why you may want to see yourself as a machine

January 9, 2012

When it comes to the realm of Singularity skepticism and transhumanism, you’ll often see skeptics telling you not to look at the human body as a machine, this skeptic included. Sure, our bodies have systems that work in concert with each other and with a lot of stretching and  simplification we can compare them to machinery. But unlike purpose built devices, our bodies are just sort of there, overburdened with complex processes on every level and possessing brains that are predisposed to believing the idea that we are immortal children of an invisible deity rather than bizarre accidents of evolution who are quite frankly, lucky to exist. However, here’s a thought we may want to consider. What if we do borrow some transhumanist terminology and talk about how our bodies work the same way we talk about machines? It’s the smallest transhumanist misconception, and while we as skeptics tend to have a drive to nitpick and force a distinction between machines and products of evolution because they are scientifically separate, why not let this point go? Maybe letting people think of their bodies as machinery would actually be a net positive because it will let them consider radical new ideas?

Obviously the purely functional approach to our bodies would be disturbing to religious adherents who believe that the human form is just a vessel which an immortal soul occupies for a set period of time before it moves on. It would mean that humans are not a special creation and we’re not immortal beings trapped in flesh and struggling to rediscover ourselves as such, but merely elaborate connections between specialized cells. You, this approach would posit, are whatever the collection of neurons in your brain made you and any notion of an immortal or special soul simply doesn’t fit in without proof that the neural activity that goes on through our lives can somehow be preserved. But that may not be a bad thing. If your body is a self-aware machine, why should we consider our life spans to be some sort of infinitely wise natural edict on when it’s best to die? Why not try to modify it? Why not remake it to whatever we see fit and treat aging and death like diseases? Why should we not rebuild our bodies as they grow older instead of having debates about whether we’d really want to live past our 80s or 90s or 120s, and pretending that drastically extending our lives through technology would end in a zero-sum game? Why not think beyond the our planet as well when considering life extension?

Just like we modify our robots to go to other planets, why not encase our bodies in synthetic materials, modify our genomes through specially designed viruses, and quite literally set out to colonize space? Without a body that can only withstand a narrow range of gravities, mixes of gases, and atmospheric pressures, the process would be far easier and we could accomplish far more than we would as purely organic entities. If you think of yourself as a product of a deity who would’ve been able to live on other planets if your creator wanted you to do so, or if you believe that humans are forever trapped here as products of natural selection and are destined to vanish into extinction, savoring their existence as a short-term gift from biochemistry that can’t be challenged, of course you would be trapped on one planet and play a zero-sum game with our finite resources. If however you think of yourself as a creature which has the rare opportunity to dream big and modify itself outside of the forces of biology, you don’t have to confine yourself to one planet and a fixed lifetime. If Earth starts to get a bit overcrowded over hundreds and hundreds of years as modified humans stay alive and well, there’s an option of going to Mars or Titan or even Triton, and exploring alien landscapes. Your updated body can do it.

And it’s that idea of looking at human limitations and asking why not simply overcome them that really drives a lot of transhumanists. True, the technology is many years away and unlike Ray Kurzweil predicts, it won’t just get there on its own. But we’re making strides towards tackling groundbreaking technologies that could really revolutionize medicine, and if taken to their ultimate limits, even challenge what it means to be human. And as we develop cybernetic organs and make more and more of our bodies machine to survive disease, accidents and war, and organ failure, we think of our bodies as being elaborate machinery that can bring us a whole lot of enjoyment and be used to radically broaden our horizons with good science and smart engineering, maybe that will finally provoke us to stop living in the mundane ruts we often find ourselves, and abandon the selfish mindset that as it doesn’t really matter what we do because we’ll all die anyway. Why reach for the stars with a conservative outlook and consign ourselves to be the generations that will never make it to space if we could fine-tune ourselves and make that leap? After all, if enough generations say that they won’t live long enough to travel to other worlds and place the burden on their grandchildren, we may never really go beyond where we’ve already been, deeming our bodies too precious to modify, and keeping our life spans too short to to it…

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  • Russ Toelke

    Born and brought up Catholic, I’ve always clung to the notion that our existence here was to be rewarded somehow.

    Perhaps it’s not an individual soul we possess. Perhaps it’s a singular unified soul we have yet to figure out how to connect.

    It seems useless to live and die, and just pass on knowledge without having some reward in store for doing so. Maybe that knowledge is the basis of a soul. Maybe we pass it along in the hopes it finds a connection. Maybe when we learn to transcend mere mortality (as we know it) we will begin to realize what a soul is. Perhaps whatever afterlife we were promised or prophesied is merely located in our own genes as they pass along from generation to generation. One day an AI/human hybrid could live/exist long enough to understand all human reasoning and science. Maybe by then we will have found that which created the Big Bang.

    I dunno, just throwing random thoughts out there. I like to think about this kinda stuff. I like to believe that science and religion are really seeking the same answer: where did we come from? I like to think of God as some 5th grader with a science project, and our universe is his ant farm. He just wants to see if we can figure out how to get out.

  • Jypson

    I’ve always loved the adage, born catholic, or whatever religion/philosophy. I can claim being born Homo Saipan, but anything beyond that is a product of cultural influence and accepted practices.

    Anyway, I digress.

    I submit that we are indeed machines. Not engineered for a specific reason obviously, or we would be far more efficient at doing our jobs. Our primary function is to seek and consume resources, procreate, and defend our genetic heritage. Anything beyond that genetic mandate is a byproduct of the mandate its self. We contrive complex social protocols and dream up bigger and better ways to execute our function, but it’s just that, to better execute our function.

    Will our shared species eventually leave our nest and assimilate other cosmic resources? If we have to, yes. We’ll do whatever it takes, that’s how we’ve made it so far in the first place…well that and a very healthy dose of luck. If we do some how shed our mortal coils in the future and become a mechanical being of logical processor power, I believe the game would change entirely. If we are no longer driven by excreted chemicals demanding we execute our biological function, who knows. Our authors and story tellers have come up with some interesting scenarios, but it’s all just speculation, and I don’t think we could accurately predict the outcome.

  • Stephanos

    Greg, have you ever read Alastair Reynolds? His science fiction is wonderful and amazing in ways that are hard to describe. He touches on most of these themes in his books. I highly recommended him.

  • Paul451

    While religious people may object to the terminology of “the body is a machine”, I don’t think it is fundamentally different to their own views. If “the human form is just a vessel which an immortal soul occupies for a set period of time before it moves on”, how is seeing it as a “vessel” different from seeing it as a machine. There may be a ghost in the machine, but it’s still a machine. In fact, the idea of the body as “designed” resonates quite strongly with the religious mind. Hence, getting people used to the idea of the body as a machine, may not open religious minds to the idea of “playing god” by tampering with the design.