I have joined the bionic brigade and it’s making me wonder who I am.
You remember the Six Million Dollar Man, don’t you? There was this military guy, you see, horribly maimed by an accident. But with the unlimited resources of the U.S. government, his vital parts were replaced with machinery and computers.
Realistic, it wasn’t. To convey the impression that the bionic man—and later, the bionic woman—could move at blistering speeds, the TV series showed him in slow motion.
I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work. Slow motion merely makes me look old, a parody of Tim Conway on the Carl Burnett show.
Back in the 1970s, the bionic man seemed like science-fiction fantasy. Today, almost everyone over a certain age is bionic. We wear corrective lenses, hearing aids and pacemakers. At the very least, we have amalgam fillings and gold crowns in our mouths. More and more of my friends have artificial hips or knees.
I myself am still alive thanks to three cardiac stents.
And now I have a bionic elbow too. Its titanium joints will stay shiny and flexible for hundreds of years after the rest of my body has returned to dust.
So am I still me?
Futurist Ray Kurzweil has been beating this drum for years. At what point, he asks (I’m paraphrasing for brevity), does the Six Million Dollar Man cease to be himself?
Obviously, replacing an elbow does not affect my personality—although I have to admit that it has not always improved my disposition. Learning new skills, or compensating for old skills lost, can be trying.
But replacing mechanical parts is only the beginning. Transplants that we consider relatively common—heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas, bones, tendons, corneas, skin, heart valves and arteries—didn’t exist before my lifetime.
In the same period, computers have gone from room-sized behemoths to tiny chips. What happens when we can replace a failing part of a human brain with a computer chip?
Don’t say that it can’t happen—look how much has already happened, that we would have considered inconceivable less than a century ago.
Kurzweil claims that at the present rate of change, some kind of bionic brain transplant will happen within the next 30 years.
When it happens, will that person still be me?
Agreed, we human beings are more than the sum of our physical parts. If that’s all we were, my “sum” probably increased with the addition of improved parts.
But I’m leery about assuming that “more than the sum” refers to some kind of disembodied “soul” that we cannot define. That approach feels like a “God of the gaps” theology—that God must be whatever’s left over that science cannot test for.
Inevitably, that reduces God to an ever-smaller sphere.
I think it’s more important to identify God in what we do know about, rather than what we don’t know about.
Similarly, I want to locate my personality—my soul, if you will—in the complex interaction of my body parts and the ways my personality then interacts with yours.
In other words, am I enhanced by a bionic elbow? Or shrunken?