For the past two months or so, I have been having an unusual sensitivity to temperature in my left upper molars. A year ago, the dentist told me that I had a cavity there, but out of childish fear I put off making an appointment. Two weeks ago the pain was bad enough that I made the appointment. Today I had three cavities filled in three adjacent teeth.
As I sat in the chair numbing up, I was thinking about Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who for all of his dedication to the metaphysical was still a slave to his teeth: when the body asserts itself against the thinking mind, there is no contest. Something as simple as a tooth can become the center of your existence. In those moments, I resent all things bodily. The body is a pain. Maintaining its drives is a chore, and it naturally degrades despite your best efforts to give it what it needs.
After my appointment, I came home, drank some beer, and watched a documentary on Ray Kurzweil (Transcendental Man), who is an inventor and technology theorist. He wrote a book called The Singularity is Near which describes the imminent moment at which human intelligence merges with our technology. Without going into too much detail, one result of Kurzweil’s Singularity is that we are finally liberated from our bodies: we will be immortal. The individual consciousness can be uploaded to a computer that simulates living, but this time free of disease, want, pain, age, fear, etc.
There are many postmodern types who are chomping at the bit to move beyond the limitations of the human body. There are elements of that sentiment that are appealing to me. But the question that it begs is whether the essence of humanity is the ability to experience pain. That possibility is what makes every human choice a momentous one, it is the foundation of ethics and the impetus for metaphysics. Once we are rid of our bodies, the thinking of metaphysics ceases — we are no longer subjects that exist at a distance from the metaphysical — life becomes synonymous with the metaphysical.
What I like about Kurzweil’s thought the most is his apparent belief that the body is dross. His interest is in the soul (even though he doesn’t call it that). That is where my interest lies. But his belief that the soul can be separated from the body and then transferred (not merely represented) to another medium is bizarre. It makes him into some kind of techno-Cartesian. How is this transference possible? Because for Kurzweil, the soul (or consciousness) is finally just data. Moving it from one medium to another is the ontological equivalent of ripping a CD to iTunes. But he misses what I think is a key insight: data is not a reality in itself, it is a reflection of reality. And if the soul is real (I think it is and I think Kurzweil does too), then to reduce it to data enacts all the violence of representation — in the transference, it becomes something else. So the philosophical question is not (as the techies like to think) “What are the limits of the human?”, but rather “How badly do we want to be human?” Bound up in the latter question are the issues of choice, rights, love, faith, compassion, ethics, and yes, my teeth.
Do I want to be rid of the body? I will take the cavities every time.