Coded gray.

Thursday 23 June 2005

Flowering tree

Pic of the day: A spring that lasts forever? Resurrection, reincarnation, or an afterlife as pure spirit? How about all of them? Read the stunning conclusion to the article series about the end of humankind as we know it.

And life everlasting

Sometimes it seems as if old scriptures of the world religions talk about our times, and it is even possible to read them as if they are predicting a major change in the way humans think, a transition possibly as grand as the one that brought us at least a good measure of sentience back in the Ice Age. (See my article of June 19th.) This change would complete the unfinished transition from animal to fully sentient being, and repair the broken state humanity is in now. The renewed humanity would exist in an enlightened state, fully aware of the benefits of doing the right thing, and no longer lacking the power of will to do so.

However, there is one part that doesn't quite fit in. Holy scriptures tend to speak about a life after death, either by the soul moving off somewhere else (as in reincarnation, eastern religions or alternatively the platonic afterlife of European Christianity) or resurrection of the dead to a better life (in Abramic religions). Basically, any religion worth its salt has some promise that death is not the end.

Christianity is certainly not the easiest of the lot to figure out. In popular Western tradition, the afterlife is more similar to the Joyful Isles of Greek mythology than the resurrection exemplified by Jesus himself. To add confusion to chaos, Jesus himself has a cryptic comment in his prayer shortly before he was crucified: "This is the eternal life that they know you, the One True God, and he whom you sent, Jesus Christ." This verse is strange, not only because Jesus normally would not call himself Jesus Christ but rather Son of Man or simply the Son, especially in John's Gospel where this is found. It also sounds as if the eternal life means something more symbolic and not simply "living forever". If I were one of the disciples and heard this, I would get quite a bit nervous. After all, the meaning of life is not being dead, right? One translation has toned it down by bending it like this: "You are the only true God. If they know you, and Jesus Christ whom you sent, they will live for ever." That's kinda nice and fixes the problem. Or does it?

***

Living forever is hard to do. While the average life expectancy has climbed for decades, it does so more and more slowly. Our body is simply not made for the long haul. There are so many things that fail. Death seems certain, if not from one thing then from another.

And who wants to live forever anyway? A surprising number of people wouldn't want to do that, if you ask them when they are young and healthy. The problem is that when the time comes to die, they are not eager for that either. On second thought, they would like to live a bit longer. Not forever, exactly, but some decades more. Perhaps a few centuries. Just not long enough to get bored. But I think, if they lived a few more centuries, and then they were dying, you could come and ask them and they would still want to live a little longer. But is that really because they have a life worth living, or is it just fear of the unknown, of the darkness that nullifies all they have ever done and all they have ever been? It is a horrible sight indeed, and I can see how people would cringe from it even if they theoretically accept that life ought to end sometime.

So subjectively, we find our own life unique and precious. We experience that our soul has continued since our first early memories and has, if anything, grown since then. Death means that the fertile cooperation between our soul and body is cut clean off. We will no longer be able to do anything of what we used to do. Unless there is some afterlife, we will no longer even exist. And not being able to remember the past, it will no longer exist either. No longer being able to remember the world, it will also mean the end of the world ... to us. We know that the world will go on, but it does not feel like it at all. This is largely a good thing: People already don't take death seriously enough, and die from small stupid things like trying to get a little faster to the place they are driving, or making love to a friend who just happened to have the wrong virus. But even if you live cautiously, eat right and exercise regularly, you die anyway. You are just more likely to do it a bit later.

Objectively, we are mostly recycled. Our genes are shared by our family, and by a lot of other people besides. In fact, around 98% of them are shared by bonobo chimps, and some even by trees and grass. The genetic variation within the species is particularly small in humans, since we are such a new species and also have long generations. A rat is far more precious and unique than a human, since the genetic variation in rats is larger. So obviously it is not the body that is the big deal. How about the soul?

The truth is once again that we recycle other people's soul stuff. The customs and beliefs, even the words we use, are almost without exception handed down by others. Many people don't make even one new word in their lifetime that survives after them. Occasionally someone makes an invention, but usually this is the result of a combined effort by many people, even when they don't know it. That's why new inventions or discoveries are often made by two or more groups who don't know of each other until they try to take credit.

So the only thing precious and unique about us is our exact blend of a) genes and 2) memes. (Memes being the "genes of the soul" the basic ideas that propagate from one person to another like some kind of virus, only usually more useful. Perhaps more like gut bacteria...)

As for our genes, they remain the same through life, although they are expressed differently. For instance, your father's genes are expressed more strongly in the beginning of your life, while your mother's genes slowly gain the upper hand as you grow up and grow older. Basically genes are just recipes for proteins, and so they are expressed or suppressed at need. While your genes are nifty for identifying you, they don't make you YOU. Identical twins are, after all, not identical. They don't even have the same fingerprints, and they certainly don't have the same soul. You will not find a twin who thinks it is OK to die because after all his identical twin lives on. If you make a clone, it will be even more different, because it will live in a different environment. The genetic code does not, and cannot, specify the nature and position of every capillary in the body or every neuron in the brain. What it can do is describe the underlying fractal pattern which creates them.*

The actual atoms of our body are exchanged at a furious rate. With every breath, millions of them leave us and millions of them join us. Eating, drinking and eliminating exchange the body's matter in great quantities. More disturbingly, some of the atoms in your body now have been part of other people's bodies in the past. Obviously the body is not a solid object as much as a process, like a flame that changes the matter that keeps it going.

As for the soul, it too is changed continually. Even if you lock yourself up in solitude, the brain will restlessly forget and remember, make new associations and downplay old ones. Every morning you wake up a little different. Yes, you may think that you have been continuously the same person all the time. But chances are that some of your memories are not even true: Numerous studies have shown that people modify their memories, to the point of even picking up events that happened to others and claim them as their own. Thus elderly people may with a straight face tell some episode from their childhood while the more literate listener recognizes it as having happened in a children's book that was popular at the time. And needless to say, we are also very selective in what we forget. Another study had teenagers describe their feelings and attitudes. Years later, when they were all grown up, they were asked to describe how they had felt at the time. It turns out that their guess was no better than a random stranger's. Another test (now eerily relevant) was done with newly diagnosed cancer patients. Again, their feelings and attitudes were written down. The survivors later pointed out their optimism and will to survive as crucial to their survival. The records show that the survivors were neither more optimistic nor had a stronger will to live than the ones who died. But of course the dead could not step forward to point this out. At least they can't yet.

***

Ray Kurzweil is one of our generation's greatest inventors, and certainly no mentally disturbed hack. Even so, he evidently believes that the human soul will soon be able to migrate to a computer, where it will have at least as good conditions as it had in the brain. From there on, immortality is a snap: You can always make backups and migrate to new hardware before the old breaks down. He is not the only one to think this, although he is probably the smartest one to think it. Sadly for all involved, it depends on a nanotechnology that is indistinguishable from magic. And while magic doesn't exist any longer, nanotech doesn't exist yet. So now is not a good time to die, which is why he is doing his utmost to avoid it.

Leaving the human body behind and moving to a better platform would certainly be a change worthy of superlatives. Could this be the great transition that mystics have foretold for millennia? In a virtual reality, we could eliminate suffering with a thought. There would never again be hunger or thirst, pain or cold or oppressive heat. We would run and never get tired, we could fly like eagles! If we were lonely, we could summon artificial intelligences in virtual bodies like our own, including numerous beautiful virgins, although for natural reasons they would remain virgins. Since procreation is no longer relevant, all intimacy would be mental and subjective; nobody would marry or be married, and everyone would be like virgins. But who needs sex when you can stimulate your pleasure centers continually simply by pressing a mental switch? It sounds like a passable heaven, right enough.

But the problem is, as the Norwegian proverb says, the man wanted to move away from the gnome but the gnome followed in the moving van. You want to bring with you your original soul, but it is your original soul that causes much of your trouble. It is nifty to be without joint pains (hunger and thirst are hardly a problem for people who can afford computers) but how do you eliminate envy, antipathy and scorn? Most suffering in everyday life today is not at all due to a lack of resources, but a lack of love. We have to continually try to impress our neighbors with our wealth so that they can give us the respect we crave. We don't buy clothes because we are cold, but to look good. We don't expand our houses because we need shelter from the elements, but to gather ever more stuff that raises our status. If imaginary characters with artificial intelligence were good enough company for us, we could already find those in existing computer games. There are such characters that are both cute and accommodating.** But they don't fill our need for attention. They don't fill the hunger of the soul.

What needs to be upgraded is not our bodies, although that would be nice too, but our souls. A simple scan of the brain, if it ever became possible (which it probably won't) would leave us with the same imperfect soul but in a drier, more sterile environment.

***

You cannot eliminate death unless you eliminate hate. You cannot end suffering unless you end cruelty. You cannot overcome unhappiness unless you overcome egoism. You cannot abolish enmity unless you abolish competition.

The necessary step that must be taken first is to complete the transition into sentience. As hinted by for instance the Biblical Genesis myth, our transition failed. We stepped into sentience at a time when we were not ready for it. We cannot go back to where we were, but we can and must go forward to where we should have gone in the first place. We must complete the transition from primate to spirit.

A lot of problems today come from people simply not believing the good times they live in. Oh, they know it intellectually, but their instincts still run under the surface and are convinced that we are actually apes with feet. So we fight to secure our position in the pack, which makes perfect sense for the primate because when food becomes scarce the leaders get the first pick. Children wail continually for their parents' attention, because the child that gets the least attention may be left behind when the family has to run in a hurry, and will be eaten by a predator. And males have to compete relentlessly for mating rights, because obviously all the females will copulate with the top ape. If you don't put others down, they could turn up as rivals.

Human status-related behavior is entirely dependent on seeing oneself as a primate rather than a spirit. And status-related behavior takes up a lot of our time, and the fight for status causes a lot of our suffering. That is, until we move on and put aside the demands of the "flesh", the ape within. Only when we realize that the others are not our competitors but aspects of the same greater self, can we dare to open our mind. Without giving up status, no open field of mind. Without the open field, no transition into the next phase: A united humankind, where everyone has everyone's best interest at heart rather than that of their own body and its mating & feeding rights.

Once humankind is integrated in one open field, every individual mind cooperating seamlessly with every other, miracles will be the order of the day. In the same way as our previous Great Step caused a flood of invention, art and culture, the next Great Step will make possible things we cannot even imagine. It is entirely possible that this will include the resurrection of the dead. Those who claim that the resurrection will be by divine magic are generally the same as those who claim that God used magic in the past. But nothing that we factually know seems to indicate that. Rather it seems that God operates through laws of nature every time, to the point of being invisible, although some of those laws are not yet understood.

For instance, a few centuries ago educated people ridiculed the idea that stones might fall down from the heavens. As recently as my childhood, it was widely believed that the placebo effect only worked with hysterical people who simulated illness. Today we know that not only do normal people's expectations influence the effect of medicine, but the expectations of others do as well. This is why we now have "double blind tests", in which not even the doctors know whether they give the patient the real medication or a placebo. Because even if they don't say anything, even if they act exactly as usual to the best of their knowledge, there is a difference. Indeed, if you fool the doctors so they think they are handing out the real thing, then the placebo will be more efficient than if they know it is placebo. So the faith of the doctor counts, not just the faith of the patient. How many other people's faith influence healing? What about other events? There is a lot we don't know. And it is not magical at all. It is science, but a science we haven't advanced very far in. Yet. Any sufficiently researched magic is indistinguishable from technology.***

Time, as far as we know, is a dimension, like up/down and left/right. Theoretically, time travel is possible. But unlike the other dimensions, it is safeguarded by a simple yet genial lock. You see, the moment someone invents time travel, they guarantee that someone will use it to travel into the past, because it is human nature to meddle. But changing the past will also change the future of the past, thus erasing the present. So every timeline in which time travel is invented, is erased before it even happens. Likewise, if we were able to see the future, we would immediately act to change it and therefore it would not come to pass. So as long as humans retain their wish to change past and future, both remain closed to us.

The technology to look into the past and "drag and drop" a person into the present does not exist, but there is nothing that absolutely forbids it. If we could gather enough information about someone who lived in the past, we could resurrect them. Perhaps this will be possible.**** On the other hand, perhaps it will not be necessary. For even if we are forgotten, nothing is ever undone. We came into being as a part of all that ever was, and leave as a part of all that will ever be. This may be enough to satisfy a true mystic.

Personally I don't want immortality through my works, I want immortality through not dying. (Woody Allen said that, but I heartily agree.) And a part of me still believes that this will happen, in a future where the darkness of mind has been dispelled from the world. But if so, I will most likely not be resurrected to spend billions of years in happy middle-class garden parties. I will be brought back to complete the transition into the shared open field of all sentience, the real "cosmic consciousness" (as opposed to the cheap stuff peddled on the Net). Once my change from primate to spirit is complete, the fate of my body and individual soul will most likely not be of much concern to me. I will have eternal life anyway, because eternity has by definition always been. We have just not known how to touch it. We have not known the "One True God", who is NOT really some kind of humanoid sitting on an ornate chair somewhere in the sky. "God is spirit" whatever that is. If only we knew... and someday, I believe, we will.


Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: Fast forward
Two years ago: "Reverse auction"
Three years ago: Redefining family values
Four years ago: Don't dismiss prejudice
Five years ago: Almost ordinary
Six years ago: St John's Wake

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