Between two worlds

“Between two worlds” is the title of an exhibition of the works of David Lynch, currently showing in my hometown, Brisbane. But I shall also use it to title this brief reflection on Maria Konovalenko’s post on “Fighting Death”. (One of Maria’s favorite bands, Nickelback, plays in Brisbane soon, too.)

What Maria says is sensible – and the fact that it is not regarded as sensible, tells you that there is psychological resistance in humanity; and ‘diagnosing’ the cause of this, might be regarded as important work in itself. But instead I want to take Maria’s view for granted, and look outward from it, at what it says about the human condition.

We, humanity, have risen from an abyss, wrote F.M. Esfandiary (who I have suggested is Maria’s precursor). He meant, I suppose, that we came from Darwin’s world of natural selection, evolution through variation and death, and its outgrowth as human history and culture, the world of killing and gods where these conscious animals called humans found themselves.

That is the abyss, the terrible world that produced us and contains us. And we have risen from it, to the extent that we resist that order of things, first through humaneness, love, justice, knowledge, everything that ameliorates; and now, potentially, through an overthrowing even of the aging process, thanks to hard-won knowledge of natural cause and effect, and of how to intervene in it.

(I have imputed a lot of extra detail in interpreting F.M.’s remark, but I am sure he would agree with it all.)

So that is where we are. It might be regarded as a strange miracle just to have this possibility of escape from the abyss, when its quadrillions of former residents did not. But let us look further ahead… The capacity to rejuvenate the human body is not coming about because there is a single ontological switch waiting to be flipped, from world with aging to world without. It is coming as a side effect of a broader knowledge and power, which opens a riotous Pandora’s box of new material and biological forms.

This radical explosion of possibility includes many outcomes just as unfriendly to human aspiration, as that natural abyss from which we came. The movement to create Friendly artificial intelligence is a movement to tackle this challenge, by way of the values and goals of the superhuman intelligences one might expect to be the hegemons of a posthuman world (a movement which Maria knows and supports and gives prominence in her ideals).

So once again, we are between two worlds. In David Lynch, there is the world of daily life, and there is an unseen world that intervenes mysteriously, meaningfully, and supernaturally in the mundane. It could be that the title of the Lynch exhibition refers, or also refers, to some other polarity, like that between happiness and horror…

But either way, there is also an existential polarity in the world according to transhumanism. We come from the abyss, we fight to transform the world, but this transformation itself creates the problem of posthuman conditions that could be hostile to us, or just alien to us. We exist suspended between the abyss and the unknown.

One traditional template for interpreting this state of affairs is tragedy: that sense that human effort is simply doomed, that decision to be heroic even in the face of doom. The human condition in the abyss has always been tragic – our whole past is sad, wrote Esfandiary in 1970 – and transhumanism is simply our final tragedy, the attempt to escape the abyss. In it, all the themes already known to human experience find renewed expression: love, joy, pain, sadness, and more.

Such is the life of those humans who would face the challenges of transhumanity. But there is another dimension to the situation too, that other sense of being between two worlds: the uncanny. It is simply strange to even be in this situation, to be the product of billions of years of traveling through the galaxy, to be briefly alive at the time of the great attempted escape from the abyss.

One may deal with this strangeness in different ways. One may simply submit to this worldview that life has handed to you, and tell yourself to accept it (“think like reality “). One may look for reasons why this is normality: perhaps some “great filter” philosophy, and hypothesis about cosmic demographics, which says that the majority of sentient beings live in such circumstances. One may even have doubts about the correctness of this picture of reality, and look for another.

I have no conclusion. These are words written in the dark on a handheld device, words soon to be added to this blog for the edification of search engines. There are things unsaid. There is transition.

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