Quintessence of Glorious Dust

Yay! Death! part 3

At one point in his book, To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, after describing his encounters with certain transhumanists keen to inhabit robot bodies that would colonize the galaxy, Mark O’Connell reflects:
“Some essential element within me reacted with visceral distaste, even horror, to the prospect of becoming a machine. It seemed to me that to speak of colonizing the universe – of putting the universe to work on our projects – was to impose upon the meaningless void the deeper meaninglessness of our human insistence on meaning. I could imagine no greater absurdity, that is, than the insistence that everything be made to mean something.” (20)
Yes. Being who you are means making meaning in that particular way that you do. And that’s beautiful within the boundedness of its finitude. But to burst those bounds, to raise the prospect of subjecting everything to one particular way of meaning-making, is to lose meaning.

I am, then, so grateful for that boundedness, that finitude which frees me play my part without overrunning all the other parts. What has meaning in context, loses meaning when stripped of its context – and the context that allows our lives to have meaning is that they are so brief, so bound to particular place – and a single lifespan of time.

The transhumanists speak of “the sense of ourselves as trapped in the wrong sort of stuff, constrained by the material of our presence in the world.” (55) They therefore seek a “more suitable computational substrate.” But it is just this material constraint that gives us the context for making some meaning of ourselves.

Would it be “you” if you were uploaded into a robot’s computer brain? Yes, it would be “you” in the same sense that the mountains and rivers and stars are already you. It would be "you" in the same sense that it would also be "me." The other sense of you is rooted in the sinews and guts of your particular body, and to put your brain processes into a machine would be to create something as different from you as your child. It would, in some sense, be your child. But it wouldn’t be you. (Nor is the future self into which you are slowly, willy-nilly, turning, and of which you are also the parent, as Wordsworth recognized, writing, "The Child is father of the Man.")

For one thing, a human brain, being organic, is, for better or worse, unpredictable. Each one has its own style, its own predilections, but also has a fair amount of randomness built into it. We often find ourselves doing something, and we make up a story that makes the action seem like part of a coherent purpose. That’s often a story made up after the fact to rationalize some bit of randomness. Our brains are like a school of fish, or a murmuration of starlings “where elements interact and coalesce to form a single entity whose movements are inherently unpredictable.” One could, I suppose, build randomness into a computer emulation of your brain, but what seems to appeal to the transhumanists is getting rid of the flaw of our unpredictable randomness. Get rid of that, and an essential aspect of our humanness has been stripped away.

Our materiality, the randomness and surprise our “wetware” produces, the urgency and preciousness of life that comes from its brevity, the dying animal that we are: this is our glory and our part to play in the vast cosmos.

At the end of one of his chapters, Mark O’Connell describes being back home writing up his experience with one of the sects of transhumanism. He writes:
"What a piece of work is man, I thought. What a quintessence of dust. Some minutes later, my wife entered the bedroom on her hands and knees, our son on her back, gripping the collar of her shirt tight in his little fists. She was making clip-clop noises as she crawled forward, and he was laughing giddily, and shouting “Don’t buck! Don’t buck!” With a loud neighing sound, she arched her back and sent him tumbling gently into a row of shoes by the wall, and he screamed in delighted outrage, before climbing up again. None of this, I felt, could be rendered in code. None of this, I felt, could be run on any other substrate. Their beauty was bodily, in the most profound sense. I never loved my wife and our little boy more, I realized, than when I thought of them as mammals. I dragged myself, my animal body, out of bed to join them.” (68-69)
Blessed be.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Yay! Death!"
Part 1: Yearning for Immortality
Part 2: Two Epiphanies

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