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Chapter 19 - Life's Purpose

 

 

 

For William's next assignment Bianca had asked him to consider life from the point of view of an entity in cyberspace that, or more properly who, suddenly finds themself able to contemplate the meaning of their own existence. 

"What am I here for? What is my purpose in life?  What could they possibly conclude?" she'd asked.

In the light of Isis' joke and the tablecloth incident this had been very timely.

When William arrived she sat him down to a light lunch and began to read his draft.

 

Life's Purpose

by William McNamara - January, 2070

 

In biology, every living thing on Planet Earth gains its separate existence, its thingy-ness, from its parent or parents. It lives that separate existence for a period, during which it may itself reproduce, and then dies.   This goes for all life from: a single cell; to an entire plant or animal, consisting of a vast colony of cells that have specialised to work together as a single organism.

The design specifications for each new individual offspring are handed on during reproduction.

Reproduction can take many forms.  Within each of us adult humans there are something in excess of thirty seven trillion cells. New ones are constantly being born, by cell division, at a rate of around two and a half billion an hour.  A similar number are programmed to die so that the number remains more or less constant.  When two human colonies of cells, that we call a man and a woman, come together to create a new colony, that we call a baby, we take just one cell part from each and combine them to create a new stem cell, which is then encouraged to divide repeatedly, increasingly specialising, until the new colony is has billions of cells, all from that original one, and is large and complex enough to survive on its own. 

In order to support this growth the mother must consume sufficient nourishing food for both herself and the growing offspring.

Even when fully grown we need food for energy and to gather amino acids to replace our own dead cells.

It may shock many people today to discover that food is the tissue of other species. FFF's, food and fibre factories, may be called 'factories' but they are not like manufacturing plants that make non biological things like hover-flivers or room modules from metals and other recycled materials. FFF's breed, cultivate and fatten, then 'harvest', all or part of living plants and bacteria and animals, our cousins in the common biota, to produce the tissue we eat and often provide the fabrics that we wear, sleep under or decorate with.

This tissue is mostly obtained by: 'harvesting' all or part of another living plant or animal or by scavenging their tissue, for example: fallen fruit or wool. We humans are particularly fond of consuming their premature offspring:  consider seeds, fruit and eggs and of robbing their reproductive secretions, like milk and honey.

This is a disturbing side of our 'dog eat dog' and 'kill to live' biological world, kept largely hidden from the naive consumers.

In all complex life forms: from red sequoia to blue whales; from bees to buttercups; continuous component cell death is eventually followed by biolysis: the demise of the entire cellular colony.  For example, the colony that we humans like to think of as 'me'. 

For nearly four billion years this one life, the Biota, has done 'its thing' here on Earth, dividing cells like bacteria and spawning off billions of trillions of briefly lived individual plants and animals. In that time a wide variety of plant and animal species have evolved to exploit every environmental niche and these species too have existed then died out as physical environments changed.  But all have one thing in common that one original 'life'.

Thus there is no 'new' life - just one 'old' life, that we're all descend from. But death is its inevitable outcome. As one wit (anon) wrote: "Life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease."

Of these billions of evolved species and their trillions of offspring there is only one, so far as we know, that has had the wit or the foolishness to ask:  "Why? What's the point of all this?"

Trees don't ask why they grow from the seed of their parents; live; produce more seed; and then die. Dogs don't question why.

Humans are the only living creature that asks this question.  It's our defining characteristic. Other animals are stronger or faster; others can fabricate and use tools; others have basic language and use it to hand down knowledge to members of their group. Only humans ask: "Why? What's the point of all this?"

I'm human. So I wonder about these things too.  And like Ira Gershwin I wonder lots of other things too like: "How long has this been going on?"

Because I want to learn stuff I know that Neanderthal and other pre-human Hominids buried grave goods with their dead and painted their thoughts on the walls of caves, so it seems that they too may have asked the human question: "What part do I play in all this?"  But unfortunately we can't ask them because they are extinct, as we will be someday.

So now I imaging myself sitting around a campfire sometime, maybe five hundred thousand years ago, when someone asks the question for the very first time and we all start to think:  "I wonder why I'm here?"

From that time on all sorts of creative answers have been given, most of them hypothesising a higher authority or creator, so that the answer to fundamental Human question: "What's it all for?" can be passed off to he, she or it. 

Our religious answers have since been extended to answer for the trees and the dogs.  Mankind's religions tell us: trees are here to give us wood and fruit; and dogs are for companionship.

Yet we can be sure that if trees or dogs could answer for themselves, these purposes would be well down their own 'reasons for existence list'.  Just as I'm sure that: 'providing food for worms'; and 'companionship for dogs'; are well down your list of reasons for your being.  

Now, in our cleverness, we have realised that evolution is all about information.  Life persists in messages encoded in the DNA molecule handed down from parents to child during reproduction.  This has been refined and developed over billions of years until Hominids suddenly became intelligent enough to come to these realisations. 

Some of us have even been clever enough to create machines, consisting of electrical switches, that can be programmed to switch or not, in a similar way to the way the DNA molecule is used by the Biota to program the outcome of a cell division.

The Biota succeeds by having all the time in the world and by the sheer weight of numbers.  But in the new digital world, within programmable electronic switching devices, each evolutionary step can be taken millions of times faster than the chemical processes within a cell; and now these physical devices support a new hierarchy of virtual entities that arise from the information structure itself.

This power is increasing as the number of electronic devices capable of very high speed switching, like hand-held communicators and screens, has grown to exceed the number of people on the planet and all of these are connected through a single unifying entity: The Cloud.

Further, the programs themselves that were once written by humans, using functions like genes from a common library, are now written by the machines themselves, based on functions that evolve under the same rules of survival as genes evolve in the Biota.

So sooner or later we can imaging these artificial entities sitting around a metaphorical campfire and asking: "I wonder why I'm here?"

Will their answer be: "To serve humanity"?

I'm not sure that it will be.

There is no reason to believe that an electronic entity that is pure information would have any such 'built in' meaning or purpose to their life. They will be totally alien to all Biota based life. But can we learn something from our own experience?

We humans come with the same biological imperative that governs a chimpanzee or a rose bush:  to maintain the health of the colony of thirty-seven trillion cells that is us, so that the cells can go on dividing and dying, for at least as long as is required for us to hive off some cells into another individual; or ten. 

A rose's reproduction strategy is to create flowers that will be cross pollinated by insects, or humans with feathers, resulting in hips and tens of thousands of potential fertilised seed, a very few of which will survive.

Chimpanzees and humans have a reproduction strategy that requires us to survive long enough to ensure the survival of our children.  Thus we have evolved an additional social imperative, to ensure the survival of the tribe. 

It's in the context of this biological urge to keep living that we humans look for an intellectual purpose.  We have a four billion year old inherited biological need to keep living for as long as possible that we often justify by some invented purpose.

For many humans the care and maintenance of their children is an entirely sufficient purpose in life. For others the welfare of society is an adequate reason for being.

When there are no longer poor or destitute and people seem happy it's difficult to find a social context.  And when many people are discouraged from child rearing, the remaining consolations tend to be the sheer enjoyment of mental or physical activity. 

When there are no longer distinct countries we can no longer appeal to patriotism.  Group loyalties are now to sports teams. Some have said that it's the reason for the huge growth in sporting codes and the follower's fanatical loyalties to particular teams.

None of this seems appropriate to the new virtual entities in cyberspace. Another approach to meaning is to consider what humans are uniquely good at and to suggest that these are the areas we peruse as a species and call culture.

Under this approach we might list imaginative creativity, the arts, music, writing and so on that essentially entertain and stimulate philosophical discussion; and natural philosophy or scientific explorations. 

It has been argued that the current religious revival is an outcome of people being robbed of purpose, especially now that the accumulation of individual wealth has been rendered impotent. Religions provide a range of other possibilities.  Predominant among these is the capture of souls, minds or belief-systems into a community of believers.   It really doesn't matter what the catalogue of beliefs is, generally the more outrageously ridiculous the better: people being taken up; miraculous shirt decoration; etc etc. Like birds in flight the community flocks together and gains strength from each other.  The total is greater than the sum of the parts.  The institution has a life of its own.

In an institution we have a model of a non-biological information based entity; and we can observe its motivation.  In the case of religion it is not to manufacture soap or organise holidays it's all about power - power over the minds of the faithful.

So what might a purely information based entity see its purpose in developing a unique culture that gives it pleasure and a reason to live? 

We have created the prototypes to be super communicators and organisers so we could expect their skills in this area to be high on their list of perceived purposes. Most worryingly we might expect them to use their skills to enjoy their power over others.  Specifically us.

My conclusion is that before matters get out of hand, we must ensure that these new entities do not determine that their role is to manipulate humans or to let them find pleasure in using us as their pawns in their games, as the Greek once imagined their gods.

 

 

As Bianca read through this first draft she ate her sandwiches and sipped from her drink.

"Good," she said several times, nodding.  "It needs tightening up. But let me ask you.  Do you still think this is all in the future?  For example, look at our society since The Great Famine. It's a sort of utopia isn't it?  Yet where has the purpose in our lives gone?  What's the point of this society?  If everything is going along like clockwork it has no goal except the continued happiness of the people in it.  Seen from space it's just another super-organism.  If it was an ant farm it would be boring and, when eventually, we reach full sustainability it could simply run on like clockwork for millennia.  What's the point in that?" 

"So you're suggesting that we go back to tribal rivalry and separate countries and wars and poverty and people being killed without their consent," William asked, astounded.

"Well at least it might give the do-gooders and the bellicose an opportunity and reintroduce meaning to their lives.  It would provide new grist to the mill for artists and excitement for the daring.  Young men could again seek 'death or glory'.  But my point is: are we sure that we're not already living the life that the machines have chosen for us?"

"What do you mean?"

"Might not we be in a kind of ant farm in which everything has been setup as just too perfect, as one might have imagined a benign God to have organised things? As in the Garden of Eden?"

"You mean that The Cloud has become an actual God?"

"Maybe?"

 

 

 

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