I was first exposed to transhumanist hopes while parading half-naked past Singularity Point tent at Burning Man 2000. Tossing back my chestnut curls, I sauntered my Adonis-like body into the tent and listened rapt as I learned that some scientists were convinced that the Seven Causes of Aging were not eternal principles but technical problems had been identified and were tractable. Leaping spryly to my feet, I cried out in a sprightly voice that through the rigorous application of scientific techniques, I would achieve “negligible senescence.”
Today it’s 2011. My pecs are now technically boobs. My six-pack has become a keg. Every time I lose a strand of hair from my head, another one sprouts on my ass. When I can choose between sex and a nap, I actually weigh options. After a decade of whole grains, sardines, NordicTrack and weightlifting, the ripe fuzzy apricot of my ass has taken on the texture of my scrotum.
When I get together with my fellow curmudgeons, I complain about kids today. In my day, advertisers estimated that we could watch a Devo video for an average of 2.3 seconds without needing an edit cut before we got bored and hit the remote control. Now these brats are lucky if they can get through a second-and-a-half. Where’s the resonance? As a young man I aspired to cultivate the virtue of not caring what people think. Today I have perfected the vice of not giving a flying fart what people think. When I look in the mirror, I see my dad.
I’ve aged! Aren’t we transhumanists supposed to be immune from that?
Hey, futurists. What if the only thing we can predict about the future is that future generations will think our beliefs are batshit?
We transhumanists are a diverse bunch: extropians, transgenderists, singulitarians, technogaians, abolitionists. We hold only one thing in common. As kids we read an assload of science fiction. I write fiction. Fiction is a fancy word for bullshit. If you want to believe your own bullshit, stay away from cognitive science.
You’re Dumber than a Rat
Jump into a T-shaped maze with a rat, and let’s see who comes out the brightest. Researchers placed a rat in a maze in the shape of a T, then alternately placed rewards on either the left or the right of the T. The rat, entering at the base of the T, was allowed to run the maze repeatedly, but it didn’t know whether the reward would appear on the left or the right, so it had to guess which way to scurry. Yet the researchers rigged the food dispenser so the rewards appeared according to a secret pattern.
Researchers gave Yale undergraduates the same test, except it was a virtual maze, and instead of edible treats, the Yale students were offered brownie points.
The race was on. Which team would figure out the underlying pattern and get the most cheese? The rat realized the treats appeared more often on the left and started going left every time. The Yale students studied the data and generated hypotheses, rapidly working out deeper algorithms to the reward placement, varying their strategies as new data enriched their hypotheses.
Final tally: The rat, once it discovered a pattern, scored correctly 60% of the time. Yale undergrads, once they discovered a pattern, scored correctly 52% of the time.
What was the secret pattern? The researchers placed food on the left 60% of the time, and the right 40% of the time. That’s it.
The rat swiftly zeroed in on the optimum course of action and stuck with it, scoring as well as an infinite intelligence possibly could have achieved.
The Yale students barely scored above what flipping a coin would have scored had the treat placement been truly random. Why? Because they invented patterns that weren’t there. The Yale students’ smartness had made them stupid.
As Jonah Lehrer says in his mindfuck primer How We Decide: “The rat didn’t strive for perfection. It didn’t search for Unified Theory of the T-shaped Maze. It just accepted the inherent uncertainty of the reward, and learned to settle for the option that usually gave the best outcome.”
If you can’t figure out the underlying pattern of rewards in a T-shaped maze, how can you figure out the pattern in technology trends? Maybe we should stop speculating about when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence, and start speculating about when human intelligence will surpass rodent intelligence.
But we’re smarter than regular people.
Granted, more transhumanists are from MIT than Yale. Just because Yale undergraduates can’t find the pattern between two possibilities doesn’t mean MIT graduates can’t find multiple patterns among trillions of technological, economic, political & social possibilities and accurately predict events in 2029.
For instance, a famous MIT graduate predicts that greater-than-human artificial intelligence will quickly create yet greater intelligences, causing a runaway intelligence of such benevolence that it will allow us to upload our minds into an infinitely more advanced intelligence that will suffuse the universe and turn all matter into one all-knowing self-regarding mind.
Nice! I’d like to contribute my own predictions, drawn from a close study of evolution:
Pigs evolved from worms beneath the mud. Then they evolved pig-feet, lifting their bellies a few inches from the slop. According to exponential trends, pigs will fly by 2019.
Humans evolved from monkeys. Studies of fossilized stool samples tell us hominids ate meat, including monkeys. According to exponential trends, monkeys will fly out my butt by 2029.
Do my inferences and extrapolations seem unwarranted to you? Granted, I couldn’t get accepted at MIT or Yale. Unlike many transhumanists, I did not pass the IQ test that would allow me membership in Mensa. When I demanded a recount and reconsideration of my creative answers, I was informed that I qualified to be a member of Densa, which it turns out is a super-secret club available only to a select few.
Doubtless many H+ readers went to both MIT and Yale and blather at Mensa meetings. Maybe you’re ten times as smart as I am. The question is, what would an intelligence ten times as smart as you think about your theories? Maybe it would be smart enough to not make predictions.
New rule, Nostradamus! No more predictions until you can beat a rat in the T-shaped maze test.
Your iPod is Smarter than you
While extending my lifespan on the Nordic Track, I set my iPod to shuffle, which is supposed to select songs randomly, yet I am maddened by the obvious patterns in the selections. The first song I hear today is often the first song I heard yesterday. The songs I listen to more often are the songs that pop up most often. “This can’t be a coincidence!” I shout at random people in the gym. “Why does Steve Jobs sneak secret patterns into my iPod selection?”
After generating several conspiracy theories, I was humbled to read Jonah Lehrer’s book, which informed me I am part of a vast community of investigators who have detected the same secret patterns. Now I am an apostate, because it turns out my original iPod shuffle really was truly and perfectly random. But so many customers complained that the song shuffle followed secret patterns, Apple realized the problem was chronic. Apple had to study the cognitive biases we all share in order to create a new non-random shuffle that seems random to the human brain.
Hey, transhumanists. Fifty songs randomly shuffled is not that friggin’ complex. Billions of people behaving, thinking new ideas, and making stuff is pretty damn complex. Where do we get off theorizing about patterns we see in human innovation when we make up patterns on our iPods?
Your Mind is Less a Tool for Knowing than a Confabulation Machine
Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re human. Your brain is exquisitely designed to make you think you have a clue. Whether you’re pulling a lever on a slot machine trying to discern a pattern in those little spinning fruits, or a professional financial advisor watching the stock market convinced you’re smarter than the blind index funds that consistently outperform your colleagues, the truly successful memes in our debates are those that take advantage of our belief we are discerning patterns in complexity.
Dutch psychology professor Ap Dijksterhuis says that any problem with more than four variables overwhelms the rational brain. How many variables are involved in predicting the state of civilization in twenty years? If a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, what if all the knowledge your brain could possibly acquire about is a little bit of knowledge? Maybe all your learning and concluding is a dangerous thing, as most conviction throughout history has been.
I’d challenge you to look at a fluffy cumulus cloud and not see duckies and horsies and the face of your ex-boyfriend. Which is more complex? A cumulus cloud or civilization? How likely is your pattern recognition software to spot all dynamics that could possibly affect your future, discern how all those dynamics interact, and hit upon a predictive trend?
There are more things in science and technology than are dreamt of in your philosophy, futurist.
Right now, I’m at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC staring at a photo of the surface of Jupiter. In the swirling clouds I see a cheering megachuch, my first name in script, a row of rippling abs, a hydra-like creature that can only be described as the cockoctopus, and a cyclonic storm that looks like Uranus. Not sure what this says about my secret inclinations, but I suspect it reveals less about reality than my own mind.
Now let’s look at a newspaper. See any patterns? Is the world heading toward a glorious future or hell in a hand basket? How the hell would you know? The details of the world are infinite. Your ability to process multiple streams of data is finite. Whether you’re seeing a face on the moon, gods in the weather, or immortality in information technologies, this world is a Rorschach test, a mirror revealing your primal anxieties and hopes.
Listen to a man talk about politics. He is describing himself. We’ve all got Glenn Beck charts with circles and arrows intersecting in the private padded room of our skulls, where we compose rants we call Arguing with Idiots. Yes, you think the reason people think you are an idiot is because they are idiots.
Seeing the World is Black and White is Too Complicated for you
We are all afflicted by what Denise Minger calls the “Where’s Waldo? Syndrome.” Minger is an epidemiologist, sprightly writer, and cheerful eviscerator of sacred cows. She says theorists approach data with a theory that the whole story is about Waldo. You can’t find Waldo unless you block out most distracting evidence of stuff you pre-assume is irrelevant. Thus you form what Denise “Mythbitchslapper” Minger calls a “Waldocentric” view of the world.
Reality doesn’t need to be near as complicated as Where’s Waldo? to fool your dumb ass. Google “Techdirt gorilla basketball,” watch the video, and count how many times the people with white shirts pass the basketball. Merely by focusing on white shirts passing a ball, your brain relegates everything black to the background. Oh, you’re skilled at counting the ball passes when you’re motivated to. The only problem is you miss the big black gorilla.
What do you think? Are the dichotomies in reality any more complicated than black and white? To focus is to eliminate. The instant you search, you block out what your search does not expect to find. Take it for granted that every opinion you hold is missing some big black gorilla.
You can’t even handle a simple black/white dichotomy with regard to your perception of yourself. Black men and white men were tested on a simple golf putt. When told the test measures natural intelligence, black men performed worse and white men performed better. When told the test measures natural athletic ability, black men performed better and white men performed worse. Simply by activating a racial stereotype before the test, you can change performance.
Now how much do you trust your powers of introspection? What are you good at? What are you bad at? Where did your last thought come from? How the hell would you know given the myriad blinkers activated in your unconscious that set up the parameters for how you will perceive and perform? There is no perception without pre-ception.
Most Humans have been Wrong about Virtually every Belief they’ve had about the World.
Most people throughout history have found meaning by agreeing to be spectacularly wrong about the universe. Cargo cults thought canned goods and tents were delivered magically from the sky. Christians think dying is actually living forever. Communists think the best way to incentivize people to work is not competition but solidarity. Libertarians scoff at the notion that some paternalistic government will make sure everything turns out for the best. They believe that a deity called the “the invisible hand” will make sure everything works out for the best. Transhumanists think science will allow us to live forever in sustained bliss.
Of course, humanity’s consistent history of being delusionally wrong might end with you. The set of experts you’ve chosen to believe through your critical thinking skills might be the first group in history to be right about the future. After thousands of generations of disastrous declarations about human destiny, maybe somebody has finally digested enough data to make an accurate prediction. Maybe that soothsayer is you!
But then again, maybe you should join me in laughing at yourself. Goodness knows I am. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins: Most of us are skeptics about most zany beliefs people have believed. But the court jester knows all beliefs are funny.
So how do we Approach Wisdom? Let’s look to the Ancients.
Socrates is a fictional character in Plato’s dialogues based on a real guy he probably used to boff. Plato put words into Socrates mouth which I will translate directly from the ancient Greek, “The least clueless man is he who knows he don’t know jack.”
But how does Socrates know that? If he’s wise, then he doesn’t know anything, so where does he get off making that claim? Now I feel like that robot on Star Trek with smoke coming out of his ears when Kirk says, “I am lying.”
For those of you playing the home game, wave your robot arms around and say, “But if you are lying, then you are telling the truth, which means you are lying, but if you know nothing, than how can you say that you know nothing, which means you must know something, which means your statement isn’t true, which… ”
The declaration works much better as a Zen koan than a philosophical aphorism, yet Plato wasn’t even bright enough to point out the paradox.
Am I being unfair? Consider this Socratic statement: “I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do.”
Socrates wasn’t so much a wise man as a wise ass, and his fictional dictum has survived only by people repeating it to make a point they think they know is true. But faced with such a nonsensical meme, “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing,” we can only respond like Ted from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: “That’s us, dude!”
If wisdom is found in the ancients, people must be getting stupider. When you consult the wisdom of the ancient philosophers, you’re implying that people with less knowledge than you know more than you do. Are the ancient Greeks smarter than the modern geeks?
The fact that such an aphorism has resonated for millions of people over thousands of years demonstrates something about the human condition. You can’t unravel such a self-contradictory statement by logical steps. Conclusions require thinking from the gut, a sense of joy in surprising absurdity.
Laughter is a spontaneous reaction about as controllable as a sneeze. Non-philosophical species do not laugh. Apparently brains bloated with bullshit generators require this instinct. That would explain why so many professional philosophers write with such humorlessness. No laugh kicks them out of their earnest belief that the best tool for understanding the mind is the mind. Using your mind to know your mind is like trying to taste your tongue. Studying thought by thinking is like trying to fuck yourself.
Which is where we’re philosophically at, my fellow confabulists. Once you wrap your tiny mind around how utterly clueless you are, about everything… how careeningly out-of-control your decisions and beliefs are, you can’t help but be plagued by the blessing of doubt, key to compassion toward those whose worldviews are so odious to your own.
Repeat this mantra: “I am stupid and I need meaning.” It’s what binds me to you in our argument. I find confusion intolerable; I can’t control my curiosity and every human before me has been demonstrably wrong about most beliefs. Before you cite your favorite physicist or spiritualist, remember Newton calculated that Armageddon would occur in 2060, Jesus recommended self-castration (Matthew 19:12) and Gandhi drank a cup of his own pee every morning. The brief glimmers of insight that have accumulated into the majestic mess we call civilization have flashed like flecks of light on a dark sea of delusion.
Look at love, for instance.
Were you in love yesterday, and dumped today? Note how easy it is to search through all your memories and find proof that your beloved was always a shitheel. How many divorced persons do you know who describe their spouse of ten years as “evil”? Why did it take them ten years of love and commitment to figure that out? If you can demonize the person to whom you pledged your deepest self, you can demonize any stranger who threatens your worldview.
How about you, shit-for-brains? What do you wish to be true? I promise you, enough information is available for you to prove it.
Maybe science will solve the ancient riddle of death.
Then again …
Maybe death is real, and we all have to watch it coming for us, as does everybody we love, and it’s intolerable, so we make up a bunch of bullshit. You, me, our allies, our enemies — we’re all in this together, each equally out of his gourd with conviction.
Maybe you won’t transcend being human. Maybe humanity is what we’re all stuck with. No +, just H.
Maybe, just maybe, you’re completely full of crap.
As evidence, observe the comments below.
Joe Quirk is the author of Exult, an epic myth about hang gliding and grief, and It’s Not You, It’s Biology: The Science of Love, Sex, and Relationships, a humorous science book translated into 17 languages.