Beyond Science – Death and the Singularity

Why is it important that human beings devote themselves to non-scientific pursuits in an attempt to understand their existence? Are there questions that cannot be answered with the empirical method? If so, can they be answered and would those answers have as much impact on human affairs as objectivist worldviews? Is it even necessary that such questions are addressed?

Here are a few potential problems that currently seem unable to be answered by purely the scientific method alone.

Part 1: Death- The Final Frontier
What happens when we die? Is there an afterlife awaiting us or just a swarm of bacteria and invertebrates idly biding their time to finish us off after the last spark of consciousness has faded? Since we cannot translate the subjective experience of the deceased to the objective methods of the living we are unable to deduce any answers via the scientific method. To observe a lifeless body and assume that the consciousness is similarly extinguished takes an assumption not based on any scientific knowledge available to us at this time. Yet those who have shed their mortal coils only to find themselves transported back to them have reported endless accounts of conscious activity during the periods when their brain/body would have been considered objectively dead. Although this is as far as anyone has gone, a brief foray into another conscious state, not lengthy enough to be considered objective evidence of signs of the afterlife. But the question never addressed outside of religion may be an important one even if our religions have answered it incorrectly. Is the afterlife open to anyone, and if so, is there a price of admission?

If at the moment of death your mind were to be separated from the body and allowed continued existence in a non-physical state, would your mind be prepared to survive this transition into such an alien existence or would it shatter under the duress of such a massive transformation? If we were to understand death and what came next, could we prepare for the journey?

Science has been lucky to collect some data on what happens in the brain and body during death, tracing electro-chemical reactions that seem to be unique to the act of dying. Recently it has been discovered that an important difference in neurological chemistry between the living and the dying is a release of the chemical DMT from the pineal gland. DMT is a naturally occurring compound that is present not only in our brains but throughout nature in both flora and fauna. The only other time in which human beings release this chemical is during the unconcious state of dreaming. If DMT is central to both our dreaming and our dying, then perhaps there is a way to understand death through dreams and through voluntary DMT use.

Dreams are another area in which science is not currently able to provide any real empirical answers. We can certainly correlate some neurological activity to dreams but we cannot know the subjective experience from outside of it. That would be akin to trying to understand your favorite television show by watching a model of the electrical activity in the television during the show instead of the show itself. Nor does it seem that we can really learn anything from dreams in the symbolic way suggested by psychotherapists, in that a subjective analysis of a subjective experience that happened to someone else is far too circuitous to provide meaningful answers. That would be akin to reading a television critic give a synopsis of what the show was about, even though they only heard about it from someone who watched it when they were drunk or some other conscious state than the normative. So it would seem that the only way to learn from dreams is what happens when we dream.

In the dream state we are no longer subject to the laws of physics or the other constraints of our waking realities. We are able to bend time, space and gravity. Linear motif breaks down and the subjects in a dream are fluid, unconstrained to the history of that particular dream. In dreams there are no rules, yet there is also very little control. That is, until you consider lucid dreaming, which allows the dreamer some degree of control over what happens in the dream based on how well prepared they were in the preceding wakened state. Whether or not the free will of the individual applies seems to be predicated upon whether they consciously decided to make it so in their prior conscious state. Could there be a clue in this for us?

The level of DMT released during dreams is far less than during death. To come closer to the chemical experience which accompanies death than you can in dreams you have to take DMT from an external source. (Disclosure: Although no stranger to entheogens, I have never personally tried the DMT compound.) Those who have partaken in this experience report back with many of the same experiences described in near death reports. But there are also a number of other phenomena present, including reports of communication with other conscious forms and the loss of ego/id identity that is associated with other entheogen experiences. Over time users report that they experience less loss of the self and better communication with the other consciousnesses present. Could it be that the DMT experience mimics death so that with practice one can maintain the identity of their conscious living self and communicate with those that have already made this transition?

I honestly cannot answer any of these questions with any certainty. Yet I do not discount them because of this. Indeed it seems to me to indicate a need for the application of the human intellect in far more profound ways than we are currently investing much time and energy into. These questions cannot be answered with the empirically biased scientific method. Yet if we continue to propagate the cultural message that only empirical answers are meaningful answers, are we likely to miss a lesson that we crucially need to survive the death of our physical selves? If we consider science to be the only method towards truth and then disregard philosophy, religion, art, dreams, metaphysics, revelation, entheogens and other methods as requiring less of our attention are we insuring that our legacies will be no more than a buffet for insects and micro-organisms?

What happens when we die may be the most important question in our existence. To deny it because it cannot be answered with the modern convention of objective materialism or logical positivism is a bias induced blindness that could cost us eternity.

Part 2: The Future- Surviving the Singularity
Although it is not a certainty, it does seem likely that human beings will one day create an Artificial Intelligence. It has already been speculated the world wide web has begun to display the characteristics of an independently reasoning entity. Given the probability for such an advancement of technology, it would also be reasonable to speculate that a technologically sentient being could surpass human intelligence. This is known as the Technological Singularity, the point at which we are unable to understand the knowledge produced by an artificial intelligence. As I said before, this outcome is not a certainty, there may very well be limits imposed on technology that prevent this advancement from ever occurring. What we do know is that human beings are actively trying to bring about this event, so no matter how likely or not, it is crucial that we consider the possible implications.

Most people are familiar with this idea from media portrayals in popular culture which depict hoards of vengeful robots mercilessly exterminating human beings. While there must be some chance of this, it is more likely that these beings would view us as former evolutionary symbiotes, and treat us with the respect we grant domesticated animals or the elderly. Both of those beings are meaningful, but they are hardly the way of the future and evolution. It is even possible to imagine a technological utopia in which our basic needs and most whims are met by these advanced beings. Yet this fall from grace (dominate resource managers) in the food chain will have some very real existential implications for our species.

Today human beings are specializing more and more within the fields of scientific inquiry as part of their social, economic, intellectual and political lives. Our greatest minds flock to the empirical method in a race to understand our physical reality and to advance the technology we interact with it through. There is no doubt that this will lead humanity into an age of technological wealth which allows us abandon former paradigms of living. Yet there is a distinct possibility that we will reach some limit of our own intellects in which the empirical method is no longer useful, or that a post-singular world will have produced beings far more proficient at the application of objective.empiricism. Having invested so much of our humanity into scientific and technological endeavors and having created an entire cultural identity of empirical superiority and pride, what would happen to us if we were bested by a benevolent better and had no hope of breaking new grounds with these methods? If we identify with the methods of science predominately and that is taken from our reach what would be our meaning and purpose?

Because carbon life forms are so frail, the challenges of long term space travel provide some serious biological obstacles. This would not be the case with silicon based intelligent beings. Their physiology would be extremely beneficial in surviving the challenges of space. With their superior physical forms and advanced intelligence, human beings would be to these beings in space exploration what chimpanzees and dogs are to us now. It is unlikely that we will be necessary participants in the initial exploration of deep space and colonization out among the stars. Although the artificially intelligent beings may solve the problems which prevent humans from safely travelling through space, it would not be as frontiersmen and pioneers, but as tourists and tenants. The emergence of an advanced technological being would utterly mean the end of meaningful human achievement in the empirical domain. To survive this existential crisis we will need to carry into the future with us other methods by which we can understand and create meaning from our existence.

Many experiments have been attempted in which a technology is used to construct a piece of art. Whether it be visual, literary or musical, it has been beyond the kin of technology to reproduce works of art in a way that portrays an intangible essence of the human experience. We are not able to tell whether or not the technology used to create these pieces of art felt that their products represented the intangible essence of technological experience. It may be that art is relative to the type of intellect which creates it and that machines may one day paint, write and compose in ways that communicate the depth of their intellectual experience as a species. Or it may be that art is a unique specialty of the human condition. A side effect of the advanced intelligence we display coupled with the quirks of our more base evolutionary animal instincts. Yet whether or not we are able to produce objectively better art than our technological descendants or not is really quite unimportant in that art could still provide us with goals, purposes and meaning in our lives when science evolves beyond us.

And art is not alone. Religion may evolve to have a more enlightened approach and give us strength and unity to survive the humility of our fall. Metaphysics may help us to evolve mental capacities we would currently consider magic. Philosophy may make meaningful enough statements to unite humans in social and political purposes. Other methodologies may provide other meaningful knowledge and products. Or none of these things may provide anything meaningful or useful to humans. Yet it is certain that they will not if we do not explore them as enthusiastically and dutifully as we do the scientific method, or if we fail to ask the kind of questions the method does not apply to.

This is certainly all speculation. Yet speculation drove the revolution of science fiction which often acted as a blueprint for science itself. Science fiction has posited these same questions. While we endure a passion for speculative science fiction we have lost one of the greatest messages inherent in the classic tales from its golden ages. Man can not survive on science alone. While science is indeed a worthwhile endeavor it is important that we not lose sight of our other human faculties of discovery. When the time comes that our knowledge is complete, our creativity will be our greatest evolutionary attribute.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s