Upon the synapse of godhood?
Ever since my interview with Jeff Jarvis for RFE/RL and Catherine Fitzpatrick’s heated response, I’ve been reflecting upon my feelings regarding the “Technological Singularity“. Some of my readers will already know what this is. For the rest, some quick definitions are in order before I proceed to the summary of my reflections.
- “Transhumanism” normally describes an intellectual and cultural movement that emerged in the eighteenth century and continues today via entities like Humanity+. This movement is striving to explore and implement the potential of technology to, as they see it, improve humanity’s mental and physical characteristics and capacities, up to and including immortality.
However, the term can be used as a neutral descriptive for any such phenomenon that could be said to contribute to precisely such a change, for good or for ill. In this manner, as diverse a range of phenomena as social networks, transgendered individuals, and the grandiose social engineering of totalitarian governments can all be tagged as “transhumanist”.
- The “Technological Singularity” — and I’ll quote Wikipedia here — is “a hypothetical event theorized to occur when technological progress becomes very rapid due to positive feedback, making the future after the Singularity qualitatively different and hard to predict”. Essentially, it is the science fiction McGuffin made manifest, the jaunt made real.
The concept emerges from a radical vision of human evolution, namely, the emergence of posthumans, such as cyborgs, artificial intelligence, or genetically engineered superhumans. Its partisans debate its mechanism: some see its as deterministically propelled by the logic of technological innovation, others as something to which humanity can consciously strive.
Generally speaking, the posthumanist movement overlaps the transhumanist movement so much that you could say they’re almost co-extensive, and both view the Singularity as a coming effulgence of human potential. Skeptics, like Evgeny Morozov (insofar as he’s criticized some of their views), see it as a fiction; opponents, like Fitzpatrick, loathe it as a dread idea.
By the way, as with “transhumanism”, “posthumanism” signifies both a movement — people who want the Singularity to happen — and simply a neutral descriptive for all such phenomena, in progress or hypothetical, that may be leading to it. Consequently, a range of people living right now, from kathoeys to suicide bombers, could be dubbed “posthumans”.
Now, you’ve heard me allude to these concepts often, as far back as my post on the perennial clash between Christianity and Islam, “The Super-Tribe and the City of Gods” and my manifesto-esque essay, “The Historian’s Theodicy”. They’ve lurked behind a lot of topics on this blog, from my concerns about the Obama presidential campaign to my lunatic philosophizing about Tron.
If you’ve been reading along since 2008, then you’ve probably noticed that I tend to use the terminology in its neutral descriptive sense. Hopefully you’ve also noticed that despite my enthusiasm for the topic, I’m actually not an advocate per se for either transhumanism and posthumanism the movements, and that I also have my hesitations about the phenomena.
If I may caricaturize Jarvis and Fitzpatrick, they are useful as poles on the transhumanist/posthumanist spectrum, Jarvis as the traditional utopianism that speaks of human progress, Fitzpatrick as a kind of neoconservatism or cynicism that speaks of human regress or just going in circles (oh boy, Jarvis and Fitzpatrick are going to hate me). Where do I fit?
Well, I lean very much in the direction of Jarvis, but I grok Fitzpatrick’s concerns. So, overall, I’m in the middle. Fundamentally, what I see is human change, the core of which is positive and progressive, a great deal of which is and will be negative, none of which will be easy to figure out which is which, and all of which will be surprising, disruptive, and challenging.
In other words, you could call me a “neutral positivist”: I generally see a benign teleology at work, but getting there is going to be a long, rough road. It may likely be violent, too, but whatever happens, human change is not a process that can be stopped yet it mustn’t be embraced uncritically, either.
As I see it, one of the real questions to ask about the change is indeed its mechanism. To be clear, Jarvis and Fitzpatrick do talk about this a lot, although from a legislative angle and not often, as myself and the transhumanist movement do, at the metaphysical level.
However, where I differ with the transhumanists is that I’m neither so fatalistic as to submit to blind historical forces nor so optimistic as to believe humanity really knows what’s best for itself in terms of its own evolution, much less the consequences of any interference. From my vantage point, my point of departure is my belief in God.
For me, what’s really at stake in the Singularity specifically and transhumanism/posthumanism generally is human deification. I mean this in a dual sense: of us attempting godhood and of us manifesting godhood.
Therein lies the true conundrum and the true conflict, the one echoed in every debate over stem cell research, eugenics, and cloning: how much are we overreaching and how much are we unfolding, how much are we becoming less human and how much are we becoming more human?
I think of the Biblical story of the Creation, when God first says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
Transhumanists pick up on this story all the time, and rightfully so, but they often overlook the fact that God goes on to worry,“Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever…”
In other words, I think transhumanists tend to paper over the ethical and conceptual subtleties when discussing the mechanics of human change. Consider the foremost transhumanist today, Ray Kurzweil, who has actually attempted to chart the Singularity, even though evolution is not something that can be univocalized into calculable pinpoints of data; it’s a continuum of subtly interacting currents.
It is for this reason why I also don’t believe it likely that the Singularity will be a specific identifiable moment (although future historians might choose one for symbolic purposes). It is not as if we will eventually come to a single point in history where we stand upon the synapse of godhood and must decide whether to take the leap.
Rather, we have always been journeying along the neuron of change. Our species has been leaping across that synapse with every new childbirth, every slight new innovation, every subtle tweak of an idea. I have seen from my studies of history and philosophy that science, like culture, is about reconfiguration and sedimentation, and so, too, is evolution.
I’m not saying the pace can’t quicken, and I’m not saying some leaps can’t be bigger than others. But I just don’t see human change as something new. Transhuman/posthuman phenomena have always been with us. Traditional genetic evolution hasn’t somehow disappeared. Who knows how the process of adaptation and selection will affect genetic expression and the physical articulation of the human being?
Moreover, humanity has been tinkering with itself for centuries. Alchemy, eunuchs, and even shamans, for example, were arguably incidents of conscious attempts at posthumanism. As such, they would have been the forerunners of today’s cryogenicists, kathoeys, and psychedelics. The only difference between today and previous eras is that the rate of change seems to be increasing.
If I may quote myself, from my post, “Darwin is not done”: “[S]peaking as an historian, a philosopher, and a religious believer, it will be profoundly interesting to see whether at the end of humanity’s lightning ride toward divinity there is ultimately a shattering or … an everlasting unity.”
So, there you have it. My views will, of course, continue to evolve over time. Since I’m still something of a generalist — there’s so much I still need to read, and in truth, I really should start attending some conferences — I think my positions are easily assailable as unsophisticated. Nevertheless, I hope that at their core they have strong merit.
Two final notes before closing. The first regards whether I’m imputing atheism upon the transhumanist movement. To be clear, I think the movement is, by nature, atheistic, indeed, deicidal. However, that doesn’t mean there cannot be theists among their ranks, for example, the Mormon Transhumanist Association. Yet, theistic transhumanists would be at risk of suffering a “transcendence deficit”, i.e., reducing God to something humanizable.
The second note regards to the inevitable question of how can I believe in God, the soul, and evolution? Briefly, I take an Aristotelian position after the manner of Thomas Aquinas and Abdu’l-Baha: the human body is simply one part of a “hylomorphism”, the matter to the form, the physical aspect or articulation of an ultimately spiritual being.
Simply, the human body has been, and will continue trying, to find a more full and perfect articulation for the human soul to express itself. At one time, that articulation entailed amoebic and then proto-primate mammalian bodies; at the present time, it entails primate bodies; and in the future, perhaps mechanical or digital bodies, indeed, perhaps a plurality of bodies, including the primate type.
I’ll explore this view, and hopefully refine it, in future posts. A lot of my friends also say, rightfully so, that a blog is ultimately an insufficient space for such explorations — ironically, it’s yesterday’s matter to tomorrow’s form, and the hylomorphism just can’t do it justice. So, I’ll think of more academic and journalistic mediums for my ideas, as well. Until then, thanks for reading!