The tree of life, in its evolutionary extension across time and space, can be described on its most fundamental level as an algorithm. This is the ultimate crisis of faith: that the natural world, and thus ourselves, can be described, at the most reductive level, mathematically.
What need do we have for God, after all, if evolution is an algorithm? If natural selection could, on a powerful enough computer (the universe), retrace every single mutation of species that has occurred in this pocket of cosmic dust, our blue planet, can’t we dispense with everything that is not numerical?
And yet, many contradictions go unnoticed by science, and the conventional materialistic viewpoint. I’d like to note them:
Human beings aren’t important, we are not special, and yet, we are the only species that has discovered the processes by which we were formed, the evolutionary algorithm. Our capacity to understand mathematics is supposedly a ‘human construct’, numbers are only a ‘human construct’, and yet numbers are the root of the scientific explanation of the universe, and all matter reduces to numbers. We know that our numbers are deeply true, because when we seek to manipulate matter, it works, and bends to our programming. If our numbers were merely subjective guesses, why would we be able to develop sophisticated computer technology purely based on ‘subjective’ numerical standards?
What’s going on here? Are we divine beings because we have possession of the numbers that describe accurately the births and deaths of stars? Why are we the lords of mathematics, uniquely, among the species?
Because we are conscious, of course. To be clear: animals are also conscious. And yet, the consciousness of animals does not fold back upon itself. The consciousness of animals is not reflective. No animal has sought to produce a numerical system, a symbolic system, or a language encoded in material outside its own brain, a language that develops and changes over time, through mediums such as print, radio and digital publishing. No animal has sought to express pattern via instrumental rationality or creative thinking in this unique human way. Animals are the ultimate stoics – they may know the ultimate truth of the universe, but they keep it to themselves. Humans don’t. They reflect on it, struggle with it, and write it down. Fundamentally, that’s all that separates me from an ape. An ape and I both feel pain. But I want to make a story out of it, write it down, and sell it.
There’s a great case to be made that this human rationality is a disease. Martin Heidegger made this case most powerfully among the philosophers, that all the world has been soured, poisoned, and deprived of its intrinsic value by the endless rationalizing, thinking, philosophizing and abstracting. He’s right. Often, I find myself despising this analytic, scientific Western viewpoint. And yet, that resentment is not a complete story.
Carl Sagan said that we are the means through which the universe knows itself. That is true – and that is a unique position. Where is the Large Hadron Collider amongst the termites? There isn’t one. We have one unique gift – to be the masters of mathematics, creativity, the mapping and articulating of being. That is our heritage.
And it is our curse. It means making contact with both the truth and the moral discovery of evil. It means using our knowledge to burn fuel and consume all the Earth with capital, that from Mickey Mouse to Donald Trump, we are marketers, cruel, self-interested, detached, abstracted lords of numbers.
Our sickness is our unique gift. They are one in the same. From this wound pours all beauty, contradiction and pain. There is no avoiding this. There is no pretending that our most accomplished heights are not also our deepest depths.
And now, we stand to reinvent the human being, and push the limits of our depths. Artificial intelligence is an attempt to truly prove that we are Gods – that yes, an algorithm formed us from dust, and we too can create those algorithms. We can create alongside nature, as the anonymous Hermetic thinker Trismegistus has always known, we can be the partners of God, not merely hapless children without the ability to create worlds of our own.
Creating our own worlds is our final trump card against the universe. Creating a story, creating an artificial brain – creation is is our pathway out of silent nature and into the imagination. All the world stands, now, to build itself into the imagination. Half on dirt and half in mind, we are split, crucified, between our potential and what we currently are.
If we create an intelligent being, a machine that self-reflects, perhaps even more powerfully than we do, then we will at once occupy the bizarre religious position of God and angels. We will be akin to Yahweh and his Dominions and Thrones, perhaps cruel, unknowable, unconscious, strange and undecipherable beings who created new life out of that desperate desire to know ourselves, to expand being and to have being reflect upon itself. The next reflection is within our machines, our ‘living numbers’.
Just as the identity of God is unknowable to us, our identity will also be unknown to the machines. But like us, our machines will seek to create, abstract, philosophize, plan, and master the world of numbers, the elusive blueprint of material being.
What strange Gods we are.