November 4, 2009

Infinition: Our acceleration to the infinite

Posted in Infinition, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , at 6:07 pm by Jeremy

“Our existence resembles the course of a man running down a mountain who would fall over if he tried to stop and can stay on his feet only by running on.”[1] So said German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer over a hundred years ago.  He’d be amazed how his prediction has played out.  By now, the human race is taking off from that mountain.  But the underlying dynamic remains the same: we have to keep going faster and faster to avoid crashing.

Atlantis_taking_off_on_STS-27

Infinition: our prefrontal cortex-driven conceptual consciousness is taking off

What this means in global terms is only too apparent: the impact of our technology-driven civilization threatens the world’s climate stability – and any eventual solution is likely to require even more technology.  But the ever accelerating speed of human existence applies equally to our individual humanity.  Our conceptual consciousness (that unique attribute of our prefrontal cortex) is forging its own path away from our animate consciousness at an ever increasing speed.  I call this dynamic the acceleration to the infinite, or infinition.

In Western culture, the drive towards the infinite has been inextricably linked with our dualistic sense of a  soul or mind[2], that abstraction of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) perceived to have a separate existence from our “miserable” material bodies, which have a habit of getting old, dying, and wasting away.  It’s amazing to see how the idea of the eternal soul (the evolution of which I discuss in another post,)  is morphing in the 21st century into the notion of an eternal mind/computer interface.

Futurists write breathlessly of the fast approaching moment when computers become more intelligent than humans.  With their religious-like zeal, people who call themselves “transhumanists” are taking the pfc’s idea of its own immortality to a new dimension, blending metaphor with reality as they speak longingly of the merger of man and machine.  In the words of technologist Ramez Naam,

Playing God’ is actually the highest expression of human nature.  The urges to improve ourselves, to master our environment, and to set our children on the best path possible have been the fundamental driving forces of all of human history.  Without these urges to ‘play God’, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist today.[3]

the rapture

"The Rapture" as envisaged in the Christian tradition

I’m certainly not the first person to see this linkage of Western body/soul dualism and modern transhumanism.  In an interesting 2008 article entitled Waiting for the Rapture, Glenn Zorpette compares modern “singularitarians”[4] believing in a future when you can “upload your consciousness”, with those who, over the ages, have “yearned to transcend death.”  In his words, we’re witnessing the “rapture of the geeks.”

And in a prophetic article over twenty years ago, The Cybernetic Dream of the Twenty-First Century, Morris Berman saw the home computer as “the modern fulfillment of the Gnostic vision,” warning that our culture is acquiring a “computer consciousness… disembodied, a form of pure mental process.” [5]

These observations are not just metaphors.  Our human brains really are, bit by bit, becoming more like the computers they created.  In a 2008 study, Small & Vorgan report how Internet usage causes increased activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the pfc that mediates abstract concepts, while “the pathways for human interaction and communication weaken as customary one-on-one people skills atrophy.”[6]

Cultured neurons

Cultured neurons placed onto a multi-electrode array (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Reading)

And at the other end of the spectrum, we can already see the first traces of a future merger of man and machine.  A 2008 article in Science Daily reports on a robot developed in England “which is controlled by a biological brain formed from cultured neurons.”  It’s early days yet, but the borders between silicon-based artificial intelligence and cellular-based human intelligence are beginning to get a little blurry.

There are some who just can’t wait for this moment when mind and machine become one – the so-called “singularity.”  Perhaps the most mystical of these is the technologist, Raymond Kurzweil.  For Kurzweil, the mind/body dualism is clear.  Bodies die.  That’s bad.  If you want to live forever, get moving to that singularity as fast as you possibly can.   As he sees it:

Whereas some of my contemporaries may be satisfied to embrace aging gracefully as part of the cycle of life, that is not my view.  It may be ‘natural’, but I don’t see anything positive in losing my mental agility, sensory acuity, physical limberness, sexual desire, or any other human ability.  I view disease and death at any age as a calamity, as problems to be overcome.[7]

Kurzweil continues the age-old Platonic tradition as purely as if he were Plato himself.  For him,

…the purpose of the universe reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge.  Our human intelligence and our technology form the cutting edge of this expanding intelligence.[8]

In Kurzweil’s Platonism, intelligence will one day literally make us God, as our computer/mind interface pervades the universe.  “In my view,” he says, “the fate of the universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.”[9]

It might be easy to dismiss Kurzweil as a quixotic figure, tilting at the windmills of time, but there are plenty of other transhumanists following the same path, if a little less mystically.  And even within the Christian tradition, there have been influential modern thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin, who held the belief that “the destiny of humans and human culture is to transcend the natural world and natural processes… as a way of liberating humans from Nature’s constraints.”[10]

This transcending of natural processes is the acceleration towards the infinite – or infinition – that I’m talking about.  And once we’ve taken off, there’s no going back.  English cybernetics professor, Kevin Warwick warns ominously of the “slippery slope”:

There is a clear incentive to go down this path.  Given a choice, people will prefer to keep their bones from crumbling, their skin supple, their life systems strong and vital.  Improving our lives through neural implants on the mental level, and nanotechnology-enhanced bodies on the physical level, will be popular and compelling.  It is another one of those slippery slopes – there is no obvious place to stop this progression until the human race has largely replaced the brains and bodies that evolution first provided.”[11]

I would argue that, in fact, we’ve been going along this path for hundreds of years, since the birth of the scientific mindset and its foundational ethic of exercising power over nature (described in another post.)  It’s an ethic described by nuclear scientist Freeman Dyson as “irresistible… an illusion of illimitable power… what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.”[12]

So why complain about infinition if it really is capable of transcending our natural constraints?  It really depends on how you define your own humanity.  If you see yourself, deep down, as a mind inhabiting your body, then jump on board the Infinition Express.  But if you see your humanity as embodied, as part of the natural world, intertwined through 4 billion years of evolution with everything else around you, then there’s every reason to be concerned.  In the words of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas,

Surely it is our animal nature that recognizes the divinity of the natural world in all its mystery and beauty, despite the distressing habits and limited perception that afflict our species.  So perhaps our hope of redemption lies in the fact that we are animals, not that we are people.[13]

the organic worldview

The natural world: cornerstone of the "organic" worldview

There’s a profound conflict here, between an “organic” worldview and the worldview of infinition.  The organic view embraces the wonder of life, from the smallest microbe to humankind, seeing the same life force, the same “spirit”, the connectivity of all the living parts, integrating in complexity and harmony.  The force of infinition, by contrast, comes from the pfc.  Its very nature is non-organic.  Its view of the organic world is something apart, something to conquer, to control.  It’s the cause of the destruction we’ve wrought on the organic world.  And it will destroy our own organic existence unless we find a way to harness its power.  This is the true dualistic struggle: not between good and evil, not between body and soul, but between the organism and the abstraction, between our own organic existence and the power of our own pfc.  It’s the ultimate epic struggle of humanity.  And it’s a struggle in which each of us is one of the warriors.  We are all on the front line.

Is there a middle path, a way to reconcile this struggle, or are we destined on the one hand to take off into the stratosphere of infinition leaving our earthly home behind, or on the other hand to experience a dire collapse of civilization through overreaching?  I believe there may be a trajectory that, in effect, keeps us in earthly orbit, but in order to reach that trajectory, we have to find the path within ourselves that mediates between our conceptual and animate consciousness.  Each of us – as individuals – has to begin to define our own humanity not in terms of “pure mind living in a body” nor “pure animal afflicted by mind.”  Instead, we need to work towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness”, where our attention harmonizes with the never-ending dynamic between bodily impulses, abstract thoughts, and the vast realm in between.  Only if we re-integrate our own minds do we have any hope of bridging the chasm that has developed in our society between science and the spirit, between the “cybernetic dreams” of technology and the precarious beauty of our natural world.


[1] Quoted by Batchelor, S., (1994). The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. Berkeley Parallax Press.

 

[2] What was viewed as the soul in Platonic and early Christian thought was largely transformed by Descartes into the modern view of the mind. See Macdonald, P. S. (2003). The History of the Concept of the Mind: Speculations about Soul, Mind and Spirit from Homer to Hume, Aldershot, England: Ashgate.

[3] Quoted by Kurzweil, R., (2005). The Singularity Is Near. New York: Penguin Books.

[4] Called such because they believe in a future event called “the Singularity” when computers will transcend the human mind.

[5] Berman, M. (Spring 1986). “The Cybernetic Dream of the Twenty-First Century.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 24-51.

[6] Small, G., and Vorgan, G. (2008). “Meet Your iBrain: How the technologies that have become part of our daily lives are changing the way we think.” Scientific American Mind(October/November 2008), 43-49.

[7] Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity Is Near, New York: Penguin Books.

[8] Kurzweil, R. Op. cit.

[9] Kurzweil, R. Op. cit.

[10] Sessions, G. ed. (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, Boston: Shambhala Publications, pp. 292-4.

[11] Cited by Greenfield, S. (2003). Tomorrow’s People: How 21st-Century Technology is Changing the Way We Think and Feel, London: Penguin Books, p. 4.

[12] Cited by Joy, B. (2004). “Why the future doesn’t need us.” Wired Magazine(August 2004).

[13] Quoted by Bekoff, M. (2002). Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions and Heart, New York: Oxford University Press.

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8 Comments »

  1. Proto said,

    Interesting essay.

    However, I’m not so sure it’s necessarily a bad thing that we may be “transcending” flesh. No matter what transformations the human condition undergoes in the future, it will always be, in some sense, a physical thing – just like life.

    Life began as unthinking replicating carbon molecules, evolved into bacteria floating in the primordial ooze, then to fish in the oceans, and eventually vertebrates on land. (Yes, that’s way simplified.) As life has expanded, evolution has always adapted that life to new environments, new mediums, new substrates. It’s possible now that we’re evolving to a non-organic form. So what?

    And then again, maybe we’re not. As we study more and more of the world around us, we’ve found that, while evolution is rarely perfect, it’s sometimes damn good. There are technological breakthroughs everyday that are a result of discovering how some creature’s novel adaptation works. Materials science, computer science, and robotics all benefit from studying the natural world.

    So, are you so sure we’re really abandoning it? Is technology necessarily in conflict with nature? I don’t know. Casting this as a war between two opposites seems like a false dichotomy to me.

    • jeremylent said,

      “Transcending flesh” is not necessarily a bad thing – if you see yourself essentially as a mind instantiated in a body, or in more scientific terms, as pure information mediated by an organic transmission system. My point is that this dynamic of infinition compels us to examine our definition of humanity, with big implications for how we view the “natural world.”

      It’s common, nowadays, even for environmentally conscious observers, to view nature as a provider of “resources,” like an enormous raw material supplier. This is a direct consequence of the Western worldview separating our human identity from the natural world. For some, that’s OK. For others, it can only lead to disaster.

      My point is: it’s only by recognizing this chasm between worldviews that we can begin to bridge it.

  2. Proto said,

    I think it’s seriously silly to believe that seeing the environment as just a raw material provider is a product of a Western worldview. All you have to do is look at the history of animal extinctions throughout the world to understand that, wherever humans go, they destroy the environment around them. There was never any noble savage that lived in harmony with nature, not amongst Eastern philosophers or the Native Americans or anybody else. Civilizations have a rather consistent habit of dying when they consume all their natural resources, and this has been going on long before the West rose to power.

    And it’s not just a human thing. Animals aren’t even in harmony with nature. After all, why do species go extinct? Predators compete for food, trees for sunlight. There are only so many resources out there, and it’s inevitable that, as populations increase, someone is going to get the short end of the stick. This isn’t some consequence of the Western worldview; it’s a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics.

    My point here is that “transcending flesh” is not some dangerous new idea that’s threatening the world and our humanity. It’s just part of a very natural cycle of increasing complexity, from the first complex molecules all the way to cyborgs. You don’t have to see yourself as only a mind to believe that you can live on a different transmission system. Just as I know that I am distantly related to the ancient organisms that lived in the sea, I know that I will also only be distantly related to the sentient computer programs that live on the internet.

    The only difference between earlier transitions and the one that we may be experiencing soon is that these transformations may take place within lifetimes rather than within generations.

    • jeremylent said,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments on the post, Proto – I really appreciate them.

      I also agree with many of your factual points. Yes, humans have caused mass extinctions each time they entered a new continent. There never was a “noble savage” or a “golden age” in either history or pre-history. And yes, many civilizations have declined through over-consumption of their natural resources.

      In all these areas, I think you’re – understandably – arguing against the well-worn New Agey, “why can’t we all live together happily” form of protest against scientific progress. I hope you won’t find any of that fuzzy thinking on my blog.

      There are some points you make about evolution that are not as unequivocal as you may think. For example, the idea that evolution inevitably involves progress towards greater forms of complexity has been attacked by many authoritative sources, including (but not limited to) Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. Many species have been shown to shed complexity to adapt better to a new niche. And the relationship of the second law of thermodynamics to evolution is a big, unresolved question. By some accounts (e.g. Stuart Kauffman), life itself can be seen as an ongoing process of self-organization in temporary contradiction of that law.

      Also, there’s a lot of evidence to back up my proposition that viewing the environment as “just a raw material provider” is unique to the Western worldview. Worldwide, indigenous cultures viewed nature as “a manifestation of divine powers” (Jan Assmann) and “believed they were active participants and intermediaries in a great cosmic drama.” (Anthony Aveni). Clearly, this didn’t stop many early civilizations from over-utilizing their environments out of ignorance and ultimately destroying themselves – but does that justify us doing the same when we have more information at our disposal?

      Most importantly, I disagree with your sense of the unbroken continuity of evolution, from bacteria all the way to Artificial Intelligence (AI). On the contrary, I think the advent of Homo sapiens represents a marked discontinuity in the process of evolution. New rules apply, because culture (the product of our pfc’s conceptual consciousness) becomes the driving force of change rather than biological adaptation. While I agree with you that the power of this cultural force is massive, and may lead to AI ultimately wiping out humanity, I think we owe it to ourselves and our descendants to try to manage the direction of this force, which I’ve called Infinition.

      I guess that’s what this blog is about: trying to understand the foundational values that drive the force of Infinition, so that we can be more mindful of where it’s taking us, and where we might want it to go.

  3. A lot of of people blog about this subject but you wrote down really true words.

  4. Matt J. said,

    The author ahs no clue what he is talking about. He repeatedly uses ‘Platonism’ as if it meant “belief in ‘dualism’, the radical distinction between moral body and immortal soul”.

    But this is so wrong I don’t know where to start! Such dualism did not start with Plato, nor was it unique to Platonism. It was widely shared even by philosophies that rejected Platonism adamantly.

    Besides: in modern terminology, ‘platonism’ merely means the belief in the existence of abstract objects (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/platonism/#1, but see his “Taxonomy of Positions” below).

    Avoiding philosophical errors like this is an important prerequisite for what the author SAYS he wants to do: understand, describe and advocate ‘infinition’. Indeed: if he ever does achieve the first two well, he may abandon the last.

    • jeremylent said,

      In this post, I use the phrase “age-old Platonic tradition” to give a historical context to Raymond Kurzweil’s view of the mind/body split and potential immortality of the mind. This is fully consistent with the core elements of Plato’s cosmology. For example, in Phaedo, Plato describes purification as “separating the soul as much as possible from the body, and accustoming it to withdraw from all contact with the body and concentrate itself by itself, and to have its dwelling, so far as it can, both now and in the future, alone by itself, freed from the shackles of the body.” This is just one of many excerpts where Plato distinguishes between the soul and the body, emphasizing the soul’s immortality.

      As P.S. Macdonald describes in “The History of the Concept of the Mind: Speculations about Soul, Mind and Spirit from Homer to Hume”, Plato (through Socrates) “declares that the soul and the body are two separate and separable things, that the soul survives bodily death, and moreover that the soul is immortal. Here he asserts that the core property of the soul is intellect (nous), and the body is a tomb or prison.”

      It’s true that such dualistic views preceded Plato and can be seen in many of Presocratics. However, in the view of most classical scholars, such as E.R. Dodds, Plato’s view of the “psyche” played a seminal role: “By crediting man with an occult self of divine origin, and thus setting soul and body at odds, it introduced into European culture a new interpretation of human existence.”

      If you’re interested in more detail of my view of Plato’s dualism, please check my post entitled The Rise of Dualism at:
      http://jeremylent.wordpress.com/2009/10/21/the-rise-of-dualism/

      By the way, I’m surprised you think I’m “advocating infinition.” I’d urge you to re-read the post, especially the last two paragraphs.

  5. Matt J. said,

    Proto repeats the popular myth:

    “Civilizations have a rather consistent habit of dying when they consume all their natural resources”

    But as I just called it ‘myth’, I am sure you can figure out that I do not believe it. I can think of several civilizations, for example, that never DID run up against the limit of their natural resources, they were conquered by overwhelming outside force, NOT by their own failure to cope with limited natural resources.

    Egyptian civilization, for example, STILL does very well within the limits provided by the Nile’s yearly floods. Even after the Arab Conquest.

    Likewise the civilizations of Ancient Greece and Rome — inasmuch as they can be said to have fallen at all — fell to invading barbarians, NOT to limited resources.

    Rather, the civilizations that fell to failing to cope with their limits (e.g. Mayan) are the exception, not the rule.


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