A Digital Soul

Transhumanism has become a well-flogged topic of conversation with all the discussion of the Singularity. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to transcend biology and mortality, but I do know that we would benefit from the wisdom of our greatest minds if we could preserve them. Of course, we already do this, in the sense that our thinkers and innovators left behind their words and discoveries to guide us. From Plato to Leonardo da Vinci to Isaac Newton, we are the beneficiaries of a deep wealth of human knowledge and experience. Our entire civilization, even if we take it for granted, is the cumulative result of every human contribution. Our culture is like an immortal organism, while our individual lives are its constituent cells.

In A Martian Time-Slip, robotic teachers based on important cultural figures lead classes. Although this was presented in a typically unsettling Philip K. Dick fashion, it is an interesting idea. If you could emulate the personality and knowledge of our best minds, wouldn’t it have some benefit? In the Star Trek universe, characters routinely consult with historical figures through the holodeck. Provided we had the technical ability to present a human simulation, how would you create a model of a distinct personality? What would I have to know about you to create a simulation that would reasonably behave as you would in any given situation or circumstance?

Radical minimalism is modern asceticism

Apropos of my last post, I came across two very relevant pieces. One on the success of paper as an interface (we forget that paper is a successful technical achievement) and one in Time on radical minimalism.

This flight from materialism seems to be part of the national zeitgeist. Many of us are overwhelmed by modern life in all its complexity and ambiguity. At a certain level, has modern life become opposed to our basic nature? Partly due to temperament, I look back and wonder if we lived better lives a few generations ago when the tendency was to stay near family and to live simply with more humble expectations for what life had to offer. Aside from advances in prosperity and medicine, have we improved the quality of our lives?

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Generational Conflict

Funny article on the brewing conflict between the so-called “Generation X”, of which I am a member, and the Millennials, ie. anyone born after 1981 or so.

That’s why the time has come for Generation X to unite. We need to call bullshit on these naive, self-important crybabies trying to rob us of what is rightly our own. Remember how the Baby Boomers all turned into self-serving, narcissistic assholes who deified Michael Douglas in the ’80s? The time has come for us to turn into assholes, too, minus the Michael Douglas part.

I suppose it’s natural for people who regard themselves as “young” to experience anxiety when they realize that they are actually progressing through the next arc on the wheel of life; that someone else moving up to take their place. When you’re a child you’re excited about the freedom of adulthood and you’re relatively naive. When you become a young adult, you exult in the richness of new experiences and novelty. Later adulthood seems to be a period of improvement and optimization. You’re learning more about yourself and coming to terms with Life in general.

Generational anxiety is understandable. As you get older, there’s definitely a feeling that you no longer belong in the world of your younger colleagues. I suppose this feeling happens to some degree to every person as they move through the stages of their life; 70-somethings wistful at the sight of a hard-charging 50-year-old. The main consolation seems to be that Life reveals new treasure with every passing year. Like the rings of a tree, we grow in experience and wisdom layer upon layer, stronger and stronger with every season of life.

Søren Kierkegaard’s view on the aesthetic life

A while back, I heard a good podcast from BBC’s In Our Time, on Søren Kierkegaard’s view on the aesthetic life leading ultimately to despair. I spent a little time googling up some information as I know very little about Kierkegaard. This seemed interesting:

In the aesthetic life, one is ruled by passion. In the ethical life, one is ruled by societal regulations. In the religious life, one is ruled by total faith in God. One can never be truly free, and this causes boredom, anxiety, and despair. True faith doesn’t lead to freedom, but it relieves the psychological effects of human existence. Kierkegaard claims that the only way to make life worthwhile is to embrace faith in God, and that faith necessarily involves embracing the absurd. One has faith in God, but one cannot believe in God. We believe in things that we can prove, but we can only have faith in things that are beyond our understanding. For example, we believe in gravity: we feel its effects constantly, which we recognize as proof of gravity’s existence. It makes no sense, though, to say we have faith in gravity, since that would require the possibility that, someday, gravity would fail to materialize. Faith requires uncertainty, and thus we can have faith in God because God is beyond logic, beyond proof, and beyond reason. There’s no rational evidence for God, but this is exactly what allows people to have faith in him.

As an agnostic, this is the problem I have with staunch atheists. To deny even the possibility of a God is to make a leap of faith. Just like to believe in God requires a leap of faith. In this sense, both atheists and theists lack a healthy sense of doubt, even though we’re dealing with ideas that are beyond proof. The existence of God is essentially unknowable as he presumably stands outside natural law and physical reality. In my experience, both extreme theists and atheists have more in common with each other than they do agnostics. They seem to be reacting to some bad experience by moving toward one pole or the other, in search of certainty.

Evolution is parallel computing

Let’s say you created a program with a simple yet specific goal: to persist. This program would iterate by replicating itself and branching off into new directions with very simple changes to the underlying code. Each version of the program is without volition, yet, if successful in persisting long enough to replicate, it will pass along key components to the next version. This would grant further success and the program would survive.

DNA is this program and we who inhabit the earth are its compiled result. If all life is the result of this process of iteration (biological evolution), it makes sense that to iterate more rapidly and efficiently it would help to have multiple branches, populations, and individuals iterating in parallel rather than attempting to iterate serially from a single line of individual organisms. In other words, maybe our rich biodiversity is the result of Life increasing its processing power by developing in parallel.

DNA HelixLife started out with a limited ability to create new versions with significant variation. In the beginning, presumably only a handful of different organisms existed (maybe even an ur-lifeform, or grandfather organism) and these tended to be unicellular with minute amounts of genetic information. As life forms evolved and grew more complex, they incorporated other single-cell organisms into them and adapted sexual reproduction, which granted enhanced variability in genetic information through the combination of two sets of different yet fundamentally compatible DNA sequences.

Other thoughts:

  1. Life has developed from simple forms with limited genetic information and a limited impact on its environment, to complex forms with complex genetic information and a more pronounced impact on its environment. How will this trend continue? Will it?
  2. Life has developed multiple methods of reproduction trending from simple to more complex, which has led to greater genetic diversity. Is there a logical improvement on sexual reproduction? Intelligent, self-directed mutation? A networked organism comprised of intelligent individually evolving components?
  3. The human genome consists of 3 billion base pairs, which is equivalent to about 750 MB. Our genome contains genetic information from more primitive organisms (bloatware?) just as our physical structure has primitive antecedents.
  4. Our biological systems have tended from simple to complex. Consider the development of the eye, or the heart (fish have a two-chambered heart, birds a three-chambered heart, and mammals a four-chambered heart), for example. Is technology the proper extension of this complexity? (This is a point made in The Singularity is Near)
  5. Semi-related: The symbolic use of information in religious sources like the Bible is reminds me of the idea of DNA as living information: From John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” and Revelation 1:8 “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.”
  6. Zawinski’s law: “Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Those programs which cannot so expand are replaced by ones which can.”

Conditional separation

Heard on NPR about televangelists fighting Senator Grassley’s request for information on their finances and how these tax-exempt organizations spend their money.

For example, Grassley wants to know for what tax-exempt purpose Joyce Meyer Ministries, based in Fenton, Mo., bought a $30,000 malachite round table, and spent $11,219 on a French clock and $19,162 on Dresden vases.

He’s also interested in the total amount of “love offerings” received in lieu of salary by Bishop Eddie Long of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., and how Long reports them on his W-2 forms to the Internal Revenue Service.

Kenneth Copeland Ministries, in Newark, Texas, also received a letter. Grassley is curious about reports that a gathering of ministers presented Kenneth Copeland with a “personal gift” in excess of $2 million, in celebration of the organization’s 40th anniversary.

On the one hand, some religious groups want to abolish the separation of church and state when they want to change the law to reflect religious principles, but when it comes to protecting their finances from taxation and scrutiny they want to preserve the separation of church and state.

Influence is a two-way street.

7 years

Although I’ve had this domain name for a while longer, today marks the 7th anniversary of this humble little blog. I’m amazed at how mainstream this form of public expression has become, however I’m not surprised. People want to participate. People want to talk and listen and share with others in an endless conversation between themselves and the rest of the world. The old world of one-way communication through newspapers, radio, and TV seems so alien and backward. Connection is our cultural reason for being.

Eventually, we will all be blogging in some form, although we may call it something else…streaming bits of our little lives out through Flickr, twitter streams, blog entries, Facebook wall posts, YouTube videos, etc. It will be interesting to see what new social practices develop as everyone becomes attached to The Network and plays around. We’re still at the very beginning and it is important to remember how much more change we have in store. It is exciting to be alive when so many new things are happening. It makes me wonder. If we can count on so many things changing, what should we hold on to? What should we try to preserve as a culture? What have we learned that we should not forget?

Selections from Moby Dick

Last winter I finished reading Moby Dick. When you read a book that is justly revered you cross a line into understanding what all the fuss is about, though maybe even further from understanding. Moby Dick is the kind of book you could never imagine writing yourself.

Melville has this ability to capture and convey existential feeling so that it is beautiful and tangible. In Moby Dick, he does it better than the best philosopher.

  • Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish, Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.
  • There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
  • To enjoy bodily warmth,some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.
  • There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:–through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.

You are a colony organism

A long time ago when I was a courier for Fedex I had a dropbox on my route at the front of a vacant office building. While emptying it of overnight-letter envelopes one evening, I noticed the tiny body of a gecko tucked into the lower lip of the dropbox door. As I had to empty the box each day, I noticed that over the next few days the gecko started to rot. The stench was amazingly potent and widespread especially considering how small it was. It got worse and worse until one day the smell was gone. I popped open the door to empty the dropbox and looked down to find a naked gecko skeleton. A single fat maggot was curled inside the ribcage.

I was amazed at the transformation. The gecko had probably died a few days before after getting trapped inside. Then bacteria had gone to work digesting its dead flesh. Then a fly detecting the stench had come along and laid an egg on the corpse where this newly hatched maggot had made quick work of the remains. Now finally, this maggot was preparing to develop into a fly. It was the circle of life played out in miniature.

It got me thinking. Can we really call ourselves individuals? You can shave off some of your cells and grow them in a dish for years if they have access to enough food. Are those cells you? Where does your body end and you begin? Is it just that plants and animals evolved as intelligent vehicles for multi-cellular life? In other words, what if consciousness is just a highly developed system for protecting and reproducing life? What if we, our consciousnesses, are just an adaptation to better promote a lower-level biological imperative? What if our minds are just the pilots for a lifeboat of individual cells and creatures? A Portoguese Man O’War is a colony of organisms working together as one unit. Maybe we are not much different. In biology there is this theory that the individual organelles of our cells, like mitochondria, were once separate organisms who were taken inside other prokaryotic organisms to live together as endosymbionts. As a single organism. Did the separate natures of each creature disappear when they became one?

What are you? Consider that your body cycles much of its components on a monthly basis as your cells divide, tissues replenish, waste excretes, and nutrients move through your system. Physically, you are never the same person twice. If that is the case, what makes you you?

We know that a body can be kept biologically alive without higher-level brain function. I’m no atheist by any means, but I do have to wonder. As every dream and thought I have experienced has taken place within my body, what happens when my body ceases to function and dies? It stands to reason that whatever I am also dies.

The End of Stuff

A lot of people (example) are starting to realize that stuff is not all that important. As we get better at mass producing cheap food and consumer products, stuff will cease to be important at all. The only stuff that will be valuable is stuff that can no longer be made due to lack of sufficient demand or stuff that is too difficult or time consuming to make cheaply. Artifacts and original artwork will grow more valuable, but everything else will just be future trash someone will have to get rid of when you die.

Wealth will be valued in terms of freedom and influence rather than in terms of material accumulation. It was not long ago that many people collected things: records, books, films, etc. Before downloadable music and eBay, it was difficult to find certain things. You could score cultural points for having a super deep collection of records or books that were hard to find. It sucked having to search around only to have to buy from heavily marked-up specialty stores or, worse, collectors. Now if you want to listen to music or find a particular book or movie, it’s easy. Snobs have been disintermediated by technology.

Media is quickly becoming unimportant stuff, too. When you can pipe in thousands of songs from thousands of artists around the world, how important is the individual song? We’ve only been recording music and film for a hundred years, imagine when you have access to three hundred years of human cultural produce. You won’t feel the need to ‘own’ any of it. It will just be part of the atmosphere in which we live.

As we grow wealthier, we will be faced with choices on how best to live. When the essentials of survival are easy to acquire, how should we proceed? We are already starting to see that stuff, entertainment, and material comfort do not satisfy our hunger for meaning. We are so wealthy but so alienated from life as it could be lived and experienced. We can accomplish so much, but we have so few goals that capture the imagination. If you never had to worry about survival, how would you live? What would you like to accomplish?