David Amerland
Life in the 21st century


When we do think about life we feel that it is something we should be able to intuitively understand. After all we are, right now, both alive and capable of telling exactly when something isn’t so we feel that it shouldn’t really be that difficult to tell when something is not alive to begin with or when something is dead after having been alive.

However that is not really the case and not only is it not the case but we are also experimenting with ways to animate matter that challenge our very notion of where matter ends and life begins.

Being able to make life notionally transforms our understanding of our own capabilities in regard to our limitations. If we are gods the argument goes, should we not also be able to extend indefinitely our own life and be capable of extending that same courtesy to those we care about?

There are those who argue that before we even go down that path we should explore what exactly it means to attain godhood but that is splitting intellectual hairs. Yuval Noah Harari suggests that the option to question has already been taken out of our hands and as technology advances we are on the path to godhood, as we speak.

Yuval suggests that it is ignorance that has led us to invent gods, creating ‘answers’ of a sort that fill in the blank gaps of our existence and, as we fill those gaps with knowledge and skills and abilities, we shall write the need for gods (or God) out of our set of psychosocial requirements.

That, of course, doesn’t quite answer what we would do with life, or how we could define it, let alone control it. Nor does it answer what we would do if, as gods, faced some inevitable limit to our own abilities (and I am assuming here that even a god has to operate within the limiting parameters that define the universe he or she inhabits).

Eighteen months to a year ago, all of this would have been conceptual; the conversation purely philosophical. This is no longer quite the case. While we are far from omniscient or omnipotent we can create synthetic life forms just as we can create mechanical ones.

You might argue that we should have all of this worked out already. After all, as a species, we’ve been alive for a long, long time already and we should know what our responsibility is. Unfortunately nothing is straightforward. As a species we have evolved to respond to environmental and existential pressures. Because everything we do requires effort and soaks up energy, we respond only when we absolutely have to which is why we have been happy to allow philosophy to entertain the thoughts we simply had no time for. Until now.

What has changed? Everything has speeded up. Our decision-making has evolved insufficiently to keep up. As we progress we might be heading towards our own unplanned obsolescence. Maybe. What is certain is that we at the stage of our development, collectively, where simple answers do not exist. To be sure, they never did. But they sufficed. They now no longer do.

Complexity is inescapable. Back in the early 19th century, Mary Shelley gave us Frankenstein as a metaphor for complexities that arise our of relative simplicities. She imagined an early version of Dr Venter whose work has captured the imagination and raised questions about responsibility we have not adequately addressed yet.

Every day and in every way our powers are growing. We range into realms where we should perhaps not venture in but we really cannot help it. Curiosity is in our nature. Without it our cognition is incomplete.

So, here we are. Caught in a paradox. All-powerful and yet incapable of achieving exactly what we want. All-knowing and yet still so ignorant. Human and yet on a path that may change the very definition of what we are. The ‘simple’ things that drive us have given rise to complexity for which we have yet to find an answer.

The only certainty lies in the fact that we ought to keep on trying. Keep on evolving. Keep on exploring and, in the process, strive to not lose sight of each other.

We are still human and relatively responsible which is why I am fairly certain you’re looking at a full pot of coffee today and have chosen some choice donuts, croissants, cookies and chocolate cake to accompany it with. Have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.

© 2018 David Amerland. All rights reserved