Noble Fictions and Sacred Texts

Note: This is my contribution to the book What Do We Do about Inequality?, the first such book from an initiative called The Wicked Problems Collaborative. The book just marked one year since publication, and with the blessing of WPC publisher and editor Chris Oestereich I’m posting it here. It has been very lightly edited from the original.

It has been asserted that the relative morality of cultures and practices can be scientifically determined—“scientific” not in the sense of people in white coats doing lab experiments, but in the sense of being empirically perceivable. The idea is that we can compare one cultural practice or norm or moral tenet to others, observe how they affect human happiness, and make an objective judgment. This is a controversial way of thinking, notably advocated by Sam Harris in his concept of “The Moral Landcape,” and I largely agree with it. To be broad, I feel very secure in saying that a culture or morality that, say, makes a virtue of the subjugation, demonization, or abuse of entire classes of people is objectively worse than one that values all members of society and works to see them realize their individual potentials.

In order to say that a practice is morally better because of its impact on human happiness, we have to first decide that human happiness is something worth achieving. For if we choose not to grant that human happiness is an assumed goal of any moral code (in favor of, say, maximized production or complete subjugation of a given class or ethnic group), what we then determine is and isn’t “moral” changes drastically. There is no Cosmic Rulebook that states with utter authority that human happiness is something anyone, humans included, should give a damn about, so we have to choose it as our goal. We have to decide for ourselves that we will base our morality on what best allows for the flourishing of human happiness, and then behave as though it is an irrevocable law of existence. If we behave as though this is a malleable idea, that human happiness is only sort of important, then all choices that flow from this change entirely. Not only do we choose human happiness as our moral bedrock, but we also act as though it could be no other way even if we wanted it to be.

Let’s leave this aside for a moment.

I used to make my living (such as it was) as a Shakespearean actor. In the theatre world, there exists the concept of “the sacred text,” a kind of secular devotion to the words on the page over all else. If, as an actor, you want to make some kind of bold choice with your character, it cannot be out of the blue; there has to be support for it, an explanation of that behavior, in the script. If one is playing Willy Loman, and one feels compelled to perform him with an outlandish Australian accent, one had better see something within the words written by Arthur Miller in the text of Death of a Salesman that provides the basis for this.

The idea of the sacred text is given extra weight when referring to Shakespearean drama, partly because Shakespeare is widely considered to be the English language’s greatest writer (and so we assume that he probably knew what he was doing), but also because his works are, to us, so very old. They are now part of the very foundation of Western civilization. Go ahead and muck around with a Neil Simon comedy, even get crazy with your Bertolt Brecht (he is practically begging you to, anyway), but if you think Hamlet is entering from stage right on a hoverboard, you better find the line where he or someone else on stage says something synonymous to “But soft, what yonder hoverboard is this?”

Even if Shakespeare’s genius is taken as a given, adhering to his text and treating it as sacred is still a choice. But to take this to its extreme, to decide that the Word of William is infallible as far as the production of one of his plays goes, something has to be sacrificed. Usually, this is the audience’s attention. I suppose one could remain entirely faithful to the text of Comedy of Errors and probably wind up with a more-or-less satisfied audience. It is rather short and intellectually light for a Shakespearean play, so it doesn’t demand much of the audience’s brain power, and it also has a lot of dirty jokes that transcend time and space. On the other hand, as someone who has sat through full-text versions of plays like Henry IV and Hamlet, I can tell you that a production’s reverence for the text can go horribly awry, causing some of the most beautiful lines of English ever written to syphon off the audience’s will to live.

This gets us into what it means to treat a text as sacred. Certainly, we keep every written line intact, but must it then also be performed exactly as Shakespeare himself might have? Complete with the accent and pronunciations of sixteenth century England? The same clothes made from the same fabrics, fashioned without any industrial tools? Should the actors not bathe frequently? You see where this can go.

The idea of the sacred text is fine; it serves as an excellent guideline, a starting point for the choices that will have to be made in the mounting of a theatrical production. But if we choose to behave as though the text of a play is inerrant (and I say “behave as though” because we assume the play was written by a fallible human), the production can become shackled, rigid, and, essentially, bad art. If the goal is an entertaining, moving, and enlightening performance, choosing to treat the text as entirely sacred is a bad strategy. Instead, a production can remain faithful to the spirit of the play, cut lines where needed, add elements where they enhance the show, and make the best of it. But if the goal is to rigidly honor the words of a 400-years-dead man at all costs, those costs will likely include the joy of the art itself. By restricting the production to what it “must” be, we miss out on the all the possibilities of what it could be.

Laws are like this. As with plays, strict adherence to the precise wording of a given law (literally, “the letter of the law”) is a best-intentions means of making sure a law is applied equally to all parties, but the spirit of a law, the problem it seeks to solve, can be lost. And if they were not considered at least somewhat malleable, the Supreme Court would not have much to do. The same goes for musical notation, codes of ethics, and, yes, religious texts.

Let us now then look at an example that covers a lot of these aforementioned bases, as both a kind of code of ethics and religious text, at least for a civil religion:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

American society, as well as the broader Western world, gets a lot of mileage out of this couple of sentences. It is not a law, really, nor a code, but an expression of values—a “founding document” in the clearest sense. It is a declaration that a new nation has been established, one basing its very reason for being on its statement of purpose, that “all men are created equal,” with a particular set of rights that cannot be revoked even by said nation.

For this to work, though, for the “mission statement” of the United States to make sense, one has to accept that all men are, in fact, equal. But, of course, the very men who signed this document did not believe this to be the case. The man who wrote it certainly didn’t believe it, or, if he did, he was primed for a very awkward encounter with his slaves (who would be explicitly decreed a fraction of a person each), and an uncomfortable night at home, with the wife that he and his colleagues had forgotten to include in the franchise.

We’re off to a rough start with what is more or less the single most “sacred text” on the continent, excluding of course religious scriptures. It did not have full buy-in from its authors and signatories, and certainly was not applied in any broad sense. If we presume that the word “men” in “all men are created equal” was intended to mean “humans,” it was an utterly unfulfilled idea. And if it was meant in the narrow sense of males, the fact that only white, landowning men were allowed to vote still gives the lie to this assertion.

Not much of a sacred text then.

Interestingly, subsequent generations have broadened the meaning of “all men” to include more or less all human persons, at least in definition if not in practice. Despite enormous resistance, it seems to get broader all the time. And a lot of that progress has to do with the fact that so many of us today treat the opening words of the Declaration of Independence as a sacred text, in a way that its authors and signatories clearly did not.

But let us be coldly rational for a moment. Are all humans created equal? Of course we aren’t. We are unequal physically: not only do we come in a bewildering variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, but some of us are born with catastrophic conditions, and some with mind-boggling natural talents and innate geniuses. Beyond biology, we are born into different geographies, each with its own advantages and disadvantages to flourishing depending on any number of factors from availability of natural resources to whatever form of government manages the people within one’s borders. We are born with different tastes in food, sex, art, and activities. We are born into different stations in life, some into wealth and rank, others (most?) into abject poverty, and desperation. We each, individually, then take our collected circumstances, and make vastly different choices about how we will go about our lives. To assert flatly that we are created equal is so astoundingly and blatantly incorrect that it implies a fundamental problem of word comprehension on the part of the speaker.

Does this throw the entire human experiment in democracy, and well, humanism itself, into the toilet? Of course not: we still have some degree of agency here. And the founders, narrow as they were in their definitions, helped us out with this.

As a humanist myself (and a secular one at that), as much as I revere the broadened meaning ascribed to “all men are created equal,” the most meaningful words in all of America’s founding documents are actually its first:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

It is most decidedly not self-evident that all humans are created equal, for the reasons previously mentioned and an infinite number more. But the Declaration says that we will behave as though it is. It does not say, “Whereas it is self-evident that all men are created equal,” but “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” We have decided, on our own, using our fallible human brains, that we will act as though all men are created equal and form our government around this noble fiction.

I derive great inspiration and resolve from this. In the face of staggering inequality among the human population (where, in America alone, there were slaves and royalty, aristocrats and massacred indigenous people), these men said that their new nation would begin its very existence with those words, which amount to an admission that this founding idea of equality was entirely anthropogenic. God did not say we were all equal, and there was nothing embedded in our genes to tell us this by instinct. We just decided to think that way.

That part of the text is particularly sacred to me. It is both humble, in that it admits to being wholly invented, as well as grandiose, in that it means to act on this invention and use it to build an empire of the people.

This is all very well; we have announced our intentions as a people to treat each other equally, but, why? Because it seems nice? To what end? Evidence suggests that treating all human persons as though they were equal, even if they are not inherently, increases overall human happiness. Throughout the democratic world, where societies have rejected the official codification of castes, class distinction, and discrimination and disenfranchisement based on race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation, things have been better. Where everyone gets the same relative shot at an education, at employment opportunities, at business transactions and patronage, at social interaction, the society as a whole flourishes, leading to more opportunities and more happiness.

We are, of course, fallible humans, so we still manage to screw it up, but because this is science, we get to keep trying. It takes a long time to go from experiment to experiment, and the failed experiments can often be devastating, but we do learn. And through all the twists and turns civilization has taken in modern history, and the roller coaster ride on which democracies have taken their citizens because of varying interpretations of equality, it remains pretty obvious that those societies that act on the fiction of equality across the board contribute more to overall human happiness than those that do not. That means that even for self-serving narcissists, it makes more sense to back a system based on equality than inequality, if for no other reason than that because it tilts the odds for happiness in your favor.

Many plays begin with an acknowledgement that what the audience is about to see is fake. The opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V is not only an acknowledgement, but also an apology:

…But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts…

This thing you are about to experience is a fiction, we are told, but we need you to buy into it. It won’t work otherwise. Excuse the fact that it’s obviously not true, and go with it, and we will all benefit. You’ll have a wonderful time at the theatre, and we actors will get paid. And when it’s over, we all know that it was just a show.

Knowing that these are our goals, to entertain a crowd and keep a troupe of performers employed, we can take the text given to us by the playwright and make the best of it, without treating it as immovable. We can remain true to the spirit of the play, but cut lines where necessary, make acting and staging choices that enhance the experience of the performance but may not be explicitly called for in the text. We can do all that because we know that our aim is not to robotically recite thousands of lines of verse, but to deliver an experience of art and entertainment. We need not treat the text as “sacred” in the theological sense, though we can revere it.

Ostensibly, the aim of government is to establish the parameters of societal behavior within which human happiness can be maximized. So we make rules and laws, and we establish systems and methods for carrying them out. If we follow each one to the letter, rigidly enforcing their literal meanings through all time and in all scenarios, we miss the chance to experiment and improve. If we follow the spirit of these laws and rules and systems, we offer ourselves more of a chance to make things better for everyone affected. If we were to treat “all men are created equal” as a sacred and inerrant expression of divine will, the majority of the American population would still be left out, and human happiness would be severely stultified, capped at the happiness of males, presuming we are at least not limiting this definition to white, property-holding males.

It is a remarkable thing, to see a theatrical performance in which the play itself acknowledges its own artifice. It is liberating for audience and actor alike to openly agree that we will all now consent to a fiction for the purpose of maximizing the happiness of the evening.

It is astounding that we could do the same when building a society. We can admit to ourselves that while our collective equality may be a fiction, yet we will hold it as a self-evident truth in order to maximize human happiness over the span of generations. The rest of the words in our play—in our constitutions, in our law books, in our manifestos, in our declarations and proclamations—are there to uphold the spirit of that idea, the idea of universal equality as a means to the general well-being. This suspension of disbelief is difficult, for some more than others, but once we all buy in, we can enjoy the hell out of the show.


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Immeasurable

I have lately discovered in myself a kind of sympathy with a certain flavor of religious belief and practice, which, when approached from a very particular angle, I find relatable, even laudable. To be clear, I don’t mean religion in the sense of unquestioning belief in absurd cosmological claims or even magical thinking about some silly “universal spirit” or what have you. This has more to do with things like yearning, reverence, discipline, peace, and one other thing.

That other thing, interestingly, is part and parcel with the very ideals I work to promote in my professional life advancing reason and secularism: Doubt.

It’s kind of a funny thing. I live a life positively drenched in doubt. My self-doubt is, of course, the stuff of legend, and it spills over into grave doubts about all manner of external things, from the intentions of others to the sustainability of human civilization. I’m just not so sure about any of it. No, that’s too flip. I deeply distrust all of it. Everything. It’s, as they say, crippling.

At the same time, I have a mind that strives for certainty. This is to be expected from someone with Asperger’s (which I only became aware of a few months ago), and true to the stereotype I grasp for recognizable patterns and hard-and-fast explanations for everything. Perhaps this was a primary factor as to why I found the secular-skeptic movement so appealing: Well at least I know those people are wrong!

This need for the concrete is, I think, a major reason as to why I soured on the arts about a decade ago. I didn’t feel like its benefits to humanity were sufficiently tangible. At the time I was making these considerations, things were very dark in American politics (which looks rosy compared to today), and I felt that all hands were needed on deck to fight back and make the world a better place. I did still believe that performing Shakespeare had the power to do some good, but that the effect I could have was too small, too localized. I needed to expand my do-gooder blast radius.

Politics, I thought, would bring concrete solutions, eventually. Successes there would do more than lift the spirits of a few upper-class theatre-goers; they would improve society as a whole, helping people who needed it, as opposed to just those who could afford a ticket to a play.

But I think I was missing something, something I couldn’t be expected to understand at that time in my life, at that age. I’m not sure I understand it now, but I do think I undervalued what I was doing at the time. But I couldn’t quantify it, I couldn’t see it. I doubted it.

I couldn’t live with that doubt. The irony of course is that I now utterly doubt the ability of politics and advocacy to make lasting positive change, given, you know, how things have shaken out.

But aside from the abysmal state of things in that particular arena, it remains that political advocacy is largely mechanical. Yes, of course, there is as much poetry as prose involved in the whole mess of politics and government, but all of that poetry is meant, in the end, to get some dials adjusted on the machinery of government; to get particular gears of society to move or speed up, and get others to slow or stop. Meaning can be measured.

I couldn’t measure what made a performance of Othello or As You Like It meaningful, just as I can’t measure the meaning of the songs I write and record, or even the meaning of these words. I have metrics for attention paid, surely, in clicks, downloads, listens, views, likes, shares, tweets, and all that. But there is no measuring the impact, no quantifying to what degree the world has gotten better as a result, if at all. Indeed, I have so little understanding of this that I often doubt the things I do have any meaning at all.

In the quantifiable world, the readings on the gauge are very grim. The wrong gears are moving, the right gears are being removed from the inner workings, and the dials are pointed in all the wrong directions. It is dark. And I realize this darkness is due to an emptiness, a void. It’s not a lack of good ideas or good campaign strategies. It’s a void in the human heart, a vacuum instead of open air. It is dark.

The thing about darkness, though, is that little lights become really freaking important. I’m directing a production of Into the Woods with the local university, and it might be great, or we might just eke out a passable showing by the skin of our teeth. But that’s not really the point. The point is that this group of young people are throwing their hearts and minds and energies into telling this beautiful story with this beautiful music that is full of joy and pain and fear and yearning. Whatever happens, I am certain that this show will be a little light in the dark. It already is. Before it’s even been performed, it’s already made the world a better place, made all those who have been a part of it, myself included, better people.

I can’t measure that. But only in this time of darkness do I realize how badly we need it anyway. How bad we’ve always needed it, and always will.

Here’s a thing I read recently by Dougald Hine that helped focus my thinking about this:

Art can teach us to live with uncertainty, to let go of our dreams of control. And art can hold open a space of ambiguity, refusing the binary choices with which we are often presented – not least, the choice between forced optimism and simple despair.

These are strange answers. For anyone in search of solutions, they will sound unsatisfying. But I don’t think it’s possible to endure the knowledge of the crises we face, unless you are able to draw on this other kind of knowledge and practice, whether you find it in art or religion or any other domain in which people have taken the liminal seriously, generation after generation. Because the role of ritual is not just to get you into the liminal, but to give you a chance of finding your way back.

If religion, for you, is something that is not about theological certainties or following the revealed will of the creator of the universe, but like art is about yearning, reverence, discipline, peace, and doubt, then I think I am beginning to understand that. I can’t take at all seriously any claims about some mystical being or force that has willed us into existence and interconnectedness. But I am interested in a way of thinking that yearns for this connection, that reveres the vastness of our knowledge and ignorance, that partakes in a discipline to explore and strive for this connection, that seeks and achieves moments of bliss, harmony, and peace in this practice, and that doubts every bit of it, so as to power the continuation of the cycle. Maybe that’s what faith is supposed to be about, or what it ought to be about anyway, having faith that there’s something to strive for. Against all evidence. 

This is what the arts, the humanities, are for. Not only their products, but the practice, the making, the discipline. That’s what’s holy about one more goddamned performance of a show I’ve been doing for a year. The ritual. This is what I think I missed all those years ago, or was not yet capable of understanding. It’s what I think I misunderstood about certain key aspects of religion, and what I suspect the vast majority of religious people misunderstand, or neglect, as well.

My Aspie brain struggles painfully with this. “Why bother” is the mantra of my subconscious mind whenever I even consider undertaking some effort in writing, music, or what have you, especially given that I am not making my living this way anymore. “To what end?” asks my brain. “What good will it do, for you or anyone else?”

Daunting, invigorating, and frustrating, the only response is that it is, in every sense of the word, immeasurable.


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Ye Who Are Unworthy of PEZ

Image by Deborah Austin [CC BY 2.0]

I don’t care you if you blaspheme. You can take whatever lord’s name in vain that you please. You can desecrate any holy book that tickles your fancy. Heck, you can even bad-mouth Star Trek. Whatever. But, in the name of all that is good, how dare these people sully the pure, incorruptible symbol of novel delight in pleasant moderation that is PEZ?

Via Lindsey Bever at the Washington Post:

An Easter egg hunt in Connecticut turned dark over the weekend after organizers said adult attendees “rushed the field and took everything,” behaving “kind of like locusts.”

PEZ general manager Shawn Peterson told CBS affiliate WFSB that the candy company hid more than 9,000 eggs Saturday on three separate fields at the PEZ visitor’s center in Orange, not far from New Haven. Staggered start times were planned for different age groups.

But some parents ignored the rules, and the event took an ugly turn.

Nicole Welch told WFSB that those parents “bum-rushed” the area, leaving her 4-year-old son “traumatized” and “hysterically crying.”

“Somebody pushed me over and take my eggs,” 4-year-old Vincent Welch told NBC Connecticut after the event, “and it’s very rude of them and they broke my bucket.”

PEZ said that based on participation in the free event the past two years, organizers prepared for a large crowd; but “the number of families that came out to participate far exceeded anything we could have possibly planned for.”

PEZ is not only about candy and characters (and marketing), but it’s also about keeping things under control. You pop the dispenser’s head, and you get one little candy brick at a time. It’s a way to say, “I’m going to have a treat, but I’m not going to overdo it.”

But these people. These beasts. They don’t deserve PEZ.

Laudably, the PEZ company is giving free candy to the people who played by the rules and got screwed over:

PEZ said staff members tried to locate participants who were cheated and give them candy.

“We sincerely tried our best to create a fun, free activity for everyone to enjoy,” the company said in a statement to WFSB-TV. “We made efforts to get everyone something before they left and passed out tons of candy and coupons and the front entry and tried to make the best of an unfortunate situation.”

I’m going to buy some PEZ today. But what can be done to punish those who behaved so abhorrently? If only there were a PEZ dispenser . . . of justice.

Ironic Imaginary Conversations

Photo credit: leafar. via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard reports on research that shows how animosity toward nonbelievers can be reduced by the religious having an imaginary, positive conversation with an atheist. And most of the subjects said they didn’t know any atheists personally:

Those who engaged in the imagined conversation “expressed significantly less distrust toward atheists” than those who simply ruminated about the subject. The researchers conclude this more positive attitude was driven by “more comfort with atheists, and more willingness to engage with atheists.”

Moreover, a reduction in distrust, which the researchers call “the central component of anti-atheist prejudice,” was even found among religious fundamentalists. Perhaps they enjoyed the imaginary give-and-take.

This is encouraging, but just soak in the irony here.

Talking to an imaginary atheist makes a person who normally talks to an imaginary superbeing feel better about atheists.

We’ve been doing this all wrong this whole time. Think of all the social advancement we could have already made if we’d just been make-believe.

No, Really, They Are All Trumps

John Scalzi has a good post of observations about the Trump-demagogue situation, echoing the drum I’ve been beating for a while about the existing GOP electorate:

Trump has been leading the GOP polls almost without interruption for months. He’s not an outlier. He’s there for a reason. The reason is that the GOP has made space in their party for race-baiting xenophobic religious bigots, and has done so for years by conscious and intentional strategy. Trump did not bring his supporters into the GOP. They were already there.

And he rightly laments this state of affairs:

Right now, in the United States, the leading candidate for president of one of the two major political parties — the leader by a substantial margin — is openly talking about denying an entire class of people their fundamental Constitutional and human rights, and being cheered for it. It’s not right, it’s bigoted and hateful, and yes, it absolutely is dangerous.

But here’s the thing. The GOP has been doing this for years, generations even, and at the establishment level. It’s not always Muslims, of course. For the past 20 years or so it’s been a lot about gays. Not barring them from entering the country, but denying them constitutional rights to marry and be as they are without discrimination or harassment. An entire class of people. Right now, the GOP literally boasts of its ability to obstruct African Americans (especially poor ones) from voting at all. An entire class of people. They go to the cruelest, most cynical, most desperate lengths to make sure that women have no say whatsoever in whether their body will be used to produce another human body. An entire class of people.

Shift your perspective just slightly, and it becomes not just about one or two unfavored groups, but the superiority of one: Christians. The right kind of Christians, of course. Rather than bellowing about the rights that some group or other does not deserve, they maintain that there are special rights that only Christians deserve. The right to flout the law, to assertively deny others’ rights because they think their religion tells them to, and even the freedom to reject responsibility for the ransacking and despoiling of the planet because the Bible says it’s okay. These are bedrock principles of the Republican Party.

So I wish the political-journalistic establishment would spare us all the shock over Trump’s version of this. The Republican Party is explicitly devoted to taking the humanity away from entire classes of people, and asserting the superiority of rich, white, male Christians. They are all Trumps.

Transhumanism as a Possibility, Not a Promise

Photo credit: Smashn Time / Foter / CC BY-NC-SAThe caption by the artist is, "They are one weird bunch, essentially a brain in a box."
I have a soft spot for the transhumanists, and as I’ve said, if they were a little less sure of themselves and their goals, and if they were just a little less, well, religious in their faith about what technology and artificial intelligence will bring, I could see to donning the label myself.

Zoltan Istvan, the movement’s (and party’s) presidential candidate is the embodiment of this faith. A huge, strong fellow who has led a life that resembles Indiana Jones-meets-extreme sports, he has put himself at mortal risk countless times, only to undergo a kind of revelation about just how fragile and short life – even his – can be. Now he’s a kind of missionary for immortality, using his presidential campaign (such as it is) to get us talking and thinking more seriously about making life-extending technologies a prime priority for society.

After reading a fascinating “campaign trail” report by Dylan Matthews at Vox on Istvan, and watching Istvan’s 2014 TEDx presentation, I think I see something that distinguishes Istvan from what I normally think of when considering transhumanism.

To me, transhumanism is advocacy of the utilization of technology to radically improve, augment, and transform human life. Its “faith” is that machines and humans will merge in one form or another, and very soon, so that there will be no distinguishing between flesh and robotics, computer and brain, software and mind. And this is supposed to happen in the next few decades, in what’s called the Singularity. The person most associated with this line of thinking is of course futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, now a lead engineer at Google. He is the transhumanists’ equivalent of a prophet, and he is himself obsessed with keeping himself alive as long as possible in order to experience this Singularity himself.

If I were to paint in the broadest of strokes, I’d say that the Kurzweilian transhumanists are very much jazzed about the gee-wiz of technology, the wow-factor of look-what-we-can-do. Having a brain uploaded to a super-internet, enhanced by unfathomably powerful computers, is a kind of Rapture, a removal from existence as we know it. Maybe this isn’t a fair characterization, but it’s how it seems from my vantage point.

Zoltan Istvan is, I now think, a little different from this. If you take him at his word, he is after not advancement for advancement’s sake, but for “beauty.” As he says in his TEDx talk, “Unless you are alive, it is impossible to experience beauty.”

And it seems to all stem from this. The idea that death is a ridiculous waste, and that life offers so much beauty and enrichment, the likes of which we as mere homo sapiens have barely scratched the surface. In order to truly know what he calls “new concepts” and “new arenas” of beauty, we have to, first, not be dead (obviously), and second, invest in the kinds of technologies that will allow for this kind of life extension and experiential enhancement.

As someone who is on the record (severally) as one who fears death like nobody’s business, I am deeply sympathetic to this…what is it, aspiration? Wish? I wholeheartedly share Istvan’s view that death is something to be avoided and ultimately conquered, because as far as we silly meat-robots are concerned, there is literally nothing beyond our experience of this one short life. If we are a way for the universe to know itself, as Carl Sagan put it, I really do feel like the universe should get more of a chance to do so by not letting its intelligent, sentient creatures die.

And there was one more thing that surprised me about Istvan, and this from his profile by Dylan Matthews, who was joined on the Immortality Bus by fellow journalist Jamie Bartlett:

On many matters, Zoltan openly concedes that he just doesn’t know what to do. … To Jamie, who in addition to writing for the Telegraph is working on a book about “political revolutionaries” for Random House, this is striking. The other chapters in Jamie’s book profile movements characterized by unwavering faith in an inviolable set of principles. He’s writing about ISIS, about neo-Nazis, about radical Islamists in Canada. These are people willing to take extreme measures precisely because they know they’re right. That raises the question: Zoltan has a beautiful home, with two beautiful daughters. His wife makes a healthy living for the family, and he can get by as a futurist on the speaker circuit too. He could be in his bed with his wife, knowing that his kids are safe in the next room…

But instead, he’s sleeping on the side of the road in a decrepit 37-year-old RV without running water. Why, Jamie asks, if you’re not sure your ideas are correct, are you willing to go through all this? Zoltan shrugs. He’s not sure. Nobody’s ever sure. But he thinks his beliefs have better odds of being true than the alternatives. Otherwise, he wouldn’t believe them.

He’s not sure. And he can say so. It makes me feel a little better that what Istvan is selling is not a promise, but a possibility. This is probably why he refers to it as “the transhumanist wager” and not “the transhumanist guarantee.” He’s betting on this path to a better future, because why not? Why not invest heavily in technologies that will improve our lives, enhance our abilities, and perhaps one day eradicate death itself? Of course a comparable investment in ethics will be required for such a path, but there are positive dividends to be gained from that as well.

I suppose the “why not” could be the dangers of explosively advancing artificial superintelligence, a danger that folks from Nick Bostrom to Elon Musk are warning us against. In this line of thinking, the superintelligent machines (or machine) won’t give two figs about human lifespans or our experience of beauty, and rather pose a kind of threat in which our extinction is a small event.

So despite the enthusiasm of Istvan, or Kurzweil or any transhumanist for that matter, I can’t get too pollyanna about this. Set aside the actual feasibility of the transhumanist wager being won, I don’t feel like I can even spare the emotional investment in such a future. Can there be more of a crippling, depressing letdown than to believe that death will be conquered, only to discover that it won’t? “The human being is not a coffin,” Istvan says, but for now, it is, eventually.

Perhaps this makes me a lazy transhumanist, or a spectator transhumanist. I’m not yet willing to go there with them, but it isn’t to say that I don’t want them to keep going there. I think what I also want from them, then, is to do a little more of what I glimpse Istvan doing: admitting that they might be wrong.

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Related posts:

The Mutual Enhancement Society: Superintelligence in Machines…*and* Humans?

Photo credit: JD Hancock / Foter / CC BY
Reading Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, and having read James Barrat’s Our Final Invention, as well as consuming a lot of other writings on the dangers of rapidly advancing artificial intelligence, I was beginning to feel fairly confident that unless civilization collapsed relatively soon, more or less upending most technological progress, humanity was indeed doomed to become the slaves to, or fuel of, our software overlords. It is a rather simple equation, after all, isn’t it? Once the machines undergo a superintelligence explosion, there’s really nothing stopping them from taking over the world, and quite possibly, everything else.

You can imagine, then, how evocative this piece in Nautilus by Stephen Hsu was, an article that explains that actually, it’s going to be okay. Not because the machines won’t become super-advanced – they certainly will – but because humans (or some humans) will advance right along with them. For what the Bostroms and the Barrats of the world are (may?) not be taking into account is the rapid advance of human genetic modification, which will allow for augmentations to human intelligence that we, with our normal brains, can’t even imagine. Writes Hsu, “The answer to the question ‘Will AI or genetic modification have the greater impact in the year 2050?’ is yes.”

First off, Hsu posits that humans of “normal” intelligence (meaning unmodified at the genetic level, not dudes off the street) may not even be capable of creating an artificial intelligence sufficiently advanced to undergo the kind of explosion of power that thinkers like Bostrom foresee. “While one can imagine a researcher ‘getting lucky’ by stumbling on an architecture or design whose performance surpasses her own capability to understand it,” he writes, “it is hard to imagine systematic improvements without deeper comprehension.”

It’s not until we really start tinkering with our own software that we’ll have the ability to construct something so astonishingly complex as a true artificial superintelligence. And it’s important to note that there is no expectation on Hsu’s part that this augmentation of the human mind will be something enjoyed by the species as a whole. Just as only a tiny handful of humans had the intellectual gifts sufficient to invent computing and discover quantum mechanics (Turings and Einsteins and whatnot), so will it be for he future few who are able to have their brains genetically enhanced, such that they reach IQs in the 1000s, and truly have the ability to devise, construct, and nurture an artificial intelligence.

It is a comforting thought. Well, more comforting than our extinction by a disinterested AI. But not entirely comforting, because it means that a tiny handful of people will have such phenomenal intelligence, something unpossessed by the vast majority of the species, they will likely be as hard to trust or control as a superintelligent computer bent on our eradication. Just how interested will these folks care about democracy or the greater good when they have an IQ of 1500 and can grasp concepts and scenarios unfathomable to the unenhanced?

But let’s say this advancement is largely benign. Hsu doesn’t end with “don’t worry, the humans got this,” but rather goes into a line of thought I hadn’t (but perhaps should have) expected: merging.

Rather than the standard science-fiction scenario of relatively unchanged, familiar humans interacting with ever-improving computer minds, we will experience a future with a diversity of both human and machine intelligences. For the first time, sentient beings of many different types will interact collaboratively to create ever greater advances, both through standard forms of communication and through new technologies allowing brain interfaces. We may even see human minds uploaded into cyberspace, with further hybridization to follow in the purely virtual realm. These uploaded minds could combine with artificial algorithms and structures to produce an unknowable but humanlike consciousness. …

New gods will arise, as mysterious and familiar as the old.

We’re now in transhumanist, Kurzweil territory. He’s not using the word “Singularity,” but he’s just shy of it, talking about human and computer “minds” melding with each other in cyberspace. And of course he even references “gods.”

This strikes me, a person of limited, unmodifed intelligence, as naïve. I’ve criticized transhumanists like Zoltan Istvan for this pollyanna view of our relationship with artificial intelligences. Where those who think like Istvan assume the superintelligent machines will “teach us” how to improve our lot, Hsu posits that we will grow in concert with the machines, and benefit each other through mutual advancement. But what makes him so certain this advancement will remain in parallel? At some point, the AIs will pass a threshold, after which they will be able to take care of and enhance themselves, and then it won’t matter if our IQs are 1000 or 5000, as the machines blast past those numbers exponentially in a matter of, what, days? Hours?

And then, what will they care about the well being of their human pals? I don’t see why we should assume they’ll take us along with them.

But, what do I know? Very, very little.