I am fascinated by technology. I have been watching the developments in artificial intelligence over the last 10 years and am awed-struck by the human capacity to imagine and invent talking phones, computer watches and soon-to-be computer-driven cars.
The futurist Ray Kurzweil anticipates that by 2045 we will be largely posthuman (although evolutionary trends are never clearly linear or homogenous). We will have perfected transposing the human brain into mindware and mindfiles, creating a digitized data base of one’s life that can be uploaded into new mediums. One of the principal aims of transhumanism is liberty from death via digital immortality; hence we will transition from a society of flesh to a mindcentric society.
This seems so fantastic and incredible to us ordinary folk that we relegate it to “science fiction” and bracket it from it our everyday consciousness. But the fact is that Kurzweil, currently director of engineering at Google, and Martine Rothblatt, author of Virtually Human, claim that cyberconsciousness is not an idea but a reality just around the corner: “It’s only a matter of time before brains made entirely of computer software express the complexities of the human psyche, sentience, and soul,” Rothblatt writes. These imaginative inventors are no mere ordinary citizens but among the movers and shakers of the 21st century: Kurzweil invented the flat-bed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer and the first music synthesizer among other things, and Rothblatt founded Sirius satellite radio and United Therapeutics. For them, cyberconsciousness and overcoming the death barrier are not platonic ideas but the next phase of evolution.
Of course there are all sorts of ethical and moral issues at stake here but my point is simply to highlight the fastest moving target of the 21st century: technology. We are on our way to becoming a new AI-human hybrid species; however, the new human around the corner is tied up with computing power and silicon chips – not God. We have discovered our power to create, and we are enamored by our creative power. But to what end? Where are we going with our information technologies? Will the world become more peaceful and loving with mindfiles and homo-robos? Will the poor and the Earth be left out of this new eugenic trend? More so, will we evolve toward the fullness of Christ?
I want to contrast the mind-boggling aims of information technology with the recent findings from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship. Cindy Wooden of CNS reports: “After nine years of study and consultation, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments has told Latin-rite bishops around the world that the sign of peace will stay where it is in the Mass. However, the congregation said, ‘if it is foreseen that it will not take place properly,’ it can be omitted.” Really? Nine years to assess whether or not the sign of peace is OK? While the folks at the Vatican were getting ready nine years ago to discuss whether or not to keep the sign of peace before Communion, the Apple corporation genius Steve Jobs had just launched the first iPod and was getting ready to unveil a second version; the first camera phone was marketed, and iTunes music store was being launched. In nine years, the invention of smartphones, computer tablets and Bluetooth cars has radically impacted the world in virtually every corner of the globe; technology has ushered in a new level of consciousness, what Teilhard de Chardin called the Noosphere.
Because of computer technology we are becoming a new species, a techno sapiens; technology is no longer an aid to human function, it now extends what we are into cyberspace. Nine years ago it would have been unthinkable that the music on your iPod could be on your phone, and you could sync the information on your phone – which also holds your photo albums and email – with your computer. By 2020 your computer-phone will likely be obsolete and you will have voice recognition, music, pictures and Internet information by a touch of your wrist or with the oculus rift, a pair of computer glasses that will eliminate the distinction between cyber world and sense world. We are wondering if the sign of peace is essential to the celebration of the Mass and, in the meantime, we are on our way to becoming posthuman.
Our present human community is hungering for transcendence, to evolve to a new level of life that is more unified, peaceful and collaborative. Instead we find ourselves in the church spending an inordinate amount of time and money trying to preserve ancient rituals and tradition: Transhumanists are about tomorrow and the church holds on to yesterday. The dichotomy between futurists and religious traditionalists leaves the heart of the world aching and longing for meaning and wholeness: Global warming continues, natural resources such as water continue to be depleted, the gap between rich and poor widens, war and bitter religious conflicts rage on, gang violence, racial violence and the loss of innocent human lives darkens our inner cities.
The world at large seems to be at an impasse, a Sartrian “no exit.” Along comes computer technology to say, “Ah! There is an exit – it is within us – the power of the human mind to create and invent” – so millions of people rush to buy the latest electronic device because it is faster and more powerful than ever before. Transhumanists say that religion is an obstacle to a better world; the promise of salvation and immortality is nothing more than an empty tomb. Christians trudge through this valley of tears in hope of a better world beyond this one. According to transhumanists, the better world that Christians hope for is at hand; salvation and immortality are within our reach. Of course there are many who will say “impossible” or “ridiculous” and “absurd,” but it is precisely the ridiculous and absurd that is making a difference to our future.
The power of computer technology to enhance human life is alluring but deceptive; it promises a better life, but it is really an extension of the same contingent life with some improvements? Not to mention the expense of this new technology. Even now, every electronic device has a provider of services, and the cost of owning a computer, smartphone and high definition television can be exhorbitant. The poor and the marginalized are left by the side of the road, as the wealthy pursue life extension, entertainment and personal enhancement.
Despite the lure of information technology and the possibility of extending life indefinitely, there is an even greater challenge at hand, cosmic evolution itself. In the organicity of life, death is necessary for the ultimate flourishing of life. There is no real evolution toward more being and life without death.
From a Christian perspective, death is the ultimate act of transcendence into the fullness of life in God. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ recapitulates cosmic life; isolated existence must be relinquished for greater union. The whole sweep of evolution is marked by suffering, death and new life because God is at the heart of it; the divine, incarnate presence who empowers life toward more life and ultimate unity in love. That is why Teilhard de Chardin urged Christians to get involved in the shaping of the future. He used the term “Christogenesis” to describe the evolutionary process as an evolution of consciousness and ultimately an evolution of spirit, from the birth of mind to the birth of the whole Christ.
We are to “christify” the world by immersing ourselves in it, plunging our hands into the soil of Earth and touching the roots of life. Union with God is not withdrawal or separation from the activity of the world but a dedicated, integrated and sublimated absorption into it. Before, he said, the Christian thought was that s/he could attain God only by abandoning everything. One now discovers that one cannot be saved except through the universe and as a continuation of the universe. We must make our way to heaven through Earth.
If information technology is evolving us at an exponential rate, it is because we are spending entirely too much time on such things as when and how to give the sign of peace at Mass. We need to wake up to this world in evolution and to realize there is much at stake here; we are either participating in the birth of Christ in evolution or we are mourning the death of the human species, of which God became a preeminent member.
Computer technology can aid this evolution of the spirit, but it cannot replace the living person who is part of a larger cosmos and oriented toward life in God. Science and technology are fantastic, but the human spirit is ineffable. We are made for divinity, as St. Augustine realized centuries ago: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
A dialogue between religious thinkers and transhumanists could be helpful as we anticipate the next level of evolution. Transhumanists need a cosmic religious framework for their creative ideals to have significance for the cosmic whole, and religious leaders need a good dose of human creativity and ingenuity to kindle a new world soul, a new spirit of planetary love. Technology of the mind and technology of heart must work together for the fullness of Christ.
[Ilia Delio, OSF, a Sister of St. Francis of Washington, D.C., is Haub Director of Catholic Studies and Visiting Professor at Georgetown University. Her recent publications include From Teilhard to Omega: Cocreating an Unfinished Universe and The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love.]