Imagine a future where we have convinced ourselves that everything we know and experience can be reduced down to some chemical process or explained away as ultimately insignificant. In this world, there is nothing truly unique about us, our families, or the world around us. We are merely highly-evolved sets of matter, and everything including our emotions, spirituality, and desires can be explained away as a chemical reaction in our brains. Our minds and bodies are not intricately connected; our mortal bodies simply serve as containers for our minds, which can be transferred from one place to another via a technique called “mind uploading.”
A couple of weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from a new book by neuroscientist and psychologist Michael S.A. Graziano, who teaches at Princeton University, titled Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience. Graziano argues that we are much closer to the ability to upload a human mind than many might think because we have already been able to create artificial brains, albeit on a small scale, and are now trying to overcome the second hurdle of scanning a human brain.
Old questions with a new twist
In this excerpt, Graziano asked some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of man and philosophical questions about the real “you” in a world of digital copies and simulations produced through mind uploading. Lest we think this conversation is for doctors and ivory-tower academics only, the questions being asked are the same types of questions that humanity has always wrestled with. The difference now is the perceived possibilities that have arisen in light of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics.
From the beginning, man has sought to challenge God by arguing that we know better than the creator of the universe. In Genesis, we read that God created everything, including us as his unique image-bearers (Gen. 1:26-27). But by Genesis 3, humanity had already sought to resist the created order and question the goodness of God. Questions of “Did God really say?” and thoughts of I know better than God originated in the garden, where we exchanged the truth of God for the lie that we must know better.
From the beginning, man has sought to challenge God by arguing that we know better than the creator of the universe.
In the early Christian church, there was a popular belief, known as gnosticism, among many that our minds and souls were much more valuable than our bodies. Gnosticism is the belief that the material world is inherently evil and corrupt, but souls are inherently good. This led many to treat the body as less than, thus viewing death as freeing us from the container that held us for so long. In modern-day belief, this segmentation of humanity takes a new form where the mind is seen as the real “you.” The body is only valuable as the hardware that’s holding the software of the real you. And it’s believed that our minds can thus be uploaded to the “cloud” in order to live in a digital afterlife without the shackles of the fleshly body.
Downgrading our dignity
The Bible teaches something very different from the heresy of gnosticism. We see throughout Scripture how the body is to be valued and honored, not viewed merely as a container for our minds but upheld as an integral part of who we really are. The best example of this is seen in the person and work of our Savior. Jesus Christ took on human flesh, became man, and dwelt among us (John 1:4). Jesus lived the perfect human life in full obedience to his Father and demonstrated the value of the soul and body as a connected whole when he was murdered and raised from the dead. The resurrection shows us that the flesh that so many disregard in light of modern technology is actually an integral part of who we are. We are not fully human without our bodies. Christ was not raised from the dead in some spiritual sense (1 Cor. 15:20-21). He is still and will forever be the incarnate Son of God who told Thomas to touch his wounds and know that he is real (John 20:27)
Christianity teaches that our flesh is indeed broken. And the desire to want to escape our bodies is understandable in a world of so much suffering. But the hope that we have as Christians is that our bodies can and will be redeemed by the finished work of Christ on the cross (Rev. 21:4-5). We will live in eternal communion with our Savior in resurrected bodies. So to answer the question that Graizano asked throughout his essay, the real you is the embodied you. While we may be able to make a copy of our brains in the future, our minds are not who we really are. We’re much more than some materialist version of the self.
Testing the spirits
In our modern world of technological wonders and advancements, it’s easy for us to get caught up in the hype of what’s coming around the corner. We see new marvels almost every day that shatter what we believed was possible. We grow accustomed to these advances and often take those with credentials at their word when they dream of what might be. But Christians are people of the book. 1 John 4:1 tells us that we are not to believe every spirit in this world, but are to test the spirit to make sure they are of God. It’s tempting in our technology-rich society to be swayed from the truth of God, and we will be if we aren’t anchored to the Word of the everlasting God.
Even as many like famed computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, technologist Elon Musk, and Graziano promote the idea of uploading our minds and escaping the confines of our fleshly existence, we must seek to test the theories they promote against the truth of Scripture and what God has already spoken. Our faith demands it. Furthermore, much of what is considered settled fact in science takes massive steps of faith on the part of those who hold to these beliefs. Many problems with this line of thinking still exist such as the question of consciousness, simply knowing you exist or “thinking about thinking,” as well as the foundation of morality and ethics in a materialistic world. I look forward to Graziano’s full work on consciousness and how he deals with these questions.
We must engage in honest dialogue with one another about these pressing issues and perennial questions. It’s easy for us to outsource deep reflection to others with advanced degrees because we don’t feel equipped to pose the tough, but needed questions. But the Christian life isn’t one of shallow faith or belief. Throughout the New Testament, we see leaders like Paul, John, and Peter challenging the Church to rise up and engage the philosophical debates of the day with the truth of God’s Word. May we take up that call to engage the world around us as it is rather than how we wish it to be. Let’s step out in faith, asking the hard questions, and ultimately find our hope in the One that took on flesh and dwelt among us to save us from our unbelief.