IMP #6 – Superpowers

At the end of this article you might be able to tell that as I have navigated down my list of IMPs, posted here, I went from refuting 100% to refuting with less strength. The more I go down the list the more nuances I have to make about my claims. In my last IMP article, about teleportation, I ended up coming to a very scary conclusion that we might create terrible animalesque humans that comes straight out of a dystopian nightmare, but never achieve the goal of true teleportation.

In this article I will address superpowers. If you follow Edward Feser you will know that he has addressed the ideas of humans having superpowers, and you might check out of this conversation, then, and I wouldn’t be terribly offended. But even if you know his arguments, you may still find a point of relevance here in how we react to his arguments.

Superpowers are, of course, of super interest to us humans. By their very name they mean that they are abilities beyond our normal means, something to make us special and something that allows us to overcome normal difficulties with great ease. What kid growing up watching Avatar: The Last Airbender didn’t want the ability to bend one of the four mystical elements?

“Yeah sure, but no one thinks superpowers are real or could be real”

Are we sure? Why are people working on jet packs? Are you telling me scientists aren’t working on cellular regeneration? What is DNA manipulation about if not this? Telepathy is a very real technology that the startup world is already taking advantage of. These things may not end up looking exactly like the Marvel characters so many of us are familiar with (or not, if you’re lame), and we may not be talking about Avatar levels of power, but these technologies and manipulations of the human body are exactly used for the same purpose that superpowers have. Hello, Iron Man is a superhero, too.

Just thinking from your own experience, and especially if you’ve been reading my other articles, you can guess that something like Marvel or Avatar levels of superpowers are not something coming down the pipeline. Why do you think science is so focused on the technology side of our ability to overcome nature? Changing things with your thoughts, or adding some supernatural physical ability like flying, is not something that just happens for a human.

This is an impossible modern possibility: humans will never have superpowers.

So there…that’s…it, right? Wow, short article.

Except not so much.

There are two situations that we need to contemplate with regards the supernatural side of our imagination.

  1. The value of discovering and incorporating super technologies into our lives, essentially granting us supernatural abilities.
  2. The deeper reality of our will, and what a perfected will looks like. Would we even want superpowers?

So, first. The value of getting all of these super technologies. It’s a fascinating point.

What if we could live forever?
What if we could fly?
What if we could see what other people were thinking?
What if we could have an advantage over everyone else?

There’s some fascinating answers to these questions. You could think about the innumerable material benefits that these powers would grant us, but what value would it have for us? That we could possess more of the material world? That we could get more…social power? Possessions? Comfort? Security?

Aristotle, when reviewing the notions of what true happiness consists, looks at all of these things. He ultimately comes to the conclusion, though, that nothing in the material world could be a true source of happiness, because anything gained in the material world ultimately goes on to serve some other purpose. There is nothing in the world that leads to true happiness, that is based primarily in itself, that does not lead to some other end.

Money cannot be the source of happiness, because it’s inherent design is to acquire other goods. The other goods cannot be the source of happiness because they inherently serve to cause you pleasure. Pleasure cannot be the source of happiness (via food, drink, or diversion), because, as Aristotle says, ‘that is the life of a fatted cow’ (Nicomachean Ethics, Chapter 5)- a human can have all of those things and still be sad. Power cannot be the source of happiness because it inherently serves to leverage the later possession of other goods or other peoples’ pleasing you.

All superpowers could do is provide us with more leverage within the worldly domain. Extend our time or other peoples’ time on earth, delaying the inevitable doom of death, of which all people suffer. In other words, superpowers cannot provide us with something that we do not already have – opportunities to seek good, truth, pleasures and evils within the world.

In short, I must ask you to reflect, what’s the value of pursuing superpowers? Why even care about manifesting them in real life? Additionally, I ask you to reflect on the wonderful superpowers that you already have access to: video calling, internet, electricity (the most advanced form of firebending), plumbing (waterbending), etc. Have those superpowers landed us with some amazing form of life that has resolved our problems? Or has it just left us hungry or more, putting us on a path of constantly seeking for more worldly things to satiate a hunger for happiness and goodness?

Now, second. If you have read Feser’s article on superpowers (forgive me, I cannot find it for the life of me), you will know that he does allow for the possibility of superpowers…just…with an interesting nuance.

If you follow with the logic for the existence of the Aristotelian human form, you know that there are the intellect and will as integral parts of the human form, or soul. Now, St. Thomas Aquinas argues that because the intellect and will are part of their own cycle of act and potency, the soul itself is capable of persisting beyond death and into eternity. It does not exist in an ideal way, since our form is meant to co-exist with materiality (i.e., our bodies), but it does keep existing.

Now, if you aren’t a Christian and you don’t enjoy the idea of an afterlife…well…I’m sorry for you. But bear with me here.

As far as the Christian life is concerned, we are promised a future Heaven. The Unmoved Mover of the universe, God, the reason for which we exist and the reason we exist at all, has revealed Himself to us and promises that, should we believe in His divinely revealed message, sent through His son Jesus Christ, then we will have eternal life. Just as Christ was raised on the third day with a perfected material body that was capable of co-existing with His eternal soul, so one day we will also be given a material body that does not deteriorate as our current bodies do.

On this future Earth, things will be a bit different. One of the principal causes of disorder in the world is that humans became inherently disordered, starting back with Adam and Eve. They were created perfectly, but chose sin (chose away from God). One of the consequences, St. Thomas Aquinas believes, is that the hierarchy of nobility within the human person (intellect and will, rational faculties, are more noble than sensory faculties) became inherently disordered. Whereas Adam and Eve had a perfectly ordered existence (suffering no physical ills, their rational powers having complete and proper domain over their other powers) they chose sin and lost that order.

In the restored Earth, Christ has promised us bodies that are perfectly restored. This means that our wills and intellects will have complete and proper domain over the rest of our bodily powers.

So, what’s the point of this?

Feser’s point is that a perfected will would have complete domain over the perfected body. Should we will ourselves to float? Well, the body should just comply. Should we will ourselves to move incredibly fast? The body should just comply.

Now, I’m not saying this is some sort of perfect argumentation, but I wanted to mention all of this to come to this main summary point: if we are in a perfected and restored Earth, and basically had every manner of using superpowers, we wouldn’t want to use themWhat would be the point? We would need no advantages, we would need no increased material gain. We would have everything we needed and wanted. Even in this distinct possibility in the existence of having superpowers, there would be no point for them.

In conclusion, fantasizing about superpowers does no one any good, just like the rest of these impossible modern possibilities. So we gain a couple more years of life, so we live a little more comfortably, but what then? Nothing much more at all.

Just like the reasoning for the rest of the IMPs appeals to, we have much better things to focus on and much more important things to attend to than trying to make possible these modern impossibilities.

IMP #5 Teleportation

Here we are already at number five! Can you believe it?

So, how do I plan on trying to thwart science today? By talking about teleportation. This is, once again, one of those things that we see in nearly everything science fiction. From Star Trek‘s ‘Beam me up, Scotty!’ to Stargate‘s Stargates, we see all sorts of variations and assumptions of how teleportation might pan out.

If you’ve been paying attention to my past few articles, and especially the articles surrounding my Thomistic Linguistics thesis, then you may be predicting my every word as I go through this article. But that’s okay, let’s see if you get it right.

Let’s start with how we might assume the inevitability of teleportation. Humans have an innate desire to move, to get from place to place. As time has gone on since the industrial revolution, our methods of transportation have gotten faster and faster and faster. We did just see the SpaceX craft Dragon reach something like 12,000 km/h (7,500 mph)? And that’s not even the fastest that human artifacts have traveled. The point is that our desire to move and get about is intense. Especially recently in our history humans have desired to make this transportation as efficient as possible. But, we ask ourselves, why worry about moving at superlight speeds when we could just transport there instead?

We can conceptualize it quite easy. Humans have a specific composition, a finite reality. My body is only so many feet wide and only so many meters tall. There is a limitation to my corporeal reality that means we can fit in some theoretical ‘box’ of some kind. Think, for example, about 3D printers. This technology, which improves all the time, only needs to print complexly enough our organic material, and it could theoretically compose a human person. We just need a 3D printer big enough.

How could teleportation work, theoretically? Well the main idea would be transmission. It could use electric transmission, light transmission, literally beaming atoms out of some atom gun that shoots from one place to another, but the essential point would be transmitting data. Since humans have material limits, we would just need sensitive enough scanners to pick up on the finest points of our reality and compile it into a transmissible package. Then we send that data from one terminal to another and boom, the second terminal is a 3D printer that pops out the human that entered at the first terminal.

In many ways this kind of technology already exists. We have the capacity of scanning a 3D object, of computing the finite limits of an object in 3D art programs, sending that data file to another terminal across the internet, and printing the same exact object at the second terminal. Sure, it might take a long time to refine the technology, especially scanning a specific object (wherein the scanned object becomes technically destroyed) and transmitting it in whatever state it was scanned, but with what we already have it just seems like a matter of time before we can pull it off. But, of course, you shall see me say:

This is an impossible modern possibility: we will never be able to materially transport a human being from one place to another.

Now, I would like you to take careful note of how I articulated the IMP. I said it will never be possible to materially transport a human being. The reason for articulating this is because of how someone might perceive teleportation as occurring. In the actual conceived teleportation process, doesn’t the person become immaterial? This is somewhat true, but the reality of every explored teleportation concept is that it somehow rests on the idea of transmitting the person, or parts of the person, through material reality. Either the person’s atoms are collected and redistributed or the specific composition of the person is maintained through computer transmissions. In any case, the transportation of the person never leaves the realm of the material, it is always material.

Before getting to the main objection, I would like to look at a minor one. As demonstrated in the recent Netflix series Living With Yourself, where Paul Rudd’s character thinks he is just getting a really rejuvenating massage and ends up getting cloned by accident. This is essentially the same technology we’re talking about, where even if the technology eventually gets developed, we run into the issue of potentially creating two of one person instead of transporting. The idea here, of course, is that we’re talking about recreating a human person every single time they transport. If the original that gets scanned isn’t properly destroyed, then two of that same person end up running around, wreaking havoc. While this dilemma does not prevent the technology from working, it at least presents a complicated philosophical question that should give everyone pause.

But, ultimately the minor objection doesn’t need to hold up any weight, because the main objection makes it obsolete. If you remember from any of my articles where I dissect the composition of a human person, you will know that I explicitly deny the notion that humans are solely composed of matter. Remember that my statement about that which is impossible is the material teleportation of the human person. All of the ideas about human teleportation, of course, are material in nature because the same people that conceive of teleportation being possible are also people that conceive of humans being solely made of matter.

If humans were indeed solely material beings, I would yield in a heartbeat the inevitability of human teleportation.

But humans aren’t. We are not just matter, but form and matter. While our form is immaterial, it is still a reality, a thing that has existence. In Thomistic language we say that forms have substance (meaning they have being, not that they are composed of matter in some way). If teleportation would ever be possible, it would not be a simple matter of transmitting matter, it would be a matter of transmitting an immaterial reality from one physical point of reality to another.

By its very nature, you cannot use material and physical means to modify something that is immaterial. It just doesn’t work that way. They exist at different levels of reality. No matter what sort of teleportation device you might theoretically engage with, the form of the person will never move along the mechanics of the teleportation device, meaning that people can never be teleported.

“But Robert, what if we do create a sophisticated enough 3D printer that can re-print a human person?”

I would not deny that science could eventually produce a 3D printer with such abilities. It seems highly improbable that we could ever really produce technology that handles physical material in such a delicate manner on such a large scale, but far be it from me to say what could be done in the realm of physical reality. Who would have ever thought that we could split an atom? Not to mention, 3D printed organs are expected to soon be a reality, and a whole human body is only a few steps away from that.

My friends, this actual possibility, the ability to print a whole human body, scares me. To print organs to save lives is a beautiful thing, but the ability to recreate human bodies is asking a living nightmare on us. If someone were to truly develop a technology that could painlessly and effortlessly destroy a human and then transmit their data only to have it 3D printed, we’re talking about a corporate or governmental monolith with the world’s most efficient weapon.

For this technology would, make no mistake, kill the person currently living, leaving their soul behind, obliterating their body, only to recreate that body somewhere else. That recreated body has two potential ways of turning out:

1.  Dead.

The body, soulless and lifeless, appears at the other side of the teleportation equipment. All of the organic components are properly reprinted together, but it is not the same person, just a copy of that person, whose mind has now been separated from the body.

2. As an Animal.

This is probably the scariest option. If the scanner was so delicate to pick up on the quantum-level realities of a human person, it is likely able to pick up everything, such as neurons mid-fire and the heart mid-pump. If the 3D printer is so efficient that it re-creates that person in an instant, then we’re talking about a moment to moment success of the heart pumping pre-teleport and finishing the motion of that pump on the other side of the teleportation equipment, and leaving the body alive. But if I can admit this, then what about the mind?

It gets left behind.

Human forms have multiple powers, but some of those powers are inherently tied to a physical reality. If you remember in my article #1 – An Argument for Aristotelian Forms, forms like triangles exist when we create a material triangle and then cease to exist one the triangles disappear. If we create technology that can re-create a human body, it would be akin to us creating a triangle. All of the physical side of humanity would be present – organs, the brain, sensation, appetite, etc. But we can’t manipulate immaterial reality. We couldn’t introduce the rational side of the mind, the purely immaterial part of our reality. It would be the totally animalized version of whatever person got scanned.

That’s freaking terrifying.

So remember folks:

This is an impossible modern possibility: we will never be able to materially transport a human being from one place to another.

And please, don’t try. The consequences (raging evil corporations and governments to the existence of animal people or the abuse of animal people once they could exist) are terrifying.

IMP #4 – Teaching Animals to Speak

Wait…what? I have to write a whole article about this? Nobody thinks we can actually teach animals to speak, how absurd!

…Okay, so we’ve had fictional ideas about animals talking, but obviously that’s a ridiculous thing to think about.

Or at least, that’s what I want to say.

The notion that animals might speak has been a fascinating subject of investigation in the past century.

I could speculate on all of the reasons why humans started investigating, in serious and uncomfortable ways, the possibility of animals using language, but the most convincing to me is where the focus of the field of psychology was in the past century. At the beginning of the 20th century a lot of psychology was built up around behaviorism, the notion that all of human behavior is nearly equivalent to animal, only that we for some reason have developed more advanced behaviors than animals. Behaviorism might say that language is a result of an acquired behavior that humans developed over time in our social groupings, relating to nothing that happens with any sort of human ‘mind.’ Later psychology would bend in a different direction towards cognitive pyschology. Here psychologists would almost flip their narrative and say that human behaviors are a result of complex neurological workings inside the brain. More recent psychology has settled somewhere in between.

In each camp, though, most would agree that human abilities are first and foremost based in materialistic elements of human nature. Language, resulting from either a learned behavior or a complex neurological structure, would happen as a result of physiological means.

Someone smart along the way must have asked the question “well what about animals?” For, you see, if you say that human behaviors result from bodily structures that chimpanzees, gorillas, and dolphins also have, then who’s to say that chimpanzees, gorillas, and dolphins can’t also do what humans do, given the right circumstances?

Most modern pet owners will talk about the complex feelings of their animals, their personalities and silly quirks, and will even talk about how those animals might communicate to them about needs, likes and dislikes, and desires. Nowadays I’m even observing that pet owners will attribute mental disorders such as depression and anxiety to their pets.

The fact of the matter is that, for some reason, people in the modern time are extremely preoccupied with the idea about animals speaking. While I don’t see a huge interest in developing technology to achieve animal use of language, or a huge interest in research around training, the fact of the matter is that it does exist as a course of study by a selected few. Ultimately it remains as a subject of interest, especially when it comes to trying to prove exactly how animal humans actually are.

This is an impossible modern possibility: animals will never learn to use language.

Koko and Michael are two gorillas that learned a robust system of signs from American Sign Language (ASL). These gorillas learned to use these signs to communicate with researchers and, since ASL is a language, it was deemed that these gorillas could speak just like humans do.

This is the closest evidence that anyone has ever come to try and present the idea that animals could achieve language like humans. There is a huge flaw to this thinking, however. Most researchers have investigated these claims looking into whether the gorillas used complex syntactic and grammatical structure with their signs, or whether the gorillas’ use of language superseded that of a child, but these are not the right questions to ask when investigating the claims.

At one point I had read, God forgive me for I do not remember who said it, a point that at no point do any of the gorillas ever ask about something. That is to say, no animal has ever wondered about the way that something simply is. From the earliest stages of childhood development not only do children build up an ability to speak and communicate, but they also investigate and wonder about things. A gorilla has never done this.

So what? What is the significance behind that? The point is that at no point in time has any animal ever demonstrated a significant capacity to reason. Koko and Michael may have accepted how to use signs around a banana, but they had never asked ‘what is a banana?’ or ‘why is it yellow?’ or even ‘what is yellow?’ There is no evidence to ever suggest that animals are capable of separating abstract and generic knowledge from the particular knowledge of their experiences. This, compared to humans, who are capable of abstraction from the earliest times of their lives. This is an inherent difference between animals and humans, one that makes us stand apart in a grand way. Humans learn and know things, apart from their experiences, while animals only remember things sensorally.

“Well Robert the science on this subject has only started recently in the past century, we can’t possibly conclude this subject right now. There’s a lot more science needs to research before we could possibly come to the conclusion that animals can’t use language.”

Fun fact, going back as far as Aristotle, we have some good philosophical logic that actually supports what I’m talking about. Aristotle himself came to the conclusion that while animals do share certain traits with us, they cannot possess this element of reason. When pondering the subject of happiness, and explores the possibility of finding happiness through good food and drink, he says that ‘no, a human could never be happy through food and drink. This would be the life of a cow.’ What he meant by this is that cows can be plenty happy if they have enough food and drink and sensory pleasures that accompany them all their lives, but even when a man has plenty of access to physical pleasure and satisfaction, he always yearns for more.

In my article #2 – The Formal Cause of Man, I explore the idea of a hierarchy of forms that Aristotle and his subsequent philosophers discuss. The notion is that there are forms that have very little substance to them, but that there are other forms that have a lot more substance, that contain other little forms in a virtual way (possessing forms in an integrative way, not as distinct sub-components). The more widely encompassing a form is, the nobler it is. The most noble form is the form that precedes all other forms, that cannot be possessed by another.

Plants are noble than rocks. Plants have virtual forms that make it possible for plants to grow and reproduce. Animals are more noble than plants because they can do all that plants do, but on top of that can sense (yes, Aristotle said animals have feelings, too) and can use locomotion. Yet humans are more noble than animals, because humans can do all that animals can do and yet further possess the capacity for reason. For Aristotle, the capacity for reason, the intellect, is the defining feature of humanity.

As is the bulk work of my thesis Thomistic Linguistics, reason is the necessary ingredient to make language possible.

Now, let’s be clear about what animals can do: Animals can feel! That time Fido was sad you left for work and happy when you came back? Totally valid. Probably actually sadness and happiness. Sadness and happiness are feelings, elements of our existence based in the ability to feel or to sense, something animals are clearly capable of doing. Furthermore animals can communicate! It’s a ludicrous job to try to deem Koko and Michael as some obscure conspiracy theory. Obviously the researchers were successful in teaching the gorillas to use sign language to communicate. What is doubt-worthy is the notion that it was fully language. This, not because I question the use of grammar or syntax, but because the gorillas never used reason alongside the signs. Using signs to communicate feelings, needs, and motions of their sensory desires is indeed a feasible task (albeit complicated an impressive), but is not actually language. The gorillas never learned to gather abstract anything further than what was directly presented to them and remembered through their sensory organ (the brain). Your dog, clearly, is in fact communicating with you when you teach it a trick, but it doesn’t learn words as abstract notions – it associates sounds of words with specific sensory responses, and moves accordingly.

Until humans gain the power to magically alter someone’s form, no animal will be learning to use language.

Imp #3 – Artificial Intelligence (A.I.)

The topic of Artificial Intelligence (A.I., or Æ if you’re Grimes) is a difficult one. There are many layers to the subject matter, partially because of how far technology has already come with regards the matter. It’s easy to talk about Time Travel as some far off and different technology, totally unachievable by science, because there’s nothing in our modern time that even closely resembles it. In this year of 2020, though, we have plenty of supposed evidence that indicates that the arrival of a technology such as A.I. is imminent.

Ever since the dawn of computers, living technology as Artificial Intelligence has been at the fore of the human mind. Think Data from Star Trek, Skynet from Terminator, Ultron and Jarvis from the Marvel universes, the T.A.R.D.I.S in Doctor Who, and so many more. As soon as the study of neurology exposed and equated the seemingly simple function of the firing of neurons to electronic circuitry, the concept of Artificial Intelligence was easily made a prediction of the near-future. How can A.I. be created? It’s a matter of catching up with evolution. We have to figure out how to make efficient enough technology that coordinates together in a similar way to the human brain, and boom, we’ll have it.

Of course when your computer needs a whole small bedroom to fit in, there might not seem to be much hope for the future of Artificial Intelligence. This, of course, until we see the rapid development of efficiency in computer technology. The rapid development of efficiency is seen with Moore’s Law, which “is the observation that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years.”

With such a prediction of efficiency, it seems to make sense that at some point, Artificial Intelligence is all but inevitable. It should be no wonder that the human brain will be made to be inefficient, even, at some point in the future (if not already).

Thinking about this year 2020, we have already seen a lot of success in the field of A.I. IBM’s Watson was solidly invented in 2010 (but Watson’s capability has dramatically increased since then). Siri is another great and obvious example, along with all of the imitations thereafter, such as Cortana (named in honor of the honored Halo character) and Samsung’s Bixby. Even other styles of A.I., such as search engines, are huge. Duolingo’s whole program is based on Machine Learning technology (A.I. technology not necessarily purposed for direct two-way human interaction). Machine Learning is technology designed to ‘think’ for itself, adapting itself when encountering new data.

These technologies have their limitations, of course. There is so much left to be desired before Siri adapts herself into Skynet, and Cortana is in many respects lacking compared to her namesake. Watson can beat someone at Jeopardy, but couldn’t engage in a rhetorical debate.

As you may have guessed, by reading my last two articles, the normal assumption that I suspect out of society is ‘well science will figure it out eventually’ and my retort is that ‘science never will.’

This is an impossible modern possibility: we will never be able to create a truly ‘intelligent’ artifice.

Again, you might ask: “Now Robert you aren’t a scientist, how could you possibly know that we won’t ever be able to do this?”

The answer here, the answer for my first IMP, and the answer forever after, is that when we analyze the notion of A.I., we are using qualitatively different questions and modes of thinking than what you normally might assume. Instead of assuming, for example, that human existence is a complex composition of neurons and other biological components, I assume here that humans are a complex interplay of immaterial as well as material components. You can see those arguments here. If you haven’t already read up on those arguments, make sure you do before carrying on too much farther.

When understanding Aristotelian forms and how they manifest in the real world, we logically understand that some forms are more noble than others, by virtue of the fact that they contain other forms virtually, in a metaphysically simple fashion. Humans have a lot of moving parts, but these parts are not entirely indistinguishable from other parts. Their existence largely depends on the rest of what resides with the human body. The Aristotelian form of ‘human’ virtually contains the form of ‘heart’ and ‘lungs’ and ‘spine’ not like one form acting as a bucket holding a bunch of other individual forms, but as one giant seamless form.

In this tradition of teleology, human artifacts, like coffee pots, are not afforded a similar hierarchical position of nobility as trees, for example. The form of a coffee pot is regarded as a ‘composite’ form while trees and humans are regarded as a ‘simple’ form. This is because the forms contained by the form of coffee pot (heating element, on/off switch/ piping/ pot/ etc.) are all separately existing forms that cooperate together to accomplish a greater task. While human organs can technically be transplanted, humans were not originally built like a coffee pot, with all of the pieces starting out as entirely completed individual parts. Coffee pots, by design, did start out this way. If one part of the coffee pot breaks then it can be replaced with a new part, fixing it up just the way that it was put together in the first place.

Think of an orchestra, for example. The orchestra is composed of many cooperating units. For the time that all of the units cooperate together, they work together as a singular movement. Once they are finished, they break apart into their normal individual selves and the concert of their effort is complete. Ultimately we can say that humans are capable of crafting new immaterial forms, but only by adapting physical material, and by coordinating that physical material with other physical material.

A key element of human intelligence is the ‘intellect,’ an immaterial aspect of the human form, or soul. It’s main ability rests in abstraction, taking elements from the real world and re-shaping itself to imitate and understand them. The largest, and hugest, obstacle to re-creating Artificial Intelligence lies here, in the nature of the intellect. Furthermore, the intellect is paired with the ‘will,’ another virtual component of the human soul. The intellect itself even virtually contains two aspects – the passive and the active intellect.

This is a huge deal when it comes to talking about A.I. Our current technology does wonders with imitating our material abilities, like speaking, but no technology, not even Watson, understands. Further, the technology does not reason. No technology abstracts immaterial reality, contemplates what that immaterial reality is, and, as Aquinas says of the intellect, composes and divides these immaterial forms. It cannot ever ask, by itself and without direction, “What is that? Of what is that? How is that? For what is that?” Children, you see, do this without any direction from us and without having been taught to (although we certainly teach them how to do it better as they get older).

Necessarily, too, if the nature of the intellect and other aspects of the human form relating to intelligence and existence are immaterial things, we find a huge disconnect between our ability to create a coffee pot and our ability to know. We can modify a coffee pot and create other physical components (that have forms with them) but we have no way to create purely immaterial things.

Any human artifice, no matter how many organic synapses it replicates with electronic ones, can achieve the seamless and simple nature of the human intellect and will. Beyond that, no human artifice can create these immaterial forms. At best, human artifices can imitate them by creating individual material components that mimic something like the activities within, but as our creative abilities lie with modifying physical reality, and the nature of the intellect and will are immaterial, then we are forever at an impasse. Humans will never be able to create Artificial Intelligence.

Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there is one and only one specific way that humans are actually capable of creating immaterial forms – by having children.

IMP #2 – Time Travel

Who doesn’t expect time travel to occur? It’s all over our science fiction. In any real, fun, and good science fiction, time travel is explored in at least some minor fashion. Need I list all of the fiction of our time that explores the possibility?

Doctor Who
Back to the Future
Harry Potter
Meet the Robinsons
Men in Black
Star Trek
Star Wars: Rebels
Avengers: Endgame

Anyway…you get the idea. Certainly you can think of a list much longer than my own. The point is, time travel is one of those things that we don’t understand…yet. Science will, again, uncover it sometime in the near future and it will be great. All we need is that miracle scientific breakthrough, the magic key that allows us to do what no man has done before. Is there an ethereal Time Vortex, an element of physical space waiting to be traversed? A spacial wormhole that is warped, perhaps by a black hole, that we need to go through? Is it left to magic? Or do we rely on a more intimate connection with a universal force that transcends the body? Or, more obscurely, do we have to find a way to traverse the quantum realm, a degree of physical existence that is so unpredictable we might be able to navigate from one time period to another?

We could, of course, debate all of these minute elements of physical science, but at the end of every single line of debate we will necessarily end up at a question of metaphysics. What, even, is time? Is it an element of reality controlled by a stone? Sorry, that was my last rhetorical question poking fun at a movie…maybe…
But, seriously, is time an underlying force of physical reality? Is it another dimension of space, meaning that it can be traversed with the right vehicle?

For the present article, I have to admit, I will be relying heavily on the philosophical backbone of Edward Feser’s own blog about time. While I have not read his book Aristotle’s Revenge (but I probably should), I am not sure whether Feser directly addresses the matter of time travel. He does have, thought, in that previously linked blog post, a picture mentioning time travel…

Either way, when wondering about time and time travel, one has to conceptualize what the actual nature of time is, and what the consequences of that conceptualization would be.

What exists? You, at the time of reading this, but I may or may not. I might have suffered a tragedy and perished, but if you’re reading this then you certainly exist. But if I have already died, then I no longer exist. My body might exist in some decaying fashion, but that would be all. My person would not exist (in the physical world). When I have drawn a triangle in the sand, it exists. When the ocean washes away the triangle, it no longer exists. I am, of course, speaking of existence in the most strictest of terms. Either something exists or it does not.

If something, like that triangle, used to exist but no longer do, do they exist somewhere else? Most readily I answer: no. Memories of things are not the things themselves, and if they no longer exist in the physical world then they no longer exist. They don’t come back. It’s the terrible notion of death that plagues us all. They don’t keep existing on some back burner somewhere, hiding from our point of view until we want to ‘travel back in time’ and see them again. That beautiful (or terrible) first kiss only happens once. Peanut butter and jelly, mixed together, do not come apart again and into their original containers.

There is certainly evidence of the past having existed, but the point is that it no longer does. Were it not for human memory, were it not for human reason that can deduce temporally anterior causes, there would be no existence of the past, as far as we were concerned. If the past no longer exists, then how can we travel to it?

Similarly we can think about the future. The future is that which is yet to exist. In many ways it is so dependent on the individual choices that there are an almost infinite amount of possible ‘futures’ to go towards. The reality, though, is that one ‘future’ will come true out of all of them, and only one. Once that future comes it will exist, but the future does not exist until it does come.

This idea is explored by St. Augustine in his Confessions. The future is not a year from now, the past a year back, and the present a current year. The whole year does not currently exist. The future is not a day from now, the past a day back, and the whole present day that currently exists. The future is not a minute from now, the past a minute ago, and the present the whole current minute. The future is not a second from now, the past a second ago, and the present the current second. The present is but a fleeting moment, and yet the present is all that exists.

Feser, in his above article, argues that Aristotelians should be presentists, believing that the present is all that exists. The past is no longer accessible and the future isn’t accessible either. All a person has dominion over is the present. Why is that?

Here we answer the question of what time is: itself is nothing. Time is but a measurement of change. Remember what Aristotelian change is? We look at the reduction of potency to act. That change is the movement of future to present. Once that act suffers another change, that act moves into the past and it no longer exists. That is all time is.

So what would be necessary to traverse time? Is it a question of finding the right physical channel? Nope.

This is an impossible modern possibility: we will never be able to physically travel to the past and we will never be able to “travel” into the distant future.

To be able to travel in time means needing to transcend the reduction of potency to act, but can we ever do that? The sheer act of traveling in time, the idea at least, is itself a reduction of potency to act, not a transcendence of the movement of change itself.

At best, even if we could manage some level of transcending material change, existing sans-materiality, the type of time travel would never be something of a material journey – it would have to be an immaterial journey. As the past is only known through memory, we would essentially have to travel within someone’s memory. Once we were there, all we would be able to see is the immaterial. Here, essentially, think like Assassin’s Creed – going into “genetic memory” (a ludicrous idea, by the way) and reliving past experiences. But that isn’t really time travel, is it?

Of course, we are always traveling towards the future, and as we pass moment to moment one might argue we are time traveling into the future. One could even conceive of traveling to the future by means of some deep sleep that somehow preserves our bodies. But usually when someone talks about traveling to the future, an inherent sequiter is ‘and also traveling back to the past.’ But, as already argued, there wouldn’t be a return journey. So would it really count as “traveling” to the future?

In the end, the most resolute conclusion we can come to is that time travel is not, and never will be, possible. No future discovery of science will unveil the means for us to transcend causality and change, for if a subject of study transcended change, science would never be able to study it. Every moment preoccupied about the past or future is another moment of the present that is wasted.

Carpe diem.

IMP #1 – Transplanting Human Consciousness

This is one of the most fantastical ideas of the current time. In almost any successful sci-fi franchise or story, we see this idea of an ability to transplant human consciousness. It seems like such a cool idea! A human person has limits, right? We aren’t infinite creatures. If we have limits, then we can scope out those limits and quantify them, creating the ability to transfer personhood out of the body and into a computer. Well luckily we have science, a methodology whose whole aim is to scope out limitations, that will one day provide us with an answer to what those limitations are.

In terms of physiology, we’re pretty covered. We know the most inner workings of the human person. A lot of medicine isn’t necessarily about figuring out what the nature of the problems are, just what pieces are working together to cause a problem, and figuring out what pieces to put together to solve the problem. There are, however, a few key modern issues. Even though we have identified that neurons are the substrate of the human brain, the vehicle of thought, we have no idea how they work together to help us sense our world. Scientists have no understanding of how human consciousness manifests itself in this web of neurons, but one day they will. When they do, we will be able to transfer our human consciousness from body to body, or body to machine. Then…we would be immortal. We would transcend the need for a physical body.

The manifestation of this science fiction reality can be especially seen in a few modern pieces of cinematography: Amazon’s Upload, Netflix’s Altered Carbon, and Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie (2015).

In Amazon’s TV series Upload, a man is facing death, and has the option of being uploaded into a sort of virtual ‘heaven.’ He will have the ability to interact, in some contorted manner, with people back in the real world, but his new reality will become one that is totally fabricated by programmers. His consciousness is transferred out of his physical body and into the new computer that is his home.

Netflix’s Altered Carbon, a dystopian tale of a very dark complexion, is a futuristic film noir. The basic premise lies in the fact that, in the future, people are implanted at a young age with a ‘cortical stack,’ a hard drive that is inserted into the spine at the neck. Everything about a person’s memory is stored within that hard drive. Should that person die, then the stack can be planted into another body, degradingly called ‘sleeves,’ and the person’s life can continue on, albeit in a different and perhaps uncomfortable way. The show largely explores the exploitation of such technology.

Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie explores the ability of not only transferring human consciousness, but the creation of artificial consciousness (a theme to be later explored on its own). While most of the movie explores the consequences of creating a real and artificial intelligence, it also deals with the necessity of transferring consciousness between artificial and real bodies. [Spoilers] Multiple people die, but they are ‘saved’ by being transplanted into robots, and go on living in new bodies.

This is an impossible modern possibility: we will never be able to transfer human consciousness from one body to another, or from one body to a computer.

“Now Robert you aren’t a scientist, how could you possibly know that we won’t ever be able to do this?”

There are certain philosophical principles that we can know, and know to be true, that stand and say this. For the longest time in human history, it would not have been a feasible idea to distinguish a person from his body. The notion of a mind exists indistinguishably from his body. This all changed when Renè Descartes unwittingly founded modern philosophy. His famous phrase, Cogito ergo sum [I think therefore I am], comes from a philosophical idea that the center of human existence lies in the mind of a person. This mind is all that we can possibly know. Anything beyond our minds, the real world and our own bodies, for example, are distinct from our minds and therefore we are not able to be sure about their existence. There is an impossible divide between us thinking, therefore existing, and being, physically. For Descartes, God is a necessary being because he supposes God is the only reason that we can trust that what is around is truly there.

Later interpreters of Descartes would like where Descartes was going in his work, but would find the appeal to divine intervention a bit appalling, and would ignore it. Except if you ignore the thing that Descartes says holds the person together, then it creates a bit of a philosophical problem. This is known as a classical philosophical problem, the mind-body problem. It’s funny to call it a classical problem, as it only began with Descartes (~1600 A.D.). And of course, when modern philosophy has gone on as long as it has, and it hasn’t ever found a good solution for how to describe the human mind, it generally just gets kicked to the curb. We can observe the body – we can’t observe the mind. So let’s accept that the body exists, but we’ll forget about the mind until science turns something else up.

Ray Jackendoff, author of Foundations of Language, addresses the mind body problem in his own work about linguistics. He essentially argues that there is some reality of the mind, but not an immaterial mind that (wimpy) religious people appeal to. Nay, he instead appeals to a material mind that somehow exists collectively between the mass firings of neurons. He calls it the f-mind, the functional mind (this is a metaphysical fallacy of conceptualism, but I am not addressing that here). He doesn’t even prefer a term that maintains some use of the word ‘mind,’ as he thinks it maintains bad implications for understanding a very physical and material person.

In essence, what we have leftover in the current time and in the current thought of popular society is the notion that people are just a complicated sum of physical truths. We are a materially composite person, and a coincidentally existent creature that just so happened to evolve above other kinds of animals. The notion of a ‘mind’ is an illusion we have given ourselves about ourselves, because in truth we are just a complicated computer program – a calculable and predictable physical person. Again, we just have to seek the bounds of our physically limited reality and, once we do, we’ll be able to transfer our human consciousness out of our weak products of evolution and into stronger bodies of our imagination. We will beat evolution at its own game.

It’s just progress, guys.

Remember what I said about Descartes, however. The supposed ‘classical’ mind/body problem only originates in the 17th century. What about before? Were we just in a time of darkness and ignorance? Positivists might have you think that, those who think science and science alone will answer all of our questions and problems. But if we look into the depths of philosophical wisdom from the middle ages, and even our Greek ancestors, we would see that the answers to this question existed for a long time.

I’m going to suppose you already know what an Aristotelian Form is, as I described in my article here.

Since every changeable thing has a form, we can recognize that humans, as changeable things, have immaterial forms. This is logic that we have had since Aristotle, at least 1900 years before Descartes! Not only is this logic that stood alone on Aristotle, it was reinforced in a most dramatic way in the 1200s by a theologian and philosopher named St. Thomas Aquinas (much to the disappointment of other church members). Initially Aquinas faced backlash from using pagan philosophers to bolster his arguments, but the truth of the arguments eventually won out, and he is recognized as on of the greatest philosophers of all time, as much as theologian.

The notion of a form that underlies the human body, that exists indistinguishably from the body, that is an immaterial mind, is nothing like what modern philosophers suppose it to be. It is not a physically bound aspect of reality. While we, as humans, can gain dominion over the physical realm and even of the physical body, we have a very limited control over the immaterial realm of reality. We can obviously flex the powers of our own mind, but we are limited from directly interacting between our minds and other things in reality. We have to mediate what occurs in our minds through our bodies into reality. As much, since our minds are our forms, everything about our specific reality, most especially our body, is inherently tied to the form that gives us literal shape. Aquinas says that our inherent design is to exist in exact cooperation with our material bodies. Should we be lacking in our bodies, our natural bodies, then we would always be lacking. We would experience a bit of confused existence, unable to perceive things through a sensory body that doesn’t exist.

Since the only immaterial thing we have control over is our own form, no amount of cooperation between other people who also are metaphysically limited from controlling forms that are not their own will solve the problem. That is, it is metaphysically impossible for us to transplant another immaterial form. We can’t even transplant our own immaterial form. No technology will aid us in the project, either. Our technology, our fabrications, all exist solely within the physical realm. These physical technologies can only help but work in the physical realm that they were created within.

The immaterial forms of reality, and the immaterial forms that are our minds, exist beyond our physical grasp, and metaphysically lie out of our reach. There is no hope for us to one day transplant our consciousness.

Memento mori [remember you die].

Our physical bodies will ultimately fail. Funnily enough, though, I have some philosophical hope for you. You see, human forms are not the same as other forms in reality. A triangle’s form exists in tandem with the physical triangle that takes its shape, and when the physical triangle is gone, so does that instance of a form. Metaphysically speaking there isn’t much that happens with a triangle. Humans, though, have a bit more going on for themselves. Within the mind, the immaterial part of a human, there are multiple powers at play. The very act of change, the reduction of potency to act, happens all within the human mind (I elaborate on this here). This means that the human mind is metaphysically capable of subsisting beyond the death of the physical body. So, just because we can’t sustain our physical reality doesn’t mean we stop existing when we die. But what happens to the mind once it is separated from the body at death?

Meh, go ask a Catholic**.

**St. Thomas Aquinas