Month: September 2015 (page 1 of 2)

Happiness and its Malcontents.

yoga2If you’re happy and you know it…you’re a Transhumanist (clap, clap).

The third and final piece to our present discussion about Transhumanism (H+) is called, “super well-being.” The future success and overall acceptance of the H+ rests on this assumption: Technology can fix our collective and personal unhappiness. If Transhumanism stopped short of this claim, we would be left with a system that promised eternal life and unending personal intelligence … but we’d be as miserable as Alex Trebek at a Comic-Con gathering.

Transhumanists speak of this coming age of contentment through a variety of angles. It could mean the reduction of health risks at birth, made possible by genetic manipulation. It could mean the pharmacological easing of pain when accidents or illnesses happen. These aren’t particularly controversial. However, in true H+ boldness, super well-being also refers to using any medical or behavioral avenue to increase the chemical reactions that cause our brain to be happy—wildly happy—and perfectly content.

So what makes us happy? Or, better yet, is happiness something that can be manipulated into being? Or, is happiness just something that is?

America has a fascination with happiness. Well, I guess all humans have a particular need for happiness (even if that just means an emotion over-and-against its opposite, suffering); every mother and father that I know want happiness for their child. But America pursues it. For the deeper thinkers among us, happiness sounds a bit superficial and so they turn to more nuanced, even spiritual, terms like joy or contentedness. But one thing is clear—Americans expect to be happy. And when you expect something, you begin to believe that it is a basic human right. It is society’s obligation to provide me with happiness!

This is not pie-in-the-sky crazy talk. H+ co-founder and philosopher David Pearce argues that society has the moral obligation to eliminate suffering and advance euphoria, whether by chemical enhancements in the short-run or by gene therapies in the long term. He believes that since we know the essential chemical processes of euphoria and happiness, we can create long-term strategies that allow us to feel this way all of the time. He calls all of this the “hedonistic imperative.”

Imagine your teenager walking up to you and saying, “Mom, I have a moral obligation to spread euphoria to all of my friends. I’m going to ____.” I’m betting that the answer proposed is not something that’s fit for approval.

Hedonism, even if conceived from an altruistic place, necessarily devolves into narcissism. Both are essential corollaries of that most popular religion, Me-ism. Once you identify yourself as the center of human experience…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Once you convince yourself that the goods on this earth exist chiefly for your benefit…
Once you confess that everything you have is of your own doing … then you are godlike.

Look, I get it. It sounds supremely patronizing to suggest that people endure suffering for their own good, especially when other options are now legitimately on the table. But there is something deeply profound and deeply human about suffering—about the process of lamentation. The deep ache that says to God, “This is not how things should be.” Depression. Heartache. Pain. Sadness. Empathy. This is humanity (dare I say?) at its most precious. This is humanity in the bones and marrow.

Yet these wrenching parts of the human experience are made valuable by a God who sits in the ashes with us. A God who takes tarnished life and polishes it. A God who gives permission to lament. And also commands his followers to feed, clothe, and minister to the neighbor in those moments of darkness.

While H+ might respond with, “Of course this is so! This is why we work toward a future without lamentations!” …they are also falling into the trap of believing that humanity, if only the right buttons get pushed, is capable of a perfect society. Thus spoke Zarathustra.

The life of super-well-being has eerie similarities with dystopias, past and present. In particular, the drive toward manipulated happiness sounds like it’s taken straight out of Huxley’s Brave New World. In one particularly insightful scene, one of World Controllers ponders a soon-to-be discarded theory about purpose:

[Purpose] was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes—make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge… “What fun it would be,” he thought, “if one didn’t have to think about happiness!” [1]

Personally, I’d like to be happier. But not at the expense of God’s reality. I need a life in which the decisions I make, the God I worship, and the people I know and love do not exist as a mirage, no matter how pleasant that mirage might be. The rich, virtuous life is one that understands the authenticity of interacting with an imperfect world—with all of its flaws—then rests in the overarching truth that God knows all and deigns this world to be, a world that earnestly waits for authentic redemption from an equally authentic evil.

I want to have the eyes of the prophet who sees a deeper reality, the one who says: “Don’t be afraid, those who are with us are more than those who are with them” [2].  I want the eyes to see the chariots of fire in the hills and sounds of angelic marching in the balsam tree-tops [3]. Deep reality is not cute, it’s not manipulated, and it’s not euphoric. But we are called to live in this deep reality, nonetheless.

Having tea on the train tracks might be a glorious way to spend 10 minutes of your morning. But, no matter how happy that makes you feel, you’re essentially ignoring the colossal truth that just left the preceding station 9 minutes ago. Closing your eyes and singing your happy song won’t make the butcher’s bill disappear.

[1] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 177.
[2] 2 Kings 6:16.
[3] 2 Sam 5:24.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Superintelligence: The Trivial Pursuit

superlongevityLast time I posted about super-longevity, one of the three main pillars of the Transhumanist movement (H+). Yet surviving on this mortal coil is only good insofar as the life you have is worthwhile. For that worth, the H+ folks press toward a vision of the future which makes you 1) really smart (“superintelligence”), and 2) really happy (“super well-being”).

Hey, if upping everyone’s smart factor lowers my taxes and/or eliminates farmersonly.com commercials, slap me sideways and sign me up for H+.

Let’s start with a definition of superintelligence and move outward from there. When the H+  folks speak of superintelligence they are usually referring to one of two conditions. One, superintelligence is the moment in which computer systems exceed the ability of human minds across a variety of cognitive domains [1]. Such an era would might be framed in terms of speed (i.e., a computer system that can match a human’s intellectual capabilities with exponentially faster thinking ability), or cross-disciplinary work (i.e., a system’s ability to solve problems across a variety of domains with much greater ease than a human), or simply qualitatively (i.e., a system that works as fast as human intellect, but vastly smarter). One could say that the era of superintelligence has dawned whenever these thresholds are eventually reached…whether that’s 5 years from now or 50.

The second way to speak of superintelligence is more practical. Futurists expect that future generations will be “chipped.” That is, the average person will have some microchip or something similar embedded in the brain allowing the person (user?) to have instant access to all the informational resources available to humanity. Imagine that—wikipedia and the Library of Congress in your brain, accessible at the speed of thought. Now, FINALLY, you have the capacity to understand and appreciate Melville.

So in one scenario, our computers exceed the cognitive capacities of a human being – then soon, the capacities of all human beings in aggregate. They do the thinking for us. In the other scenario, we use chips to augment our own brains, bringing our natural hardwiring up to specs, if you will. The brain upgrade to OS-H+. In either scenario, the amount of knowledge available to humanity – and the accessibility with which humans engage it – is staggering. It’s coming people, and it’s coming in your lifetime. If you find this trajectory hard to believe, consider how little time it took to get from Tecmo Super Bowl to Madden 2016 (~25 years).

 

tecmobowl2

madden16

I have to admit that super-intelligence represents a serious threat to my line of work. I’m an educator. If everybody has all the answers, then I am without vocation in this world to a large extent. Much of my power (albeit meager) in this world is pinned on the fact that I know certain things and have the ability to communicate these things to those who don’t know them. Now I don’t see my role as professor as someone who just dumps information into the minds of impressionable youth, but I would be foolish not to recognize the conflict of interest that exists here. Am I resistant to superintelligence because its presence is threatening to me, a person who can hold knowledge over others by virtue of my education and vocation? Difficult to say, but certainly worth considering.

Accepting that there might be a bias latent in my post, it would benefit us to identify the central question at hand: Is there an overarching problem with mass, instantaneous access to all available information?

I agree that, as a general rule, more knowledge is a good thing. I can only imagine that if I was uneducated and poor, the promise of a smarter me would be a game-changer of the highest order. You’ve just been given the skeleton key for all-time: increased health, wealth and dignity. But knowledge must be paired with wisdom and experience if it ever is going to amount to anything useful. It’s one thing to talk about sex in an informed manner; actually experiencing it in a loving relationship is different beast altogether.

“Am I resistant to superintelligence because its presence is threatening to me, a person who can hold knowledge over others by virtue of my education and vocation?”

The great deception of technology, particularly as it is used to foster education, is that the end product is the only party in town. Imagine that you have a home with a fireplace. The calendar is turning toward autumn and the weather turns with it, cool and refreshing. You feel that wonderful call of the wild. Actually, no…you just want a blazing fire in the fireplace. What do you do? Well, today we simply drive to the nearest market or supply store and pick up a cord or two of wood. Solved.ax

But what would you have done in prior generations, when your goods were not gathered and sold in one convenient location? You would have called up a neighbor or two, packed up your pick-up with an axe or chainsaw, and headed out to the forest to chop up some seasoned logs. Hours of your day would be invested in the gathering of the wood. But, without you knowing it, multiple goods were achieved during that period of time: You spent time outdoors, you engaged your neighbor in conversation while building trust and social capital, you may have even had time to enjoy the work of it all. The end was the same (a pile of wood for the fireplace) but the process was immeasurably beneficial for holistic living.

Allow me to build the bridge. The technological age values the end product (information) above everything else. Technology continues to “efficient-ize” our lives—devices work fast so that we save all this time to do other things (or nothing). With this approach to the world, the process is entirely marginalized; we just want to stacks ends on top of ends. Yet I argue that the process itself is what forges knowledge into wisdom; it is the very thing that recognizes the limits of knowledge in the face of true relationship and love. If my resources are ever available, I become an island in need of nothing. Or, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel:  “I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain. I am a rock, I am an island.

The pursuit of knowledge is, of course, nothing new. In fact, some of the earliest Christian spin-offs were of this perspective: Knowledge was salvation. Gnosticism grew in influence by claiming that the primary problem with humanity was not an issue with sin, but an issue of ignorance. Only knowledge can overcome ignorance. Modern gnostics might claim the same thing: You need more brains, dummy.

“If my resources are ever available, I become an island in need of nothing.”

Jesus himself turns all of this on its head. Jesus arrives and immediately recruits himself a merry band of idiots, also known as the 12 disciples. He hangs out with the dregs of society—prostitutes, government lowlifes, lepers. Not exactly the types who DVR Jeopardy on a nightly basis. Not just this, but he goes out of his way to confront the intellectuals wherever he goes, essentially berating them for knowing all the answers but missing the central point of God’s law. He even talks in stories designed to confuse the intellectuals of the day. Speaking to his disciples in private, Jesus says:

“The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving. And ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!” (Mk 4:12)

God calls us to serve and worship him with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. If you believe the futurists out there, they believe they are on the verge of knocking out an artificial mind. The problem is that without the other two–heart and soul–knowledge will never be complete. And, while we’re at it, no digital “heart” (in the emotion-sense of the word) or “soul” is coming down the conveyor belt. These things are uniquely human, and therefore, uniquely God’s. The human calling is to recognize the fullness of the creaturely gifts He gives us and to respond in worship to God and service to our neighbor.

When man attributes such gifts to sources other than God, man searches and finds for himself another deity altogether—knowledge itself. And in this age, believe me, knowledge is and will continue to be worshiped with the utmost fervor.

watermark

[1] Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence (Oxford: Oxford University, 2014), 52-57.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Surfing for Leviathan!

facebook and twitterFishing for Leviathan can be found in across a variety of online applications. Check us out on facebook: www.facebook.com/fishingforleviathan. I post several interesting articles about technology and theology every week. Or, follow me on Twitter: @oeschasketch.
Don’t forget your fishing rod.

Transhumanism 101 – Eternal Life

fountain of youthOccasionally, I’ll get a song stuck in my head for no reason…it barges into my brain and before I know it, the song decides to crash on the couch. Over and over it plays. Hopefully, it’s not the theme song to Paw Patrol, my son’s favorite morning cartoon, but bad 80’s songs aren’t much better. This week’s brain-guest? The soaring vocals in Alphaville’s “Forever Young” accompanied with the image of Napoleon Dynamite at the school dance, of course.

Forever young, I want to be forever young…do you really want to live forever?

Ugh. No, I really don’t. I don’t want to be forever young. And I don’t want to be forever young, either. Forever Young sounds like the title of a dystopian novel set in the future when history has been forgotten and no one understands the value of life and death; an age of ignorance and superficiality. Instead, I want to be old and grizzled someday—certainly not forever young. I’m already on my way; my beard has some salt-and-pepper Grizzly Adams look that I’ve spent three years cultivating! Of course, no one sells songs that have these lyrics: “Old and grey, I want to be ollllld and grey…do you really want to take Viagra?

Being forever young must be one of the all-time enduring pursuits of humanity—from Ponce DeLeon to the bad guy in Indiana Jones 3 to Rod Stewart. Whether its the fear of death or the nostalgia of youth that drives this, I’m not really sure. The strange thing is that now, after thousands of years of technology and civilization, a form of immortality may be within humanity’s reach.

Ta-Dah! Welcome to Transhumanism! For those of you new to the term, it has nothing to do with your race or gender identity, at least not directly. Rather, the term reflects the human desire to transcend its current condition both individually and socially, most notably to rise above the limitations of our physical selves. Transhumanism is a movement of people committed to using technology to further the human race in profound ways. In most iterations, Transhumanism is viewed as the next great step of human evolution. Homo sapiens has evolved into a wholly new species, Homo technicus.

Start here for a terrific primer:

Yes, that’s a lot to take in.

One of the central features of the Transhumanist movement (shorthand is H+) is the desire to live a longer and more satisfying life. More specifically, H+ uses now-and-future technologies to fundamentally alter how we think about life and death itself.

Of all the black-and-white topics in the history of history, death has to be near the top of the list. One, we’re either dead or alive, not both (sorry, zombies). Two, no one can effectively cheat death indefinitely. For the first time in human history, both of these statements are no longer axiomatic. The H+ movement is pushing for a human future in which death comes not as a result of our human bodily limitation but, rather, because when we finally will it to be so. Like deciding to quit a video game before heading to bed…you decide when the story of you is over.

How does this drive toward “super-longevity” actually take shape?
Option 1: We get so good at this bio-technology thing that we can do a series of edits, therapies, and transformations to the physical body itself—effectively ridding our cells of the damage that comes with age. This may or may not include actual microchip technology integrated into our bodies to help this process. Goodbye, Gandalf the Grey! Hello, Galadriel!

Option 2: We get so good at this digital technology thing that we transition out of our physical bodies altogether. In this Kurzweilian view, people can literally upload their consciousness onto some form of silicon substrate, existing forever in the digital cloud or downloaded back into a robotic being as a vessel for the human consciousness.

Let’s just assume, for a moment, that these options are viable in the near future and that our society will be making real progress toward the creation of an artificial yet eternal life of sorts. How do we faithfully make sense of this brave new world? Since I have three H+ posts lined up in a row, I’m going to use this time to focus on “super-longevity” exclusively, leaving “super-intelligence” and “super well-being” for next time.

Super-longevity scares the hell out of me. The question is why. Why am I so concerned with a group of people who want to use technology in such a way that prolongs my life? Hosuperlongevity2w dare they! Before I pull out my arrows, I better be sure that I have the right target.

The problem is not the desire to extend life. This has to be clear from the get-go. Existence is certainly better than non-existence, as Descartes once argued. To disagree with this point would be utterly hypocritical. If you believed that non-existence was better than existence, you would have killed yourself by now. No, existence is to be cherished, valued, and ultimately preserved. Option 1 above seems to be something worth pursuing at least at first glance, since none of us willingly welcome the ravages of cancer or Alzheimer’s. In fact, many of us would go to great lengths to prevent our children from experiencing these ills, even allowing procedures to be done in utero, if necessary.

Nor is the problem the human desire to push the boundaries of our collective limitation. In a truly physical sense, the Olympic Games come to mind here. Every event is designed to draw out the best of human physical ability over-and-against the physical limitations that are present in all of us. From an intellectual sense, we similarly challenge ourselves to conceive and make manifest a better future–a world with less suffering than our forefathers. I don’t find either of these pursuits to be problematic.

The problem is that H+ wrecks the meaning of life altogether. Super-longevity essentially argues that humanity’s existential problem is one of limit. H+ says we should be people without boundary, without restraint, without end. And, at this exact juncture, I get off the train. Limitation is not the evil that H+ thinks it is, but rather, it’s the very thing that makes community possible.

-In our mutual limitation, we recognize that our will (and power) are not to be unbounded, in any sense.
-In our mutual limitation, we have the capacity for empathy, surprise, and joy.
-In our mutual limitation, we are able to pursue justice rather than pursue our own ends.
-In our mutual limitation, we can take joy in a real Christian community that recognizes and values the weakest among us.
-In our mutual limitation, we are forced to recognize the greatest truth of our time: we are not God.

Life means something because death awaits us. Life means something infinitely greater because life awaits us after death, as well. All life is valuable because each breath is a gift. This is one of the central insights of Scripture: that life is valuable because it is God’s–not ours–and because of that designation, God pursues a course of salvation through Christ from the moment Adam eats the fruit. God chose redemption over his second option, annihilation. So great is the Father’s love for us (and our bodily life, I might add).

When we use gift language, we are less likely to see life as something we can steal, something we can manipulate. Every breath becomes a living expression of God’s gifting; the life we have bears witness to God as Creator and Sustainer and therefore becomes a testimony to the life and act of God. Super-longevity seems to be a complex form of narcissism…where I become the master of my own universe.

For the Christian, escaping death does nothing to prevent the actual problem with human living—sin. For the Christian, the body is essential to who we are as creatures of the Creator. This fact is affirmed in Scripture over and over again, not only in the fact that Jesus came in the flesh (i.e., the Incarnation) but that his resurrection was also in the flesh. To create a life without the body is to necessarily destroy part of that which makes us human!

Oh, yeah…and there’s other things to worry about with a technologically mediated eternal life. Geo-political problems abound. Developing countries are screwed. Permanent caste systems are entirely plausible, if not inevitable. We’ll never get rid of Donald Trump. Could you imagine his next tweet?

@realDonaldTrump: “Jst uploaded myslf 2 ‘net. H+ now. #nevergonnabefirednow, #inyourcomputer”

Ultimately, the super-longevity component of H+ exists as a form of salvation. This makes any internal critique of the H+ movement subject (and rightly so) to intense scrutiny. In other words, futurist and technology guru Ray Kurzweil has dedicated his life to the coming of the technological Singularity and hope that humanity will transcend its finite condition into some form of eternal being. In the absence of any true salvation, this “eternal life” acts as his salvation and, therefore, must be protected and defended at all costs. No moral qualms can convince him to give up the pursuit of eternal life…he’s already totally invested in its success!

But what kind of life are we talking about?

watermark

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Older posts