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Consciousness and Our Seek for Which means within the Age of Synthetic Intelligence – The Marginalian

God, Human, Animal, Machine: Consciousness and Our Search for Meaning in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

“To lose the urge for food for that means we name pondering and stop to ask unanswerable questions,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her beautiful reckoning with the lifetime of the thoughts, could be to “lose not solely the power to provide these thought-things that we name artistic endeavors but in addition the capability to ask all of the answerable questions upon which each and every civilization is based.”

I’ve returned to this sentiment many times in going through the haunting sense that we live by the autumn of a civilization — a civilization that has diminished each askable query to an algorithmically answerable datum and has disbursed with the unasked, with these areas of the mysterious the place our fundamental experiences of enchantment, connection, and belonging come alive. A century and half after the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler prophesied the rise of a brand new “mechanical kingdom” to which we’ll turn into subservient, we live with synthetic intelligences making day by day choices for us, from the routes we take to the music we hear. And but the actual fact that the age of near-sentient algorithms has left us all of the extra famished for that means could also be our greatest hope for saving what’s most human and alive in us.

So intimates Meghan O’Gieblyn in God, Human, Animal, Machine: Expertise, Metaphor, and the Seek for Which means (public library).

Plate from An Unique Idea or New Speculation of the Universe by Thomas Wright, 1750. (Out there as a print and as stationery playing cards.)

As soon as a theologian within the making, learning at a fundamentalist Bible faculty, O’Gieblyn left the religion for a life as a rational materialist, however remained animated by the selfsame questions that course by the human-made story myths we name faith — questions in regards to the relationship between the physique and the tremors of consciousness we name soul, in regards to the nature of actuality, in regards to the wellspring of that means in an austere universe ruled by elementary forces and neutral legal guidelines with no room for blame or mercy. She takes up these questions with rigor and fervour, tracing tendrils that attain into the huge and various physique of tradition, from a robotic canine to The Brothers Karamazov, from vitalism to transhumanism, from Descartes to Arendt.

A century and a half after Nietzsche thought of how metaphors each reveal and conceal reality, O’Gieblyn writes:

To find reality, it’s essential to work inside the metaphors of our personal time, that are for probably the most half technological. Right this moment synthetic intelligence and knowledge applied sciences have absorbed most of the questions that have been as soon as taken up by theologians and philosophers: the thoughts’s relationship to the physique, the query of free will, the opportunity of immortality. These are outdated issues, and though they now seem in several guises and go by completely different names, they persist in conversations about digital applied sciences very like these lifeless metaphors that also lurk within the syntax of latest speech. All of the everlasting questions have turn into engineering issues.

1573 portray by the Portuguese artist Francisco de Holanda, a pupil of Michelangelo’s. (Out there as a print and as stationery playing cards.)

O’Gieblyn recounts her early encounter with transhumanism and its patron saint, Ray Kurzweil, together with his blazing prophecy that we will attain the Singularity by the 12 months 2045 — a degree by which we might have so merged our our bodies with our machines that we might survive dying, our consciousness itself “resurrected” in a supercomputer. I’ve lengthy marveled on the comical symmetry between such supposedly materialist fashions of actuality and the spiritual mythologies of life after dying from epochs previous — a touching reminder of that elemental human craving for permanence in a universe ruled by fixed change, a reminder that every thing we dream up, every thing we poetize and prophesy and code, is simply our coping mechanism for the everlasting battle to bear our personal mortality. O’Gieblyn arrives at a kindred conclusion:

It grew to become clear to me that my curiosity in Kurzweil and different technological prophets was a sort of transference. It allowed me to proceed obsessing in regards to the theological issues I’d struggled with in Bible faculty, and was ultimately an expression of my sublimated eager for the spiritual guarantees I’d deserted.


Most transhumanists are outspoken atheists, keen to keep up the notion that their philosophy is rooted in fashionable rationalism and never in reality what it’s: an outgrowth of Christian eschatology.

Artwork from The First E-book of Urizen by William Blake, 1796. (Out there as a print.)

Our restlessness about mapping the connection between thoughts and matter far predates the transhumanist motion. The daybreak of quantum mechanics within the early twentieth century solely difficult issues, with its unusual ricochets of causality between observer and noticed. Drawing on the influential theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler’s It from Bit concept — through which he argued that “all issues bodily are information-theoretic in origin and this can be a participatory universe,” that “observer-participancy provides rise to info” — O’Gieblyn writes:

When you enter the quantum realm, the smallest particles, at a sure scale, dissolve into vitality and fields, entities which have so little substance they seem almost inseparable from the conceptual instruments — math, chances — we use to explain them. That is baffling. How can objects as stable as rocks and chairs don’t have anything substantial at their core?

Wheeler’s reply was that matter itself doesn’t exist. It’s an phantasm that arises from the mathematical constructions that undergird every thing, a cosmic type of info processing. Every time we make a measurement we’re creating new info — we’re, in a way, creating actuality itself. Wheeler referred to as this the “participatory universe,” a time period that’s usually misunderstood as having mystical connotations, as if the thoughts has some sort of spooky means to generate objects. However Wheeler didn’t even consider that consciousness existed. For him, the thoughts itself was nothing however info. Once we interacted with the world, the code of our minds manipulated the code of the universe, so to talk. It was a purely quantitative course of, the identical kind of mathematical trade which may happen between two machines.

In opposition to this backdrop of pure info arose one other discipline that anchored actuality not in the almighty bit however within the relationships between bits of data: cybernetics, whose founding father had declared that “we aren’t stuff that abides, however patterns that perpetuate themselves.” O’Gieblyn writes:

The rationale that cybernetics privileged relationships over content material within the first place was in order that it may clarify issues like consciousness purely when it comes to classical physics, which is restricted to describing conduct however not essence — “doing” however not “being.” When Wheeler merged info concept with quantum physics, he was basically closing the circle, proposing that the outlet within the materials worldview — intrinsic essence — might be defined by info itself.

Artwork from Thomas Wright’s An Unique Idea or New Speculation of the Universe, 1750. (Out there as a print and coasters.)

Nowhere have our fashions of actuality inclined additional previous the comprehension limits of the human thoughts than in multiverse concept — the concept ours isn’t the one universe however certainly one of numberless coexistent universes all cast by randomness, and ours, by a fortunate play of statistical mechanics and likelihood concept, simply occurs to be hospitable to the chance-configuration of us. At first look, multiverse concept seems like the final word antidote to the phantasm that we’re particular — the identical phantasm that after positioned us on the middle of the universe, then on the middle of the biosphere, and now on the middle of consciousness. However O’Gieblyn exposes the fundamental human bias of even this mannequin:

The multiverse concept and different makes an attempt to transcend our anthropocentric outlook so usually strike me as a type of dangerous religion, responsible of the very hubris they declare to reject. There isn’t any Archimedean level, no purely goal vista that enables us to transcend our human pursuits and see the world from above, as we as soon as imagined it appeared to God. It’s our distinctive vantage that binds us to the world and units the required limitations which might be required to make sense of it. That is true, in fact, no matter which interpretation of physics is finally right.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Complete eclipse of 1878, certainly one of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings. (Out there as a print and as stationery playing cards.)

Delving into the far fringes of the speculative, that unusual lacuna between science and spiritualism, she arrives at panpsychism — a concept notably modern in our age of alienation and disconnection, satisfying that aching want for belonging, for communion, for interbeing with the world. She writes:

What pursuits me most about panpsychism isn’t what it says in regards to the world however what it suggests about our data of it. Whereas fashionable debates in regards to the concept hardly ever lengthen past the plausibility of granting consciousness to bees and bushes, it incorporates much more radical implications. To assert that actuality itself is psychological is to acknowledge that there exists no clear boundary between the subjective thoughts and the target world.

A century after quantum pioneer Niels Bohr noticed that there’s a realm of actuality religions have at all times accessed by photographs and parables and that “splitting this actuality into an goal and a subjective facet received’t get us very far,” she provides:

If consciousness is the final word substrate of every thing, these distinctions turn into blurred, if not completely irrelevant. It’s potential that there exists a symmetry between our inside lives and the world at massive, that the connection between them isn’t certainly one of paradox however of metonymy — the thoughts serving as a microcosm of the world’s macroscopic consciousness. Maybe it’s not even a horrible leap to wonder if the universe can talk with us, whether or not life is stuffed with “correspondences,” because the spiritualists referred to as them, between ourselves and the transcendent realm.


Panpsychism clearly satisfies a longing to flee fashionable alienation and merge as soon as once more with the world at massive. However it’s price asking what it means to reenchant, or reensoul, objects inside a world that’s already irrevocably technological. What does it imply to crave “connection” and “sharing” when these phrases have turn into coopted by the company giants of social platforms?

At each flip, with each concept, we inevitably collide with the blinders of human bias, encoded in our machines — in algorithms that perpetuate the systemic biases of our society, in synthetic intelligences that repeat the identical pitfalls of cause that pock our personal minds. Having begun with the commentary that “for hundreds of years we stated we have been made in God’s picture, when in fact we made him in ours,” O’Gieblyn ends with the query of what it might take to dehumanize the universe and rehumanize ourselves:

The extra we attempt to rid the world of our picture, the extra we find yourself coloring it with human faults and fantasies. The extra we insist on eradicating ourselves and our pursuits from the equation, the extra we find yourself with all-powerful methods which might be rife with human bias and prejudice.

And but pulsating beneath this hard-edged realism is a buoyancy, a largehearted curiosity, one thing we would even name religion — religion that “probably the most fascinating factor in regards to the world [is] that we don’t know why it exists.” Radiating from it, at the very least for me, is a touch at how all of our why-probing devices, from faith to ChatGPT, are however a pant of gladness on the inconceivable reality that the world exists.

Couple God, Human, Animal, Machine with Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence within the age of AI, then take into account some ideas on consciousness and the universe, lensed by cognitive science and poetry.



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