Episode 3: Memento Mori, Memento Sapiens


Hello again, friend. Did you find the answer to the question I gave you? “What do you really believe?”. I did, but It took time, and a detour over transhumanism and the Singularity, before I arrived at now. Transhumanism is a life-philosophy of sorts, that mankind should use technology to enhance human minds and bodies. One of the biggest goals is “eliminate aging as a cause of death”. I was such a devout follower, so convinced that it would happen soon, that I stopped saving for retirement – what’s the point, if the system would collapse under all the centenarians who just kept on living way past their statistically calculated deaths. Mind you, I still believe humans will one day, perhaps soon, slow aging so that we can live seemingly forever. However, unless they also find a way to reverse time, we’ll all die eventually anyway, in the heat death of the universe. But that thought, that we could get eternal life through science became my patronus against the dementor that is fear of death. It didn’t just leave the area, it fled to another country. I think I was buying myself time to answer that question: “what do I really believe?”. I knew that the answer to it was the only thing that could slay my fear of non-existence.

Article about transhumanism in HIQ Magazine
Spread from an interview with me about transhumanism in HIQ Magazine

Time is valuable. We all know it. Even the most corrupt person knows that “time is money”. An the most kind person gives give the gift of time. We have devalued that gift. The internet — the One Machine, as Kevin Kelly called it in his TED-talk— this Machine we see so much promise in, has left our office desks and home PCs and started to meld with our bodies as our devices first became portable, then wearable. Internet is in everyone’s smartphones, and everyone’s phone is in their hands, ready to serve up entertainment, information, even wisdom… and distraction from the mundane. Back when access to the internet was restricted to physical rooms equipped with a computer with an internet connection, the default state was offline. Today, the default state is online — as soon as our phones are on, we are within the reach of the Machine. The Machine is like a mindless giant that you can control with your time and attention. If you pay the wrong things time and attention, the Machine may well destroy you. But give the right things your two most precious resources, and it may lead you to the greatest of treasures.

Our smartphones look rather death-like to me. Like black slabs of aluminum and glass. Dystopian, black mirrors ready to relieve us of awkwardness, boredom, suffering, sadness. Of loneliness. We feel so connected as persons, yet we are so divided as human beings. We spend time documenting our experiences, our meals, our meetings, our adventures, creating a highlight reel of all the perfect moments in our lives, forgetting that every time we take out our smartphones, they make us aware of the moment and how perfect it is. Instead of being immersed in that moment, we share the perfection of it, chasing approval from others that yes, this really is a perfect moment. And when we look at everyone else’s highlight reels, we compare them to our raw footage with all the mistakes, the embarrassing moments, the shame, the inadequacies, the doubt. But maybe posting more highlights will convince others, and by extension ourselves that we, too, are perfect. So we keep our phones close at hand, ready to capture that next perfect moment we will experience. We still give the gift of time, but we aren’t fully present because part of our attention is in our phones. I’m sorry if I have tarnished your shiny image of the internet, but hey, we’re still using it, so high as the price may be, collectively we get our value’s worth even if we’re losing time.

I love science, but I believe that as we cut ties with religion in the wake of the scientific revolution, we lost touch with spirituality – the yin to the yang of science. I think the movie Contact captured this beautifully in the exchange between Jodie Foster, playing the role of our inner scientist, and Matthew McConaughey, playing the role of our inner spiritual:

“Did you love your father?”
“Your dad. Did you love him?”
“Yes, very much.”
“Prove it.”

I remember this dialogue by heart. It taught me that some things simply cannot be proven, they can only be experienced. It took twenty years for that wisdom to sink in.

Transhumanism allowed my old self, who only believed in what science could prove, to believe in eternal life. I was buying myself time, but most of the time, well, in hindsight, I didn’t spend it well. Instead of starting to look for answers to the hard questions, and putting time into things and people that really matter, I put time into escaping. I believed I had all the time, that I would never die, because I placed my bets on two horses in the race: transhumanism was one, the Singularity the other. If either won, so would I.

The Singularity movement is a belief that humanity will build a computer so intelligent (and conscious) that its intelligence surpasses that of all living humans. Now, that goal could also be achieved through a third world war, because the few surviving humans will soon be so demented from nuclear fallout, so that any still functioning Japanese high-tech toilet will be smarter than all of them together. It would be a fitting end to humanity. But the Singularity is a peaceful movement, and they want to achieve that by building an AI, or rather AGI, Artificial General Intelligence.

That AGI, in turn, will be able to build an AGI immensely smarter than itself, just like we built the first AGI although we’re dumber than it. Since it’s so much more intelligent, it will build it’s successor in almost no time. Sooner rather later, version 8 or so of the AGI, will know everything, be aware of everything. It will solve all our problems, and give us answers to all our questions, including those concerning aging and death, ushering in a veritable utopia. It’s the geek version of the concepts of god and heaven in one: we will build a machine that will give us all the answers, and keep us from dying, while providing anything we might desire. Mind you, this may well already have happened. Imagine a future where humans basically live forever and are able to get anything they can imagine at the press of a button. Literally anything. It’s like playing an immersive video game, like in Ready Player One, except the universe in this game truly is immense and you can experience anything it just like you experience the real world. You choose the genre, the script and your own role in any story. You can have a dinner party with Margaret Atwood, Keanu Reeves and Tim Urban (the guy who writes “Wait, but why?”), or a spit roast with Chris Pratt and Jake Gyllenhaal (I know I would, and I’m not talking about the kind that involves cooking). You can be any super hero you want to be. You can be the villain, although I would recommend you be careful with that. Villains are often angry, and we all know that anger leads to the dark side. But I believe Yoda was wrong about the irreversability of the dark path. You can always choose to turn back. Anyway, imagine living virtually forever and having access to such experiences at the press of a button. It would be exciting for the first hundred or thousand years, but eventually, you’d get bored and you’ll press the button thinking “surprise me!”.

Then you’ll realize you can experience the wildest things, but just like a video game on the easiest setting is boring to any gamer worth their salt, you’ll want a challenge. Nothing you can’t handle, of course, just enough to keep you occupied. You’ll start playing hardcore characters, those that only have one life and when they die you have to start over. Then you’ll have a brilliant idea: you can get anything, right? What if you played that game, with your own script and your own genre, but you add a twist: you’ll play a hardcore character and forget that you’re playing it. That way, losing your life becomes a real risk, adding the exhilaration of being near death. And right after that final moment, as you leave the game thinking you’ve died, you wake up and joke with your friends what an awesome session you just had, with the craziest experiences. Then you’ll dive in again to keep building this amazing multi-player existence called “the universe”. Eventually, the game of Universe you and your friends are playing becomes so advanced that you create another game of universe inside it. But good as that button is, it cannot override life, the energy on which all these Russian doll-like universes operate on, and life has a memory. And so we dream of all the other universes we exist in, and our dreams manifest as art. How else do you think Christopher Nolan came up with Inception? When I meet him outside this universe, I must remember to high-five him, his human avatar makes movies that are simply amazing.

While I do believe our universe is a construct made by us, I don’t believe our way there will be through the kind of AGI we are dreaming up today. You see, we have this view that we can create something that is immensely more intelligent than us because we have gotten intelligence wrong. It’s our egos’ fault. We got God wrong, corrupted god with power and money and believe ourselves to be the crown of creation. Intelligent beings created by a stupid environment. This is why randomness becomes important for natural science, since it requires some real freakish random event for a stupid environment to create intelligent beings. And since a stupid environment (whether you believe that to be the Universe, nature or the Earth) created us, we must be able to create something vastly more intelligent than us. Now, I believe we will be able to build an AGI one day, but it will not be more intelligent than us. Sure, from our current mechanical view of the universe, it will seem as if it’s super-duper-ultrea-extra-mega-intelligent, much it the mechanical view dictates that we’re vastly more intelligent than honey bees. But the answers to questions like “what happens after death?” don’t need a computer and intelligence. They just need a mind and some wisdom. And we are borns wise, we have just forgotten it as we became adults.

Let me give you an argument for why you already are wise: You know when you hear or read words of wisdom and you just go “of course!”? You don’t learn anything new in those words, because there is no new information in those quotes. Take this one for example: “You cannot be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you”. No new information, but a lot of wisdom. Wisdom is simply someone drawing new lines between dots you already know. It’s a reminder that you know this. So, you are already wise, you just need to be reminded of it. The more reminded you get, the things that make you go “of course!” make less and less sense to those who don’t remember yet, like “want is a growing plant whom the coat of have was never large enough to cover”. My moment of realization about what I really believe happens after death, was one of those “of course!” moments. I had forgotten, and as I long as I called myself an atheist – which I did for almost half my life – I couldn’t be reminded of them. But it didn’t matter. The beauty of the Church of the Singularity is that technology acts as the “no homo” of spiritually curious atheists. That, and “as long as the souls don’t touch”. The Church of Singularity offers a haven from having to really think about questions of death, and if you happen to do, you simply have a cookie, and when you’re finished eating it, you feel right as rain.

So I spent time and attention on understanding our world and our universe. One important part of our narrative about nature and the universe is what we call “the laws of nature”, and while natural sciences weren’t my favorite subject in school, as an adult I found myself reading about everything from biology to astrophysics. Werner Heisenberg was right when he said “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will make you an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” But before I met god (and boy, is God a Mad Hatter!), I had to face my fear of not existing. I knew that a good way of dealing with fears is exposure therapy. It worked well enough on my fear of spiders. Now I no longer feel the need to kill it, kill it with fire.
But exposure therapy for not existing requires a leap of faith while you’re tripping on LSD. At least it did for me.

They say that the moment of enlightenment has to be instantaneous, but I’d say it’s more like finding a piece that connects two puzzles I’ve been building all my life, knowing them to be completely separate, only that piece connects them and makes them whole. Both are puzzles with a gazillion pieces, but the more you learn about each, the faster you can build it. Towards the end, the speed curve became exponential, I had one awakening after the other, each showing how the two puzzles connect and then, when I had it, I simply stopped existing. The particular piece of wisdom that started all this was a synchronicity initiated by me admitting to myself that I didn’t understand. You see, the problem of knowing too much is that it’s easy to believe yourself to know it all. And since you know so much, you end up being right more often than you are wrong, becoming a victim of confirmation bias. At least, that is what happened to me. I knew so much that my friends had a nickname for that part of me. In Swedish, the short version of Michael is Micke, and so my nickname became “Mickipedia”. This, of course, appealed to my ego. Who doesn’t want to know so much that your friends equate you with the most amazing source of knowledge we’ve collectively built so far? It was such a rare occurrence for me to admit to myself that I did not understand, that I remember this particular time well. It was Thursday, July 7th, 2016. I was looking for answers, and had discovered Syntheism, a movement for secular spirituality. I tried reading the book, and after finishing the first chapter I turned off my Kindle and thought to myself “If someone asked what this first chapter is about, I could not explain it to them. What is metaphysics anyway?”. Perhaps this moment was so historical to me not only because I admitted to myself that I didn’t understand, but also because I admitted it to others. I talked to people about forming a book circle around it, to help each other understand, when someone told me to look up Alan Watts on Youtube. I had heard that name before, but didn’t really associate it with anything. I searched for Alan Watts, and the first video that I watched became my “of course!” moment. It reminded me of what I already knew, and it was a perfect foreshadowing of the journey I was setting out on. I’d like to share it with you, perhaps it will remind you of something too:

When you’re ready to wake up, you’re going to wake up. And if you’re not ready, you’ re going to stay pretending that you’re just a ‘poor little me’. And since you’re all here engaged in this sort of inquiry and listening to this sort of lecture, I’ll assume that you’re all on the process of waking up. Or else you’re teasing yourselves with some kind of flirtation of waking up, which you’re not serious about. But I assume maybe you are not serious, but sincere that you are ready to wake up. So then, when you’re in the way of waking up, and realizing who you really are, what you do is what the whole universe is doing at the place you call here and now. You are what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing. The real you is not a puppet which life pushes around, the real deep, down you IS the whole universe. So then, when you die, you’re not going to have to put up with everlasting non-existence, because that’s not an experience. A lot of people are afraid that when they die, they’re going to be locked up in a dark room forever, and sort of undergo that. But one of the most interesting things in the world — this is a yoga, this is a way of realization — try and imagine what it would be like to go to sleep and never wake up. Think about that. Children think about that. It’s one of the great wonders of life. What will it be like to go to sleep and never wake up. And if you think long enough about that, something will happen to you. You’ll find out, among other things, that it will pose the next question to you: what was it like to wake up without never having gone to sleep? That was when you were born. You see, you can’t have an experience of nothing, nature abhors a vacuum. So after you’re dead the only thing that can happen is the same experience, or the same sort of experience as when you were born. In other words, we all know very well that after people die, other people are born. And they’re all you, only you can only experience it one at a time. Everybody is I, you all know you are you. And wheresoever beings exist throughout all galaxies, it doesn’t make any diferrence: you are all of them. And when they come into being, that’s you coming into being. You know that very well. Only you don’t have to remember the past in the same way you don’t have to know how to work your thyroid gland, or whatever else is in your organism. You don’t have to know how to shine the sun. You just do it. Like you breathe. Doesn’t it really astonish you that you are this fantastically complex thing and that you’re doing all of this and you never had any education in how to do it?

This particular piece of wisdom made the connection in my head. The moments of enlightenment made me feel that connection through and through. Balls to bones.

The fear of not existing was like a hydra. It was the fear of death, the fear of not being loved, the fear that this is all there is, the fear of not having control. Once I was ready to face it, I stopped existing for a while just to try it, and realized it was the purest bliss I’ve ever experienced. And I’ve done my fair share of MDMA to tell you that even your first trip in the most perfect setting imaginable is like holding a candle to the sun, compared to the bliss of not existing. In that state I understood the whole existence in that nothing needed understanding. In that state, I as I’ve known myself for all my conscious life, does not exist. Logic does not exist. Nothing exists, a nothing built out of one paradox upon another, forming the most beautiful illusion in existence. The most beautiful dream so vivid it may as well be called reality. I wish you such dreams, my friend. Until next time, sleep well, until you wake up.