Feb 202010

When Andrew asked the question, it didn’t appear to meet the philosophical dictates of our Socrates Café—a place where we explore the questions of our life by “remaining in the question.” The way Andrew posed it—what is life?—seemed to beg for an answer. I have read a fair amount about how science defines life, and those definitions are complex, technical and nearly endless. I felt totally incompetent to add to the conversation now firmly planted on the table in front of us.

But then we recalled the Native American traditions that taught us to think of everything as infused with life and giving all things the respect a living being deserves. Each rock, river, tree and animal added to their life and so was treated as part of that life.

Then Jean reminded us of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory in which he proposed the Earth itself is alive, and that each of us is a portion of that life force—elements of a much larger and more complex living system. Like the mitochondria that exist in our cells and enable cellular life to exist, everything is simply an essential part of the larger living being the indigenous people of the Andes reverently refer to as Pachamama—Mother Earth.

The conversation migrated to Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil believes computers will ultimately become more intelligent than humans, enabling them to create other machines more intelligent still. Taken to its extreme, Kurzweil talks about a technological singularity in which progress becomes so rapid the future becomes infinitely more unpredictable than it is even today. I have heard it said that Kurzweil hopes to live until such a time that computers have the capacity to reproduce the neural synapses from his brain, enabling him to “live” virtually forever. Do we call it life if a machine infused with the memories, intelligence, wisdom—and perhaps even the consciousness—of Ray Kurzweil? And if we do, and such a machine is unplugged, is it murder?

That led us to cybernetic organisms—cyborgs—that combine the natural with the man-made. At what point do humans relying on massive support from machines cease to be alive?

We even touched on the philosophical questions posed by our rapidly increasing understanding of genetics, including the possibility of eliminating disease and creating designer babies. What happens to the variety of human experiences when we can genetically engineer beauty, happiness and an end to suffering? What horrors will we rain down upon ourselves as we begin to forget the wisdom we can only realize through misery and suffering? Will we somehow forget the very meaning of generosity and humanitarianism? At what point do we transgress from being good to being God?

Today, a week after the Socrates Café, I am still animated by the conversation. I recalled the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn in which he suggested we are arrogant to think evolution continued unabated until Homo sapiens arrived…and there it came to an inglorious end. Is it possible that evolution continues and that we, by our invention of artificial intelligence, are now in some way its handmaiden?

So was “what is life?” an appropriate question for our philosophical inquiry? More than I ever imagined. We ended up uncovering some of the deeply philosophical questions the next couple of generations of humans must face and answer. They make our current debate over healthcare and taxes seem almost trivial by comparison.