When I first heard of Ray Kuzweil’s ideas, I assumed he was a science fiction writer. After all, the sort of transhuman future he envisioned is stock sci-fi fare. I was mildly surprised when it turns out that he is quite serious about (and well paid for expressing) his views. I was somewhat more surprised to learn that he has quite a following. Of course, I wasn’t too surprised-I’ve been around a while.
Oversimplifying things, Kuzweil envisions a future in which humans will be immortal and the dead will return to live. While these are common claims in religion, Kuzweil’s view is that technology will make this possible. While some describe his view as a religion, I’d prefer to use a made up word, “techion” to refer to this sort of phenomena. As I see it, a religion involves claims about supernatural entities. Kuzweil’s view is purely non-supernatural, but does have most of the stock elements of religion (the promise of a utopian future, immortality, and the raising of the dead). So, it is sort of a technological religion-hence “techion.” Yes, I like making up words. Try it yourself-it is free, fun and makes you look cool (your actual results might differ).
While the religion-like aspects of his views are interesting, I’ll be looking at the ideas of technological immortality and technological resurrection.
In the abstract, technological immortality is quite simple: just keep repairing and replacing parts. In theory, this could be kept up until the end of time, thus granting immortality. Even with our current technology we can repair and replace parts. For example, my quadriceps tendon was recently repaired. I have friends with artificial hips and other friends who gotten tissue and organ transplants. It is easy to imagine technology progressing enough to replace or repair everything.
Technological resurrection is a bit trickier. While we can “jump start” people who have died, Kuzweil envisions something more radical. His view is that we might be able to take the DNA of dead people and rebuild them using nanobots. This, he claims, could create a new body that would be “indistinguishable from the original person.” Of course, having a body that is indistinguishable form the original is hardly the same as having the original person back. It would, rather, be a case of having a twin. To recreate the person, his plan is that information about the original (such as things the person wrote and recollections of people who knew them) would be used to recreate the mind of the original.
Nanobot reconstruction from DNA seems possible. After all, each of our bodies assembled itself using DNA, so we have a natural model for that process. The challenge is, of course, to duplicate it with technology. We also know that the brain accepts external information that shapes the person, so such a “download” would (in theory) be possible. Of course, there is a big difference between the normal experiences that shape us and downloading information in an attempt to recreate a person.
One aspect of both immortality and resurrection that is of philosophical interest is the matter of personal identity. Immortality is only immortality if I keep on going as me. Replacing me with something that is like me does not give me personal immortality. Resurrection is only true resurrection if it is me who has returned from the dead. Recreating my body from my DNA and telling him stories about me does not bring me back to life.
Turning to immortality, the key question is this: would the identity of the person be preserved through the changes? Personal identity does seem to survive through fairly robust changes. For example, I’m confident that at 43 I am the same person as the very young kid who staggered down the aisle of church saying “I’m drunk” after drinking the communion wine. I’m larger now and a bit wiser, but surely still the same person. However, the changes required for technological immortality would be quite radical. After all, eventually the brain tissue will fail and thus will need to be replaced-perhaps by machinery.
This problem is, of course, like the classic ship of Theseus problem: how much of the original can be replaced before it is no longer the same entity? Of course, it is also complicated by the fact that a person is involved and the identity of persons is a bit more complex than that of objects.
Fortunately, there is an easy answer. If whatever it is that makes a person the person she is can keep on going in the increasingly strange flesh, then such immortality is possible. If not, then it would not be immortality, but a strange sort of death and succession. Since I don’t know what it is that makes a person the person she is, I lack a definite answer to this question. I am sure that it is quite a shock that no definite answer has been reached.
Of course, this does not diminish the importance of the concern. Assessing whether we should take the path that Kurzweil desires involves deciding whether this sort of immortality is real immortality or not. That is, determining whether we would go on as the same people or whether we would simply be dying a strange and prolonged death as we are being replaced.
Now, for resurrection. This matter has long been of interest to philosophers. Plato wrote about reincarnation (the difference is that resurrection is supposed to restore the same person and the same body while re-incarnation is supposed to restore the same person with a different body) and Locke explicitly wrote about resurrection. Naturally, philosophers who were also religious thinkers tended to write about this subject.
True resurrection, as noted above, has two key aspects. First, the original body has to be recreated. If you get a different sort of body, then you have been reincarnated (perhaps as a rather miffed squirrel). Second, the original person has to be restored. Locke’s view on this matter is that come judgment day, God will recreate our bodies (hopefully at their prime) and place the right consciousness into each body (for Locke, the person is his or her consciousness).
Recreating the original body seems possible. With DNA, raw material and those hypothetical nanobots, it would just be a (re) construction project. It would also help to have images of the original body, plus as much other relevant data as possible. So, the first aspect is taken care of.
Getting the original person back in the recreated body is the real challenge. Kurzweil does seem to clearly recognize that the method he envisions will not restore the original person. He seems to be right about this. After all, the method he describes relies on “public” information. That is, it depends on what information the person provided before death and what other people remember of him. This obviously leaves out everything that was not recorded or known by others. As such, it will be a partial reconstruction-a new person who is force fed the scraps of another person’s life. This, obviously enough, raises some serious moral issues.
On the face of it, Kurzweil’s resurrection seems to be moral appalling. That this is so can be illustrated by the following analogy. Imagine that Sally and Ivan have a son, Ted. Ted dies at 18. Sally and Ivan go through all the adoption agencies until they find a baby, Joe, that looks like Ted did. They rename Joe as Ted and then reconstruct Ted’s life as closely as possible-punishing the former Joe whenever he deviates from Ted’s life and rewarding him for doing what Ted did. Sally and Ivan would be robbing Joe of choice and using him as a means to an end-fulfilling their need to have Ted back. But, they have no right to do this to Joe-he is a person, not a thing to be used to recreate Ted.
The same certainly seems to hold in the situation Kurzweil envisions. To create a human being and force him to be a copy of a dead person is a horrible misuse of a person and a wicked act.