A LOVE SUPREME

I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Something like a human

I left a comment over at Hesiak's post at Church and PoMo The Machine that got lost in the chatter of CAD software and other far more important conversations. My comment seems to have been dismissed because I challenged the notion that we can distinguish any longer between "human" and "machine." Most Christians seem to want to engage in what I believe is an antiquated notion that human and machine are two distinct entities. They debate whether a "machine" is good or bad, and have nice little sayings like, "the human should control the machine not the other way around." I believe the reality is that these lines are blurring more and more with each passing day.

So, I expanded my thoughts a bit, and I am reposting them here for your reading delight.

We humans are always "embodied." We are embodied creatures. It is our nature to be embodied. Even in the future, the Scriptures say that we will "clothed with our heavenly bodies." Even God, himself, always presents himself in some sort of bodied form, with the possible exception of mystic communion.

If we are embodied beings by nature, then the philosophical question that is becoming more relevant with each passing day is this: what happens when humans become more and more embodied as machines and machines start to become embodied as humans?

For example, as I type out this post, I am assuming a new body. The fact that I am a 6'1" male with a thin frame does not matter, anymore. My "body" is no longer my body in the traditional sense. I have assumed a new body. I use the keyboard to type out a post that I think is rather clever, and I then count on the machine to embody my words and thoughts and take them into an online dialog where I can now conversate with other "bodies" from all over the world.

We can apply the same example to other forms of technology: phone conversations, text messaging, artificial limbs, glasses, various forms of repair surgeries. Even the clothing we wear is a form of a machine. No one goes out to kill an animal, skin it, and wear its hide on their backs! We buy clothing made by machines. Shoes, in particular, are very highly technological these days, and they continue to improve everyday. Without the advances of shoe technology, we could not run as far or as fast as we run. Shoe technology amplifies our ability to perform. In addition, there is a real sense in which our technology (shoes) takes us out of contact with the real world: our "real" physical feet do not actually have to touch the "real" ground, meaning that we no longer need to physically connect with the actual, real world.

So, what is "real," anymore? Who knows? Who even cares???

Another example of how the lines are blurring between "human" and "machine" is the Nintendo Wii. It is now possible to take on a new body that participates on an online game. The cool thing here is that we can control the physical movements by making similar physical movements, ourselves. The web creates a virtual world for our virtual bodies to participate with other virtual bodies in a game. As technology continues to progress, this virtual reality will feel more and more real. Anyone care to speculate the moral questions that will arise as the porn industry capitalizes on this kind of online technology?



Comcast had a television commercial about televisiphonernetting: Using the television, phone, and internet at the same time. In this case, a person is embodied in multiple realities simultaneously. The brain is splitting itself into several conversations at the same time. (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? Do we now have the experiential basis for a new theological model for the possibility of "one in essence, three in persons"?)

Along these same lines, I have heard the term "zoning" used: Mentally switiching between very diverse bodies and realities. A person can seamlessly move from a deep relational conversation with a boyfriend or girlfriend into a television show into emailing friends into myspace into philosophical reading into blogging on politics. The point is, if we move our minds quickly between (and sometime simultaneous with) different realities, then the ability to sustain real reflection seems to be a major challenge. We just "zone" from one reality to another.

In sum, it is not at all clear what is "machine" and what is "human." Humans are more and more technological, which means that we more and more resemble machines. Machines are also becoming more human: various machines can now speak, see, taste, touch, smell, and hear. Machines and humans are adapting themselves to each other for a new convergence called "virtual reality."

Skip LaCour, a bodybuilder and motivational speaker says, "Your body is a machine." And he encourages us to think of food as "clean fuel." Yet another example of the union between human and machine. These days many of us even look like machines: just observe a group of people working out; they have wires coming out of their ears and arms and shiny silver feet!

We have turned ourselves into Frankenstein and there is really no turning back. Distinguishing between "human" and "machine" is still important, but it is futile to truly draw a dichotomy that holds. In other words, I am suggesting that there is no longer a pure "human" reality, and as time progresses this becomes less and less the case.



So, the philosophical question is this: is a purely human reality even all that desirable? Perhaps Mary Shelley wrote a good novel, but her warning against "playing God" is over-reacting.

At the beginning of the movie Gattacca, they quote Qohelet, "No one can straighten what God has made crooked." In other words, there is a sense in which God got us into this mess, and there's no fixing it. Perhaps there is no pristine "natural." Perhaps it is all a mess, subject to the unnerving effects of Qohelet's "hevel," and our humanity is somehow defined, in large part, by the messiness and undefinable nature of our existence.

Data, the android on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is constantly trying to find out what makes a human being human. He attempts various experiments and theories in order to understand humanness. One such theory is that a human being is capable of "love." Of course, as someone who believes love is essentially undefinable, I'm not sure that this solves the problem!

Being human means understanding something about humanness that is undefinable. We can't say what it is to be human, but we just kind of know what it is. And we kind of understand who other humans are. So, as humans become machines and machines become human, I suggest the following test for humanness: anything that can understand what it means to be human is human....well, or at least they are something like a human!

20 comments:

Melody said...

How does the fact that we use machines blur the line between human and machine any more than using a rake blurs the line between human and tool or than eating veggies blurs the line between human and plant?

We're always going to dependent on something, that doesn't make us the something.

Emily said...

I agree w/ Melody.

In my mind, this human vs. not-human conversation is simple: if you are human, you have a soul. That soul will either end up in heaven or hell upon your death. Machines do not have souls and their "lives" are limited to this earth. If you have a human mother and a human father, you are human. Anyone who might be confused about this must have missed out on "the talk" growing up.

Ken said...

Sounds like your inches away from buying into "The Matrix" philosophy. :P

And as a sidenote, there are many in this world who run faster than the majority of Americans and do not wear shoes! Namely - many in Africa.
Global and multicultural perspectives are needed in the study of humanity, not just western culture.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ken, Africans runners do wear shoes!

I did a Google search and found a website dedicated to sending shoes to Africa: Shoes4Africa

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody,

I think I provided multiple examples of how technology transforms us and gives us a different type of body in a different type of reality. It is not merely the use of technology that is blurring the lines; however, I will still stand by my thought: dependency on something transforms us into that something. Ever heard of the phrase, "You are what you eat"? Try a month of the Super Size McD's diet and let me know if you change your mind and decide that you very closely and intimately connected with the food that you eat.

Melody said...

I think I provided multiple examples of how technology transforms us and gives us a different type of body in a different type of reality.

And you're entitled to have those thoughts, but I don't see the tranformation. The computer is not an extension of me - it is a device, an incredibly handy device, but a device only.

It is not merely the use of technology that is blurring the lines; however, I will still stand by my thought: dependency on something transforms us into that something.

Ludicrous. My roommate's tiny dog is quite dependent on my roommate and occasionaly, when I cannot prevent it, my self. The dog has yet to develope any distinctly human characteristics.

Ever heard of the phrase, "You are what you eat"? Try a month of the Super Size McD's diet and let me know if you change your mind and decide that you very closely and intimately connected with the food that you eat.

No one's denying that the things we interact with have an affect on us. But there is a difference between saying, "Severing heads with a hacksaw changes indivuals" and putting forth that, "When one severs heads with a hacksaw, one becomes a hacksaw."

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody, you are arguing based on the premise that rejecting; namely, that there is a distinction between human and machine and that we can tell the difference as easily as we can distinguish between black and white. Conveniently, you have not commented on gray area examples, particularly the Nintendo Wii. So, essentially our dialogue reduces to both sides saying, "No, you're wrong and I am right."

Machines are "devices." But the discussion is more difficult than this. The devices are developing new bodies for us (back to the Wii example) and ushering us into new realities that are nonphysical and nonspacial. So, if I am using a virtal body in a virtual reality, am I really "human" or "machine"? The distinctions start to blur. I think we would all agree that it is still "me," but it is a different sort of "me."

Melody said...

The Wii is just a Nintendo with a wand thing. I don't see how that area is any more gray than super nintendo with traditional controllers, or a boardgame with player-markers and dice.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Here is a reprint of a section of my post. I kind of think maybe you missed it:

Another example of how the lines are blurring between "human" and "machine" is the Nintendo Wii. It is now possible to take on a new body that participates on an online game. The cool thing here is that we can control the physical movements by making similar physical movements, ourselves. The web creates a virtual world for our virtual bodies to participate with other virtual bodies in a game. As technology continues to progress, this virtual reality will feel more and more real. Anyone care to speculate the moral questions that will arise as the porn industry capitalizes on this kind of online technology?

By playing Wii ONLINE (an important distinction from former Nintendo games) one can assume new bodies and interact in new (though nonspacial) realities.

Melody said...

Ok - I did miss the online part, but even so, I still just don't understand how you're drawing your conclusions.

To me, there seems to be a serious gap between controlling an online character and somehow blurring the lines between human and machine.

I don't understand how controlling the online character in the online setting blurs this line. What line are we blurring here?

ktismatics said...

I think the most significant point in this post is that nobody responded to Erdman's comment at Church and PoMo so he had to restage his brilliance here. The fact that nobody here agrees with his position probably makes him wish he'd left well enough alone. Hmm... how to cheer him up? I know: Good points Erdman, nice post.

daniel said...

One of the first examples of what interests you Jon is in music.
Musical instruments emulate and replace the voice, and become something other than the human voice while retaining a vocal quality both in intent and somehow in meaning. Music often plays on this where the human voice is combined with instruments, and this continues into the realm of digital music technology with novel ways of blurring the distinction between musical instruments and the human voice.

One of the first questions I would ask you is this: so, God made us in His image and embodies us to love Him, and to love one another as we love ourselves. What do we embody our creations for? Not to love us... but to do things for us and for one another.

IMO, we see the shift from a value for relationship to task orientation in our selfish and greedy use of technology. How many friends does one make with Wii compared to a good old fashioned game of tennis?

Even tennis can get in the way of friendship. What about just hanging out and not doing anything? Just getting to know one another. Women seem to be better at this than men... and machines.

ktismatics said...

I've been thinking about your man-machine synergy idea a little bit. Socrates was worried that writing would result in the atrophying of human memory and reasoning -- so in effect he regarded the written word as a kind of machine. Doubtless there were contemporaries of Socrates who advocated the written word as an adjunct to human intelligence rather than a replacement for it.

Probably humans have always had an ambivalent response to technology. Judeo-Christians also live under the shadow of a creation story in which God is the only real creator, while human creative initiative seems either fake or rebellious.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Daniel: How many friends does one make with Wii compared to a good old fashioned game of tennis?

Virtual friends?

I'm not sure how that works.

Sounds like you're a bit skeptical, eh? When you are an old man, I think you may be saying things like, "When I was young, we didn't have internet. Why, we only had flesh and blood friends!"

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics: I've been thinking about your man-machine synergy idea a little bit. Socrates was worried that writing would result in the atrophying of human memory and reasoning

Ah, yes!

If he could only see us now!

I think there is a definite loss in cognitive function....so, I think there is a sense in which I agree with Socrates. However, is this a "bad" thing? Or something to bemoan??? I think it is simply the human mind adapting to a new form of life, thinking, and communicating. Perhaps we have not really lost reasoning capacity but are now reasoning in a different way with new goals and objectives.

Also, with ipods and podcasting, will the spoken word come back into style???

Jonathan Erdman said...

"The old way of targeting was by demographics. This has probably been beaten into marketers' heads because it tends to be the way to buy media. Not in the new marketing. Now the Web helps us map behavior (on the Web itself) very closely. Age, sex, educational level, income, and other demographic indicators do not even register online....As the famous New Yorker cartoon pointed out, on the Web, nobody knows if you're a dog." [p. 36 of Marketing to the Social Web (2007) by Larry Weber]

The citation about nobody knows if you're a dog was interesting to me, because it goes back to the point about our "real" physical bodies not being as relevant anymore. We embody ourselves in a new, internet body where things like sex, race, age, etc. no longer matter. We are what we say we are. We are defined by our interests.

daniel said...

Well, all I can add is that I appreciate the friends I have made here, Jon, Ktismatics, Emily, Melody, Sam, and others.

Wouldn't it be great to be all sitting together in a living room holding conversation...

or should I let go of such dreams Jon?

It seems that translating a virtual friendship into a real life friendship is often where the difficulty lies, lots of those attempts fail (eg. the stereotypical internet marriage).

So maybe there shouldn't be a false comparison made and we chould try and appreciate virtual friendships for what they are, and learn to be better virtual friends and improve our communication skills etc.

Even this can't explain the insanity of those little virtual gifts on facebook?

Many people I feel though and myself included must acknowledge the tendency to escape from the pressures of real life relationships to seek comfort in the world of online friendships, which can lead to lack of growth in the relationships with those (physically) closest to you.

Melody said...

It seems that translating a virtual friendship into a real life friendship is often where the difficulty lies, lots of those attempts fail

They do? Got any stats on that or is it just your opinion/experience? Mine runs the opposite direction.

Even this can't explain the insanity of those little virtual gifts on facebook?

So true. I'm not actually sure what would compell anyone to pay a dollar for a virtual smoothie/teddy bear/necklace/whatever.

Many people I feel though and myself included must acknowledge the tendency to escape from the pressures of real life relationships to seek comfort in the world of online friendships, which can lead to lack of growth in the relationships with those (physically) closest to you.

Again, I would dissagree, but perhaps that's because I've always used the internet as filler rather than an escape - so if I weren't doing that I'd be reading a book, watching tv, drawing...you get the idea.

Personally, though I don't see how it can be much an escape. People do pour their little bleeding hearts out all over the message boards and so often you're dealing with much more emotion than you'd ever get just talking to your friends, because there's a limit to the number of problems that it is possible for my friends to have.The internet goes on forever with endless people and problems.

It's actually kind of depressing if you talk to the wrong people too much.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics scorns me for my theory that online therapy could be superior to "real life" therapy.

Melody: . People do pour their little bleeding hearts out all over the message boards and so often you're dealing with much more emotion than you'd ever get just talking to your friend.

Melody said...

Ktismatics scorns me for my theory that online therapy could be superior to "real life" therapy.

I don't know about superior, but I can see it working out for some people.