Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Significance of Man

Over at Gizmodo, Jesus Diaz has called attention to a genuinely lovely animation of Earth’s weather from August 17-26, 2009. He notes in passing, “It also shows how beautiful this planet is, and how insignificant we are.”

Scene from '2001: A Space Odyssey'There is something about pictures of Earth from space that seems to call forth this judgment all the time; it is equivalent, I suppose, to the “those people look like ants” wonderment that used to be so common when viewing a city from the top of its tallest building. That humans are insignificant is a particularly common idea among those environmentalists and atheists who consider that their opinions are founded in a scientific worldview. It is also widely shared by transhumanists, who use it all the time, if only implicitly, when they debunk such pretensions as might make us satisfied with not making the leap to posthumanity.

But in fact, just as those people were not really ants, so it is not clear that we are so insignificant, even from the point of view of a science that teaches us that we are a vanishingly small part of what Michael Frayn, in his classic novel Sweet Dreams, called “a universe of zeros.” Let’s leave aside all the amazing human accomplishments in science and technology (let alone literature and the arts) that are required for Mr. Diaz to be able to call our attention to the video, and the amazing human accomplishments likewise necessary to produce the video. The bottom line is, we are the only beings out there observing what Earth’s weather looks like from space. Until we find alien intelligence, there is arguably no “observing” at all without us, and certainly no observations that would culminate in a judgment about how beautiful something is. At the moment, so far as we know (that is, leaving aside faith in God or aliens) we are the way in which the universe is coming to know itself, whether through the lens of science or aesthetics. That hardly seems like small potatoes.

Sometimes transhumanists play this side of the field, too. Perhaps we are the enlivening intelligence of a universe of otherwise dead matter, and it is the great task of humanity to spread intelligence throughout the cosmos, a task for which we are plainly unsuited in our present form. So onward, posthuman soldiers, following your self-willed evolutionary imperative! Those of us left behind may at least come to find some satisfaction that we were of the race that gave birth to you dancing stars.

It is interesting how quickly we come back to human insignificance; in this case, it is transhumanism’s belief in our vast potential to become what we are not, which makes what we are look so small.

3 comments:

  1. At the risk of getting a little Zen:


    He said, "Now then: Whatever heavenly bodies those two glints represent, it is certain that the Universe has become so rarefied that for light to go from one to the other would take thousands or millions of years. Ting-a-ling? But I now ask you to look precisely at one, and then precisely at the other."

    "OK," I said, "I did it."

    "It took a second, do you think?" he said.

    "No more," I said.

    "Even if you'd taken an hour," he said, "something would have passed between where those two heavenly bodies used to be, at, conservatively speaking, a million times the speed of light."

    "What was it?" I said.

    "Your awareness," he said. "That is a new quality in the Universe, which exists only because there are human beings. Physicists must from now on, when pondering the secrets of the Cosmos, factor in not only energy and matter and time, but something very new and beautiful, which is
    human awareness."

    -Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake

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  2. Another way of saying the same thing is that transhumanists are driven by a strong internal locus of control. Non-transhumanists live largely by external locus of control. Not that one is any better than the other. One chooses which ever is most suited for their needs and personality type.

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  3. It seems that we are at a point in our culture where when one makes any kind of sufficiently general observation about the natural world, it is almost a sign of poor manners to not follow that observation with a misanthropic comment about the insignificance of humanity. Is there some generally human compulsion for reverence that must be satisfied with meteorological phenomena in people for whom God has become ridiculous?

    But surely there would be something ridiculous in replacing the awe once felt for the divine with a reverence for the clouds. What is it in such atmospheric events that is so awe-inspiring? Their size? The regularity of the patterns by which they migrate across the oceans and continents?

    And from the perspective of the transhumanist, if they find such natural events to be more impressive than human beings as they presently exist, is there something about these events that they would feel is worth emulating? At what point of technological transformation would our post-human ancestors be able to look up at the sky and not feel insignificant in comparison to a cumulonimbus formation?

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