Somebodies and Nobodies

Dignity for all.

Einstein’s Question: Is the Universe Friendly?

This is the 20th in the series "Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship"

[This is the 20th and last in the series. All twenty posts have been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship?]

We are as gods and have to get good at it.
– Stewart Brand

The shift from opportunistic predation to inviolate universal dignity is an epochal one, and arguably, it’s one we now find ourselves making. However, it’s only prudent to ask “What could go wrong? What could postpone the advent of a dignitarian world? Are we overlooking new threats to human dignity?”

Challenges

[Someday human intelligence] might be viewed as a historically interesting, albeit peripheral, special case of machine intelligence.
– Pierre Baldi

Futurists are warning that at some point during this century we’ll be confronted with an unprecedented threat to what it means to be human—the advent of sophisticated thinking machines. It’s one thing to use calculators that outperform us; it would be quite another to face machines manifesting supra-human intelligence. Picture a cute little gadget perched on your desk who, by any measure, outperforms the cleverest, most creative person you know. We’ll probably program such devices not to condescend to us, but the knowledge that they beat us at our own game would take some getting used to.

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A preview of how we’re apt to react to such a development is provided by looking at how we have responded to prior demotions in status. Copernicus’s removing the Earth, and us along with it, from center stage caused an uproar that lasted for centuries. Darwin’s depiction of us as descendants of apes was initially scorned and is still rejected by some. If, as now seems likely, life is discovered in various stages of development on other planets, the effect will be to further undermine human claims to a special role.

In the face of these previous humblings, humans found what appeared to be an incontestable basis for pride in their superior intelligence. How will it affect our identity if we’re pushed off that pedestal? We’ve rarely handled such blows with grace.

Faced with creations of our own making that outdo us, and notwithstanding a few valedictory tantrums, we’ll probably end up by humbly accepting the help of thinking machines much as aging parents reluctantly accept advice from their grown offspring.

Over time, what is most distinctive and precious about human beings could be preserved and incorporated into the machines that, with help from our clever progeny, may someday supersede us. Dignity will be challenged, yes, but expunged? Not by smart machines, if we make them our allies.

If the current trend toward dignity is reversed, it will likely be due to scarcity thrust upon us by our own actions. Obviously, the advent of a dignitarian world could be set back for decades, possibly centuries, by global economic collapse, war, pandemic, catastrophic climate change, and a host of other eventualities that could reinstate predatory competition for scarce resources. Though such calamities might slow the universalization of dignity, they are unlikely to permanently reverse a trend that can now be read between the lines on every page of the human story.

In the context of future challenges, it’s illuminating to consider the proverb “The poor shall always be with you.” Does “poor” refer literally to wealth, that is, does this proverb deny the possibility of an equitable world?

We could take the saying to mean that even if everyone has enough, there will always be variations in wealth, that is, there will remain some who are relatively poor. Or, we could take it to mean that although there may be no significant variations in financial security, there would still exist people who are poor in spirit, who lack recognition, or are lonely or otherwise unfulfilled. I find this maxim to be one of religion’s more provocative hypotheses. I hope it’s wrong, in both senses, but it’s too early to tell. We do seem to be getting a handle on malnutrition, and it’s not impossible that we’ll eliminate it entirely and go on to address the damage done by malrecognition. Success against both “maladies” would offer hope that the poor will not always be with us.

Likewise, with the admonition “Love thy enemies.” It sounds like a bridge too far in today’s world, but in a dignitarian world, where synthesis is the name of the game, love will be much closer to hand. Once again, religion is likely prophetic: sooner than we think, it’s going to become obvious that to be anything other than our brothers’ keepers endangers us all.

Being Ready

As it happens, we’re making the shift to dignitarian values in the nick of time. As the above list of possible setbacks suggests, the problems looming on the horizon are even tougher than those of the past, and solving them will require overcoming old divisions that block cooperation.

If we do discover life on other planets, we’ll want to know where we stand relative to it on the evolutionary scale. If this analysis is correct, then dignitarianism is universal and it won’t matter if extraterrestrial beings are more advanced than we because they will also be dignitarian and will protect our dignity much as we increasingly concern ourselves with the dignity of animals. And if it turns out that they are less advanced than we, then we will treat them with dignity. Either way, we should be okay—if, when that day comes, we’ve let go of our old predatory strategy in favor of a dignitarian one.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that although we’ve been making models from the start, we’ve only become really good at it in the last few centuries. This suggests that we are probably much closer to the beginning of human history than the end.

It’s myopic to believe that the problems we’re confronting now are insoluble and will continue to obsess humans of the future. Even in the last hundred years, we’ve halved the percentage of people whose primary concern is food and shelter. Likewise, there are already signs that our focus is shifting from issues of war and peace, and domination and dignity, to global threats like those listed above. These will likely prove as bracing as those we’ve been focused on.

The apparent infinitude of our ignorance has an upside. In a perpetually unfolding reality, our business will remain unfinished, our understanding incomplete. This means that there will always be opportunities to contribute to knowledge. We, or our successors, will never be out of a job. As David Deutsch argues, we’re at “the beginning of infinity.”

Is the Universe Friendly?

The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.
– Meister Eckhart, 13th c. mystic

Asked what question he would most want to know the answer to if he returned to Earth in 500 years, Albert Einstein replied, “Is the universe friendly?”

Through an open skylight over my bed, I can see the phases of the moon, the stars, an occasional plane, and, at dawn, soaring birds. A few sparrows have flown inside and found their way out again. Now and then a squirrel peeks over the edge. But apart from these locals, I do not feel seen as I look into the cosmos.

Peering into its infinitude, I have no sense that the universe returns my gaze. Its eye is cold, if not blind. See someone seeing you and you exist. Look long enough into a fathomless void and you begin to ask, “Who am I? What am I doing here? Does anything matter?” My lifetime an instant, my body a speck, myself unremarked. At first glance, the universe seems uncaring; the indifference of infinite space, a cosmic, comic indignity.

But then the old saying “God helps those who help themselves” pops into my head. And President Kennedy’s variant thereof: “Here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” If instead of gazing outward, we turn our attention inward, we discover that the universe does have a heart—indeed, lots of them. They’re beating in our breasts.

Any inventory of the cosmos that omits us is like a survey of the body that overlooks the brain. In evolving the human mind, the universe has fashioned an instrument capable of understanding itself and empathizing with others. We are that instrument, and since we are part of the cosmos, we err if we judge it to lack kindness, love, and compassion. If I believe the universe is heartless, it’s because I myself do not love.

But what if the impersonal forces that extinguished the dinosaurs should hurl a comet at us? There’s a crucial difference between then and now. The demise of the dinosaurs made room for the appearance of mammals and thus for hominids. In the sixty-five million years since the dinosaurs vanished, there evolved a creature possessed of sophisticated modeling skills. If we use our talents wisely, they will enable us to avoid all manner of potential catastrophes—those of our own making as well as asteroids with our name on them.

The passage to a dignitarian world will probably not be smooth. We still have to lift billions of people out of poverty. Each year millions of children die from malnutrition and millions more suffer from malrecognition. But despair is unwarranted. The universe cares as much as we do. It has a heart—our very own. We are at once compassionate beings and modelers—the questing knights of Arthurian legend. In that eternal pursuit lies the imperishable dignity of humankind.

The universe, for its part, is likely to be as friendly or unfriendly as we are. Indeed, there is reason to hope.

 

[This is the 20th and last post in the series. All twenty posts have been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

Robert W. Fuller, Ph.D., former president of Oberlin College, is an authority on rankism and dignity.

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