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SS 51 – Dr. Calvin Mercer – Social and Religious Implications of Life Extension

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Episode: 51

Guest: Dr. Calvin Mercer

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Dr. Calvin Mercer appears on the Soloman Success show to explain a little bit about what transhumanism is and what exactly defines a ‘human’. He talks about some of the future problems transhumanists might face when the technology allows you to modify your body in extreme terms and have it help you extend your life. He currently resides in North Caroline and has been teaching at the East Carolina University since 1985.

 

Key Takeaways:

7:25 – Fundamentalists are often anti-science and Dr. Calvin believes that it’s going to get very complicated in the near future when more powerful technology is available and more people question what being human is.

12:00 – The transhumanism community used to talk a lot about immortally. They understand that this subject can create problems for extremely religious groups because it gives them the image that they’re trying to play God.

13:40 – Many people are fine with enhancing yourself, but are not okay with enhancing your genetics that can affect future generations.

16:20 – Dr. Calvin finds that women are less likely to be open to different therapies and technologies that would make them live for over 100 years.

18:00 – A lot of the transhumanism communities consistent of computer engineers and other people in the technology field.

 

Tweetables:

“I want the academic/religious community involved in this conversation so they can better answer ‘what is a human being?’.” Tweet this!

“A human is the consciousness that you have and if you were to dl all your memories into a PC, it’s not the same thing.” Tweet this!

“The transhumanists want quantity of life in order to have more quality of life that lasts a longer time.” Tweet this!

 

Mentioned In This Episode:

http://www.jasonhartman.com/cw-290-%E2%80%9C100-how-the-coming-age-of-longevity-will-change-everything%E2%80%9D-with-sonia-arrison/

http://www.ecu.edu/religionprogram/mercer/

 

Transcript

Jason Hartman:

It’s my pleasure to welcome Dr. Calvin Mercer to the show. He teaches religious studies at East Carolina University. I wanted to have him on particularly, not just because of his many books and articles and so forth, but particularly because he focuses on an area in the radial life extension and transhumanism community of these social and religious implications of this stuff, which very few people talk about. I think this would be a fascinating topic today. We want to welcome him. Calvin, welcome, how are you?

 

Dr. Calvin Mercer:

I’m just fine. I have a head cold but I think we can do this. I appreciate your interest in your topic.

 

Jason:

Yeah, very interesting topic. You sound pretty good cold withstanding. First, I think for the audience, there may be a few people out there who don’t transhumanism is. Did you want to explain that?

 

Dr. Calvin:

Transhumanism is, I guess you could say, a scientific and cultural movement that is designed to use various technologies and therapies to enhance those qualities and traits that we consider desirable; Physical, mental, emotional; and to minimize those that we don’t like. Anything from baldness to can’t play a piano. We want to enhance those qualities that we consider desirable.

 

Jason:

Now, in the transhumanism movement, they’re thinking of this, I think, in a slightly different or additional way, which is the idea of not necessarily living forever in the body one has now, but sort of, downloading that information that the brain has into potentially another body or robotic type of situation. I mean, it gets a little weird. *Laughter*. Any comments in that area of transhumanism?

 

Dr. Calvin:

Well, transhumanists are a big community and they have their disagreements. I guess you could speak about the more radical, which is interested in the kinds of procedures that you’re talking about where you might identify what a human being is is their memory and their personality and if you identify with that, and can map it, then you perhaps download it in some sort of computer format. Other transhumanists are not interested in that more radial scenario and they just simply want to maintain the same structure of the body or humanity that we have and enhance it.

 

This gets into religious questions too. You know, what is a human being and in fact, I think that religious-ists that’s one of the way which they’re going to divide up. That they’re going to suggest that once we drop the body, to use a Hindu term, that’s a radical move for humanity and maybe leaving humanity behind as we know it. So, again, there’s different camps within the transhumanist community.

 

Jason:

Right and it just begs the question. You know, I believe that a human is the consciousness that they have and if you were able to download all your memories into some sort of computer or biological machine, if you will, for lack of a better word, I don’t know what to call it, I don’t know if that would be you. You know? *Laughter*. It’s not necessarily the same thing. These are very debatable issues and Ray Kurzweil and some of the Google folks are talking about or working on this stuff. It’s pretty interesting. It begs the question, what is a human?

 

Dr. Calvin:

Well, I’m certainly not going to answer that question, but I will say I think that’s one of the reasons I want the academic religious community to be involved in this conversation because they can help address that question of what is a human being. Certainly, to define a human being as a memory and personalities or information that’s recorded in our brain is, you know, anyway to think about it, but there’s those who would suggest that’s not a holistic way of thinking about what our humanity is meant to us in the past.

 

Jason:

Certainly. Talk to us about some of the social and religious implications. I mean, when you talk about radical life extension, maybe before you start, define what you mean there. I mean, what are people in this community talking about? Are they talking about living 120 years, 150 years, or a lot longer than that?

 

Dr. Calvin:

No. I think it was in the 1850s, you know, folks lived 40 years and now it’s 80, so we’ve doubled, but that’s not what we mean by radical. We’re talking here about body parts replacement or tissue regeneration, merging of computer technology and human biology, robotics, to give an indefinite extension to life. We’re talking hundreds, potentially thousands of years, and that’s what we mean by radical.

 

I think that the public is not anywhere near, kind of an awareness of the kinds of questions that we’re going to be facing. Really, the only question, I turn to the scientists to give me feedback on all of these. The question, it seems to me, is when. It’s not if this is going to happen, but when some of the technologies and therapies are going to come online.

 

My approach to all of this is been to foster a conversation. I think even if it’s 50 hundred years from now, we’re no where near our society ready to address the kind of implications. I know you have interest in physical matter and it’s critical important for people to like you to be engage in this conversation and look at the enormous physical implications of these kinds of changes that are coming.

 

Jason:

I couldn’t agree more. We already have a social security system that is essentially bankrupt. Granted, if people can keep working forever, not that everybody wants to do that anyway. *Laughter*. It’s probably okay if they live longer. They’re are of course the environmental people out there will have a problem with this because they want to see the earth’s population decline. That’s sort of a whole different discussion, which I think is rather scary. Yeah, it has been physical implications. Tell us some of the others? Is that what you were thinking of in terms of physical implications?

 

Dr. Calvin:

Yes, but keep in mind that one of the misconceptions about radical life extension is we’re going to have a lot of frail people hooked up to tubes. That’s not at all what kind of scenarios we’re talking about. We’re talking about the indefinite life and that’s a whole different scenario, which has on an economic, but political, social implications. I mean, I think this is the..there will be a point, I think, in our society when this will triumph global climate change, terrorism, or budget matters as the number one issue. We’re not there yet, but I think it’s going to be that revolutionary.

 

With respect to religion, what we’re going to see in religion, we’re going to see strange bedfell. Typically you can devise  religion as up to liberal conservatives, but it’s going to get very, very complicated, because the fundamentalists; and I’ve written about, in another area of research, I’ve written about fundamentalism. Fundamentalists tend to be anti-science and so, they accuse transhumanists of playing god. They’re going to be joined liberal or main line religion-ists and  theologians who have a concern about the transhumanists scenarios, because they think it’s going to be the privilege of the wealthy class and the publicly powerful class. That’s going to be a strange bedfell.

 

On the other hand, the liberal main line theologians and thinkers are open to science if it can help relive human suffering. I think they’re going to be joined by some fundamentalists who, at a very basic level, have a desire for survival. I mean, that’s a fundamental human instinct apart from your religion. So it’s going to be a very interesting and complicated in the religious community, I think.

 

Jason:

Yeah, I agree with you. I agree with you. Talk to us more about, I mean that’s how people on different sides of the aisle might come together or come apart. What are the religious and social implications? Let’s kind of drill on a few of those if we can. We talked about defining what a person is. This is just so reminiscent of the abortion debate, when life begins. Here we’ve got, I guess, to figure out, when it ends. If the body dies and the consciousness or the memories are still alive is the person still dead? It’s a very fascinating topic.

 

Dr. Calvin:

Well, let me speak to that at another slant. It’s gonna be impossible to generalize how the religions of the world to respond to this. They’re going to respond in different ways. At this point, discern one emphasis in that religions are going to critique transhumanism, saying that this group focus inordinately on the quantity of life rather than quality.

 

Now, I actually think that is unfair to the transhumanists. I hear the transhumanists saying they want quantity of life hundreds of years or whatever in order to have more quality of life that lasts a longer time. This is going to be, if there is one general thing, that the religions are going to weigh in on is going to remind us is that the quality of life is important and by quality, we mean moral, spiritual development and not just quantity.

 

Here’s another little interesting side point about religion is that, as I’ve observed the transhumanist movement, they become very savvy with the understanding that they’re programs and processes need to be accepted by the general public and the general public, for good or bad, is heavily influenced by religion.

 

So, the transhumanist, for example, they don’t talk, at least in recent years in my view, as much about immortality. That one use to be used more. I think, they understand that this can create problems for some religious types who feel like that if you’re trying to offer immortality, you’re playing God. You get arguments that these therapies and technologies are doing is not offering immortality, but simply doing exactly what traditional medical science has done, which is extend life, but simply doing it in a quantitatively, much more radical fashion.

 

Jason:

Where do you stand on this if you’re willing to share that. *Laughter*.

 

Dr. Calvin:

Well, my main focus in my writing and in my work has been to get the conversation going and there are sort of lines of positions that are beginning to emerge. One is therapy versus enhancement. In other words, if you say you are performing therapy on your body to bring it to its normal function, that’s one thing, but when you’re enhancing it that becomes abnormal. I’m not..I’m much more open to enhancement. I am, however, I have to say, leery of enhancement that eliminate the physically of our human experience.

 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t go there, but I’m saying we need to think really long and hard before we take that step, because that is a significant step that changes everything. Another thing, sort of position that is drawn sometimes is the distinction between enhancing yourself and making changes, perhaps genetics, that alters all future generations and that is..

 

Jason:

That’s a very interesting point, because it alters genetics for your progeny. Wow. Yeah.

 

Dr. Calvin:

So, many people will draw the line there. Okay, we’re fine enhancing yourself, making your life better, but you can’t put something into the gene pool that’s going to alter humanity. That’s another issue.

 

Jason:

Okay, wait so. What would some of those examples be? Like, what would one do? They’d change their sperm and egg? Or they change something about their own body that’s genetic, does that change…well, the eggs are already all produced at birth, so you know, does it change the sperm? Is that how it’s carried to the next generation?

 

Dr. Calvin:

Well, you’re asking a science question. I’m not sure I want to talk too much about the science, because I’m not a scientist.

 

Jason:

Yeah, I understand.

 

Dr. Calvin:

Germ line genetic engineering. Germ line genetic engineering means altering genetic and material in a way that impacts our progeny. That’s the line there I think.

 

Jason:

What else do you want us to know about this topic? We’ve got a few minutes left. I don’t know exactly where to go, but it’s fascinating for sure.

 

Dr. Calvin:

Well, I think, I heard your interview, excellent interview, with Sonia and you raised a question a couple of times about population and I just wanted to add a couple of things about that..

 

Jason:

Yeah, good, good. By the way, just for the listeners, that’s an interview I did on the Creating Wealth show with Sonia Arrison. I can’t remember the title of her book, but it’s something about leaving to 100, I believe. As I recall it and she was a fascinating interview, I think that might have been 290 is what I want to say, but go ahead. *Laughter*.

 

Dr. Calvin:

100+ it was the name of her book, I think, but just a couple of quick points about that since you did raise that a couple of times. One, you could, I mean nothings going to be this simple, but you can have a law that if you’re going to participate in these therapies that are going to have you live indefinitely, you can’t have children and if you’re going to be a “normal” rather than an enhanced human being, then you can have children.

 

Another point that some have made is that, when you’re saying to me an unborn have more rights to live than a fully functioning human being, so just a couple of points about the population, another kind of interesting thing is we do not have the kind of social science data that we need to know how this is going to play. How this is playing out in the society.

 

My anecdotal information and by that I mean, as talking to the dental assistant while she’s working on my teeth; when I’ve been working over the past years what I’ve found, again, this is not scientific, this is anecdotal, is that women are less likely to be open these kinds of therapies and technologies than men.

 

So, it won’t be this simple, but if you say to a man, “Here’s a pill that can have you live 500 years, would you take it?” The man, in general, tends to say, “Damn right! Give me some water.” The women say, “Uh, no. I don’t think so.” When you acquire about that, what they say is, “I don’t want to live 500 years if I don’t have my children and my husband and my family with me.” Now, if you say, okay, what if all of them took the pill? Then they’re much more open. So, the gender approach to this is very, very interesting to me.

 

Jason:

It is. The men are willing to be lone wolves *Laughter* and the women want to be with their family.

 

Dr. Calvin:

Just another interesting aspect to all of this because I’ve been to these conferences. The first one that I went to was many years ago. The leading cryogenic organization, they brought me to give me a presentation on religion. I was very interested to see who was at the conference and who were the enthusiasts at these various futuristic conferences.

 

You might think that it’s aging hippies who don’t want to die and they’re trying to figure out how to avoid that, but really, a lot of the transhumanist community at these various conferences are younger people, computer scientists, engineers, information technology. This puzzled me at first. Years ago when I started looking at all this. It really puzzled me about what’s going on here. At best I can figure is, you know, we’ve settled the west and we’ve been to the moon. This is, this is, one of the next frontiers and it’s just fascinating to people who are in the line of work that might make some of these unfold.

 

Jason:

Very interesting. Interesting stuff. Well, this subject will be hotly debated in the upcoming years and decades I’m sure. Give out your website if you would Calvin and tell people where you can find out more about your work.

 

Dr. Calvin:

Well, I think probably the best way is to just Google my name. Calvin Mercer. I’m also a local politician here in my region, so if they just get to my university website. That’s probably. Just Google Calvin Mercer, Easy Carolina University and that’ll take you to my website and I will, after this interview, update it to make sure it’s updated.

 

Do I have time to mention one of my projects?

 

Jason:

Sure, absolutely.

 

Dr. Calvin:

So, one of the most interesting projects that I’ve just signed a contract with Palgrave Macmillan to co-edit with a scholar from the UK. What’s called Palgrave studies in the future of humanity and it’s successors. This is not going to be a serious just devoted to religion. It’s going to be playing on Palgrave’s expertise in humanistic and social sciences, so it’s going to take the science that we’ve been talking about as the background here and talk about the social implications and humanistic implications of this. We tend for this to be the premier series of books that will really work on all of these kinds of questions that we were talking about today.

 

Jason:

Yeah. That’ll be fascinating, so that’s definitely something to check out. Do you have an estimated completion date?

 

Dr. Calvin:

Well, I’ve got two co-edited books coming out later this year myself. One of them is going to be the first book in this series. We’ll be putting out several books a year and the first one will come out in this fall.

 

Jason:

Fantastic. Well, Dr. Calvin Mercer thank you so much for joining us today. Google Calvin Mercer, East Carolina University. You can get a lot more information about his work and thank you so much for joining us.

 

Dr. Calvin:

Thank you and again, we do need people in various areas like you to bring these kinds of questions about the economics of this and the politics of this to the developments that are coming. It’s very, very important. Thank you.

 

Jason:

Yep! Fascinating stuff. We’ll keep talking about it, I can assure you that. Calvin Mercer, thank you for joining us.

 

Dr. Calvin:

Thank you, sir.