March 23, 2012
But I don’t know and I keep on not knowing, and I hang on to that as to a redemptive handrail.
– Wislawa Szymborska
Once, long ago,there lived a girl whose grandfather told her that the world couldn’t be changed. That the poor would always be with us, and that we had a duty to care for them. But what of a world where no one would ever have to be poor? Such dreams, for him, were unthinkable.
Meanwhile, on other occasions, this same grandfather liked to express the opinion that the world was getting worse. Conditions were deteriorating all the time – not just in terms of the environment and people’s material well being, but socially, spiritually. A crisis of meaning, if you will. He argued that the only possible solution was to try to revert to a previous time. His granddaughter didn’t know how to tell him that the worsening of conditions that he so greatly feared was itself a change, and that any attempt to recreate the conditions of the past would be yet another alteration of the natural order of things. The world is constantly changing, but the truth is that these changes occur so quickly that often it does not seem to be changing at all. You can’t step into the same river twice, said Heraclitus. No, Parmenides corrected him. You can’t step into the river even once.
Many, many years later, this granddaughter grew into a woman who lived in a world that truly could not be changed – a cookie-cutter paradise made of milk and honey, a solitary realm where all living things were as immobile as the sky above them seemed to be. No one knew that the sky was moving, the stars were moving – everything was moving except for that tiny patch of ground upon which their paradise had been engineered. Of course, those in power knew all the truths of the universe, but they were completely on the side of Parmenides – even the planets’ orbits were nothing but an illusion. In some respects the universe was moving, but in the ways that mattered it really wasn’t moving at all.
Meanwhile, the inhabitants of this place were aware on some abstract level that the former world – indeed, the world that most of them had entered hungry, cold and screaming as naked primates – had been very different from the motionless realm they now inhabited. Pain had still existed then, along with time and change, death and decay. Now, at least a trillion years had passed since the last human death, and these celestial beings who’d come to replace their primitive ancestors had built a world that could make the lush landscapes described in the biblical creation stories seem like the most barren desert, a graveyard filled with all the world’s past injuries. And yet, despite the fulfillment of this long-expected promise, many of this paradise’s inhabitants were not satisfied with the strange island that their beautiful globe had morphed into.
The woman – if she could still be called that – barely recalled the life she’d led before being transformed into a robotic angel. She vaguely recalled being a child – a young girl who ran around a crowded schoolyard playing tag with the other children, who relished the touch of her mother’s hand braiding her hair, or her grandfather enfolding her in an embrace. Then again, she also — just as vaguely – recalled the pain of trying to stand up on the soccer field and finding she couldn’t, only later to learn that her ankle had been twisted, or else lying in bed for two weeks in eighth grade while recovering from an ear infection. She remembered womanhood and the first delights of physical love; meanwhile, she recalled the excrutiating pinch that consumed her entire body as she gave birth to her first and only child. She also remembered the changes brought on by old age, the constantly aching knees, the sagging and unfurling of skin, the frequent back pain. But then, just before she could leave this world for the beyond that she still believed in, paradise was made, and before she could protest she was given a new body that would never need to know suffering, and a new mind that would know better than to hope for the existence of any world beyond what a telescope could see.
Nevertheless, even after trillions of years, she had not given up her belief in that other world. She knew that it still existed, and she was determined to find it. The fool’s paradise where she had complacently existed for so much time was not enough for her. She was tired to stasis. Once again, she recalled her father’s words, his conviction that the world could never be changed. What would he say if he were here now – if he’d lived to see his description become the only reality? Then, she remembered another story that he’d told her – that of a woman whose insatiable curiosity had first granted death a foothold in the world. Now, it was time to do it again. To open the box, to let in the ghosts, to take a bite of the once-again forbidden fruit.
September 8, 2011
I was supposed to be born in the Middle Ages. I would have been in abbess. Yes, that’s right. An abbess like the one Heloise became after Abelard abandoned her, or a mystic visionary like Hildegard of Bingen. I would have had spectacular visions and written beautiful poetry, and I would have been happy for most of the duration of my brief but enchanted life.
I almost got my chance, standing there in the line with all the other souls. The problem was that so many of the others saw the opportunity as well, and they all jumped on it. I am convinced that the formless soul who cut me in line was the one who eventually grew up to be the real Hildegard. I’ll never know for sure.
The age that followed – for a long time called the “Renaissance” or “rebirth” until demoted to the less grandiose-sounding “early modern period” – did not appear to offer quite as much of a possibility to me. Yes, there were still mystics in monasteries – it was the age of St. Teresa, after all – but I think that my bitterness from the first lost opportunity made me lose interest in that way of life. And really, it wasn’t so much about faith anymore during this time. It was about men going out and making scientific discoveries and beautiful art while the women stayed home and made babies. Of course, this was true in many places and times, but something about this era irked me. I stood back and let others step ahead of me, deciding it was better to wait.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries appeared to offer many more prospects. I could have been a hostess of one of the great Paris salons, with all the best philosophers and artists of the time coming to my door, or I could have been a pioneer woman traversing the American prairies with my family in tow. But once again, for some reason, these possibilities just weren’t appealing; I felt that I could do better somehow, and so, once again, I decided to wait.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seemed to offer much more possibility: slavery had officially ended in the West; women were getting closer to the vote. And then, to think I could have been a soup-stirring heroine of two world wars – wow. Perhaps much too foolish in my preconceptual state, I rushed at the chance, but just as I was about to fall to earth, a pair of unseen hands seized me and shoved me back into the queue. And suddenly, I got the dreadful feeling that I had waited too long, that I should have settled for an earlier possibility, because now I didn’t want to go at all. I turned this way and that, wondering if I could find a way to hide, to blend in so well with the rest of the other ethereal souls so as to never get sent out at all.
But, just as this thought was crystallizing, the strong hands grabbed me again and pushed me the way a man throws a scared dog into the water. I woke up crying in a sterile American hospital on June 4, 1983.
The first years of my life were pleasant and uneventful. The world around me was frought with problems – war, genocide, natural disasters, the first signs of environmental and economic collapse – but due to the universe’s injustices my own childhood and youth were peaceful and idyllic. Now, just over five hundred years later, I can’t help but yearn for the time when all of us were still human: when we still ate and spat and made love (rather than merely imagining we were doing so); when we still had bodies and all the limits they bring, when there was still some mystery left in the universe.
And so, even now I wish I’d made a different choice. I would have been born in a time when it was still considered acceptable and perhaps even beneficial for people to grow old and die. Of course, I still had that option for myself – I could have chosen not to receive the technological enhancements I did. But, it was hard to refuse this prospect when everyone around me – my husband, my children, my friends – all insisted on becoming machines. I yearned to return to the preconceptual ether, but I didn’t want to leave the ones I loved, no matter what decisions they chose to make.
And so I’ve stayed, and all I can say is that the brave new world we’ve created in an attempt to keep on sneering at entropy even as it continues to gently unravel us is nothing at all like what anyone thought it would be. There is no fear anymore, it may be true, but as a result there is no courage; there is no more sadness, but because of that there is no genuine joy. And, until entropy finally has its way with us, some might argue that there is no death. But all that means to me is that this slippery state we’re currently in can hardly be called life.
Bob Dylan said it best: “Oh the times, they are a-changin.'” And while this poignant ballad is often characterized as an anthem of the politically and socially turbulent 1960’s, it probably could be applied to any time period, including the one in which we are living right now.
The times are changing. Faster than most of us can even hope to keep up with. And we are changing too. I did not begin using the Internet until 2001, and before that, as a stubborn Luddite teenager I declared that I would never have an email address. Now I have five, plus a Facebook account, plus this blog. The Internet has changed my life. I’ve managed to stay in contact with far-flung friends I probably would have lost otherwise; nearly all the information I need for my academic research is at my fingertips; my attention span has shortened drastically, and I suspect that I’ve gotten a lot less done in these ten years than I would have otherwise. I am sure that this experience is common to many. But, whether we like it or not, technological advances are happening all the time – nanotechnology, biotechnology, artificial intelligence. Apparently, soon we’ll be able to manufacture goods in miniscule factories and choose which genetic traits to give our children. But in my view, all of these issues pale in comparison with the one that seems the most like a narrative of a science fiction novel, but still holds the potential to become an all-too- real phenomenon: the technological singularity.
What is the technological singularity? Since I am not the best equipped person to explain it, I shall direct curious readers toward this three-part description by the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a nonprofit organization devoted to researching and ultimately developing above-human artificial intelligence. Basically, the singularity entails the technological creation of smarter-than-human minds, leading to a drastic change in reality as we know it. Since our own minds are limited in their intelligence, it is impossible for us to know for certain what this would entail. The term “technological singularity” was coined by mathematician and writer Vernor Vinge . According to Vinge, if the technological singularity comes about, “The human era will be ended,” and a completely new era will begin. Those people who view this transition as inevitable (and also desireable) are called transhumanists.
What does this mean? Well, it depends on whom you ask. Some theorists of the singularity, such as Ray Kurzweil, believe that it will bring about a kind of synthetically created heaven-on-earth in which people might upload their minds onto a computer and retain their consciousness indefinitely in a virtual world. Others, such as Eliezer Yudkowsky, warn that superhuman artificial intelligence would pose many risks as well as potential benefits, the biggest one being “existential risk” – the possibility that a man-made artificial intelligence, in seeking to optimize whatever outcome it had been programmed to optimize, would inadvertently obliterate us all. According to Yudkowsky, the only way to stop this from happening is to make sure that a “friendly” artificial intelligence – one that would not harm and possibly help humans – gets built before a dangerous one.
Does this sound like the stuff of science fiction? It is indeed – just as automobiles, airplanes and vaccinations once were. According to many self-identified singularitarians, this massive technological revolution is at hand, whether we like it or not. I’m not here to speculate on the probability of whether or not this strange new world will come to be. I’m here to raise the question of what this (still hypothetical) scenario means for human beings – particularly for those human beings who maintain faith in a transcendent God beyond the material world as science describes it.
I’ll admit that my own view of the singularity is not a positive one. I’m no transhumanist, and despite having five email addresses, I still consider myself a Luddite. Technology is a very mixed bag, and in my view, most technological developments are not “advances” at all, but paradigm shifts that are neither positive nor negative in themselves, bringing disadvantages as well as advantages. But what interests me most is the way in which technological developments compel us to alter our worldviews – whether we want to or not. This issue – of altered and altering worldviews – brings me to the central point of this post.
Most contemporary religious believers assert that faith is not about trying to explain how the universe works. It’s more about answering the fundamental questions which science cannot explain, the big questions, the naive ones. Why are we here? How should we live? What does it mean to be a human being? Religion is about telling stories, about making myths that bring meaning to human life and experience, about creating a narrative of the world and our place in it. And, while recent centuries have seen a the development of nonreligious narratives, some contemporary philosophers such as Charles Taylor argue that these supposedly secular narratives are not as independent of their religious heritage as we might think. Thus, religion is not here to answer the question how, but why, what for, so what. Nevertheless, as Eliezer Yudkowsky has pointed out quite astutely, religion’s historical roots do in fact involve an attempt to explain natural phenomena:
” Back in the old days, people actually believed their religions instead of just believing in them. The biblical archaeologists who went in search of Noah’s Ark did not think they were wasting their time; they anticipated they might become famous. Only after failing to find confirming evidence – and finding disconfirming evidence in its place – did religionists execute what William Bartley called the retreat to commitment, ‘I believe because I believe,’ ” Yudkowsky states.
While I strongly disagree with Yudkowsky’s overall message – that religion, having been displaced by science as humanity’s most reliable means of gaining knowledge of reality, is no longer relevant for contemporary human problems, he is correct in that, for much of human history, religion did seek to explain natural phenomena, even if that was not its primary function. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the undoing of the medieval cosmos described in Dante’s Paradiso, which placed the earth at is center, the other planets and sun revolving around it, the fixed stars above that, and the heavenly realm beyond that. This image was so prevalent in the collective medieval consciousness (and in official church teachings) that both Copernicus and Galileo faced attacks from the Catholic Church when they revealed that the geocentric theory simply didn’t match up to observable, measurable reality. Similarly, while Darwin’s theory of evolution is not in itself incompatible with a belief in the creation of the world by a deity, it did contribute to a decline in religious faith as humans, showing to have been evolved from apes, were forced to revise their image of nature and their place in it. Now, it seems that we are soon going to be in need of another such revision.
What will it mean to be a human being if the technological singularity really does come to pass? How will we have to change our view of the world and ourselves? Perhaps the reason why this issue hooks me on such a deep emotional level is that it challenges some of my most basic beliefs. All my life I have believed in the inherent dignity of life – what would happen to this concept if life could be emulated by a machine? I’ve also believed that human beings are made in God’s image…But what would that mean if we had the capacity to make a God in our own image – not the God of metaphor, but a physical deus ex machina, a God out of the machine?
According to a recent article published by Richard Cimino in Religioscope, 72 to 85 percent of self-described “futurists” (people who view the singularity as a positive and desireable outcome and are striving to work toward it) identify as atheists or agnostics, and some of these argue that religion should be abandoned altogether. Others, such as Kurzweil, hope that the singularity will ultimately offer humanity a completely new kind of spirituality; essentially, a new religion.
What I want to know is, if this comes about, what will become of the old religions (in particular, the Abrahamic ones which continue to assert that we are under the control of one omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God? Will these beliefs remain relevant, or will the deus ex machina render them obsolete?
“The brain is wider – than the Sky – ,” declares Emily Dickinson in “126.” The human mind has a long history of resolving contradictions, or at least sustaining them gracefully. Since its foundation two thousand years ago, Christianity has remained relevant largely due to its adaptability. When it entered Europe and came into conflict with ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, Augustine and Aquinas worked to build a bridge between these seemingly disparate thought systems; when it made its way (mainly via colonization, alas) throughout the world, it did not manage to wipe out the beliefs of the people who were already there; to a certain extent it had to engage with them, to alter itself and adapt to the beliefs that were already there.
Can Christianity (and Islam, and Judaism, and other world religions) be reconciled with a concept such as the technological singularity? To my mind, it seems impossible. Isn’t it necessary to die to go to heaven? “My kingdom is not of this world,” states Jesus in John 18:36. I somehow don’t think that he meant that his kingdom lay in a virtual, technologically fabricated world. But then…can I already be so sure? According to Cimino, some religious groups are already looking for a way to reconcile with transhumanism: “The Mormon Transhumanist Association held a recent conference on ”Transhumanism and Spirituality,’ which included prominent leaders in the movement. In 2009, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pistoia in Italy held a week-long seminar on ‘The Idea of Immortality on Earth,’ which drew both transhumanist support and criticism,” Cimino says.
There remains the possibility that this hypothetical singularity is physically impossible, that it is nothing more than a lovely, disturbing idea that will never actually come about. But, whether or not it occurs, the world is changing, as is our place in it. One again we are going to have to find a way to reconcile the new myths with the old ones.