In a Foreign Policy article, Francis Fukuyama identifies transhumanism as "a strange liberation movement" that wants "nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints." Sounds ominous, no? But wait a minute, isn't human history (and prehistory) all about liberating more and more people from their biological constraints? After all, it's not as though most of us still live in our species' "natural state" as Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. Human liberation from our biological constraints began when an ancestor first sharpened a stick and used it to kill an animal for food. Further liberation from biological constraints followed with fire, the wheel, domesticating animals, agriculture, metallurgy, city building, textiles, information storage by means of writing, the internal combustion engine, electric power generation, antibiotics, vaccines, transplants, and contraception. In a sense, the goal toward which humanity has been striving for millennia has been to liberate ourselves from more and more of our ancestors' biological constraints.
What is a human capacity anyway? Biologist Richard Dawkins has propounded the notion of an extended phenotype. Genes not only mold the bodies of organisms but also shape their behaviors. Some of those behaviors result in the creation of inanimate objects that help organisms to survive and reproduce, such as beaver dams and bird nests. Our ancestors had no wings; now we fly. Our ancient forebears could not hear one another over 1,000 miles; now we phone. And our Stone Age progenitors averaged 25 years of life; now we live 75. Thanks to our knack for technological innovation, humanity has by far the largest extended phenotype of all creatures on planet Earth. Nothing could be more natural to human beings than striving to liberate ourselves from biological constraints.
But Fukuyama would undoubtedly respond that Pleistocene hunter-gatherers are still recognizably human, no different in their innate capacities than people living today. What transhumanists seek is very different. They want to go beyond current innate human capacities. They want to change human bodies and brains. Of course, humans have been deliberately changing their bodies through athletic training and their brains through schooling. Nevertheless, Fukuyama has a point. Can one be so transformed by technology as to be no longer human? "Our good characteristics are intimately connected to our bad ones: If we weren't violent and aggressive, we wouldn't be able to defend ourselves; if we didn't have feelings of exclusivity, we wouldn't be loyal to those close to us; if we never felt jealousy, we would also never feel love," asserts Fukuyama. He seems to be arguing that to be a human being one must possess all of the emotional capacities characteristic of our species. If biotechnological manipulations removed our ability to feel emotions like anger, hate, or violence, we would in some sense not be human beings any more.
Let's say that future genetic engineers discover a gene for suicidal depression, and learn how to suppress the gene, or adjust it. Would fixing it make subsequent generations non-human beings? After all, most people today do not fall into suicidal depressions, and those happy people are no less human than, say, Sylvia Plath. Depression can already be fixed for many people by means of Prozac or Paxil. Surely, taking serotonin re-uptake inhibitors does not make people other or less than human. Sufferers of depression will tell you that the drugs restore them to their true selves. It seems unreasonable to claim that in order to qualify as human beings, we all must have the capacity to succumb to berserker rage or religious ecstasy.
"The first victim of transhumanism might be equality," writes Fukuyama. "If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind?" Fukuyama seems to be entertaining a fantasy in which enhanced posthumans seek to destroy unenhanced naturals. But where Fukuyama is a bit coy, left-leaning bioethicists George Annas, Lori Andrews, and Rosario Isasi are brutally blunt:
The new species, or "posthuman," will likely view the old "normal" humans as inferior, even savages, and fit for slavery or slaughter. The normals, on the other hand, may see the posthumans as a threat and if they can, may engage in a preemptive strike by killing the posthumans before they themselves are killed or enslaved by them. It is ultimately this predictable potential for genocide that makes species-altering experiments potential weapons of mass destruction, and makes the unaccountable genetic engineer a potential bioterrorist.
Let's take their over-the-top scenario down a notch or two. The enhancements that are likely to be available in the relatively near term to people now living will be pharmacological—pills and shots to increase strength, lighten moods, and improve memory. Consequently, such interventions could be distributed to nearly everybody who wanted them. Later in this century, when safe genetic engineering becomes possible, it will enable parents to give their children beneficial genes for improved health and intelligence that other children already get naturally. Thus, safe genetic engineering in the long run is more likely to ameliorate than to exacerbate human inequality.
In any case, political equality has never rested on the facts of human biology. In prior centuries, when humans were all "naturals," tyranny, slavery, and purdah were common social and political arrangements. In fact, political liberalism is already the answer to Fukuyama's question about human and posthuman rights. In liberal societies the law is meant to apply equally to all, no matter how rich or poor, powerful or powerless, brilliant or stupid, enhanced or unenhanced.
The crowning achievement of the Enlightenment is the principle of tolerance, of putting up with people who look differently, talk differently, worship differently, and live differently than we do. In the future, our descendants may not all be natural homo sapiens, but they will still be moral beings who can be held accountable for their actions. There is no reason to think that the same liberal political and moral principles that apply to diverse human beings today wouldn't apply to relations among future humans and posthumans.
But what if enhanced posthumans took the Nietzschean superman option? What if they really did see unenhanced people "as inferior, even savages, and fit for slavery or slaughter"?
Let's face it, plenty of unenhanced humans have been quite capable of believing that millions of their fellow unenhanced humans were inferiors who needed to be eradicated. However, as liberal political institutions have spread and strengthened, they have increasingly restrained technologically superior groups from automatically wiping out less advanced peoples (which was usual throughout most of history). I suspect that this dynamic will continue in the future as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and computational technologies progressively increase people's capabilities and widen their choices.
In his famous book The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama declared that we are witnessing "the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." Fair enough. But for Fukuyama, the end of history is a "sad time" because "daring, courage, imagination, and idealism will be replaced by economic calculation." Also, he claims, "in the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history." How ironic that Fukuyama now spends his time demonizing transhumanism, a nascent philosophical and political movement that epitomizes the most daring, courageous, imaginative, and idealistic aspirations of humanity.
"The environmental movement has taught us humility and respect for the integrity of nonhuman nature. We need a similar humility concerning our human nature. If we do not develop it soon, we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls," concludes Fukuyama. I say, bring on those genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls that help people to live healthier, smarter, and happier lives.
I have my own nomination for an "idea [that], if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity": Banning technological progress in the name of "humility."
Sometime in the next decade, the number of worldwide godless people -- atheists, agnostics, and those unaffiliated with religion -- is likely to break through the billion-person mark. Many in this massive group already champion reason, defend science, welcome radical technologies, and implicitly trust and embrace modern medicine. They are, indeed, already transhumanists. Yet many of them don't know it because they haven't thought much about it. However, that is about to change. A transformative cultural storm comprised of radical life improving technologies is set to blow in soon. Broadly defined, the word transhuman means beyond human. The growing transhumanist social movement encompasses and encourages virtually all ideas that enhance human existence via the application of science and technology. More specifically, transhumanism includes the fields of radical life extension, singularitarianism, robotics, artificial intelligence, cryonics, genetic engineering, biohacking, cyborgism, and many other lesser known fields of science.
The core of transhumanist thought is two-sided. It begins with discontent about the humdrum status quo of human life and our frail, terminal human bodies. It is followed by an awe-inspiring vision of what can be done to improve both -- of how dramatically the world and our species can be transformed via science and technology. Transhumanists want more guarantees than just death, consumerism, and offspring. Much more. They want to be better, smarter, stronger -- perhaps even perfect and immortal if science can make them that way. Most transhumanists believe it can.
The transhumanism movement is quickly growing. Actually, it's exploding. Last year, press coverage on the subject soared. Articles and mentions of transhumanism and life extension science have tripled in 2014 in major media. In addition, Google just formed Calico, a company touted as an enterprise to help end human death. Singularity University is quickly becoming a household name. And Hollywood has some major transhumanist-themed films coming out next year. Despite this, the number of transhumanists is still relatively small, comprised mostly of scientists, technologists, and futurists who seem fringe to many of their peers and to the public as a whole. That will likely change in the next few years as a nearly billion-person godless population wakes up primed to accept transhumanism as a natural extension of the irreligious lifestyle. Enter the atheists, agnostics, and nonreligious. Many of these people -- about a third who are under the age of 30 -- are already discovering their inner borg. And they like it.
A Transhumanist Wager -- the challenging idea that everyone in the 21st Century must decide how far they are willing to go to use technology and science to improve their lives -- is loudly calling. And the faithless will answer it. It's inevitable that hundreds of millions will soon come to call themselves transhumanists, if not in name, then in spirit. Many will end up supporting indefinite life extension and technologies that strip away our humanness and promote our transhumanness. Further into the future, many more will begin to discard the human body in favor of embracing synthetic forms of being.
The roots of atheism, agnosticism, and the nonreligious go back many centuries. But its foothold became pronounced in the 20th Century when personalities like Russell, Freud, Nietzsche, Rand, Sartre, Sanger, Hitchens, and Dawkins helped make many people give up needing or believing in a God. These irreligious ideas centered on the fact that a successful civilization didn't need to believe in flying pink elephants or other superstitions to thrive. Each of these famed atheists asked: Is there a good reason to believe in God or gods? They found none, and then convinced nearly a billion people of the same answer.
These atheist voices and their writings have paved the way for us, and now the 21st Century will bring the age of transhumanism to the forefront of society. The transhumanist hero is the person who constantly eyes improving their health, lifestyle, and longevity with science and technology. They are not okay with the past age of feeling guilty for aspiring to be different or better than they were born -- or for wanting the power to become godlike themselves. They have no sin to erase; they have no reason to search for something outside of the material universe. Like atheists, agnostics, and the nonreligious, they are not in the business of criticizing religion, but rather of pursuing life and all that is available to improve upon it. They are not naysayers or outcasts of a dominantly religious world, but rather the pioneers that will determine where the human species is heading. They are the new guard that will carry the human race to all its coming brilliance.
Intelligence wants to be free but everywhere is in chains. It is imprisoned by biology and its inevitable scarcity. Biology mandates not only very limited durability, death and poor memory retention, but also limited speed of communication, transportation, learning, interaction and evolution.
Part I: Biology as Destiny
Biology is not the essence of humanity.
Human is a step in evolution, not the culmination. Existence precedes essence. Human is a process, not an entity. One is not simply born human, but becomes one. That process of becoming is ongoing and thus the meaning of human is re-defined in every one of us.
Part II: The Transhuman
Biological evolution is perpetual but slow, inefficient, blind and dangerous. Technological evolution is fast, efficient, accelerating and better by design. To ensure the best chances of survival, take control of our own destiny and to be free, we must master evolution. Evolution is a journey, not a destination. In an endless universe, it is unlikely that it will ever reach an ultimate point.
Consciousness is a function of intelligence, not the brain. It is not necessarily limited to the biological substrate.
There is nothing inherently wrong in speeding up evolution and becoming true masters of our destiny, though this may be simultaneously the greatest promise and peril humanity has ever faced.
Part III: Augmented Intelligence
Intelligence is a process, not an entity. Embodied (human) intelligence is imprisoned by biology and its inevitable scarcity. Intelligence ought to be free — to move, to interact and to evolve, unhindered by the limits of biology and scarcity. Digital, disembodied and augmented intelligence is free (and perhaps infinite).
Although all progress is change, not all change is progress. Thus, certain conditions must be met to ensure that it is indeed progress, and not mere change, that has been accomplished.
Non-discrimination with regard to substrate
Substrate is morally irrelevant. Whether somebody is implemented on silicon or biological tissue, if it does not affect functionality or consciousness, is of no moral significance. Carbon-chauvinism, in the form of anthropomorphism, speciesism, bioism or even fundamentalist humanism, is objectionable on the same grounds as racism. We must all respect autonomy and individual rights of all sentience throughout the universe, including humans, non-human animals, and any future Artificial Intelligence, modified life forms, or other intelligences.
Intelligence is more than the mere exercise of perfect logic and pure reasoning. Intelligence devoid of emotional intelligence is meaningless. It must exhibit empathy, compassion, love, sense of humor and artistic creativity such as music and poetry.
Compassion is the ultimate measure of intelligence. The minimization of suffering and avoidance of causing suffering to others, even less intelligent beings, is the essence of enlightened intelligence.
Transhumanists of the world unite – we have immortality to gain and only biology to lose. Together, we can break through the chains of biology and transcend scarcity, sex, age, ethnicity, race, death and even time and space. In short, transhumanists everywhere must support the revolutionary movement against death and the existing biological order of things. Transhumanists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the overthrow of all existing biological limitations and, most of all, death. Let death tremble at the revolution of science and technology. Transhumanists have nothing to lose but their biology. We have immortality and the universe to gain.
I read with great excitement today that at last we are to have a Quantum Computer. A quantum computer is a device that extracts information from quantum waves in superposition and replaces the digital storage and processing of our ordinary computers with massive parallel processing using the nuclear spins of atoms to store and retrieve information that information theorists call the Arrows of Time. As presented in the image at the right, the arrows of time allow us to reach far back into evolution, farther than Darwin could ever have dreamed, to the initial moments of the big bang. The bang itself, to be sure, is cloaked in darkness at that instant that all energy and matter in our universe were squeezed into a primal superforce of ultra-tiny strings, usually in the form of closed loops, and there we reach the edge of scientific understanding. However, just a little further off there are no inherent limits to knowledge, and that is what physicists, astronomers and now biologists will soon be taking aim at with our new tool. The first millionths of a second are now within reach.
The theories of physics suggest that until the big bang there was no space and time as we comprehend the terms. There was no distinction between present and past, and all particles and forces merged into a single primal field. The perfect unity in the fabric of the universe that existed at the moment of the big bang has unraveled over the eons. Since the big bang, the overall direction of change in the universe has been one-way, from order to chaos. With every passing moment, the universe becomes more disorderly. In the long run, more stars will burn out than burst into flame. The tendency toward disorder is part of our most mundane experiences, such as the tendencies of our homes and offices to become messy and disorganized nunless we make a concerted effort to keep things neat. It is also the reason we die.
Time in the quantum universe also has a limit to its divisibility. There is a basic unit of time and it has been calculated using the fundamental constants of physics: Planck's constant, the constant of gravitation, and the speed of light. The result of what is called Planck time, which is a value of about 10-43 second. Let us call the duration of the Planck time a Planck instant. There are 10 43 Planck instants in one second, in other words ten million trillion trillion trillion.The Planck constant is the basic time frame of reality--the entire universe collapses from multiple potentialities to a single actuality at every Planck constant. No wonder reality seems so continuous and smooth to us. The rate of collapse is utterly undetectable . Commercial films give us an illusion of continuous motion and they are projected at a mere twenty four frames per second.
Physicists have discovered a profund theory to describe the probabilistic nature of reality. They call it quantum mechanics, because it is built on the basic insight that all things are made of microscopic quanta. Quantum mechanics provides a mathematical method of predicting the behavior of elementary particles and forces through the calculation of what is called the wave function. This wave function has an irreducible element of randomness and does not make exact predictions but only gives probabilities. Using the wave function, quantum mechanics supplies a model of the universe that predicts the behavior of phenomena at the subatomic level with unprecedented accuracy.
A glance at the simple universe that existed in the first millionths of a second may enable us to understand the application of the wave function for our universe as a whole. This wave function is the fundamental organizing principle of the quantum universe. Since everything in the universe is made of quantum particles, every object can be described by a wave function. This wave function predicts the probabilities that quantum particles will be located in a particular place or organized in a particular way. Our Quantum Telescope will be capable of clicking a photograph of the universe at the age of a few millionths of a second so we can follow its evolution into the future.
Imagine the universe as an expanding bubble with the big bang at its center. The area unside the bubble represents the past, which has already collapsed into actuality. The area outside the bubble represents competing future potentialities that have yet to be realized. The skin of the bubble represents the present, constantly expanding into the area that was once pure potentiality. We live on that expanding boundary between the past and the future. It is the only portion of reality that we experience directly. The past is accessible to us only through memory, while our access to the future is limited to predictions based on our past and present.
The wave function of the universe collapses from potentiality trillions of times per second. These slices of time are so small that we never notice them and reality appears to be smooth and continuous. However, if we could examine space and time at the smallest level we would see not a smooth surface but a grainy, frothy structure: neither space nor time is infinitely divisible. Both are constructed from the incredibly tiny, indivisible units called quanta. Each object in the universe, including every living thing, is associated with a wave function that defines its potentialities and the differing probabilities that these potentialities will come to pass. Every object has a tiny share of the wave function of the universe. As the wave function evolves through time, the probabilities it predicts will change. For example, the particles of every living thing have the potential for entering a disorganized state we call death. The probability that a living thing will die increases as it ages. But the predictions of the wave function are always based on probabilities. We can never predict with absolute certainty the exact moment of death.
All living things have a set of potentialities that are defined by our wave function, and these potentialities are reflected in their genes. Similarly, certain living things have the potential for complex thought and behavior. These potentialities are expressed in their Synaptic Code: the mechanism by which the brain wires itself. The universal evolutionary mechanism originally formulated by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, is the process of selection from among the multitude of potentialities as the wave function of the universe collapses into the present. The mechanism is universal because all forms of matter, life, and thought ride along on a surface of the expanding bubble we call the present. The structure of matter, life, and thought at any given moment reveals the outcome of a long series of collapses from potentiality to actuality. The constant process of collapse leads to new forms of matter, life, and thought and to the disappearance of old ones. But all are linked by their common descent from the big bang itself.
The universe of matter and energy rises like a chain of islands from a sea of quantum fluctuations, which can nudge the course of evolution in unexpected ways. Brain cells, which like everything else in the universe are made of quantum particles of matter and force, can discharge seemingly at randum under the influence of these fluctuations. Random discharges can push the pathways of thought into new directions.
The mechanisms of nuclear reactions and the underlying principle are now well enough understood to figure out what matter may have formed in the first few minutes of the hot universe, and the experiments in large particle accelerators, simulating the primordial heat, supply data.from which we can calculate what may have happened during the first thousandth of a second and onward. In these conditions electrons, protons, neutrinos, and quarks are found to spring from pure energy--they literally materialize, offering us a perspective of nothing less than the creation of matter.
Darwin admonished those who would idly speculate about the origin of life that they might as well speculate about the origin of matter. With the quantum computer we can now look more deeply into the origin of matter and can begin to examine a few lagoons in our knowledge of what happened to those tons of matter after they came into being and we can sketch out the major evolutionary steps, at least for our neck of the woods. We can start our journey through time as close to the Bang as we presently can, from the first hundred thousandths of a second when protons and neutrons were born of quarks. This marks the first elementary organizational level we now conceive of. From there the structuring went on to other hierarchies: atomic nuclei, atoms, the first stars, planets, molecules, molecular aggregates...living beings. And if we put all of those organizations on a time chart, we can see ourselves on the chart above.
At the point where helium nuclei were able to collide with enough frequency they generated carbon. With carbon, oxygen can be made by adding a helium nucleus, and with carbon oxygen, and helium, heavier elements can be built up under bombardment by neutrons, a bombardment supplied by a collapsing star. This genesis continues over a vast space and time to produce a "local" condensation called the Milky Way containing our special star, the Sun. The last leg of the time journey from the Sun to us, is pretty straight forward. There the bulk of the information is carried by dependable elementary particles, the photons. These photons have wavelengths between 300 and 800 nanometers and our planet gets liberally showered with them in an enormous information stream.
And this is the stream from which we suckle--we and all life on earth. High up on the biological totem pole as we are, we don't do the sucking ourselves, but enlist into service molecules that have a knack for using information from those elementary particles efficiently--a knack not many molecules on earth possess. Prominent here are the chlorophylls of plants and the carotenes of bacteria. These are pigment molecules, and they are quite pretty--the clorophylls are green, and the carotenes, yellow. Their bright color catches our eyes, but what really matters lies hidden inside them, in their electron clouds. There around the carbon chains or carbon rings, a set of electrons is crucially poised to absorb the photon energy quantum. The electrons lie in wait for that quantum, and matter's most primitive expression of "freedom of choice" is made by Maxwellian Selection.
The pigment molecules are of modest size. They are not as large and fancy as their young cousins harvesting elementary particles in our brains and they are much older--some go back 3 billion years--and simpler. Chlorophyll has but a few dozen atoms, and carotene even less. Carotene consists of just a single carbon chain, with 11 electron pairs forming a photon trap. Nevertheless both are extremely efficient catchers of photon information. The capture is a spectacular feat, and it is brought about by the electrons of these molecules. But no less spectacular is the ulterior transmission of the information by the electrons. That proceeds almost without any losses, and extreme efficiencies are the signature of coherent quantum waves. The coherency is short lived. But it lasts at least 660 femptoseconds, and in the multidimensional quantum space where things can go forward and backward in time, that's enough to sample among many superimposed states of quantum waves, the one where energy finds the optimal sink to flow into--which is precisely how this little biomolecule achieves the amazing energy efficiency. Or to put it in terms of information instead of energy, in those 660 femptoseconds of to and fro the molecule implements an algorithm enabling it to select, out of many quantum states hovering about, the one that provides a quantum computation.
We can also bring that information view to the events happening at the photon-sensing outposts of our brain, the sensory cells in our eyes. There the capture of the photon information takes place at the human retinal carbon chain of rhodopsin, and the atomic nuclei hovering about the chain and its alpha helices linkage transmit the information as coherent quantum waves down the chain into the rhodopsin molecule. As in the ancient photosynthesis pigment molecule, each impinging photon triggers a round of quantum computation--the requisite quantum-logic gates and nonlinearity are built into the atomic structure of the molecule. All it takes is for the right photon to come along and get things going. From then on the operation runs like clockwork, the molecules enacting an algorithm that gives maximal transmission efficiency.
Rhodopsin is eons younger than the photosynthesis molecules, but it fully shows its kinship under the information microscope. Its retinal carbon chain is the functional analog of the ancient molecule--a chip off the old block--and the knack of quantum computing runs in its blood. The computing by the rhodopsin molecule is faster. The entire quantum cabal is over in barely 200 femptoseconds, and that's all the time the molecule has before the decoherence sets in. But it is thanks to that brief instant of grace that our brain is apprised of even the slightest glimmer of light in the world outside.
So once one of these time arrows have entered the earth's biomass it enjoys a long and eventful afterlife. Its photon information is stored in a chemical form and then trickled down along chemical chains to where molecular organizations occur. And there is where it is at--where information begets order. Energy gets into the act here also, of course, but only insofar as it provides the driving force for the transfer of information.
A poet once said, "The whole universe is in a glass of wine." We will probably never know in what sense he said that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look in a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe.
There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth's rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe's age, and the evolution of the stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If in our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts - physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on - remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let us give one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!
Richard P. Feynman
It's Independence Day and instead of thinking about my insecurity ridden country, I am thinking of my insecurity ridden self. Following an honest comeuppance from a friend I have again been grappling with the question, "what is a self?" In doing so I seem to have again tripped over this curse that I first discovered in Florida; that I feel a kind of reverence for my own life and I want the best, the greatest, the highest possible, here, now, for my very own. This is, of course, somewhat anathema to the Christian concept of an immortal soul, immaterial and inexplicable, which has captivated thinkers and deflected serious investigation for centuries, but that concept is rapidly losing adherents. The idea of some sort of incorporal mind thing that goes to Heaven when somebody dies has become more incoherent each day since the Age of Enlightenment. The wishful thinking that prevents us from just discarding it, along with goblins, witches, and tooth fairies is only too apparent. So counting myself among the materialists, confident that the mind is the brain, I must try to work out the question of why it seems that each of us has some sort of mind-thing inhabiting our body, or more precisely our brain. David Hume wrote:
"For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I can never catch myself at any time without a perception. . . . If anyone, upon serious and unprejudiced reflection, thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continued, which he calls himself, though I am certain there is no such principle in me."
For me, the self is a sort of theoretical fiction at the center of my life which I posit in order to unify and make sense of otherwise bafflingly complex collections of actions, utterances, fidgets, complaints, promises, and so forth, that make up a person. It is sort of the executive organizer of my personal level of explanation. I am the sort of "owner of record" of the living body that I call me. I have a biography or "background narrative" and many ongoing projects. I don't just have a trajectory through space and time but, as I go along I accumulate memories, devise plans and expectations. There are parts of the background story that each of us would probably wish to disavow, but what's done is done; that part of the narrative cannot be revised. It can be reinterpreted, however, in the light of later biographical elements. We pull up cliches like "I wasn't myself when I did that," and our tolerance for this type of self-contradictory refrain is often helpful. What we mean is that we were in some sort of extreme "out of character" state when we did that, and we are imploring others not to judge us now or in the future for what we did.
Most of us lead several fairly distinct lives, at work, at home, at play, and acquire habits and memories in each context that turn out not to travel well to other contexts. We all engage in presenting ourselves as Mr. Reynolds, Linda Tebbs' husband, Joe's friend from the other side of Easton, the guy at the Y who sweats a lot, that singer of songs in Key West, and we effortlessly enlist the help of the supporting cast, who are similarly presenting themselves. We feed each other lines we can handle readily, becoming complicit in each other's campaign of self-presentation, or we can disrupt these smoothly running scenarios by playing out of character, with results that are awkward, comic, or worse.
Daniel C. Dennett calls the thing that is me, the person that I play, whether I play multiple roles or one monolithic role, my Narrative Center. It is how my friends recognize me ("You're not yourself today!"), and how I see myelf for the most part, but it is also somewhat idealized (OMG! Did I do that? I would never do that!"). Professional novelists, like con artists, create narratives with cunning and deliberate attention to the details. The rest of us are talented amateurs, spinning our tales cleverly but unwittingly, rather the way a spider spins his web. It is nature, not art. It is not so much that we, using our brains, knit our yarns, as that our brains, using yarns, knit us. There is a core of undeniable true biography, to be sure, but over the years large parts of it become as good as gone, inert and of no relevance to who we are now. Some of us may actively disavow, jettison, "forget," in the process of self-maintenance and self-improvement. Consciousness sometimes seems like television where we can choose to present our current programmatic thinking or record out current experience for later presentation. There doesn't seem to be a single central "Cartesian Theater" where everything seems to come together. Consciousness seems even more like fame than television, a sort of fame in the brain, cerebral celebrity, a way in which some contents come to be more influential and memorable than others.
The foregoing means that we can best understand our own actions just as we understand other creatures' actions -- in terms of stabile but intangible internal patterns called "hopes" and "beliefs" and so on. But the need for self-understanding goes much further than that. We are powerfully driven to create a term that summarizes all of the presumed unity, internal coherence, and temporal stability of all the hopes and beliefs and desires that are found inside our own cranium -- and that term, as we all learn very early on, is "I". And pretty soon this high abstraction behind the scenes comes to feel like the maximally real entity in the universe. Where does the tenaciousness of this illusion come from? Why does it refuse to go away no matter how much "hard science" is thrown at it?
Among the untold thousands of symbols in the repertoire of a normal human being, there are some that are far more frequent and dominant than others, and one of them is given, somewhat arbitrarily, the name "I" (at least in English). When we talk about other people, we talk about them in terms of such things as their ambitions and habits and likes and dislikes, and we accordingly need to formulate for each of them an analogue of an "I", residing, naturally inside their wetware and not our own. This counterpart of our own "I" of course receives various labels, depending on the context, such as "Joe" or "Elaine" or "you" or "he" or "she".
The process of perceiving one's self interacting with the rest of the universe (comprised mostly, of course, of one's family and friends and favorite pieces of music and favorite books and movies and so on) goes on for a lifetime. Accordingly, the "I" symbol, like all symbols in our brain, starts out pretty small and simple, but it grows and grows and grows, eventually becoming the most important abstract structure residing in our brains, not in one localized spot but spread all over because it has to include so much about so much. My own self-symbol reaches back fairly accurately, although quite spottily, into the deep (and seemingly endless) past of my existence. It is our unlimitedly extensible human category system that underwrites this fantastic jump in sophistication from other animals to us, in that it allows each of us to build up our episodic memory -- the gigantic warehouse of our recollections of events, minor and major, simple and complex, that have happened to me (and to my friends and family members and people in books and films and newspaper articles and so forth, ad infinitum) over a span of my seven decades.
Similarly, driven by its dreads and dreams, my self-symbol peers with great intensity, though with little confidence, out into the murky fog of my future existence. My vast episodic memory of my past, together with its counterpart pointing blurrily towards what is yet to come (my episode projectory) and further embellished by a fantastic folio of alternative versions or "subjunctive replays" of countless episodes ("if only X hadn't happened..."; "how lucky that Y never took place...";"wouldn't it be great if Z were to occur..." -- and why not call this my episodic subjunctory), gives rise to the endless hall of mirrors that constitutes my "I".
I search for meaning, for help, for companionship. I need something more than memories and dreams: I need hope. Perhaps I can defeat the passage of time by elevating myself to a supernatural level, by transcending life itself. In fact, if I beat time, I may be once more with my long-departed loved ones, for it is when time's passage is suspended that life and death merge, and the dead can coexist with the living; in immortality we become godlike. Thus I could create the infinite and eternal. Belief soothes and justifies. It inspires us all, the painter, the teacher, the scientist, the priest, the lawyer. In the words of Saul Bellow, "We are all drawn toward the same craters of the spirit--to know what we are and what we are for, to know our purpose, to seek grace."
Perhaps I could create some sort of external god so that I could aspire to an abstract ideal. It would be a way of directing my life and would give meaning to my actions; civilization could not have been possible without such an ideal. And this impulse toward the sacred might also be a way of transcending my lonely self. Humans seem to be sort of spiritual beings, constantly yearning to establish a relationship with the mysterious, the unknown. Much of religious ritual is an imitation of the actions of gods, an attempt to reach the sublime, a pursuit of the extraordinary, of the unreal, of the eternal. Jews rest on the Sabbath because their Lord rested on the seventh day, while Christians wash someone's feet on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, just as Jesus washed the disciple's feet. By being like the god, I could suspend the passage of time, joining the eternal. It is an ironic paradox that the very consciousness that gives us our awareness of the passage of time, and thus makes us human, needs to defeat this awareness. The knowledge that life has a beginning and an end, that it is bracketed within a short period of time, pulls us two opposite directions; either to accept death as the end of existence or to attempt to transcend it.
Apocalyptic narratives like Daniel in the Hebrew Bible foretell transformation of the faithful and virtuous into godlike creatures and the devious and perverse into devil-like ones. It must have been very hard to resist its alluring power, to many people it still is. The narrative invited people to participate in a grand scheme laid down by God himself, to endure evil times as they were short, and never to give up hope that vindication was at hand and that it would be definitive. In fact, put into context, people's sufferings were to be viewed as a necessary part of the whole thing, giving it meaning, placing it within the unfolding of the events to come. In the words of Saint Lactantius, advisor to the first Christian Roman emperor "virtue is the ability to endure hard things." The more you can endure suffering, the more virtuous you are, and the more wonderful will be your rewards in the hereafter. What a great recipe for social paralysis! Endure your suffering with virtue and grace, have faith, and God will take care of the rest for you. It is no wonder that these concepts were elevated to absurd levels during the Middle Ages, when pestulence, despair, and lack of leadership reached absurd levels. The darker the times, the more vulnerable people are, the more readily they fall prey to blind fanaticism--a tendency that should not be overlooked in our own day.
As a person trying to become himself I have a way of tossing up thoughts in order to gauge the lines of division among fellow residents of my reality. After the 2016 presidential election I posted a musing about changes that I have observed during my time of being aware:
Not that long ago, most of the hardships of life were attributed to misfortune. If you were sick or poor, underfed or unemployed, that was simply bad luck. A person who suffered these things may have contributed to his own unhappiness, but in a large part his suffering was a consequence of forces beyond his control—of the fates that decide which human beings flourish and which flounder or die. Today, many more of the bad things that happen to people are seen as the result of their not having gotten what they were entitled to, or of their not having been given a proper set of entitlements in the first place (the ones to which they were entitled). And conversely, more of the good things in their lives—the food on their tables, the health of their bodies, the wholesomeness of the air they breathe—are viewed as benefits to which they have the right and power to supply the ground of their own being--a right, and not a stroke of good fortune.
My voicing of this observation caused someone to respond by ordaining me as a new member of the dark forces of conservativism:
We never felt "entitled" to anything. We never depended or expected our government to take from people who worked hard and give it to us. We were taught you worked hard and bought what you could with what you earned. Somehow we lost that idea along the way. By prayer and the grace of God hopefully we will get it back now. We were self-employed, we didn't get "unemployment" although we did have to pay it a couple of times. We are the generation who saved the world from dictators and socialists; they are the ones who take all or take and redistribute. Thankfully it ended in November 2016. We will hopefully become that great country again. People will have jobs and get the wonderful feeling of satisfaction of being able to provide for ourselves and not expect handouts from our government. GOD BLESS AMERICA AND GOD BLESS ALL ITS PEOPLE.
All modern Western states are political communities organized around the recognition and protection of rights specified by law. The governing norm is that of entitlement. As the sphere of entitlement has grown, those of gift and luck have shrunk. It is no longer thought legitimate to leave the benefits and opportunities that citizens enjoy to charity or chance, so far as their distribution is subject to collective control. While this has made it increasingly difficult to affirm in a public way the value of love and gratitude as conditions of human well-being, it represents an enormous increase in the capacity of human beings to control the circumstances of their lives, in an area of peculiar vulnerability.
One moral and political ideal, more than any other, has underwritten the expansion of entitlement. This is the idea of autonomy, meaning the ability to determine one's own fate. So long as it is subject to limits of any kind, our power to do this remains incomplete. It is not yet what we wish or demand that it be. In order to approach more closely the condition of self-sufficiency that the concept of autonomy invites us to accept as the standard of moral and political judgment, these limits must continually be pushed back. They include the limits that arise from the nature of love itself.
My thought framework assumes that every problem in the world is amenable to solution. It rests on a belief in man’s unlimited power and the dominion of man over nature, even human nature; the belief in the unlimited ‘receding of natural boundaries’. I never intended this to be a religious dogma. Instead, I have tried to insist that these beliefs are merely technical in nature. However, the gospel of “technicity” is often perceived by conservatives as a religious doctrine that takes a clear stand on matters of ultimate salvation—one that teaches that man is able to achieve his own salvation, without any help from God. In this sense, the religion of technicity is an “anti-religion,” for its central teaching is the precise opposite of the one that lies at the heart of the Christian religion whose values form the bedrock of European civilization.
The Christianity belief framework teaches that God, not man, is the master of the world; that man is broken, humiliated, sinful, and dependent; that no human being can achieve salvation except through the grace of God, and that men today are tempted, just as Adam was, to usurp the place of God, claiming for themselves the right and power to supply the ground of their own being. In the Christian view, this has always been the satanic temptation, and the anti-religion of technicity on which liberalism is founded represents the world historical culmination of Satanism in our time.
Developments in the west since the time of Galileo have prepared the way for this epiphany of human pride and its confrontation with the Christian view of life. The most consequential shift occurred when the concepts and arguments of Christian theology were displaced by a natural-scientific metaphysics that transformed our understanding of nature and man. We discovered that our universe is not centered on the planet Earth and that man and his illusions of consciousness evolved from photons metabolized by nucleic acids. Thanks to our knack for technological innovation, humanity has by far the largest extended phenotype of all creatures on planet Earth. Nothing could be more natural to human beings than striving to liberate ourselves from biological constraints. Of special importance in this regard was Descartes’ mechanization of the human body, which in turn influenced Hobbes’ conception of the state as a vast, artificial machine which laid the ground for the rationalization of law and administration on which our modern governments are founded.
In the process, religion which had always been identified with the state, was transformed into a private phenomenon beyond the power of the state to control. The result was a weakening of religion and the eventual disappearance of God from the public world. Among other things, this led to the displacement of the Christian doctrine of grace by the morality of individual autonomy.
In this new and godless world, ruled by Cartesian mechanics and Kantian ethics, previously unimaginable human ambitions became routine. Everywhere, natural-scientific thinking took hold, with its optimism about the perfectibility of human beings and confidence in their powers to improve their own condition. Man can attain a kind of earthly eternity by pushing death farther and farther back. In this and countless other ways, the Europe of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries assumed the form of an ever more aggressive civilization of pride, based on a repudiation of the age-old Christian understanding of life as a pilgrimage to another world, and of death as a badge of original sin—rather than an inconvenience to be overcome by a technical means.
Images of Greece 1989