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April, 2009 : Feature:

Parallax: The Obversion

or, Numinous in the Shower

Recently there has been a spate of verbiage produced on the evolution of religion, or more precisely on the evolution of the human mind as a receptacle for religion. The postulated "God Gene" shaped us to allow a being outside our ability to directly perceive to rule us through proxy. In return we are promised immortality. If you are like me then you have been thinking about this in the shower.

For 6,000 years God has been an old man with a long white beard. Suddenly, we discover that He isn't a he at all, but some kind of amalgam of male and female, or even a completely feminized version of what we thought He was. So this abrupt conformity of the deity with our early 21st century sensibilities turns out to be the truth after all? Are we just lucky enough to sit in that window of time (or the country, or the society, or economic superstructure) when the race figures out the reality of Her supernatural nature? Somehow I find it hard to conceive of, and the skeptic in me either scoffs with distain, or yawns waiting for proof.

My own personal feeling about truth is that there can be only one truth for any question based on a tangible thing. If an afterlife exists, then in spite of the hedging label of "supernatural" it must click into reality somehow. Therefore, ergo, and consequently it is evident to me, in spite of spine-splintering contortions offered up on the alter of Political Correctness, that the Baskin-Robbins approach to an any of 31 flavors in an anything-goes hereafter cannot be true.

Although not mutually exclusive of the God question, science and technology hold out their own promises of fear-squelching afterlife. I don't want to die. I want to go on recognizing myself as a continuous entity. I identify myself as a certain pattern of thoughts, as certain processes of observing and interacting with the world around me. This is what I would have saved. So after I get my three score and ten I do not much care if my physical body survives—as long as I get to experience the physical pleasures that come with it. In the end—and beyond it—I could try a new body: flesh and bone; or metal, ceramic and plastics, or electrons bound together by complicated algorithms that "trap" the familiar functions of my mind into a cohesive cloud of electronic self awareness.

Building god in my own image, I find myself adhering to the constructs and ideas of encroaching Transhumanism and post-humanist promise. I muse on the world beyond the coming singularity about which we can know nothing, yet about which we consume endless speculation by self-proclaimed experts on the unknowable. The particular unknowable, for some of us, has displaced the afterlife in our quest to avoid the fear of being dead, and fill the void of "forever" with gleaming machine bodies, everlasting and ever self-repairing biological replacement bodies, or an endless Elysium stretching out in boundless and dynamic fields of cybernetic spring and perpetually ripening vineyards filled with dew-dotted pixel bunches. Whether your personal view on paradise is based on sweet cakes, endless genuflecting before the Throne of God, or Valkyries in tight and shiny metal bodices, you can have any you like, in any combination that fancies you. Personally I could do without the genuflecting, but cakes and kick-ass warrior maidens doesn't sound like a bad way to spend eternity.

Cryonics is the early wait-and-see technology of the new age. Premeditated lingering at the borderlands between death and taphonomy, flash freezing provides a risk-free ticket to the future. If you awaken in the future, you win; if you don't, you cannot mourn your loss. Cryonauts can attempt to leap into the future as full body or heads-only travelers, wrapped in aluminum and insulators floating in liquid nitrogen baths under the perpetual care of the monks of Alcor.

The hope for these time-gamblers is that medical advances will overcome "minor" issues of cell damage. Although certain microbes have been found to survive freezing in liquid nitrogen, even giving evidence of some continued metabolic processes, human cellular structures do not fare as well. The complex molecules which interact to produce the emergent properties of life are not so robust in higher organisms as in those cold-hearted microbes, and the microbes have yet to reveal their secrets.

Although we have no good explanation of why we die, how we die is not so elusive. Cellular senescence seems as inevitable as nightfall. Gene therapy shows some promise in redirecting efforts in cells to maintain certain levels of self repair. RNA interference can prevent the expression of deleterious genes already in our genome or effect the genotype of germline cells in individuals thus effecting the offspring and subsequent generations, programming extended lives or "immortality" to our children. The modest beginnings of control at the genetic level is well understood. Genetically modified tomatoes, pigs and pet zebra fish are as mundane now as the transhumanists hope immortality to be.

Biology is not alone in promising immortality. BioMachine interfaces may accomplish the complete subduction of biologically-housed consciousness, but uploading my consciousness into a larger vessel while maintaining cohesion is not the only issue here. Processor speed and storage capacity are both serious limitations to this solution. Each neuron is connected to others through approximately 10,000 synapses and there are about 10 billion neurons in the human brain. Simulacra design for consciousness storage and processing speed present staggering conceptual obstacles for technology. Recently the quantum effects of electrons skittering over nerve cells have been implicated in discussions of free will. Without allowing for quantum effects, to which some attribute the fine points of self awareness, uploaded minds might be limited to predictable snapshots of knowledge and personality, ever and always awaiting self-awareness in their own sadly predictable ways. But still the tectonic progress of virtual reality and artificial intelligence entice me to abandon the fragility of catastrophic aging for a machine-maintained platform world. And I would go.

The manifestations of trans- and post-human technology will proceed with the same form and regularity of any venture we have ever undertaken, from the grinding stone blocks of deep histories' monuments to the invisible machinations of silent nanotechnological constructs. Or banks of frozen heads banished to Tartarus like legions of Titans bowing to the more gracious and elegant Olympians of the advanced transhumanist age. The question remains, can Transhumanism fulfill the promises? Can The Future save me?

Even though I know—sadly know—that I will die, I cling to the notion that my consciousness will live on supported by my precious and trusted gods of Science and Technology. And yes, even though I know it will never happen.

My epiphany, then, is directly in line with the proliferation of written arguments concerned with the human need to believe—the human need to stave off the inevitable with an unseen structure sitting out there waiting to catch us before we fall and blink out. The scientist in me knows it just isn't there, and the human that I am needs to believe it is.

So I'll keep reading the books, keep learning about the next advancement that's just about ready for prime time. Because I "know" that at some point things will change. I will still enthusiastically discuss with all who will listen how I'll beat eternity as long as I can live another ten, twenty, or thirty years, because that will mark the Second Coming of my posthumanist savior.

How inconceivable it is to think we simply blink out and leave nothing in our wake. How unfair that the universe would bother to roll onward without our senses present, busily settling the quantum questions posed by Schrödinger's choices that reality makes every moment.

The voice of my scientist is compassionate enough to allow the hopeful, human side to believe anything it wants. My young daughter has decided that there is no room for deities in her world, yet still believes in Santa Claus. And I'm ok with that. But the rational parts of me, the ones always having the internal dialog about "stuff" realize with some level of sadness that my days really are numbered. And the trust I am placing in trans- and post-humanism for immortality are just as misplaced as any other supernatural straw proffered for my choosing. And so whatever burnt offerings I manage to lay at the feet of Technological Progress are for my own internal process to abate the fear of being dead.

Now I need to towel off.

Copyright © 2009, Rob Furey. All Rights Reserved.

About Rob Furey

Dr. Rob Furey worked on his PhD in Gabon, West Africa, on social spiders. He has returned to his study site several times for his own research, with students and once as a forest guide for a natural history film crew from the UK. He has faced down cobras, retreated from army ants and slept on open wooden platforms in African swamps. Later he went to French Amazonia to work on another social spider species. Not only did he spend time with the spiders, but he watched a gunfight between gold prospectors and French army troops while he ate a meal of roasted tapir. Since then Rob has returned to the tropics several times, usually with students. He spent time as a student himself attending Clarion West. He has published a couple of stories in anthologies since then in addition to articles for dusty tomes on arcane spider behavior. He is currently part of the charter faculty at Harrisburg University, the first new private university in Pennsylvania in over 100 years.


Apr 3, 00:35 by IROSF
Comment below!
Apr 3, 11:18 by Gabriel Mckee
"For 6,000 years God has been an old man with a long white beard."

I've got to take issue with this statement. I've read an awful lot of theology, and the only people I've found who insist on the white-beardedness of God are folks like Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins. Most monotheistic theology frowns on anthropomorphism; in Islam it's "tajseem"-- a major sin.
Apr 3, 14:29 by Rob Furey
I am speaking of a long standing image of what God is. A walk through the Sistine Chapel trumps even Dawkins. I am quite sure that we can all come up with as many faces of God as there are faces of us.

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