November 4, 2009
Infinition: Our acceleration to the infinite
“Our existence resembles the course of a man running down a mountain who would fall over if he tried to stop and can stay on his feet only by running on.” So said German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer over a hundred years ago. He’d be amazed how his prediction has played out. By now, the human race is taking off from that mountain. But the underlying dynamic remains the same: we have to keep going faster and faster to avoid crashing.
What this means in global terms is only too apparent: the impact of our technology-driven civilization threatens the world’s climate stability – and any eventual solution is likely to require even more technology. But the ever accelerating speed of human existence applies equally to our individual humanity. Our conceptual consciousness (that unique attribute of our prefrontal cortex) is forging its own path away from our animate consciousness at an ever increasing speed. I call this dynamic the acceleration to the infinite, or infinition.
In Western culture, the drive towards the infinite has been inextricably linked with our dualistic sense of a soul or mind, that abstraction of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) perceived to have a separate existence from our “miserable” material bodies, which have a habit of getting old, dying, and wasting away. It’s amazing to see how the idea of the eternal soul (the evolution of which I discuss in another post,) is morphing in the 21st century into the notion of an eternal mind/computer interface.
Futurists write breathlessly of the fast approaching moment when computers become more intelligent than humans. With their religious-like zeal, people who call themselves “transhumanists” are taking the pfc’s idea of its own immortality to a new dimension, blending metaphor with reality as they speak longingly of the merger of man and machine. In the words of technologist Ramez Naam,
Playing God’ is actually the highest expression of human nature. The urges to improve ourselves, to master our environment, and to set our children on the best path possible have been the fundamental driving forces of all of human history. Without these urges to ‘play God’, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist today.
I’m certainly not the first person to see this linkage of Western body/soul dualism and modern transhumanism. In an interesting 2008 article entitled Waiting for the Rapture, Glenn Zorpette compares modern “singularitarians” believing in a future when you can “upload your consciousness”, with those who, over the ages, have “yearned to transcend death.” In his words, we’re witnessing the “rapture of the geeks.”
And in a prophetic article over twenty years ago, The Cybernetic Dream of the Twenty-First Century, Morris Berman saw the home computer as “the modern fulfillment of the Gnostic vision,” warning that our culture is acquiring a “computer consciousness… disembodied, a form of pure mental process.” 
These observations are not just metaphors. Our human brains really are, bit by bit, becoming more like the computers they created. In a 2008 study, Small & Vorgan report how Internet usage causes increased activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the pfc that mediates abstract concepts, while “the pathways for human interaction and communication weaken as customary one-on-one people skills atrophy.”
And at the other end of the spectrum, we can already see the first traces of a future merger of man and machine. A 2008 article in Science Daily reports on a robot developed in England “which is controlled by a biological brain formed from cultured neurons.” It’s early days yet, but the borders between silicon-based artificial intelligence and cellular-based human intelligence are beginning to get a little blurry.
There are some who just can’t wait for this moment when mind and machine become one – the so-called “singularity.” Perhaps the most mystical of these is the technologist, Raymond Kurzweil. For Kurzweil, the mind/body dualism is clear. Bodies die. That’s bad. If you want to live forever, get moving to that singularity as fast as you possibly can. As he sees it:
Whereas some of my contemporaries may be satisfied to embrace aging gracefully as part of the cycle of life, that is not my view. It may be ‘natural’, but I don’t see anything positive in losing my mental agility, sensory acuity, physical limberness, sexual desire, or any other human ability. I view disease and death at any age as a calamity, as problems to be overcome.
Kurzweil continues the age-old Platonic tradition as purely as if he were Plato himself. For him,
…the purpose of the universe reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge. Our human intelligence and our technology form the cutting edge of this expanding intelligence.
In Kurzweil’s Platonism, intelligence will one day literally make us God, as our computer/mind interface pervades the universe. “In my view,” he says, “the fate of the universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.”
It might be easy to dismiss Kurzweil as a quixotic figure, tilting at the windmills of time, but there are plenty of other transhumanists following the same path, if a little less mystically. And even within the Christian tradition, there have been influential modern thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin, who held the belief that “the destiny of humans and human culture is to transcend the natural world and natural processes… as a way of liberating humans from Nature’s constraints.”
This transcending of natural processes is the acceleration towards the infinite – or infinition – that I’m talking about. And once we’ve taken off, there’s no going back. English cybernetics professor, Kevin Warwick warns ominously of the “slippery slope”:
There is a clear incentive to go down this path. Given a choice, people will prefer to keep their bones from crumbling, their skin supple, their life systems strong and vital. Improving our lives through neural implants on the mental level, and nanotechnology-enhanced bodies on the physical level, will be popular and compelling. It is another one of those slippery slopes – there is no obvious place to stop this progression until the human race has largely replaced the brains and bodies that evolution first provided.”
I would argue that, in fact, we’ve been going along this path for hundreds of years, since the birth of the scientific mindset and its foundational ethic of exercising power over nature (described in another post.) It’s an ethic described by nuclear scientist Freeman Dyson as “irresistible… an illusion of illimitable power… what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.”
So why complain about infinition if it really is capable of transcending our natural constraints? It really depends on how you define your own humanity. If you see yourself, deep down, as a mind inhabiting your body, then jump on board the Infinition Express. But if you see your humanity as embodied, as part of the natural world, intertwined through 4 billion years of evolution with everything else around you, then there’s every reason to be concerned. In the words of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas,
Surely it is our animal nature that recognizes the divinity of the natural world in all its mystery and beauty, despite the distressing habits and limited perception that afflict our species. So perhaps our hope of redemption lies in the fact that we are animals, not that we are people.
There’s a profound conflict here, between an “organic” worldview and the worldview of infinition. The organic view embraces the wonder of life, from the smallest microbe to humankind, seeing the same life force, the same “spirit”, the connectivity of all the living parts, integrating in complexity and harmony. The force of infinition, by contrast, comes from the pfc. Its very nature is non-organic. Its view of the organic world is something apart, something to conquer, to control. It’s the cause of the destruction we’ve wrought on the organic world. And it will destroy our own organic existence unless we find a way to harness its power. This is the true dualistic struggle: not between good and evil, not between body and soul, but between the organism and the abstraction, between our own organic existence and the power of our own pfc. It’s the ultimate epic struggle of humanity. And it’s a struggle in which each of us is one of the warriors. We are all on the front line.
Is there a middle path, a way to reconcile this struggle, or are we destined on the one hand to take off into the stratosphere of infinition leaving our earthly home behind, or on the other hand to experience a dire collapse of civilization through overreaching? I believe there may be a trajectory that, in effect, keeps us in earthly orbit, but in order to reach that trajectory, we have to find the path within ourselves that mediates between our conceptual and animate consciousness. Each of us – as individuals – has to begin to define our own humanity not in terms of “pure mind living in a body” nor “pure animal afflicted by mind.” Instead, we need to work towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness”, where our attention harmonizes with the never-ending dynamic between bodily impulses, abstract thoughts, and the vast realm in between. Only if we re-integrate our own minds do we have any hope of bridging the chasm that has developed in our society between science and the spirit, between the “cybernetic dreams” of technology and the precarious beauty of our natural world.
 Quoted by Batchelor, S., (1994). The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. Berkeley Parallax Press.
 What was viewed as the soul in Platonic and early Christian thought was largely transformed by Descartes into the modern view of the mind. See Macdonald, P. S. (2003). The History of the Concept of the Mind: Speculations about Soul, Mind and Spirit from Homer to Hume, Aldershot, England: Ashgate.
 Quoted by Kurzweil, R., (2005). The Singularity Is Near. New York: Penguin Books.
 Called such because they believe in a future event called “the Singularity” when computers will transcend the human mind.
 Berman, M. (Spring 1986). “The Cybernetic Dream of the Twenty-First Century.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 24-51.
 Small, G., and Vorgan, G. (2008). “Meet Your iBrain: How the technologies that have become part of our daily lives are changing the way we think.” Scientific American Mind(October/November 2008), 43-49.
 Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity Is Near, New York: Penguin Books.
 Kurzweil, R. Op. cit.
 Kurzweil, R. Op. cit.
 Sessions, G. ed. (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, Boston: Shambhala Publications, pp. 292-4.
 Cited by Greenfield, S. (2003). Tomorrow’s People: How 21st-Century Technology is Changing the Way We Think and Feel, London: Penguin Books, p. 4.
 Cited by Joy, B. (2004). “Why the future doesn’t need us.” Wired Magazine(August 2004).
 Quoted by Bekoff, M. (2002). Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions and Heart, New York: Oxford University Press.