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Technology and the disappearance of the person

Technology and the disappearance of the person January 29, 2021

The achievements of technology for the enhancement of human life are rich in promise, pointing to a glorious future of health and happiness.

New gene-editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas9, nanotechnology advances in health care and continuing progress in neuroscience raise hopes of healing hitherto incurable defects or diseases.

To borrow an enthusiastic line from The Scientist on technological progress in restoring eyesight: “Scientists have accomplished what previously was saved for miracle workers.”

Surely, no one would want to gainsay the gift of alleviating suffering should science make the blind see and the lame walk through genetic engineering, brain implants or robotic prostheses.

We should not overlook, however, that our increasing focus on technology for alleviating human suffering is sustained by a worldview that alters our self-perception. Our immersion in technology goes hand in hand with the disappearance of the person.

Of course, to note the disappearance of something is to imply that we know what is missing. What exactly a person is, however, remains difficult to say. In “What Is a Person?” — one of the best modern books on the subject — the sociologist Christian Smith defines a person as follows:

“By person I mean a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who — as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions — exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world.”

Three features of the person in Smith’s definition are especially important. First, a person has a body. The spirit or presence of a human person exists only in bodily form.

Second, a person is a moral agent. Unlike other animals, human beings as persons can step outside their immediate environment and evaluate the world, themselves and others according to abstract ideals. This ability is the basis of the particular human quality of reasoning that makes possible art, literature, science and religion.

The third notable feature of Smith’s definition is the most crucial, because it takes us beyond the notion that human beings are merely rational animals. The human person is an “incommunicable self.”

That is to say, a person is not something exhausted by its definition — not merely the sum of certain characteristics. Or, said another way, a person is not like an onion, made up simply of layers of qualities, so that when we peel back the last feature, we hold nothing in our hands.

No doubt, certain abilities and features are always intrinsically part of a person, helping us identify someone as John, Ruth or Mary. Yet a person’s “incommunicable self,” as Smith says, cannot be captured by even the most complete list of characteristics. A person is not a something, consisting of many individual features, but a unique someone, who has, holds and inhabits those features.

The incommunicable self, a presence irreducible to any particular identifiable quantity or quality, is the essence of personhood. It is a mystery impossible to capture in concepts or words yet nonetheless real.

The only word that comes close to describing the presence of the person is “love,” defined as the will to promote another. Perhaps the best image to describe this love is the mother-child relationship. Ideally, from the first moment, a mother wills her child to flourish and ultimately become independent of her as another free, happy individual.

From the viewpoint of the child, this scenario also explains why the individual’s existence as a person has the fundamental quality of a gift. Each of us has been deeply shaped in our way of engaging the world by others. In this way, human consciousness is by definition reciprocal.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy, in his book “On the Origins of Cognitive Science,” recounts a story of a man and his wife, Holocaust survivors, who were reunited after their release from separate concentration camps. Six months later, the wife died from an illness contracted while in camp, throwing the husband into the deepest despair, seemingly incapable of continuing with life.

In therapy, the famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, himself a Holocaust survivor, asked the man, If God granted me the power to create an exact replica of your wife — including her memories and demeanor, so you could not distinguish her from the wife you lost — would you want me to do it?

After a long silence, the man stood up and said, “No thank you, doctor,” and left to start a new life.

What happened? The man realized that even the most perfect simulation still cannot capture the incommunicable self, the essence of unique love for another that makes us persons.

Yet this understanding of the person has disappeared in our present cultural obsession with technological solutions. A case in point is the transhumanist Ray Kurzweil, famous for predicting that by 2045 we will be able to upload our minds to computing platforms like the cloud.

Like Christian end-time prophets, Kurzweil keeps revising the date, but what interests me is the technological claim itself.

Will the day come when we upload our minds? I want to convince you that it will not, because mind uploading is premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of the human person.

It is important to note that by “mind” Kurzweil means our personality profile, a replica of our actual selves. His dilemma is touchingly similar to that of the Holocaust survivor who lost his wife: Kurzweil misses his father(link is external) and wants to bring him back by creating a computer replica of his personality.

How? By feeding into a computer all the data he has collected about his father: voice recordings, pictures, letters, musical compositions — hundreds of boxes of stuff.

Of course, even if this process worked, you would end up, not with a real person, but with a replica. Kurzweil’s answer is that this doesn’t matter, because even in living human beings, personal identity is really nothing but input and output patterns of information. And the brain is essentially a pattern recording and recognition machine, much like a computer.

Once visionaries like Kurzweil have reduced cognition to the brain and the brain to a biological machine, it is easy for them to imagine that we can reverse-engineer the brain and digitally remaster all its functions, that we can upload our unique self-identity to digital memory devices and then either enjoy a disembodied future or download ourselves into any kind of cool synthetic body that technology can provide.

Now, I don’t think we should lose any sleep over the possibility that the futuristic visions of transhumanism will become reality. No, the real issue is a battle for our imagination.

The more people like Kurzweil tell us our human identity is like the profile stored on our smartphones, the more we might actually believe this to be true. Look at the way we pour ourselves into our social media accounts.

The problem with Kurzweil’s concept of the person is that the human self, our personal identity, cannot be reduced to patterns of information exchange. Contrary to the claims of transhumanists, neither the brain nor human cognition works like a computer; they both depend utterly on an organic body.

We don’t negotiate the world as information-processing algorithms. No, we skillfully navigate a world of human meaning and dimensions based on our ensouled bodies.

Kurzweil has no trouble turning people into machines, because he already considers them to be machines. Kurzweil’s transhumanist dream is possible only if you believe in a stunted vision of the human person based on a computational, disembodied and individualistic view of consciousness.

In this view, true personhood has disappeared. Whatever the world Kurzweil envisions, it is not a human world dependent on the embodied, loving relationships that mark us as persons — and therefore made in God’s image.

This was first published in “Faith and Leadership”

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