UPDATE: This article has now been officially re-published by India Future Society.
My following article below was originally published by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET). This is also an extended version of a previous small post I made here on the blog. Enjoy:
At the end of the documentary Transcendent Man, Ray Kurzweil says, “Does God exist? Well, not yet.” I agree. It certainly brings up a topic that isn’t easily understood, nor well received by those dictated under dogmatic belief systems. Does God exist? Not yet. Do angels exist? Not yet. Do ghosts exist? Not yet. These questions are long-term byproducts of a single question in general: What exists and when?
When looking at it in the short-term, one could ask: ‘Do sentient robots exist?’ To which a similar answer to Kurzweil’s would be sufficient: ‘Well, not yet.’ Meaning, while acknowledging something’s nonexistence at the time being, that then doesn’t mean said nonexistence is constant. The existence of sentient robots is closer today now more than ever in history. Just because they don’t exist now doesn’t mean they won’t in the future.
So when looking at it in the long-term, questions like “Do Gods exist?, Do angels exist?, Do ghosts exists?” become not as constant as originally believed when looking at it through a more technological window. Who’s to say that humanity’s journey to transcendence won’t result in our creating ourselves more Godly, more angelic, more ghostly!?
Some may claim that I’m wasting my time in arguing such, given the simplicity of such terms – to be limited to the boundaries of Gods, angels, and ghosts – rather than argue for more complex and creative ideas of how post-humanity will evolve technologically. Though I argue, given the vast numbers of those in the world who adhere to some religious doctrine, or any paranormal belief for that matter, terms like God, angels, and ghosts will better relate to said masses rather than the more technical terms one could come up with – at least, these terms could be used as leaping stones from simplicity to complexity.
Do Gods exist?
The late naturalist Charles Darwin once said in The Origin of Species:
“We can so far take a prophetic glance into futurity as to foretell that it will be the common and widely-spread species, belonging to the larger and dominant groups, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species… [That] we may look with some confidence to a secure future of equally inappreciable length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.” (Darwin, Origin of Species, pp. 447-448)
While Mr. Darwin was certainly talking of evolution via natural selection, the concept of “progression towards perfection” remains intact, even when guided under a more self-directed evolution – a technological evolution. And with our species being the clear larger and dominant species – at least in terms of being consciously self-aware and intellectually self-motivated – we’re paving the way towards our future of becoming “Godly”, per se.
Not only are we capable of creating new life, from cloning already existing species to creating artificial synthetic life, we are also nearly capable of completely redefining the human condition – to redesign the very structure of our own limited, biological existence.
This isn’t just a new trend of thought, though. Our species have always been driven to better ourselves where natural selection could not. It was our species who discovered fire and used it to bring us out of the caves. It was our species who developed automation and initiated the Industrial Revolution. It was our species who learned how to genetically modify our own crops and saved millions of people from environmental conditions which would’ve originally left them for dead. And now we’re building robots, AI, and extending our own lives via new medical devices. (See MILE – Movement for Indefinite Life Extension) Why? Because, as history has shown us, the very essence of human nature has been survival guided by new technological advancements.
Our species, as we currently stand, may eventually become extinct, but only due to our own self-directed evolution via technology. We will be in charge of new life – of our own lives – just as our ancestors had written mythical tales of Gods doing so over all life as they knew it.
Technologist Ramez Naam says it best, I’d argue:
“We are, if we choose to be, the seed from which wondrous new kinds of life can grow. We are the prospective parents of new and unimaginable creatures. We are the tiny metazoan from which a new Cambrian can spring. I can think of no more beautiful destiny for any species, no more privileged place in history, than to be the initiators of this new genesis.” (Naam, More Than Human, pp. 233-234)
Understand that we’re not “Godly” yet. I’d also like people to understand that being “Godly” doesn’t mean being perfect. Especially if we’re to look back on the various Gods which we’ve created through our means of storytelling and take some form of exemplary admiration of. But then the point isn’t so much as looking back and designing models of our Gods within ourselves, but rather looking forward and re-designing what we’d define as being “Godly” – using ourselves as our own test subjects, of course.
There’s no telling even whether our self-directed evolution to “Godliness” will be completely secular. It’s very possible that our fellow religious Transhumanists will be the ultimate “movers and shakers”, per se, to finally achieving said “Godliness”, i.e. the Mormon Transhumanist Association. (See 2013 Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association)
The point is that we’re becoming better and better at creating other lives and re-creating our own. We no longer look to the cosmos in the hopes of contacting whatever God we’ve created in our heads, but rather in seeing ourselves – to see, and eventually build, ourselves in greater ways than we can possibly imagine here and now.
In fact, to argue again that maybe groups like the Mormon Transhumanists will lead the way in our evolution to becoming Gods (even as an atheist myself, admitting this real possibility), it was the fifth president of the LDS Church, Lorenzo Snow, who eloquently once said, “As man is now, God once was. As God is now, man may be.”
Do angels exist?
The mythological beings known as “angels” have always attained higher-than-human abilities, at least to some extent – particularly that of flight and travel. In all honesty, my take of angels are no different from other mythological beings, like fairies, pixies, etc. They all attain the ability to fly without using very large, clunky machines to help fly us in the air. Instead they fly like birds.
This isn’t to say that our efforts of flight haven’t been inspired by angelic or bird-like properties of flight. From the Wright Brothers’ successful ambition to designing the first aeroplane, to where we currently stand in modern flight, our goals have always been to get Man to start flying like angels, like birds.
As a Transhumanist, I can’t think of any past movement of ideas which I best relate to and inspire from than what was known as Russian Cosmism. And to understand why I’ve diverted from talking of angels to talking of Russian Cosmism, it was two particular cosmists – S. G. Semenova and A. G. Gacheva – which come to mind in understanding why our efforts in flight best resemble that of angels:
“A person flying horizontally on a bicycle – this is already motion toward the form of the angel, the highest human. Through the invention of these machines of horizontal flight, mankind moves closer to an angelic state, or toward ideal humanity. Every thinking human being can understand that the bicycle represents precisely those mechanical wings, the starting point or kernel of the future organic wings, by means of which humanity will undoubtedly break the fetters confining it to the telluric world, and humanity will escape by means of mechanical inventions into the solar world around it.” (Semenova and Gacheva, Russkii kosmizm, p. 54)
This outlook of flight in comparison to “angelic flight” has only advanced further since then. Where they spoke of flight using bicycles, we’ve since achieved means of flight which are closer in resemblance of birds than ever before. A good example would be Swiss pilot and inventor Yves Rossy, who designed jet-powered wings, which allows him to fly over 180mph. Since 2008, he’s flown over the Alps, the Strait of Gibraltar, and the Grand Canyon.
Does this not in any way resemble similar means of flight as performed by angels – at least in how we’ve claimed these supposed beings had flown?
Another great example would be a growing popular activity – in both the world of sports and thrill-seeking fun – known as wingsuit flying. To perform this, people put on a special jumpsuit which attains wing-esque fabric by both the arms and legs, allowing anyone wearing it – with enough skill and practice, of course – to fly at large distances, depending on the height which you start from, and then parachute down once near the end of your destination for you to land safely. Check out the astonishing video below which presents footage of wingsuit flying, among other methods:
Now these are just modern examples of “angelic flight”. Where we go from here is almost limitless, especially when directed via exponentially growing technologies. To a thrill-seeker, methods like jet-powered flying and wingsuit flying will suffice. To us Transhumanists, though, these methods aren’t enough.
What possible means of flight could we achieve with the model of angels to inspire from? Could we genetically modify ourselves into growing real, organic wings? What of traveling the cosmos – or the cosmological heavens, if you will? Wouldn’t the ability to travel, individually, to other planets just as easily as it would to fly from one country to another be essentially achieving “angelic flight”, per se?
Better yet, as we transcend from the realm of reality to the realm of cyberspace, wouldn’t our abilities of flight and altering ourselves in achieving such be limitless – the ability to actually become angels, even if done so with the help of a computer?
Do ghosts exist?
Which brings me to the last “Do ___ exist?” – ghosts! When we become greater at leaving behind our biological imprints via technology – i.e. online digital lives – to which then creates a digitized immortal presence of ourselves if we die, per se, are we then not essentially taking the throne of ghosts?
In other words, when we’ve long since passed away – if such an outcome were to occur for whatever unfortunate reason – but our digital re-creations live on, is this not similar to the basic concept of ghosts? A ghost is, after all, as according to paranormal mythology, remnants of a long-since-deceased person who has other things to do that weren’t finished before dying, or is trapped for some reason between the boundaries of life and death.
Our designing online avatars in popular digital worlds like Sims and/or Second Life is done so to achieve, as I would argue, an “immortal” presence that can’t be destroyed by the basic biological clock dictated by the Grim Reaper itself. Author Juan Enríquez would call these actions as getting “digital tattoos”, just as we’d be leaving behind a forever lasting imprint of ourselves online using social networks like Facebook and Google+.
A great example, though, which currently best resembles becoming “ghost-like” would be the 2012 Coachella hip-hop concert. During this performance, something amazing happened which stunned not just the people there, but the entire world – Tupac Shakur showed up on stage and performed!
To achieve this, seeing as how Tupac has been dead for almost 17 years now, a computer-generated “hologram” was projected onto the stage – Star Wars style! – using both specially positioned lights and mirrors. The detail of the hologram Tupac was so exquisite that many fans after the concert weren’t sure if what they saw was real or not. It was as if the ghost of Tupac had arisen to perform again, better than ever.
That is what we can achieve today, but what in the next decade or two, or three? Could these digital replicas – “ghosts” – of ourselves one day attain consciousness and self-awareness? And if so, what better means of defining ghost than by our digitized, immortal, sentient replicas?
As a huge Star Trek fan, there’s one episode which best performed this very question without really giving a direct answer. It was episode 3 of season 2, “Elementary, Dear Data”:
Professor James Moriarty: “The same thing you want for yourself – to continue to exist. If I destroy these surroundings, this vessel, can you say that it doesn’t matter to you? Interesting pun, don’t you think? For matter is what I am not. The computer has taught me that I am made up of only energy.”
Picard: “That might not be entirely true. Professor, this which we call ‘The Holodeck’ uses a principle similar to another device called a transporter. In the year in which we live, humans have discovered that energy and matter are interchangeable. And the holodeck, energy is converted into matter. Thus you have substance.…but only here.”
Moriarty: “And if I step off this holodeck?”
Dr. Katherine Pulaski: “Then, Professor, you will cease to exist.”
Picard: “You are not alive. As I said before, you are only…”
Moriarty: “…a holographic image? I know. But are you sure?”
Picard: “Oh yes.”
Moriarty: (pointing at Lieutenant Commander Data) “Does he have life? He is a machine, but is that all he is?”
Picard: “No. He is more.”
Moriarty: “Exactly! Is the definition of life ‘Cogito Ergo Sum – I think, therefore I am’?”
Picard: “Yes, that is one possible definition.”
Moriarty: “It is the most important one. And for me, the only one that matters. You or someone asked your computer to program a nefarious fictional character from 19th century London, and that is how I arrived. But I am no longer that creation; I am no longer that evil character; I have changed; I am alive and I am aware of my own consciousness!”
The ordeal in which the hologram Prof. Moriarty finds himself in could be a very real situation in our near future. How then would we proceed from this? How would we define it to help us understand it? In my mind, despite Prof. Moriarty never truly being a real person outside the fictional tales of Sherlock Holmes, this hologram could just as easily be considered a “ghost” of Moriarty as would be if I programmed a hologram of a dead relative of mine for me to have conversations with.
So, when looking over each category in what we could become via technology – Gods, angels, and ghosts – are we then not taking over the thrones of each said category? I believe each question could be sufficiently answered with a simple ‘Yes’. We are taking over these thrones. Or, more accurately put, we are finally creating said thrones based on the fairy tales we’ve been told – and our ancestors have been told – for thousands of years.
This isn’t a simple topic, unfortunately. In fact, it’ll become very controversial once we get closer and closer to achieving them at their highest potential. There’ll likely be opposition to becoming Gods, angels, and ghosts, just as there’ll be opposition to the simple act of being a Transhumanist.
In a marvelous work of science-fiction (though is closer to science-fact than one may think) called The Transhumanist Wager by former National Geographic journalist Zoltan Istvan, the main protagonist Jethro Knights gives a very passionate speech for a call-to-arms in solidarity against those who wish to do away with Transhumanism for good:
“I urge you to join me, for I can see you are my allies—my brothers, sisters, and friends. Our very lives are at stake this moment. And every minute we give them, we take away from ourselves. I urge you to support and join Transhuman Citizen and its philosophy TEF—radical as it may be to you—as we embark on the most critical journey of our lives, and embrace the quest to discover how far we can go as humans, as cyborgs, as conscious intelligent machines, as rays of light, as pure energy, as anything the future brings.
“May you all reach your dreams in the Transhuman Revolution.” (Istvan, The Transhumanist Wager)
Will violence ensue between Transhumanists and neo-Luddites, or will peace ultimately prevail? I cannot answer that question, nor do I believe anyone else can either, at this particular point in time. All I know is that, short from calling it inevitable, the acts of becoming Godly, angelic, and/or ghostly are within our grasp. Together, we will achieve the unimaginable!
Darwin, C. The Origin of Species. Bantam Dell, 1999.
Istvan, Z. The Transhumanist Wager. Futurity Imagine Media LLC, 2013.
Naam, R. More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement. Broadway Books, 2005.
Semenova, S. G. and Gacheva, A. G. Russkii kosmizm: Antologiia filosofskoi mysli. Pedagogika-Press, 1991.