(This article was reprinted in “Church and State: Challenging Religious Privilege in Public Life,” June 2018)
A Glorious Future?
Once one adopts an evolutionary perspective it is easy to see that the future will not be like the past. Twenty-first century technologies—especially nanotechnology, genetics, artificial intelligence and robotics—will transform reality. And if we survive, humans and their post-human descendants will understand and control matter, life, and mind. These developments are part of cultural evolution, itself is a part of cosmic evolution, with both processes producing more complex forms of life and mind.
However at the moment the above is science fiction, and subject to trillions of variables which will lead to an unimaginable future, or to no future at all—as multiple extinction scenarios might doom humanity. And evolutionary progress isn’t inevitable; technology can be used for good or ill. It may lead to a glorious future, but the future could also be halted by terrestrial or celestial disasters, or by dogmatists, zealots, or religious fanatics who oppose progress. The opponents of progress may have legitimate fears about future technologies, or they may be guided by ignorance and irrationality. They may long for an imaginary past paradise, fear what they don’t understand, believe they possess a monopoly on the truth, or think humans subservient to gods.
But for whatever reason some oppose change, preferring stagnation to progressive evolutionism. They prefer to prevent the initiative, creativity, perseverance, and hope that drive evolution forward. They are fearful that a new world will render them and their beliefs, anachronistic. They are the enemies of the future.
If death is our end, then all we can do is die and hope for the best. But perhaps we don’t have to die. Many scientists now believe that humans can overcome death and achieve immortality through the use of future technologies. But how will we do this?
The first way we might achieve physical immortality is by conquering our biological limitations—we age, become diseased, and suffer trauma. Aging research, while woefully underfunded, has yielded positive results. Average life expectancies have tripled since ancient times, increasing by more than fifty percent in the industrial world in the last hundred years, and most scientists think we will continue to extend our life-spans. We know that some jellyfish and bacteria are essentially immortal, and the bristlecone pine may be too. There is no thermodynamic necessity for senescence—aging is a presumed byproduct of evolution —although why mortality was selected for remains a mystery. Yet some scientists believe we can conquer aging altogether—in the next few decades with sufficient investment—most notably the Cambridge researcher Aubrey de Grey.
If we do unlock the secrets of aging, we will simultaneously defeat other diseases as well, since many of them are symptoms of aging. Many researchers now consider aging itself to be a disease which progresses as you age. There are a number of strategies that could render disease mostly inconsequential. Nanotechnology may give us nanobot cell-repair machines and robotic blood cells; biotechnology may supply replacement tissues and organs; genetics may offer genetic medicine and engineering; and full-fledge genetic engineering could make us impervious to disease.
Trauma is a more intransigent problem from the biological perspective, although it too could be defeated through some combination of cloning, regenerative medicine, and genetic engineering. We can even imagine that your physicality could be recreated from a bit of your DNA, and other technologies could then fast forward your regenerated body to the age of your traumatic death, where a backup file containing your experiences and memories would be implanted in your brain. Even the dead may be resuscitated if they have undergone the process of cryonics—preserving organisms at very low temperatures in glass-like states. Ideally these clinically dead would be brought back to life when technology is sufficiently advanced. This may now be science fiction, but if nanotechnology fulfills its promise, there is a good chance that cryonics will succeed.
In addition to biological strategies for eliminating death, there are a number of technological scenarios for immortality which utilize advanced brain scanning techniques, artificial intelligence, and robotics. The most prominent scenarios have been advanced by the futurist Ray Kurzweil, who argues that the exponential growth of computing power, combined with advances in other technologies, will make it possible to upload the contents of one’s consciousness into a virtual reality. This could be accomplished by cybernetics, whereby hardware would be gradually installed in the brain until the entire brain was running on that hardware, or via scanning the brain and simulating or transferring its contents to a sufficiently advanced computer. Either way we would no longer be living in a physical world.
In fact we may already be living in a computer simulation. The Oxford philosopher and futurist Nick Bostrom argues that advanced civilizations may have created computer simulations containing individuals with artificial intelligence and, if they have, we might unknowingly be in such a simulation. Bostrom concludes that one of the following must be the case: civilizations never have the technology to run simulations; they have the technology but decided not to use it; or we almost certainly live in a simulation.
If we don’t like the idea of being immortal in a virtual reality—or we don’t like the idea that we may already be in one—we could upload our brain to a genetically engineered body if we like the feel of flesh, or to a robotic body if we like the feel of silicon or whatever materials comprised the robotic body. Along these lines MIT’s Rodney Brooks envisions the merger of human flesh and machines, whereby humans slowly incorporate technology into their bodies, thus becoming more machine-like and indestructible. So a cyborg future may await us.
An evolutionary perspective underlies all these speculative scenarios. Once we embrace that perspective, it is easy to imagine that our descendants will resemble us about as much as we do the amino acids from which we sprang. Our knowledge is growing exponentially and, given eons of time for future innovation, it is easy to envisage that humans will defeat death and evolve in unimaginable ways. Remember that our evolution is no longer moved by the painstakingly slow process of Darwinian evolution—where bodies exchange information through genes—but by cultural evolution—where brains exchange information through memes. The most prominent feature of cultural evolution is the exponentially increasing pace of technological evolution—an evolution that may soon culminate in a technological singularity.
The technological singularity, an idea first proposed by the mathematician Vernor Vinge, refers to the hypothetical future emergence of greater than human intelligence. Since the capabilities of such intelligences are difficult for our minds to comprehend, the singularity is seen as an event horizon beyond which the future becomes impossible to understand or predict. Nevertheless, we may surmise that this intelligence explosion will lead to increasingly powerful minds that will solve the problem of death.
But why conquer death? Why is death bad? It is bad because it ends something which at its best is good; because it puts an end to our projects; because the wisdom and knowledge of a person is lost at death; because it harms the living; because it causes apathy about the future beyond our short life-span; because it renders fully meaningful lives impossible; and because we know that if we had the choice, and if our lives were going well, we would choose to live on. That death is generally bad—especially for the physically and intellectually vigorous—is nearly self-evident.
Yes, there are indeed fates worse than death, and in some circumstances death may be welcomed. Nevertheless for most of us most of the time, death is one of the worst fates that can befall us. That is why we think that suicide and murder and starvation and cancer are bad things. That is why we cry at funerals.
I am in no position to judge the feasibility of, for example, mind uploading; experts have both praised and pilloried its viability. Nor can I judge what it would be like to live within a virtual reality. In fact, I don’t even know what it’s like to be a dog or another person. And I don’t know if I would have subjective experiences inside a computer, since we don’t even know how the brain gives rise to subjective experiences. So I certainly don’t know what it would be like to exist as a simulated mind inside a computer or a robotic body. What I do know is that the Oxford philosopher and futurist Nick Bostrom has argued that there is a good chance that we live in a simulation now. And if he’s right, then you’re having subjective experiences inside a computer simulation as you read this.
But does it make sense to think a mind program could run on something other than a brain? Isn’t subjective consciousness rooted in the biological brain? Yes, for the moment our mental software runs on the brain’s hardware. But there is no necessary reason that this has to be the case. If I told you a hundred years ago that integrated silicon circuits will someday play chess better than grandmasters, model future climate change, recognize faces and voices, and solve famous mathematical problems, you would be astonished. Today you might reply, “But computers still can’t feel emotions or taste a strawberry.” And you are right they can’t—for now. But what about a thousand years from now? What about ten thousand or a million years from now? Do you really think that in a million years the best minds will run on carbon based brains?
If you still find it astounding that minds could run on silicon chips, consider how remarkable it is that our minds run on meat! Imagine beings from another planet with cybernetic brains discovering that human brains are made of meat. That we are conscious and communicate by means of our meat brains. They would be amazed. They would find this as implausible as many of us do the idea that minds could run on silicon.
The key to understanding how mental software can run on non-biological hardware is to think of mental states not in terms of physical implementation, but in terms of functions. Consider for example that one of the functions of the pancreas is to produce insulin which maintains the balance of sugar and salt in the body. It is easy to see that something else could perform this function, say a mechanical or silicon pancreas. Or consider an hourglass or an atomic clock. The function of both is to keep time, yet they do this quite differently.
Analogously, if mental states are identified by their functional role, then they too could be realized on other substrates, as long as the system performs the appropriate functions. In fact, once you have jettisoned the idea that your mind is a ghostly soul or a mysterious, non-physical substance, it is easy to see that your mind program could run on something besides a brain. It is certainly easy to imagine self-conscious computers or intelligent aliens whose minds run on something other than biological brains. Of course there’s no way for us to know what it would be like to exist without a brain and body, but there’s no convincing reason to think one couldn’t have subjective experiences without physicality. Perhaps our experiences would be even richer without a brain and body.