Ethics of Human Transcendence
The modern world is rapidly moving towards complete digitization. Currently, all the processes of business and personal life appear in bits and bytes, which can be easily seen in the contemporary IT trends. In particular, cloud technologies make unlimited computational resources available to everyone and everywhere. The majority of people own mobile devices that are always connected to the Internet. The desire to socialize, which is one of the basic human instincts, is fulfilled by social networks, where people practically live. Many items can now be printed on 3D-printers. The world is filled with robots and drones, which are used for work. Accessibility of data allows people to benefit from the huge amounts of information, and artificial intelligence becomes more complicated with each passing year. However, the emulation of the human brain or digitalization of consciousness is still on the verge of science fiction. The situation may change in the near future. Nevertheless, it is difficult to answer the question whether such procedure is worthy. Some perceive it as the next chapter of human evolution. However, the others fear that the promise of such digital immortality is exaggerated and that sending human consciousness into a virtual world without careful assessment of its consequences (ethical, spiritual, religious, etc.) can be catastrophic. Therefore, the following research focuses on the study of the process of digitalization of the human consciousness and the ethical implications it presents, as well as its potential impact on religion and spirituality. Additionally, the work covers the potential benefits of such digital immortality.
The problem of uploading the human consciousness into the computer has existed since the emergence of the information technologies. According to the prognoses of the scientists, the computers’ capabilities will match and even surpass those of a human brain by the year of 2045, marking the advent of the so-called technological singularity (Groff, 2015). As a result, people will be able to achieve physical immortality by digitizing their minds and living eternally in the cyberspace. Certain scientists, namely Ray Kurzweil, view human consciousness as a materialistically based concept (i.e. the one that is produced by a material object). This means that its features depend on the characteristics of its source, the human brain, namely its capacity and the ability to make calculations. As a result, in theory, the consciousness can be represented in the form of digital data and uploaded into the computer. However, this computer must be capable of emulating all the ways of thinking that are inherent in humans, as well as their emotions, ethical principles, etc. (Groff, 2015), which is unachievable at the moment. Moreover, even in the case such machine will be created, it will remain a physical mean of achieving immortality. Considering that the spiritual sphere of the human mind is an immaterial, intangible, and, most importantly, immeasurable concept, it is possible to say that it will be ignored during the process of digitization (Groff, 2015). As a result, one may assume that the pool of data that is a product of uploading of a person’s consciousness into the computer does not become a human. Indeed, the complexity of the human brain makes one question the possibility of its mapping and transition to a digitized form. However, even in case all the mentioned obstacles are bypassed, the consequences of such transition, as well as the reaction of the society to it, are difficult to predict. Thus, it is clear that this process presents many questions and problems that are yet to be answered and addressed, with some of them being discussed further.
The primary ethical issue presented by the digitization of the human consciousness is the fact that it makes meat (e.g. physical body) unnecessary (Vicini & Brazal, 2015). However, it is unclear whether the uploaded consciousness can be perceived as a human being. Of course, it is possible to argue that several liters of blood and several pounds of muscles and bones is not the factor that defines one’s humanity. Still, the questions regarding the applicability of the basic human rights to the consciousness that exists in the cyberspace are yet to be answered.
At the same time, it is clear that the process of uploading a person’s consciousness into the computer must be performed based on the informed consent. However, in the case it is the only way to save a human being (e.g. the child suffering from an incurable illness) and its relatives are against it due to their personal or religious views, an ethical dilemma mat arise (Delgado, Rommetveit, Barcelo, & Lemkow, 2012). This problem is especially relevant to the healthcare professionals that must always act in the interests of their patients and stick to a course of action that will lead to their recovery or ease their suffering.
Finally, uploading human minds into cyberspace may nullify the existing barriers between the good and the bad (Geraci, 2010). As a result, the behavioral patterns of a digitized person may change completely. In particular, there is no way to predict how the digital world may affect the consciousness of a human, who is no longer restrained by a physical body. One cannot exclude that the feeling of the unlimited power may result in the detachment from reality. Currently, there is no knowing in what way this might affect the society (both the contemporary and post-human one), but, as mentioned before, the lack of the assessment of such impact may lead to a catastrophe.
The emergence of the possibility to upload a person’s consciousness into the computer, as well as the possession of a physical body being a matter of choice instead of necessity is likely to have a significant impact on religious postulates. It may be even more significant than in the case of the scientific world. In particular, in Christianity, a man is perceived as a composite of material and spirit, i.e. a part of creation. Moreover, the fragility and weakness of human flesh serve as the sign of God’s power (Kraftchick, 2015). However, the digitization of human consciousness does not only make physical body obsolete but also places a person into a man-made environment, basically isolating it from the from the mentioned creation and, therefore, God. As a result, many of the existing religious postulates, such as the carnal sin, become irrelevant. On the contrary, as data, the uploaded human consciousness is likely to be at the mercy of an operator of the computer that is capable of altering and even deleting it. In other words, the entity that operates the system housing the digitized human consciousnesses becomes somewhat of an omnipotent deity, which contradicts the basis of the major existing religions.
Considering all everything mentioned above, it is difficult to predict the fate of religion in the digitized post-human society, but the two following outcomes seem to be the most realistic. In the first case, it will cease to exist due to the significant contradictions between the religious postulates and the new way of life. In the second case, it will be adapted to reflect the nature of the new society adequately. A vivid example of the last case is the Apocalyptic AI – an integration of religion, technology, and science. According to it, the digitized post-human world will no longer be dualistic (i.e. there will be no division into good and bad or biology and machinery) (Geraci, 2010). As a result, the principles that govern the life in it, including the religious postulates, will be completely different from the contemporary ones.
When talking about the impact that digital immortality will have on the religion, it is impossible to overlook its effect on the spirituality. According to the spiritual worldview, humans possess an immortal soul (spirit) that distinguishes them from all other living beings. However, being immaterial, intangible, and immeasurable substance, it cannot be studied using any of the existing scientific methods. As a result, there is no answer to the question whether the person’s spirit will be retained in the digital form, making the system it is uploaded into a living being that possesses self-awareness (Groff, 2015).
Some authors, including Mark Coeckelbergh, answer this question by stating that the Internet itself has a spirit. In human beings, the soul emerges because of the brainwork, similarly, the cyberspace, which can be referred to as an enormous mind, may also possess it. As a result, the consciousness of a particular person that is uploaded into a machine may be perceived as a human spirit that retains its individual peculiarities (Vicini & Brazal, 2015). At the same time, from the point of view of the Gnostic New Agers, entering the cyberspace will allow the people to explore their own inner sanctums. Being bodiless, humans will become purely spiritual in nature and without limitations imposed on them by their material bodies, and will be capable of creating a paradise connecting all the spheres of reality (Vicini & Brazal, 2015). Moreover, the concept of death as a process that separates physical and spiritual bodies of a person may also change. However, it is unclear whether the shutdown of the system will be an equivalent to death of a digitized human consciousness (Groff, 2015).
Benefits of the Digital Immortality
Despite all the above-mentioned implications, there is no denying that the digitization of human consciousness with its subsequent transfer to cyberspace has a number of benefits. First, death will no longer impose limitations on people, meaning that they will be able to deal with certain tasks that were unachievable before. It is especially important for the space exploration, which is associated with long-distance travels. Moreover, the absence of a physical body will eliminate the existing challenges regarding nutrition, sleep and waste disposal in the conditions of outer space, meaning that the payload of a starship will increase tremendously. Additionally, it will allow avoiding the biological changes caused by the reduced gravity, such as the elongated bodies and brittle bones (Groff, 2015). The absence of a physical body also eliminates the need for hospitals, schools, kindergartens, nursing homes, crematoriums and other facilities required for the maintenance of mortals. Finally, by being a part of cyberspace, and, therefore, the Internet, immortal people will have almost unlimited access to the required information (Groff, 2015). In combination with their infinite lifespan, this fact will result in them reaching a high degree of professionalism. In particular, no one can deny that in 200 years, it is much easier to become a competent and highly skilled lawyer than in 20 years. Moreover, the immortality will allow people to revise their attitude towards life. They will be more interested in the creation of a sustainable business or law-abiding behavior, which will benefit the society.
In a conclusion, it is possible to say that in theory the idea of uploading a person’s consciousness into cyberspace is very attractive. First, it renders physical body unnecessary, eliminating such problems as diseases and aging completely. Moreover, it greatly expands a person’s capabilities, making certain goals, namely the ones that require extended period to complete, achievable. However, there are many obstacles of both technological and ethical nature that stand on its path. First, it is unknown whether it is possible to retain humanity after the process of digitization. In particular, none of the contemporary technologies is capable of emulating the way of thinking that is inherent to humans, as well as their emotions and ethics. Moreover, even in case such technology is created, the complexity of a human brain makes the process of its digitization a difficult task. At the same time, the undefined status of a digitized person, a wide array of ethical implications and the unpredictability of the consequences of such digitization raises the question of feasibility of this process. Moreover, the impact it may have on the society (especially in the terms of religion and spirituality) is should not be underestimated as it may change the people’s attitude towards the world and themselves completely. Still, the information technologies develop at an extremely fast pace, and it is clear that someday, people will cross the barrier of mortality, achieving transcendence and marking the advent of a post-human society. However, it is possible to say that at its current stage of development, the humanity is not ready to enter the cyberspace and leave the material world behind for good even for the purpose of an eternal life.