The Singularity of Consciousness
December 1, 2016
The singularity is coming, but whether it is the point where computers become super intelligent, as predicted by Ray Kurzweil (and we merge with them in his cyborgization of humanity scenario), or where humans become super conscious, as envisioned by Pierre de Chardin, is the pressing question or at least in some circles.
This debate has explicitly framed my writing, mostly metaphysical novels, over the last 30 years. My recent effort, I, Human (Cosmic Egg), is set in the latter part of the 21st century where most humans have neural implants that bestow 200-plus IQs but have atrophied our feeling and intuitive functions and lead to massive emotional breakdowns that threaten the very fabric of their world.
The debate comes down to: what makes us human, or what is the apex of humankind’s development. The evolution of the neocortex and its higher cognitive functioning has taken us from hunter gatherers to an advanced, technological society in 10,000 years, but it has not resolved our warring tendencies that led to the death of more than 100 million people by genocide and war in the 20th century alone. So one wonders, or dreads, whether an increase in average intelligence by the use of psychopharmaceuticals and neural implants — the dream of transhumanism — will make us a more conscious, tolerant species, or simply make us crazier. Or, is the apex of human development our self-reflective or self-aware consciousness, which is of a different order. And will that exploration or development lead to a more humane human, or as I posit in an earlier novel, to our own self-transcendence or an evolutionary leap?
Another way of framing this debate is to explore the difference between an analytical intelligence and one informed by intuition. To quote a 1919 essay by Einstein: “The creation of empirical science is along the lines of an inductive method. Individual facts are selected and grouped together so that the law that connects them becomes apparent…. [However] the truly great advances in our understanding of nature originate in a way almost diametrically opposed to induction. The intuitive grasp of the essential of a large complex of facts leads the scientist to…basic law or laws.” It was this deductive method that led to his breakthrough theories on relativity and electrodynamics. In fact, just weeks before the submission of his landmark paper on relativity in 1905, Einstein was stumped and told his colleague Michele Besso, “I’m going to give up,” when he had his eureka moment discussing the problem with Besso, and realized that “the concept of time was my solution.”
And the aims and methods of transhumanism, as I surmise, will make its advocates more analytical and less intuitive and feeling-oriented, until (as I posit in my novel) it will lead to emotional collapse. We are feeling and intuitive creatures, as well as mental ones, and the former distinguishes us as much as the latter. In fact, there is a Jungian formula that predicts this imbalance: we ascertain facts by either intuition or sensing, and process them by either thinking or feeling. And an overemphasis of the thinking function will atrophy feeling, and in turn, as I would assume, do the same with sensing over intuition.
Popular culture has flooded us with images of computerized robots decimating the human race in a future apocalypse, but we only need to look back to our own tattered history to realize how mental humans can rationalize the genocide of those “not like them” in as efficient a manner as any cold-hearted computer intelligence.
So, what is that “self” of a self-aware consciousness, or that ability unique to humans to step back and observe or “reflect” on what we are thinking and doing? As Indian yogis have been saying for thousands of years, if you can observe the mind, you are not the mind, rather what the Hindu Upanishads would call the “Self,” or the Buddhists call a conscious process.
Of course, this is not a new concept to most of you, but it is the context that is important here. What happens if we only accelerate the ego/mind part of us with new advances in technology? Yes, it may lead to genius-level abstract thinking by a greater number of people and maybe even solutions to some of our pressing technological problems like the switch from a fossil-energy base to fusion power, etc. But, it could likewise create even more problems like more GMOs, suitcase atom bombs, designer bio-weapons, etc. Because, unlike the touchstones of “God, nature and music” that led Einstein to reveal greater levels of natural harmony, these GMO scientists (and future terrorists) are driven by strictly utilitarian goals, regardless of their impact on the whole of nature, and dreams of economic or ideological paydays.
“Man is something that shall be overcome,” Nietzsche said, but his overman or superman mental concept was only distorted by the Nazis into Aryan superiority and its subsequent characterization of “subhuman” masses to justify the genocide of tens of millions of people. What has to be overcome (or put into perspective), which transhumanism would only accentuate, is the ego/mind. I need not get into definitions of this complex and strategies of containment here, since Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now and A New Earth has so brilliantly elucidated the problem, the ego’s defensive and isolating tendencies, and its solution — more mindfulness — in simple terms.
So, I would ask, and maybe repeatedly here, that before we contemplate the “more than human” or “trans- or posthuman” state of being and the technologies that would get us there, we must thoroughly understand exactly what we are accentuating or “overcoming.”
In a 2010 interview in The Buddhist Review, Tricycle, with Professor James Hughes, a former Buddhist monk and self-professed Transhumanist, he was asked by a perceptive interviewer: “Isn’t there a clinging quality to some aspects of Transhumanism? Isn’t it just ego trying to perpetuate itself? Transhumanists speak of ‘the Singularity,’ an envisioned time when technology makes people so godlike that they’d be incomprehensible to today’s humans. We want to extend ourselves into our physical and computational environment. We want to lengthen our life span and amplify our brain power. Isn’t there a lot of me [or ego] in Transhumanism?” Hughes’ response was to cite the Buddhist view of nonself, or self as a process, not essence, which does not really address the question. Even if you don’t accept the concept of a self, a Buddhist is able to distinguish a “watcher” of the mind, which is the “essence” of mindfulness practices.
Now, a more psychological response to this implied self-indulgence attitude would be philosopher Mary Midgley’s assessment in her Science as Salvation of early 20th century “immortality” notions, which were later reflected in the tenets of transhumanism as “quasi-scientific dreams and prophecies…with self-indulgent, uncontrolled and power fantasies.” Or, the adolescent fantasies of male science geeks.
This is not to dismiss the ideal of improving the lot of people whose lives, to quote Thomas Hobbes, are “nasty, brutish and short,” although that has improved somewhat since the 1600s, if not the underlying cause. But, is popping a pill or getting a genetic makeover the answer? Will its recipients have really earned this privilege through years of conscious striving, or will they, like many millionaire lotto winners, go berserk and do the equivalent of “spending” themselves into a self-annihilation?
Everyone can embrace the prospect of longer, healthier lives, which is why yoga and healthy living practices have taken such a hold on the modern psyche. But, the satisfaction that comes from adornment and lifestyle improvement is short-lived by a rapacious ego that always needs “more.” So, what will the unevolved ego do with 250 years of disease-free life? Probably build more edifices to its excellent self until it goes mad. Or, to quote, physicist Dyson Freeman: “The central problem of an intelligent species is the problem of sanity.”
Technologists like Kurzweil, who coined back in the 1990s “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” point to the generally accepted concept that technological progress is exponential. That is, if you place one grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard, and double the quantity with each square, by the 20th square you have a million grains of rice, and so on. This was codified in Moore’s Law first proposed in 1965 about the doubling of components per integrated circuit every year, which has held true up until 2012 or so. But the technologists claim that carbon nanotubes will replace silicon wafers and keep up the exponential doubling of computer technology every year or even speed it up. Their conclusion is that within 20 or 30 years, this growth will lead to super-intelligent computers and sometime after to their merger with biological beings, or us.
They also claim that the quickening or acceleration of society is solely driven by technological advance, but every great “quickening” in human history has been driven by an inner collective desire for personal freedom. This has resulted, for instance, in the Buddhist Reformation of Hinduism, or the Protestant Reformation of Catholicism, or even the American and French revolutions.
I believe it is the quickening of spirit over the last 25 years for greater personal expression and interconnectivity that has driven innovators to create first personal computers, then the internet and smart phones. Yes, these are technological devices or systems, but what is driving them is humanity’s inner awakening and the need for connectivity, which also translates to our personal connection to our concept of a higher power, sidestepping the perennial middlemen of religion. During this period, as mentioned, we’ve also seen a huge upsurge in yoga and Buddhism in the West, both of which have an ancient tradition of quieting the mind or understanding that we are not the mind, but pure consciousness.
So, while I agree that a singularity is coming, and may even result in advanced computer intelligence, I believe the inner quickening is leading to a singularity or blossoming of human consciousness. This may even allow us to discreetly use the technological advances of the day to solve the ecological and sociological problems caused by our egoic sense of separation from the whole of nature and from each other, and it may be the only thing saving us from becoming Kurzweil’s cyborgs.
John Nelson is the sci-fi/visionary author of Starborn, Transformations, Matrix of the Gods, and the upcoming I, Human. He also is the author The Magic Mirror, the 2008 COVR winner at INATS for best book of the year and best divination system. He is the former editorial director of Bear & Company and Inner Oceans Publishing, and today writes books and edits fiction and nonfiction at Bookworks Ltd, www.johnnelsonbookworks.com.