It is disturbing even to those of us not in denial of the obvious – but the singularitarian prophecy, that our biological intelligence will soon merge with that of our technology, is already coming true. Charting the evolution of the internet backwards down the curves of exponential growth, 2000 can seem like an epoch ago. I was 18, maturing just as the Internet came through an adolescence of its own. Ironically enough, perhaps it’s those of us who lived through the disappointment that was Y2K’s not happening who are uniquely placed to sense the epochal significance of computer technology’s achievements. The old adage, that you can’t really appreciate food until you know what it’s like to go hungry, still resonates. And in a few more decades, most of us will never have known hunger.
Where I said “adolescence” just now, I might more properly have said “metamorphosis” but the real transition is still in the future; even though it is, as Ray Kurzweil so convincingly argues, near. Both terms are metaphorical, of course: what I mean is that the Internet turned from being a toy into a true technology at more or less the same time as the century itself turned. It became ubiquitous, and so smoothly (politely, you could even say) that over a decade into the 21st century, many of us still don’t appreciate just how paradigmatically disruptive it now has the potential to become.
Indeed it’s so easy to believe, with the Internet having become what it is now, that that’s it. Our connections are all wireless and superfast, processing power and memory continue to grow exponentially, computing devices themselves have shrunk to pocket size and “wearable”, “smart” consumer gadgets are imminent: but in fact this is still only the beginning – the beginning of a much, much larger, deeper process of evolution, of what has rightly been called ‘awakening’, into truly transbiological and – eventually – transpersonal, consciousness. Once computers become wearable, what then? They start to move inside our heads. And what then? They start to become our heads.If all this sounds grandiose or pretentious (and I certainly hope it does) consider the alternative, what we might still call the orthodox perspective of the left-leaning and liberal West. Capitalist democracy is on the verge of implosion, global environmental catastrophe is now inevitable, our only inhabitable planet’s population will be soon be literally unsustainable, and so on. While these things are almost certainly the case, they represent a nihilism that belongs more comfortably in the 19th century than the 21st. We are alone in the universe without hope for salvation, God is dead and blah, blah, blah. What the orthodox perspective fails to take into account is that all of these predictions – whether of a technological heaven or a post-technological hell, are fundamentally eschatological (and therefore religious) projects. This is why I used the term “singularitarian prophecy” above, rather than mere “prediction”. Prophecy’s purpose has never been to predict the future so much as to create (or avoid) it. The orthodox perspective is a prophecy for the end of the world; the singularitarian perspective is a prophecy for its beginning. Remember how Jesus described “the end” as being like “birth pains”? Another old, old adage whose resonance is only just beginning to be felt. I think it’s a shame that so many transhumanists are atheists. It’s understandable – the movement being a product of affluence and the freedom to experiment, it’s predominantly American – and the politico-religious mindspace across the pond is polarized in ways Europeans tend to view with bafflement and incredulity. In America, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” refer to two diametrically opposed worldviews. These worldviews are comprehensive, encompassing party-political affiliations, ethics, (anti-)intellectualism and even cosmology. Have a listen, for instance, to what this ridiculous person has to say: I stereotype, of course, Andrew Klavan does too – everybody does – but it’s within this context of “liberal” (atheistic, humanist, pluralist) vs “conservative” (evangelical Christian, libertarian, sceptical of science) that transhumaism has to plant its flag. Since that flag is one that flies for science, more or less by default it flies in the face of religion. (Incidentally, if you want an equally ridiculous piece of relevant anti-“conservative” propaganda, have a read of The Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan – basically a Hollywood blockbuster written by Ayn Rand). The reason I find this so frustrating is that transhumanism and Christianity, even conservative Christianity, have plenty to learn from each other. Basic Aristotelian concepts of soul and body, form and matter, allow not only for a plausible account of physical, bodily resurrection but also (and precisely because of that) provide a context for understanding transhumanist ideals like mind uploading, indefinite life extension and – most importantly – a transbiological, transpersonal future for the cosmos.
There is a great deal more to be said about this but the thought in its essence is: something wonderful is happening, but as I am there is no way I can be a part of it. It is terrifying to look at oneself as part of an evolutionary process that might not yet be complete. It is a real challenge to the ego to be confronted with the notion that your “I” might only be a means to an end. (Interestingly, this challenge is also one that threatens the sense not only of liberal-vs-conservative meta-political paradigms but also of Eastern-vs-Western metaphysical paradigms of self-vs-the-Absolute). It is as humbling a process as the human mind, in this stage of its psychological evolution, can experience, and many of us, quite understandably, don’t want anything to do with it. The gulfs that exist, by means of our ability only to communicate information between consciousnesses by the vulgar means of spoken and written language, are enormous. (To get biblical again for a moment, think of the “groans that words cannot express” in Romans 8:26). Perhaps it is only at the Eschaton that these gulfs will ever be bridged. Perhaps it is only at the Singularity that this will happen. What I’m really trying to say is: perhaps these are the same thing.