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Trinitarian Archetypes in Darwinian Processes

October 4, 2010

The following are the text and video of my talk from the 2010 Transhumanism & Spirituality Conference, delivered on October 1, 2010 at the University of Utah. (The first half of the talk is adapted from my 8/24/10 blog post entitled ‘Narrative and the Brain’–my apologies for the resultant redundancy of blog content.)

Trinitarian Archetypes: A Transhumanist Mythos by Michael Ferguson on Vimeo.

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The title of my talk is “Trinitarian Archetypes in Darwinian Processes.”

I want to start my presentation by examining the power of the stories that we tell. Consider the following:

“Our ancestors have been human for a very long time. If a normal baby girl born forty thousand years ago were kidnapped by a time traveler and raised in a normal family in New York, she would be ready for college in eighteen years. She would learn English (along with—who knows?—Spanish or Chinese), understand trigonometry, follow baseball and pop music; she would probably want a pierced tongue and a couple of tattoos. And she would be unrecognizably different from the brothers and sisters she left behind.” –Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism (2006, emphasis added)

What is this all about? What is the differentiation between genetically identical, yet interpersonally unrecognizable individuals like the girl in our time traveling kidnapper scenario and her siblings? Implicitly, the differences are not biological. They are ultimately differences in the collective, accumulated storied contexts for the humans we are considering. What is story, and why is it so powerful and persuasive in our development into mature individuality?

The human capacity for narrative—like all of our intelligence capacities—is grounded in our biological make up. For us human beings, though, narrative and story are not only capacities, but they are veritable drives. We are a species saturated by fictions and story, and always will be so unless we undergo major, major revamping of the biological infrastructure underpinning our intelligent processes. (Which, incidentally, is not where I am going with this talk.)

The story of our drive for storytelling and narrative is rooted in the story of the human brain itself. Briefly, I would like to look at narrative from the ground up. I should note that I lean heavily in this explanation on the work of Brian Boyd who has authored fabulous writing on the origin of stories.

First, consider the evolutionary advantage of information sharing. Simply put, by sharing information, we can access more information than we can glean from our own efforts. This pooling of information shows up everywhere from honeybees (they actually do a waggle dance to indicate to their fellow honeybees the distance and direction for nectar), to the alarm cries of monkeys or birds to alert their fellows toward the danger of lurking predators. It is readily apparent that the pooling of information by a group presents a major source of survival advantage, and indeed this cooperative communication to share more information than we can glean by our own individual efforts has been a major incentive in the developmental evolution of social life.

So why narrative? Why story? Narrative is saturated with information that is social in nature, and can both guide our immediate decisions or give us a template of concepts to apply in future circumstances. This is a very important point: that narrative is essentially a compression of social information, which in other words means that narrative overwhelmingly focuses our attention on “strategic information.” As Boyd points out, the salient features of narrative are the strategic data, for example, of whether Jack is sleeping with Jill, rather than the metric data of how deeply Jack is sleeping. Outside of notable exceptions such as autism, human beings are prone to swiftly both observe and interpret their world in terms of agency, humanity, individuality, personality, action, and interaction of other human beings around them, and scouring for patterns in each of these social dimensions.

In our ancestral environment, strategic social information would almost always have been about people we had already met and who we would often meet again. We therefore have an endless fascination with character information, since character information helps us to predict the behavior of those we interact with, and because this character information remains relatively stable over time. Today, many of us human beings are caught up in the fascination of people and lives of media celebrities who we will likely never meet, or with whom we will likely never have consequential interaction. The underpinning reasons for our celebrity fascination are probably best understood by evolutionary adaptation. By way of analogy, human dietary choices demonstrate a continued craving for sugar and fat, reflecting old circumstances from the environment of evolutionary adaptation for our species. We have not yet biologically advanced from these early conditions where sugar and fat craving contributed to our survival. Similarly, our indiscriminate appetite for social information reflects an era in our evolutionary adaptation when we were likely to encounter repeatedly everyone we heard about. Thus we especially ingest information about the powerful, because their decisions and actions could influence our lives, as well as ingesting information about those who command attention, since they were likely to be the social leaders. The bottom line, then, is that our brains have evolved in a way that we are particularly fond of stories, because they are compressed streams of shared information; and we are particularly fond of stories that provide us with social information, since this type of information is highly useful to us in strategically navigating our social world.

The Darwinian Process

Shifting gears for a bit, I want to talk about the Darwinian process. The Darwinian paradigm fundamentally changed the way we think about not just biological origins, but indeed the way we think about and model progressive adaptation in virtual any sphere or medium. That is a very big statement. Let me break it down into a few more specific tenets.

Darwin essentially gave us a template for the emergence of design. It’s a recipe with three ingredients. Namely:

1)   variation

2)   replication

3)   selection

The combination of those three ingredients into a system is so powerful, that if they are present and if they are sustained for a long enough period of time, you will get design emerging from the system. Let me repeat that. The Darwinian hypothesis is that given the combination of these three ingredients of variation, replication, and selection, it’s not that you might get design. It’s that design will inevitably emerge from the system. You can’t stop it, unless you stop one or more of these ingredients from being part of the mix. This has enormous ramifications for systems like markets, politics, religion, viruses, cognition and your mental activity, music and art, to name just a few of many, many interesting and wonderful examples that we could consider.

The Rosetta stone for decoding the evolutionary process was of course our bio-organic heritage. It was by scrupulous, careful observation of biological varieties that Charles Darwin, among others, formulated the seminal principles for evolutionary theory. Indeed, this biological domain in which the processes of replication, variation, and selection anciently occurred are the very foundational phenomena which have ultimately begotten the myriad other streams of evolutionary systems that constantly whirl all around us.

Emergent from our sophisticated biological composition as Homo sapiens is our startling creation of culture.

As Mark Lupisella describes it, it is helpful to think about culture as the collective manifestation of value—where value is that which is valuable to “sufficiently complex” agents, from which meaning, purpose, ethics, and aesthetics can be derived. As Lupisella notes, culture is something special. It has helped life on Earth, particularly Homo sapiens, survive and thrive in ways that sometimes defies belief.

As a result of our interests, we have emerged in the universe as valuing agents with meaning, purpose, and morality as cultural derivatives of value. If the universe did not have morality prior, it does now. We, in some nontrivial sense, make the universe a moral entity, however limited the degree of that contribution may appear. We may indeed be just a very small part of the universe that arose by chance, but nevertheless, strictly speaking, the universe now contains morality. The cosmos now has agents caring about other agents and about nonagents as well, and in some cases, about the whole of the universe. (Cosmocultural Evolution, p. 343-344.)

The combination of biologically adept species and the emergent phenomenon of culture and value inevitably created an outpouring of technology: physical means toward value-driven ends. From the invention of the wheel to assist in traveling, to the creation of the internet to facilitate communication, technology is the titillating physical manifestation of our culture and value, with culture and value itself processing from the origin of life, i.e., our bio-organic foundation.

In such a formulation of the relationships between our biological, cultural, and technological heritage, it is frankly difficult for me to NOT apply the archetypes of Trinitarian theology to each of these respective domains. The Father archetype—the origin of life—fitting nicely as a metaphor for our biological emergence. The Spirit archetype—the personage of love—nestling over the contemplation of our cultural potential at its best. And the Son—that which is begotten by the Father to complete the Father’s will—fitting into the literal description of technology; the Son himself perhaps being understood as the technology of salvation, if you will.

What does such a convergence of symbols buy us? For one, it starts to make the Christian story teem with transhumanist overtones. Consider, for example, the story of the Holy Spirit fusing with the human body to create the Son, and the parallelisms with the convergence of biology and cultural value to create the offspring of technology. Or consider the transfiguration of Christ: the moment when the disciples see the essence of the Father radiating from the substance of the Son is a moment in the Christian story where the disciples experience a profound epiphany regarding the power and the nature of the one to whom they have been devoted. Surely it will be so in our own transhuman drama: that the eventual manifestation of human essence through a technological substance will cause both fear and marveling at the power and the nature of these technologies to which we have been so diligently given.

Secondly, as I noted earlier in my talk, humans crave storied organization and narrative! Story is one of our evolutionary drives! If we are at all serious about a radically cosmic transhuman vision, then why not start telling our story by piggybacking on stories that are already existent? Surely we need not be humanistically puritanical and fail to engage the rich legacy of cultural and religious story when the opportunity is before us.

Lastly, may I invoke one more story from the Christian narrative as a means of communicating one of my fondest hopes for transhumanism? It is the story of the day of Pentecost.

As recounted in Acts 2:1-6:

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

Let’s examine closely what happened here. The causal event for this occurrence was the ascension of the Son who had become the perfect likeness of the Father to be at his right hand and share a ruling oneness with him. From this station, the Son was empowered to send the Spirit to be upon his disciples. So then the Pentecost marked the day when the Holy Spirit—the persona of love—was poured out onto the Christian disciples with a calling to build a new heavenly kingdom on the earth.

Think, then, what is starting to happen and what will continue to happen as technology and our technical level of understanding the human condition start to reflect not just anthropomorphic physical forms and physiology, or even human-like intelligence, but when our technology starts to become compassionate, empathetic, and to show signs of loving-kindness. Already we can perceive early rumblings of this potential culturequake. If you are not already familiar with it, I encourage you to explore the Cyborg Buddha Project launched by Dr. James Hughes through the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology. Or consider the work of Dr. John Gottman, exploring marital stability and relationship analysis through technical and empirical approaches such as quantification of skin conductance and unconscious microexpressions shared between couples.

And while it might sound to some like unattainable science fiction, imagine what it would be like to download to your own consciousness the life experiences of a poverty-stricken mother in subsaharan Africa–to understand experientially through shared neural synchrony the sufferings and the challenges faced around this globe on a daily basis. Talk about empathy!

If the day of Pentecost was an outpouring of understanding and mission, imagine the outpouring of renewed filios that will occur when our technology converges to meet the best of our humanity. It well may be the start of a new order, not based upon an external political structure, but a new order of heart based on mutual love, and shared understanding, and mastering the elements that comprise the better angels of our nature. In the words of Princeton philosopher Sam Keen:

“If the cosmos could create butterflies and Einstein’s mind with a chemistry set that contained hydrogen, oxygen, sodium, and fewer than a gross of other elements, we may be able by mastering the elements of love to perform the alchemy that will change our lives from gross matter to gold.”

It’s difficult sometimes to discuss these topics in seriousness because they have the tendency to start to dissolve into a sort of slurpy sounding idealism when you get down into the core principles of mutual respect and empathetic compassion. But perhaps this is one of the reasons why this archetypal union of Father and Son is so important in grounding the phenomenon of Pentecost; or in our case, why the technicalizing of the biological processes provides a certain type of weight and groundedness to a serious exploration of these otherwise ethereal, idealistic attributes of our transhumanity.

As the scientist and sage Carl Sagan has said:

For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.
(Contact)

This, above all other things, is why I am a transhumanist—because of the optimism it gives me that we may one day be able to amplify the elements of love, and disseminate them so potently, that we will find that we have created for ourselves a truly good universe.

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One Comment
  1. Carl Youngblood permalink

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I really enjoyed your delivery of it and can’t wait to get the video online. I realize the this speech is not in final draft form, but you might want to put quotes around “the better angels of our nature.” That is from Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address.

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