I first heard the term avatar in connection with computers. It was the time of Second Life, the online virtual world that became famous around a decade ago. Second Life users create virtual representations of themselves, called avatars, which are able to interact with other avatars, places or objects. Then in 2009 James Cameron’s film came out and the word had truly arrived. According to Wikipedia avatar also refers to a village in Qazvin Province, Iran, a guitar synthesizer and a Swedish melodic death metal band. I was vaguely aware of the terms Hindu origins, but it was not until I heard an episode of BBC Radio 4’s programme about religion Beyond Belief that I began to have a clearer understanding of what an avatar really is.
Derived from the Sanskrit avatra, meaning descent, an avatar is a deity takes human form in order to return to Earth. The purpose of the visit is to restore order. Krishna and Ram are both avatars. And, according to some beliefs schools, so are Jesus and Buddha.
These parallels with Christianity are interesting. The common translation of avatar as incarnation is rather misleading. Appearance or manifestation would be perhaps more accurate. In mainstream Christianity Jesus and God are one in the same. The concept of an avatar corresponds to versions of Christianity that fell by the wayside and which came to be regarded as heresies. Docetism is defined as “the doctrine according to which the phenomenon of Christ, his historical and bodily existence, and thus above all the human form of Jesus, was altogether mere semblance without any true reality.” The idea was that Jesus only seemed to be human, and that his human form was an illusion. Docetism was unequivocally rejected at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and is regarded as heretical by just about every branch of Christianity.
I am also interested in the use of avatars in our secular age. The programme features a company called Eterni.me. They collect what you have created during lifetime, and using complex Artificial Intelligence algorithms, process this huge amount of information. With this they can generate an avatar that imitates your personality. This avatar will then be able to interact with family and friends once you have passed away. Here is what they say on their website:
But what if you could be remembered forever?
A legacy for your family
What if your children or grand children would know more about you and your life? What if they would be more like you, think more like you?
Everything you did
What if all the important events, adventures and thoughts in your life would be accessible to future generations, who never met the real you?
A living proof of you
And what if, more than that, they could really interact with your memories, as if they were talking to you in person?
Creepy is the word that most obviously comes to mind. But I do have curiosity about this idea. Of course in one sense it is not new. Photographs have been a source of comfort for years. The Victorians would even take photographs of the dead. Post-mortem photographs may strike us as morbid, but they were believed to help in the grieving process. Being the only visual remembrance of the deceased, they were among a family’s most precious possessions. Here is one of a deceased baby:
More recently videos have performed a similar function. Séances were an attempt to interact with loved ones. Although as one wag said: Talking to the dead is easy. Getting the dead to talk back is the hard part. You would think that or most people interacting with this ersatz family member would not be satisfying, but who knows how future generations will react.
We may be living in a secular age, but utopian thinking is very much alive and plans to perpetuate itself for ever. The Singularity is the most famous example of this worldview.
Ray Kurzweil, its most famous evangeliser summed it up like this:
“The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today — the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.”
By 2045, some futurists believe, humans will be able to achieve digital immortality by uploading their minds to computers. It is a fascinating possibility, but for critics it is a secular version of the hypothetical Christian Rapture. Philosopher John Gray says “the Singularity echoes apocalyptic myths in which history is about to be interrupted by a world-transforming event.” Like Gray I am sceptical that Kurzweil’s vision of immortality is something I would want. Would it not be just a cartoon version of us? But I suppose the Singularity and as a means of cheating death will have to be a topic for another post. I will leave you with Gray’s sceptical view on the subject.