Back when I read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion I enjoyed his take on the Christian god as a “God of the gaps.” By this he meant that “God” was a construct which symbolized everything mysterious in the world. As we’ve grown smarter our science has been stripping away the role of God until he is left within the only real gap of scientific knowledge, the creation of the universe. A creator however, argues Dawkins, does not solve the problem of the origin of the universe; it only complicates it, for who created the creator? I’ve talked previously about my belief that the universe is a fractal pattern of simulations producing simulations. I suggest you read that post because it will be relevant to what I am saying here.
I have worried, as most everyone has at one time or another, about the possibility that science is doing to beauty what it has done to God. One way of expressing this is simply “ignorance is bliss,” a sad truth pointing to the fact that our happiness is an illusion we build which likely stands to suffer should new information arrive which changes the way we think. Another way to put this is that mystery seems to be an essential part of beauty, that the freshness of experience, the wonder, is an essential part of beauty. As we investigate that mystery, we dispel the wonder.
Yet another way of looking at this is that life is, all in all, meaningless. Our sense of beauty comes from us ascribing deep meaning to things which in the end amount to nothing, and as we discover the reason behind everything we find more and more that none of it means anything, that it’s all just math, just information.
Under this light our future path looks like this: after the singularity we understand the machinery behind our own minds and begin to rapidly merge and expand our consciousness, merging and expanding with other possible alien intelligences too. Each of us lose our own sense of existence as we realize that we are patterns of information indistinct from the entire universe, and as consciousness slowly becomes everything that is the universe, all matter and energy, the only thing left it has to observe is itself, a scenario many would argue is synonymous with non-existence.
This, by the way, is very much what it feels like to be on acid, and those who have experienced the drug may know more personally about what I am relating. In any case, this view of things, the entire view that we are extinguishing beauty and ourselves overlooks a crucial thing, and that is the “existence” of our thoughts. As we expand and become the universe, the universe we inhabit will be much less exciting, but we will be able to rearrange it into infinite possibilities. By rearranging the universe I mean rearranging the way we think and what we think about, producing countless new universes in our minds to explore, producing our own data to process. The universe won’t be meaningless because we will be capable of producing infinite meaning within it.
We will be able to maintain our sense of beauty, existence and individuality in some sense after this transition, though it will be different, things will always be more meaningless now. But I don’t think we would care much if we knew the nature of the incomprehensible joy, knowledge, and beauty that is experienced by our universe, outside of this small oasis of suffering.
My grandmother is one of my biggest fans, and has been quite attentive to this blog and my thoughts on life in general. She has even chosen a pseudonym for herself to be used in this blog, “Gaia,” the greek goddess of sorts which embodied the earth. It’s a bit conceited to call yourself mother earth, but hey, I’m claiming to be the bringer of knowledge and culture to all of humanity, so I really can’t talk. Gaia was also Prometheus’ grandmother (or mother sometimes) so it’s fitting anyway.
Gaia has been thinking about death recently, as one is prone to do in her stage of life, and she was hoping that I might have something to say on the matter in this blog. I have much less to contribute to the topic than a woman of her age and experience, but perhaps my youthfulness can offer a fresh perspective.
Death is an obsession of ours. Our mortality is the only thing that separates us from the Gods we create in our image, and it is a big part of what it is to be human.
And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.
When we overcome death we will be Gods. We will be able to develop on timescales we cannot imagine, and accomplish things beyond our current imagination. The singularity is the point after which we become immortal, getting everything we’ve ever wanted and feared. So let’s talk about immortality and the singularity a bit:
There is no such thing as immortality. Everything must die eventually, it is the law of entropy. While it’s impossible to live forever, it will be possible to live millions, even billions of years, and compared to our timescale that is practical mortality. One of the ways that we could live for this long is through mind uploading, the theoretical process of duplicating your brain patterns in software. Eventually we may be able to do this by harmless scanning, but at first we will need to physically deconstruct the brain to achieve this. There are proposed ways by which this could be a gradual merger into a computer environment, taking bits of brain at a time and having them still send signals to your actual brain from the computer until you are finally totally immersed in virtual reality, a seamless transition of consciousness. While this is well and good for the individual experiencing this transition, an observer would see a man have his brain taken apart until he is dead. There is no getting around the fact that the original person is dead, even if the computer believes they are that person. shortly after the singularity the human species will, in a sense, be extinct, replaced by an intelligence which will continue to believe it’s human for some time.
So oddly enough, immortality and death are the same thing. This all goes back to that one paradox between experience and reality, and the truth that we must arrive at is that there is really no such thing as death because there is no such thing as “us” that can die if we are but flows of information that can be repeated without our bodies. There is a very real sense that those who have passed on live through each of us, the great people in history have changed the way we think and therefore spread themselves into us, becoming immortal.
As I was talking to Gaia a couple days ago about the singularity and the possibility of immortality, she asked the pressing question of the meaning of becoming immortal, the point of extending life. Why do people obsess over the fountain of youth so much? Are they not satisfied with the life they are given? After all, we must all die eventually, so what does it matter if it’s in 80 years or a million. I responded that it is not just a few people who want to be immortal, it’s everyone whether they claim it or not. Everyone who has not committed suicide is prolonging their life uselessly, because after all, what is the difference between 20 years or 80? We all die eventually. We are programmed to prolong our existence, and that is what I intend to do. If I can live for a million years, I will take that opportunity.
Death, it has been said, is like the time before being born. There is no time, there is no space, there is nothing. We can’t look back and wish we were living, because then we’d be alive. It is therefore not a problem for an individual if they die, it is a problem for the people they left behind (as if they went somewhere…). When we lose a loved one, we grieve not because we feel bad for them, but because we feel bad for ourselves, because we are losing a piece of us which we valued greatly. This all gets quite contorted when we start inventing the afterlife so that we may feel comforted, but lose sight of the fact that when a person is gone they are gone, and there is no one to feel sorry for except yourself.
When my grandmother dies I will be very sad. Sometimes I wish I had been born just a century later so that I wouldn’t have to see my loved ones pass away, so that we could all transcend our mortal bodies together. Yet I value this fragile existence I have been handed, and I know that I have much loss to experience yet in my life, and while each loss is a loss of a piece of myself, through them I will understand that everything must fade.
(my grandmother has been inspired to write a poem in response to this post, and commented it below)
A while back I wrote a babbling post about the root paradox of everything; the separateness of our conscious experience and “reality.” I hope to expand a bit upon that, and maybe clarify things a bit.
Consciousness is an illusion. That statement is somewhat ludicrous because illusions are themselves conscious experiences, and we are stuck in an odd loop. In any case, consciousness is the convergence of sensory experiences, thoughts, and memories, all of which serve to make us aware of our environment and our selves. All of this is merely patterns and physical movements, molecules self organizing to form an organism which has a continuity of experience, and develops a sense of self. This sense of self, it can be easily argued, is evolutionarily beneficial, and our increased awareness of our environment relative to other animals has certainly given us advantage.
Yet consciousness is a fact, because we experience it. We know (assume) that others experience it too, and this assumption will be proved correct once we are able to actually merge our consciousnesses. This fact of conscious experience makes certain things hard to understand. For instance, when you boil down everything that is a person’s decision making process, all of the environmental factors and internal brain patterns, the only logical conclusion that can be arrived at is that the person has no free will—his decisions are made by his brain before he’s ever aware of it. But those brain patterns are us, we are the patterns in our brain, even if we aren’t aware of them. And we do make choices, yet those choices are determined by the environment (which includes our bodies). We are stuck in a paradox.
Part of the problem with free will is that it is assumed that an agent exists. When a person claims that “I chose to do this by my own free will” there is an underlying assumption that “I exist,” and that assumption is false (and true). Yes, “I think therefore I am,” but once again, who is this “I” that is thinking? In the end, we are but an accumulation of matter which processes information, and we are stuck in an infinite loop of self awareness.
Everything is and is not. When the universe dies a peaceful heat death, the conscious entities that composed it will look back and realize that all knowledge is just assumptions built upon previous assumptions, and everything that has been accumulated is meaningless and will dissipate into heat. Their existence had simply been a momentary convergence of order in the chaos that is the law of all existence. When this moment of existence is over, what is there to show for it? It will be as if none of it had ever happened, and for all purposes that is the truth of the matter.
As we rocket past the singularity, this question is going to loom larger in the minds of those who have always believed we were put here for a purpose. Some environmentalists may begin to ponder this in a new way as they witness the expanding human superconsciousness grow outward into space and onto countless other planets. Others will wonder this while they gather matter together in a universe slowly dying from entropy many trillions of years from now. This is for all those people/conscious entities out there.
To get straight to the point, there is no point. There cannot possibly be a larger meaning for the universe, because there is nothing larger than the universe (or multiverse or everything in existence). A meaning connects something to something larger. A word has meaning because it refers to something bigger than itself. A machine has a purpose (basically the same thing as meaning) because it accomplishes a goal apart from its existence. The universe can’t possibly be here for any reason, because on a long enough time scale, everything dies. Even if there is an immortal God who created us for a purpose, what could that purpose be? To serve him? Why? We are being like children here, asking for reasons for things and repeating “why” over and over.
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher,
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
What advantage does man have in all his work
Which he does under the sun?
A generation goes and a generation comes,
But the earth remains forever.
Meaning is impossible to find in the universe. We’ve had to struggle with the fact that the universe isn’t bound by laws of justice and doesn’t care about our suffering. Some people still won’t accept this fact and cling to the notion that the innocent will prosper and the wicked will suffer, though history presents a distinctly different account.
I have seen everything during my lifetime of futility; there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness.
This leaves us in an awkward place, but we need not be. We need to get it in our heads that meaning is what we ascribe to things. A word is meaningful because we think it is. To an alien, it would be meaningless. Our life’s meaning is whatever we want it to be. We had it easy when we knew our purpose, when we had to work to eat and eat to survive, everything was to the point. Now we have leisure, which we aren’t mentally well equipped for. We can choose now, and this freedom is going to become much more real after the singularity.
So what will you choose to find meaning in when you no longer have to work to survive? you’ll need to find other work, some other purpose. most of us have already done this, and very few of us farm anymore. We create companies, entertain, make things, heal people, blog, and travel, finding meaning in all of these things. The jobs will change in the future, but there will always be things to do. Or you could be lazy, say that the only meaning for you is subjective well being, program yourself to be happy and sit on a couch for eternity. You may say that sitting on a couch for eternity is meaningless, but you are just a blob of particles that will inevitably disintegrate into chaos and entropy so look who’s talking.
Above all we will find meaning in order and not chaos (chaos by definition cannot be meaningful), in work and not heat, in each other and not the universe. We found out that things could mean something greater through our toil, and it is through our toil that we will continue to find meaning.
I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?
Listen to the words of the Preacher.