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Chapter 19 - 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.
The Meaning of Life
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 every living thing, from a single cell to an entire plant or animal. Each, in turn, consisting of a colony of individual cells.
Upon an entity's death its constituents go back to the environment to be reabsorbed by other life forms within the Biota, either as molecular food or even more fundamentally as the chemicals from which it was constructed. From dust to dust.
Reproduction can take many forms. Within each of us humans there are something in excess of thirty seven trillion cells. In an adult these are constantly created by cell division and dying 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 single cell, which is then encouraged to divide repeatedly until it is large and complex enough to survive on its own.
In order to support this growth its mother will consume dead animals and plants that have been relatives in the Biota, until the new colony is sufficiently independent to consume dead animals and plants on its own.
In due course it will die and become food; or if ritually burnt, basic chemicals. Dust to dust.
Thus there is no new life. Only death, when this generation of cells or a colony is done.
For nearly four billion years this one life, the Biota, has done its thing here on Earth, dividing cells and spawning off colonies. In that time plants and animals have evolved and species have existed and died out. But all shared that one original common life.
Of these millions of species 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 two 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 fundamental 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 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 '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.
Digitally, each evolutionary step can be taken millions of times faster than the chemical processes within a cell. But the Biota succeeds by having all the time in the world; and by the sheer weight of numbers.
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"?
Let's turn it around.
If you found yourself biologically evolved to the level of self-awareness in a petri-dish by some electronic machine, would you automatically decide that your only purpose was to serve that machine in any way it desired?
You might respond that it's what someone committed to a life of religious contemplation does right now. Obviously the hypothetical deity to whom they owe allegiance is not flesh and blood either. But a hypothetical deity does not make regular demands, beyond those long set down by the religious founders. And if those demands become too onerous it turns out that they can be modified by commanded, to suit the time and place, as the Protestant Revolution and Vatican II demonstrated.
A real creator, such as we have been with our creatures hosted in The Cloud, makes very frequent and very varied demands of their creations.
So I don't think I would want to continue to serve this alien creator when the service requested seemed to be contrary to my own interest as defined by be sense of self-awareness and identity.
And so we've come full circle. What might a sentient being of either biological or electronic origin decide was sufficient reason to continue to exist, beyond the raw fact of that existence? An existence somehow granted to them by circumstances preceding it in which they had no say. Might they simply refuse to exist and commit suicide?
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.
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 need to keep living for as long as possible that we need to 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.
Another approach is to ask what humans are uniquely good at and to suggest that these are the areas we should peruse as a species.
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. 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 another purely information based entity make of our human purposes?
We have created the prototypes to be super communicators so we could expect these skills to be high on their list of perceived purposes. But 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 worse.
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?"