[Sermon] Doing Human: How Humanity’s Creative Impulse Could Make Our Species Extinct

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah – Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779

 
Have you watched the TV serial HUM∀NS? First broadcast on Channel 4 in 2015, the third series finished in the early summer. HUM∀NS, written with an upside down ‘A’, is sci-fi, but it is set in the very near future, just around the corner… Indeed, everything about the setting looks just like life today, except that robots have been created to do what humans don’t want to do, both on the domestic and work fronts. Called, ‘synths’ the robots look exactly like humans, but their heads move very slowly, they are nourished by electrical charge rather than by food, and when injured, leak turquoise blue liquid rather than blood. And of course, the synths have extraordinary powers, both intellectual and physical. The focus of all three series is on the social, cultural and psychological impact of the creation of the synths, and in the last series, in particular, on the ethical issues that arise when, as a result of a complex accidental re-programming, the synths awaken to full consciousness, which means that they now have feelings. At the moment that the synths become conscious, which involves becoming aware of their enslavement to humans, there is an outbreak of extreme violence that results in the deaths of tens of thousands of humans. In response, the authorities decide that the synths must be eliminated. But the synths have human advocates, in the form of a particular synth-owning family, who challenge the plan on the basis that conscious synths feel pain, both emotional and physical. What ensues is a struggle to defend the rights of the synths in the face of the planned genocide. Needless to say, the synths themselves do not all respond in the same way to their predicament. Some of them, want to reach out to humans believing that humans and synths can live peacefully together. Meanwhile, others, arguing that humans have proved themselves to be bent on domination and exploitation, become terrorists.

If you haven’t watched HUM∀NS, I’m sure it sounds very far-fetched. But is it? Right now, teams of scientists and technologists around the world are dedicating huge amounts of resources and ingenuity to the development of artificial intelligence and robotics. Is it far-fetched to suggest that given the astonishing extent of technological development over the past century, that there won’t come a time – and perhaps that time might arrive sooner than we think – when we reach the point of being able to create synthetic humans that are almost/just like us? So, what would the consequences be for society? We take it for granted that we control the things we make. What would it feel like to live in a society in which biological humans control synthetic humans? How would we justify our domination and exploitation, when the objects of our control look like us? And what if, in the process of refining synthetic humans, robots with programmed intelligence develop a consciousness that mirrors our own?

But the issue is not only about the emergence of a new binary between biological humans and synthetic humans. There is an even larger question for us to address concerning technological developments transforming our very nature as human beings. During the past 30 years, our technological wizardry has resulted in a stupendous acceleration, which has seen, for example, a mobile phone morph into a mini computer. And soon, it may be possible to do away with external devices altogether by inserting microchips into humans. Who would have thought that when we first invented the aeroplane and so found a way of transcending our biological limitations as a species destined to get from place to place by running on our two upright legs – rather slowly we might add, compared to other creatures – our zeal for extending our powers might result in being able to transcend our biological nature – and even our biological needs – altogether? Perhaps, for example, food scarcity might be solved by the invention of synthetic nutrients. And perhaps, the hazards, pain and trauma of childbirth might one day be overcome by incubating the foetus in an artificial womb. Could it come to pass that the unique creative abilities that mark out homo sapiens as a species, rather than our capacity for destruction might, in the end, result in our making ourselves extinct?

Since the Great War a century ago, and following the Sho’ah, the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the accumulating evidence of our devastating impact on the environment, people have expressed increasing concern about humanity’s capacity to destroy the planet. For the most part, that concern has focused on the way in which we have harnessed our technological capacities for destructive purposes. And frequently, the preoccupation with humanity’s destructiveness has been linked with the notion that while our technological abilities have evolved, our inner drives remain as irrational as they were thousands of years ago. But maybe, we should be equally preoccupied with humanity’s boundless capacity for creative invention.

Of course, there are many theories about what it is to be human. Interestingly, Jewish teaching offers important insights. As the havdalah ceremony at the end of Shabbat reminds us, when we light the multi-wicked candle and say a blessing for the lights of the fire, and so demonstrate the first creative act after the day of ceasing from work, fire has, both, creative and destructive possibilities. We can use it to heat our homes and cook our meals, and we can also harness it for destruction. Jewish teaching focuses less on the nature of being human and more on what humans do for good or ill. As we see in the first creation narrative in the Book of Genesis, God is less Being than Doing: creating the world in a series of acts, expressed repeatedly, with the Hebrew root, Ayin – Sin – Hei, to ‘do’ or to ‘make’. As Rabbi David Cooper puts it, God is a Verb1. This first account of creation, speaks of God creating the human b’tzelem Elohim – ‘In the image of God’2. So, just as God created the world through a series of actions, human beings, created in the Divine image, act on the world. And as we act on the world, we have the capacity, both, to create and destroy in equal measure. This Jewish perspective on what it means to be human actually meshes with what scientists have said about human evolution. What distinguishes homo sapiens from our great ape relations is our ability to use our hands. And so, the first human ancestors worked out how to make fire and fashion tools and weapons – and also covered their cave dwellings with paintings.

The human ability to creatively transform our environment is graphically illustrated in the story of the Tower of Babel, recounted towards the end of No’ach, the second parashah – portion – of the Book of Genesis (chapter 11). Significantly, when people came together to build a tower that would scale the heavens, they made it out of bricks, rather than stone. We read: ‘They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly”. And they had brick for stone, and slime for mortar. Then they said: “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with his top in heaven”’3 While stone comes directly from the earth, bricks, are made by humans out of the earth, specifically, out of clay, sand and lime, which is fired. The city, the tower; when the first humans emerged out of caves and began to build dwellings, they began to fashion a built environment, and to have an impact on the natural world. Of course, even a garden, by definition, represents human mastery over the natural environment.

During the past year, we have been painfully aware of the devastation caused by the fire that incinerated Grenfell Tower in North Kensington in London on 14 June 2017, resulting in the deaths of 72 people and an ongoing tragedy for the survivors, who were made homeless, their families and the local community. Almost exactly a year after the Grenfell Tower fire, the Glasgow School of Art, a stunning building designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, was consumed by fire4 – the second fire in four years5, except on this occasion, the conflagration was so intense that it has damaged the school beyond repair. The two edifices couldn’t be more different – the one, an ugly emblem of the worst of social housing and bad planning, the other a testament to our human capacity for creating beauty. In both cases, the fire that brought such destruction was not deliberately ignited, but in both cases, the respective enquiries will no doubt demonstrate that responsibility lies in the hands of people, who failed in one way or another to do what was necessary to safeguard the buildings. On the surface it may seem as if the doing human is always presented with a binary choice, between creation and destruction. But reality is more complex. Our capacity as doing beings to act on the world means that we have to bear responsibility for all our actions, constructive and destructive, and for the outcomes, sometimes unintended, of everything we do.

In a short while, we will hear the blasts of the shofar, the ram’s horn. Significantly, the shofar is not a musical instrument. Like a trumpet or a flute, it creates sounds with human breath, but unlike these and other wind instruments, it is not crafted by human hands, and it is devoid of keys and stops. All that it takes to sound the shofar is breath – nishmat chayyim, ‘the breath of life’ that as we read in the second creation story in Genesis brought the first human to life6. Even more important, although an individual blows the shofar, the mitzvah, ‘commandment’ or obligation, associated with the shofar is not the blowing and making of the sounds, but rather the act of listening: Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, whose commandments make us holy and who commands us to listen to the voice of the shofar – lishmo’a kol shofar. So today, on Rosh Ha-Shanah, harat olam, ‘the birthday of the world’, as on Shabbat, we are called to cease from our work, to cease from doing and making in order to listen. We are called to listen, not as our creaturely cousins prick their ears to listen out for prey or predator, but rather to listen to the voice that is beyond our human occupations and preoccupations, the wordless voice of a ram’s horn that not only recalls our past as a people and heralds the future, but also summons us to be present now in this moment. How might we ensure that our creative capacity to transcend our biological limitations doesn’t in the end render our species extinct? Some might argue that all we can do is devise stringent legally binding regulations and controls. The blowing of the shofar suggests another way. Perhaps, if we pause to listen, if humanity pauses to listen, we might hear the breath that whispers and rasps within us every moment of our lives and rediscover the ancient wisdom contained in the Torah: that doing is, paradoxically, inextricably bound up with ceasing; and that there can be no work without rest and no rest without work. As we mark the New Year, may we listen deeply and breathe deeply and learn to cease as well as to act. And let us say: Amen.

1 God is a Verb. Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism by Rabbi David A. Cooper. The Berkley Publishing Group, New York, 1997.
2 Genesis 1: 27
3 Genesis 11:3-4a.
4 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-44507189
5 https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/nov/26/glasgow-school-of-art-fire-foam-canister-report
6 Genesis 2:7.

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