National Geographic ‘Breakthrough’ (Ep. 2)
Episode 2, “More Than Human, ” premiers Sunday night, Nov. 8, at 9/8c. More info here at the official site.
One of the biggest draws of National Geographic’s new six-week series called “Breakthrough” is its talent behind the camera: they’ve chosen six of Hollywood’s best directors to each make an episode that focuses on a different sub-topic around the theme of technological breakthrough.
Paul Giamatti, best known for his many memorable roles as an actor, is the director for Episode 2, called “More Than Human.” It’s a look at the latest robotics and exoskeleton breakthroughs that could change the potential of the human body in fundamental ways. The episode also has a few other mind-blowing tech surprises (the VEST was especially intriguing to me). I had multiple double-takes and, “Are you even kidding me?!” moments.
In this review I’m doing something a little unorthodox: I’ll dive into some of the amazing breakthroughs covered in this episode, but then I’ll explore some of the bigger themes — specifically the evolutionary, Naturalist themes that are included at certain points as Giamatti speaks with various scientists.
While this episode is much more open and bold about its secular Naturalistic worldview (compared to the first episode), I would still encourage any of our Christian readers to watch the show and allow it to prompt deep discussions with friends, family and co-workers. I would also ask you to consider my points below (in the sections about science and faith) in your post-episode talk. I believe that Faith and Reason can be far more compatible than people realize; and, in fact, faith can be a powerful change agent for good in the journey of scientific discovery.
Are We Becoming Cyborgs? And Is That a Good or Bad Thing?
Giamatti sums up his episode this way: “As our technology has gotten more and more sophisticated, it seems like it comes to dominate every part of our lives. The only place it has yet to fully invade is our actual bodies. But maybe that’s all about to change.”
He admits to having a pessimistic dystopian view about the whole topic, and he explains how much of that comes from his love of science fiction (which tends to imagine what happens when it all goes wrong and technology destroys what makes us human instead of helping it).
But the episode actually begins where it should: in the past. It shows fascinating footage of retro black and white films about the scientific ideas of yesteryear, and these old films prove that the desire to enhance our bodies through mechanical means is nothing new.
But from there it gets rather breathtaking when you see what people are developing today, including these remarkable new technologies:
1. An exoskeleton suit (pictured above) straight out of an Avengers movie that lets first responders hold giant pieces of equipment for hours on end without getting the least bit tired — a suit that, amazingly enough, can adjust to any — yes, any — body type. This technology essentially creates a new interface between the human body and robotics. This in turn will open a Pandora’s Box of exoskeleton suit technology. And I’m serious; many of the tech suits in the Avengers movies are not very far-fetched anymore. (Except for Ant-Man. That ain’t happening anytime soon, sorry.)
2. Scientists in Brazil have successfully created an interface between the brain and robotics — a brain-machine interface that allows people to control robots with their thoughts. Besides allowing people to control exoskeleton suits with their thoughts, they’ve found another possibility: the interface, which is basically hardwiring the brain to machines, can regrow lost neurological function in the brain in a way that helps paraplegics walk again. They’re basically reconnecting the brain to the muscles in their legs so that they can, once again, control their limbs with their mind like they used to do before they were paralyzed. It’s astonishing.
3. They take all of this a step further and demonstrate how the brain incorporates machines into its “representation” map of the body. In other words, the brain can adapt itself to perceive machines as if they were a part of the human body. Scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine theorize that the brain can work like a plug-and-play device and adjust itself to incorporate machines into its functioning as if the devices were limbs native to the body. One example is the Variable Extra Sensory Transducer (V.E.S.T.). The VEST uses sensory substitution to help a deaf person “hear” their environment through their sense of touch by retraining the brain to process vibrations felt on the skin (through a vest that the person wears) in the same way that the brain would process sound to create awareness of the environment. That’s my loose description of it anyways. Their next goal is sensory addition in which the VEST works basically like an adapter between the human brain and any machine you want to plug into the brain. The implications, like using the VEST to literally feel the flow of data (like stock market data, weather data, or Twitter data on a hashtag created for sentiment analysis) are mind-boggling.
4. Scientists at Harvard are looking into “biology as technology.” This includes things like changing the brain to interface directly with other human brains or placing the entire Internet in the brain. They are also developing naturally occurring robots called CRISPRs (i.e enzymes discovered in 1987 that function in the same general way robots do) and using them on a nano-level to do gene editing after the
y are injected into our cells. These little enzyme robots can literally cut and modify our genes, and the implications of such nuanced gene engineering are downright scary but also amazing.
Of course, it’s not hard to imagine the technology above being used for ill. The breakthroughs above will either lead to some amazing enhancements to the human experience or to the Golden Age of Super Villainy. (Gru from “Despicable Me” would be ecstatic.) My guess is it will be a complicated, messy mix of both. Time will tell.
Besides exploring all of the intriguing tech breakthroughs above, “More Than Human” also dips into the belief that the worldview of Naturalism and the theory of evolution give us the best trajectory for understanding the future and ultimate destiny of humanity. (And certain moments in the episode sort of imply that science is sufficient in itself for answering the big questions about the ultimate origin of life, etc.) This whole debate about faith and science fascinates me, so I am going to dig deep into it. If you’re not interested in that debate, feel free to skip further down to the Parental Guidance Section and the bio of director Paul Giamatti.
The Question of Naturalism and Evolution as the Explanation for Ultimate Origin (and Destiny)
“More Than Human” plants its worldview somewhat firmly in Naturalism/Materialism. It uses it not so much to discuss the past (i.e. knowing the ultimate origin of life) but to draw conclusions about our future.
Naturalism/Materialism are philosophies that say there is no supernatural or “spiritual” component to our being; we are made of matter and nothing else, and there are no “souls” or “spirits” or anything that exists as “us” outside of our bodies.
In conversations that director Paul Giamatti has with scientists, and in the narration as well, these cyborg breakthroughs (the remarkable new “union” between humanity and machine) are seen from the lens of Naturalism/Materialism, as far as I can tell. I’m working on limited information, of course, so this may not fully represent Giamatti’s or the scientists’ view points.
But, for example, we hear a scientist say that this new union of man and machine is the next evolutionary step of humanity playing out before our very eyes. In another moment, Giamatti speculates, “If our brains really are just electric meat in a black box, then replacing our entire body with plastic and metal parts shouldn’t really change our nature, right?”
In another conversation, Giamatti asks a scientist: “Shouldn’t we just let nature manage evolution like it always has?” The scientist replies by suggesting that this brain-machine interface technology is evolution at work, and he then makes a Naturalistic assumption: “We are being left alone as far as we know.” The scientist then talks about using the technology to create a genetic Noah’s Ark for humanity in the event that a meteor vaporizes our planet: “If we construct a Noah’s Ark with our species…then that is the ultimate in Darwinian success…The real thing is being ready for the unexpected.”
My question to that scientist (George Church) would be this: shouldn’t we also be ready for the unexpected by being open to the possibility that humanity’s faith revelations are more profound than many are willing to consider — that perhaps they are an intuitive understanding of very complex realities that we have yet to discover with the instruments of science?
In other words, don’t discount the “supernatural” or revelations of faith. What we define to be “natural” in the future might very well include what we think of as “supernatural” today.
For example, considering our growing understanding of multiple dimensions beyond our immediate physical reality that we experience with our senses, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that we each could have an extra-dimensional component to our being that can’t currently be detected — i.e. a facet to our being that exists in a plane outside of our current understanding of time and space (i.e. a Soul/Spirit). For this reason I find Naturalism/Materialism to be unimaginative considering all of the bizarre discoveries we’ve made in recent years about the nature of the universe. If theorists feel comfortable speculating about the multiverse (multiple universes existing outside of the space and time fabric of this universe), is it really that wild or unreasonable to postulate an “eternal” (i.e. extra-dimensional) facet to human life that might also exist external to the dimensional plane that enwraps our five senses?
In my opinion, having this open-minded approach in, say, theoretical physics — i.e. taking a faith-assumption like the claim of an “eternal” plane of existence that contains “souls” (the extra-dimensional properties of an individual) to generate new theoretical ideas — might lead us to new discoveries. The most radical discoveries in theoretical physics required very creative, open imaginations from those who wrote the theories. (Einstein, for example, trumpeted the power of creative thinking and imagination in his theorizing.) Naturalism/Materialism’s strict rules about what’s valid and not valid just seem too confining for our universe and its many bizarre but wonderful attributes that we continue to discover.
And while we’re on the subject, is it really that unreasonable to believe that there exists an extra-dimensional super intelligence (i.e. God) who exists on a dimensional plane completely independent from the ones we encounter with our senses? Is it a great leap to then believe that this extra-dimensional Being could come and go in our dimensional space and interact with us by using the “spiritual” (the extra-dimensional component contained in our being) as the “meeting ground?” (i.e. Prayer.) And if this extra-dimensional “uncaused” super intelligence had created our universe and its laws, would it be unreasonable to assume that this Being could suspend or violate those laws when the Being saw fit? (i.e. Miracles.)
(For example: I’ve met a man who died, was put on a morgue slab, and 40 minutes later came back to life. (His death was not a “close call.” He was extremely dead, as Monty Python might say. He had been stung by five box-jellyfish — one of the most lethal jellies in the world — and he had died within minutes. The things that he experienced after his death suggest to me that there are things about us and our physical reality that Naturalism cannot account for.)
Back to the episode.
Giamatti ends with this statement: “So we really are natural born cyborgs. We’ve evolved with technology, and we’ll continue to do so.”
He then observes — and rightly so — that this new technology can be used in wrong ways that dehumanize us, or it can help us. He says that he has been thinking a lot about what makes us human and what will someday make us “more than human.”
He was obviously referring to humanity’s new union with machines when he said “more than human,” and it really is an awe-inspiring and deeply frightening question to consider, as this episode so skillfully demonstrates.
However, we will never adequately answer the question of what makes us “more than human” or approach it with all of the necessary tools if we never take the faith claims that humanity has made seriously. We need to creatively explore how faith-claims about the nature of humanity and reality could enhance, not hinder, our journey into new areas of science and our understanding of what we discover.
Why Faith Would Expand, Not Shrink, the Scientific Imagination
In general, the assumption that science alone is adequate to answer the big questions about our origin and our destiny fits in the metanarrative in our culture that says, “Science is the ultimate authority because it has zero percent faith; it is 100 percent empirical.”
However, in my review of Episode 1, under the section “Yes, I’m Going There: Why the Theory of Evolution Involves a Faith-Assumption,” I explain how the use of evolutionary science to make the claim that there is no God actually contains its own set of faith-assumptions. All the religious vs. atheism conflicts aside, the biggest point of that section is this: science alone is inadequate to answer the big questions, and other branches of knowledge — i.e. philosophy, theology — are just as valid as science in ascertaining what is true and false.
In my opinion, the biggest example of this is not in the evolution versus creation or intelligent design debate. It is actually in the philosophical debates surrounding Logical Positivism and Verificationism that took place in the 20th Century.
Verificationism attempted to prove that “a statement is meaningful only if it is empirically verifiable…” as Britannica sums up. It upheld empirical knowledge to be the only valid approach to determining truth and falsehood. Part of the goal was to relegate the faith claims of religions to a sort of sub-class of meaning that is inferior to science. But Logical Positivism and its Verifiability Principle eventually collapsed under its own weight and, by the 1960s, was admitted (even by its creators) to be self-refuting. Yet its influence spread far and wide.
Oddly enough, the New Atheism movement (i.e. Dawkins, Hitchens) has built its foundations on the grave of Logical Positivism. Though (of course) that is just one chapter in a very long story in the faith vs. naturalism debate. In the end, I think it hurting us, not helping us, to have a legion of scientists who sneer at religion as an inferior understanding of reality.
I once sat on a bus with Nobel Prize winning physicist (though he won it for chemistry) Dr. Walter Kohn. He and I discussed String Theory, and it was a fascinating chat. But one of the great passions of his career has been to rebuild bridges of constructive dialogue between science and faith. I wish more scientists could see the potential in that dialogue.
It’s a shame, really. A greater inclusion and serious consideration of faith-claims would expand, not shrink, the scientific imagination and its potential.
To read my reviews on the other five episodes in the “Breakthrough” series, follow these links:
Parent Guidance Issues at a Glance for National Geographic Episode 2 of ‘Breakthrough’…
Violence/Gore/Scary Content: None.
Sexual Content/Nudity: In a brief scene, Giamatti, while visiting a book store, jokes about a sci-fi book using the title “cyborg sex assassin” as his memoir title, while talking with the bookstore owner about a book that has a cyborg sex slave as a character.
More Than Human Premieres Sunday, Nov. 8, at 9/8c.
Director Bio: Paul Giamatti
With a diverse roster of finely etched, award-winning and critically acclaimed performances, Paul Giamatti has established himself as one of the most versatile actors of his generation.
Giamatti was last seen as infamous ex-N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller in F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton,” released by Universal and Legendary in August 2015. Before this, he starred in Bill Pohlad’s critically acclaimed biopic “Love & Mercy.” Giamatti can next be seen in the independent feature drama “The Phenom,” written and directed by Noah Buschel, and in Showtime’s high-stakes drama series “Billions,” starring as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, premiering in 2016.
Giamatti was recently in Brad Peyton’s “San Andreas.” Before that, he produced and starred alongside Paul Rudd in Phil Morrison’s black comedy “All Is Bright” and lent his vocal talents to the English-language version of the Oscar-nominated French animated feature “Ernest & Celestine” and the highly anticipated feature-film adaptation of “The Little Prince,” directed by Mark Osborne.
[Note: if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy or my podcast Aslan’s Paw. Both seek to crack open the surprising treasures of Christian belief — the things that Western society has forgotten, ignored, or never encountered — with the help of logic, literature, film, music, and one very unsafe Lion.]