What do we want to become?
My friend on the other side of the valley has suggested that I should start carving and drawing some pictures on the rocks to outline what we are on about. I find his suggestion all too tiresome and decided to use the computer instead.
What do we want to become?
Probably the first thing to recognize that my days of “becoming” are almost at an end. I am now eighty five years of age and in a few years time, if not sooner, I will become a memory. And I have no problems with this. We live and we die – and I do not believe in the post mortem paradise so loved by religious people. I have long recognized that the words “eternal life” in the bible refer to a quality of life here and now rather than some kind of heavenly existence. I have no problem with “living in hearts we leave behind.” It is the old Greek idea of an “immortal soul” that troubles me. “Beware of Greeks who come bearing gifts” is as true today as it was in the days of wooden horses. When we die, we really die! I recognize that such a stance puts me at odds with millions of Christians and the Church at large. And that’s OK! I have never believed in the concept of “Vox populi vox dei”. God for me is the energy of life calling homo sapiens to fullness of life. “Fullness of life” here and now is what the Christian faith is about.
One who has done a lot of work on this is Walter Wink. Known primarily for his advocacy of nonviolence as the Way of Jesus, Wink concluded his theologizing with a book entitled “The Human Being” based on Jesus’ description of himself as “The Son of Man”, a phrase that in Hebrew simply means “a human being”. As Wink says in the opening words of the book “The implication seems to be that Jesus intentionally avoided honorific titles and preferred simply to be known as ‘the man’, or ‘the human being’ . Apparently he saw his task as helping people become more human”. Walter Wink finishes his book with a flourish of phrases. “The gist of this book is, simply, that Jesus as the son of man is enough. What a lean and pared back Christianity has to give to the world is not its creeds, dogmas, doctrines…..All Christianity has to give is the story of Jesus … the intimation of what the new humanity might entail…. (Jesus) changed the way people experienced God. The gift of Christianity to the world is not Christianity but Jesus, revealer and catalyst of our true humanity.” Rarely have I read words with which I so readily identify. The only thing he doesn’t refer to is the delicious irony of Pilate’s declaration to the crowd “Behold, the man!”
A more recent book is Yuval Harari’s best seller “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind”. In it Harari maintains that “if you ask scientists why they study the genome or try to connect a brain to a computer, nine out of ten times you’ll get the same standard answer: ‘We are doing it to cure disease and save human lives. We do it to prolong life.” That this is manifestly inadequate was pointed out by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels in the 1860s. The little people of Struldbrugs discovered the secret of eternal life but were unable to stop the effects of ageing, a problem that is all too apparent when you are an octogenarian. The prolongation of life in itself is without doubt an inadequate philosophy of life. Harari maintains that we should be looking at the question “What do we want to become?” because the next stage in history will include fundamental changes in human consciousness and identity. He goes on to say that we should be looking at this question because “it dwarfs the debates that currently preoccupy politicians, philosophers, scholars and ordinary people.” I agree with him except that many scientists I know would answer his question of why they do what they do in terms of “quality of life” rather than “longevity of life.” Harari’s point, however, remains valid. Ask many scientists what they mean by quality of life and there is either a deafening silence or some trite answer about “happiness for all” – a goal, as Aldous Huxley pointed out, that can be achieved by the drip feeding of drugs.
Harari’s book raises the question of “What do we want to become?” and he finishes with a number of assertions and questions. “We remain unsure of ourselves…. We are more powerful than ever before but have little idea of what to do with all that power…. seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.” He concludes with the peroration “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?” The scene is set and the question vividly portrayed. It is a pity he doesn’t attempt to answer some of the questions he raises. But then, as he so pertinently says “Most people prefer not to think about it”.
In the light of Harari’s challenge, let me share with you how I see the situation.
Firstly, the prolongation of life, be it religiously or secularly promoted, is an inadequate basis for life. Fullness of life is what it is about! And that is precisely what Jesus was on about.
Secondly, much of the philosophy that has stood us in good stead over the centuries is now irrelevant. It may be of historical importance, but we have entered a new era – an era when we are able to change the nature of homo sapiens.
Let me be clear that I am not here speaking of pressures on humanity which are resulting in change. This has been going on since the beginning of the world and the emergence of life. Adaptation is what evolution is all about. And it is still going on today. The movie “Men, Women and Children” is not one that I would recommend you see but it does graphically portray the malevolent influence of modern technology on the human persona, and the way we no longer relate to each other as persons. We live in a world of increasing isolation and relating to each other through a touch screen. There is no question that modern technology, including synthetic drugs, is having a profound effect on our society and on humanity. It is not that, however, to which I am referring. I am concerned about the conscious manipulation of the species. Harari’s phrase for it is “intelligent design” – a phrase ironically used by fundamentalists to denote divine activity in the creation of the world. Harari’s use of the phrase is very different. He uses it in the sense of our intelligence changing the nature of humanity. “For close to four billion years …. The planet evolved subject to natural selection. Intelligent design wasn’t even an option because there was no intelligence that could design things”. This has, and is, changing dramatically – and the pace is quickening. “Mapping the first human genome required fifteen years and three billion dollars. Today you can map a person’s DNA within a few weeks and at the cost of a few hundred dollars”
Where does the Christian faith fit into the picture? Regrettably it is like an anchor that firmly holds us to the past. The tragedy of the Christian faith as we know it today is that it sees creation as a past event rather than a present process. Let’s be very clear about this. There was not a time when God created the world. Creation is a present process. Creation is a process oriented towards the future. To think of God as a lonely deity creating something for his amusement, to think of creation as a past event, is heresy of the worst possible kind. When the Higgs Boson particle was discovered I heard someone say with great aplomb that we no longer need the idea of God as prime mover. Where has the guy been for the last hundred years? Paul Tillich and Teilhard de Chardin were saying that when I was in short pants. Teilhard was talking of Jesus as the “omega point”, the “pleroma” – the fullness of life. Tillich was saying that “if he were asked to sum up the Christian message in two words, he would say ‘New Creation’ ”. God is not the prime mover sitting in some kind of heaven. God is the energy of life inviting us to fullness of life. “It is impossible” says Tillich “ to speak of being without speaking of becoming”. The world is in the process of being created. This is why the present and the future are so important. The primary question is not “where have we come from?” It is “to where are we going?” What do we want to become?
On the day I finished penning these thoughts (the pen being part of my inherent Luddite tendency) there was a news item on the ABC news. It started with the unmistakable computer generated voice of the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking saying “The primitive forms of artificial intelligence we already have, have proved very useful. But I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. It would take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded”. This view was offset by a statement by Rollo Carpenter, the creator of Cleverbot, the computer whose software learns from its previous conversations and which has fooled many people into thinking they are conversing with a human being. Rollo Carpenter maintains that we will stay in control of technology for “a decently long time” and it will take “a few decades” before we will have either the computing power or the algorithms to achieve full artificial intelligence. “A few decades!” If he intended to ease my concerns, he failed miserably!
The news item reminded me, as it did the presenter of the news, of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 saga “A Space Odyssey: 2001” where the astronaut commands the computer H.A.L. 9000 to open the doors of the spaceship and Hal replies “I’m sorry Dave. I can’t do that”. Kubrick was a bit out with his time line of 2001 but what’s a few decades between friends – or enemies for that matter. The film critic Robert Ebert said of the movie “Two out of three people who see it will assure you it is too long, or too difficult, or (worst of all) merely science fiction. In fact it is a beautiful parable about the nature of man. Perhaps it is the nature of man not to wish to know too much about his own nature”.
That may have been true in 1968. It is no longer, especially in the light of the fact that in 2013 the E.U. contributed one billion euros towards the Human Brain Project which aims to design a two way brain/computer interface. My non computerized brain boggles at the thought of being connected to the internet. James Lovelock has a pacemaker connected to an external computer and admits to “an empathic dread for some unfortunate person whose body becomes connected to one of more of the ubiquitous social networks.” Perish the thought! Perish the persona! His point is the same as that of Yuval Harari “We have to be sure we need these new life forms”
As for me personally, I live in hope that some day we may hear the knocking on the door of the son of man. At the moment we are deaf to it. But we are starting to realize that the key issue today is not from where we have come. Charles Darwin made the definitive statement about that two centuries ago. The key question is “to where are we going?” Richard Dawkins maintains that such is not ours to decide. Que sera sera. “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” I beg to differ. What our evangelical atheist fails to see is his essential faith position. Evolutionary theory says nothing about purpose. Social Darwinism (or should it be referred to as “anti social Darwinism”) is essentially a faith position as was Descarte’s “cogito ergo sum”.
I would submit that the central question today is “What do we want to become” because we are now on the cusp of being able to do it.
One of my favourite cartoons says it all.