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The Race to Define Our Humanness

It’s easy to make fun of the fools who are working day and night to invent a “technology that enables the transfer of human consciousness to a machine, extending life, perhaps to the point of immortality.” However, we’re staring a profoundly disturbing future in the face, and it’s almost here.

2045_avatar_project 2Leave it to the Russians to come up with such a harebrained scheme as “Project 2045 Initiative,” whose main focus is “The Avatar Project.” They just held a conference (open to the public for the pricey admission fee of $750) in New York. There, “a group of the world’s leading scientists, engineers, philosophers and religious figures gathered to discuss android robots, telepresence systems, brain-computer interfaces and other highly sophisticated technology.”

The conference’s star attraction, Dmitry Itskov, envisions ‘the mass production of lifelike, low-cost avatars that can be uploaded with the contents of a human brain, complete with all the particulars of consciousness and personality.’

The fact that he has the avid interest and even support of ‘august figures at Harvard, M.I.T. and Berkeley and leaders in fields like molecular genetics, neuroprosthetics and other realms’ should give all of us pause. In short, none of these ‘august figures’ seems to have a clue about what it means to be human.

This is not just a run-of-the-mill genius and lost soul speaking with a straight face about “re-engineering the brain.” Itskov doesn’t merely reflect one or two scientist’s horrifying hubris. Such ideas as “transferring consciousness to re-created brains” are being serious entertained, and they are sullying the entire field, indeed the scientific enterprise itself.

Never mind that we don’t even know what consciousness is–scientists are now talking about transferring it to a machine. At bottom, schemes like the Avatar Project are about blurring rather than making clear the difference between a human being and a machine.

Therefore this isn’t an abstract or metaphorical race between religious philosophers and misguided technologists; it’s a real race being run by the few over the many for the soul of humanity. Will thinking people urgently ask and hold the question: What does it mean to be a human being?

Is consciousness the particularities of its contents—an egocentric conglomeration of memories, experiences, images, words, prejudices, conditioning, ideas, beliefs, etc.? Is immortality the continuation of all that, the stuff of precious me?

Itskov speaks with exquisite shallowness of “liberating people from death…so they can accomplish their personal spiritual quest.” Make no mistake, this is nothing less than a project (done in the name of helping humanity of course) that could well destroy humanity’s inward and spiritual potential.

Foolish but well-funded endeavors like the Avatar Project (ironically the word avatar, lifted from Hindi, means 2045_avatar_project‘manifestation of a deity’) are inadvertently providing humanity a service–they are bringing the ancient question of what it means to be a human being into urgent and sharp relief, requiring new insight.

Dispensing with the hilarity of fabricating “robots that are self-aware,” when only a small percentage of humans are self-aware, let’s presume that scientists will be able to ‘download’ and transfer the contents of our consciousness to a computer. And let’s further presume that the contents of consciousness comprise consciousness, as we generally know it. But is that all there is to consciousness, or is true consciousness something completely independent of its contents?

As readers of this column know, I maintain that it is, and that only when the contents of consciousness are essentially quiet in the act of undivided and undirected attention to the movement of thought/emotion, initiating an unwilled state of negation, does true consciousness emerge.

A machine, no matter how sophisticated, cannot have an insight, much less awaken and commune with the otherness. Only a human being can. No artificial mind or brain will ever have an insight.

Just because the functions and contents of thought can be replicated by computers and mimicked in androids does not mean our humanness should be merged with the machine. Indeed, the opposite is true—the more man’s machines can be made to resemble and imitate humans, the greater the imperative and urgency to be clear and keep clear what it means to be a human being.

I propose a new rule of the robotic road: Content-consciousness belongs to the computers; insight consciousness to human beings. We need to stay in our lanes.

2045_avatar_project 1Also, in all this loose talk about immortality, there is no consideration of the centrality of death to life. Death is the great fact of facts, a darkening shadow or brightening beacon for the living, depending on whether we fear or face it.

Death is not, as these avatars of false immortality believe, the great scourge of life to be put off as long as possible, and avoided completely if possible. Death is an immeasurable actuality to inwardly explore and understand while fully alive.

In short, we must make a friend of death, not out of any morbidity, but because beyond our individual dates of expiration, inseparable death is the essence and ground of life, synonymous with creation, love and God, existent before and after all universes.

After all, death is in every exhalation, in every sunset’s passing, in every lion’s killing, in every plant’s respiration—the very ground of all of life’s cycles.

All too often the central fact of life, death, is conflated with disease, so that the phrase ‘disease and death’ go together in our minds like some conjoined abomination.

But whereas it may be sensible to fear disease and take steps to avoid as much as possible, fearing death is synonymous with fearing life. The two cannot be separated; to embrace and live life fully, one has to enter the house and gain a deepening insight into death.

During the fullness of life, the ever-present actuality of death is the doorway to the dimension beyond time. Ending time is the meaning of immortality, not some absurd continuity of memory and the contents of consciousness.

Therefore immortality does not lie in defeating death, but meeting and going all the way through it while fully alive.

Furthermore, compassion and love cannot be programmed, whether into an android or a human being. All programming must end for compassion and love to be. Love is not a feeling or emotion, but a state of being, re-awakened and renewed each day.

Compassion and love require biology and a living, organically grown brain, but they are not a product of biology, and do not originate from within the individual brain.

Thought separates and manipulates, fabricates and replicates. It can never create, nor can any machine thought makes ever create anything. I don’t mean the creation of art—‘artificial intelligence’ will be able to do that well enough to fool most art critics. I mean create life ex nihilo, or experiencing the state of insight in the infinite space of silence and nothingness.

Is there an intelligence beyond thought, and can thought ever harness it? There’s an infinite intelligence beyond thought, inseparable from nature and the universe, but the mind-as-thought must be completely quiet to be aware of and participate in it.

Therefore states of insight can never be harnessed, and have no use in the world whatsoever. But without experiencing them, life becomes barren and meaningless. Thought has nothing to do with them, and has to yield, letting go of its hubris and self-centered activity.

To my mind, the first responsibility of a human being is to do the spadework every day of liberating himself and herself from the darkness of conditioning and content-consciousness. The intent is to fully awaken one’s capacity for insight, understanding, compassion and love in the service of humanity.

Man’s thinking machines will either free us to grow into human beings at last, realizing our spiritual potential as sentient beings, or irrevocably enslave us to the things of thought.

Let the androids have content-consciousness; human beings have bigger fish to fry.

Martin LeFevre

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