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.

 

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The Sofalarity is Near

Mucha Goddess Maia

Many readers here have no doubt spent at least some time thinking about the Singularity, whether in a spirit of hope or fear, or perhaps more reasonably some admixture of both. For my part, though, I am much less worried about a coming Singularity than I am about a Sofalarity in which our ability to create realistic illusions of achievement and adventure convinces the majority of humans that reality isn’t really worth all the trouble after all. Let me run through the evidence of an approaching Sofalarity. I hope you’re sitting down… well… actually I hope you’re not.

I would define a Sofalarity as a hypothetical  point in human history would when the majority of human beings spend most of their time engaged in activities that have little or no connection to actual life in the physical world. It’s not hard to see the outline of this today: on average, Americans already spend an enormous amount of time with their attention focused on worlds either wholly or partly imagined. The numbers aren’t very precise, and differ among age groups and sectors of the population, but they come out to be somewhere around five hours watching television per day, three hours online, and another three hours playing video games. That means, collectively at least, we spend almost half of our day in dream worlds, not counting the old fashioned kind such as those found in books or the ones we encounter when we’re actually sleeping.

There’s perhaps no better example of how the virtual is able to hijack our very real biology than pornography . Worldwide the amount of total internet traffic that is categorized as erotica ranges from a low of four to as high as thirty percent. When one combines that with recent figures claiming that up to 36 percent of internet traffic aren’t even human beings but bots, then it’s hard not to experience future shock.

Amidst all the complaining that the future hasn’t arrived yet and “where’s my jetpack?” a 21st century showed up where upwards of 66 percent of internet traffic could be people looking for pornography, bots pretending to be human, or, weirdest of all, bots pretending to be human looking for humans to have sex with. Take that Alvin Toffler.

Still all of this remains simply our version of painting on the walls of a prehistoric cave. Any true Sofalarity would likely require more than just television shows and Youtube clips. It would need to have gained the keys to our emotional motivation and senses.

As a species we’ve been trying to open the doors of perception with drugs long before almost anything else. What makes our current situation more likely to be leading toward a Sofalarity is that now this quest is a global business and that we’ve become increasingly sophisticated when it comes to playing tricks on our neurochemistry.

The problem any society has with individuals screwing with their neurochemistry is two-fold. The first is to make sure that enough sober people are available for the necessary work of keeping their society operating at a functional level, and the second is to prevent any ill effects from the mind altered from spilling over into the society at large.

The contemporary world has seemingly found a brilliant solution to this problem- to contain the mind altered in space and time, and making sure only the sober are running the show. The reason bars or dance clubs work is that only the customers are drunk or stoned and such places exist in a state of controlled chaos with the management carefully orchestrating the whole affair and making sure things remain lively enough that customers will return while ensuring that things also don’t get so dangerous patrons will stay away for the opposite reason.

The whole affair is contained in time because drunken binges last only through the weekend with individuals returning to their straight-laced bourgeois jobs on Monday, propped up, perhaps by a bit of stimulants to promote productivity.

Sometimes this controlled chaos is meant to last for longer stretches than the weekends, yet here again, it is contained in space and time. If you want to see controlled chaos perfected with technology thrown into the mix you can’t get any better than Las Vegas where seemingly endless opportunities for pleasure and losing one’s wits abound all the while one is being constantly monitored both in the name of safety, and in order that one not develop any existential doubts about the meaning of life under all that neon.   

If you ever find yourself in Vegas losing your dopamine fix after one too many blows from lady luck behind a one-armed bandit, and suddenly find some friendly casino staff next to you offering you free drinks or tickets to a local show, bless not the goddess of Fortune, but the surveillance cameras that have informed the house they are about to lose an unlucky, and therefore lucrative, customer. La Vegas is the surveillance capital of the United States, and it’s not just inside the casinos.

Ubiquitous monitoring seems to be the price of Las Vegas’ adoption of vice as a form of economy. Or as Megan McArdle put it in a recent article:

 Is the friendly police state the price of the freedom to drink and gamble with abandon?Whatever your position on vice industries, they are heavily associated with crime, even where they are legal. Drinking makes people both violent and vulnerable; gambling presents an almost irresistible temptation to cheating and theft.  Las Vegas has Disneyfied libertinism. But to do so, it employs armies of security guards and acres of surveillance cameras that are always and everywhere recording your every move.

Even the youngest of our young children now have a version of this: we call it Disney World. The home of Mickey Mouse has used current surveillance technology to its fullest, allowing it to give visitors to the “magic kingdom” both the experience of being free and one of reality seemingly bending itself in the shape of innocent fantasy and expectations. It’s a technology they work very hard to keep invisible. Disney’s magic band, which not only allows visitors to navigate seamlessly through its theme parks, but allows your dinner to be brought to you before you ordered it, or the guy or gal in the Mickey suit to greet your children by name before they have introduced themselves was described recently in a glowing article in Wired that quoted the company’s COO Tom Staggs this way:

 Staggs couches Disney’s goals for the MagicBand system in an old saw from Arthur C. Clarke. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” he says. “That’s how we think of it. If we can get out of the way, our guests can create more memories.”

Nothing against the “magic of Disney” for children, but I do shudder a little thinking that so many parents don’t think twice about creating memories in a “world” that is not so much artificial as completely staged. And it’s not just for kids. They have actually built an entire industry around our ridiculousness here, especially in places in like China, where people pay to have their photos taken in front of fake pyramids or the Eiffel tower, or to vacation in places pretending to be someplace else.

Yet neither Las Vegas nor a Disney theme park resemble what a Sofalarity would look like in full flower. After all, the show girls at Bally’s or the poor soul under the mouse suit in Orlando are real people. What a true Sofalarity would entail is nobody being there at all, for the very people behind the pretend to no longer be there.

We’re probably some way off from a point where the majority of human labor is superfluous, but if things keep going at the rate they are, we’re not talking centuries. The rejoinder to claims that human labor will be replaced to the extent that most of us no longer have anything to do is often that we’ll become the creators and behind the scenes, the same way Apple’s American workers do the high end work of designing its products while the work of actually putting them together is done by numb fingers over in China. In the utopian version of our automated future we’ll all be designers on the equivalent of Infinite Loop Street while the robots provide the fingers.

Yet, over the long run, I am not sure this humans as mental creators/machines as physical producers distinction will hold. Our (quite dumb) computers already create visually stunning and unanticipated works or art, compose music that is indistinguishable from that created in human minds, and write things none of us realize are the product of clever programs. Who’s to say that decades hence, or over a longer stretch, they won’t be able to create richer fantasy worlds of every type that blow our minds and grip our attention far more than any crafted by our flesh and blood brethren?

And still, even should every human endeavor be taken over by machines, including our politics, we would still be short of a true Sofalarity because we would be left with the things that make us most human- the relationship we have with our loved ones. No, to see the Sofalarity in full force we’d need to have become little more than a pile of undulating mush like the creatures in the original conception of the movie Wall-E from which I ripped the term.

The only way we’d get to that point is if our created fantasies could reach deep under our skin and skulls and give us worlds and emotional experiences that atrophied to the point of irrecoverability what we now consider most essential to being a person. The signs are clear that we’re headed there. In Japan, for instance, there are perhaps 700,000 Hikikomori, modern day hermits that consist of adults who have withdrawn from 3 dimensional social relationships and live out their lives primarily online.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of very cool stuff either here or shortly coming down the pike, there’s Oculus Rift should it ever find developers and conquer the nausea problem, and there’s wonders such as Magic Leap, a virtual reality platform that allows you to see 3D images by beaming them directly into your eyes. Add to these things like David Eagleman’s crazy haptic vest, or brain readers that sit it your ear, not to mention things a little further off in terms of public debut that seem to have jumped right off the pages of Nexus, like brain-to-brain communication, or magnetic nanoparticles that allow brain stimulation without wires, and it’s plain to see we’re on the cusp of revolution in creating and experiencing purely imagined worlds, but all this makes it even more difficult to bust a poor hikikomori out of his 4’ x 4’ apartment.

It seems we might be on the verge of losing the distinction between the Enchantment of Fantasy and Magic that J.R.R Tolkien brought us in his brilliant lecture On Fairy Stories:

Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. It does not matter by whom it is said to be practiced, fay or mortal, it remains distinct from the other two; it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.

For Tolkien, the primary point of fantasy was to enrich our engagement with the real world to allow us to see the ordinary anew. Though it might also be a place to hide and escape should the real world, whether for the individual or society as a whole , become hellish, as Tolkien, having fought in the World War I, lived through the Great Depression, and was on the eve of a second world war when he gave his lecture well knew.

To those who believe we might already be living in a simulation perhaps all this is merely like having traveled around the world only to end up exactly where you started as in the Borges’ story The Circular Ruins, or in the idea of many of the world’s great religions that we are already living in a state of maya or illusion, though we now make the case using much more scientific language. There’s a very serious argument out there, such as that of Nick Bostrom, that we are already living in a simulation. The way one comes to this conclusion is merely by looking at the virtual world we’ve already created and extrapolating the trend outward for hundreds or thousands of years. In such a world the majority of sentient creatures would be “living” entities in virtual environments, and these end up comprising the overwhelming number of sentient creatures that will ever exist. Statistical reasoning would seem to lead to the conclusion that you are more likely than not, right now, a merely virtual entity. There are even, supposedly, possible scientific experiments to test for evidence of this. Thankfully, in my view at least, the Higgs particle might prevent me from being a Boltzmann brain.

For my part, I have trouble believing I am living in a simulation. Running “ancestor simulations” seems like something a being with human intelligence might do, but it would probably bore the hell out of any superintelligence capable of actually creating the things, they would not provide any essential information for their survival, and given the historical and present suffering of our world would have to be run by a very amoral, indeed immoral being.

That was part of the fear Descartes was tapping into when he proposed that the world, and himself in it, might be nothing more than the dream of an “evil demon”. Yet what he was really getting at, as same as was the case with other great skeptics of history such as Hume, wasn’t so much the plausibility of the Matrix, but the limits surrounding what we can ever be said to truly know.

Some might welcome the prospect of a coming Sofalarity for the same reasons they embrace the Singularity, and indeed, when it comes to many features such as exponential technological advancement or automation, the two are hardly distinguishable. Yet the biggest hope that sofaltarians and singularitarians would probably share is that technological trends point towards the possibility of uploading minds into computers.

Sadly, or thankfully, uploading is some ways off. The EU seems to have finally brought the complaints of neuroscientists that Henry Markum’s Human Brain Project, that aimed to simulate an entire human brain was scientifically premature enough to be laughable, were it not for the billion Euro’s invested in it that might have been spent on much more pressing areas like mental illness or Alzheimer’s research. The project has not been halted but a recent scathing official report is certainly a big blow.

Nick Bostrom has pondered that if we are not now living in a simulation then there is something that prevents civilizations such as our from reaching the technological maturity to create such simulations. As I see it, perhaps the movement towards a Sofalarity ultimately contains the seeds of its own destruction.  Just as I am convinced that hell, which exists in the circumscribed borders of torture chambers, death camps, or the human heart, can never be the basis for an entire society, let alone a world, it is quite possible that a heaven that we could only reach by escaping the world as it exists is like that as well, and that any society that would be built around the fantasy of permanent escape would not last long in its confrontation with reality. Fermi paradox, anyone?