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Life And Mind At Dinner: An Allegory

In an allegory, Marcelo Gleiser imagines a conversation about life and the future.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

What follows is an allegory in which blogger Marcelo Gleiser imagines a conversation between a geneticist, a Buddhist, a physicist, a psychologist, and a theologian about life and the future of humanity.

At an undisclosed location, a geneticist, a Buddhist, a physicist, a psychologist, and a theologian sat waiting for dinner. The idea was to engage in the almost lost art of conversation, where a group of people exchange opinions with an open mind, eager to put forward their views but also with the shared goal of learning from one another.

Cell phones were turned off.

The host, the psychologist, chose the topic: life. Not life as in "what are you up to these days," but rather "what is life?" and "can and should technology interfere with the 'natural' flow of things?"

The Buddhist started by asking the geneticist to define life. "Funny," he answered, "I can't." He continued:

"No one can, actually, at least in some sort of universally accepted way. What life is remains unclear, although we do know quite well what life does: It's a molecular machinery with the sole purpose of perpetuating itself. Living things have error-correcting mechanisms; we get fixed when we tear a muscle, break a bone or get a cold. There are genetic error-correcting mechanisms as well. Things are not always effective, of course, and they shouldn't since mutations are essential. But it's a wonder it all works. The more I learn about it in my lab, as I see replicating molecules unfold, the more amazed I am at the whole thing."

"What about intentionality?" asked the theologian. "Doesn't life have intentionality? Isn't purpose a key part of it?" The physicist jumped in. "Well, does fire have intentionality as it spreads? Do stars want to replicate in stellar nurseries, those giant molecular clouds where new stars are born? I say this because sometimes it's hard to draw a dividing line between purpose and contingency. In the case of fires and stars, there are physical mechanisms that describe what goes on and they don't involve purpose."

"Unless you call this urge to spread out some kind of purpose," said the psychologist.

"I guess you could," replied the physicist more out of politeness than conviction, "although I don't think you can ascribe intentionality to fires and stars."

"Is that, then, the defining difference between living and non-living things: intentionality?" asked the Buddhist.

"I am not sure," replied the geneticist, "that DNA has intentionality. It's all chemistry, potential differences, energy optimization. Although when, exactly, it happens, the point in time when a cell divides, remains a mystery. It all follows the processes of natural selection, of course. But natural selection is descriptive and not predictive."

"I guess this means that the future of life is unpredictable, then?" asked the theologian.

"Well, it is, but there is a complication," said the geneticist.

"Yeah," interrupted the psychologist, "we are messing up with evolution, right?"

"Well, messing up is a bit too strong," said the geneticist. "But yes, for the first time in history we have decoded the genome of many living things, and are able to design creatures and experiment creating new ones at the genetic level."

"It's the true Frankenstein awakening," remarked the theologian, despondently.

"Maybe this is the new face of evolution," said the physicist. "We will design our successors."

"And become obsolete in the process," said the psychologist. "Is it really possible?" she asked. "Can we create a humanoid artificial intelligence? I'm skeptical."

"It's not obvious, really," said the physicist. "Many smart people are working on this, and progress has been fast. Still, we remain far away from simulating anything like human intelligence."

"Maybe," said the geneticist, "but it's a matter of time, no? I mean, I visited the headquarters of the Human Brain Project in Geneva, and saw for myself. The complexity of the connectome, the map of neurons and their synaptic connections, the flow of neurotransmitters — it's really mind-boggling. But I don't see a fundamental impossibility here, just complexity."

"Of course you would say that," interrupted the theologian. "But this kind of reductionist view, that all is matter and we can adopt a bottom-up approach to decode our minds, sounds too simplistic. We see complex irreducible phenomena all the time, stuff that is of course material but that develops its own laws, laws that can't be explained using the lower level."

"Like DNA replication can't be understood using the equations that describe quarks, electrons and photons," said the physicist. "As Nobel laureate Phil Anderson once wrote, 'More is different.' Still, no need to invoke anything beyond the material. We don't want to go to the God of the Gaps stuff."

"Oh, that's very passé," says the theologian. "No serious theologian goes there. What I'm saying is that even the material may have unexplainable aspects to it."

"Yes, some aspects of the word are unknowable to us," said the physicist.

"And then there is the whole issue of how we acquire information about the world and ourselves," said the Buddhist. "We can't take the self from the picture. And we get tangled up in knots trying to get an objective view of how our minds work that doesn't depend on our own experience of our minds."

"That's true," said the psychologist. "People that think they can separate brain from body don't really see how they are weaved into one thing. Mind is embodied. We function within this unity all along. I'm amazed that some people think you can have a brain in a vat. Ridiculous!"

"Well," says the geneticist, "I still think it's all information. All we need to do is to have sufficient information and we will be done."

"Ah, the typical triumphalist view of science," interrupts the physicist. "C'mon, you know as well as I do that every measurement we make is limited, that we can't describe a system, whatever it is, exactly. Science is an approximation to nature, not nature. The difference between the map and the territory is essential here."

"Precisely," said the theologian, pleasantly surprised that he and the physicist agreed. "All we get through science is the map, a simplified version of the territory."

"Any AI we develop will not replicate a human brain; it will approximate a human brain," completed the physicist.

"And that's the danger," said the Buddhist. "We will create something that we have no clue what it is, something that can think, that may even have autonomy."

"How dreadful," said the psychologist. "These things will be grotesque puppets, almost human but not quite."

"Unless we can dump our consciousness into them," observes the geneticist.

"Ah, the transhuman dream," says the theologian. "A modern version of our age-old desire for transcendence of the flesh."

"I hope this will never happen," said the psychologist. "I can't bear the notion of having my essence transplanted into a fake repository."

"Even if the repository is an identical genetic replica of yourself?" asked the geneticist.

"Yes, even so. We evolved to live and die. This is our human prerogative. To circumvent this is to violate our every essence."

"It would be unknown territory, for sure," said the Buddhist. "I am skeptical, though. We must work hard to find a level of peace in this life, and not relegate the search to other lives. It takes time, for sure. Buddhists even say that that's why we come back, so we can perfect our path each time. But the work is here and now."

"It's amazing to me that we are actually able to consider this kind of scientific breakthrough, the genetics, the physics, the cognitive neuroscience, as evolving to the point of human transcendence," said the geneticist. "Exciting times!"

"Exciting but dangerous," cautioned the theologian. "Morally, we are too primitive to deal with such things."

"I agree," said the physicist. "But isn't this how great advances happen, because creative people push the envelope of the possible? We may be witnessing the beginning of a true revolution, where the experience of being and the science of being will finally join hands."

"I hope there will be safeguards we can control so these things don't run us off the map forever," said the psychologist.

"Let's hope that what emerges from this will be a wiser version of us," said the Buddhist.

"I'll drink to that," said the physicist. And with glasses full, they retired to the dining room.

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.

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