Wars and rumours of wars seem to be our natural inheritance as a primate species. Tribalists at heart, we resound to the beat of the war drums, echoed in the daily news. For those of us temporarily enjoying the luxury of peace, the “news” is little more than perverse entertainment, a tune to dance to in the privacy of our secure homes. In the bigger picture, violent events and the relentless bickering of tribes are hardly news at all, but the age-old human story.
Fundamentally, we are the creature with a foot in two worlds. Nowadays we admit to being biological organisms, products of natural selection. On the one hand, that means we are the sort of ruthless animal who survived countless diverse competitions and ordeals, such as wars and natural disasters. On the other hand, the success of our species—as well as our tribe—resides precisely in cooperative behaviour. Modern individuals cannot survive long outside the context of mutual interdependence we call civilization, a collective creation that consists not only of material infrastructure and social institutions, but also of guiding ideals. The vision of human identity goes far beyond our biological nature and often seems glaringly opposed to it.
Before the scientific era, the human identity lay not in biological matter but in spirit. That is, we thought of ourselves as spiritual entities—souls—when we thought of our essence at all. The teachings of religions helped societies to function better, as tribes were squeezed together in a world of increasing human numbers. But these teachings also provided otherworldly visions of ideal perfection seemingly unattainable in daily life. Violent realities of short and brutish life stood in contrast to ideals of benevolence, freedom, and a perspective of eternity.
We have always had visions of how life could and should be. But these visions have yet to be realized on a species-wide level. Our aggressive and self-serving nature as organisms may preclude that ever happening. We may destroy ourselves and our dreams, or create a nightmare future instead. Yet, the possibility remains open now to create the ideal world as it could be and has been variously imagined. Indeed, we are closer now than ever to that possibility. For, as long as we thought of ourselves as naturally spiritual, we were hardly in a position to grasp the enormity of the task. Now we know the true nature of the challenge, which is for an animal to remake itself as a spiritual being.
“Spiritual” essentially means disembodied. People have always found ways to deny their biological embodiment, when it seemed impossible to truly transcend it. This was always the religious conceit. It has also largely shaped cultural practices generally. Decorating and deforming the body, ritualizing everything from eating to warfare, building artificial environments called cities, and creating abstract realms of thought have all served to re-define us a creature separate from nature and not strictly identified with the body. We’ve created a distinctly human world, within the natural one upon which we remain precariously dependent. So far, this human élan has served a defense and reaction against the natural state. We rebel against being vulnerable and mortal flesh, driven by animal instincts. Yet, despite the strivings of culture and the denials of religion, we’ve had only limited success in doing anything about it. The technology we’ve created in our flight from nature now puts us on the threshold of actually realizing ancient dreams of transcending the natural state. Because technology concerns the physical world, this has been largely a matter of reconfiguring the body and its environments. Yet the dream of an ideal world is quintessentially social and moral, not only material. And the possibility of realizing it goes far beyond a defensive posture. It must become humanity’s passionate intention, its overriding proactive goal.
Of course, in line with our individualism and tribalism, there are many possible and conflicting visions of a future. In line with our collectivism, however, we must come to a consensus or likely perish. Whatever the vision, it must transcend local squabbles and short-sighted concerns. A tragic thing about the news is that, whether deliberately or not, it obscures the bigger picture and the longer term. A tragic thing about war is that it pulls the world apart instead of together. (It may pull a tribe together against another tribe, which only reflects the biological determinism that humanity struggles to transcend.) War squanders the resources needed for global civilization to provide for its future. It adds to the pollution and global warming leading to ecological collapse—and with it the collapse of all civilization (not even considering the risks of nuclear or biological war). If we read between the lines, the news simply tells us over and over that we are not pursuing the human dream. It shows us the effects of wasting our lives, even while some people are busy wasting the lives of others.
What are some of the unfulfilled values behind the quest for an ideal world? Of course: peace, prosperity, fraternity, equality, justice, personal freedom—the traditional “Enlightenment” ideals. Religion proposes also: benevolence and kindness, forgiveness, humility, righteousness and virtue. We could, in fact, catalogue all the implicit and explicit values ever espoused in diverse cultures over time and brainstorm how to reconcile them to set a course for the human future. Many such ideals were long espoused within the tribe, but not necessary extended to include strangers. What is modern is the universal code of human rights based upon such values. That is an encouraging sign and a prerequisite for the human unity that must supersede tribalism in order for humanity to pull together for its survival. It is also the door to actually realize the ideal world that has always until now only been aspirational. We can add to that goal a concern for other creatures and a role as formal caretakers of the planet. Above all, it is the “we” that remains to be defined and consolidated.
There are new values, too, based on possibilities opened through technology. It may or may not be possible to finally dispense with biological embodiment. There are modern dreams of uploading one’s mind to cyberspace, or downloading it into a fresh body or a non-biological one. Many such fantasies remain grounded in concerns derived from our actual biology—such as the desire to survive, overcome mortality, have more intelligence, augmented powers, control, etc. They tend to focus on the individual more than society. But ethical and moral ideals are above all about the collective. The ideal of objectivity implies freedom from the compulsions of individual bodily life. A far-reaching potential of artificial intelligence is the notion that mind need not be bound to biology or dedicated to individual or tribal interest, but could be free to be truly objective. That may turn out to be a chimera, even a contradiction in terms; but it is nonetheless a humanly-conceived ideal to explore. A contemporary concern is how to align AI with (largely parochial) human values and goals. The focus should rather be to align short-sighted human values and goals with the long-term survival and well-being of the planet, and the potential of our species. AI should be conceived and used toward that end.
As biological creatures, the fact of having to live by killing and consuming other creatures remains a spiritual embarrassment. The moral problem dovetails with the adverse ecological effects of the meat industry. Accelerating disparity of wealth is another moral embarrassment. Failure of the humanist values of equality and fraternity dovetails with the threat of social instability and even violent revolution. Though the upward flow of wealth is enabled by the impersonal mechanisms of the modern global economy, it also depends on individual greed and short-sightedness. These, again, seem built into our conflicted biological nature and lead in the wrong direction. Communism failed because of greed while capitalism triumphed through it. In that light, neither has been more than a path to the soulless society. Jesus put it nicely: what does it profit one to gain the whole world and lose one’s own soul? “Soul” might be regained by intending the collective good above personal gain.
Mere survival of the human species, or of modern civilization, is not a goal that sets our sights high enough. Implicit in human potential is a project to finally realize high ideals that have been there all along. These may contradict each other, or be beyond our capacity, yet it is part of the unfinished project of being human to sort them out and come to a species-level vision. Such unified intention does not guarantee survival and may not even prove feasible. (The absence of evidence of alien civilizations may be evidence of absence, implying that self-conscious intelligence is inherently self-destructive.) But we should not assume the worst. And even if the worst turns out to be the case, wouldn’t there be honour in at least trying to achieve that planetary vision?