He’s put eternity in the human heart

A few weeks ago I read an article in the BBC news claiming that we might be getting close to being able to download our minds into a machine, and live a greatly extended life, or even for eternity, in that avatar. This isn’t just a ‘wouldn’t-it-be-cool’ kind of story. Not idle speculation, but actual science that is nearing its beta-testing phase. The article names some of the groups and people involved in this project, some of whom have recently been hired by Google itself to head up the ‘Google Brain project’, and some of the recent successes achieved in mice and non–human primates. In fact, some of them are convinced we’ll see this become available for humans within 30 years.

I put that article on my ‘blog-shelf’ because I didn’t know what to do with it. But it kept percolating and triggering a number of lines of thought. And then some recent events in Canada brought those questions to the forefront; more on that later.

First, I’ll deal with the less controversial and sillier line of thinking. One of my first thoughts (and I’m sure yours as well) was: what would that kind of life be like, and would you still be a person? A human? Your first reflex answer to that second question might be “yes”. If you simply installed another part of someone’s body … say, their kidney or thumb … into that machine, you’d never make such a claim. If you in some bizarre way imbued that machine with multiple copies of our DNA, the very chemical that we often say makes us human, you still wouldn’t call that a human. If you programmed a robot or computer with every form of human thought, knowledge and behaviour …“HAL” in 2001: A Space Odyssey … “C-3PO” in Star Wars … “Data” in Star Trek … you still wouldn’t call those humans. But to transplant someone’s brain into a robot, or to download their mind and memories into a computer, seems to some people to be in some strange way transferring human-ness into those machines. What if you did the reverse: if you somehow transferred the mind of a dog into a human body, would that being still be human, or now a dog? So what exactly is it that makes us human? What’s the difference between a computer program, a neural circuit, a mind and a soul?

What about the motivation behind even wanting to develop this kind of technology? Is it a longing for eternity? As the author of Ecclesiastes put it: “God has set eternity in the human heart”. Or is it simply the fear of death? After 8,749 years of waking up to a bright sun-rise, with a mug of coffee in one hand and the morning newspaper in the other, would you still be dying (wordplay intended) to experience the same thing the next day? Would gaining immortality, or even a greatly extended shelf-life, in this physical world really be a good thing? This question’s been explored by many authors and thinkers, and they often approach the same answer that I’ve heard from people actually living the experience and nearing the end of their lives: “I’ve had a long life. Had a lot of great memories. I’m tired …”.

The great philosopher Bruce Willis, before he was BRUCE WILLIS of Die Hard fame, frequently said in the 80’s TV series Moonlighting: “Life is hard and then you die”. Perhaps he was paraphrasing the 16th/17th century Thomas Hobbs: “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short“, who in turn was paraphrasing the Psalmist a millennium or two before: “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.

So is Google Brain a solution to the limitations of our human bodies?

Which brings me back to the more controversial side of this question. Here in Canada, we’ve been wrestling in the courts and in the public forum with the ideas of assisted-suicide and euthanasia. This isn’t purely a Canadian issue, though: Europe, particularly the Netherlands, have been walking down this road for many years now, and anyone who has watched a loved one struggle through a terminal disease has grappled with at least some of the issues.

What a dilemma for all those involved. This week’s issue of Maclean’s magazine (one of Canada’s national weekly current affairs magazines) had an article on assisted suicide, and gave a good summary statement: “Advocates say denying it needlessly prolongs suffering. Opponents say allowing it devalues human life”.

This is an incredibly tough subject. But this blog has always been about “Exploring the tensions between Christianity and the 21st century”. Isn’t this one of the biggest tensions for our generation? And always draws comments from the religious side, and from those who are very pro-technology? We need to talk about it. Today’s technology allows us to make decisions about life and death … suffering and health … that need some careful dialogue and even some pre-emptive planning.

Perhaps the biggest challenge thrown up is that this is something that only God should be allowed to decide. It’s up to him to say when our time has come. This is the same logic used by some who oppose the measles vaccine (yes, I know some have other reasons), or many other life-saving and life-prolonging medical treatments, and in so doing create or prolong or exacerbate a lot of human suffering. And if you truly hold to the theology that we shouldn’t interfere with the natural course of life’s curve-balls, then we should stop watering parched fields, and stop sending food to starving countries, and …

Except that we’ve been commanded to bring relief to a suffering world.

Another challenge is the sixth of the ten commandments: “You shall not kill”. But clearly we need to dig a bit deeper into that text, because if you continue reading you’ll come across quite a number of passages in which the conflicting command is given: “You see those Canaanites over there? I want you to go in there and kill them all”.

This is a very complicated topic and we shouldn’t dismiss it with a few cherry-picked verses that barely scratch the surface.

The Bible documents the suicide of seven individuals, but doesn’t make any condemning statements about their decision. Sure, the text may criticize other aspects of their life-style or life-choices, but it doesn’t actually say anything about that decision. It also quotes many men (sorry, women aren’t often quoted in the Bible) who despaired of life almost to the point of making that decision … David (Psalm 13:2-4) … Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14-18) … Job (Job 7:15-16) … but again they’re never chastised for that line of thinking.

Don’t misquote me. I don’t for a moment think that suicide is the answer because your girlfriend left you, or you lost your job, or you’ve become a quadriplegic in a car accident, or life just seems to be too empty to continue. I fully believe that fulfillment and hope and happiness is available to everyone in this life, despite circumstances, and they can be found in God and in relationships with his people. And I also believe there is something bigger and better on ‘the other side’.

But when every day, or possibly every hour, of one’s existence includes untreatable pain or utter indignity … ??? How can we deny someone that remedy that they ask for, if they know and accept the full consequences?

And so, in the end, technology is not our savior. In the same way that every discovery in science raises several more questions, it seems that every new technology brings with it several more problems and ethical/moral dilemmas. Will Google Brain install an off-switch, or simply resort to Control-Alt-Del?

But more importantly, until that technology becomes reality (and commercialized, no doubt), what will we do with the options available to us now?

Every individual and every family’s going to have a different view and answer on this. I’m not going to use this blog to give you my recommendation. My main point is simply this: this is something we all need to talk about with our loved ones.


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