Human bodies married to metallic bodies—one complex system intertwining with another—happen with more frequency these days. Samsung revealed research this month on technology that would allow people with physical disabilities to control their TVs with their thoughts. Johnny Matheny became the first man to receive a robotically controlled arm earlier this year.
But in some ways, movement toward cyborg (cybernetic organism) applications sounds like a leap into dystopian science fiction. Businessman Elon Musk aims to connect the brain to computers, and one neurologist was even willing to hack his own brain to further research on human speech, hoping to one day attain life extension itself.
While recent advances in medical science have shown just how complex the human body is, and therefore how difficult this will be, computers continue to become more and more complex. The study of these two systems developing together over time is called cybernetics, a term coined by the mathematician-philosopher Norbert Wiener in an attempt to explain the newfound technological ability to “command and control” machines—including biological organisms.
Noreen Herzfeld, a professor who teaches at the intersection of life and tech at Saint John’s University and College of St. Benedict, spoke with CT recently about whether computers will one day control our human bodies, why embodiment matters, and how bodies and souls are a part of the human system. With degrees in both theology and computer science, she has written numerous books and articles, including In Our Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Spirit, Technology and Religion: Remaining Human in a Co-created World, and Religion and the New Technologies.
How does this idea of “system” speak to the near future with the closing of the gap between computer and human?
You could think of both the computer and the human as components of larger systems. You can also think of each of them, in and of themselves, as a system. We’re a system of blood and muscles and bones and mitochondria. The computer is like this at the software level; it is a system of interlocking programs.
The other idea inherent in cybernetics is that a system that has agency—actually does something—works towards a goal. Then comes the question: “Can a computer have a goal?” If we believe some of the AI fabulists, yes it can. It can only have its programmer’s goal. But once the programmer gives the goal to the computer, it is now the computer’s goal. So, the computer has a certain amount of agency even if it isn’t self-directed.
So, a computer having a goal gives it more human-like characteristics. Then what distinguishes a human?I recently argued that contemporary Christian theologians have placed too much emphasis on embodiment and we need to return to the soul. Both soul and body are necessary, yet how do we balance the discussion?
I agree with you that as theologians we could use a little more balance. On the other hand, when I put on my computer science hat, I am very strong on embodiment. Current thinking among many proponents of artificial intelligence and transhumanism is that we might be able to upload our brains to computers. And what they’re really introducing there is a new quasi-Cartesian dualism, that what matters about us is something that is entirely separable from our body. And I strongly disagree with that. I think that we need bodies in order to be in authentic relationship with one another.
Embodiment is very important, and it is also central to the whole Christian understanding of the incarnation and the importance of the incarnation. I think one of the things that Christianity brings to the discussion is this sanctification of our mortal flesh, of the material existence that we have, and this idea that divinity can penetrate that material existence.
I think in part it comes down to the question of emotion. Love stands at the center of Christianity—the great commandment that we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves. If we think of that love in terms of charity or empathy … well, empathy is that you see someone else’s difficulty; you feel an emotion, and you respond. If you skip the middle step, and you just see the difficulty and calculate what a response ought to be, you’re acting like a sociopath, who calculates rather than genuinely feels another’s pain. And it’s pretty hard to have a long-term, authentic relationship with a sociopath.
So then you say, “Well, how do you feel an emotion?” The psychologists who are working with the science of emotion say it actually has to be felt bodily. When something frightens us, our heart speeds up, we get physically ready for fight or flight long before the cerebral cortex kicks in and calculates what it is that is frightening us and what we ought to do. When we feel love for someone, there’s a bodily feeling there before there’s a calculation.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Douglas Estes