The Revenge of the Pagans: Ovid as prophet of the posthuman

Study of a woman with ram horns, Jean-Léon Gérôme

I would argue that as far as imagining the future is concerned many of us, in the West at least, have had our vision blurred from what amounts to a 2,000 year philosophical hangover called Christianity. But no one ever seems to care about this point. The most common response I’ve gotten from a certain sect of singularitarians and transhumanists upon pointing out that both their goals and predictions seem to have been ripped from a man on the street’s version of Christianity has been- who cares?

“Sure”, they’ll argue, “God’s” appearance in the form of a form of artificial superintelligence that promises to grant us personal immortality or destroy us all might sound a lot like Christ in the Book of Revelation, and certainly, the goal of personal immortality might resemble the “good news” of Christianity, but what we’re talking about is the real deal. Not some mumbo-jumbo about a spiritual world and the soul, but the natural consequence of our scientific and technological mastery over nature.”

Initial assumptions, however, should always be unpacked. Using science and technology to pursue a world fleshed out by the religious imagination provides no guarantee that such a destination is actually reachable via those routes. In fact using religiously derived prophecy to divine the future in such a way might give us a very distorted notion of where we are headed or even the destination we should attempt to reach.

This gap between hope and reality is likely to be pregnant with all sorts of sparks and potent frictions. At the moment my bet for where these frictions will become apparent centers on the monotheistic bent of technological predictions especially in the singularitarian eschatology. That, and what freedom from death would really do to our notions of the self should we ever obtain some materialistic version of Christian immortality.

On monotheism: whether one takes a largely rosy or pessimistic position on the potential arrival of superintelligence, such superintelligence is most often conceived in the singular. In this view, it seems there can be only one superintelligence just like in Judaism, Islam and Christianity there can be only one God. (Please don’t make me talk about the Trinity.) How exactly the first superintelligence manages to abort all its near rivals before they too obtain something like a similar state is unclear to me, but the time between the appearance of the first superintelligence and whatever stable order follows certainly seems the most dangerous, if superintelligence proves to be something like the movie The Highlander and “there can be only one”.

Here we could be left with the dead stability of the desert with only one intellect left standing “god” again alone and by itself. Then again, perhaps the whole idea of a lone intellect, a Boltzmann Brain, floating there in space and not embedded within a world of other intellects is simply unintelligible. Perhaps, intelligence can only ever exists as Wittgenstein would have said in a social world meaning a world where intelligence is plural.

What seems more likely to emerge as the ultimate outcome for any Cambrian explosion of artificial intelligence isn’t some metallic version of God,  but the kind of “balance of power” you find in ecology or international relations whereby there are multiple competitors none of whom proves capable or willing of overpowering or destroying its peers or even the vast majority its lessers, thus allowing a kind of blooming of diversity as players occupy and conform to niches. That’s not the totalizing God of monotheism whose distortions were tragically on display recently in Paris, it’s more like the gods found in the classical paganism that preceded Christianity.

James Hughes has discussed the challenges to our Christian derived notion of selfhood material immortality (should it ever arrive) might bring either in the form of indefinite biological lifespan or the much further off notion of uploading as moving us closer to the notion of immortality found in Buddhism. We can find something similar if we place ourselves in the religious world Christianity replaced and might understand the future as a sort of la revanche des païens.

The figure who best gives us insight into this pagan horizon is Ovid, a Roman poet who lived in the half century before Christ burst onto the scene and replaced that worldview with radically new ones. He was located on one of those hinges of history in which one period begin to slides into a very different future. The poet’s world was one in which what we call the “pagan” gods (Ovid would not have recognized the term-the whole idea of something called paganism was invented by Christianity) were losing their grip on the human imagination, and were being replaced by both philosophy (Stoicism, Neo-platonism) and mystery cults that saw the gods in either more abstract/ rational/ethical or mystical ecstatic ways.

The very fact that the pagan gods were disappearing over the imaginative horizon meant that Ovid was free to exercise his creativity and playfulness in retelling their tales which is what he does in his most famous work, the epic The Metamorphosis.

The central, overriding theme of The Metamorphosis is just what the title implies- transformative change. To get a grasp of Ovid’s proto-posthumanism it’s perhaps best to start near the very end of his epic work in Book 15, and with the figure of Pythagoras.The Metamorphosis begins with the story of the world’s creation and ends with the mysterious man from Samos whom Ovid displays admonishing us to abandon our consumption of meat and adopt a life of vegetarianism.

O human race! Do not, I beg you, and concentrate your minds on my admonitions! When you place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow-creature.

Greatly distinct from the notion that the soul was only a possession of human beings, and all the evil this would cause, Ovid illustrates the belief that there is no clear line that separates the human from the animal and that for us such a lack of a boundary has clear moral implications.

What would have been more striking here, though, for Ovid’s pagan audience was that after having told in a new key the story of the Greco-Roman gods Ovid was undermining the major ceremony by which these gods were worship which was in the form of animal sacrifices where the gods were thought to feed off of the smoke. We may picture something exotic and outside of our experience, but perhaps it was more like my uncle Tom’s pig roasts.      

In any case, the rationale behind Ovid’s pythagorean injunction that we refrain from eating meat was based on the belief in the oneness of animal life and especially the fact that the soul was thought to move between different types of animals from one life to the next. We might find such beliefs in such metempsychosis silly, but it is very close to the de-privileging of the psychological status of mankind found in posthumanism.

It its own way it’s also much closer to the actual truth of the matter animals are thrown into the world just like we are as is clear from a passage in her book Deep Play by the poet science writer Diane Ackerman that I’ve used before:

The moment a newborn opens its eyes discovery begins. I learned this with a laugh one morning in New Mexico where I worked through the seasons of a large cattle ranch. One day, I delivered a calf. When it lifted up its fluffy head and looked at me its eyes held the absolute bewilderment of the newly born. A moment before it had enjoyed the even, black  nowhere of the womb and suddenly its world was full of color, movement and noise. I’ve never seen anything so shocked to be alive. (141-142)

And while the calf may never grasp and abstract the strangeness of being thrown in such a way and abstract it into German as Geworfenheit in the way Heidegger did, or will never compose a great rock song about it, the experience of surprise and Being is there all the same.    

The recognition of what me might call such spiritual equality between human beings and animals for those who take a particularly Christian derived take on sigulartainism and transhumanism would appear to pose the same sorts of dilemma Christian parents face when asked to justify the absence of something like “doggie heaven” for their the beloved, deceased pets of their children.

I am not sure exactly how Frank Tipler and his Omega Point cosmology, which posits that a material superintelligence in the Universe’s future will resurrect the dead in the same way promised by Christianity deals with all the deceased animals of the past besides human beings, but even if he and fellow travelers admit that some animals might be resurrected, once one starts talking about any cutoff point you’ve got to wonder whether the human species at this stage would really be on the right side of it.

Yet the main spiritual orientation we might find helpful to draw from Ovid for the future isn’t so much this challenging of singulartarian assumptions as it has to do with a world in which the boundaries between the self and other are no longer as sharp as they once appeared, and where even the idea of a permanent self no longer makes sense.

Ovid gives us the beautiful Caenis of Thessaly who wished to be, and was, transformed into a man after her brutal rape by the god Neptune. He gives us another rape story that of the male Hermaphroditus by the female nymph Salmacis. Upon the prayer of Salmacis that the two never be departed they were transformed so that:

Now the entwined bodies of the two were joined together, and one form covered both. Just as when someone grafts a twig into the bark, they see both grow joined together, and develop as one, so when they were mated together in a close embrace, they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either.

In Ovid humans become animals or even plants as part of the unfolding of their spiritual fate. The daughters of Minyas become bats, Arachne is transformed into a spider, Narcissus is changed into a flower. We might never experience such transformations in actuality, but as our understanding of the brain, not just in humans but in all other animals, improves along with our ability to create increasingly believable virtual worlds not just through projection, but by directly interfering with the brain, rest assured we will imaginatively. Such understanding and technology should give us greater access into the experience not merely of fellow human beings but our fellow animals as well.

Virtual reality could allow us the closest thing possible to a first hand experience of humanitarian crises, analog and augmented live action role playing games allow us to personally experience what it’s like to be the other- of another class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, not to mention inhabit the worlds of creatures that have never existed. We will eventually reach a place where all new sexual and emotional experiences open up for us in ways that will likely challenge any notion of a stable self across time.

We will likely expand these experiences in ways that allow us to enter into the minds of animals as well, so that Thomas Nagel’s famous question “What is it like to be a bat?” becomes in a sense answerable. Our treatment of animals might gain a great deal of moral depth were we to actually experience what it is like to live and die in the slaughter house, or to be hunted for our tusks.

Assuming our survival, given enough time it seems almost inevitable that we will someday be able to directly share our thoughts and experiences with one another. Given the sheer scale of deep time it seems highly inconceivable that should we ever obtain something like material immortality what we think of as our individuality could be preserved across the vast stretches of time in front of us, unless, that is, yet another Christian assumption- that of a timeless end of history- is adopted as well.

If we are forced to turn to religious concepts in order to peer over this historical horizon I think it better to turn to ideas regarding transformation, change, and even magic. If we are lucky, we are not entering the era of history’s climax at an Omega Point, but an age of metamorphosis.


Do Extraterrestrials Philosophize?


The novelist and philosopher R. Scott Bakker recently put out a mind blowing essay on the philosophy of extraterrestrials, which isn’t as Area 51 as such a topic might seem at first blush.  After all, Voltaire covered the topic of aliens, but if a Frenchman is still a little too playful for your philosophical tastes , recall that Kant thought the topic of extraterrestrial intelligence important to cover extensively as well, and you can’t get much more full of dull seriousness than the man from Koeningsberg.

So let’s take an earnest look at Bakker’s alien philosophy…well, not just yet. Before I begin it’s necessary to lay out a very basic version of the philosophical perspective Bakker is coming from, for in a way his real goal is to use some of our common intuitions regarding humanoid aliens as a way of putting flesh on the bones of two often misunderstood and not (at least among philosophers) widely held philosophical positions- eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory, both of which, to my lights at least, could be consumed under one version of the ominous and cool sounding, philosophy of Dark Phenomenology. Though once you get a handle of on dark phenomenology it won’t seem all that ominous, and if it’s cool, it’s not the type of cool that James Dean or the Fonz before season 5 would have recognized.

Eliminativism, if I understand it,  is the full recognition of the fact that perhaps all our notions about human mental life are suspect in so far as they have not been given a full scientific explanation. In a sense, then, eliminativism is merely an extension of the materialization (some would call it dis-enchantment) that has been going on since the scientific revolution.

Most of us no longer believe in angels, demons or fairies, not to mention quasi-scientific ideas that have ultimately proven to be empty of content like the ether or phlogiston. Yet in those areas where science has yet to reach, especially areas that concern human thinking and emotion, we continue to cling to what strict eliminativists believe are likely to be proved similar fictions, a form of myth that can range from categories of mental disease without much empirical substance to more philosophical and religiously determined beliefs such as those in free will, intentionality and the self.            

I think Bakker is attracted to eliminativism because it allows us to cut the gordian knot of problems that have remained unresolved since the beginning of Western philosophy itself. Problems built around assumptions which seem to be increasingly brought into question in light of our increasing knowledge of the actual workings of the human brain rather than our mere introspection regarding the nature of mental life. Indeed, a kind of subset of eliminativism in the form Blind Brain Theory essentially consists in the acknowledgement that the brain was designed for a certain kind of blindness by evolution.

What was not necessary for survival has been made largely invisible to the brain without great effort to see what has not been revealed. Philosophy’s mistake from the standpoint of a proponent of Blind Brain Theory has always been to try to shed light upon this darkness from introspection alone- a Sisyphean tasks in which the philosopher if not made ridiculous becomes hopelessly lost in the dark labyrinth of the human imagination. In contrast an actually achievable role for philosophy would be to define the boundary of the unknown until the science necessary to study this realm has matured enough for its’ investigations to begin.

The problem becomes what can one possibly add to the philosophical discourse once one has taken an eliminativists/Blind Brain position? Enter the aliens, for Bakker manages to make a very reasonable argument that we can use both to give us a plausible picture of what the mental life and philosophy of intelligent “humanoid” aliens might look like.

In terms of understanding the minds of aliens eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory are like addendums to evolutionary psychology. An understanding of the perceptual limitations of our aliens- not just mental limitations, but limitations brought about by conditions of time and space should allow us to make reasonable guesses about not only the philosophical questions, but the philosophical errors likely to be made by our intelligent aliens.

In a way the application of eliminativism and BBT to intelligent aliens put me in mind of Isaac Asimov’s short story Nightfall in which a world bathed in perpetual light is destroyed when it succumbs to the fall of  night. There it is not the evolved limitations of the senses that prevent Asimov’s “aliens” from perceiving darkness but their being on a planet that orbits two suns and keep them bathed in an unending day.

I certainly agree with Bakker that there is something pregnant and extremely useful in both eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory, though perhaps not so much it terms of understanding the possibility space of “alien intelligence” as in understanding our own intelligence and the way it has unfolded and developed over time and has been embedded in a particular spatio-temporal order we have only recently gained the power to see beyond.

Nevertheless, I think there are limitations to the model. After all, it isn’t even clear the extent to which the kinds of philosophical problems that capture the attention of intelligence are the same even across our own species. How are we to explain the differences in the primary questions that obsess, say, Western versus Chinese philosophy? Surely, something beyond neurobiology and spatial-temporal location is necessary to understand the the development of human philosophy in its various schools and cultural guises including how a discourse has unfolded historically and the degree to which it has been supported by the powers and techniques to secure the survival of some question/perspective over long stretches of time.

There is another way in which the use of eliminativism or Blind Brain Theory might lead us astray when it come to thinking about alien intelligence- it just isn’t weird enough.When the story of the development of not just human intelligence, but especially our technological/scientific civilization is told in full detail it seems so contingent as to be quite unlikely to repeat itself. The big question I think to ask is what are the possible alternative paths to intelligence of a human degree or greater and to technological civilization like or more advanced than our own. These, of course, are questions for speculative philosophy and fiction that can be scientifically informed in some way, but are very unlikely to be scientifically answered. And if if we could discover the very distant technological artifacts of another technological civilization as the new Milner/Hawking project hopes there remains no way to reverse engineer our way to understand the lost “philosophical” questions that would have once obsessed the biological “seeds” of such a civilization.

Then again, we might at least come up with some well founded theories though not from direct contact or investigation of alien intelligence itself. Our studies of biology are already leading to alternative understanding of the way intelligence can be embeded say with the amazing cephalopods. As our capacity from biological engineering increases we will be able make models of, map alternative histories for, and even create alternative forms of living intelligence. Indeed, our current development of artificial intelligence is like an enormous applied experiment in an alternative form of intelligence to our own.

What we might hope is that such alternative forms of intelligence not only allow us to glimpse the limits of our own perception and pattern making, but might even allow us to peer into something deeper and more enchanted and mystical beyond. We might hope even more deeply that in the far future something of the existential questions that have obsessed us will still be there like fossils in our posthuman progeny.

The King of Weird Futures

Bosch vanity Garden of earthy delights

Back in the late winter I wrote a review of the biologist Edward O. Wilson’s grandiloquently mistitled tract-  The Meaning of Human Existence. As far as visions of the future go Wilson’s was a real snoozer, although for that very reason it left little to be nervous about. The hope that he articulated in his book being that we somehow manage to keep humanity pretty much the same- genetically at least- “as a sacred trust”,  in perpetuity. It’s a bio-conservatism that, on one level, I certainly understand, but one I also find incredibly unlikely given that the future consists of….well…. an awfully long stretch of time (that is as long as we’re wise enough or just plain lucky ). How in the world can we expect, especially in light of current advances in fields like genetics, neuroscience, artificial intelligence etc, that we can, or even should, keep humanity essentially unchanged not just now, but for 100 years, or 1000s year, 10,000s years, or even longer?

If Wilson is the 21st century’s prince of the dull future the philosopher David Roden should perhaps be crowned the king of weird one(s). Indeed, it may be that the primary point of his recent mind-bending book Posthuman Life:Philosophy at the Edge of the Human, is to make the case for the strange and unexpected. The Speculative Posthumanism (SP) he helps launch with this book a philosophy that grapples with the possibility that the future of our species and its descendents will be far weirder than we have so far allowed ourselves to imagine.

I suppose the best place to begin a proper discussion of  Posthuman Life would be with explaining just exactly what Roden means by Speculative Posthumanism, something that (as John Dahaner has pointed out) Roden manages to uncover like a palimpsest by providing some very useful clarifications for often philosophically confused and conflated areas of speculation regarding humanity’s place in nature and its future.

Essentially Roden sees four domains of thought regarding humanism/posthumanism. There is Humanism of the old fashioned type that even absent some kind of spiritual dimension makes the claim that there is something special, cognitively, morally, etc that marks human beings off from the rest of nature.

Interestingly, Roden sees Transhumanism as merely an updating of this humanism- the expansion of its’ tool kit for perfecting humankind to include not just things like training and education but physical, cognitive, and moral enhancements made available by advances in medicine, genetics, bio-electronics and similar technologies.

Then there is Critical Posthumanism by which Roden means a move in Western philosophy apparent since the later half of the 20th century that seeks to challenge the anthropocentrism at the heart of Western thinking. The shining example of this move was the work of Descartes, which reduced animals to machines while treating the human intellect as mere “spirit” as embodied and tangible as a burnt offering to the gods. Critical Posthumanism, among whom one can count a number of deconstructionists, feminists, multicultural, animal rights, and environmentalists philosophers from the last century, aims to challenge the centrality of the subject and the discourses surrounding the idea of an observer located at some Archimedean point outside of nature and society.

Lastly, there is the philosophy Roden himself hopes to help create- Speculative Posthumanism the goal of which is to expand and explore the potential boundaries of what he calls the posthuman possibility space (PPS). It is a posthumanism that embraces the “weird” in the sense that it hopes, like critical posthumanism, to challenge the hold anthropocentrism has had on the way we think about possible manifestations of phenomenology, moral reasoning, and cognition. Yet unlike Critical Posthumanism, Speculative Posthumanism does not stop at scepticism but seeks to imagine, in so far as it is possible, what non-anthropocentric forms of phenomenology, moral reasoning, and cognition might actually look like. (21)

It is as a work of philosophical clarification that Posthuman Life succeeds best, though a close runner up would be the way Roden manages to explain and synthesize many of the major movements within philosophy in the modern period in a way that clearly connects them to what many see as upcoming challenges to traditional philosophical categories as a consequence of emerging technologies from machines that exhibit more reasoning, or the disappearance of the boundary between the human, the animal, and the machine, or even the erosion of human subjectivity and individuality themselves.

Roden challenges the notion that any potential moral agents of the future that can trace their line of descent back to humanity will be something like Kantian moral agents rather than agents possessing a moral orientation we simply cannot imagine. He also manages to point towards connections of the postmodern thrust of late 21st century philosophy which challenged the role of the self/subject and recent developments in neuroscience, including connections between philosophical phenomenology and the neuroscience of human perception that do something very similar to our conception of the self. Indeed, Posthuman Life eclipses similar efforts at synthesis and Roden excels at bringing to light potentially pregnant connections between thinkers as diverse as Andy Clark and Heidegger, Donna Haraway and Deleuze and Derrida along with non-philosophical figures like the novelist Philip K. Dick.

It is as a very consequence of his success at philosophical clarification that leads Roden across what I, at least, felt was a bridge (philosophically) too far. As posthumanist philosophers are well aware, the very notion of the “human” suffers a continuum problem. Unique to us alone, it is almost impossible to separate humanity from technology broadly defined and this is the case even if we go back to the very beginnings of the species where the technologies in question are the atul or the baby sling. We are in the words of Andy Clark “natural born cyborgs”. In addition to this is the fact that (like anything bound up with historical change) how a human being is defined is a moving target rather than a reflection of any unchanging essence.

How then can one declare any possible human future that emerges out of our continuing “technogenesis” “post” human, rather than just the latest iteration in what in fact is the very old story of the human “artificial ape”? And this status of mere continuation (rather than break with the past) would seem to hold in a philosophical sense even if whatever posthumans emerged bore no genetic and only a techno-historical relationship to biological humans. This somewhat different philosophical problem of clarification again emerges as the consequence of another continuum problem namely the fact that human beings are inseparable from the techno-historical world around them- what Roden brilliantly calls “the Wide Human” (WH).

It is largely out of the effort to find clear boundaries within this confusing continuum that leads Roden to postulate what he calls the “disconnection thesis”. According to this thesis an entity can only properly be said to be posthuman if it is no longer contained within the Wide Human.  A “Wide Human descendent is a posthuman if and only if:”

  1. It has ceased to belong to WH (the Wide Human) as a result of technical alteration.
  2. Or is wide descendent of such a being. (outside WH) . (112)

Yet it isn’t clear, to me at least, why disconnection from the Wide Human is more likely to result in something more different from humanity and our civilization as they currently exist today than anything that could emerge out of, but still remain part of, the Wide Human itself. Roden turns to the idea of “assemblages” developed by Deleuze and Guattari in an attempt to conceptualize how such a disconnection might occur, but his idea is perhaps conceptually clearer if one comes at it from the perspective of the kinds of evolutionary drift that occurs when some set of creatures becomes isolated from another by having become an island.

As Darwin realized while on his journey to the Galapagos isolation can lead quite rapidly to wide differences between the isolated variant and its parent species. The problem when applying such isolation analogies to technological development is that unlike biological evolution (or technological development before the modern era), the evolution of technology is now globally distributed, rapid and continuous.

Something truly disruptive seems much more likely to emerge from within the Wide Human than from some separate entity or enclave- even one located far out in space.  At the very least because the Wide Human possesses the kind of leverage that could turn something disruptive into something transformative to the extent it could be characterized as posthuman.

What I think we should look out for in terms of the kinds of weird divergence from current humanity that Roden is contemplating, and though he claims speculative posthumanism is not normative, is perhaps rooting for, is maybe something more akin to a phase change or the kinds of rapid evolutionary changes seen in events like the cambrian explosion or the opening up of whole new evolutionary theaters such as when life in the sea first moved unto the land than some sort of separation. It would be something like the singularity predicted by Vernor Vinge though might just as likely come from a direction completely unanticipated and cause a transformation that would make the world, from our current perspective, unrecognizable, and indeed, weird.

Still, what real posthuman weirdness would seem to require would be something clearly identified by Roden and not dependent, to my lights, on his disruption thesis being true. The same reality that would make whatever follows humanity truly weird would be that which allowed alien intelligence to be truly weird; namely, that the kinds of cognition, logic, mathematics, science found in our current civilization, or the kinds of biology and social organization we ourselves possess to all be contingent. What that would mean in essence was that there were a multitude of ways intelligence and technological civilizations might manifest themselves of which we were only a single type, and by no means the most interesting one. Life itself might be like that with the earthly variety and its conditions just one example of what is possible, or it might not.

The existence of alien intelligence and technology very different from our own means we are not in the grip of any deterministic developmental process and that alternative developmental paths are available. So far, we have no evidence one way or another, though unlike Kant who used aliens as a trope to defend a certain versions of what intelligence and morality means we might instead imagine both extraterrestrial and earthly alternatives to our own.

While I can certainly imagine what alternative, and from our view, weird forms of cognition might look like- for example the kinds of distributed intelligence found in a cephalopod or eusocial insect colony, it is much more difficult for me to conceive what morality and ethics might look like if divorced from our own peculiar hybrid of social existence and individual consciousness (the very features Wilson, perhaps rightfully, hopes we will preserve). For me at least one side of what Roden calls dark phenomenology is a much deeper shade of black.

What is especially difficult in this regard for me to imagine is how the kinds of openness to alternative developmental paths that Roden, at the very least, wants us to refrain from preemptively aborting is compatible with a host of other projects surrounding our relationship to emerging technology which I find extremely important: projects such as subjecting technology to stricter, democratically established ethical constraints, including engineering moral philosophy into machines themselves as the basis for ethical decision making autonomous from human beings. Nor is it clear what guidance Roden’s speculative posthumanism provides when it comes to the question of how to regulate against existential risks, dangers which our failure to tackle will foreclose not only a human future but very likely possibility of a posthuman future.

Roden seems to think the fact that there is no such thing as a human “essence” we should be free to engender whatever types of posthumans we want. As I see it this kind of ahistoricism is akin to a parent who refuses to use the lessons learned from a difficult youth to inform his own parenting. Despite the pessimism of some, humanity has actually made great moral strides over the arc of its history and should certainly use those lessons to inform whatever posthumans we chose to create.

One would think the types of posthumans whose creation we permit should be constrained by our experience of a world ill designed by the God of Job. How much suffering is truly necessary? Certainly less than sapient creatures currently experience and thus any posthumans should suffer less than ourselves. We must be alert to and take precautions to avoid the danger that posthuman weirdness will emerge from those areas of the Wide Human where the greatest resources are devoted- military or corporate competition- and for that reason- be terrifying.

Yet the fact that Roden has left one with questions should not subtract from what he has accomplished; namely he has provided us with a framework in which much of modern philosophy can be used to inform the unprecedented questions that are facing as a result of emerging technologies. Roden has also managed to put a very important bug in the ear of all those who would move too quick to prohibit technologies that have the potential to prove disruptive, or close the door to the majority of the hopefully very long future in front of us and our descendents- that in too great an effort to preserve the contingent reality of what we currently are we risk preventing the appearance of something infinitely more brilliant in our future.

Is Pope Francis the World’s Most Powerful Transhumanist?


I remember once while on a trip to Arizona asking a long-time resident of Phoenix why anyone would want to live in such a godforsaken place. I wasn’t at all fooled by the green lawns and the swimming pools and knew that we were standing in the middle of a desert over the bones of the Hohokam Indians whose civilization had shriveled up under the brutality of the Sonora sun. The person I was speaking to had a quick retort to my east coast skepticism. Where I lived, he observed, was no more natural than where he did, for the constant need for air conditioning during much of the year in a place like Phoenix was but the flip side of the need for heat in the cold months in the backwoods of my native Pennsylvania. Everywhere humankind lives is in some sense “unnatural”, every place we have successfully settled it was because we had been able to wrestle nature’s arm behind her back and make her cry “uncle”.

Sometime around then, back in 2006, James Lovelock published what was probably the most frightening book I have ever read- The Revenge of Gaia. There he predicted the death of billions of human beings and the retreat of global civilization to the poles as the climate as we had known it throughout the 100,000 or so years of of species history collapsed under the weight of anthropogenic climate change. It was not a work of dystopian fiction.

Lovelock has since backed off from this particular version of apocalyptic nightmare, but not because we have changed our course or discovered some fundamental error in the models that lead to his dark predictions. Instead, it is because he thinks the pace of warming is somewhat slower than predicted due to sulfuric pollution and its reflection of sunlight that act like the sunshields people put on their car windows. Lovelock is also less frightened out of the realization that air conditioning allows large scale societies- he is particularly fond of Singapore, but he also could have cited the Arabian Gulf or American Southwest- to seemingly thrive in conditions much hotter than those which any large human population could have survived in the past. We are not the poor Hohokam.

The problem with this more sanguine view of things is in thinking Singapore like levels of adaptation are either already here or even remotely on the horizon. This is the reality brought home over the last several weeks as the death toll from an historic heat wave sweeping over India and Pakistan has risen into the thousands. Most societies, or at least those with the most people, lack the ability to effectively respond to the current and predicted impacts of climate change, and are unlikely to develop it soon. The societal effects and death toll of a biblical scale deluge are much different if one is in Texas or Bangladesh. Major droughts can cause collapse and civil war in the fragile states of the Middle East that do not happen under similar environmental pressures between Arizona or Nevada- though Paolo Bacigalupi’s recent novel The Water Knife helps us imagine this were so. Nor has something like the drought in California sparked or fed the refugee flows or ethnic religious tensions it has elsewhere and which are but a prelude of what will likely happen should we continue down this path.

It is this fact that the negative impacts of the Anthropocene now fall on the world’s poor, and given the scale of the future impacts of climate change will be devastating for the poor and their societies because they lack the resources to adjust and respond to these changes, that is the moral insight behind Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home . It could not have been more timely.

I have to say that much of the document has a beauty that is striking. Parts such as this:

The Psalms frequently exhort us to praise God the Creator, “who spread out the earth on the waters, for his steadfast love endures for ever” (Ps 136:6). They also invite other creatures to join us in this praise: “Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created” (Ps 148:3-5). We do not only exist by God’s mighty power; we also live with him and beside him. This is why we adore him.

Lines like these reminded me of the poetry of Walt Whitman, or perhaps better even that most eloquent atheist Lucretius. And there are points in the letter where the relationship of God to non-human animals is portrayed in almost post-humanist terms, which makes a lot of sense given the pope’s namesake. But the purpose of Laudato Si isn’t to serve as poetry or even as a reminder to Christians that care for the natural world is not only not incompatible with their faith but a logical extension of it. Rather, the purpose of the pope’s letter is to serve as a moral indictment and a call to action. Pope Francis has, rightly and justly, connected our obligations to the global environment with our obligations to the world’s poor.

The problem with religious documents, even beautiful and uplifting documents such as the Laudato Si is that as a type they do not grapple with historical or moral ambiguity. Such documents by their nature try to establish continuity with the past, as in claiming the church contained whatever teaching is being communicated all along. They also by their very nature try to establish firm moral lines not only for the present and future but also in the past rather than grapple with the fact that we are more often confronted with much more ambiguous moral trade-offs -and always have been.

What  Laudato Si lacks is ironically the same acknowledgement that New Atheists so critical of Christianity often lack, namely the recognition that the history of our understanding of nature or the universe through science is part and parcel of the history of Christianity itself. It was Christians, after all, who having won over the Roman elites in the 3rd century AD managed to do what all the natural philosophers since Thales had never managed to, namely, to rid nature of “gods” as an explanation for everyday occurrences thus opening up a space for our understanding of nature as something free of intention. Only such a dis-enchanted nature could be considered predictable and machine-like by thinkers such as Newton, or made a subject for “interrogation” as it was by the philosopher Francis Bacon in the 17th century. And it’s with Bacon that we see how morally complicated the whole conquest of nature narrative Pope Francis grapples with in Laudato Si actually is.

It was Christianity that inspired Bacon’s quest for scientific knowledge – his search for what he believes to be the lost true knowledge of Adam that will give us mastery over nature. The very purpose of this mastery for him was a Christian and charitable one “the relief of man’s estate”. And yet such mastery and relief cannot be won without treating nature as an object to be tamed or forced into the constraints of a machine. The universe as clock.

Tragically, it wouldn’t only be the natural world that the West would subjugate in its quest to escape the pain and privation often inflicted by nature, it would be other human beings as well. The conquest and exploitation of non-Western societies that began, not coincidentally, at the same time as the Scientific Revolution would be justified on the grounds that civilization itself and human progress found such conquest necessary as a means of escaping the trap of nature.

For a long time indeed the argument that the “civilized” had a right to exploit and take from “savages” was a biblical one. When responding to his own rhetorical question of how it could be that English settlers in the New World had the right to seize the lands of the Indians who also were “sons of Adam” the Puritan John Winthrop answered:

That which is common to all is proper to none… Why may not Christians have liberty to dwell among them in their wastelands and woods (leaving such places as they have manured for their corne) as lawfully as Abraham did among the Sodomites? (117)  

The point Winthrop was making was drawn from God’s command of Adam to a life of labor, which was considered the birth of society by John Locke and made the basis of property- that anything not developed and claimed was without value or ownership and there for the taking.

This was not just a matter of Protestant reinterpretations of the Bible. Before Winthrop the Catholic Columbus and Spanish understood their mission and the distinction between them and Native American along millenarian lines. In 1493 Pope Alexander IV gave the New World to Spain and Portugal (as if he owned them). During the opening phase of the modern world Christianity and any globalizing scientific and capitalist project were essentially indistinguishable.

Centuries later when the relationship between Christianity and science was severed by Charles Darwin and the deep time being uncovered by geology in the 19th century neither abandoned the idea of remaking what for the first time in history was truly “one world” in their own image. Yet whereas Christianity pursued its mission among the poor (in which it was soon joined by a global socialist movement) science (for a brief time) became associated with a capitalist globalization through imperialism that was based upon the biological chimera of race- the so-called “white man’s burden”. This new “scientific” racism freed itself from the need to grapple, as even a brutally racist regime like the Confederate States needed to do, with the biblical claim that all of humankind shared in the legacy of Adam and possessed souls worthy of dignity and salvation.  It was a purely imaginary speciation that ended in death camps.

The moral fate of science and society would have been dark indeed had the Nazis racial state managed to win the Second World War, and been allowed to construct a society in which individuals reduced to the status of mere animals without personhood. Society proved only a little less dark when totalitarian systems in the USSR and China seized the reigns of the narrative of socialist liberation and reduced the individual to an equally expendable cog in the machine not of nature but of history. Luckily, communism was like a fever that swept over the world through the 20th century and then, just as quickly as it came, it broke and was gone.

Instead of the nightmare of a global racist regime or its communist twin or something else we find ourselves in a very mixed situation with one state predominant -the United States- yet increasingly unable to impose its will on the wider world. During the period of US hegemony some form of capitalism and the quest for modernity has become the norm. This has not all been bad, for during this period conditions have indeed undeniably improved for vast numbers of humanity. Still the foundation of such a world in the millenarian narrative of the United States, that it was a country with a “divine mission” to bring freedom to the world was just another variant of the Christian, Eurocentric, Nazi, Communist narrative that has defined the West since Joachim de Fiore if not before. And like all those others it has resulted in a great amount of unnecessary pain and will not be sustained indefinitely.

We are entering an unprecedented period where the states with the largest economies (along with comes the prospect of the most powerful militaries) China and at some point India- continue to be the home of 10s of millions of the extremely poor. Because of this they are unlikely to accept and cannot be compelled to accept restraints on their growth whose scale dwarfs that of the already unsustainable environmental course we are already on. These great and ancient civilization/states are joined by states much weaker some of which were merely conjured up by Western imperialist at the height of their power. They are states that are extremely vulnerable to crisis and collapse. Many of these vulnerable states are in Africa (many of those in the Middle East have collapsed) where by the end of this century a much greater portion of humanity will be found and which by then will have long replaced Europe as the seat of the Christianity and the church. We are having a great deal of difficulty figuring out how we are going to extend the benefits of progress to them without wrecking the earth.

Pope Francis wants us to see this dilemma sharply. He is attempting to focus our attention on the moral impact of the environmental, consumer and political choices we have made and will make especially as we approach the end of the year and the climate summit in Paris. Let us pray that we begin to change course, for if he doesn’t, those of us still alive to see it and our children and descendants are doomed.

Though I am no great fan of the idea that this century is somehow the most important one in terms of human survival, we really do appear to be entering a clear danger zone between now and into the early years of the 22nd century. It is by sometime between now and then that human population growth will have hopefully peaked, and alternatives to the carbon economy perfected and fully deployed. Though the effects of climate change will likely last millennia with the halting of new carbon emissions the climate should at least stabilize into a new state. We will either have established effective methods of response and adaptation or be faced with the after effect of natural disasters- immense human suffering, societal collapse, refugee flows and conflicts.  We will also either have figured out a more equitable economic system and created sustainable prosperity for all or tragically have failed to do so.

What the failure to adapt to climate change and limit its impact and/ or the failure to further extend the advances of modernity into the developing world would mean was the failure of the scientific project as the “relief of man’s estate” begun by figures like Francis Bacon. Science after a long period of hope will have resulted in something quite the opposite of paradise.

However, even before these issues are decided there is the danger that we will revive something resembling the artificial religious and racial division of humanity into groups where a minority lays claim to the long legacy of human technological and cultural advancement as purely its own. This, at least, is how I read the argument of the sociologist Steve Fuller who wants us to reframe our current political disputes from left vs right to what he “up- wingers” vs “down wingers” where up wingers are those pursuing human enhancement and evolution through technology (like himself) and down wingers those arguing in some sense against technology and for the preservation of human nature – as he characterizes Pope Francis.

The problem with such a reframing is that it forces us to once again divide the world into the savage and the civilized, the retrograde and the advancing.  At its most ethical this means forgetting about the suffering or fate of those who stand on the “savage” side of this ledger and taking care of oneself and one’s own. At its least ethical it means treating other human beings as sub-human, or perhaps “sub-post human”, and is merely a revival of the Christian justification for crimes against “infidels” or white’s rationale for crimes against everyone else. It is the claim in effect that you are not as full a creature as us, and therefore do not possess equivalent rights.  Ultimately the idea that we can or should split humanity up in such a way is based on a chronological fantasy.

The belief that there is an escape hatch from our shared global fate for any significant segment of humanity during the short time frame of a century is a dangerous illusion. Everywhere else in the solar system including empty space itself is a worse place to live than the earth even when she is in deep crisis. We might re-engineer some human beings to live beyond earth, but for the foreseeable future, it won’t be many. As Ken Stanley Robison never tires of reminding us,the stars are too far away- there won’t be a real life version of Interstellar. The potential escape hatch of uploading or human merger with artificial intelligence is a long, long ways off. Regardless of how much we learn about delaying the aging clock for likely well past this century we will remain biological beings whose fate will depend on the survival of our earthly home which we evolved to live in.

In light of this Fuller is a mental time traveler who has confused a future he has visited in his head with the real world. What this “up-winger” has forgotten and the “down-winger” Pope Francis has not is that without our efforts to preserve our world and make it more just there will either be no place to build our imagined futures upon or there will be no right to claim it represents the latest chapter in the long story of our progress.

In this sense, and even in spite of his suspicion of technology, this popular and influential pope might just prove to be one of the most important figures for the fate of any form of post-humanity. For it is likely that it will only be through our care for humanity as a whole, right now, that whatever comes after us will have the space and security to actually appear in our tomorrow.

The Man Who Invented the Future

joachim circle trinity

It is strange how some of the most influential individuals in human history can sometimes manage to slip out of public consciousness to the extent that almost no one knows who they are. What if I were to tell you that the ideas of one person who lived almost 900 years ago were central to everything from the Protestant Reformation, to the French Revolution, to Russia and America’s peculiar type of nationalism, to Communism and Nazism, to neo-liberal optimists such as Steven Pinker and now Michael Shermer, to (of most interest to this audience) followers of Ray Kurzweil and his Singularity; would you believe me, or think I was pulling a Dan Brown?

That individual was a 12th century was a monk named Joachim de Fiore, very much for real, and who up until very recently I had never heard of. In some ways this strange monk not only was a necessary figure in formation all of the systems of thought and political movements listed above, he also might seriously be credited with inventing the very idea of the future itself.

Whether you’re a fan of Game of Thrones or not put yourself for a moment in the mind of a European in the Middle Ages. Nothing around you has what we would consider a rational explanation, rather, it can only be understood in reference to the will of an unseen deity or his demonic rival. It is quite a frightening place, and would even be spatially disorienting  for a modern person used to maps and ideas regarding how the different worlds one sees while looking at the ground or up towards the sky, especially at night, fit together. It would have seemed like being stuck at the bottom of a seemingly endless well, unable to reach the “real” world above. A vertical version of Plato’s famous cave.

Starting in the 13th century there were attempts to understand humankind’s position in space more clearly, and some of these attempts were indeed brilliant, even anticipating current idea such as the Big Bang and the multiverse. This was shown recently in a wonderful collaboration between scholars in the humanities, mathematicians and scientists on the work of another largely forgotten medieval figure, Robert Grosseteste.

Even before Grosseteste was helping expand medievals’ understanding of space, Joachim de Fiore had expanded their notion of time. For time in the medieval worldview time was almost as suffocating as the stuck-in-a-well quality of their notion of space.

Medievals largely lacked a notion of what we would understand as an impersonal future that would be different from the past. It wasn’t as if a person living then would lack the understanding that their own personal tomorrow would be different than today- that their children would age and have children of their own and that the old would die- it was that there was little notion that the world itself was changing. It would be a tough sell to get a medieval to pay for a trip into the future, for in their view whether you’d travel 100 or 1000 years forward everything would be almost exactly the same, unless, that is, the world wasn’t there to visit at all.

Being a medieval was a lot like being on death row- you know exactly how your life will end- you just wouldn’t know when exactly you’ll run out of appeals. A medieval Christian had the end of the story in the Book of Revelation with it’s cast of characters such as the Antichrist and scenes such as the battle of armageddon. A Christian was always on the look out for the arrival of all the props for the play that would be the end of the current world, and if they believed in any real difference between the present and the future it was that the world in which these events were to occur would be what we would consider less technologically and socially advanced than the Roman world into which Christ had been born. History for the medievals, far from being the story of human advancement, was instead the tale of societal decay.

Well before actual events on the ground, improvements in human living standards, technological capacity and scientific understanding, undermined this medieval idea of the future as mere decadence before a final ending, Joachim de Fiore would do so philosophically and theologically.

Joachim was born around 1135 into a well of family with his father being a member of the Sicilian court. Joachim too would begin his career as a court official, but it would not last. In his early twenties, while on a diplomatic mission to the Byzantine Emperor, Joachim broke away to visit the Holy Land, and according to legend felt the call of God.He spent the Lenten season in meditation on Mt Tabor where “on the eve of Easter day, he received ‘the fullness of knowledge’”. (3)  

He became a monk and soon a prior and abbot for of Corazzo one assumes on account of his remarkable intelligence, but Joachim would spend his time writing his great trilogy: The Harmony of the New and Old Testaments, Exposition of Apocalypse, and the Psaltery of Ten Strings eventually receiving a dispensation from his work as abbot by  Pope Clement III so he could devote himself fully to his writing.

Eventually a whole monastic order would grow up around Joachim, and though this order would last only a few centuries, and Joachim would die in 1202 before finishing his last book the Tract on the Four Gospels his legacy would almost fully be felt in the way we understand history and the future.

Joachim constructed a theory of history based on the Christian Trinity: the Age of the Father – from Adam to the birth of Christ, the Age of the Son- from Christ until The Age of the Spirit. There had been examples of breaking history into historical ages before, what made Joachim different was his idea that:

“… Scripture taught a record of man’s gradual spiritual developments, leading to a perfected future age which was the fulfillment of prophetic hope.” (13)

“… one to be ushered in with a New Age of guidance by the Holy Spirit acting through a new order of meditative men who truly contemplated God. “ (12)

What is distinct and new about this was that history was spiritualized, it became the story of humankind’s gradual improvement and moving towards a state of perfection that was achievable in the material world (not in some purely spiritual paradise). And we could arrive at this destination if only we could accept the counsel of the virtuous and wise. It was a powerful story that has done us far more harm than good.

Joachim trinitarian tree circles

Joachimite ideas can be found at the root of the millennia fantasies of the European religious wars, and were secularized in the period of the French Revolution by figures like the Marquis de Condorcet and Auguste Comte. The latter even managed to duplicate Joachim’s tri-part model of history only now the ages only now they were The Theological, The Metaphysical, and the Positive Stage which we should read as religious, philosophical and scientific with Joachim’s monks being swapped for scientists.  

Hegel turned this progressive version of history into a whole system of philosophy and the atheist Marx turned Hegel “upside down” and created a system of political economy and revolutionary program. The West would justify its imperial conquest of Africa and subjugation of Asia on the grounds that they were bringing the progressive forces of history to “barbaric” peoples. The great ideological struggle of the early 20th century between Communism, Nazism, and Liberalism pitted versions of historical determinism against one another.

If postmodernism should have meant the end of overarching metanarratives the political movements that have so far most shaped the 21st century seem not to have gotten the memo. The century began with an attack by a quasi- millenarian cult (though they would not recognize Joachim as a forbearer). The 9-11 attacks enabled an averous and ultimately stupid foreign policy on the part of the United States which was only possible because the American people actually believed in their own myth that their system of government represented the end of history and the secret wish of every oppressed people in the world.

Now we have a truly apocalyptic cult in the form of ISIS while Russia descends into its own version of Joachimite fantasy based on Russia’s “historical mission” while truth itself disappears in a postmodern hall of mirrors. Thus it is that Joachim’s ideas regarding the future remain potent. And the characters attracted to his idea of history are, of course, not all bad. I’d include among this benign group both singularitarians and the new neo-liberal optimists. The first because they see human history moving towards an inevitable conclusion and believe that their is an elite that should guide us into paradise – the technologists. Neo-liberal optimists may not be so starry eyed but they do see history as the gradual unfolding of progress and seem doubtful that this trend might reverse.

The problem I have with the singularitarians is their blindness to the sigmoid curve – the graveyard where all exponentials go to die. There is a sort of “evolutionary” determinism to singularitarianism that seems to think not only that there is only one destination to history, but that we already largely know what that destination is. For Joachim such determinism makes sense, his world having been set up and run by an omnipotent God, for what I assume to be mostly secular singularitarians such determinism does not make sense and we are faced with the contingencies of evolution and history.

My beef with the neo-liberal optimists, in addition to the fact that they keep assaulting me with their “never been better” graphs is that I care less that human suffering has decreased than the reasons why, so that such a decrease can be continued or its lower levels preserved. I also care much more where the moral flaws of our society remain acute because only then will I know where to concentrate my political and ethical action. If the world today is indeed better than the world in the past (and it’s not a slam dunk argument even with the power point) let’s remember the struggles that were necessary to achieve that and continue to move ourselves towards Joachim’s paradise while being humble and wise enough to avoid mistaking ourselves with the forces of God or history, a mistake that has been at the root of so much suffering and evil.            

Auguries of Immortality, Malthus and the Verge

Hindu Goddess Tara

Sometimes, if you want to see something in the present clearly it’s best to go back to its origins. This is especially true when dealing with some monumental historical change, a phase transition from one stage to the next. The reason I think this is helpful is that those lucky enough to live at the beginning of such events have no historical or cultural baggage to obscure their forward view. When you live in the middle, or at the end of an era, you find yourself surrounded, sometimes suffocated, by all the good and bad that has come as a result. As a consequence, understanding the true contours of your surroundings or ultimate destination is almost impossible, your nose is stuck to the glass.

Question is, are we ourselves in the beginning of such an era, in the middle, or at an end? How would we even know?

If I were to make the case that we find ourselves in either the middle or the end of an era, I know exactly where I would start. In 1793 the eccentric English writer William Godwin published his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, a book which few people remember. What Godwin is remembered for instead is his famous daughter Mary Shelley, and her even more famous monster, though I should add that if you like thrillers you can thank Godwin for having invented them.

Godwin’s Enquiry, however, was a different kind of book. It grew out of the environment of a time which, in Godwin’s eyes at least, seemed pregnant with once unimaginable hope. The scientific revolution had brought about a fuller understanding of nature and her laws than anything achieved by the ancients, the superstitions of earlier eras were abandoned for a new age of enlightenment, the American Revolution had brought into the world a whole new form of government based on Enlightenment principles, and, as Godwin wrote, a much more important similar revolution had overthrown the monarchy in France.

All this along with the first manifestations of what would become the industrial revolution led Godwin to speculate in the Enquiry that mankind had entered a new era of perpetual progress. Where then could such progress and mastery over nature ultimately lead? Jumping off of a comment by his friend Ben Franklin, Godwin wrote:

 Let us here return to the sublime conjecture of Franklin, that “mind will one day become omnipotent over matter.” If over all other matter, why not over the matter of our own bodies? If over matter at ever so great a distance, why not over matter which, however ignorant we may be of the tie that connects it with the thinking principle, we always carry about with us, and which is in all cases the medium of communication between that principle and the external universe? In a word, why may not man be one day immortal?

Here then we can find evidence for the recent claim of Yuval Harari that “The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life.” (268)  In later editions of the Enquiry, however, Godwin dropped the suggestion of immortality, though it seems he did it not so much because of the criticism that followed from such comments, or the fact that he stopped believing in it, but rather that it seemed too much a termination point for his notion of progress that he now thought really would extend forever into the future for his key point was that the growing understanding by the mind would result in an ever increasing power of the mind over the material world in a process that would literally never end.

Almost at the exact same time as Godwin was writing his Enquiry another figure was making almost the exact same argument including the idea that scientific progress would eventually result in indefinite human lifespans. The Marquis de Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit was a book written by a courageous man while on the run from a French Revolutionary government that wanted to cut off his head. Amazingly, even while hunted down during the Terror, Condorcet retained his long term optimism regarding the ultimate fate of humankind.

A young English parson with a knack for the just emerging science of economics, not only wasn’t buying it, he wanted to actually scientifically prove (though I am using the term loosely) exactly why  such optimism should not be believed. This was Thomas Malthus, whose name, quite mistakenly, has spawned its own adjective, Malthusian, which means essentially environmental disaster caused by our own human hands and faults.

As is commonly known, Malthus’ argument was that historically there has been a mismatch between the growth of population and the production of food which sooner or later has led to famine and decline. It was Godwin’s and Condorcet’s claims regarding future human immortality that, in part, was responsible for Malthus stumbling upon his specific argument centered on population. For the obvious rejoinder to those claiming that the human lifespan would increase forever was-  what would we do will all of these people?

Both Godwin and Condorcet thought they had answered this question by claiming that in the future the birth rate would decline to zero. Stunningly, this has actually proven to be correct- that population growth rates have declined in parallel with increases in longevity. Though, rather than declining due to the victory of “reason” and the conquest of the “passions” as both Godwin and Condorcet thought they declined because sex was, for the first time in human history, decoupled from reproduction through the creation of effective forms of birth control.

So far, at least, it seems it has been Godwin and Condorcet that have gotten the better side of the argument. Since the  Enquiry we have experienced nearly 250 years of uninterrupted progress where mind has gained increasing mastery over the material world. And though,we are little closer to the optimists’ dream of “immortality” their prescient guess that longevity would be coupled with a declining birth rate would seem to clear the goal of increased longevity from being self-defeating on Malthusian grounds.

This would not be, of course, the first time Malthus has been shown to be wrong. Yet his ideas, or a caricature of his ideas, have a long history of retaining their hold over our imagination.  Exactly why this is the case is a question  explored in detail by Robert J. Mayhew in his excellent, Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet, Malthus’ argument in his famous if rarely actually read An Essay on the Principle of Population has become a sort of secular version of armageddon, his views latched onto by figures both sinister and benign over the two centuries since his essay’s publication.

Malthus’ argument was used against laws to alleviate the burdens of poverty, which it was argued would only increase population growth and an ultimate reckoning (and this view, at least, was close to that of Malthus himself). They were used by anti-immigrant and racist groups in the 19th and early 20th century. Hitler’s expansionist and genocidal policy in eastern Europe was justified on Malthusian grounds.

On a more benign side, Malthusian arguments were used as a spur to the Green Revolution in Agriculture in the 1960’s (though Mayhew thinks the warnings of pending famine were political -arising from the cold war- and overdone.) Malthusianism was found in the 1970’s by Paul Ehrlich to warn of a “population bomb” that never came, during the Oil Crisis slid into the fear over resource constraints, and can now be found in predictions about the coming “resource” and “water” wars. There is also a case where Malthus really may have his revenge, though more on that in a little bit.

And yet, we would be highly remiss were we to not take the question Malthus posed seriously. For what he was really inquiring about is whether or not their might be ultimate limits on the ability of the human mind to shape the world in which it found itself. What Malthus was  looking for was the boundary or verge of our limits as established by the laws of nature as he understood them. Those whose espoused the new human perfectionism, such as Godwin and Condorcet, faced what appeared to Malthus to be an insurmountable barrier to their theories being considered scientific, no matter how much they attached themselves to the language and symbols of the recent success of science. For what they were predicting would happen had no empirical basis- it had never happened before. Given that knowledge did indeed seem to increase through history, if merely as a consequence of having the time to do so, it was still the case that the kind of radical and perpetual progress that Godwin and Condorcet predicted was absent from human history. Malthus set out to provide a scientific argument for why.

In philosophical terms Malthus’ Essay is best read as a theodicy, an attempt like that of Leibniz before him, to argue that even in light of the world’s suffering we live in the “best of all possible world’s”. Like Newton did for falling objects, Malthus sought the laws of nature as designed by his God that explained the development of human society. Technological and social progress had remained static in the past even as human knowledge regarding the world accumulated over generations because the gap between mind and matter was what made us uniquely human. What caused us to most directly experience this gap and caused progress to remain static? Malthus thought he pinned the source of stasis in famine and population decline.

As is the case with any other physical system, for human societies, the question boiled down to how much energy was available to do meaningful work. Given that the vast majority of work during Malthus’ day was done by things that required energy in the form of food whether humans or animals, the limited amount of land that could be efficiently tilled presented an upper bound to the size, complexity, and progress of any human society.

What Malthus missed, of course, was the fact that the relationship between food and work was about to be severed. Or rather, the new machines did consume a form of processed “food” organic material that had been chemically “constructed” and accumulated over the eons, in the form of fossil fuels that offered an easily accessible type of energy that was different in kind from anything that had come before it.

The sheer force of the age of machines Malthus had failed to foresee did indeed break with the flatline of human history he had identified in every prior age. A fact that has never perhaps been more clearly than in Ian Morris’ simple graph below.

Ian Morris Great Divergence Graph

What made this breaking of the pattern between all of past human history and the last few centuries is the thing that could possibly, and tragically, prove Malthus right after all- fossil fuels.  For any society before 1800 the majority of energy other than that derived from food came in the form of wood- whether as timber itself or charcoal. But as Lewis Dartnell pointed out in a recent piece in AEON the world before fossil fuels posed a seemingly unsurmountable (should I say Malthusian?) dilemma; namely:

The central problem is that woodland, even when it is well-managed, competes with other land uses, principally agriculture. The double-whammy of development is that, as a society’s population grows, it requires more farmland to provide enough food and also greater timber production for energy. The two needs compete for largely the same land areas.

Dartnell’s point is that we have been both extremely lucky and unlucky in how accessible and potent fossil fuels have been. On the one hand fossil fuels gave us a rather short path to technological society, on the other, not only will it be difficult to wean ourselves from them, it is hard to imagine how we could reboot as a civilization should we suffer collapse and find ourselves having already used up most of the world’s most easily accessed forms of energy.

It is a useful exercise, then, to continue to take Malthus’ argument seriously, for even if we escape the second Malthusian trap- fossil fuel induced climate change- that allowed us to break free from the trap Malthus’ originally identified- our need to literally grow our energy- there are other predictable traps that likely lie in store.

One of these traps that interests me the most has to do with the “energy problem” that Malthus understood in terms of the production of food. As I’ve written about before, and as brought to my attention by the science writer Lee Billings in his book Five Billion Years of Solitude, there is a good and little discussed case from physics for thinking we might be closer to the end of an era that began with the industrial revolution rather than in the middle or even at the beginning.

This physics of civilizational limits comes from Tom Murphy of the University of California, San Diego who writes the blog Do The Math. Murphy’s argument, as profiled by the BBC, has some of the following points:

  • Assuming rising energy use and economic growth remain coupled, as they have in the past, confronts us with the absurdity of exponentials. At a 2.3 percent growth rate within 2,500 hundred years we would require all the energy from all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy to function.
  • At 3 percent growth, within four hundred years we will have boiled away the earth’s oceans, not because of global warming, but from the excess heat that is the normal product of energy production. (Even clean fusion leaves us burning away the world’s oceans for the same reason)
  • Renewables push out this reckoning, but not indefinitely. At a 3 percent growth rate, even if the solar efficiency was 100% we would need to capture all of the sunlight hitting the earth within three hundred years.

Will such limits prove to be correct and Malthus, in some sense, be shown to have been right all along? Who knows. The only way we’d have strong evidence to the contrary is if we came across evidence of civilizations with a much, much greater energy signature than our own. A recent project out of Penn State to do just that, which looked at 100,000 galaxies, found nothing, though this doesn’t mean the search is over.

Relating back to my last post: the universe may lean towards giving rise to complexity in the way the physicist Jeremy England suggests, but the landscape is littered with great canyons where evolution gets stuck for very long periods of time which explains its blindness as perceived by someone like Henry Gee. The scary thing is getting out of these canyons is a race against time: complex life could have been killed off by some disaster shortly after the Cambrian explosion, we could have remained hunter gatherers and failed to develop agriculture before another ice age did us in, some historical contingency could have prevented industrialization before some global catastrophe we are advanced enough now to respond to wiped us out.

If Tom Murphy is right we are now in a race to secure exponentially growing sources of energy, and it is a race we are destined to lose. The reason we don’t see any advanced civilizations out there is because the kind of growth we’ve extrapolated from the narrow slice of the past few centuries is indeed a finite thing as the amount of energy such growth requires reaches either terrestrial or cosmic limits. We simply won’t be able to gain access to enough energy fast enough to keep technological progress going at its current rate.

Of course, even if we believe that progress has some limit out there, that does not necessarily entail we shouldn’t pursue it, in many of its forms, until we hit the verge itself. Taking arguments that there might be limits to our technological progress is one thing, but to our moral progress, our efforts to address suffering in the world, they are quite another, for there accepting limits would mean accepting some level of suffering or injustice as just the “way things are”.  That we should not accept this Malthus himself nearly concluded:

 Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity. We are not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it. It is not only the interest but the duty of every individual to use his utmost efforts to remove evil from himself and from as large a circle as he can influence, and the more he exercises himself in this duty, the more wisely he directs his efforts, and the more successful these efforts are, the more he will probably improve and exalt his own mind and the more completely does he appear to fulfil the will of his Creator. (124-125)

The problem lies with the justification of the suffering of individual human beings in any particular form as “natural”. The crime at the heart of many versions of Malthusianism is this kind of aggregation of human beings into some kind of destructive force, which leads to the denial of the only scale where someone’s true humanity can be scene- at the level of the individual. Such a moral blindness that sees only the crowd can be found in the work the most famous piece of modern Malthusianism -Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb where he discusses his experience of Delhi.

The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to the buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the  dust, noise, heat, and the cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened. (p. 1)

Striped of this inability to see the that the value of human beings can only be grasped at the level of the individual and that suffering can only be assessed in a moral sense at this individual level, Malthus can help to remind us that our mind’s themselves emerge out of their confrontation and interaction with a material world where we constantly explore, overcome, and confront again its boundaries. That the world itself was probably “a mighty process for awakening matter into mind” and even the most ardent proponents of human perfectionism, modern day transhumanists or singularitarians, or just plain old humanists would agree with that.

* Image: Tara (Devi): Hindu goddess of the unquenchable hunger that compels all life.

Life: Inevitable or Accident?

The-Tree-Of-Life Gustav Klimt                                                   

Here’s the question: does the existence of life in the universe reflect something deep and fundamental or is it merely an accident and epiphenomenon?

There’s an interesting new theory coming out of the field of biophysics that claims the cosmos is indeed built for life, and not just merely in the sense found in the so-called “anthropic principle” which states that just by being here we can assume that all of nature’s fundamental values must be friendly for complex organisms such as ourselves that are able to ask such questions. The new theory makes the claim that not just life, but life of ever growing complexity and intelligence is not just likely, but the inevitable result of the laws of nature.

The proponent of the new theory is a young physicist at MIT named Jeremy England. I can’t claim I quite grasp all the intricate details of England’s theory, though he does an excellent job of explaining it here, but perhaps the best way of capturing it succinctly is by thinking of the laws of physics as a landscape, and a leaning one at that.

The second law of thermodynamics leans in the direction of increased entropy: systems naturally move in the direction of losing rather than gaining order over time, which is why we break eggs to make omelettes and not the other way round. The second law would seem to be a bad thing for living organisms, but oddly enough, ends up being a blessing not just for life, but for any self-organizing system so long as that system has a means of radiating this entropy away from itself.

For England, the second law provides the environment and direction in which life evolves. In those places where energy outputs from outside are available and can be dissipated because they have some boundary, such as a pool of water, self-organizing systems naturally come to be dominated by those forms that are particularly good at absorbing energy from their surrounding environment and dissipating less organized forms of energy in the form of heat (entropy) back into it.

This landscape in which life evolves, England postulates, may tilt as well in the direction of complexity and intelligence due to the fact that in a system that frequently changes in terms of oscillations of energy, those forms able to anticipate the direction of such oscillations gain the possibility of aligning themselves with them and thus become able to accomplish even more work through resonance.

England is in no sense out to replace Darwin’s natural selection as the mechanism through which evolution is best understood, though, should he be proved right, he would end up greatly amending it. If his theory ultimately proves successful, and it is admittedly very early days, England’s theory will have answered one of the fundamental questions that has dogged evolution since its beginnings. For while Darwin’s theory provides us with all the explanation we need for how complex organisms such as ourselves could have emerged out of seemingly random processes- that is through natural selection- it has never quite explained how you go from the inorganic to the organic and get evolution working in the first place. England’s work is blurring the line between the organic and the most complicated self-organizing forms of the inorganic, making the line separating cells from snowflakes and storms a little less distinct.

Whatever its ultimate fate, however, England’s theory faces major hurdles, not least because it seems to have a bias towards increasing complexity, and in its most radical form, points towards the inevitability that life will evolve in the direction of increased intelligence, ideas which many evolutionary thinkers vehemently disavow.

Some evolutionary theorists may see effort such as England’s not as a paradigm shift waiting in the wings, but as an example of a misconception regarding the relationship between increasing complexity and evolution that now appears to have been adopted by actual scientists rather than a merely misguided public. A misconception that, couched in scientific language, will further muddy the minds of the public leaving them with a conception of evolution that belongs much more to the 19th century than to the 21st. It is a misconception whose most vocal living opponent after the death of the irreplaceable Stephen J Gould has been the paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and senior editor of the journal Nature, Henry Gee, who has set out to disabuse us of it in his book The Accidental Species.

Gee’s goal is to remind us of what he holds to be the fundamental truth behind the theory of evolution- evolution has one singular purpose from which everything else follows in lockstep- reproduction. His objective is to do away, once and for all, with what he feels is a common misconception that evolution is leading towards complexity and progress and that the highest peak of this complexity and progress is us- human beings.

If improved prospects for reproduction can be bought through the increased complexity of an organism then that is what will happen, but it needn’t be the case. Gee points out that many species, notably some worms and many parasites, have achieved improved reproductive prospects by decreasing their complexity.Therefore the idea that complexity (as in an increase in the specialization and number of parts an organism has)  is a merely matter of evolution plus time doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. Judged through the eyes of evolution, losing features and becoming more simple is not necessarily a vice. All that counts is an organism’s ability to make more copies, or for animals that reproduce through sex, blended copies of itself.

Evolution in this view isn’t beautiful but coldly functional and messy- a matter of mere reproductive success. Gee reminds us of Darwin’s idea of evolution’s product as a “tangled bank”- a weird menagerie of creatures each having their own particular historical evolutionary trajectory. The anal retentive Victorian era philosophers who tried to build upon his ideas couldn’t accept such a mess and:

…missed the essential metaphor of Darwin’s tangled bank, however, and saw natural selection as a sort of motor that would drive transformation from one preordained station on the ladder of life to the next one.” (37)

Gee also sets out to show how deeply limited our abilities are when it comes to understanding the past through the fossil record. Very, very, few of the species that have ever existed left evidence of their lives in the form of fossils, which are formed only under very special conditions, and where the process of fossilization greatly favors the preservation of some species over others. The past is thus incredibly opaque making it impossible to impose an overarching narrative upon it- such as increasing complexity- as we move from the past towards the present.

Gee, though an ardent defender of evolution and opponent of creationist pseudoscience, finds the gaps in the fossil record so pronounced that he thinks we can create almost any story we want from it and end up projecting our contemporary biases onto the speechless stones. This is the case even when the remains we are dealing with are of much more recent origin and especially when their subject is the origin of us.

We’ve tended, for instance, to link tool use and intelligence, even in those cases such as Homo Habilis, when the records and artifacts point to a different story. We’ve tended not to see other human species such as the so-called Hobbit man as ways we might have actually evolved had circumstances not played out in precisely the way they had. We have not, in Gee’s estimation, been working our way towards the inevitable goal of our current intelligence and planetary dominance, but have stumbled into it by accident.

Although Gee is in no sense writing in anticipation of a theory such as England’s his line of thinking does seem to pose obstacles that the latter’s hypothesis will have to address. If it is indeed the case that, as England has stated it, complex life arises inevitably from the physics of the universe, so that in his estimation:

You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.

Then England will have to address why it took so incredibly long – 4 billion years out of the earth’s 4.5 billion year history for actual plants to make their debut, not to mention similar spans for other complex eukarya such as animals like ourselves.

Whether something like England’s inevitable complexity or Gee’s, not just blind, but drunk and random, evolutionary walk is ultimately the right way to understand evolution has implications far beyond evolutionary theory. Indeed, it might have deep implications for the status and distribution of life in the universe and even inform the way we understand the current development of new forms of artificial intelligence.

What we have discovered over the last decade is that bodies of water appear to be both much more widespread and can be found in environments far beyond those previously considered. Hence NASA’s recent announcement that we are likely to find microbial life in the next 10 – 30 years both in our solar system and beyond. What this means is that England’s heat baths are likely ubiquitous, and if he’s correct, life likely can be found anywhere there is water- meaning nearly everywhere. There may even be complex lifelike forms that did not evolve through what we would consider normal natural selection at all.

If Gee is right the universe might be ripe for life, but the vast, vast majority of that life will be microbial and no amount of time will change that fate on most life inhabited worlds. If England in his minor key is correct the universe should at least be filled with complex multicellular life forms such as ourselves. Yet it is the possibility that England is right in his major key, that consciousness, civilization, and computation might flow naturally from the need of organisms to resonate with their fluctuating environments that, biased as we are, we likely find most exciting. Such a view leaves us with the prospect of many, many more forms of intelligence and technological civilizations like ourselves spread throughout the cosmos.

The fact that the universe so far has proven silent and devoid of any signs of technological civilization might give us pause when it comes to endorsing England’s optimism over Gee’s pessimism, unless, that is, there is some sort of limit or wall when it comes to our own perceived technological trajectory that can address the questions that emerge from the ideas of both. To that story, next time…