“Prove you’re alive. If you don’t claim your humanity you will become a statistic. You have been warned.”
― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
I often ask myself what it means to be human. I don’t always have the same meaning each time I ask the question. Sometimes it’s a question of purpose. Why am I here? What is a worthwhile life to live? Sometimes it’s a question of substance or ontology. What exactly is a human? Does a human consist of the biological components that make them or is it the mind of such a being that is the actual entity? It’s interesting that in order to contemplate thoughts like this it’s necessary to live in a time and place in which I have the free time and energy to let my mind wander to such things. And ironically, it’s often thoughts of lamenting my place in the world that brings about these kinds of questions. I feel as though I haven’t fulfilled my own purpose and sometimes feel a lot of confusion as to how to do that. But I wouldn’t even have the freedom to contemplate these things if not for my privileged position. Then it’s a circle of guilt and unfulfillment. But that does no one any good.
I wrote in a previous post about my desire to one day have some type of robot body. The level of control over the physical container for my consciousness has a lot of appeal to me. I don’t have any serious issues with my biological body at the moment, but even at 36 I can feel the effects of time. I don’t have the energy I used to ten years ago. And as much as I’ve improved my diet and exercise habits since then no amount of maintenance will keep me from aging. I’ve been a fairly active person for a long time and the thought that it might someday not be possible is a scary one. But here’s where the question comes in. If it becomes possible to start replacing body parts or augmenting myself with technological advancements will that negate my loss of biological/physical ability? Let’s say I get some kind of mechanical knee replacement that eliminates the knee pain I sometimes have when biking or running. Awesome, now I can do those things without hurting. I also have a small broken bone in a joint in my foot that will never heal and is subject to sporadic inflammation. I can remove it (and the pain), but possibly cause more complications later on. Now let’s say that there is a replacement foot bone. This process of replacement could go on forever until I’m a collection of replacement parts, none of which are biological. The ship of Theseus debate. Let’s assume for the moment that my brain is the only original organ left in “me.” What does that mean for who I am? Am I still Jamie? I would assume that I would have more or less the same thought processes. But even though so much of what and how we think is determined by our brain chemistry studies are coming out all the time showing how much of our mood and impulses are rooted in parts of our body other than the brain. So again I ask, if I no longer have a physical body am I still the person I was before?
The problem with these questions is that it’s entirely subject. There is no way to tell how one will “feel” with some kind of analogue to a typical human body until they are experiencing it and can relate it for themselves. And that thought is terrifying. What kind of trauma would one experience to wake up in a strange body and realize they don’t feel like the person they did when they went to sleep. Especially if this is a one way deal. I don’t imagine the first humans to undergo this kind of mind (or brain) transfer will have the option for a quick reversal. And this feeling isn’t entirely foreign to some people today. There are those who deal with this feeling of their body being foreign to them on a daily basis. I have no idea how something like that must feel. And maybe getting the stories of people in those situations will help the future transhumanists to adapt.
Apart from the issue of robot bodies and brain transfers there is still the question of what does it mean to be a human being. When did the first human look up at the stars and ask him or herself why? Did it all start with language and our incessant categorization and classification? Or was there some instinct in pre-linguistic humanity that made them question? Is there a purpose any one person should be working towards? Is everything so chaotic and meaningless that it’s all arbitrary? I don’t know that there is a satisfactory answer that will envelope everyone. I think it’s something that everyone needs to answer to their own satisfaction. And not everyone will be able to reach that point of satisfaction. I definitely haven’t and don’t see the end of that line of questioning anywhere in the near future. I have been trying to embrace un-answers, incompleteness, and the nature of impermanence as it seems as though these principles underlie everything. I’m going to close this with a few lines from a song that I enjoy and seems very relevant. It’s one I mentioned in a previous post, John Congleton and the Nighty Nite’s Your Temporary Custodian:
And then there’s me, the temporary custodian
Of these particles, and free floating radicals
That convene for 80 years, that’s if I’m lucky though
Never been very lucky though
What an extraordinary thing it is to be this ordinary thing
A phenomenal nominal nominal nominal nothing