Finite, mortal man is not doing very well and is in need of a major face-lift. His record is abysmal: Almost a billion people are now starving, 49 countries are presently involved in military conflict and 10% of human beings are disabled. Something drastic needs to be done, and the hour is getting late.
Science is now offering the hope of salvation from this dreadful state of affairs in the form of “avatars.” The brainchild of Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov, avatars are machines into which the contents of the human brain have been uploaded. He envisions that by the year 2045 there will be mass production of these beings, digital copies of the human mind in “nonbiological carriers.” They will solve both the aging “problem” as well as the food problem, since they will live for possibly thousands of years and will not require food.
The word avatar derives from Sanskrit and refers to a Hindu deity in human form. The scientific counterpart is the incarnation of human consciousness and personality in a machine. And it is not without its cadre of supporters.
“This is no more wild than in the ’70s,” states Martine Rothblatt, founder of United Therapeutics, a biotech company that makes cardiovascular products, “when we saw the advent of liver and kidney transplants.”
Avatars are the latest wave of a broader project called transhumanism that calls for the demise of the human as we have know him and the emergence of a higher species that experiences neither pain nor death. A June 9 article in The New York Times (“Seeking Salvation by Avatar”) has given the avatar project renewed currency following the cover feature for the Feb. 21, 2011, issue of Time, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal.”
The main question, however, putting their desirability aside, is whether avatars are possible. Can the consciousness of a person be uploaded into a machine without that person losing his authentic selfhood, his initiative, his freedom and his capacity to love?
Transhumanists, including avatar enthusiasts, have extraordinary faith in technology and harbor the fervent hope that the melding of technology and biology will one day produce a higher species than man. Nick Bostrom, professor of philosophy at Oxford University and leading transhumanist, believes that technology will abolish aging. He deprecates those whom he calls “deathists,” especially Christians, who accept the inevitability of death and therefore suffer from a dangerous form of passivity.
This great faith and hope, however, is unaccompanied by any interest in love. Science offers us power but is helpless when it comes to improving our ability to love. There is a “power button” on the TV remote and on other mechanisms, but there is no counterpart for love. Power activates machines from the outside; the person expresses love from the inner recesses of his being. Faith and hope fail us if they are disassociated from love.
As St. Paul has famously stated in 1 Corinthians 13: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and if angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge; and though I have all faith so that I could move mountains, and have not charity, I have nothing.”
Real, personal human life develops from the inside, from an intrinsic principle of unity. Science always proceeds from the outside. It adds extrinsic factors and consequently is not capable of achieving a true personal unity. In addition, science works exclusively with matter. As a result, it cannot fuse a soul, which is a spiritual entity, into a purely material construction. Nor can it endow an avatar with a desire for God, as well as a capacity to transcend itself through creativity, knowledge and love.
Power is both attractive and attainable. But man finds his essential meaning through love. And it is only through his own personal freedom that he is able to exercise love. No power can love for him. His acts of love must emerge from within himself. Moreover, power without love always backfires.
This lesson has been taught through the centuries, wisely and engagingly in fairy tales. When we find a genie in a bottle, we are well advised to leave him there. When we are given the power to have any three wishes granted, we had better be very careful about what we wish for. When we exact too many favors from a magic fish, we end up exactly where we started.
In W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw, a father wishes for £100 (pounds), only to find a man at the door giving him what he wished for as a consolation for his son’s death in a factory accident. We should be seeking wisdom, not power — specifically, the wisdom that convinces us that the power of love is far more important than the love of power.
We do not need to make flowers immortal to appreciate their beauty. Man’s mortality does not compromise his meaning.
“Can we love but on the condition that the thing we love must die?” asks the poet Robert Browning. “A person who is dying calls forth a special kind of feeling,” writes the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. “Our attitude to him is at once softened and lifted to a higher plane.” Invincible machines do not need to be loved.
Salvation is not through science but through the grace of God. Death is not the end of life, but the beginning of eternity. The avatar as the incarnation of the human in a machine, even if it were possible, would be a step backwards. Christ, as the Incarnation of the Word, has transformed the world, is the Alpha and the Omega, the supreme and prototypical unification of faith, hope and love. Science will not replace theology; the avatar will not replace God.
Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.