Damien's memes

5 December 1995

I have been asked by a Christian, whose holy book tells of the Apocalypse which his side will win, how I face the meaninglessness and futility of the universe. If I will die, if all things will end, all observers pass away, what point acting? What point living? And I speak to him of the Norse religions, whose great battle was Ragnarok which heroes and gods knew they would lose, all they loved falling finally under the cold grip of the frost giants. And yet they lived, in life and legend and in the face of despair, for the joy of life, and for the spite, for even if one knows that one will be defeated -- why surrender easily? For that is the sort of animal I am: one to live, to fight, to struggle, to choose Hell over the Void for the scant life Hell offers over the oblivion of the Abyss. For it is the latter choice that seems meaningless to me.
"I think your point of view is escapist, that it's comforting to not have a need to look for meaning and truth (which is difficult) by simply believing there isn't any." -- the Christian

Topsy-turvy: "I think your point of view is escapist, that it's comforting to not have to face the pointlessness of the universe by making up stories and Gods to avoid the burden of trying to define your own moral code and justify your own life to yourself. It's easier just to assume that Someone made you and cares about you and is providing guidelines for your life, rather than face the Abyss every day and wonder why there's a cliff to look at it from. Or worse, to accept that the cliff is just there, and for all you really Know might crumble under you any day, and keep on walking and looking and not just surrender and jump." A bleak view of the universe, I readily admit, but that's the point. From what I can see it is a true one, and it is only honest to face it if one can. So I walk.

Or another angle: life isn't the problem, dying is the problem. If I knew that I could live until the end of eternity I wouldn't have any problems with the point of my life; I'd be a god, always extant. I might be bored, but there's always an ultimate solution for that. The problems is that I'll probably die in a few decades, and even if I don't the universe itself seems likely to run down. At some point not only will I be gone, but all I knew and built, and none will come after to remember. To which the Christian cries "How can you live?" And I reply, how not? What am I supposed to do, kill myself?

Think about it.

"The green hills of Ulster, the white causeway high
The beacon of Warshal throws its flame to the sky
The hunt and the threat let the coward abjure
Our hope is in God and in Rory O'Moore!"
-- Rory O'Moore by Wolfe Tones, a song about the Irish resistance against the British. Or an Irish resistance, as they failed a lot -- but the Irish didn't stop. (The fact that the IRA is still going, or was until recently, is a separate issue.)

Also see For those I loved

"How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails."

So begins A Fire Upon the Deep, and so begins my letter. I cannot deny that I have been lazy and stupid in handling my classes. There is no real defense; I simply have been. But you have accused me of not having dreams and this is quite false. I said that I wished to be a god, or raise one, and I meant this quite literally, apart from the fact that "god" is not the best word. "Power" would be more like it, although less well-known.

We are becoming able to manipulate matter on smaller and smaller scales. A few years ago IBM researchers spelled out "IBM" with individual atoms. Cells of course perform atomic and molecular engineering every moment of our lives. It is likely that at some point we will have the power to build anything which can be built out of atoms -- total control over the structure of matter. But this is not the godhead.

A fair amount of research is going into understanding the principles of life, to build our own successful and useful self-reproducing systems. As Dyson wrote the utility of these seems ridiculous. One could build one complex robot and send it out and terraform Mars in a century. If one person could send out loyal reproducers into the universe some time before everyone else she could effectively conquer the reachable universe for the price of one reproducing slave. This is somewhat godlike, but not the heart.

We are both materialists, I believe. From this it follows that intelligence and consciousness are based on matter and its patterns of organization -- its incorporated information. Then, unless some Godelian blind spot crops up to haunt us, we should be able to understand the mechanisms of intelligence, consciousness, and even creativity. What we understand we can reproduce, play with, manipulate. AI here grows from merely making human level intelligences to making superior human intelligences, or even truly transhuman ones. Learn why an Einstein is an Einstein, a Crick a Crick, and combine them. Or learn why a Hofstadter or Minksy is what it is and expand that, to make the process of intelligence learning about itself feed upon itself, accelerating without known bound. This is the technodivinity.

It may be, of course, that there is no real organization much beyond the human level. Then again, for all we know there may be. Certain groups of humans accomplish more than individual ones: science is largely a group creative process. Quite likely something can be formed of human level sentiences more tightly bound than in civilization, to create something greater, a slime mold of consciousness. (I admire slime molds, not that I've ever seen one.) One graspable example: we know that information is not knowledge, that it must be known, incorporated first, and that we cannot absorb everything at once. (Issues Hofstadter is exploring with his fluid model of perception.) The omniscience above may perhaps be the ability of a Power to know all that it senses, or at least to approach such an ideal much more than we can.

The point is, at the moment all of this seems plausible, and if there are to be locally omniscient, all-controlling, and universe-grabbing Powers walking around, I want to be one of them, not one under them. If that is not possible, I would like to leave my mark by raising one and sending out my own godchild to shape the universe in my own image and dream, and not another's, especially given what many others are. And the darker elements of this dream, that I might myself be subsumed by a newborn Power, is yet the one thing that can slip past my dedication to being and remaining alive. Apotheosis, even partial, may be worth it.

And yes, this is science fiction. It is not real, hence fiction, yet based on and extrapolated from science. And the book quoted at the beginning is science fiction of the first, defining, and justifying class. Normal fiction illuminates the human condition; the best SF illuminates the transhuman condition. This is my dream; nor is it a nova of a few months ago, for the seeds were planted before I came to Caltech and have been growing here, not that Caltech has directly had anything to do with that.

So what do I want to do? Get there from here, or help pave the way. AI seems to be the best and motivating bet. I don't know the details yet; I should talk to my advisor (carefully selected for being the most broadminded planetary scientist I could find) soon. Perhaps I will apply for grad school, even, although probably not immediately. I will probably be pulling short term resources for a while -- "clerical" computer jobs, for example. But I do have a goal which I think is even quite realistic. All I have to do is figure out the paths, and overcome this ingrained inertia and laziness. I'll be working on that this year.

And I hope you understand this dream, and that I have not been explaining ultraviolet to the blind.

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