In Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 tome The Singularity is Near, he has a section rebutting what he calls “the criticism from holism” — the idea that “machines are organized as rigidly structured hierarchies of modules, whereas biology is based on holistically organized elements in which every element affects every other.” His response is that “It’s true that biological design represents a profound set of principles ... [but] there is nothing that restricts nonbiological systems from harnessing the emergent properties of the patterns found in the biological world.”
For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that Kurzweil is correct in claiming that all of the phenomena of the human being can be replicated on machines. Let’s instead consider a different proposition: that the transhumanist understanding of humans is by its nature shallow and incomplete — in particular, its methodology blinds them to aspects of human nature only apparent when the human being is considered as a whole, and in relation to society, culture, and environment. If so, then transhumanists are not able to recognize many of the defining characteristics of that “pattern” known as the human being, and so by their approach won’t be able to fully replicate and modify us — even if such a feat is in principle possible.
Kurzweil’s description of the replacement of the human circulatory and respiratory systems perfectly exemplifies this myopic methodology. Kurzweil notes what impressive “machines” the heart and lungs are but highlights their vulnerability to failure, and argues that we can replace them with machines that perform the same functions but with much greater efficiency and reliability. Soon a runner might only need to take a single breath to sprint a mile, and
Eventually... there will be no reason to continue with the complications of actual breathing and the burdensome requirement of breathable air everywhere we go. If we find breathing itself pleasurable, we can develop virtual ways of having this sensual experience.
This argument gets to the heart (a phrase that may lose its meaning if this scheme is carried out) of the transhumanist approach to the human being as a sort primitive production economy just waiting for its own Henry Ford to break it into processes fit for assembly lines. At first blush (another phrase that draws its meaning from human respiration and circulation) the approach seems sensible enough, particularly in a case like this: breathing is simply a bodily function for providing oxygen for respiration, with the apparent epiphenomenon of a pleasurable sensation. Why not separate the two, maximizing both by making the respiratory function more efficient, and the respiratory sensation more pure and not dependent on the function?
But since Kurzweil here at least implicitly claims to be interested in replicating and improving all of the “patterns” of human existence, his scheme for replicating breathing should capture all of its goods before it sets about improving them. So let’s take a look at how his ostensibly complete account of breathing stacks up against other commonly available accounts.
Just to name a few:
- A quick look at the scientific literature shows that breathing is not simply a respiratory process but, as a function of the autonomic nervous system, is integrally connected to other bodily processes. For example, as yoga instructors have long known, proper breathing is strongly correlated with overall physical wellbeing: labored breathing can contribute to and breathing therapy can alleviate stress and stress-related diseases such as hypertension and blood pressure.
- In a New Atlantis essay from last year, Alan Rubenstein notes that “The activity of breathing demonstrates very nicely how action on the world can be initiated by an organism either deliberately, as in conscious breathing (think yoga, or simply ‘take a deep breath’) or ‘unconscious’ breathing (think breathing while we sleep or, in fact, most of the time that we are awake and not paying attention).”
Further, he writes, “Breathing is an activity of the whole organism, an action taken by the organism, toward the world, and spurred by the organism’s felt need. The body of an animal needs what the world has to give and works constantly in its own interests to obtain it.”
Rubenstein suggests that the absence of an organism’s impulse to breathe, its drive to continue its existence through a basic engagement with its environment, ought to be considered alongside the absence of heartbeat, brain activity, and awareness as one of the basic markers of death.
- For Alexi Murdoch and Radiohead, to remember to breathe is to remember to be grounded in the world, to maintain sense and clarity in the face of confusion, alienation, and suffering. For R.E.M., to stop breathing is to surrender to these forces.
- For Laika, breathing signifies a connection to wind and the seasons, the breath of nature.
- For The Prodigy, Frou Frou, and The Police, to feel the breath of another is to have one’s being wrapped up in theirs. For Telepopmusik, to breathe is to be grounded in the world or taken out of it through another.
- For The Corrs (among many others), to be in awe is to be breathless.
- For Margaret Atwood, to love and be loved, to live for another, is to wish “to be the air that inhabits you for a moment only...to be that unnoticed & that necessary.”
- For Roger Ebert, the feelings we have towards other human beings — as equal or lesser beings — are something we breathe.
- For Geography professor Yi-Fu Tuan, in Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, “The real is the familiar daily round, unobtrusive like breathing.”
- For Lydia Peelle, the Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing include a rootedness in existence that allows us the possibility of catching “a glimpse of the infinite.”
- For Walker Percy, breathing is the first force of gravity that grounds a person in his own existence when he attempts to fly away from it entirely through scientific detachment: “I stood outside of the universe and sought to understand it.... The only difficulty was that though the universe had been disposed of, I myself was left over. There I lay in my hotel room with my search over yet still obliged to draw one breath and then the next.”
Just to name a few.
One may dismiss some of these understandings of breathing as unreal or unimportant. But if any of these aspects are deemed integral to our experience, it must be noted that none will survive the transhumanist decomposition of the human in general and breathing in particular into function and sensation. Just in the attempt to isolate the respiratory function of breathing, the place of breathing within the whole human body — its autonomic connections to other bodily functions — will make the task of decomposition far more practically difficult than its proponents suggest. But that’s only part of the picture.
In the basic act of breathing, there is not simply a feeling of pleasure and a co-incidental act of sustenance, but a feeling of pleasure as an act of sustenance. The sensation of rhythmed breathing during a long jog, or gasping for breath after surfacing from the bottom of a river, is not simply a feeling of pleasure as pleasure, like eating a sweet dessert, but the feeling that comes from the being’s act of sustaining its own life. No matter how accurate a virtual simulation of breathing, the sensation when divorced from function can never be the full phenomenon, the phenomenon of breathing as the act of a being working for its existence from the surrounding world. None of the other aspects of breathing — its connection to love, to spirit, to nature, to the experience of being — could survive either.
Transhumanists find the relationships between the various components of human existence quixotic, and best to ignore. It’s easy to pick us apart, and so, they assume, it must be to put us together — so even when it comes to a feature of our existence as basic as breathing, they cannot grasp that there might be some purposeful relationship worth preserving between what it is, what it is like, and what it is for. Transhumanists may succeed in making us into some new being, but it will be one bereft of all the everyday depths of experience to which they are now so blind.