By Ruben Rivera©
In my last two posts I mentioned that the rise in modernity was not just about advancements in science and technology, but a shift in worldview and the sources of authority for it. Throughout the Middle Ages, the chief source of authority in the West for understanding the world and our place in it was religious.
For the Catholic Church the sources of truth were Scripture and tradition -- which included the teachings of the church fathers, the creeds and pronouncements of the great church councils and of popes. Protestants (in direct opposition to Catholics) stressed sola scriptura: that "scripture alone" was the Christian's final authority for truth and living -- though they didn't mention that a great many things influence how everyone, even Protestants, interpret the Bible.
Among the things that modernity began to reexamine was something that the West assumed had long been answered: the human being. What was the nature of human beings? What was our purpose? What was our destiny? How did one become fully human, what would it mean, and what would it look like?
Medieval Christendom had answered the questions thus. (1) Humans are created by God and in his image (what exactly that meant could be complicated and confusing). (2) We ALL have a sinful nature from birth (going back to Adam and Eve's fall in Eden, when something of the image was lost). (3) But through Christ we are cleansed from sin and its eternal penalty and are being transformed into the image of Christ, the image God had always intended. (4) We participate with God, via our good works, in our salvation and transformation. (5) Our best purpose in the here and now is to glorify God in all our thoughts, words and deeds. (6) Our destiny is to be with and enjoy God in the hereafter. (7) However, none of this is possible, we were warned, outside of the Catholic Church.
Protestants answered the questions similarly, except X-out numbers 4 and 7 above.
In the age of the Enlightenment (18th century), also called the "age of reason", thinkers believed that at their core humans were rational beings. Poor environment and faulty education (especially religious) explained why humans behaved irrationally. For those rationalist thinkers (Deists) who still believed in a creator, the image that humans bore of the Deity was -- surprise, surprise -- reason.
By the time you get to Sigmund Freud (1956-1939), what it meant to be human was not reason at all, much less the image of God, unless God is a sex maniac. For humans, according to Freud, are defined primarily by our conscious and unconscious sexual drives.
With the phenomenal advancements in computer technology we are now asking very different questions about what a human being is. And religion has become such a diffused, individualized smorgasbord, that I simply cannot point to any one church for answers that a majority of people would agree upon, as they did in the past. Indeed, what is church anymore? Some people go to church online, choosing for themselves an avatar (a graphic image: a human with a tiger head, a ninja, a fairy, you name it) in a setting with other avatars. The "services" I've seen look pretty shallow, a computer game really. Some ask, can this qualify as church? I ask, can this qualify as human?
As computers get smarter and we get closer to realizing artificial intelligence, will that AI be human? Is "human" the ability to reason, to think in abstract concepts (which computers may one day be able to do)? Or is something more required. Emotion? Empathy? Love? Will an AI ever love -- on its own, without programming, indeed perhaps in violation of its programming? I have a hard time conceiving that will ever happen, for the same reason I know we will never travel faster than light: there is a little problem with natural laws. Though such ideas do make for great fiction.
Is what is human connected to our body? What happens when the body no longer works but the mind still does? Disabled persons would not be human, or only partly so. I'm sure many of them will tell you that they have at times been treated less than human. Poor Stephen Hawking. Mind is about all he has. But what would happen if we could download Hawking's consciousness into a computer, or an artificial body? Would he be considered more human, or less?
What happens when the body is working fine but the mind is ruined by accident or illness, is that person still human? Do we stop loving our parents and spouses and children and friends lying there in a vegetative state? No. But what do we love then, when, for all practical purposes, there is neither a body nor a mind to love?
The only thing remaining then would be the memory. The memory of who they "were", and who they will always be in our hearts. That would make sense, since that is certainly the case when our dear ones pass away. We still remember them, still love them, still talk about them, still talk to them, even though there is no physical presence whatsoever.
In Philip K. Dick's famous Sci Fi novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" (the basis for the 1982 film, "Blade Runner", with some definite differences from the book) protagonist Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter who must find and destroy renegade androids. But physically they are indistinguishable from other humans. So Blade Runners like Deckard must employ the "Voight-Kampff" (question and answer) Test on suspects. Because androids have no empathy, the Voight-Kampff Test will reveal it. No empathy? BOOM! No android.
Empathy, that's what it means to be human. And androids don't have it. But wait a minute, the androids are doing all they can to survive. They want to survive. That doesn't fit. Circuits and memory boards don't want to survive.
And for a while Deckard finds himself loving an android named Rachael more than his own wife (indeed, saying he would marry the android if it wasn't illegal).
Now I'm really confused. Androids want to live and not be slave workers, and humans kill them mercilessly. Who is more human? A wife wants her husband's empathy . He gives it to a machine. Who is treated more human?
Now I've got more questions than I started with. But I think I've discovered Philip K. Dick's central purpose. Maybe we've been asking the wrong question to start with. Maybe the best question is not: What is a human being. Maybe we should start with this: Am I being human?
Am I being human?