Transcendence vs. Modification

I recently read an article on Wired that highlighted the growing trend of body hackers who perform self surgery to add modifications to their own bodies.  Some of these additions literally give the hackers new senses and abilities such as being able to control your digestion, see in different wavelengths of light, feel the shape of an electromagnetic field, or sense the direction of magnetic north.

The one big problem with these types of modifications is that no licensed doctor will perform them because they are seen as not being medically necessary.  This could open up a whole line of argument about what it means to call some procedures medically necessary and others not.

In any case, while I do not applaud the hackers disregard for their own safety I do recognize their drive and passion for pushing boundaries and exploring the new, which is a rare thing these days.  So while I am intrigued by the level of technology involved in these modifications and I think that in the future this will become more common and accepted by our larger culture.  I am also disturbed by the spiritual implications that these surgeries and their intended purpose bring up.

First off, by spiritual implications I do not mean to suggest that these types of body modifications or others such as putting ID chips in our hands are a sign of the end times.  While they may not on the whole be a healthy sign for our culture I don’t believe that they are a problem by themselves.  People have been modifying their bodies as long as there have been people.  I don’t believe that these types of modifications are inherently different than adding pacemakers or artificial limbs to our bodies.  While there may be many valid concerns of privacy, safety, and equity in this arena I do not believe that our souls are in danger if we modify our bodies.

That being said, I am troubled by the idea that modifying our bodies alone can somehow lead to transcending our humanity.  These body hackers are part of a growing “transhumanist” movement, and while I understand that they are transcending many of humanities’ past natural physical limits they are by no means changing what it means to be human.  No matter the body or the abilities of said body our human soul is above all what defines us as humans.  This is a lesson that we are still learning or perhaps are relearning in the 21st century.  We are not defined by our physical differences or modifications, but rather by our inherent value as human beings and as children of God.  Again while I am not against these types of modifications in principal, especially if they can be done safely, I do wish that people and our culture in general spent as much time and energy as we do on our physical selves on our spiritual selves as well.

You can read the full Wired Article here.

-Kevin

Kevin’s Top 50 Sci-fi Movies

Despite the biased nature of this list I tried to primarily include groundbreaking films that changed the industry and had a strong moral or thought provoking point.

15. The Fifth Element, 1997 (PG-13):  Space Opera with an actual opera scene in space.  The fifth element is love, which shines in the night and pushes back the darkness.  Overall, it was a fun look at the future.

Priest Vito Cornelius: “Because it is evil, absolutely evil.”
President Lindberg: “One more reason to shoot first.”
Priest Vito Cornelius: “Evil begets evil, Mr. President. Shooting will only make it stronger.”

14. Bicentennial Man, 1999 (PG):  A fascinating movie that despite some pacing and scripting issues deeply explores what it means to be human and to become human.  Also based on an Asimov short story.

Andrew Martin: “In a sense I have. I am growing old, my body is deteriorating, and like all of you, will eventually cease to function. As a robot, I could have lived forever. But I tell you all today, I would rather die a man, than live for all eternity a machine.”

President Marjorie Bota: “Why do you want this?”

Andrew Martin: “To be acknowledged for who and what I am, no more, no less. Not for acclaim, not for approval, but, the simple truth of that recognition. This has been the elemental drive of my existence, and it must be achieved, if I am to live or die with dignity.”

13. The Abyss, 1989 (PG-13):  A film with everything.  Complex characters, special effects, and exploration of the final frontier: the oceans.  At first it seems like it’s a run of the mill action/disaster movie, but it quickly gets much deeper in more ways than one.  Lessons learned: nitrogen bubbles in your blood can make you crazy, and deep water oil drilling is dangerous…too late.

Lindsey Brigman: So, raise your hand if you thought that was a Russian water tentacle.

12. Alien, 1979 (R):  A true classic of both horror and sci-fi.  It explores our deepest fears  about the unknown both within (literally) and without.  It also contains many classic scenes and characters and in my opinion this movie holds up and is one of the least dated of almost any other movie from this time period.  “In space no one can hear you scream.”

Ripley: “Ash, that transmission… Mother’s deciphered part of it. It doesn’t look like an S.O.S.”
Ash: “What is it, then?”
Ripley: “Well, I… it looks like a warning. I’m gonna go out after them.”
Ash: “What’s the point? I mean by the, the time it takes to get there, you’ll… they’ll know if it’s a warning or not, yes?”

11. The Empire Strikes Back, 1980 (PG): Far and above the best of the Star Wars movies.  This has it all from romance to lightsaber duals.  I still remember the moment where Darth Vader reveals the nature of his relationship to Luke.  What sets this movie far and above the rest of the saga is really the depth of the story and the character development that all of the characters go through.

Yoda: “Stopped they must be; on this all depends. Only a fully trained Jedi Knight, with the Force as his ally, will conquer Vader and his Emperor. If you end your training now – if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did – you will become an agent of evil.”

10. Children of Men, 2006 (R): A more recent movie that explores an apocalyptic future where hope takes the form of a baby, the first baby to be conceived in over 18 years.

Theodore Faron: “I can’t really remember when I last had any hope, and I certainly can’t remember when anyone else did either. Because really, since women stopped being able to have babies, what’s left to hope for?”

9. Pandorum, 2009 (R): An amazing exploration of the depths of space and the depths of the human soul.  It also takes an interesting look at what happens when man plays god.

Payton: “I can’t remember any of my life before this flight began.”

8. The Fountain, 2006 (R): Directed by Darren Aronofsky The Fountain explores life, death, and rebirth in three different time periods.  Throughout the narrative it jumps from a Spanish conquistador in 1500, to a scientist in 2000, to an astronaut in 2500 all exploring the purpose of life and death.  The cinematography is also beautiful and breathtaking along with the story.

Tom Creo: “Death is a disease, it’s like any other. And there’s a cure. A cure – and I will find it.”

7. Akira, 1987 (R): An animated film about a post-apocalyptic Tokyo where the government is developing psychic children to be used as weapons.  Some of the children are immensely powerful and quickly escape the bounds of their program wrecking havoc in the city.  Akira also largely brought Japanese anime to the US in the ’90s.

Kiyoko: “The future is not a straight line. It is filled with many crossroads. There must be a future that we can choose for ourselves.”

6. Primer, 2004 (PG-13): A scientifically sound and very complex movie that was released in only a few theaters but is definitely one to catch on DVD.  It involves two part time inventors who invent a time machine that allows them to travel back in time six hours repeating a part of each day.

Aaron: “You got anything to eat? I haven’t eaten anything since later this afternoon.”

5. Forbidden Planet, 1956: The oldest on my list and a true classic.  Based partly on Shakespeare’s The Tempest this groundbreaking film takes place on an alien world with Robby the robot, a human crew in a flying saucer, and a real monster from the Id.

Commander John J. Adams: Alta, about a million years from now the human race will have crawled up to where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and tragedy. And your father’s name will shine again like a beacon in the galaxy. It’s true, it will remind us that we are, after all, not God.

4. Gattaca, 1997 (PG-13): A man classified as flawed due to his genetic makeup fights the system and tries to make more of himself than people expect from him.  There is no gene for the human spirit.

Vincent: You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back.

Vincent: For someone who was never meant for this world, I must confess I’m suddenly having a hard time leaving it. Of course, they say every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I’m not leaving… maybe I’m going home.

3. Blade Runner, 1982 (R): Deckard, a blade runner, must hunt down 6 violent replicants (androids) in this thought provoking sci-fi thriller loosely based on a Philip K. Dick short story and directed by Ridley Scott.  Blade Runner was truly groundbreaking combining cyberpunk with film noir and many other influences.  Besides its significance to the genre and to the history of film in general it is also a great movie in its own right exploring artificial life and the nature of what it means to be human.

Deckard: “She doesn’t know.”
Tyrell: “She’s beginning to suspect, I think.”
Deckard: “Suspect? How can it not know what it is?”

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968 (G): Mankind finds a mysterious, obviously artificial, artifact buried on the moon and, with the intelligent computer HAL, sets off on a quest to find their destiny.

Dave Bowman: “Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?”
HAL: “Affirmative, Dave. I read you.”
Dave Bowman: “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”
HAL: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
Dave Bowman: “What’s the problem?”
HAL: “I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.”

1. The Matrix, 1999 (R): I still remember the shock when I realized what the Matrix truly was.  This movie has great action, writing, and special effects and it delves into many deep ideas touching on many aspects of our lives.  In many ways the essential question of the matrix is the question that we must answer every day:  Do we take the blue pill and stay in a false world, or do we take the red pill and see just how deep the rabbit hole goes?

Morpheus: “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”

Neo:”What truth?”

Morpheus: “That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.”

A Created Universe: A Reflection on Stephen Hawking’s A Grand Design

This is not a review of Stephen Hawking’s A Grand Design, which I have not read in full yet, but rather a reflection on the crossroads of belief and fact.  One theme prevalent throughout much of science fiction is the conflict over differing views of the universe between believers and scientists.  Unfortunately, this contrast is often shown as part of a dichotomy as if it were an either/or choice and not a natural blending of the spiritual and the physical.  Stephen Hawking’s recent work lines up with this oppositional perspective using the tools of science to probe into the questions of God, faith, and creation as if they can be answered with experiments and mathematics.

From Hawking’s perspective it seems that the entire validity of God and thousands of years of religious belief rest on whether our current scientific understanding of the creation of the universe has any room, or rather, any need for God.  Ignoring for now the obvious scientific problem of trying to understand a transcendent God ultimately outside of space and time Hawking also relegates God to the unknown parts of our universe as if our further understanding pushes God away instead of revealing his handiwork in all its grandeur and beauty.  This understanding ultimately casts God solely in the role of a watchmaker creating the universe and then letting it run on its own.

In his new book Hawking has come to the conclusion, based on new theories and equations that describe the first moments of the universe, that the universe no longer needs a creator to have been created.  Hawking writes, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”  I cannot hope nor do I wish to challenge Hawking’s mastery of physics and mathematics, but I do challenge his interpretation of his findings.  He may be able to explain through physics how our universe may have come into being, but he has not answered why we are here.  Science is fundamentally blind to the moment before creation.  From our current understanding of the moment of creation anything before it would have existed outside of our perspective of space and time and is pure conjecture based not on science but on faith.

The other main point that Hawking uses to challenge the existence of God is that because planets orbiting other stars have been discovered the Earth and humanity are far less special on a cosmic scale than we previously thought.  Here Hawking seems to be operating under the belief that since the Copernican Model of our solar system, which correctly placed the sun at the center of our stellar system, was published in 1543 the ignorance of living in God and faith has been slowly whittled away by fact and reason.  However, this is also a matter of belief and interpretation.  While some Atheists, and unfortunately some Christians too, believe that scientific discoveries about our world are victories for reason and defeats for religion I have never understood this view.

While we must always be careful of the few scientists out there who are actively trying to interpret their findings to disprove God, they are I believe not the majority of scientists, and science at its core is a tool to understand our universe and our place in it.  It is a twisted faith that can be eroded away simply because true science brings us closer to understanding our universe and the laws that govern its workings.   It is not fundamental to Christianity that the Earth be the center of the universe, nor does Christianity hinge on the size or age of the universe.  Frankly, to an infinite God any size universe is small in comparison.  It is short sited to reject observation and true science and to confuse true revelation and belief in God with an incorrect understanding of the world.  For instance, Georges Lemaître, an astronomer and catholic priest, first proposed what became known as the big bang theory.  Before this theory many physicists rejected the idea of the universe having a beginning in time, but now this theory is very widely excepted by most scientists and believers.  Contrary to popular belief the Catholic Church and many other denominations and religious institutions were quick to accept the big bang theory based on both the scientific evidence and their faith.

Throughout his work Hawking explores and then counters the Rare Earth theory, which fundamentally says that since we seem to be on a planet that is perfect for us therefore God must have created it for us.  Everything from the laws of physics to the age of the universe to our physical location in our universe, galaxy, and solar system is imperative to our ability to live here.  This is an interesting argument for God and is very attractive just because of the incredible odds of our universe being able to sustain life.  For instance, if even one of the fundamental forces were tweaked just the smallest fraction in their relative power our universe would be completely inhospitable to our kind of life.  However, this is ultimately a dangerous theological argument as a foundation to faith because as Hawking shows it can be partially explained away by showing other Earth-like planets.

Furthermore, Hawking goes even deeper and posits that our life bearing universe was inevitable anyway due to the multiverse theory, which predicts an infinite number of parallel universes.  In most of these universes life would never develop due to differing laws of physics which would create, among many other variations, a universe that would be too spread out so that carbon atoms would never be created or gathered together for us as the basic foundation of all physical life.  However, even though an astronomical number of universes would remain eternally dead, in some universes life would be certain and therefore our being here is inevitable.  All of this circular reasoning really doesn’t get us anywhere and I don’t think it will change too many minds about the existence of God.

I believe that the existence of other earth-like planets and stars similar to ours makes perfect sense in a God created universe.  While I do not pretend to understand the numerous potential reasons for such a large universe I do know that in order for us to exist we need at least a 10 billion year history of stars creating carbon in their cores and depositing stardust, the very essence of physical life, across the universe.  Now because this process takes billions of years across intergalactic distances planets and earth-like stars must crop up in many other places other than right here.  It would be a strange and chaotic universe if all of the heavier elements created in the supernovas of our past were exclusively brought here for our use.  Now as I said I do not plan to speculate here on possible alien life or planets with earth-like environments, (we’ll save that for another time) but the apparent fact that there are other earth-like planets in the universe makes sense to me as both a part of God’s design and the workings of the fundamental forces of nature.

Here is the central reason why Hawking’s creatorless creation doesn’t ring true to me:  For me religion at its heart is a leap of faith.  Pure reason cannot arrive at an answer concerning God.  In my mind all of nature and our place in it suggests the existence of God, but obviously that is only my perspective of nature.  Many scientists and rational thinkers now and in the past have looked at the same evidence and arrived at an atheistic solution.  When it comes down to it we must look within ourselves and at our world with our hearts.  We must avoid the many distractions of the modern world and seek silence to find our God who Nathan Mitchell describes in Worship as, “elusive yet explosive, hidden yet revealed, absent yet accessible.”  No matter how hard we look if we don’t believe, or more accurately won’t believe, we will never find God under a microscope or in a starry night.  But if we take that small yet giant leap of faith then we will begin to see God all around us and within us.

The answer to faith is not science, rather the opposite is true: the answer to science is faith.  In a reenactment of a famous debate, between G.K. Chesterton and Clarence Darrow, Chesterton is quoted as saying: “All thinking begins with assumptions that cannot be proved.  In logic we call these axioms.  The real skeptic has nowhere to begin because he must doubt everything and so he sinks through floor after floor of a bottomless universe.  Reason can only be built on faith and that faith is the foundation of our civilization.”  I choose not to live in a bottomless universe and I make the choice every day to found my reason and experience of the world on faith.

In closing I do not mean to attack Hawking in this article and I respect him both as an individual and as a scientist.  I simply wish to point out the incongruity in a scientist “disproving” the existence of the transcendent infinite God that we worship simply by observing and understanding the laws of the universe.  The beauty of the universe and God’s continuing work should be understood through physics and math not destroyed by them.  I hope and pray for a time when faith and science are again correctly viewed as harmonious and not opposing methods of viewing the world.

Kevin

P.S. Numerous other articles about Hawking’s new book can be found on the Internet.  The articles I quoted from are here:
http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20100902/lf_nm_life/us_britain_hawking
http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2010/09/06/the-elusive-presence-of-god/