A recent Time cover story, entitled “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal”, discusses, among other things, the prospect of computer technology providing a means by which humans can achieve eternal life. The idea is not new, of course, as philosophers of mind from Paul Churchland to Daniel Dennett have been entertaining the idea for decades. What struck me about this article, though, is the air of confidence among researchers such as Ray Kurzweil that this aim will be achieved, indeed that it is really inevitable. Such smug certainty recalls similar attitudes that dominated academe during the Enlightenment, where scholars seriously envisioned human mastery of nature, permanent world peace, and the total obliteration of hunger and poverty. Then came the 20th century…
Many researchers in artificial intelligence aren’t so bold as to predict that computer technology will one day give us eternal life. Yet many of them are no less confident that scientists will eventually create genuinely conscious minds, whose intelligence far exceeds our own. Some even forecast the day—perhaps only decades away—when human beings become obsolete and, in the words of Vernor Vinge, “the human era will be ended.”
Reflecting on this, the words of prophet Habakkuk come to mind:
Of what value is an idol, since man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies? For he who makes it trusts in his own creation. He makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!” Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’ Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it. But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him. (Hab. 2:18-20)
Okay, so 21st century science is far beyond working with mere wood and stone. Now we work with silicon and aluminum alloys. But today’s computer idolatry, what I like to call technidolatry, really amounts to the same thing: putting ultimate trust in the works of our own hands to solve life’s most pressing problems. Where will all of this lead? Who knows. One place I’m confident it won’t lead, though, is eternal life.