The big questions that we are going to ask ourselves in this century are "what does it mean to be human?" and not least "what does it mean to be alive?" Technology comes alive through robots and artificial intelligence, and life is made technological through biotechnology, artificial organs and limbs, and the genetic engineering of new life forms.
By Anne Skare Nielsen and Henrik S. KristensenFor this reason life is challenged from two sides and displays an entirely different logic from what we are used to. Life in itself is neither dignified, sacred or fragile. It simply is - a fluid and boundary-breaking entity, which is hard to grasp. As Dr. Malcolm says in Jurassic Park, "life finds a way," and it will do so even more in the future. Life will find its way into products, technologies and phenomena, and it will slip out of our control like sand through our fingers. It will be cloned, engineered and manipulated, and there will no doubt be unexpected consequences.
The futurist Alvin Toffler, our primus inter pares, thinks that the question of humanity and life will affect our basic values and our moral convictions. And it will lead to greater and more intense religious and ethical conflicts in the world. In the past, we went to war in order to defend territories, physical resources and our mother country. In the future, we will fight for identities, abstract values and the right to define humanity.
What so far has succeeded in binding the populations of the world together in the hope of having something resembling a global community is a fair consensus that at least we're all human. Are we in the future going to argue whether genetically engineered swimmers may compete in the Olympic Games? Whether robots that act like humans should be treated with dignity and perhaps even have human rights? Or if we can accept private schools for children with optimised abilities of concentration and memory? How are doctors, nurses, teachers, employees and all sorts of other people going to react if the state, law or employer urges a technology on them that they are morally opposed to? Take this genetic test if you want to work here! Use this medication with foetus stem cells on the patient, but inform him about it first! Teach these kids, half of who can remember more than you've ever learned!
What is a human being?
It isn't as if the question "what does it mean to be human" is new. Politicians, philosophers and scientists have dealt with this question for thousands of years, but there was a time when it was a good deal easier. Attempts to formulate 'man' have as a rule always used the so-called naturalistic fallacy, where the thread of logic goes from 'is' to 'should be'. Man is basically in a certain way, hence society should be adapted to this. Man can e.g. be free, sensible, sinful, social, or cloned by aliens, and society should accordingly be liberal, understandable, controlled, not controlled, or fit the alien nature. You can also be opportunistic and go the other way: society should be the way I think, and other people will just have to adapt to that.
The Western liberal concept of man is built on four columns - a political, which dictates that the good life can be found in community; a Christian, which makes human life something sacred and elevated with duties and shalt-nots; a social, which desires to maximise welfare and utility for the great majority; and a modern individualistic one, which gives the individual rights and leaves the meaning of life and happiness up to the individual. This suggests a mixed ethic, which makes it more than impossible to nail down a definition of man that all can agree on.
Today we think of man as individualistic, a unit and a whole, a being with an identity. A human being is something merely by being human. Man is dignified. Man is free. Man is social and responsible. Man has a moral status. Man is sensible and rational. Man has requirements and rights. Life is a similarly static entity: life is sacred and dignified, vulnerable and fragile, and it shouldn't be made use of unless for a higher purpose. It is in itself quite fascinating to imagine what a revolution it has been to lift human life out of the broad masses and give it a value in itself.
But it is probably also here that the problems arise in relation to the new technologies. If man basically is 'something' or if life has an 'essence' that can't be clearly defined, then any new challenge that is located near this 'something' will be perceived as a threat. Something that you 'have', you naturally want to keep - even if you don't really know what it is or what it should be used for. If man thinks of itself as a fixed, determined, unchangeable entity, then change - especially of humanity - is unnatural and dangerous. Transcendence between animal, plant and man shakes the foundations of our society, and manipulation offends our autonomy and dignity. Artificial intelligence competes on the basis of its apparent humanity and provokes us because we can't exactly put our finger on where the boundary is.
If we in the future have to expect ethical struggles about defining what it means to be human, it will mostly be due to such identity conflicts. Individualism tells us that we at any cost must have an identity with values and opinions that we can vouch for, explain and defend. It must thus also be expected that conflicts about values and opinions will be perceived as threats against identities. For example, a clone is a threat against an identity (if you are me, then who am I?) and a threat against the people who think that only God can create a soul with a life that is sacred and irreplaceable. Genetic engineering is a threat against a faith in nature's perfectionism and immutability because it crosses a boundary and changes the shape of something that used to be understandable. All forms of manipulation, modification and change are on this basis risky, unsafe and not just dangerous - they are also wrong, and hence unethical.
Old wine on new bottles
That the developments are going to hell and the future is running wild is an old story. Horror stories about the abuse of new technologies, a fall from grace, and slippery slopes are a dime a dozen. We all know stories and tales about monsters and freaks, vampires and the living dead, Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, mysterious lab-created diseases, people without brains, who are half-flies or possessed by evil spirits or by aliens. These stories have haunted our minds since the dawn of time and have made us move closer together around the campfires of all times.
Perhaps a lot of us actually like the technological problems because we can invent some good horror stories and once again put the big questions in life on the agenda. Suddenly we can once again sit at our dinner table and talk about ethics and values and the meaning of life and death. What is your opinion of Dr. 'Cloning' Antinori? Who gets to own our genes? What about digging up Hans Christian Andersen to see if he suffered from some mysterious disease? Have you heard that it took 277 attempts to clone Dolly? And (shudder) the 276 were either stillborn or fearfully misshapen small lambs? (The last part is an urban myth.)
A certain sign that there is a certain popular interest in the subjects is that they are reflected in American movies. We have recently been able to see the comedy "Multiplicity" about a busy father who clones himself so that he at the same time can go to work, play golf and snuggle with the wife. Unfortunately, one of the clones makes a clone of himself, and this new clone is of course rather far removed from the original. Arnold Schwarzenegger has also been through the cloning mill in the action movie "The Sixth Day", which takes place in a near future where pets can be replaced the same day they die by a 'Re-Pet'. Cloning of humans is forbidden, but cynical businessmen, mad scientists and rich families with sick children make it impossible to uphold the law. In the comedy "Animal" we can see how bad things may get when a human being receives animal organs and begins to act like a dog or ram - catches Frisbees in the park or goes hunting for lady sheep. And last, but not least, "AI - Artificial Intelligence" where technology becomes so lifelike that we must ask the question if it gains value and dignity like 'real' life.
Threats against mankind
Most of these stories by a long margin take up the old theme of mankind's incredible capacity of making itself obsolete. We think of ourselves and of the meaning of being on this earth through our everyday lives, e.g. through physical work, mental work or emotional life, and when we create a technology that can do the same things - well, what then is the justification of man?
In the industrial age, machines that could perform manual labour were a 'natural' threat to many. The labourer was suddenly made obsolete. In the knowledge and information society, machines that can think, handle information and rationalise in a human fashion are a 'natural' threat and a challenge to our identity and life form. That was e.g. the big, interesting question when the computer Deep Blue beat world champion Gary Kasparov at chess.
In the Dream Society where the focus is on emotions, consciousness and creativity, we are again challenged by our own creations in the shape of artificial intelligence, clones and cyborgs. And what then is left? In the cinema we have seen how bad things can get when technological creations turn against mankind: "2001 - a Space Odyssey", "Blade Runner" and "Terminator", to name a few examples.
The future will always be uncertain and frightening, especially when we project a static view of humanity onto a changeable future. A future that may be far more open, limitless, fluid, and formless, and which therefore purely practically will require that we modify our views of humanity and nature. If we look a couple of centuries back in time, many of the people of the past would no doubt consider our world disgusting - almost no-one lives by the word of the Lord, everybody's thinking of himself, we pollute and drop atomic bombs on each others' heads and have weapons that can kill over long distances. But at the same time, the present is also a time of great freedom, beautiful literature, and well-being for many, if not yet for most.
Many tendencies suggest that we are in the middle of a paradigm shift because it becomes ever harder to uphold boundaries and familiar concepts while fundamental and 'sacred' values crumble.
Boundaries are crossed and dissolved:
The static and the sacred crumble:
Network cultures crop up:
Life becomes technological and technology comes alive:
Humanity version 2.0
Developments may be rapid, but the majority of people on this earth still live from day to day, and the greatest changes happen as a result of many small, consecutive decisions. We live simultaneously in different societies: some in information society, some in risk society or dream society. Some live in a welfare society and some don't, and often we are in several societies at once. We can't say that time passes more quickly since a minute is still 60 seconds, but there are more things we have to consider, and our 'inner time' comes to seem slower than our 'outer time'. It thus seems that you either have to run faster to catch up or give up on the rat race in order to not burn out entirely.
But what if humanity updates itself? Becomes a sort of 'Humanity version 2.0'? A wide range of things currently points towards that our view of humanity and nature is changing because it is based on static premises. The common view of humanity in the Western world takes its basis in that man is free and unique and that species are static entities that only change slowly. This collides with scientific data that tell us that DNA isn't a unique 'blueprint of life', that nature cannot be bounded and is in motion all the time, and that there's no such thing as a species boundary. There simply is no biological foundation for claiming that humanity should be something especially unique, sacred or dignified, with an integrity that can be protected from anything at all. And if we want to talk about natural and unnatural, humanity is actually the most unnatural thing in the world. Compared to the majority of living organisms, everything from our sexual habits over work to our way of solving conflicts is actually rather odd. Our view of humanity can't be founded in the biological and hence slowly is set in motion with the result that it becomes transcendent and akin to a network.
Once upon a time we abandoned a pre-Darwinist religiously based view of humanity because we found that it was based on counter-natural assumptions. But what will a new view of humanity look like, that is a reaction to the pace of change and the instability caused by genetic splicing, GMO, cloning and other technology?
The dualistic man
It is a human modus vivendi to understand and arrange the world in pairs. We thus have black & white, sweet & sour, good & bad, normal & abnormal, man & woman, body & soul, war & peace, natural & unnatural, etc. These concepts have in their daily use no meaning without their counterparts. They make up mutually defining concept pairs and provide a very comfortable way of structuring the world, since meaning then can be given between two extremes.
But peace isn't necessarily the same as absence of war. A woman isn't the opposite of a man, and black isn't that which white is not. Reality is always something else and more than what we describe in words; it is mysterious.
Mankind itself is split in two at many levels, a division that grew dramatically with individualisation in modern times. We are thus living in the liberal society between the public and the private, between the outer and the inner, between culture and nature, between community and unity, between belonging and uniqueness. The natural step is to make boundaries, for if there are no boundaries, the world can't be understood in pairs and everything flows together. As written in the widely famous Warnock Report from 1984 about artificial insemination and embryology, there are some boundaries that we may not cross. For a society without boundaries would be a society without moral scruples - and nobody wants that!
There must be some boundaries - between countries, between people, between genders and age groups. And preferably also between strangers and the people we know, and one surrounding our private lives so we know we can 'be ourselves'. But we are rarely aware of where exactly the boundary lies - we generally only know when it is being crossed.
Life is the first boundary we meet. And death is the last. But paradoxically, humanity can't be described between these two extremes. We also think of the dead and the unborn as people, and in practice it is difficult to define precisely when life starts and when it ends. Does it start at conception, and when exactly is that? Once, according to Catholic teaching, it was 40 days after conception (though 80 days for female life). And when does life end? When the heart stops beating or when the brain turns off? If we can produce life that doesn't die (e.g. artificial intelligence), can it at all be said to be alive?
The particular and the universal
The great, all-encompassing distinction lies between the individual human being and something larger, or in other words, between the particular and the universal. The particular is humanity in its personal uniqueness, and the universal is that which can contain all people. In the city-states of antiquity the individual human being wasn't anything special, but should be understood in relation to the community. In Christianity, humanity could only be understood in relation to God, and in the Age of Enlightenment it could be reflected in the good will, in the common good or in freedom. In this way there has throughout most of human history always been a common description and a finished recipe for what it meant to be human. But with the advent of modernism, humanity was moved into the centre of the universe and God was rolled out on a side-track - and even killed by Nietzche. The universal, the great, abstract, impalpable sphere, no longer mattered; the particular was what did. Man began telling his own story starting with himself, from an individual and personal perspective.
The particular has today been researched and examined from all sides. Man can be explained medically, psychologically, psychotherapeutically, sociologically, anthropologically, judicially, politically, and much more. And he has gained rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of faith, right to vote, right to appeal, etc., while he has cultivated body and looks as well as inner peace or the lack thereof. But the universal has a harder time because there is nothing that can unite all people in a belief of something higher, and for a lot of people this also seems unnecessary. Human rights, democracy and EU work for some, and there's a fair consensus that at least we're all human - so far.
Faith and credibility
The funny thing is that even though we have the focus directed at ourselves, most of us still believe in something that lies outside, either God or simply 'something larger'. According to an international Gallup survey, more than 80% of the population of the Western world believe that there's something 'out there', but at the same time there's nothing or no-one worth truly believing in.
We may thus get rid of the scourge of religion, but the need to believe in something unifying is apparently still present as a sort of urge to find a greater answer or a higher meaning in our common everyday lives. This creates a strife between humanity's dualistic division of itself, for the particular has always strove for the universal, has always desired to be a part of the great, uniting and common. Instead, the universal comes to rest like a shadow from the past that doesn't provide any guidelines or answers, but merely a void where man is alone, but still in a sense under observation. Our individual life story has been disconnected from the greater, common life story; our biological natural history from our cultural history; and we thus have to tell a third story so we can bridge the gap between our inner and outer worlds. If all these stories and messages don't harmonise, the individual becomes frustrated and plunge into all sorts of shortcut actions towards the universal in the hunt for something to believe in. Meaning things and phenomena that make sense in the short term, but often are revealed as empty when becoming closer acquainted with them. It can e.g. be products of the dream society, stressful work, hypochondria, and possibly something that contributes to the feeling that you are busy so that the inner time passes as fast as the outer time.
We can imagine that this haste at some point within the next few generations will trigger a qualitative shift, just as when a plane crosses into supersonic speed.
When we fear the attack of new technologies against identity, life and humanity, it isn't because there really is anything to be afraid of. It is rather because we don't know what it is that defines us as human beings, and that of course leads to a certain uneasiness. But humanity can probably not be defined statically as something it 'is' and which can be maintained. Humanity is rather a project that changes over time and which life passes through. Identity is something that is built as life-long learning, and humanity is only given real substance through empathy, co-operation and interaction with other people.
The big answer to what humanity is, isn't something we'll find in humanity itself.
Instead, we should look for the new universal as an enabling ideal for togetherness and private life, not as some external, determining and limiting power. We already see the first steps in this direction, and common for them all is that they attempt to make tools or frameworks that facilitate the development or existence of life. This basic attitude is e.g. seen in the ideal of sustainability, in value management and in bioethics, in the hunt for the personal morality, in the idea of corporate social responsibility, and in society's ideal of justice as tales of the living for the living. These values don't come from without or from something larger, but rather from a deeper self-recognition; i.e., as considerations of how we understand humanity, mankind's place in nature, and our relation to our own technological products.
From Shallow Life to Deep Life
We can imagine that we in our supersonic aeroplane are shifting from one velocity to another. From a weak perception of life where life is seen as a fragile and sacred entity that must be protected from undignified treatment to a strong perception of life where life is an inexhaustible resource and energy source that must be able to move and flow through everything. We go from Shallow Life to Deep Life.
In Shallow Life we see humanity and life as static and durable entities, and we get scared when scientists can decode genes and make clones, for then they control both life and identity. In Deep Life we focus on other values that are more relational: the interplay between nature and nurture, the relation to other people and networks, variability and all the abilities that technology won't be able to take over in the near future: creativity, innovation, trust, credibility, messages and interpretation, and the ability to wonder, feel empathy towards other people, and do entirely unexpected things. It's a matter of taking individualisation seriously and direct it away from the narcissistic particular and out towards the universal. If machines begin to feel, the challenge isn't so much in surveying who feels the most or best, but in if mankind will be able to return the feelings and treat the machines with dignity and not just create a new boundary between 'true' life and 'false' life. In Deep Life, it will never be possible to fully understand life and humanity, for they will always be in motion, and genetic or technological control and fixation in the traditional sense will not be possible.
One thing is certain, and that is that it will be difficult. It will always be more difficult to handle emotions, creativity and diversity than it will be to analyse and discipline the human body or rationality. The first has its foundation in the special and unique, while the second desires to be reduced to a common denominator. But life has never been easy, and that is probably what makes it so interesting and filled with tales and challenges.