The Singularity

The Singularity

Historians now generally regard the 1900's as "the American Century." What do you suppose they will call the twenty-first century? Possibly "the Biotech Century," as new scientific discoveries enable the radical re-engineering of the human body [see Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World, New York: Putnam, 1998].

Some futurists hail the coming of a technological utopia, or what Richard Oliver calls "technopia" [The Coming Biotech Age: The Business of Bio-Materials, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000]. Among other future developments, Oliver foresees the predetermination of the attributes of children, genetically derived therapies for most cancers and other diseases, the repair of damaged brain cells, the invention of biosynthetic body parts, human cloning, and the creation of life in a laboratory. The economic forces driving the scientific research for this are enormous, totaling in excess of twenty billion dollars a year.

Some scientists are also predicting a robotic future, as human bodies are enhanced by biological and mechanical technologies. Current examples include pacemakers, artificial organs, hearing devices, and synthetic limbs. Could it be that in the future every part of the human body--including the brain--will be replaceable with superior artificial substitutes? Will homo sapiens become robo sapiens?

Ray Kurzweil goes so far as to say that we are rapidly approaching a new level of humanity that will transcend our biology. As he says in the title of his latest book, The Singularity Is Near [New York: Viking, 2005]. Kurzweil defines this singularity as "a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed." He describes the human body evolving into version 2.0, which will be self-repairing, and then version 3.0, which the mind will be able to alter at will. Kurzweil also foresees human intelligence expanding by a factor of trillions as it merges with computers and other non-biological technologies. This will all happen, he says, as soon as 2045, when the fusion of technology and biology, of human and artificial intelligence, will result in "the singularity."

Kurzweil and others are fascinated by the possibilities of the new technologies, but insufficiently aware of what fundamentally constitutes human personhood. They believe that at some point we will be so altered and improved that we will evolve into a new level of being altogether. But this perspective fails to recognize human nature as it is given by God.

The technological enhancements we already see--like artificial organs, for example--do change the human body. However, they do not change the human person. I am reminded of the famous "Ship of Theseus" and the way it puzzled the ancient Greek philosophers. The Athenian ship was so old that none of its original timbers remained, or so it was said. Gradually, over the years, every single part of the original craft had been replaced. This made the philosophers wonder: Was it still the same ship? How could it be, if nothing from the original remained? It was indeed the same ship. For reasons a good philosopher could explain, even when all its constituent parts were replaced, the ship's identity remained unchanged.

This is all the more true for human persons, whose fundamental identity is not changed by additions or alterations to the body, but is established by our relationship to God--our creation in his image, the fall of our nature into sin, and our potential for salvation by grace. The Bible says that "when God created man, he made him in the likeness of God" (Gen. 5:1). Our unique humanity does not depend on what we are able to do--however "enhanced" our bodies become--but on our likeness to God in mind, heart, and will--the spiritual qualities of the soul. Furthermore, as far as our bodies are concerned, we are still made of dust, and to the dust we will return (see Gen. 3:19). It will take more than hardwiring us to a computer to reverse the curse of death that God has decreed against our sin.

Ray Kurzweil is right about one thing, though: the singularity is near. A change is coming to the body and the soul. It will be a radical alteration that completely transforms us outside and in, elevating us to a new and immortal dimension of human existence. Although it is something a scientist couldn't yet explain, or replicate, theologians call this singularity "glorification."

The singularity began with the resurrection from the dead of the Son of God. Jesus Christ was the first to receive a supernatural and immortal body, by the power of God the Holy Spirit. After his resurrection, Jesus had a living body that could be seen and touched. But his body also had miraculous properties--a body capable of shining with radiant splendor.

Although Jesus was the first to receive this glorious body, he is not the last. A singularity is coming--the resurrection of the dead--when every believer in Christ will experience a similar transformation. Gloriously and simultaneously, we will be raised to immortal splendor. "We shall all be changed," the Scripture says. In a single moment, in the twinkling of an eye, "the dead will be raised imperishable," as our mortal bodies put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:51-53).

This singularity will coincide with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It is when Jesus appears that "we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). This means that the singularity is near, for Jesus has said himself that he is coming soon (see Rev. 22:20).

[Information for this Window on the World comes from C. Ben Mitchell, "Why the Biotech Future Needs the Church," Covenant (Fall, 2006), pp. 16-21, and from Frank Wilson, "The future body: Very unlike ours," The Philadelphia Inquirer (October 10, 2005), E1, E10.]