A facetious, yet gripping, notion
I don't really have a religion in any classic sense of the word, but I do have some truly wacky ideas about the future (a commonality with most religions), as well as a sensation of awe and fascination with the long-term course of humanity (another such commonality). Basically, I believe that the human species' destiny is to supercede its biological nature and to transcend to another form of existence which is starkly nonbiological and vastly superior in most respects, including near-immortality, near-omniscience, and near-omnipotence. Now, if that doesn't sound religious, I don't know what does.
The word religion is difficult to define. Consider that the OED includes seventeen specific definitions grouped into seven categories. The OED is actually pretty difficult to make sense of. www.dictionary.com provides a simpler definition, although still requires four definitions to fully explore the word's meaning. The following is quoted directly from the www.dictionary.com query for religion (borrowed without permission):
By definitions 1a, 2, and 3, I don't have a religion because I don't believe in supernatural powers (1a), I am not a member of a religious order (2), and I don't have a spiritual leader (3). However, by definitions 1b (slightly reworded as A personal system grounded in a reverence for the universe) and 4, I do, and it is that perspective that I intend to illuminate in this essay.
Basically, definitions 1b (my modified varient provided above) and 4 allow for the notion of religion without prescription to belief in the supernatural or membership in an organized religion (I define organized religion as an institution in which multiple people coalesce their religious views and behavior under a single title with a single set of axioms and rules, usually with an appointed "leader"). What is left of the general notion of religion after one removes supernatural invocations and authoritarian indoctrination? The following:
It is according to the criteria listed above that I qualify myself as having a "religion" of sorts. No god tells me what to do, no god promises me reward or threatens me with punishment, no god even necessarily exists for my life to have purpose. God might exist, but such an existence is irrelevant to my day-to-day choices. Likewise, no religious leader tells me what to do or what to think, and no religious leader promises me with rewards or threatens me with punishment. I am completely free of the bonds associated with supernatural worship and fear, and of theocratically domineered organized religion. At the same time, I am truly awed by the notion of existence, which makes absolutely no sense to me, and I am impressed at the accomplishments thus far of the human species. Most importantly, I have strong beliefs about my perception of humanity's fate on a cosmological time-scale (millions, even billions of year into the future), although I believe amazing things will happen to humanity within just the next one hundred years.
My astonishment at humanity's future
It is my thoughts on the future of humanity that give me the strongest feelings of sheer awe. In the near future (we're talking decades, not centuries) humans are going to gain abilities that will seem god-like to us. For example, we will have vastly extended life-spans. I don't like the word immortality because many people react to it the same way they would to a cockroach, squeemishly. In addition, true immortality lasts so long (literally forever) as to be virtually meaningless. Suffice it to say that we will live much longer than we presently do, and let's leave it at that without nailing down any numbers. Some people believe this is unlikely. Okay, almost all people believe this actually. I believe humans are just "stuff", just material, just matter. As such, the only thing that is required for us to live a "long time" is to understand the nature of matter in sufficient detail to do one of two things: to either revitalize the human body indefinitely or to separate the neurological pattern of a person's brain (the mind) from physical dependence on the decay-prone body.
The first approach, that of revitalizing the human body, is a challenge we have been working on for thousands of years, and we have made great progress in this area. We can repair and entirely replace many components of our bodies. The list of organs and tissues that can be repaired or replaced with organic copies or technological equivalents will steadily grow. The inevitability of this trend is that a decreasing fraction of our bodies will withstand attempts at repair and replacement as time goes on. Eventually, one could argue, we may simply tick the last item off the list, at which time we will be capable of repairing or replacing every component of the body, thus offering an indefinite life span, limited only by severe physical traumas, but not injuries or illnesses.
The second approach, that of separating the mind from its physical dependence on the body, could be performed in one of two ways. One is transfer a person's mind into a second human body, whether a clone or not is irrelevant to this essay. The other is to transfer a person's mind into a computer, most likely with a robotic body. I do not wish to debate the feasibility of this idea beyond the following short defense. One can only adopt two possible points of view. Either there is nothing beyond physical matter, in which case the pattern embodied by a particular set of matter (such as the neurological pattern in a person's brain) can be duplicated in a number of substrates, or there is a spiritual essence to the human mind, the soul, which science cannot reach, thus preventing the sort of procedure described here. There is no third alternative, not that I've heard at any rate. As far as I see it, anyone who prescribes to a materialistic view of the universe must admit that there is no physical law that prevents freeing the mind (the pattern of the brain's wiring) from its dependence on the body.
This is pretty amazing stuff. The reason this verges on religious stupefaction is that people have sought vastly extended life for most of our history. It seems to go along with our conscious intelligence hand in hand. Likewise, many people have come to grips with the belief that it is impossible to achieve. No one I have ever discussed this with believes it is possible, and no one even believes it is a good idea, which really floors me. I guess people really want to die, or else they believe they have no choice so they opt to believe it is all good in the grand scheme of things. For my part though, I don't want to die, not anytime soon. The reasons for why I don't want to die within the presently perceived limit of a human form the next tier of my "sorta-kinda religion".
Why the future will be "cool"
A lot of people think you shouldn't want to live very long because you would get bored. They figure that once your boredom surpasses a certain threshold, you may as well kick off. I will explain why I will never get bored in the long term sense of the word. Sure, I get bored from time to time, but we're not talking about wasted afternoons here. No one suggests suicide on that basis. This is an entirely different kind of ennui, the kind that people readily admit they would rather die at age 80 than experience to age 1000. If people want to die for it, then we're talking some pretty serious boredom here.
If life continued along its present lines, then yes, life could potentially suck after a few decades. How long can you toil in a job you only half appreciate, with your weekends spent performing maintenance on a house you only half like? In the long term future though, I would like to spend time pursuing endeavours that should be eternally rewarding, as described below. An eternal reward is not a single handout that you can appreciate and revel in for all eternity. That seems impossible to me. An eternal reward is a reward that continues to pay out in new and novel ways for all eternity.
In the future people will no longer be human in the biological sense of the word, but in the "human condition" sense of the word we will remain the decendants of human civilization. We won't have human bodies and we won't have human brains, which are of course part of the human body, but we will have human minds, although our intellect will be vastly expanded in ways we can hardly imagine now. We will be "smarter", a difficult word to define, but nevertheless, our future selves will qualify under that term. We will have better memories, we will be capable of computer-like computations (right now we can barely multiply three digit numbers in our heads). We will think faster, in all matters of thought. In addition, I believe we will be better artists. It seems to me that great artists are geniuses, at least within their field of art. As such, if we all become smarter, more of us will be great artists. Will this pan out? I don't know, but it is my prediction. To read more about my view of the future, see my other mind ramblings topic, Robots and Mind Uploading.
In addition to improved minds, we will have improved bodies. We will be able to live without physical form in virtual reality, but we will also be able to inhabit robotic bodies at will. The term robot should not be misinterpreted. I am not referring to R2D2 or even to C3PO, both of which have cold, hard, metallic bodies with no notion of elegance, grace, or subtlety. Robots in the future will be built at the molecular level, much like biology. As such, they will be warm, smooth, and soft, just like many biological organisms today. At the same time, they will be extremely strong and robust to physical failures. They will be easy to repair, and if a body is damaged beyond any hope of repair, the mind inhabiting it will easily separate itself from the body and inhabit a new body.
If one is to understand my hope for the future, it is also important to realize that robotic bodies needn't look like approximations of human bodies. Robotic bodies will be available in a fish-like form if a mind chooses to live in the sea. Robotic bodies will be available in a bird-like form is a mind chooses to live in the air. However, the prospect that exhilerates me is the idea that a robotic body could also be in the form of an interstellar spaceship. The mind inhabiting this body would not be analagous to a person inside a spaceship. The spaceship would itself be the body of a living being, and the mind of the being would be the mind that inhabits the spaceship-like body. This being would be a true space-faring organism. This spaceship can possess a vastly improved efficiency relative to the spaceships we presently associate with the word spaceship. The reason is that such a spaceship does not have to provide all of the various life-support features of human-body carrying spaceships. Life support consists of the following:
Present day spaceships serve two main purposes. They provide a means for traveling through space, and they provide a means for staying alive during the trip. All other aspects of a spaceship's function serve these two main purposes (or perhaps the tertiary purpose of accomplishing a specific goal once the destination is reached). Imagine the space-faring robotic body of a mind in the future. It will be much smaller because the life-support system will be virtually nonexistent. The computer that the mind exists in will probably not be larger than a cubic inch, give or take. The body (the ship) will have a number of sensory modalities that permit the mind to experience the physicality of the body. Namely, there will probably be vision across a broad span of the electromagnetic spectrum, gravitational sensors (essentially accelerometers), detectors for a number of kinds of cosmic radiation (some are just EM radiation again, but others consist of particles such as muons, neutrons, and electrons) and a plethora of internal sensors to permit monitoring of the body's function (just as we have senses all over our body that allow us to monitor our body's function). Beyond EM, particle, and gravitational sensors, there won't be much else in the way of external environment sensors because these emissions and forces are just about the only things that can travel through space. Once might consider the solar wind to be analagous to feeling wind on your skin, but this can accomplished by combining vision and an internal accelerometer into a unified "wind" sensor. There might be a minimal form of "smell" that detects and classifies atoms that physically impact the body in space, but the vast vast majority of such atoms would be pure hydrogen anyway.
So the body is small and the sensors are noncumbersome (okay, maybe a big radar dish, but that can be folded up into a microscopic compact region when it isn't in use). What about propulsion? If rockets of any kind are used (chemical, nuclear, ion-based, matter-antimatter, etc.) then the further the mind intends to travel in its robotic body, the greater a fraction of its size and mass must be dedicated to propulsive material. Some systems simply are not feasible, such a chemical rockets for exploring outside our solar system. Even though the rocket may possess a tiny amount of brain, the rocket must push all of its fuel reserves through space. Alternatively, there are some methods of space travel that do not require carrying your fuel along for the ride, such as solar sails and Bussard ramjets. Solar sails are a common suggestion of this type. Solar sails can be powered either by the star that the trip originates at, or by a laser that is positioned at the trip's origin and maintains a careful focus on the ship's solar sails until the desired speed has been reached. Slowing down and stopping a solar sail trip is tricky, as is steering during a solar sail trip, but both methods have potential solutions. If the target destination is another star, the the solar sails can act as brakes as the ship approaches the end of its trip. Likewise, for faster travel, a laser can be used for the braking system, but this requires a laser to be installed at the trip's destination in advance, so this will not work for frontier exploration.
There is also the vague possibility of skipping most of the hassle of space travel by not traveling through very much of space in the first place. This might be accomplished by using wormholes. However, since that kind of science remains speculative, I choose to adopt a conservative stance and assume that it is not feasible. I don't rely on such methods of space travel for my visions of the future. If they are possible, then great. If they aren't, that's okay too.
What is the point of all this robotic space travel? How does it alleviate the suicidal boredom I referred to above? I am counting on one thing being true for which we have no clear scientific evidence yet. I am counting on the universe being full of life. I am not talking about intelligent life, as the term is commonly applied. I actually believe quite strongly that there is no intelligent life in our galaxy (see my other mind ramblings topic, Aliens, UFOs, and SETI for a defense of this statement), and thus I don't believe we will meet intelligent aliens anytime soon, meaning in the next several million years, and that's only if they may exist in other galaxies. However, I do believe that nonintelligent life should be relatively common. I expect that our galaxy is teeming with planets and moons (and perhaps other astronomical bodies I am presently unaware of) that contain life at many stages of evolutionary development. I am fascinated by the numerous examples of life that I believe probably exist throughout the universe.
Thus, my dream above all other dreams, my hope for the future, is to live long enough to experience humanity's transition to computerized and robotic form, to inhabit a space-faring body, and then to jet off into the cosmos to explore life-bearing worlds for the rest of eternity.
This is my dream, this is my religion.
Am I nuts?
I have only explained this dream to one person, my girlfriend. She reacted quite positively actually. I explained that robotic spaceships might be the size of a marble and asked if she would like to come along to explore the universe with me. She said yes on the condition that she could be a purple marble. I acquiesced without argument.
Am I nuts? Well, let's see. The vast majority of the population of humanity believes in one or more gods, supernatural, outside the physical universe, beings of infinite power and knowledge, who, despite their tremendous grandour, are believed to be utterly obssessed with the events on Earth and the beliefs of humans. The majority of people believe that when you die, you magically don't die at all and are transported either to heaven or to hell, one of which fits the definition of utopia, or a place of infinite good and love, the other of which fits the definition of dystopia, or a place of infinite evil and suffering. Numerous people, millions if not billions, believe that at least one person in history has died and then magically come back to life without the intervention of any advanced medical technology. There are people who believe that the relative locations of planets and stars in sky have direct tangible effects on their success in love and work. Some folks read palms, some read tea leaves. A disturbing number of people think the universe is approximately 6000 years old, give or take a millenium, which is a factor of two million off the figure demonstrated by the objective data presented to us by the observable universe.
I don't think my beliefs about humanity's destiny are any weirder than the existing religious beliefs that pervade our civilization. Furthermore, there is a significant scientific rationale behind my views on the future. They are predicated on a materialistic world-view (which is supported by all the scientific evidence to date) as well as historical trends of scientific and technological advancement. To put it differently, perhaps it isn't guaranteed that the future I imagine will occur, but it is guaranteed that there exists no physical law or other scientific theory that precludes the possibility of the future I imagine. Whether it comes to pass is a matter of political and capital motivations, and not of physical constraints embedded in the fabric of the physical universe.
Am I selfish?
Many people's reaction to someone's desire for greatly extended life is that it is a selfish proposition. The only reason I can think of for why people react this way is that they believe it is necessarily dichotomous. They seem to perform that following math in their head: one person who lives as long as two lifetimes must require another person to sacrifice their entire lifetime, or two people to sacrifice half their lifetimes, or three people to sacrifice a third of their lifetimes, etc. This math is absurd. Alternatively, I think people might see the requisite tradeoff in life not between contempories, but between the present generation and the next generation. Thus, in order to live two lifetimes, one person who would have otherwise been born in the next generation must not be born to accomodate the extra lifetime. Again, this strikes me as utterly preposterous.
Let us assume for the moment that the math is simply stupid, that there is no such tradeoff between one person's longevity and another person's longevity. Just bear with me for a moment. What would this imply? It would mean that my living a long time would have no adverse effect anyone else's living a long time. As such, what is the basis of an argument of selfishness about wanting to live a long time, since in such a case, living a long time doesn't cause harm to anyone else?
The rich-poor divide might be the basis for people's aversion to my proposed future? Perhaps people believe that my goal is to be the only person with increased longevity and that I don't care if anyone else has that same benefit. However, I believe quite strongly in the opposite. I believe that technology has the potential to be a great equalizer. Consider how technology could alleviate poverty and famine throughout the world if only the anti-GMO advocates of the world would let us send GMOs to third-world nations. They are the selfish ones. They live in luxury in first-world nations and demand that we not provide feasible technological solutions to the suffering of millions of people throughout the world. Along related lines, I believe very strongly that the poorest nations of the world should be provided with devices such as modern as computers and the internet. Some people think it is silly to think about providing such amenities to people who don't have clean water. They argue there are higher priorities. Again, I perceive that as a selfish self-superior point of view, one that assumes that people in the third world would be too simple or too dumb to make good use of advanced technologies. I don't believe that. I believe poverty stricken people throughout the world would relish universal information and universal communication just as much as we do in the first-world. Communication is the single greatest charity we could ever bestow on poor nations, perhaps more important than clean water or vaccines, because with communcation and information, comes education and knowledge, which in turn yields all the other necessities.
With that said, I believe we should also be focusing on the standard charities, clean water, healthy food, vaccines, and antibiotics (for as long as antibiotics still work). These things are important, but using fantastic technological resources is also vitally important. My view of the future is not selfish because it is not a world in which a few first-world technological elite become long-lived physically advanced and mentally advanced robotic beings while the remains of humanity wallows in malaria-ridden squalor. My view is that all of humanity is lifted up to a level beyond even the richest people today, that the bar on the lowest living conditions become higher than those experienced by the most successful people of the present. Where is the selfishness in this view? There is none.
Let us briefly reexamine the assumption that there is no tradeoff between one person's longevity and another person's longevity? Is this true? Not in a world of limited resources, such as Earth, which is nearing the carrying point. People could rightfully argue that increased longevity comes at the cost of other people's longevity. People could also argue the generation-to-generation tradeoff, although I believe it has no merit. The argument that presently existing people are obligated to die in order to make room for the next generation is just garbage. The people of the next generation don't even exist yet, and yet we would value their lives over the lives of people who presently exist? Complete garbage. Any person who is already alive had complete and total precedence over their own right to exist. No nonexisting person can claim they have priority over that right at the expense of presently existing people (assuming nonexisting people can make claims in the first place).
More importantly, the entire argument is ridiculous because humanity will not, dare I conjecture can not, be confined to Earth for the rest of universal time. We will ultimately spread beyond our planet. We will live on other planets, we will live on moons, we will live on asteroids, we will live in artificial structures that orbit stars, planets, or moons, we will live in artificial structures that travel through space, spreading our presence throughout the universe. The argument of limited resources is valid in the short-term but utterly baseless in the long-term. Thus, my argument that the mathematical assumption of tradeoffs between people's longevity is wrong is justified on this basis. Yes, numerically speaking, the universe has a carrying capacity that cannot be exceeded without overpopulation problems, but I promise you, we won't have to deal with that particular problem for at least a few years, or a few billion years.
People's perception that my kinds of views are selfish underly a basic misunderstanding about the future of humanity. We are majestical creatures. Our minds are capable of feats that the universe has never before accomplished. We are destined for a greater path than merely living 80 years in an attempt to make our bosses rich. We are certainly destined for a greater path than to live in poverty, which so many people must still tolerate. I believe that we are destined for a greater path than to reside on a single planet in a universe of enormous opportunity, living space and physical resources. We are destined for a population of intelligent, passionate, emotional, artistic beings of such a number that it cannot be comprehended in terms of today's resource-limited planetary civiliation. We are destined for more than a life-time of such short duration and incompleted projects that we must simply passively die and pass our dreams and goals onto another generation in the hope that those people will pick up our passions and continue them without us.
We are destined to asymptotically approach our own definitions of a god, and to use that power to forever increase the quantity and quality of life and of intelligence throughout the universe.
Some people can't imagine that they could find ways to entertain themselves beyond the reach of the present human lifespan, but these people do not envision a future of such fascination and mystery that their lives could remain interesting and fullfilling on cosmological time scales. I can imagine that future, and I believe it will come to pass, and I intend to participate in it if the course of human technological advancement in the twenty-first century enables me to do so.
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