My views on teleology and existentialism have changed considerably since I’ve joined the transhumanist movement. This is my attempt at reconciling my views on humanity’s quest for cosmological purpose with the role of human agency and value creation.
I used to have a rosier view of the universe and nature before I got more involved in transhumanism. I’ve been quite heavily influenced by Brian Swimme’s The Universe Story and Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos. Swimme invokes cosmological fine-tuning as proof that the universe wants humans to be around and cares about us (to some degree). Even the Earth itself has carefully regulated its temperature to ensure that life could thrive on it, despite the fact that the heat emitted from the Sun has gone up thousands of degrees since the inception of homo sapiens. If you agree with Paul Davies’s interpretation of cosmology, then you could say that the universe is happy to have intelligent creatures around because the universe “wants” to be observed. Davies and Swimme argue that the universe created intelligent life so that it could understand itself through us, via our higher cognitive faculties and our ability to conceptualise mathematics and physics. We are the universe experiencing itself, a la Carl Sagan. Andrei Linde shares this sentiment with Davies.
Some of my readers will disagree with me on this, but I do think that there is some merit in what Davies, Swimme, and Linde claim. Swimme points out that almost all the major traditions in the world have a creation myth which points to the celestial realm as being the home of the creative force. This can’t be a mere coincidence, Swimme argues. It’s almost as if the universe was subconsciously nudging our ancestors towards the greater scientific truth of Big Bang cosmology. Obviously, this isn’t a claim that can be empirically falsified (yet, anyway), but it’s at least food for thought.
As I began to read up more on transhumanist philosophy, however, a nagging objection to this teleological value claim dawned on me.
If the universe did indeed intend to create intelligent animals to observe itself, it didn’t do a very efficient job of it. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say it made an exceedingly clumsy, slow, and wasteful job of it.
It has taken 13.8 billion years for the universe to give rise to modern homo sapiens who know how to execute the requisite mathematics and science necessary for the physics of cosmology. And we only exist in a ridiculously minuscule corner of a galaxy, which is itself one out of a hundred billion galaxies in our observable universe. And 90% of the universe is still unobserved.
Even within the confines of the pale blue dot we call home, the process of life hasn’t exactly been a cake walk. Like most kids my age raised on Animal Planet and school field trips to flower parks, I had a relatively rose-tinted view of the natural world. I hadn’t really taken time to think about the nastiest parts of Darwinian natural selection and the last five major mass extinctions that have occurred throughout Earth’s history. I hadn’t thought about how death and starvation were biological inevitabilities only because the forces of natural selection dictated that they had to be. Natural selection itself is an apparently purposeless process. The only goal of a species is to ensure that its genes survive to the next generation, by any means possible. Hence why rape and infanticide are common amongst various species.
Even Swimme himself views suffering in nature as being unavoidable and something that must be gracefully accepted rather than stamped out. “Humans and animals are cruel because the universe that created them is cruel; even galaxies eat each other,” says Swimme. But transhumanist philosophers argue otherwise. David Pearce asserts that the witticism, “suffering is inevitable; misery is a choice,” is just that – a hackneyed saying. It’s a cop-out that encourages intelligent agents to resign themselves to fate instead of finding ways to overcome that suffering. Until I discovered the transhumanist movement, it had never occurred to me that we could one day phase out suffering amongst wild animals through a combination of genetic alteration and deliberate healthcare and food-supply intervention. And I had no idea how much progress had been made in terms of anti-aging research, whole-brain emulation and the development of prosthetics.
To paraphrase Nick Bostrom, “Mother Nature is a crappy parent.”
To my mind, the big question of teleology and humanity’s search for meaning isn’t so much “Does the universe want intelligent apes to observe it?” as much as it is, “Does the universe actually care enough about us to keep us around well into the future?”
Even if the universe does have a purpose for intelligent creatures, it wouldn’t necessarily follow that it has to keep the human species going. Given the sheer number of stars in the observable part of the universe alone, there could be thousands, if not millions, of alien civilisations which are vastly more advanced than we currently are. It would be exponentially more unlikely for us to be the sole sentient species in the universe, than it would for there to be more highly advanced alien civilisations out there. We could be one of millions of sentient species that the universe creates and then disposes of on a cosmic whim.
But does it really matter if the universe cares about us or not?
An analogy I hadn’t really thought of came to my mind while I was waxing lyrical about this topic with Adrian Chia. Adrian said that even if the universe doesn’t give a toss about whether humanity survives or perishes, it shouldn’t stop us from caring about ourselves and seeking an enhanced transhuman future. I told Adrian that that’s exactly the kind of advice I give when I counsel people who grew up in abusive homes with parents who clearly have no interest in their well-being. I’ve counseled people whose parents have tried to throw them out of windows as children, gashed wounds into their backs with knives or beaten them so badly they had the majority of the bones in their legs broken and were forced to crawl around their homes on their forearms. I tell them that even if their parents fail to care for them as a parent should, it shouldn’t stop them from loving or valuing themselves.
So what if the universe doesn’t have any vested interest in taking care of us? We shouldn’t expect it to. Rather, we owe it to ourselves to overcome the biological limitations nature has slapped on us. We no longer pray to gods for a good harvest; we’ve invented modern agriculture and GMO crops. We no longer make sacrifices and hold rituals to beg the gods to heal the sick; that’s what we invented modern medicine for. We no longer sacrifice animals in an attempt to appease the gods so that earthquakes will not devastate our villages; that’s why we’re getting better at developing disaster-evacuation plans and earthquake-proof infrastructure. And hopefully one day, our immortal post-human descendants will look back at us and snicker at how we used to pray that some transcendental deity would answer our prayers for eternal life.
The forces of natural selection and whatever whims the universe may have, have gotten us up to a certain point; but ensuring a better future for ourselves lies squarely on our shoulders now. Plenty of neglectful parents have children without any particularly strong commitment to ensuring those children’s welfare. But I’ve also seen lots of kids from broken homes grow up to become successful doctors, lawyers, and CEOs and go on to lead very fulfilling lives.
This article is dedicated to David Pearce and Andres Gomez Emilsson. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.
Sarah Lim is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.