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Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Singularity

Stephen Hawking introduced me to the Singularity in his Brief History of Time.  The Big Bang when the universe began and a Black Hole when a star collapses totally into its own gravity are moments when the curvature of space-time and density is infinite and the laws of physics no longer apply.  They are instances of a Singularity.  If the universe were to reverse its expansion and under the force of gravity begin to pull itself together, it would end in a Singularity, the event of the Big Crunch where the density of space-time is infinite and space-time is no longer.

Ray Kurzweil takes the notion of the Singularity, the event that transcends any limitations, and applies it to human development.  The acceleration of knowledge and technology, including genetic and neuronic mapping and modification, is moving the species to a new evolutionary stage beyond biology.  Just as physics is coming to the realization that the universe itself is simply an organization and projection of information, so knowledge is a selection that information for the purpose of finding or fashioning patterns of information with and upon which we can act.  In other words, we are extending intelligence into the universe and can keep doing this indefinitely through the creation of self-replicating, non biological intelligence.

This Singularity in human development transcends biology through the use of human-made computing devices first implanted into and then possibly replacing organic brains and so extending human life itself indefinitely.  But Kurzweil insists that while this artificial intelligence transcends biology, it does not transcend humanity.  What we are becoming is more fully, more perfectly human.  He quotes philosopher Max More as describing the goal of humanity as a transcendence to be "achieved through science and technology steered by human values" and cautions against a passivity which neglects current issues relating to human culture, economy, society, and politics.

Well, that indeed is the question, isn't it?  What is this constant called "humanity" that is not transcended while biology is?  What are the "human values" that will steer the advancement of science and technology into the Singularity?  What makes the human life that will be extended indefinitely "human"?

Another way of putting the question is:  Just as the Singularity in physics is the point where physical laws no longer apply, is the Singularity of human evolution beyond biology the point where the laws of human nature no longer apply?

I have posed a model of human existence which consists of an embodied intelligence that achieves knowledge through models.  In science (and one could argue in art, religion, language, love, politics, and other cultural forms), models are increasingly abstract but are rooted in symbols, metaphors, intermediating images that select information and pattern it for its use in dealing with the environment. Symbolic interaction is a definition of human existence and has some general, universal characteristics which I have described in the four tensions of temporality, spatiality, sociality, and transcendence which are akin to Kant's a priori categories.

Since the imagination, the symbol producing capacity of the human body, and consciousness, the awareness of the body projecting itself through symbolic interaction, are so fundamental to human existence, it is difficult for me to understand how human nature can exist beyond biology.  Descartes, of course, launched a philosophical tradition of a disembodied mind (ghost in a machine) and a split between idealism and empiricism which Kant, French phenomenology, and American pragmatism attempted to close.  And religious spiritualists have throughout history proposed a pure soul that needs to free itself from impure flesh.

This of course is not what the Singularitarians are proposing.  Perhaps uploading a neuronic diagram into an indestructible or at least repairable bionic machine with enhanced DNA might do since mind is not then disembodied.  But I have doubts.

To me the question is: Would the tensions, with all their limitations of space, time, other persons, and concrete objectivity, still be in play.  Would the newly evolved/manufactured species still be in struggle between tradition and innovation, between interiority and exteriority, between individualism and community, between the world/universe as it is and the way it might be?  Another way of putting it:  Would it still be necessary to learn from the ignorance of understanding and the fallacies of judgment?  Would it still be necessary to overcome the unthinking reaction of idolatry and the dazzling blindness of iconoclasm, the despair of reality and the fantasy of utopia?  Would it still be important to wrestle with self-actualization while including all other selves?  Would it still be advantageous to accept our limits so that we could use them for continually achieving our humanity in all its finitude.

Humanity, the biological form that has achieved the ability to know itself and the universe through symbolic interaction, ceases to be when there are no limits, no finiteness, no matter, no body.  If the Singularity so transcends biology that human existence with all its tensions no longer exists, it is indeed the passing of humanity.  And while I trust that the new life form will at least remember us by subsuming while surpassing all the knowledge that led to its being, I cannot help from grieving.

Tomorrow: the New Totalitarianism

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