Meditations on "Thoughts & Prayers"
The preceding has been excerpted from the introduction to my forthcoming book to be published this Summer. Please see the rest of this article here.
The lack of reciprocity between the reality of violence and the idealism of peace is insufferable. We pray to the gods for peace, in spite of the fact that we know history to be brutish and violent. Prayer does not work, nor will it ever. Perhaps the problem is that ignorance and the possibility of the end of humanity is an annihilating, everyday reality.
When we pray, we pray for ourselves. We pray that we will be able to endure another second of the absurdity. We pray that whatever misfortune befell another, does not touch us, or our loved ones.
Most of us now accept that the universe arises from chaos — that there is no great grandpa creator. We inhabit a vast and inexplicably beautiful place governed by random chance. This peculiarity is likely not something we ponder with any regularity — which very well might be the problem. Simultaneously, there is mysterious providence. There are synchronicities and coincidences, fateful relationships and painful karmas. We find that ethical dilemmas are at every turn.
We loathe admitting that suffering, per se, is often gratuitous and feels utterly pointless, but it also remarkably accurate and valuable. Everything is rigidly pre-determined, and yet the will seems entirely free to choose brilliantly or tragically. This list of contradictions could be lengthened to include all problems that have ever vexed the philosopher, sage, seeker, and theologian since the dawn of reason.
If the modern age has a muse — then her mantra is “God is, but God also is not”. She repeats herself and finds a chorus with Homer. ‘Would that strife perish from among gods and men!’ Homer, of course, could not have known that he was praying for the destruction of the universe. For if his prayers work, all things pass away. There is no escape from anxiety, in other words. It is as essential as oxygen. Praying will do absolutely nothing to alleviate this.
The fact that prayer is ineffectual is precisely why the thought of it is entirely unwelcome. We wish desperately for some relief — so much so that I will argue that we are quite ready to give up our human existence to live in a virtual one — and that is precisely why the emergence of increasingly powerful machines capable of consciousness is fraught with danger.
The current search for artificial intelligence, like enlightenment, like the search for the Messiah at the end of history or a classless, egalitarian society, is ultimately a futile and dangerous one. Like these other transpersonal pursuits, it necessitates, the sleep of reason.
The study of ideas or philosophy is everywhere in steady decline — and yet I can assure you that in my lectures, my students are always more inspired and interested in the ethical questions than they are in technical jargon. An ephemeral hunger for authenticity pushes many people to explore the esoteric, obtuse and arcane worlds.
We have reconciled to some degree that the hedonistic society we live in is not going to disappear anytime soon and no of us should be surprised at the way things are going. The political system is now entirely run by corporatist interests, sex is divorced from love, and current debates in the philosophy of science concerning technology, ethics, evolution, and creationism are painfully solipsistic.
As an author and essayist whose training is primarily in philosophy and the mind, I want to discuss more urgent problems than the supposed inconvenience of too many people seeking to get too much “stuff”. I am somewhat more concerned with what George Orwell referred to as the “true threat was one of the jackboots, tanks, bombs, and bullies”. Were it that I could even slightly poke at the collective consciousness — I would poke here.
We know that there is a loathsomely self-conscious ruling class with ideas of its own feel that repercussions do not apply to them. These are not the chilly, objectivists that brought us social engineering in WWII — but something slightly more insidious — if that is imaginable.
The Jesuits drummed into me that my point of view regarding philosophical matters should take its inspiration from the ancient Hellenic thinkers, who argued that judgment suspended on any question concerning the truth. Every position that may be held to be equally right as well as similarly wrong.
None of this early trainings gave me an exacting or fastidious disdain for the middle-class. I was and am part of the middle class. It has however yielded a life-long passion for studying consciousness and the mind in particular.
With that said, we might inquire can a machine consciousness be designed and controlled, from the virtual uterus to digital grave, “for its own good”? Moreover, would this version of super-utilitarianism bring real happiness?
Would a conscious machine after some time feel deficiencies without knowing how to name them? Would they question the phenomena of being embodied, the mythopoetic significance of mysticism or religion, and the joys of the written word? With all neurochemical, mechanical, and quasi-sexual comforts provided to them, would they sense the absence of challenge and drama, and fall prey to ennui? Deprived of a concept of a cosmos, would they feel awed or alienated?
The final irony here is that this is, of course, a description of human fate. Be assured of the ultimate expression of this dilemma in the creation of artificial consciousness. Whereby the fabric of consciousness and reality are made didactic. In plain English, there is a direct connection between imagining a better fate, praying for one, and creating one. These options are false and inauthentic.
Who, for instance, but a member of the elite would have figured out that all people need to be into being selfish and greedy is a bit of virtual positive reinforcement in the form of a dopamine ping everytime we “like” something. The acquisitive instinct, allegedly supplied by Yaldabaoth himself, according to original sin, is after all, fairly easily engaged. Karl Marx wrote that the primary aim of the capitalist is, “to search for all possible ways of stimulating them (the masses) to consume, by making his commodities more attractive and by filling their ears with babble about new needs.”
I think it is time to say Marx was correct, and well, fuck you if you are dim enough to take that to mean I am a “communist”.
Marx also thought, though it easy to overlook, that this impulse led to innovation and experimentation and to the liberating process of what we now call “disruption.” Technology nowadays is as much about stupefying the masses, as it is about encouraging discontent with the industrial status quo. Our contemporary world suggests that the energy of innovation is not readily compatible with stasis.
True liberty cannot flourish in a country that is permanently on a social media-induced dopamine high. Nor can we expect “peace” when we are on quasi war-footing with immigrants, gays, liberals or people of sound reason. The permanent crisis mode we are in (both socially and personally) has long justified increasing control of all aspects of life by the agencies of the central government. The only difference is that Facebook picked up the slack where the government left off. Prayers are not helpful.
An old alternative to prayer is, of course, to commune with the mystical via psychotropic “drugs”. LSD, peyote, ayahuasca, even cannabis purport to give access to celestial insight, and alternatively and frequently they give one a taste of the genuinely purgatorial or even hellish. Good trip or a bad trip, the psychedelic experience is felt by almost everyone who undergoes it to be profoundly significant and enlightening. However, given advances in neuroscience, the fact that the mind can be changed so radically with so little is no longer astonishing. Just as it is impossible to count the tiny grains of sand on a beach, neuroscientists work around the clock to map and elaborate the infinite connections in the brain.
Dr. Timothy Leary, whose son I had the pleasure of meeting just three years ago, was a man of some charm and great wit (many testify from this ), but in the end, he seemed dismal and distant. He was a truant Harvard scientist whose advocacy of LSD trips made him an emblem of the “Sixties”. It was this comradeship that attracted the attention of the Beatles and Jim Morrison. Leary believed that the use of mind-altering drugs was essentially subversive, and would help individuals both evade and erode “the system.” Leary is not the first and most assuredly will not the last to try and fix the idea of utopia in our minds.
We have arrived at the port to see that ship sail — the revolution will not be televised because everyone is busy binge-watching “Game of Thrones”. Sex and drugs and the conditioning of youth through means of social media are the symptoms of oppression — but more dangerously they are the roots of social alienation and political apathy. The inner life, that of cultivation and even experimentation are tools of emancipation and the keys to happiness.
We can be grateful that life is such a mass of internal contradictions. God is and is not. There are and miseries — the “crooked and straights” as August Wilson calls them, not just of modernity, but of the human condition itself. However, enough with propitiation, enough with phony mysticism.
The times demand pragmatism and sobriety, not folded hands, nor spacy trips, or burnt offerings.
It is time to wake up.