Pedestals 'R Us

There is nothing special about human beings. The greatest achievement of 20th-century science has been the removal of humanity from the pedestal upon which it had placed itself."

So writes Mark Ward in the concluding chapter of his provocative new book, "Virtual Organisms: The Startling World of Artificial Life" (St. Martin's Press).

The simplicity and directness of his statement startles. Ward's premise is that when computers can do all the things living organisms do, won't we have to say computers are alive?

If his premise is right, it undermines the philosophical and religious ground upon which I (and most people) stand. At first glance, there's much good in eliminating an exclusive anthropocentric and anthropomorphic view of life and God.

But what happens to the being breathing thoughtful breath, i.e., me? Am I being digitized into an on/off-circuit, a collection of bits and bytes?

As Ward reports, hundreds of researchers are active in this field, and many are predisposed to his point of view. They confront me with the dilemma traditional believers must have felt when Copernicus calculated that the sun, not the earth, was the center of our universe. People who sided with Copernicus did so quietly or were burned at the stake.

These information-is-life folks are in no danger of flames. But they do have to defend the position that digital information is as inherently valuable as love, awe, and humility to name but a few qualities that make us human.

And this doesn't even take into accounty humanity's universal tendency to worship and pray to a higher being.

Tom Regan's story examines the premises of a digital age - being human and being digital.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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