Reconciling our impending technological convergence with the philosophies of naturalism
“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
― Alan Watts
I’ve got my philosophical talons gripped around concepts of naturalism, the idea that everything arises from natural processes and causes, that what we’ve formed as a civilization below is an inevitable emulation of what we see above, and that there exists a pulse of incomprehensible life throughout the innumerable echelons of the universe. I also spend an abundance of my time in nature and in reverence of the natural world, playing an endless game whereby I conquer it and become conquered by it, adore it whole-heartedly and try to do right by it.
So, naturally, I had once held an innate apprehensiveness towards technology. My early grade school report cards shine a light on my refusal to use computers; I’m not a fan of documenting and sharing every aspect of my life on social media and I’m not entirely enthralled by the innumerable forms of technology that we’re generally entrenched in nowadays. It seems rather daunting to me, then, that human civilization seems poised to one day integrate with technology in unfathomable ways, whether it be technologizing the brain, submerging ourselves in a manner of permanence into virtual reality or uploading our consciousness, likely even within our lifetimes.
I’ve written previously on the philosophical implications we can expect from various technological events on our horizon — uploading our consciousness or achieving brain emulation and creating sophisticated forms of artificial intelligence. It may actually be that I write as a means of maybe cushioning the impact for myself, of hopefully de-actualizing the threat by shining a light into its darkness.
Recently, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that it’s wholly natural for us to actually arrive at this convergence, whether we achieve some measure of uploading consciousness or decide to relegate ourselves to the unfathomable realms of virtual reality, it’s natural for humans to evolve into technology, rather than coasting the fringes and shores of co-existence alongside it.
That’s just what we do as humans — we crawl out of primordial waters, swing out of evolutionary forests, all the while merging and symbiotically existing within our evolving network of information, whether we’d like to call it the internet or the noösphere or simply our collective wealth of knowledge. It’s only natural for us to meander down this inevitable path and ascend to the clouds informational enlightenment.
So how can such a seemingly unnatural way of living, a way of living whereby we’re plugged in or uploaded or technologically intertwined, be reconciled with the concepts and philosophies of naturalism?
A New Cortex
“People are beginning to worry like anything about whether the machines are going to take us over. But we’ve got to realize that machines… are all connected with us, they’re not separate from us, they’re not something like a different order of beings that might come from some other planet and conquer us. The whole development of the electronic minds and brains are new cortex’s… All this machinery that we are making is an extension of our brain, and a new kind of life.” — Alan Watts
Life, human and otherwise, seems to become more intricate over the course of its expansion through space and time — this seems to be a natural and universal law. The universe is fractal, and technological integration jives with this pattern. All of nature, really, exemplifies this evolutionary characteristic.
The further back you travel along our of spectrum of existence, the more simple and elemental life becomes. As do ideas and concepts, schematics and standards, social structures and paradigms. Everything grows more intricate, more detailed, more complicated — the human brain included.
Technology is just another way to amalgamate our ability with our curiosity, to bridge the gaps and fill in the blanks of understanding, of our interface with reality. And so the prospect of unlimited knowledge, of unfathomable computational ability is tantalizingly natural. In a way, this reality had been set in motion with the advent of the first computer, or maybe, the first textbook of understanding.
Our new cortex could be perceived as no different than our, at one time, newfangled ability to walk in bipedal motion. Really, it’s not all that different from our smart phones — it’s just materialized into a state of masterful immediacy.
Whether the cortex of the future is found in our skulls, whereby our brain matter is interlaced with a techno-neural mesh of enhancement, or our cortexes can become transferable, we’re undoubtedly at the verge of a new step in the evolution of humankind, spelling the end of the biggest chapter in the history of human evolution and illuminating the dawn of a new era.
“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” — Haruki Murakami
Does our technological convergence spell the death of natural humanness? Of that innate human essence? If we want it to, sure. But if we subscribe to the way of thinking elucidated above, it’s not necessarily the case that we extinguish the human essence by merely meandering into the unknown.
It can be argued that the phenomenon of obsolescence is as natural a process as life itself. And so, it’s not hard to envision a future reality whereby non-cyborg amalgams are left in the dust or relegated to a lower class, whereby the technologically-integrated humans ascend and an impasse is carved into the bark of humankind.
It may seem a cold scenario, but such is how we evolved to where we are now. We’re the pinnacle of branches in the tree of human life, where other species of the human genus had been naturally plucked off and away from the arteries of destined perpetuity. But this birth and death cycle, it’s not finite.
One transforms the other. One creates a void, a fertilizer for the seed of the other to develop. A baby fawn cannot exist without rearing from the mother; dead trees make a great habitat for numerous organisms; dried seabeds disperse salt to the world; exploded stars create nebulae that cradle new stars.
They, the obsolete, are the river stones that shape the flow of the evolution— they don’t block it, because it can’t be blocked, nor do they crumble to ash and simply give way. They parlay their wisdom to guide, to direct and redirect. They provide much needed contrast and a reminder of the winds of time.
And so natural humanness won’t die. It can never die, only evolve. And, naturally, many will choose to not evolve with it. They themselves won’t die either — they will take the form of embers that fuel the continued burn of humankind.
All of this, really, seems to be the scouring of meaning in juxtaposition. Unnaturalness is what makes our evolution natural; death is what shines light onto life. In a way, the unnatural connotations that underscore such a technological convergence on our horizon accordingly become all the more natural under this idealistic approach.
Sure, the words above can be branded by the eyes of cynics as neo-paganistic drivel, naturalist bunk or hippie hokum, but a future scenario whereby machine triumphs and tramples over human essence (thoughts swing to the scene in Terminator 2 that features a robotic foot crushing a human skull), we may be all the more eager for any semblance of rationalization, perhaps desperate to ground our leaps of faith into technology in the naturalistic soils from which we emerged.