‘pray’ to Our Father….
    Thanks for your post!

    • Thanks, Nancy! Good additional thoughts.
      I’m working on a new book in which I will argue that the nexus of human-divine contact is the connection of humanity and divinity in the person of Christ.

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