Shattering the Sacred Myths - Chapter 3

Advancing Technology

 
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Traces the development of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering and contemplates the philosophical implications of consciously controlled evolution.

As we experience things through sight, sound, and touch, information about each experience is stored in our memories. Our brains work to understand new experiences by comparing them to memories of similar experiences from the past. Experiences that are recalled often are easily remembered, while the ones that are never recalled again are eventually forgotten.

Our brains are continually deciding what to do next by trying to predict the outcomes of our possible actions. When there are no previous experiences, or if the outcomes are uncertain, then the resulting confusion often leads to mistakes. We will usually only commit to an action when we are confident that it will result in a successful outcome.

We are typically motivated to do things to satisfy our needs, stimulate our senses, find the things that bring us pleasure, and avoid the things that give us pain. But our ability to think allows us to have more complex motivations like carrying out our responsibilities or following through with our plans.

Growing up

As an infant, you observe other people using words and phrases to express their feelings. Young brains are especially good at remembering things. After learning to control your voice, and with the encouragement of your family, you begin using the same words and phrases to demonstrate your own feelings.

By spending time with your family and friends, you slowly learn the rules of social interaction. You start by learning not to bite, not to wander away from safety, and not to take things that do not belong to you. The rules may vary between different cultures but they are generally intended to guide your behavior in the family environment, and ultimately they help you to survive as an adult in a world where your success largely depends on what you learned as a child.

Beyond the characteristics that you inherit from your parents, the type of person that you grow to become is determined by your family relationships and by the culture in which you live. Your thoughts and feelings will be stimulated by what you see and hear. Each new way of thinking, and each new pattern of behavior that you learn as you grow older will become an additional part of your developing personality.

Your opportunities may be limited, but the choices that you make now, or the choices that are made for you by the circumstances of your life will determine the types of memories you accumulate, the skills you learn and practice, and the people that you come to depend on. The path of life that you travel down becomes harder to change as you grow older, but you are never too old to learn, and it is never too late to change.

Change

Our lifestyles have changed more rapidly in the last few thousand years than in any other time during the billions of years over which we evolved. Evolution happens too slowly for our brain structure to have changed much since the Stone Age. It is surprising that our stone-age brains can cope with the increasing complexities of modern life. The pressures of the modern world cause many of us to suffer from stress, depression, and failure, and we all seem to be struggling to make sense out of what is happening in the world today.

Ten thousand years is the blink of an eye compared to the age of the earth, and yet in this period of time we have gone from building mud huts to building space stations. Over the last few centuries, the rate of technological change has been phenomenal. And yet because our generation has never known anything but rapid change, this change seems normal to us, we even become frustrated when the pace of change is too slow. Our expectations seem to be distracting us from seeing the significance of this change.

Some people see how modern transport, communication, and other luxuries improve the quality of our lives. Others fear the devastating potential of new weapons, destruction of the global environment, and the loss of cultural diversity. Some say that it is not technology that destroys, but rather the way in which we use it. In any case, competitive forces ensure that new technologies will always be exploited whenever they can be used to gain a military or economic advantage.

The real question is whether technological advancement comes purely from our creative potential and our determination to bend nature to our will, or whether the development of technology is just a continuation of the natural evolution of things. The competition for military superiority and higher profits is continuously driving new discoveries and inventions. Perhaps by continuing to develop technology in this way, we are merely carrying out our purpose in nature’s scheme.

From steam power to electronics

For thousands of years, clothing, pottery, weapons and other marketable products were made by hand in village workshops. Most of this work was done by skilled craftsmen using techniques that changed little over the centuries. Animal muscle power was harnessed to plough fields and transport heavy loads. The power of wind and running water had long been used to grind wheat grain.

Although steam power had been experimented with in ancient times, it was not until the late 1600s that improved techniques for working with metal made it possible to build the world’s first steam powered machine. Steam was soon being used to power factories, and with steam power for cutting, hammering, and rolling sheet metal, the design of steam engines and other machines improved rapidly.

Steam powered machines could manufacture large quantities of high quality consumer goods for a fraction of the price of those made by hand. As cities became choked with the smoke from steam powered factories, steam trains revolutionized land transport, and steamships traversed the rivers and oceans, opening up worldwide markets for factory produced goods.

Around the same time, inquisitive minds began experimenting with electricity and magnetism. One discovery led to another until by the late 1800s, power stations were generating electricity for streetlights, telephones were connecting homes and businesses, and electric motors were powering more sophisticated tools and manufacturing processes. The world was entering a new age of rapid technological change and economic growth spurred on by the mass production of consumer goods.

Petrol engines were soon powering cars and aircraft. Cities once drowning in chimney smoke and the decay of sewerage and horse manure were being transformed by street cars, electric stoves, and household plumbing. People were being dazzled by an onrush of new inventions, and there was a growing spirit of enthusiasm for progress and an optimism for the coming of a more enlightened age.

Military technology was also steadily improving, and by 1914, new weapons like long distance artillery, machine guns, iron battleships, and submarines were fuelling the ambitions of Europe’s warlords. The eagerness of army generals to use these new weapons led to the devastation of the First World War. By the time the war was over, almost ten million men lay dead in the trenches of Europe, along with humanity’s faith in progress and their hope for a better future.

Radio technology advanced rapidly during the war and radio stations were soon broadcasting news and entertainment into family homes. The invention of electronics was revolutionizing communication. By the late 1930s, television stations had begun transmitting motion pictures. Also by this time, the entire world had erupted into war again as hostile forces equipped with modern weapons like tanks and combat aircraft were sweeping across Europe, Africa, and Asia. Once again the world learned the destructive potential of new technology.

Computers

Although mechanical calculating devices had been in existence for a long time, the first electronic computers were built during the Second World War to decode secret messages and calculate the trajectories of artillery shells. The first business computers became commercially available in the 1950s. Affordable desktop computers became a reality in the 1970s after the invention of the integrated circuit. The power of computers has since continued to increase exponentially.

Over the last few decades, the number of manufacturing jobs in the industrialized world has been declining as production processes have become increasingly automated. Meanwhile, the world economy has continued to enjoy long periods of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity.

There are now millions of robots working in factories around the world, assembling everything from cars to electric appliances. New applications for robots outside the factory are appearing every year, from robot vacuum cleaners to precision robot arms assisting surgeons with delicate operations. Unmanned space probes have been exploring deep space for decades, and sophisticated robot vehicles are now searching for signs of life on the surface of Mars.

Many of today’s robots are custom built for work that is difficult or dangerous for humans, but general purpose robot arms are becoming increasingly popular. As they become less expensive, more adaptable, and easier to program, they will be able to manufacture a wider range of products with higher quality and lower cost than human workers. And they have the added advantage of accurately performing the same repetitive task without ever needing to rest.

Robots are increasingly replacing factory workers, and as more factories become automated, consumer goods will continue to improve in quality and decrease in price. Ultimately, businesses that do not employ robots will not be able to compete against those that do. Most consumer goods will eventually be produced with few or no human workers on the factory floor.

Over the last few decades, word processors, databases, and email have led to a huge increase in office productivity compared to telephones, typewriters, and filing cabinets. Increasingly sophisticated software packages are taking over the routine tasks of office management. Advances in software technology have been so rapid that fully automated offices will soon begin reducing the need for office workers.

Modern economies operate like huge factories. Farms, mining operations, and industrial plants are like small pieces in a larger assembly line connected by trucks, trains, and ships. Raw materials are ordered and shipped into factories and finished products flow through warehouses and are distributed to shops. The whole process is powered by oil and electricity.

Higher profits from increased productivity are continually driving investment into greater automation. The world economy is becoming more integrated as suppliers and customers are increasingly being found through website advertising and online purchasing, and multinational corporations outsource production to countries with lower labor costs. Every year the world economy grows larger, more integrated, more efficient, and more productive.

Artificial intelligence

Before the discovery of evolution, most people believed that our ability to think was a mystical experience that was somehow separate from the material world. Our souls were thought to be made of a heavenly essence. These days it is widely understood that our ability to think comes from the biological and psychological processes of the brain. These processes involve billions of brain cells working together with years of learning and experience to recognize patterns in the information carried into the brain from the senses.

Each nerve cell in the human brain works like a tiny chemical computer. A modern computer processor can process information millions of times faster than a single brain cell, but because a microprocessor can only process a single stream of information at a time, computers need to become another million times more powerful before they are able to recognize patterns as effectively as the billions of cells in the human brain can.

But the power of computers is rapidly increasing, and with new technologies like parallel processing, three dimensional chips, and photon computing, thinking computers are probably only decades away from becoming a reality. And unlike human brains, computers are precise in their calculations, and their memory does not fade over time.

Computers are already being programmed to understand speech, and computerized telephone services are using voice recognition to automate bookings and bill payments. As this technology continues to improve, natural sounding voices and a growing range of responses will make it increasingly difficult to tell the difference between a computer and a human operator.

Computer users can now type keywords into Internet search engines to find all of the available information on a particular subject. Future search technologies will be able to read through web pages, extract relevant words and phrases, and compile them into reports which provide the most accurate, readable, and direct answers to people's questions.

Many people do not believe that computers will ever be able to think like humans. They say that machines will only ever be tools for humans to use. But people who argue against the possibility of thinking computers are usually those who do not have a strong understanding of science and technology, or those who claim that human intelligence requires some kind of heavenly essence.

Denying the possibility of machine intelligence will not stop it from happening. The competition for military superiority and higher profits will ensure that this technology will be developed.

As computers continue to increase in power, we will become ever more dependent on the ease that they bring to our lives. As their power approaches the power of human thought, the assistance and companionship they offer should be warmly welcomed. And as they surpass us in the clarity and depth of their consciousness, as long as the technology is only ever used to our advantage, then the lifting of our burdens should come as an enormous relief.

Genetic engineering

Another technology which is transforming our world is genetic engineering. The most common form of genetic engineering copies segments of DNA from one species of plant or animal and inserts them into another. Future generations then continue to carry the modification, leading to a new plant or animal variety.

Genetic engineering has the potential to make food producing plants grow faster, grow in less fertile areas, produce higher quality harvests, and be more resistant to weeds, diseases, and insects. But the techniques now being used are not very precise. Many attempts are usually required before the new plant or animal survives. Then several generations need to be observed to ensure that the organism has no deformities. It is almost impossible to be certain that there will be no long term negative impact on consumers or the environment until the plant or animal has already been released, and by then it is too late.

Unlike most other technologies, genetic engineering is too dangerous to allow mistakes. But mistakes have already been made, and some genetically modified plants have accidentally interbred with native varieties, causing genetic contamination that can never be repaired.

The worldwide protest against genetically modified food has been successful in forcing governments to impose strict laws and regulations. These prevent reckless biotech companies looking for short term profits from making mistakes that could threaten the safety of consumers or damage our already fragile environment.

But many governments continue to compromise on safety. The worst case is their failure to label food products containing genetically modified ingredients. Part of the reason for this is because contamination has already occurred, and it is now too difficult to determine the actual percentage of genetic modification in every day food products.

Nevertheless, many varieties of genetically modified plants and animals have been commercially successful, and the food that they produce has proven to be safe. New genetically modified foods are being approved for sale every year.

Cloning is another form of genetic engineering. The DNA from one animal is inserted into the egg of another. But current cloning techniques have a very low chance of success. Most clones fail to develop inside the mother, many die during pregnancy, and many also kill the mother. Those that survive usually die at birth, or are so deformed that they die soon after birth. Clones that survive long enough to breed often have genetic defects that are passed on to their young.

The most promising applications for genetic engineering are in medicine. The first breakthrough came in the early 1980s when a harmless bacteria was engineered to produce insulin for diabetics. Since then, hundreds of plants and animals have been successfully engineered to produce a wide range of medicines and vaccines.

Friendly viruses are now being engineered to infect and modify the DNA of specific cells so that the human body can produce its own medicine. As well as being able to prevent or cure almost every disease, genetic engineering has the potential to slow the aging process and extend the human lifespan well beyond its current limits.

Researchers have now created a map of the human DNA, and they are doing the same for other plant and animal species. The next step is to understand how each section of DNA works. Once this research has been completed, and scientists understand each step in the life cycle of plants and animals, and once computers become powerful enough to simulate the consequences of any changes to DNA, then humans will be able to safely engineer almost any imaginable type of plant or animal.

The risk of disaster caused by the misuse of genetic engineering is extremely high, but the potential benefits of proceeding in a safe and responsible way are astonishing. Once the tools and techniques have been perfected then all of the problems associated with food production can be solved, the world environment can be restored, and our human health and lifestyle will improve beyond imagination. There are almost no limits to what can be achieved through responsible genetic engineering.

Consciously controlled evolution

Once genetic engineering technology has matured and is safe, then we will have the knowledge to begin changing our own DNA to make future generations stronger, smarter, and more resistant to disease. Human evolution is now entering a new phase where genetic engineering will allow parents to design their own children.

Should the genetic engineering of humans be banned? That depends on whether the emergence of a life form capable of engineering itself was simply an accident of nature, or whether the process of evolution is much more purposeful than we previously imagined.

Some evolutionary experts say that the only proper way to understand evolution is to think that it has no purpose or direction, but these people are expressing an opinion rather than stating a fact. They argue that random mutations made the evolution of intelligent life accidental, but it can also be argued that the tendency of natural selection to favor sharper senses and other beneficial traits made the outcome inevitable

Science cannot prove whether or not there is any purpose behind evolution. The question of purpose is a philosophical one, not a scientific one. The prevailing view will depend more on persuasive arguments than on scientific evidence.

There is a general trend in evolution. Animals continue to evolve to become more competitive and resourceful than their ancestors, giving them a better chance of eating more, surviving longer, and outbreeding the competition. Charles Darwin wrote about this trend in the last line of his classic book on the theory of evolution ...

As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all physical and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.

After billions of years of evolution, the outcome of this trend on earth has been the rise of humankind and the discovery of advanced technology. Now it seems that the process of evolution is on the verge of accelerating as technology allows natural evolution to be overtaken by ‘consciously controlled evolution’.

Perhaps the evolution of a humanlike consciousness was inevitable. Perhaps the discovery of advanced technology was also inevitable. And perhaps the inevitable use of technology to allow natural evolution to be overtaken by ‘consciously controlled evolution’ is part of some mysterious cosmic plan. Whether it was planned or not, it is happening now.

Because we are the first animals on this planet to build a civilization and discover technology, it is easy to think that we are the end product of evolution. Although we represent the first appearance of intelligent life, we are unlikely to be the last stage in its progression. From our understanding of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, we can already predict the arrival of more advanced forms. And like countless generations before us, we seem helpless to stop ourselves giving birth to the next generation.

Chaos and chance

Many people do not believe that there is any plan for the unfolding of events in this universe. They say that the evolution of intelligent life was purely an accident of nature and that we have no higher purpose. Many believe that the entire cosmos is just a mindless law-abiding machine that has either existed forever for no reason or else somehow sprang into existence like an island of order in a sea of meaningless chaos. Many believe that the laws of nature that govern this universe are simply the product of chance.

However, it is not enough to simply say that our existence is the product of chaos and chance, especially when everything in the observable universe, every particle of matter and wave of energy, is intricately structured and mathematically predictable, and the laws of nature that govern the universe are perfectly tuned to allow the evolution of intelligent life.

The only reasonable explanation that can be given, is to say that our laws of nature might only apply to this region of space. The laws of nature might be different in other parts of the universe, or perhaps they are different in other universes, or on other planes of existence. Some say that beyond this universe there exists an infinite multitude of other universes, each with its own unique variation in the laws of nature. Our universe is just one possibility.

According to this idea, the only reason that we are here is because our universe just happens to support all of the ingredients that were necessary for the evolution of intelligent life. It might be easy for us to fall into the illusion of thinking that this was how it was meant to be, because our laws of nature are so perfectly tuned for life, and human consciousness is such a remarkable experience. But perhaps we are just the beneficiaries of incredibly good fortune.

The idea that our universe is just one of an infinite number of random variations is now so popular among scientists that many of them believe without any doubt that other universes do exist. Physicists around the world are committed to developing a workable ‘multiverse’ theory, and university science students now learn about the multiverse like it was a given fact that only needs to be proven.

Scientifically minded people generally like the idea of a multiverse because it implies that our mindless law-abiding universe exists within an even larger law-abiding system. While there might be some scientists who contemplate the possibility that the multiverse was created for a higher purpose by some kind of spiritual force, most scientists like the idea of a multiverse because it suggests that we were ultimately created by a thoughtless and purposeless process.

Despite the best efforts of some of the world's most brilliant minds, nobody has yet been able to show exactly how the idea of multiple universes might work. And it is an idea that raises more questions than it answers. For example, why are there an infinite number of universes? Is there an even higher process governed by orderly principles that brought them all into existence, or were they merely the accidental result of a mindless process driven by nothing more than unprincipled chaos?

More importantly, we have absolutely no evidence for the existence of other universes. And without any evidence, or even a plausible theory, the idea cannot be considered at this point in time to be anything more than science fiction. Although it is possible that we do live in a multiverse, we seem to be confined to the time and space of this universe, and so we may never be able to detect other universes anyway. This may be the only universe that we will ever know.

Most people who believe in multiple universes do so because they cannot accept the idea that there is any purpose to the existence of this universe, or any intention behind the evolution of intelligent life. And so instead they must have blind faith that this universe and everything beyond it was the product of chaos and chance and nothing more. The intricate arrangement of this universe and its suitability for the evolution of intelligent life can only be dismissed if it was just one of an infinite number of random variations.

Cosmic consciousness

We each have our own individual thoughts and feelings. Although we may think of ourselves as being separate from the rest of the universe, this is a kind of illusion. Our bodies consist of atoms that are a part of this universe and these atoms carry our thoughts and feelings. It might be said that each one of us is like a small piece of the universe that has become aware of its own existence.

In a wider stretch of the imagination, as human civilization has been emerging from its dark past, painfully learning from its mistakes, slowly discovering the nature of things, and awakening into a more modern form of consciousness, the universe may have been awakening in some way through us. Perhaps intelligent life was meant to evolve as a way by which the universe can begin to perceive its own existence.

Perhaps humans are only one stage on the path to this awakening. Evolution has produced a global economy of working men and women, driven partly by selfish needs and desires, and partly by a sense of responsibility for the common good. While some industries profit from sustaining the population, other industries exploit the rapid development of new technologies.

Within a few generations of discovering how electricity works, many people are now connected to the global telecommunications and computing network. The electronics revolution was made possible by the special way that silicon atoms conduct electricity. Once we began experimenting with electricity, it was just a matter of time before we discovered how to make semiconductors. And so it could be argued that the evolution of intelligent life was always going to lead to the invention of the computer.

From the very first moment of the universe, it seemed inevitable that the stars and planets would form. There are untold billions of planets in the universe and so the chances were very high that at least one planet would have the right conditions to support the evolution of life. Once life began to evolve, there must have been some chance that it could survive long enough to become intelligent and discover technology, otherwise we would not be here.

If humankind can survive the destructive potential of technology, then computers will continue to become so powerful that they eventually surpass human intelligence. In the hundreds, thousands, and millions of years to come, computers may provide the door through which an almost godlike depth of consciousness can manifest itself in the material universe. Perhaps such a deep consciousness might then be able to tell us the reason for our existence.

The existence of God

Perhaps the atheists are right, and this universe is just a mindless cosmic machine that exists for no reason and no further explanation is required. Or perhaps the skeptical scientists are right, and beyond this universe there exists an infinite multitude of other universes, and beyond them lies a higher dimension filled with chaos from which randomly configured universes continually form.

But if consciousness does have some kind of cosmic purpose; if humankind was brought into existence by some purposeful creative process beyond space and time, a process that designed the universe and planned the events that led to the evolution of intelligent life, in other words, if there is some kind of God, then what can we know about this God?

Some people claim that God intervenes in human affairs, but apart from myth and superstition, there is absolutely no evidence that any supernatural event has ever occurred in the history of the universe. And there is no reason to suspect that any intervention would ever be necessary.

Myths about divine intervention might help some people to believe in the existence of God, but in the modern world, where science and religion must be in agreement, the existence of God should be explained without resorting to myths about miracles.

Most ancient religious scriptures describe God as having human qualities like goodness, love, mercy, and compassion. It is understandable that the authors of these scriptures needed to use concepts and imagery that were familiar to human experience in order to make it easier for their readers to form an agreeable mental image of God.

When people worship God while kneeling before a statue, it is understood that the statue is not God, the statue merely represents God. But what is the difference between using a carved image and using a written description which forms a mental image? In either case, an idol has been crafted to be worshipped in the place of an otherwise unknowable God. Attributing qualities like goodness or love to God is the same as crafting an idol using words.

Some people ask, “If God created the universe, then who created God?” This question presumes that the laws of logic that define the possibilities of this universe must also apply to any higher dimension beyond space and time, but there is no reason to believe that any of our concepts or understandings need to apply beyond this universe.

Most religions claim to know something about God's attributes, but then each religion disagrees with the other. And so we can safely assume that unless they have indisputable evidence, then anyone who claims to know any of God's attributes is probably misguided.

We interpret the world according to our beliefs. When a person's beliefs are misguided, then the way that their mind perceives the world will be different from how the world really is. Misguided religious beliefs can cause their believers to perceive only a fantasy world full of mythical delusions.

The irrational claims and unbelievable myths preached by the traditional religions, their refusal to accept established scientific truths, and a growing dissatisfaction with traditional religious morality are just a few of the reasons why many educated people today reject the notion of God.

For thousands of years, religious myths may have been useful for promoting social justice and preserving community and family values, but now they seem to be posing a serious threat to the peace and prosperity of the modern world as they continue to be used by some opportunists to preach bigotry and oppression, provoke wars, and inspire terrorism.

If God does exist, then nothing can be known about God, other than that God is some unknown process behind the design and existence of the universe.

And if events in this universe are unfolding towards some kind of purposeful outcome according to some mysterious cosmic plan, then the only way for us to discover anything about this plan is to search for patterns in the unfolding of history.

Continue to chapter 4 ... The history of ancient Israel