Carl H. Flygt
We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.
-Stewart Brand, 1968
The human mind is about to be outclassed by its creations. So concludes the reasoning of the singularity theorists – Vernor Vinge, Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Eliezer Yudkowsky et.al. – and their speculations are summed up in a neat piece of journalism by Joel Garreau, Radical Evolution – the Promise and Potential of Enhancing Ourselves (Doubleday, 2005). The creations of course are genetics, robotics, information technologies and nanotechnology. Taken together, fueled by the greed of hyper-empowered individuals and their minions and unregulated by sensible checks and balances emanating from the good and general will of society as a whole, these technologies promise to deliver us in the near future into a world fundamentally beyond the scope of our natural intelligence. On the theory of the singularity, within perhaps twenty-five years, much of humanity will inhabit an everyday world of engaged coping which we as individuals can neither feel we understand nor of which we can make much common sense.
The scenario contains both promise and peril. On the one hand, we will be apt to live longer, more healthily and more happily, at least those of us who can afford to, but on the other we will be less prone to innovate, to live and to die for transcendent ideals, like God and Country, and more likely to obviate the maxim that all men, being created equal, warrant an identical dignity. What place, after all, in a world populated by people with total photographic recall, with minimal need for sleep, with metabolic efficiency in excess of today’s Olympic sprinter, with no body fat, with enormous financial resources and all manner of other exotic powers, for the quaint rule that we are all just like one another in principle if not always in practice? This latter likelihood seems bound to result in a set of independent evolutions within the human species, and an ongoing potential for class friction, even class warfare, if these changes occur abruptly or unskillfully, and unless a suitable accommodation can be devised. This skillful accommodation is what my theory of conversation purports to offer.
The fundamental problem with the techno-utopia of the singularians, of course, is that it is selfish through and through. This is why it scares ordinary people out of their wits, sets their teeth on edge when they read about it and makes them despair of finding a middle ground between it and the gloomy and altogether dystopic outcome that could equally emerge as the reality. “A traditional utopia is a good society and a good life involving other people,” says Bill Joy, the leading proponent of anti-technology and the cautionary stance. “This techno-utopia is all about: ‘I don’t get diseases; I don’t die; I get to have better eyesight and be smarter’ and all of this. If you described this to Socrates or Plato they would laugh at you.” But Socrates or Plato would not laugh at the idea of pure conversation, which cuts off the me-talk before it can start and puts the human being directly in community with the reality of his (her) cosmic consciousness, of his (her) ontological impulses and of his (her) capacity for self-control and settlement into the higher bodies given human nature by its cosmic mereology.
Conversation, on my theory, is initiatory ritual, sacred, profound and magical. It is formal coping with everything brought to bear on the linguistic moment. This everything, of course, is a great deal. It is the whole of the individual’s capacity for recognizing and producing meaning and reference, for sustaining the psychic energy of attention and self-awareness, for exercising a good and universal will, and for ensuring that everyone remains responsible for these results, without exception. It is the embodiment of the mind in a transcendental medium of all-pervading life, in the etheric field that permeates the blood and the vitality of all life with color and sound, even the life of artifact and institution. It is initiation of the human consciousness into a world beyond the merely material and the merely abstract, into the world of meditation and dreams, of spirit vision and mystical consciousness. It is radical and fundamental recognition of the ancient and cosmic individual, the product of eons and eons of time and suffering and devotion to ideals that simply outclass the petty inclinations and projects of the self-interested life. It has almost nothing to do with the ad hoc, externalist enhancements of the brain, the body and the environment that are predicted by the singularians. It is rather the cosmic reality of humanity itself, the living, breathing, psychic presence of that which, by natural and moral law, will bring the singularity to pass out of itself and which will continue after it has occurred, in a higher embodiment hovering above and within the planet and in direct and urgent communication with the fixed stars and circling planets.
To think that such a form of social intercourse could be selfish in any way, of course, would be to invite inevitable disqualification from its society, or better, immediate remediation as a means to gain entry to it. Self-conscious conversation is simply the alternative, and possibly the only alternative, to the solipsistic vision of the company of the enhanced. The key to the singularity is self-conscious conversation, and it represents the only survival strategy I can discern open to those who will abjure the wanton use of the artificial. To those for whom neither option appears immanent or possible to reach, there will be trickle-down effects. Moreover, the way people have done things for millennia, in traditional societies far from the sophistication of the city and the internet, is not really so bad at all, if they can safely entrust themselves and their economies to the care of the sophisticated. Much cosmic wisdom, if little worldly power, can be gained from birth and death in such a life. If such an arrangement proves possible, humanity will remain unified, despite its independent evolutions.
To make this work, I think, we basically need to achieve group solidarity among people willing and able to achieve cosmic consciousness and spiritual initiation by means of conversation. This in itself will be no mean feat, because spiritual initiation (SI) is not the easiest thing for the individual human being to acquire. A good deal of time, energy and personal sacrifice, to say nothing of intelligence, idealism and stamina, is usually required for SI. But the other half of the equation is more or less solved, or at least has been proposed to be soluble, with the advent of a general theory of conversation. Without that, of course, social transcendence of the singularity would be practically unthinkable. But with it I think we can begin to work on a scenario in which the human organism is extended beyond the boundaries of body and skin and into an environment and a world where everyday coping reveals splashes of color, octaves of resonance and nonlinear transformations of cosmic matter more wonderful and profound than any representations in the simulacra of today’s media, or of tomorrow’s.
Garreau, Joel. Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Ourselves. New York: Doubleday, 2005.
Clark, Andy and David J. Chalmers. 1998. The Extended Mind. Analysis, 58:10-23.