Sunday, May 13, 2012

Anyone for Transhumanism?

William Sims Bainbridge's Across the Secular Abyss (2007) is a book well worth reading once, although we shall probably not return to it for a second reading.  Nonetheless, it might be worth referring to again because of its useful bibliography regarding secularization and related topics.

Bainbridge is on the side of the secularist and believes that secularization will triumph totally if science and technology succeed in solving the problems which make religious faith an attractive option for currently suffering humanity.  He is concerned, in fact, that the partisans of religion, fearing a coming triumph of secularism, will attempt to block the progress of science.   An example of this effort would be the campaign against stem cell research.

The first half of the book presents an interesting survey of the advance of secularism.  It is in the book's latter half where he becomes more controversial.  Arguing that the advance of cognitive science will bring an end to any pretensions of psychophysical dualism, the basis for religious faith, Bainbridge goes on to suggest that science and technology may pre-empt what has been religion's most attractive feature:  the promise of immortality.

Bainbridge believes that the development of a grouping of new technologies, led by cognitive science and nanotechnology, "really could develop technologies over the next century to archive, transfer, emulate, and indeed resurrect human personalities with the help of computers and biotechnology."   This type of personality transfer would be a kind of "cyberimmortality."  This cyberimmortality is being advocated by the Transhumanists.

This sounds a little like a technical version of reincarnation, the doctrine that in the distant past, at some time I do not know about, I was a different person, a person whose identity I can never know.  I have always wondered, irreverently, what would be the difference to me, today, if I were another person in the past and never knew about it?  

Getting back to the Transhumanists, I suspect that the main source of opposition to them may be not religion, but the masses of the people themselves, whether or not they believe in God.  Even an atheist must realize that such a technologically launched immortality could be made available only to a wealthy few because of the enormous costs involved.  To the common working bloke, which most of us are, it would seem to be the final injustice that the rich can buy immortality for themselves while the rest of us are wafted into oblivion.

In the concluding chapter, Bainbridge quotes the first paragraph of Lovecraft's famous story "The Call of Cthulhu" in an attempt to define the sense of horror that most folk will feel when all the results of scientific inquiry begin to be correlated and disseminated.  On that point, he may be more on target than anywhere else in his book. 

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