April 07, 2011

Spring cleaning and a short thought

At some point it occurred to me that the link I had on the side, to a blog by an old friend of mine, was no longer accurate. Somewhere along the flowing stream of time, Garden Variety Rainbows became Clearing the Sill. This change is now reflected in the hyperlink, and is also reflected in the blog's sidebar text. The quality of content, however, has not changed for the worse, and I still recommend you read.


Recently, I read an article in the New York Post by a certain Michio Kaku describing what life would be like after 89 years of technological advancement. These articles are, often enough, not very scientifically accurate. Journalists seeking a story have an odd tendency to stretch the limits of science, and they expect to suspend the disbelief of their audience enough to sell a magazine. Nature and her laws are somewhat less forgiving. As a result, I am not entirely sure whether we will be able to "cruise at the age of 30 almost indefinitely...," even a century or two down the line.

Why not, though? The only apparent physical obstacle is the body's natural rate of decay. We can replace limbs, hearts, stomachs, livers, and possibly even brains without changing intrinsically who the person is - a person is still the same person after a kidney donor. Therefore, we should be able to indefinitely extend the physical life of a person, even if after 200 years they are on their third entirely new body. What is left unaccounted for?

Unfortunately, the answer is contained in the question above. If the same "person" is still in existence, even without any of the same physical substance, then that person must have a non-physical component. This concept will perhaps be more easily seen if we make a comparison to the computer. If you took a computer, retrieved the data, and then copied the data into an identical computer, the second computer would not be the same as the first one. It might act, look, and contain the same things, but it would not be the same essential being. Human beings are different. Our cells die and get recycled during the course of our lifetimes, even without artificial replacements. Dead skin, dead hair, and waste all fall aside as we age, replaced automatically by new cell growth. Thus, after x amount of time, our bodies are composed of entirely new material, even without replacements. And yet, that body is part of the same person it was beforehand. Similarly, even if our grandfather loses an arm and it is replaced by a prosthetic limb, even if he develops Alzheimer's and loses his memory, and even if every individual, physical part of his body is replaced, we still know Grandpa as Grandpa. As a result of this observation, we must conclude that something outside of the physical, or, to use an Aristotelian term, something metaphysical exists, which contributes something essential to our concept of, and nature as, a person.

This metaphysical part is the part of the person which grows world-weary, and desires to commit suicide after a tragedy. This is the part of the person which refuses human contact for a week after his fiancée dies. Neither of these two events can be explained through physical means, and thus a physical solution (or even genetic engineering) cannot solve a metaphysical problem. Suppose for a moment that, shaky science aside, we could live for hundreds of years on earth. The real question is this: who would want to? The inarguable numbers of divorces, alcoholics, suicides, homicides, and other indicators of human discontent with our current condition show that, perhaps, not very many people would.

This metaphysical understanding of man also extends to our use of the physical world around us. Because our being is metaphysical, we interpret other things metaphysically. Dolls and blankets treasured since childhood acquire a metaphysical significance: who can throw those old soccer trophies away, even though they clutter the shelves?

Further, we experience things metaphysically. Although Kaku states that "cars will be driver-less, using GPS to navigate...," I doubt that this will actually be the case. This scenario can be compared to simply using a bus system now. What's the difference between driving a car and being driven? Or, suppose a robot drove your car while you sat in the passenger seat. What's the difference between a human and a robot driver? The human can enjoy the driving experience. The exhilaration, the freedom, the speed, the power cannot be attributed merely to adrenaline. If it could be, the passenger would feel the same thrill. As any backseat driver can tell you, that is not always the case. Therefore, we must conclude that the reason we drive cars, like the reason we ride bikes, cook meals, play music, or take a walk through the woods, is not from some sort of mere physical necessity - not just because we have to, but would rather not. These actions have a metaphysical significance which is irreplaceable - we want to, whether we have to or not.

In short, where Michio Kaku fails in his study of future technology is here: it examines technological capacity, but not human volition and nature. Human beings want more than long life - they want a happy life, short or long. Human beings do not want to be driven around, human beings want to act and make their own decisions. We do not want life lived for us by scientists, we want to live, love, and laugh on our own. The scientific pseudo-life without a metaphysic, which Kaku offers us as a technological possibility, is worse than death. It would be like living in a prison all of our life, with no freedom to engage in the higher metaphysical realm of joy and pain. As a human being, I reject this future. Give me a car to drive myself - I will risk the crash to gain the freedom. Give me a 70-year life span - I will welcome death as a relief from the misery inherent in this world. Give me the liberty to freely choose those things which I enjoy - even if that means true death as a release from an ultimately unsatisfying world. But, for God's sake, do not chain me to a world I can no longer enjoy for an unbearable eternity.

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Blogger Ambrose said...

Meh, short thought ended up longer than I thought it would.

April 07, 2011 3:49 PM  

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