why you may want to see yourself as a machine
While thinking of our bodies as divine or entirely in utilitarian terms is unhealthy, there is a middle ground to consider.
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…