Cosmic Beings: Transhumanist Deism in Ted Chu’s Cosmic View

Source: IEET | In Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential: A Cosmic Vision for Our Future Evolution, IEET affiliate scholar Ted Chu, a professor of Economics at New York University in Abu Dhabi and former chief economist for General Motors and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, argues that post-humanity is a logical and necessary evolutionary next step for humanity, and we need a new, heroic cosmic faith for the post-human era.

“The ultimate meaning of our lives rests not in our personal happiness but in our contribution to cosmic evolution,” says Chu, “a process that transcends the human and yet is integral to who and what we are in the universe.”

Chu believes that we should create a new wave of sentient beings, artificial intelligences and synthetic life forms, and pass the baton of cosmic evolution to them. This doesn’t mean that humanity will be discarded, but only that in the future our spiritual descendants will take over. Creating our successors isn’t betraying humanity and nature but, on the contrary, a necessary continuation of our evolutionary journey and an act of deep respect, to the point of worship, of humanity, evolution, and nature:

“[W]e should pursue nature-worship to an extreme that goes beyond what is currently considered acceptable… For us, the best way to create new (‘artificial’) life forms and intelligence is to allow them to emerge through evolution, as nature does, only in much shorter timeframes and with much greater efficiency and variety. For conscious evolution to be successful, we need to observe and understand the actual workings of nature, in all its dynamism, to the point of profound reverence, or ‘worship.’ This is what I call extreme nature-worshipping… From the perspective of extreme nature-worshipping, the real significance of Darwin’s evolutionary theory is not that humans descended from lower species, but that we can continue to evolve.”

Chu doesn’t cover in too much detail the myriad of current results and advances in artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, artificial life, and robotics, which will enable our upcoming, post-human phase of self-directed evolution. Scientific results and advances are, of course, covered in near real-time by professional and popular science-oriented media, and Chu assumes that science and technology will continue to advance on their path, leading to the creation of our immortal, post-biological, hyper-aware mind children, a new species on the frontier of cosmic evolution that is unimaginably powerful and creative.

“[T]he last great invention that humans will ever need to make is in sight: the autonomous intelligent cosmic being (CoBe) that is spontaneously adaptive and has a will to continuously evolve and push forward the evolutionary frontier in the universe.”

The transition to post-humanity won’t be easy though, and it will present daunting technical and social challenges. Chu is “wary of all the talk about smooth sailing to the inevitable Singularity, where technological progress is said to accelerate so fast that it can be represented by a rising curve eventually going straight up to infinity,” and warns that “the future is likely to be far more difficult than the techno-optimists are predicting or hoping for.”

“The emergence of CoBe will not be the result of a simple straight-line progression… [N]atural evolution is eventful, chaotic, rough, unclean, unbalanced – it is a storm of ‘creative destruction.’ Likewise, conscious evolution will be full of unintended, unpredictable consequences as well, including calamities as well as magnificent, seemingly ‘miraculous’ advances.”

The book is about evolution, its messiness, glory, sometimes cruelty, and awesome power to create more and more complexity. Darwinian processes, driven by variation, selection, and replication, are fundamental cosmic patterns found not only in biological life but also in the evolution of cultures, technologies, and societies. The only permanent feature of an ever changing universe is the process of change itself. Evolution works by creating complexity and diversity, in an endless search of better adaptation to changing environmental conditions, and ruthlessly discarding experiments to make room for what works. “Natural selection is a process of exuberant creation and ruthless elimination,” says Chu. “Similarly, the best practice in science and culture is a kind of negative pragmatism: find out what is not working and get rid of it.”

It’s not surprising, then, that the most successful product of evolution – ourselves – must necessarily make room for new experiments in the search of optimal adaptation to a wider environment – the whole universe. Chu uses the powerful metaphor of a killer whale – another creature that evolution has placed at the top of its habitat – that jumps out of the water to catch glimpses of other, more challenging alien environments. At this point in human history, “blind” Darwinian evolution is about to give rise to self-directed, conscious evolution. But self-directed evolution will not be a clean, aseptic, top-down, design-review-implementation project. On the contrary, it will be as messy, unpredictable, and full of unexpected twist and turns, as natural evolution:

“[N]atural evolution is eventful, chaotic, rough, unclean, unbalanced – it is a storm of ‘creative destruction,’ not a walk in the park… Conscious evolution must follow the same strategy as natural evolution, only with more intensity.”

Chu considers the technical feasibility of post-human evolution toward CoBe as a given. “If mindless natural evolution can generate a conscious mind and Einstein-like geniuses, accomplishing as least as much is certainly technically possible with artificial intelligence,” he says. “If the extremely intricate and complex protein nano-machine called the cell somehow came into existence, then duplicating the same degree of ‘miraculous’ transformation in the nanotech lab should not be impossible.” The book is not focused on the scientific and technological aspects of conscious evolution, but rather on its cultural, political, and religious aspects.

Diversity is good, not only in the cosmic arena of universal evolution, but also in the human arena of culture and politics, and even more so as we stand on the edge of post-humanity. Chu has a strong preference for an open society without excessive control:

“Mao’s slogan ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend’ reflects the true spirit of evolution. Despite the risk of serious damage, we badly need single-minded religious zealots, political fanatics, and scientific cranks who can sustain direction even with repeated setbacks and depressing disarray and turmoil.”

“We should despair, however, if personal freedom and the freedom to experiment with a variety of social organizations are taken away by a global political entity. While global integration in many areas continues to deepen, it is a blessing that no centralized ‘world government’ is on the horizon. By conscious will or by chance, there will be a few people who can ‘dream of things that never were’ (in the words of John F. Kennedy), people who will seek to realize their dreams in some nurturing social environment with a high degree of enthusiasm and risk tolerance.”

At the same time, Chu is aware of the dangers of excessive societal fragmentation and runaway laissez-faire. What he proposes is a balanced approach, oriented toward healthy diversity in a free society. “It is the messy, yin-yang environment that proves to be most fruitful and sustainable over the long term.”

Quality of life and happiness are certainly desirable and worth pursuing, but not as important as our duty to forward cosmic evolution. The book begins with a question: “[W]hat will it take to get humanity to accept this new understanding of place and purpose?”

“Faith and religious sentiments are too great a natural creative motivation to ignore and to not take advantage of,” says Chu. “Like a powerfully drawn bow, faith stretches the soul, enabling us to aim at the furthest goals.” An accomplished student of both Western and Eastern philosophies and religions, Chu feels equally at home citing the Buddha and Jesus, the Tao Te Ching and the Gospels, Teilhard and Confucius, the Tao and the Holy Trinity. To stretch our soul and aim for the stars, he proposes a “Cosmic View” based on active contemplation of our transcendent destiny and cosmic duty to create our successors, the CoBe who will move to the stars and ignite the universe with hyper-intelligent life. The Cosmic View merges the best of Western and Eastern traditions, combining “the Western transcendent faith in Cosmic Creation and the Eastern realistic view of humanity.”

The Cosmic View can play many of the impersonal, philosophically oriented roles of religion. But it doesn’t offer belief in a personal God who cares, or hope in afterlife. “The best way to overcome the fear of death,” says Chu, “is to make one’s interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the spiritual walls of the self recede, and one’s life becomes increasingly merged into the universal whole.” This contemplation of self as a small part of the wonderful cosmic adventure of intelligent life and the creation of more and more evolved entities is, indeed, intellectually satisfying and motivating.

But I am afraid that the impersonal, essentially Deist Cosmic View, may not be emotionally satisfying enough for the most people, especially for Westerners with a worldview strongly centered on self. Chu is well aware of this possibility – he acknowledges that the Deism of the great architects of the American Revolution has never taken root in the majority of the American population, and that “a non-personal God that is cosmic in nature has to be blended with certain human-friendly characteristics in order to be attractive, in the same way that colors are added to the pictures taken through space telescopes to enhance perception and draw popular interest.”

The problem – how to make the Cosmic View emotionally appealing to the majority of the population – is addressed but not solved in Chu’s work. But I am hopeful that future refinements of Chu’s ideas will permit the emergence of Religion 2.0, based on the Cosmic View, with suitable colors and human-friendly features added to make it emotionally satisfying.

Another in my opinion questionable aspect of Chu’s excellent work is an excessive conceptual separation between today’s humanity and future post-humanity. While I wholeheartedly embrace the necessity, our cosmic duty, of self-directed evolution to create Cosmic Beings able to ignite the universe with intelligent life, I never liked the concept of “post-humanity.” What’s wrong with just “humanity,” evolved? I imagine a co-evolution of humanity and technology, with humans enhanced by synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, and artificial life powered by mind grafts from human uploads, blending more and more until it will be impossible – and pointless – to tell which is which. Like children retain their fundamental identity after growing up and becoming adults, we don’t need to fear a post-human takeover, because the post-humans will be ourselves. This alternative vision of “Cosmic Humans” is, I believe, equally consistent with the Cosmic View but more emotionally appealing.

Image: Deviant Art | TaKe-bamboo