One of the themes in my articles has been the human’s awareness of his mortality. Humans, more than any other organism, have a unique level of consciousness as a result of their superior brain development and a corresponding unique concern about death. As a defense against death, humans have developed varying theories about the life of the spirit after death. But because there hasn’t seemed to be any definitive empirical evidence of this immortality that could be discovered while living this life, most people have developed the backup of surrogate immortalities of imprints made on the human field of experience and then preserved, so that they would survive in some form after their corporal deaths. I have pointed out that developing the technological structures present in our modern technological living environments was a means to lift people somehow above the organic perishability present in traditional living environments, so that they could be in vacuum environments where the human imprint could be more easily protected and preserved.
Nevertheless, for some people, the symbolic aspects of surrogate immortalities are not enough to satisfy their need for a certain real immortality. This article is going to deal with two distinct approaches that have been developed for creating some kind of certainty in a real immortality while in our present sensory world.
For some people, if they themselves are unable to pass over to an afterlife while they are living here on earth, at least perhaps there is a way for them to communicate with people who have already passed over. People are always trying to communicate with the dead, and they do it through mediums: people who become like empty vessels that dead spirits can use to communicate with other human beings. Kate and Margaret Fox were two girls in Hydeville, New York, who in 1848 started to become mediums for a spirit who inhabited the house in which they lived with their parents. The spirit communicated by using knocks in a kind of coded language. Margaret, the older sister, later admitted that the spirit communication was a fraud and the knockings or rappings were created by her own big toe as well as by the big toe of her sister Kate. This didn’t stop many people from continuing to believe in the sisters’ supposed spirit communication. As a matter of fact, it became the basis for a whole new religion called Spiritualism. The existence of this belief stimulated the activity of many other people who claimed to be mediums. Many famous people got swept up by Spiritualism. Arthur Conan Doyle, a man known for writing novels about a meticulous rational detective – Sherlocke Holmes – was a believer in Spiritualism. And Spiritualism was used not only to communicate with deceased family members, but with famous people from history as well.
Here was a way for people who weren’t content with surrogate immortalities as a certain continuation in some form of life after death. For those people who believed and continued to believe even after one of the Fox sisters admitted their communication with the dead was a fraud, the experiences with mediums increased their sense of certainty that there was a spirit life after death, and that one day they too could communicate through mediums with the living from the spirit world. Through mediums, it was as if people could temporarily jump over into the space where they would be living after they died.
Spiritualism represented an apex of activity in something that existed both before and after it was around as a major cultural force. Today, there is another vehicle for people seeking a form of confirmed real immortality. I am talking about the fascination with cyborgs – entities that are part human and part robot. There is a belief that people can go on forever, if only they have parts to replace those parts of their bodies that wear out. There is a sense of greater durability in parts made of plastic or metal instead of parts made of organic flesh. And organic flesh replacement parts are much more difficult to find. With plastic and metal parts, people can replace their decaying body parts, and replace them relatively easily again and again. In this way, a human organism could theoretically go on forever. Here the focus of immortality concern moves from a greater connection to the world of immortality in the afterlife, to the creation of a kind of immortality through technology here on earth. The spirit world was eternal, because it was a vacuum world. A vacuum world inhabited by vacuumized figures – spirits - that had just enough self-definition to qualify as distinct entities.
A different approach is the search for a purely material immortality by becoming a seemingly indestructible cyborg. Indestructible in the sense of somehow maintaining a core psychological human identity in spite of the need for replacement of material parts. But is this truly possible. Isn’t part of the foundation of coherent human consciousness based on having a primarily coherent sense of physicality. I am not talking here about the effects of the isolated knee replacement or heart valve replacement or prosthetic limb. Rather I am talking about the gradual replacement of many parts of a human body as they wear out.
And, in particular, what happens when a part of the brain is replaced with a mechanical implant. Scientists are already working on this to activate parts of a paralyzed person’s body, which seems like a very positive goal. But brain implants can be used for many purposes. For instance, not only control and manipulation of a paralyzed person’s limbs by the paralyzed person, but also control and manipulation of one person’s actions by another person. In a previous article, I argued that the mind was not the same as the brain, and that it was difficult to reduce all mental ideation to the cerebral activity that was observable in scientific experiments. In other words, there is still a mind-body dichotomy that nobody has been able to effectively resolve philosophically. That being said, the notion of a cyborg would certainly test the capacity of changes in the brain to affect mental ideation. Mind and brain are distinct phenomena, but, for sure, they are connected in some way within a person. I would suggest that replacing parts of a brain would have to impinge on human consciousness. A person would be mentally conscious of different foreign kinds of processes occurring in his reconstituted brain. With mechanical parts, there would be more defined discrete stimuli – more discrete data – and fewer organic blendable continual stimuli. Human consciousness could start perceiving its field of experience through a kind of internal screen with a content of pixelated figures. With pixilated figures in the cyborg’s field of experience, the world would be fragmented and ungrounded. And this would leave the cyborg vulnerable to control by people with more coherent wills. The cyborg could be subject to being programmed like a robot to perform actions that the human side would not necessarily choose to do.
So the cyborg would lose the coherent consciousness of a fully organic human being thinking and acting as an independent agent. The price of this kind of flow of immortal material continuity in this world is the loss of the coherent reflexive awareness that triggered the search for immortality in this world. The price of being this kind of entity – a cyborg – is a kind of living death.
There is a Russian multimillionaire named Dmitry Itskov who sees the concept of cyborg differently. He wants to make a digital copy of a person’s consciousness and personality and upload it to an avatar that could go on for thousands of years. This notion really begs the question of the mind-body dichotomy, but more than that, if by some chance it were workable, it would mean detaching a person’s mind completely from its organic grounding. It is truly a way to dehumanize a human in attempting to make him immortal.
This article has dealt with two different attempts to find confirmation of human immortality. One attempt has tried to find certainty of spiritual immortality in life after death. The other attempts to create a kind of material and psychological immortality in this world. In the first attempt, people have used belief over evidence to affirm that which cannot really be proved in this world. The second attempt has yet to be fully actualized, but, should it succeed, it would offer life without flavor, without vibrancy, without immediacy, without meaningful engagement in the external world. The human race has yet to demonstrate that the existence of a meaningful immortality is possible in this world.
(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow