I’ve been out of school for over eight months now, struggling to find my place in the world, to establish myself as a man, as an individual. I’ve spent and continue to spend a lot of time thinking about ideas, particularly those that weave together my interests in human nature and development, artificial intelligence, religion and philosophy, all of which inform the fundamental and practical question of what it means to be human, helping to orient myself in this time of life beyond the educational pathway that was up to this point in my life expected of me by the world around me.
However, my personality is such that I naturally tend to spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a human properly oriented in the world and much less time actually practicing being a human properly oriented in the world. I’m a cognitive explorer more than I am a behavioral one, such that I live in my head a lot. I get a certain thrill from exploring and connecting disparate ideas, but simultaneously I often feel disconnected from my embodied existence in the world. I recognize that when it comes to actually living life, it is embodied action that must take precedence over the more detached intellect. After all, of what worth is all the knowledge and understanding in the world if not ultimately embodied and applied in pursuit of a worthwhile goal?
Much of my journey over the last year or so has involved gradually integrating my intellect with the more primitive parts of my psyche, so that what I believe explicitly by way of the intellect might align with the deeper implicit beliefs that most fundamentally ground my behavior. While I can certainly see that I am making significant progress in this regard, it hasn’t been an easy journey. Because the ideas I’m most interested in largely pertain to the nature of my own mind, I have often found myself in a sort of loop of metacognition, of self-reference or self-consciousness, such that even in the brief moments of real engagement with the present moment, I am quickly pulled out of the moment by my intellect’s grasping curiosity taking over, by my own desire to understand my present experience at an explicit and intellectual level.
This disconnect between the intellect and one’s embodied existence—namely, the elevating of the intellect above one’s embodied existence—is often accompanied by a form of arrogance, or cynicism. While cynicism is typically defined as a distrust or suspicion of others and their intentions, here I am expanding that distrust to apply not just to a person but to a way of being generally, a game that is acted out, an ethos. Cynicism in this sense arises when the intellect perceives itself to have grasped the underlying ethos, and subsequently comes to see itself as having risen above the ethos. The intellect wants to know how the magic trick is done, and often delights more in the fact of its own insight into the mechanism behind the magic than in the joy and mystery of the magic itself, while at the same time frequently belittling those who would delight in the magic in and of itself.
Consider a group of small children cooperating together to play a game. At this stage of development, the children know the rules of the game well enough to act them out in a cooperative fashion with other children, but not well enough to articulate them were one to inquire about the nature of the game. The children are acting out an ethos without yet understanding what it is they are acting out. Yet just wait a few more years and their subsequent cognitive development will grant them the ability to articulate the rules of the game, at which point they have grasped and can subsequently manipulate the nature of the game should they choose to do so. Whereas earlier in life the child was governed unconsciously by the rules of the game, now the child has risen above the game and now governs it. From this point on, taking part in the joy of playing the game requires that the child once again enter into the game and voluntarily subjugate him or herself to the rules of the game, and perhaps for the time being forget altogether that it is just a game.
But while the older child may grasp one game at one level of resolution, this can only be done while abiding by the rules of a deeper, more fundamental game. There is always a game being played at the bottom of it all, an ethos being acted out, regardless of what the intellect may think it has grasped, for the intellect itself develops out of this fundamental ethos and is in fact designed to serve that ethos. And herein lies the curse of the human capacity for metacognition and self-consciousness: we come to view the roots from which we grow, the fundamental spirit that governs our behavior, as merely another concept to be grasped. We come to see ourselves as distinct from our roots, giving rise to a state of cynical detachment and separation from our embodied existence.
What I’ve been working to figure out in the last year is the answer to the following question: what game am I playing most fundamentally? To what ethos must I subordinate my intellect, such that my thoughts, words, and actions may be all in alignment? Put perhaps more simply: what is the End Goal, or meta-goal, to which all other goals, including the goals of the intellect, are ultimately subordinate? Such a question has become even more relevant to me in light of my concern with the role artificial intelligence is beginning to play in our world today. In a future of goal-oriented systems of our own making, systems that meet or exceed our own intelligence and adaptability, what is the game that we must embed such systems within so as to ensure their sustainable alignment with that of humanity, our economic and political structures, and the broader ecosystem? What is the End Goal artificial life must be ultimately oriented towards?
Again, here I am using my intellect to try and grasp the very ground of Being. Doing so risks falling into the same trap all over again, placing a greater weight on the concepts just grasped than on the actual lived pursuit of the End Goal. This is a trap I have to be continuously mindful of. What the intellect must come to see is that, whatever it is that has been grasped, it cannot be the ultimate foundation, for to grasp the ultimate foundation would be to saw off the branch upon which we stand. Rather, what we grasp is merely a representation of that foundation, one that can aid in pointing us toward that foundation, but should not be mistaken for the real thing.
Our ability to represent the End Goal that defines the foundational ethos arises from the bottom up for the purpose of serving that ethos. Thus, we cannot conceptualize the End Goal by merely deriving it in a linear and rational fashion. Our very search for the End Goal is in fact motivated by the End Goal itself, and thus we must begin our journey at the End Goal. Rather than conceptualizing the search as following a linear and clear-cut path, we might instead see it as a circular labyrinth to be traversed, the path taking us ever inward toward the center, a center to which all things are anchored and simultaneously progressing toward. It is through this dream-like journey that we catch glimpses of the ultimate foundation, ever coming closer but never fully grasping.
This journey is ultimately one of faith, for the nature of the fundamental game can only be illuminated or verified through actually playing the game. To the degree that such a game can be sustainably iterated over time is the degree to which the game can be trusted, the degree to which that ethos aims true. Note the etymological connection between trust and truth. There is a relational nature to truth as something we put our trust in, something we have faith in. The object of our faith is trustworthy insofar that it sustains us, insofar that it causes us to aim true to the Sustainable Path. When the object of our faith leads us down the wrong path, it is as if we’ve been betrayed by the object of our faith. We’ve fallen by the wayside of the Path—the Tao, the Way, the Truth, the Life—having been serving a false god, having missed the mark, having sinned. Our belief structure must then die and be reborn in order to sustain itself, a continuous and often painful process of transformation, of learning.
If the pursuit of the Sustainable Path, the proper ethos, ultimately involves this continual process of death and rebirth, then we might consider such a pattern of action as a fundamental part of the proper ethos itself. And we might also look to what remains constant, what sustains, over the course of all such deaths and rebirths as something approximating an ideal personality or spirit, perhaps something not unlike our many classical notions of God. The search for this highest ideal, this ultimate spirit to which we are most fundamentally in relationship, does not take place over the course of one lifetime, simply because one lifetime is insufficient to gauge the degree to which such a relationship is sustainable. Rather, it is a dream-like journey undertaken collectively over evolutionary time, throughout the whole of human history, a journey that continues today. Most relevant to Western civilization in particular is the way in which the nature of this dream-like search has been expressed through the biblical narrative.
In the book of Genesis, God places Adam and Eve within the Garden of Eden, a paradisal state of pure innocence, akin to the unconscious state of childhood out of which we each come into being. But there is inevitably a snake lurking in the garden, one that comes along and opens our eyes, granting us knowledge. At some point we are all betrayed by the object of our faith, whatever that object may be, and cynicism and self-consciousness are the result. Whereas Adam and Eve were once naïvely and innocently at one with God and what God had made, they subsequently became acutely aware of themselves and the roots from which they grew. They came to see themselves as separate from God, God as something other, something to be grasped rather than embodied, and they subsequently hid from God. With the dawn of self-consciousness comes the burden of knowing how naked we are, how we can be hurt, and how we can hurt others—the knowledge of good and evil. It comes with the knowledge of the future, of our own finitude and ultimate demise, of the futility of life. This is the fall of Man out of the innocence of childhood and into self-conscious adulthood, a fall that each of us takes, repeatedly, in great ways and small, over the course of individual development.
The remainder of the biblical canon seems to be a long and arduous journey of Man struggling to find redemption from this fallen state, to transcend our self-conscious disposition that causes us to hide and separate ourselves from at-one-ment with God. The Jewish scriptures follow a pursuit of the ideal State, the Promised Land, the New Jerusalem, the proper political structure as saving grace. The New Testament, by contrast, turns to the individual as the key to salvation, pointing to the kings of Israel as culminating in the figure of Christ, the King of kings. What Christ embodies is the creative and truthful Word, the exploratory heroic spirit that voluntarily takes upon his shoulders the sins of the whole world, and in so doing saves the world. He willingly accepts his suffering and faces forthrightly the depths of hell, of chaos, the unknown, and as a result transcends suffering through death and rebirth. Such is the fundamental ethos that grounds our civilization, a truth not to be grasped by the intellect first and foremost as historical fact, but more importantly as a pattern of action to be embodied on the basis of faith. To be a Christian means, after all, not to merely give intellectual assent to the historicity of some supposed event in time, but to be a ‘little Christ,’ to take up your cross and bear it voluntarily, and in so doing transcend the fallen state of Man. In that sense I certainly strive to be a Christian, in spite of whatever cynical relationship to Christianity I might otherwise struggle against.
While Christianity itself by no means has a monopoly on the ethos of the heroic savior, of the truthful, creative, and exploratory individual, the biblical narrative and Christian tradition have nonetheless served as the fundamental means by which this ethos has been encoded in Western culture, and in my own psyche. There is a limitless potential to expand on the nature of this ethos both from within the Christian tradition itself as well as from a wide array of perspectives entirely independent from religious traditions. Some of these perspectives I have been especially delving into in the last year, which include psychology and neuroscience, philosophy, evolutionary theory, dynamical systems theory, art and music. While this blog post serves as a sort of summarized update of what I’ve been focused on of late, I am continuing to work on a far more lengthy post that weaves these perspectives into a far more comprehensive unity, because put together, these perspectives serve to bridge the gap between the religious and the scientific, between the poetic and the technical, giving way to a comprehensive view of what it means to be human in a way that can guide us both in our own personal lives as well as in the development of our most powerful intelligent technologies.
To pursue the path of the Savior, the Hero, is to ‘aim true,’ and to move closer to Heaven. To miss this target is to ‘sin,’ to move closer to Hell. To be ‘righteous before God’ is to be actively engaged in life, of one mind and body, optimally oriented on the Sustainable Path. To me, faith looks to be the embodied proposition that it is in pursuit of this Path that we illuminate the Path, that it is in this ‘wrestling with God’ that we come to truly know God, and that doing so is ultimately worth the inevitable suffering of life.