Monday, February 4, 2008
I don't know who said it first. I don't know if it's even possible to find out, but it's one of those things that has been said and re-said throughout history. We make god in our own image. I've had that thought on my mind a lot, especially as I've plumbed the deepest depths of Genesis and considered ideas like Arthur C. Clarke's thoughts on the future of man and machine. It occurs to me that the ancient men who wrote Genesis were remarkably prescient on the topic of how, exactly, humans form god in their own image. Yahweh looked down from on high to the Garden of Eden, saw that Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit and said, "They now have knowledge, let's not give them life, lest they become like us." Later on at the start of the Tower of Babel, Yahweh looked down and said, "If they make it up here, they'll be like us, let's not let that happen." We now sit in god's position as we look at our own creation. The possible rise of Artificial Intelligence presents as a terrifying concept to many who look to the future. Consider The Matrix, the way Asimov's I, Robot was changed in to a story about berserk robots trying to kill Will Smith for the movie, or the way 2001: A Space Odyssey is remembered mostly for HAL-9000's freakout than the, um, other stuff that happened. Plenty, like Ray Kurzweil, the late Asimov, and Clarke see fully realized artificially intelligent beings as an inevitable step in the evolutionary process. We will create them, then they will surpass us. There's a similar fear at play in debates over things like Human Growth Hormone, genetic engineering, and stem-cell research. Perhaps, in the end, genetically engineering future humans will be an important part of the process of keeping up with their artificially engineered counterparts, but that's beside the point. I've already said that I see a patina of fear in the strange insistence of the Young Earth Creationists that science holds no validity, as any other idea takes away from them that certainty of being the privileged center of the universe. This idea, though, is one that cuts across all lines of humanity. It's why throughout our time on this terrestrial ball we've made the gods in our own image. We are all, on some level, the center of our own universe, the pinnacle of the evolutionary process, the ultimate end goal of every natural mechanic up until now. Until now we've been able to stay the undisputed masters. We've pushed back the wilderness and tamed wild beasts or created the necessary tools to overcome them. Then, when there was no more adventure to be found, we set off in search of new horizons or created mythical beasts to overcome in tales and legends told 'round the cooking fires. Now, for the first time, we see on that horizon something greater than us, something that cannot be overcome. That deep, existential terror is written large across the entertainments we choose for ourselves. Our fear of AI looms in The Terminator, that of super men in the comics pages, and super advanced extra-terrestrial beings in movies and books like The War of the Worlds. In those formless, future horrors -- bigger than Grendel, stronger than Ymir, cleverer than the Sphinx, more malevolent than Fenris -- we see our mortality writ large. But it's more than just that. Society, like the organisms that create it, evolves. The ideals and values we hold today are almost completely alien from those held by our ancestors and we can only connect to them fitfully, through the unreliable medium of the history books. We can only touch them fleetingly, when we find a shard of pottery or piece of parchment. Even so, one thing is for certain. Our world is alien to theirs. Those great words from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," was an evolutionary idea. Be even now that seems quaint and to modern sensibilities "all men are created equal" seems backwards. It should be "all people," men and women, children, too. That ideal is dangerous, primarily in the West (and it's no use dancing around the subject) to white males (also, in the interests of full disclosure, I am a white male, but I like to think I'm proof that we don't all think this way). I could probably add "straight" and, maybe, "Christian" to that white male descriptor, but I won't officially, still, keep it in mind. It doesn't matter if you're talking about the racist, the misogynist, or the homophobe, most such people hearken back to tradition to justify their backwards natures. Traditions the rest of us have evolved away from. Anti-evolutionism (and it doesn't matter if you call it "Scientific Creationism," "Intelligent Design," or whatever the next moniker will be, it isn't "pro" anything. To be "pro" requires a certain creativity and an attempt to offer explanations in favor. Anti-evolutionists do no such thing) is similar. It strips the universe of all its expansive, eons-old majesty in an attempt to prop up a lifestyle and power structure based entirely on an imagined tradition (“imagined” in the sense that a lot of YECs don’t fully understand how the world works now, so it’s hard to believe they have a realistic interpretation of the remote recesses of the past. Especially since their interest isn’t historical or anthropological accuracy, but orthodoxy and politics). I believe it was Carl Sagan who asked why religion hasn't used the idea of a fifteen billion year-old universe with hundreds of billions of galaxies containing tens of billions of stars as a selling point for god. After all (my thoughts here, not Sagan's), such a huge universe points to an impossibly ancient, majestic god in ways that a tiny, six thousand year-old structure never could. The answer to that is simple. Such a god cannot be contained, cannot be controlled. Humans in their limitation cannot conceive of numbers in the billions, especially numbers that pile billions on top of billions. And since we cannot conceive of such a vast place, there's no way we can conceive of a god who is outside and above it all, and therefore not circumscribe that creator to a space within the tiny circle of our own whims and desires. Moreover, such a god may well not have decided that we humans are the pinnacle of all creation. Such a thought is terrifying for some. And so the very idea of an evolving universe, human race, or society must be denied. We all have to be held within a static bubble, unchanging, no matter the evidence to the contrary. We have evolved a great deal in the millennia since Xenophon led the March up Country. We're bigger, stronger, live longer, and possess a far more expansive knowledge of our universe. And the thing is, we've been engineering ourselves in order to speed up the evolutionary process. It started as far back as the very first person who realized that if you plant seeds in the ground, you can make food grow where you are instead of having to forage, then continued as we built villages, towns, and cities and specialized so one could grow food, another build homes, and a third figure out better ways to do those things. A few months ago I ran across one of the Way of the Master videos on Google Video. The Way of the Master series is the brainchild of kiddie sitcom star turned uberevangelist Kirk Cameron. His buddy, Ray Comfort, went through one of the dumbest attempts to defend Paley's Watchmaker God theory I've ever seen. He held up a soda can, then pointed out how it was perfectly suited for the task of containing and allowing the consumption of a beverage and if anyone were to look at it, that person would assume the soda can was created by an intelligent creator. He then held up a banana and pointed out that the peel is perfectly designed to hold the banana and the fruit itself is the perfect size for the human hand and mouth. He then offered this as proof that an intelligent creator had made the banana. There was only one problem with his assertion. The banana as we know it, that yellow tube we purchase in the local supermarket, is, in fact, the way it is because of an intelligent designer. Only it was people painstakingly cultivating a banana that was perfect for human consumption over the course of hundreds or thousands of years of agriculture that gave us the banana. It's no more proof of a creator god than my Chevy. That's the root of the downfall of the Watchmaker God argument. If I found a watch in the road I would know it had to be built because it contains no life and without life there is no way to grow and change (this, by the way, will be an interesting issue if we ever do get to that whole fully realized, self-replicating AI stage. I, for one, hope I live to see the day). Add the infinite complexity of the simply DNA strand to the equation, however, and there is no reason to believe that anyone built the watch. It can be assumed, instead, that the watch shape is evolutionarily adapted to some purpose (which isn't to say there's no reason to believe in some sort of god. We still have that sticky issue of why we have all this here here and there's the minor problem of abiogenesis, which has yet to be explained satisfactorily. But that loops us back around to the earlier problem that it allows us to hypothesize a god being, but not a god being who actually gives a flying crap about us or considers us the pinnacle of all creation). On the original topic, one of the objections that's raised whenever ideas like genetic engineering come up is that such things aren't natural. "What right do we have," the naysayers ask, "To play the role of god?" It's the same right we've had as we've played god throughout our history. Although, really, at the end of the day the most god-like attribute of the human reaction to the whole thing may well be that fear of obsolescence at the hands of our own creation.