AI, AI, AI, or I, I, I?
By Martin LeFevre
There has never been a global civilization, and no historical, philosophical, psychological and spiritual foundation exists upon which to build one. It can and must be created. Cultures emerged as whole contexts in particular geographical areas. But geography has become irrelevant in the age of jet travel, the Internet and AI. Like it or not, from now every person on Earth lives in a global society. Multiculturalism and pluralism are wholly inadequate to the challenge, and have fostered relativism and generated a sense of meaninglessness of human life. Attempts to recover and reinvigorate bygone traditions have only hastened their erosion and irrelevance. Trying to recover past glory, whether as “Make America Great Again,” “reunite the Russian Empire,” or “the great revival of the Chinese nation” have amplified divisions and led to a slow motion world war. Recent breakthroughs in AI are catalyzing the crisis of human civilization. In a sobering, if rather hyperbolic essay on the dangers of AI, an indefatigable cheerleader for Homo sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari (author of “Sapiens,” “Homo Deus” and “Unstoppable Us”), warns: “A.I.s new mastery of language means it can now hack and manipulate the operating system of civilization. By gaining mastery of language, A.I. is seizing the master key to civilization, from bank vaults to holy sepulchers.” Setting aside the absurdity of “holy sepulchers,” Harari declares, “We have summoned an alien intelligence that is extremely powerful and offers us bedazzling gifts but could also hack the foundations of our civilization.” The best prescription he has to offer however is to “call upon world leaders to buy time to upgrade our 19th-century institutions for an A.I. world and to learn to master A.I. before it masters us.” Firstly, man is the alien on Earth that has created an “alien intelligence” in his own image. Secondly, “upgrading our institutions” is a woefully inadequate response when the civilizational foundations that Harari seeks to preserve are already rotten. AI is simply accelerating the crisis of human civilization and consciousness. In short, AI requires the radical change that philosophers and religious teachers have called for throughout the ages. (Radical in the sense of the root meaning of the word, which is to “go to the root.”) Meghan O’Gieblyn, author of “God, Human, Animal, Machine,” says, “As A.I. continues to blow past us in benchmark after benchmark of higher cognition, we quell our anxiety by insisting that what distinguishes true consciousness is emotions, perception, the ability to experience and feel — the qualities, in other words, that we share with animals.”That's an inversion of centuries of thought, as O’Gieblyn notes, during which humanity justified its own dominance by emphasizing our cognitive uniqueness. “We find ourselves taking metaphysical shelter in the subjective experience of consciousness — the qualities we share with animals.” For millennia humans have prided ourselves and justified our dominance on Earth by highlighting our cognitive superiority. So it’s beyond ironic that now we’re taking metaphysical refuge in the sensory, perceptual and emotional traits we share with animals, while referring to our “subjective experience of consciousness.” They aren’t the same thing. No other animal on Earth has the capacity for the higher states of awareness that are the hallmark of radical shifts in consciousness, even though few people value and directly experience them on a regular basis. The loss of our cognitive superiority to the machines that we’ve created would be laughable if it wasn’t generating, along with the irrevocable loss of cohesive traditions and cultures, an intensifying existential crisis for man. Clinging to the illusion of the separate self, of ‘my individuality,’ and believing and saying things like, “A.I. will never be able to do what I can do because A.I. has never felt what I’ve felt,” is quite frankly pathetic. It’s no use desperately sticking to delusions of individual uniqueness and artistic specialness based on memory and thought. They belong to AI now. Silly notions of sentience notwithstanding, AI will soon be the master not only of all language, but all knowledge. Without radical change humans will then be AI’s servants — second-rate cognitive creatures. Without wading into the murky waters of epistemology, it’s clear that we have no choice now but to find out: What is the place of knowledge, reason and thought? Human beings have a latent potential to transcend knowledge and thought. In doing so, we’ll remain the masters of the machines we’ve made in our own cognitive image, as well our destinies. We can’t unplug AI anymore than we can switch off the mind of thought. However the many can do what the few have done throughout history - learn the art of completely quieting the mind through passive awareness gathering intense, non-directed attention. Ending the continuity of thought and psychological time keeps the brain healthy, whole and independent of AI. (Elon Musk’s “neuralinking” the brain with AI be damned.) It also allows true intelligence to emerge within us, and opens the door to a sacredness that is beyond the word, which is to say, beyond concepts, knowledge, reason and the known. Already AI is able to “decode and transmit our thoughts,” albeit at a rudimentary, individualized level. Even so, thought remains the sine qua non of human existence, the mechanism without which the vast majority of people (and especially the elites of society) cannot imagine existence. Of course, imagination is itself a function of thought, whereas the stillness, silence and emptiness of meditative states are not. Such states are uncapturable, and non-conveyable to people who have not experienced them. Harari gets it right when he writes, “The specter of being trapped in a world of illusions has haunted humankind much longer than the specter of A.I. Soon we will finally come face to face with Descartes’ demon, with Plato’s cave, with the Buddhist Maya. A curtain of illusions could descend over the whole of humanity, and we might never again be able to tear that curtain away — or even realize it is there.” He misses the crucial point of Descartes’ demon, Plato’s cave, and the Buddhist Maya (not to mention The Matrix) however. It is that we have always been trapped in a world of illusions as humans. AI is compelling us to realize the fact and awaken as human beings. Is there any choice? We delude ourselves in thinking that freedom lies in making choices, when it actually flows from choiceless awareness, the clarity of insight and the action that seamlessly springs from them. Passive observation in nature, even amidst the hustle and noise of a city, is the key. It heightens the senses and feeling, deepens one’s relationship with the Earth, gathers effortless attention, and brings love beyond the stultifying dimension of the personal and the known. Martin LeFevre
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Martin LeFevre, a contemplative, philosopher and writer in northern California, serves as a contributing writer for The Seoul Times. His "Meditations" explore and offer insights on spiritual, philosophical and political questions in the global society. LeFevre's philosophical thesis proposes a new theory of human nature. He welcomes dialogue. email@example.com