Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: Godhood Is Boring

20 January 2012

Godhood Is Boring


“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.”
– Albert Einstein, physicist

"We live on an island of knowledge surrounded by a shore of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance."
– John A. Wheeler, physicist

'All scientifically possible technology and social change predicted in science fiction will come to pass, but none of it will work properly.'
– Neil Gaiman's Second Law

“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.”
– Jellaludin Rumi

Perhaps within our lifetimes, humankind's coevolutionary dance with biomedical technology will extend the lifespan of our bodies to currently inconceivable lengths.  There are a lot of brilliant minds today waxing poetic about such a future, in which our newfound immortality makes existence an ongoing act of creative bliss where the medium is reality itself.

But these Singularity pundits almost entirely neglect the obvious psychological effects of such radical life extension, imagining that we would continue to trundle on as a species with similar needs and desires.  This is about as sophisticated as 19th Century lithographs of the year 2000, when everyone rides to their formal affairs in sleek dirigibles and flies masted ships to the Moon.

It also forgets the initial rush of power we all felt when taking our first steps, or shaking a rattle.  The thrill of control is the seed of the self, the earliest and most primitive emotional response to discovering our participation in reality.  This rush sustained the growth of modernity as it magnified and became dams, skyscrapers, and space shuttles.  But what sustains our awe into adulthood is not the continued magnification of the control thrill – for which we quickly develop a tolerance and require even more bombastic displays of control – but the deepening recognition of a world finally and utterly beyond our ability to rule.

Science is, in the final count, not about the increase of knowledge, but the increase of ignorance – if every question answered means two more questions asked, what we don't know is growing faster than what we do.  And so a mature science, grounded in the same wonder at mystery that impelled natural inquiry in the first place, welcomes this mystery.  It is not a program of rapturous domination, or prideful power en route to ultimate mastery of the matter, but the cultivation of wisdom through the exploration of nature as macrocosm and the self as microcosm, of the ego embedded in a world defined by interbeing.

This is the curve ignored by graph-happy Singulitarians when they give the hockey stick chart argument for our impending divinity.  We're spiraling increasingly out of control, not into it – evermore aware that control is actually the delusion of a not-actually-separate self, woven dynamically with uncountable feedback loops into the rest of the world.  We are participants, not lords – not creators, but co-creators.  We will learn to work with, not upon.

But even if we don't end up as the Lactobacillus in Google's intestinal tract, even if we become the genie we let out of this bottle, it'll undoubtedly disappoint us.  "Turning into gods" may seem exciting now, but eventually every new plateau becomes the norm, every age's fancy new garb goes out of fashion – and it seems pretty likely that one day, moving planets will be as prosaic as moving chairs is to us today.  When that age comes, will we still seek the awesome creative power of even greater deities?  Or will we finally accept the horizon of our knowledge and ability as an ever-receding target and, humbled to the transcendental mystery of life, find the transhuman here and now, deeper in the present?

After all, it only takes a cursory study of world mythology to realize that the gods are BORED.  Omnipotence is a dead-end street.  Once you have it all, the only way forward is to imagine yourself as a lesser and lesser being, like Alan Watts' lucid dreamer who eventually hides himself so deep he forgets he is dreaming...and here we are, imagining in a distinctly un-Copernican fashion that meaning and purpose exist only in the head, and ours is the first and un-simulated world.

2011 11 22, Orlando FL

Post-script:

"'Transhumanist' comes from 'transhuman,' a word that seems to have received its modern meaning in correspondence between Julian Huxley and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit paleontologist and theologian. Teilhard distinguished the 'transhuman' from the 'ultrahuman,' with the latter meaning a kind of souped-up version of the human, and the former indicating an actual transformation – evolution – of who we are. The challenge of the transhuman is to actualize our unique individuality within the much larger planetary collective he saw emerging...he insisted that planetary 'communion' could only come about through the difficult work of individuation: In order to evolve, we each must become who we are, together.

"Now most recent usages of 'transhuman,' it seems to me, have forgotten most of this, and mistaken the 'transhuman' for the 'ultrahuman' – a kind of upgrade to the same basic model, still denying our connection to each other and the environment. Huxley, a biologist, very much intended 'transhumanism' to indicate a change in who and how we are, and this change centered on a recognize of our radical interconnection with the cosmos, a perception of unity. Now 'transhuman' etymologically suggests 'beyond the human,' and in my view much of what we call 'transhuman' these days – the technological enhancement of our already existing nature to cling to life and deny the role of death, for example – is, as Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, 'human, all too human.' It is an individual ego’s vision of evolution."
Richard Doyle, information scientist