To Be As Gods

To Be As Gods January 19, 2008

I have to admit, I cringe when I read quotes like this:

Max may be a long way from his old home, but he plans on going a lot further than America. Extropianism is a “rational transhumanism”, he explains. There may not be any supernatural force in the universe, but pretty soon, suggests More, once we get our brain implants and robot bodies working, we will be as gods.

The linked article is about Max More, a philosopher who advocates transhumanism – the idea that we can use technology to transcend the present limits of human biology. Like most transhumanists, More advocates a potpourri of wildly optimistic ideas: freeze ourselves through cryogenics, make our bodies immortal, digitize and upload our minds to live in virtual worlds or robot bodies.

As far as I’m concerned, most of these speculations so far outstrip the limits of what is currently possible that there’s little point even thinking about them. In the very distant future, perhaps, these will be issues to seriously consider. For now, I think we should be concentrating on the many more pressing problems that can be alleviated by current technology. Once people are no longer dying from malnutrition or malaria, maybe then we can start considering how to make them immortal. In the meantime, most of this is just unconstrained fantasizing that distracts us from the things that are truly important.

However, it was something else about this article that bothered me more – the throwaway line about how “we will be as gods”. Nothing could appeal to me less. Frankly, I don’t want to be like the gods.

Consult just about any piece of mythology you wish, and you’ll find that gods are generally not very nice creatures. They’re jealous, sadistic, manipulative, capricious, petty, possessing overdeveloped egos and hair-trigger tempers, and hateful toward those who are different. They’re swift to anger, slow to forgive, and perpetually obsessed with whether people are groveling enough or paying them sufficient tribute. When it comes to dealing with those who disobey, violence is typically their first, last, and only resort. In short, they exemplify all the worst traits of the humans that created them, and few if any of our best traits. Why on earth would we want to be like them?

We are human beings. No matter how much knowledge we gain, no matter how much power we gain, we will always be human beings. We should not aspire to be gods, or anything else that we are not. We should aspire, instead, to be the best human beings we possibly can be – to cultivate what is best in our nature and encourage it to flourish. For all the evil that we have done, human beings are also capable of astonishing acts of mercy and benevolence. These are traits that are conspicuously absent in most of the stories of gods we read. We do not need to be forever aping our old mythologies; we have the ability to transcend their narrow perspective, and in many ways, we already have.

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