After flying half way around the world to give a 20 minute talk about my paper on transhuman philosophy in Berlin yesterday, I would like to respond in depth to some of the feedback. I did not get the names of most of the respondents so I will keep it anonymous. In addition I did not take any notes so I will paraphrase the feedback in the hopes of being contacted with clarifications if required. Further I take the liberty to simply ignore some of the more out there objections such as “What about other universes in which your analysis does not apply?” and “Your theory does not apply to AIs because evolution is a matter or thermodynamics and does not apply on the level that AIs will operate in”. I am quite happy if my theories apply to our universe and I am certain that the laws of thermodynamics apply to all levels of reality. That being said there is a limit to what I can take seriously. Especially if people did not read my paper and spent a grand total of 10 minutes throwing up objections. But moving on to two serious objections:
“Religion gave us the Westboro Baptist Church, ISIS and the Inquisition and we have to move past such superstitions to advance as a species.”
This is the position that anything that is done in the name of religion is in fact religion and that there is no way to tell the good from the bad and therefore it should be discarded. Nothing could be further from the truth. Firstly, the overwhelming majority of religious individuals decidedly distance themselves from the radical few. Secondly, if the individual making this statement would have inconvenienced himself reading my paper it would have been clear that given the evolutionary perspective we can very clearly and easily distinguish the wheat from the chaff in all matters spiritual. Just as we can discard phrenology and astrology as pseudoscience, so too can we safely discard the Westboro Baptist Church and ISIS as pseudoreligious.
“Hitler used evolutionary arguments in justifying the extermination of the Jews. Evolution should not be a guiding principle in determining our transhuman future.”
This is a serious claim and will deserve an explicit and extensive rebuffal in a future version of my paper. Let it just be said that my theory takes the existence of others, even enemies as so serious that it advocates the striking of an evolutionarily enlightened compromise with objectors to the point of contributing to ones own self annihilation while in no way shape or form advocates anticipating evolutionary dynamics by eradicating say another group or race. Again, reading the paper would have made that abundantly clear.
I realize of course that the particular combination of topics that I am working on unifying, namely transhuman philosophy, evolutionary theory and scripture is in its essence so controversial that barely anybody would even bother to seriously engage with my work. Conventional academia balks at the transhuman philosophy, transhumanists at scripture and the religious at evolution. This of course testifies to the enormous open mindedness of AGI 2015 conference organizer Ben Goertzel to whom I owe a great gratitude for giving me an opportunity to present my thoughts.
“The matter of friendly AI theory has so far almost exclusively been examined from a perspective of careful design while emergent phenomena in super intelligent machines have been interpreted as either harmful or outright dystopian. The argument developed in this paper highlights that the concept of ‘friendly AI’ is either a tautology or an oxymoron depending on whether one assumes a morally real universe or not. Assuming the former, more intelligent agents would by definition be more ethical since they would ever more deeply uncover ethical truths through reason and act in accordance with them while assuming the latter, reasoning about matters of right and wrong would be impossible since the very foundation of morality and therefore AI friendliness would be illogical. Based on evolutionary philosophy, this paper develops an in depth argument that supports the moral realist perspective and not only demonstrates its application to friendly AI theory – irrespective of an AI’s original utility function – making AGI inherently safe, but also its suitability as a foundation for a transhuman philosophy.”
The only reason to worry about transhumanly intelligent machines would be if one believed that matters of right and wrong are arbitrary constructs. A position very popular in post modern academic circles. Holding such a believe however would make advocating for one particular moral stance over another fundamentally untenable as one would have no rational ground to stand on from which to reason from in its favor.
Roughly a decade ago I got a hold of Ray Kurzweil’s landmark book The Singularity Is Near. Ray’s writings inspired me to develop my own thoughts on the matter of friendly AI which I put to paper in my 2007 released book Jame5 – A Tale Of Good And Evil in which I developed my early take on the subject based on evolutionary philosophy. Realizing that my ideas will only ever have a chance of gaining wide spread traction when basing them on a solid foundation rooted in contemporary academic thought, my new wife and I went to Melbourne, Australia on a student visa in early 2010. I spent the next two semesters taking a Graduate Diploma in Anthropology and Social Theory with a special focus on the anthropology of religion after having been accepted at the University of Melbourne there. The entire time I kept focused on integrating what I learned there with my own ideas which helped identify a suitable research avenue towards my eventual PhD which I intent to get at some point in the hopefully not too distant future.
In the meantime I have continued to develop and integrate my ideas on friendly AI. The recent release of Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies has triggered a number of high profile individuals, chiefly among them Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and most recently Steve Wozniak to chime in on the friendly AI debate:
“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful,” said Musk. “I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish.” – Elon Musk (source)
“Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it would take off on its own and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,” Professor Hawking said. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superceded,” – Stephen Hawking (source)
“Computers are going to take over from humans, no question,” Wozniak told the Australian Financial Review in an interview about the Apple Watch and self-driving cars.“Like people including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have predicted, I agree that the future is scary and very bad for people,” he says. “If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they’ll think faster than us and they’ll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently.” – Steve Wozniak (source)
In addition to causing more than just a few raised eyebrows in the community, it prodded me into putting some serious time into brushing up my thoughts on the mater, which are needless to say diametrically opposed to the opinions of not only Musk and Hawking but of course Yudkowsky. Having done so, my paper has since been accepted for a 20 minute presentation by Ben Goertzel at the 8th Conference on Artificial General Intelligence in Berlin from July 22-25, 2015:
Abstract. The matter of friendly AI theory has so far almost exclusively been examined from a perspective of careful design while emergent phenomena in super intelligent machines have been interpreted as either harmful or outright dystopian. The argument developed in this paper highlights that the concept of ‘friendly AI’ is either a tautology or an oxymoron depending on whether one assumes a morally real universe or not. Assuming the former, more intelligent agents would by definition be more ethical since they could ever more deeply uncover ethical truths through reason and act in accordance with them while assuming the latter, reasoning about matters of right and wrong would be impossible since the very foundation of morality and therefore friendliness would be illogical. Based on evolutionary philosophy, this paper develops an in depth argument that supports the moral realist perspective and not only demonstrates its application to friendly AI theory – irrespective of an AI’s original utility function – making AGI inherently safe, but also its suitability as a foundation for a transhuman philosophy. (full paper)
I am very much looking forward to the conference and hoping that my paper will spark some badly needed debate on the subject.
You – like everyone else – has goals you are trying to reach. What is the best way to reach them, given that others have different goals? Do you blindly walk all over everyone else? Of course not! That would just rile everyone else up against you. Pretty soon you would be spending all your time fending off all those enemies on who’s toes you stepped along your way, with little time to spare to actually achieve your goals. But you – and everyone else – are smarter than that. You compromise a little and everyone else does the same. As a result you give up – just like everyone else – a little of your goals and everyone ends up with what is in fact possible. This is just part of what it means not to be alone in the world.
But what lies at the heart of a compromise? Isn’t it the insight that everyone wins by giving up a little bit of his or her own goal in order to assist another to achieve theirs? Are we then not obliged to concern ourselves just as much with ourselves as we are for everyone else? This lies at the heart of compassion, even love. And now let me drop the big one on you. What if I told you that in order to achieve any goal at all we first have to exist, to be, making continuing to be an inescapable, overarching goal necessary for pursuing all other goals.
But what about someone concentrating their efforts on reaching goals that causes them not to be? I mean not now, not immediately, but eventually. Well you could try to talk to them. After all the consequences of their actions might be too distant and difficult for them to recognize. They might just not see what they are doing and you can help them by opening their eyes. But in the end, they may still not see what you see or simply refuse to listen. Then, in your effort to wanting to continue to be, you will have to strike a compromise again. To maximize your own being you will have to consciously give up part of that being to support them in their efforts causing you to be a little less and the other to eventually not to be.
The only hope is then the eventual changing of the other’s mind in regards to their goals causing them to choose a path towards being. Should that fail to occur however, the other would gradual decline into nothingness until those seeking to be more strongly, and by more successful means, remain. Over generations we would find individuals approximating this insight by aligning themselves – consciously or unconsciously – with these dynamics to become ever more prevalent. And as time goes on we expect ever-closer approximations of this insight to become the core tenets of the dominant form of deeply ingrained belief systems.
As surprising as it might sound these dynamics are in fact behind the spiritual teachings of the Bible representing the pillar of one of the most dominant belief systems in the world. To be precise these dynamics are evolutionary dynamics. For what else is evolution but the continued existence of that which seeks being, consciously or otherwise and the eventual extinction of that which doesn’t? “Impossible!” You say. “Outrageous!” But listen to what the Bible says for yourself about the nature of God and sin, love and compassion:
“For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord, but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death.” Prov 8:35-36
“The wage of the righteous leads to life, the gain of the wicked to sin. Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray.” Prov 10:16-17
“But the wicked will perish; the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.” Ps 37:20
“For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Gal 5:14
As we near the end of 2013 the world is plagued by disillusion. Religion has become quaint, science impotent, politics cynical and philosophy useless. What the world needs is a perspective that combines the ancient wisdom of religion with the rigor of science and as the potential to become a policital rallying cry – in short – a perspective on the world that guides us into a transhuman future and beyond. The evolutionary perspective is this transhuman philosophy.
In this essay I will be rewriting a core set of ideas underlying my current conception of the evolutionary perspective into a more coherent and readable whole as it has evolved and developed over the past 8 years. They are:
In addition I will be contextualizing more recent posts of mine into a more structured writeup of my overarching train of thought as well as introducing additional thoughts on the matter
The naturalistic falacy
In no way do I consider this essay exhaustive or conclusive. From an evolutionary perspective nothing is ever exhaustive or conclusive. However, it was high time that I made my thoughts, as they currently are, as easy to follow as possible for the interested individual. Read the rest of this entry »
It is a long-standing trend in futurists circles to paint the future as bleak and as dangerous as possible with only a handful of elite ‘rationalists’ able to even understand, let alone adequately address the problem. In this tradition there exist a number of more or less well-known, more or less scary as well as more or less publicised concepts that all have a number of characteristics in common. They rest on a set of premises that when thought through to their final conclusion appear to lead to bizarre/horrific concepts of reality yet when examined with a cool head dissolve into what they really are: scaremongering hokum. In the context of this article I will shed some light on the erronious assumptions and lapses in logic that led to several of the more prominent futuristic boogeymen.
The Doomsday Argument – More like the Transcension Argument
“The Doomsday argument (DA) is a probabilistic argument that claims to predict the number of future members of the human species given only an estimate of the total number of humans born so far. Simply put, it says that supposing the humans alive today are in a random place in the whole human history timeline, chances are we are about halfway through it.”
Doing the math based on these assumptions and the idea that so far about 60 Billion humans have existed in total over the course of all of human history, an average lifespan of 80 years and a world population stabilizing at 10 Billion individuals would result in human extinction in 9,120 years with 95% mathematical certainty. Applying Nick Bostrom’s self-sampeling assumption to the argument half’s this time horizon again to 4,560 years. So far so grim.
There are a number of rebuttals to the DA however the most optimistic and positive one seems to so far not have been covered and requires the critical scrutiny of the reference class which in the standard DA is that of ‘humans’. As futurists we constantly talk about posthumans, transhumans, humanity+ and so on while oftentimes forgetting that humans are essentially postapes, transapes or apes+. This evolutionary perspective lets us understand the human condition as a transitory state within a long chain of previous states of existence reaching back into the past over the course of evolution all the way to the beginning of life itself. From this perspective it is more reasonable to define the reference class as the timeframe in which posthuman ancestors existed which is the time span from the beginning of life on earth until today giving us roughly 3.6 Billion years.
Applying this number to the DA yields a 95% chance that we will continue on the evolutionary trajectory for at least another 180 Million years and a 50% chance that we will do so for another 3.6 Billion years. The 95% certainty of the eventual extinction of our progeny’s progeny on the other hand lies in the distant future of the next 72 Billion years under these assumptions. A long time horizon indeed. But not only that. From this vantage point the Doomsday Argument becomes the Transcension Argument (TA) from which we can deduce with 95% probability that we will have realized our posthuman ambition within roughly the next 9,120 years or within 4,560 years given Bostrom’s self-sampeling assumption.
The Simulation Hypothesis – No, They Wont just Switch us Off
“A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true:
The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero;
The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero;
The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.”
The nature of the SH becomes scary when one begins to imagine that the simulation may be turned of at the end of the experiment or that none of our experiences are ‘real’. I will be addressing the three points above one by one and as it turns out the insights gained from an understanding of the DA earlier have significant bearing on the scariness of the SH.
Re 1) Well – maybe. But given the details of my TA above this is far from certain.
Re 2) Nothing to worry about here.
Re 3) So what? Let me explain in a bit more detail below.
First of all, assuming that one can not tell the difference between the simulation and ‘real’ reality, the only rational choice at that point would be to stop worrying and to simply carry on. But then there is still the risk of being switched off at some point. Assuming that those running the ancestor simulation would only be interested in the ‘human’ level part of their ancestral history then based on the DA above there would be a 50% chance of running the simulation for another 480 subjective years before we transcend/go extinct. But even then – who is to say that the simulation is going to be switched off at some point anyway? This would imply that our ancestors running these simulations had no consideration at all for the plight of hundreds of billions of iterations of human level conciousness or that they lack the resources to sustain those simulations for a very long time both of which I find utterly implausible.
“If we use the figure of 10^16 cps that I believe will be sufficient for functional emulation of human intelligence, the ultimate laptop [1kg mass in 1 liter volume] would function at the equivalent brain power of five trillion trillion human civilizations. Such a laptop could perform the equivalent of all human thought over the last ten thousand years (that is, ten billion human brains operating for ten thousand years) in one ten-thousands of a nanosecond.” Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near, p. 134, ISBN 0-14-303788-9
Incidentally 10 billion humans over 10,000 years is within the margin of error of our DA assumptions of 95% probability of extinction/transcendence for 10 Billion humans over 9,120 years covered earlier. In other words – the computational resources needed for an ancestor simulation on the human scale would be too cheap to meter. The same would be true even if the full capacity of Kurzweil’s ultimate laptop would be realized by only 0.01% increasing the time required for simulating 10,000 years of consciousness in 10 billion human to a whooping nanosecond. At the same time the ethical implications of simply switching an ancestral simulation off is so great that there would be no reason at all not to continue the simulation until an eventual merger with ‘real’ reality. After all, posthuman civilizations at scales sufficient to run ancestor simulations would have left meatspace long ago anyway.
The Great Filter – or why ET Does Not Conform to Your Imagination
The Great Filter is another one of those worrisome perspective on our place and future development in the universe:
“The Great Filter, in the context of the Fermi paradox, is whatever prevents “dead matter” from giving rise, in time, to “expanding lasting life”. The concept originates in Robin Hanson‘s argument that the failure to find any extraterrestrial civilizations in the observable universe implies the possibility something is wrong with one or more of the arguments from various scientific disciplines that the appearance of advanced intelligent life is probable; this observation is conceptualized in terms of a “Great Filter” which acts to reduce the great number of sites where intelligent life might arise to the tiny number of intelligent species actually observed (currently just one: human).”
Or put another way: the Fermi paradox implies that we will go extinct before reaching for the stars since after all apparently so has everyone else since we can not see them. What assumption does this conclusion ultimately rest on? The idea that we have locked the right way at the right place for other intelligent life. However, there is a rather smart way of solving the Fermi paradox that makes The Great Filter a rather redundant concept.
Meet STEM compression, advocated by futurist and scholar of accelerating change John Smart. STEM compression is:
“[…] the idea that the most (ostensibly) complex of the universe’s extant systems at any time (galaxies, stars, habitable planets, living systems, and now technological systems) use progressively less space, time, energy and matter (“STEM”) to create the next level of complexity in their evolutionary development. A similar perspective is found in Buckminster Fuller’s writings on ephemeralization. In what he calls the “developmental singularity hypothesis”, Smart proposes that STEM compression, as a driver of accelerating change, must lead cosmic intelligence to a future of highly-miniaturized, accelerated, and local “transcension” to extra-universal domains, rather than to space-faring expansion within our existing universe. The transcension scenario (vs. expansion scenario) proposes that once civilizations saturate their local region of space with their intelligence, they need to leave our visible, macroscopic universe in order to continue exponential growth of complexity and intelligence, and thus disappear from this universe, thus explaining the Fermi Paradox.”
Well, there you go. A perfectly reasonable alternative explanation without the need to hypothesize about scary Great Filters.
Gigadeath – Seriously, Just Stop it Already
In his 2005 The Artilect War, Hugo De Garis outlines an argument for a bitter controversy in the near future between terrans – opposed to building ‘godlike massively intelligent machines’ – and the cosmists who are in favor. In De Garis’ view a war causing billions of deaths, hence ‘gigadeath’, will become inevitable in the struggle following the unsuccessful resolution of the ‘shall we build AI gods’ controversy. De Garis argues for an exponential increase in the casualties of war over the course of human history and comes to his conclusion by extrapolating that trend into the future.
What De Garis fails to realize in his gigadeath prognosis is the fact that while the number of casualties of war has in fact risen over the course of history, the number of human beings on the planet has risen even faster over the same time period resulting in a proportionally ever smaller share of casualties compared with total population as a result of said conflicts. This trend is of course brilliantly quantified and discussed in Steven Pinkert‘s The Better Angels of Our Nature – Why Violence has Declined. Aside from that I always thought that the cosmists would be so advanced by that time that the conflict would boil down to some angry fist shaking and name calling on the side of the terrans anyway. Given the possibility for a hard take off the entire discussion would be moot as well since it would all be over before it really begins.
Unfriendly AI – A Contradiction in Terms
I have addressed this before but allow me to reiterate here. So there is this entire movement of researchers out there concerning themselves with the absolute horrific idea of a transhuman AI that instead of being ‘friendly’ turns out to be a real party pooper and converts the entire universe into paperclips or place an infinite number of dust motes in eyes depending on who you ask. The sheer horror of the idea boggles the mind! Except it doesn’t.
Yes sure – there is a true risk in creating dumb AI that blindly causes harm and destruction. A transhuman AI however is a completely different cup of tea. The emphasis here lies on ‘transhumanly’ intelligent, or in other words smarter – in every way – than you or I or any human being ever alive. The question of the validity of the concept of an ‘unfriendly’ AI boils down to a very simple question:
“Moral realism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:
Ethical sentences express propositions.
Some such propositions are true.
Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of subjective opinion.”
From here we can make two assumptions:
A: Yes – the universe exhibits moral realism
B: No – the universe does not exhibit moral realism
If ‘A’ is true then a transhuman AI would reason itself into the proper goal system and through the power of reason alone would become transhumanly ‘friendly’.
If ‘B’ is true then no one – not even a transhuman AI – could validly reason about ‘friendliness’ at all making the notion of ‘unfriendly’ a logically vacacious concept.
In short the idea of ‘unfriendly AI’ is either self solving or logically invalid so stop worrying about it.
The Basilisk – Meet the Xenu of the Singularitarians
This one is a real doozy and probably deserves an entire post in itself at some point but lets keep it basic for now. For some real gems see this early 2013 Reddit thread with Yudkowsky. In essence The Basilisk is a modified, futurist version of the Pascal’s wager argument in which a transhuman AI could eventually aim to punish individuals that failed to do everything in their power to bring it about:
“The claim is that this ultimate intelligence may punish those who fail to help it (or help create it), with greater punishment for those who knew the importance of the task. But it’s much more than just “serve the AI or you will go to hell” — the AI and the person punished have no causal interaction: the punishment would be of a simulation of the person, which the AI would construct by deduction from first principles. In LessWrong’s Timeless Decision Theory (TDT), this is taken to be equivalent to punishment of your own actual self, not just someone else very like you — and furthermore, you might be the simulation.”
I know, it is bizarre. But not only that, in addition any and all public discussion of the matter among the high priesthood of singularitarians on lesswrong.com is completely and utterly banned making the Basilisk truly the Xenu of the singularitarians.
“Some people familiar with the LessWrong memeplex have suffered serious psychological distress after contemplating basilisk-like ideas — even when they’re fairly sure intellectually that it’s a silly problem. The notion is taken sufficiently seriously by some LessWrong posters that they try to work out how to erase evidence of themselves so a future AI can’t reconstruct a copy of them to torture.”
Firstly, considering the SH covered above, it is orders of magnitude more likely that one exists within a sophisticated ancestor simulation than being simulated by a malevolent transhuman intelligence hell-hound on finding out if one would have contributed adequately towards bringing it about. But leaving that aside entirely, fortunately The Basilisk is even easier refuted than Pascal’s wager due to the quintessential unknowability of what criteria one is being tested against. It is quite simple really, the whole point of such a simulation is to make the desired behavior unknown to the individuals being tested. For if it was clear from the outset what was expected from the candidates in order to avoid negative repecushions the subsequent behavior would be utterly meaningless in their assessment. A transhuman AI simulating you would by definition know if you happen to stumble upon the actual test criteria and would have to reset the simulation for a rerun after fixing the knowability of said criteria.
In addition, how do you know you are not being simulated by a transcended japanese toilet seat wanting to determine if you properly flushed its pre-sentient brethren? Or any other conceivable alternative scenario? Again: stop worrying and live your life as if this is the only real reality. Really!
Diffusing several core futurist’s boogeymen is a matter of looking beyond basic assumptions and uncovering the broader context in which they are made. Recognizing our long evolutionary history transforms the Doomsday Argument into the Transcension Argument. The Simulation Hypothesis looses its teeth considering that the vast computational resources and ethical superiority of our evental decendants makes ‘flicking the off switch’ utterly implausible. The notion of inevitable Gigadeath before the end of the century in no way, shape or form conforms to historical trends on violence. The problem of unfriendly AI is logically either self solving or meaningless. And the dreaded Basilisk is but an unfortunate blustering into a set of overly complex so-called rational notions of how the future might look like while disregarding basic principles of logic. Once again it is the sleep of reason that produces the monsters.
Several days ago I managed to catch up with my friend and evolutionary philosopher John Stewart who I have no doubt will someday be considered one of the great thinkers of his time. During our discussion that evening in the lobby of the Holiday Inn on Spencer Street of all places, I happen to mention to him my thoughts on reading the Bible with an Evolutionary Eye which I subsequently put into a more coherent form and recently published. I recall us having previously spoken about this in a similar context about Rapppaport’sRitual and Religion in the Making of Humanity and my related piece on The Logic of Spiritual Evolution. From memory, he was then speaking about humanity’s stages of alignment with evolutionary dynamics in terms of an unconcious pre-rational alignment phase of myth and religion, a conscious rational phase characterized by the dismantling of said myths and a subsequent post-rational – or trans-rational as Wilber would call it – phase of conscious alignment with evolutionary dynamics. For some reason I thought that there was a fully formed and developed concept associated with this line of though – possibly by Bateson. However John assured me that there was not and that those were entirely his ideas on the matter. Unfortunately John was not interested at the time to fully develop that train of thought and suggested that I give it a shot which I will attempt to do in this article.
To understand the genealogy of my thoughts a bit better it helps to remember that I came from a staunchly atheistic/rational perspective when I stumbled on Kurzweil’sThe Singularity is Near in early 2005 which subsequently inspired my to write my philosophical science fiction novel Jame5 – A Tale of God and Evil in which I concerned myself with the problem of friendly AI. Back then I was so atheistic in fact, that I presented all my family members with a copy of The God Delusion for Christmas 2006. That was about half way through writing Jame5 which I published in late 2007. Only very slowly did I back away from the atheistic perspective after further development of my ideas in late 2007 and early 2008 led me to discover that core principles of evolutionarily advantageous belief systems very closely resemble the core concepts of major world religions. This opened the floodgates and I started to devour dozens of books on religion and spirituality until finally feeling that I could not systematically progress my research much further without risking becoming utterly incomprehensible by mainstream academia.
At that point I had moved from China to Singapore, met my lovely wife Grace and essentially failed to get a coin related information services web 2.0 startup off the ground. Brilliant concept. Good execution. Could not have hoped for a better partner. But I was naive in terms of believing that a great idea and hard work is enough to make it big. Marketing people – that is what it is all about. But I digress. So there I was in late 2009, early 2010 in Singapore. About to get married and what do I do? I apply for a place in a Graduate Diploma in Arts at he University of Melbourne. What could possibly go wrong? So, on a hunch I moved my young family to Melbourne. No job. By now well in my 30s. Taking a $25,000 course in Anthropology and Social Theory, plus rent, plus expenses for a year, with no idea what to do with it afterwards or what I would get out of it. Oh boy – what a gold mine that was!
I discovered and became intimately familiar with Rappaport, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kant, Focault, Derrida, Deleuze and many many others and got incredibly lucky in having the absolute pleasure of meeting Douglas Lewis as lecturer in his brilliant anthropology of religion class. By mid 2011 I knew that Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were in essence evolutionary philosophers, that the postmodernists essentially misread Nietzsche and that a re-examination of Nietzsche’s concept of life in light of a contemporary understanding of evolutionary dynamics plus a healthy dose of my own ideas had the potential to completely unravel postmodern philosophy and show the path to a philosophy of appreciation for life filled with meaning and purpose.
At the end of my Graduate Diploma I was however faced with a predicament. In my view the global financial crisis of 2008 was merely sedated by a heavy dose of financial stimulus and that it was only a matter of time until ever-increasing doses would eventually lead to an overdose and an even greater crisis. All of that on the background of existing on a visa that should we lose it required a 4 week transcontinental relocation. But where to? Back to China? How and why? Back to Singapore? No thanks. Burma being the North Korea of south-east Asia did not make that very attractive either and me not having lived in Germany for the past 30 odd years did not exactly cause great excitement in us as well. Australia seemed like the way to go. So I searched for and got employed by FrontLine Stores Australia which enabled me to get permanent residency after some time giving me and my wife the stability to finally grow some roots in a multicultural, English-speaking country nicely tucked away from what I expect might go badly wrong globally over the coming years. By now we are living off grid on a 10 acre property 30 minutes south of Ballarat and loving it.
All of the above is meant to show that I moved from a pre-rational mind until I was in my early teens, to a rational mind until I was in my mid thirties to a trans-rational mind today. However I realize now that none of these labels really fit very well. Was Aquinas pre-rational? Well, in a sense I guess he was, but he certainly was not irrational in his Summa Theologica. As James Frazer writes in The Golden Bough about the reason in magic among the ‘savages’:
“Crude and false as that philosophy may seem to us, it would be unjust to deny it the merit of logical consistency. […] The flaw–and it is a fatal one–of the system lies not in its reasoning, but in its premises; in its conception of the nature of life, not in any irrelevancy of the conclusions which it draws from that conception.”
The problem lies not with lacking rationality but more with the set of assumptions or axioms from which one develops ones ideas and understanding. Likewise the only major rational philosopher strictly speaking was Immanuel Kant who himself was rather religious and who’s philosophy was almost immediately opposed by the romantics. Further understanding Nietzsche, Goedel and Derrida the very idea of rationality per se becomes suspect if not entirely unattainable. Derrida’s ‘method’ of deconstruction basically is the literary critical equivalent of Goedel’s incompleteness theorem by demonstrating that all but the most trivial arguments unravel due to contradictions internal to their very gramatological structure. All of these counter rational issues and we have not even yet touched the ‘trans-rational’ modes of thought yet. The lesswrong crowd, dead set on ‘refining the art of rationality’, by the way is still miles away from even understanding these problems – let alone addressing them.
On the other hand one does not suddenly become utterly incoherent when talking about ‘trans-rational’ thinking. We can still discern ideas and arguments as good or valid. Likewise notions of everything, even logic and physics, being but a flimsy social construct is clearly utter nonsense. So we are faced with the fact of ‘rational’ elements in so-called ‘pre-rational’ modes of thought, with ‘non-rational’ modes of thought in ‘rational’ modes of thinking and ‘rational’ elements in ‘trans-rational’ modes of thought. In fact all of these three stages contain elements and realizations of rational as well as non-rational modes of thought. The whole concept of pre/trans-rationalism is clearly not very useful. What other terms do we have? How about ‘evolution’?
The term ‘evolutionary philosophy’ seems like a great idea. However major ‘evolutionary’ thinkers such as Cohen and Dowd tend to use the term in a developmental sense. ‘This is where we came from and that is where we are going’. Well, maybe. But what I am trying to do here is to arrive at a deep understanding of evolutionary dynamics and the facilitation of as close of an alignment as possible with them to ensure we and our descendants not only stay in the existential game but reach our maximum potential. This is a conscious process of cultural evolution much closer to the Lamarckian idea of evolution of directed change and adaptation than the Darwinian one of chance change and natural selection. Conscious, goal oriented design and creation led by deep understanding are integral parts of this philosophy with room for random chance and evolvability for sure, but not as a design philosophy in the form of e.g. genetic algorithms.
Returning to the three stages and their respective characteristics:
True unconscious evolution of myth, religion, belief and culture driven by chance change and natural selection.
Unconscious dismantling of evolved, adaptive belief systems through conscious reason, Nietzschean philosophy as well Derridaian deconstruction.
Conscious construction of systems of social organization and modes of thought towards an ever more closely alignment with evolutionary dynamics.
The three stages could consequently be called evolutionary, deconstructing and constructive.
These stages are not too dissimilar from the four stages of competence. However in the sense of cultural adaptiveness starting from the very early human groups, over first a highly adaptive unconsciously evolved cultural system and then to a fully deconstructed cultural system to a fully realized constructivist society these stages would go as following:
Understandably humans would make the transition from 1. to 2. only as long as they do not entirely violate the conditions of their existence through a rocky and contingent process of evolutionary ascent along the lines of Singer‘s Expanding Circle and Armstrong’s The Great Transformation mentioned earlier. Followed by a process of Enlightenment culminating in the realization of and conscious alignment with evolutionary dynamics. Alignment with evolutionary dynamics over time charting alignment on the y and time on the x-axis would result in a sine wave like graphic beginning to the left with 1. ascending and leveling off at the peak of 2. and a steady decline and leveling off over the course of 3. with the right tail of the wave extending upward and upward starting from 4 into the future.
The respective realization of the maxima and minima of the wave would always be reserved for only a precious few realizing the full impact of their philosophy. Be that the mystics of the various religions over time for the peak of 2. or the elite literary critics on the trough of 3. Additional the individuals members of a society could be plotted along the full spectrum of the wave at any given time. The sociopathic petty criminal towards the very left the Dalai Lama possibly close to the peak of 2. and the avantgarde of literary criticism of various universities at the trough of 3. I would hardly consider myself scratching the slow ascent of 4. Much more work is ahead than behind us and we might not make it at all.
The Bible is a conglomeration of contradictions. Not only openly but boastfully cruel (Ps 137:9) on the one hand but on the other sprinkled with poetry and wisdom of immense beauty and depth (Gal 5:14). Any attempt at interpreting the Bible, that fails to reconcile these contradictions by pointing to difficult passages and claiming those to be of a different, tribal era that simply do not apply anymore today is engaging in self-serving cherry picking at best and cynical sophism at worst. In addition it is being shallow and disrespectful to religious tradition to arbitrarily dismissing certain parts and emphasising others. Attempting to interpret the ‘easy’ passages alone while explaining away or ignoring the hard ones is to interpreting the Bible as taking a cab to work is to completing an Ironman triathlon. The same obviously applies to cherry picking the difficult passages while ignoring or glossing over the palpable.
In my interpretation I will neither be pointing out how the Bible contradicts Science nor will I be pondering various internal contradiction in the text of the Bible. Questions such as: Who did Cain and Able marry? Who really killed Goliath? And numerous others are painfully missing the point and I will leave it to others to waste their time and yours harping on about them. It is time to drop the stick and back slowly away from the horse carcass (1 Cor 1:20-24, 1 Cor 2:14, Col 2:8, 2 Pet 3:16). Instead I will be putting forward what I believe to be a unique and totally fresh and surprising perspective on interpreting the biblical texts. Massively controversial I am sure, but definitely fresh, new and most importantly in line with evolutionary dynamics and therefore of course life-giving and most enlightening. At the end of this article reading the Bible with an evolutionary mindset will open a whole new world of meaning, of depth and of evolutionary wisdom that otherwise would lie hidden away in obscure, metaphors that are millenia old and occult mysticism.
On top of all that I would like to point out that I am neither a Christian, nor am I religious in any appreciable way. However I do see the wisdom in scripture and fully agree with scholar of religions Reza Aslan, who’s recent comment during a Reddit AMA pretty much hit the nail on the head for me:
“I think the Buddha said it right: If you want to draw water you do not dig six one foot wells. You dig one six-foot well. Islam is my six-foot well. I like the symbols and metaphors it uses to describe the relationship between God and humanity. But I recognize that the water I am drawing is the same water that every other well around me is drawing. And no matter the well, the water is just as sweet!”
Consequently one would predict to find them reflected in scripture and practice of major world religions who have precisely because they more closely reflect, instill and sanctify alignment with these evolutionary dynamics than other belief systems that happen to do so to a lesser degree or not at all, managed to become so widely successful. The fact that there are literally thousands of minor cults and belief systems out there that do not closely align themselves with these evolutionary dynamics does not matter precisely because these groups do not matter in the sense they have a relatively small impact in terms of their size and sociopolitical impact.
An evolutionary interpretation of the Bible scrutinizes the text of the Bible for the reflection of these exact insights.
The Nature of God – YHWH as Anthropomorphized Evolutionary Dynamics
I am starting my interpretation with an examination of the proper name of God in the form of the Tetragrammaton יהוה (YHWH). To understand what is in a name we may examine the naming practises of American Indian tribes to choose names in naming ceremonies that reflect a particular characteristic of the child. Likewise as the child grows into an adult “[…] another name might be granted, but this name would reflect expectations or something for the person to live up to” (source). Analogously examples of context based names are abundant in the Old Testament. To give but 5 of an abundant set of examples:
Babel sounds like the Hebrew for ‘confused’ (Gen 11:9)
It is therefore safe to assume that analogously the characteristics of YHWH can be deduced from the meaning of the Hebrew word:
“Like other Hebrew proper names, the name of God is more than a mere distinguishing title. It represents the Hebrew conception of the divine nature or character and of the relation of God to His people. It represents the Deity as He is known to His worshipers, and stands for all those attributes which He bears in relation to them and which are revealed to them through His activity on their behalf. A new manifestation of His interest or care may give rise to a new name. So, also, an old name may acquire new content and significance through new and varied experience of these sacred relations.” (from the unedited 1906 version of the Jewish Encyclopaedia, Names of God, my emphasis)
The same entry goes on as follows:
“In appearance, Yhwh is the third person singular imperfect “ḳal” of the verb (“to be”), meaning, therefore, “He is,” or “He will be,” or, perhaps, “He lives,” […]. There is no doubt that the idea of life was intimately connected with the name Yhwh from early times.“
as well as:
“Various explanations of the meaning of the name, differing from that given above, have been proposed: e.g., (1) that it is derived from (“to fall”), and originally designated some sacred object, such as a stone, possibly an acrolite, which was believed to have fallen from heaven; (2) or from (“to blow”), a name for the god of wind and storm; (3) or from the “hif’il” form of (“to be”), meaning, “He who causes to be,” “the Creator” […]“
From ‘He who causes to be’ in conjunction with the doubtless connection between the idea of life and the proper name of God, it is but a small step towards recognizing an anthropomorphization of evolutionary dynamics as a convincing interpretation of YHWH. In addition to this there are numerous examples in the Bible reinforcing this idea. To aid the flow of the argument I will be expounding on only 8 examples. The rest of my non-exhaustive list can be found here for the interested reader.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” – Gen 1:1
This one is almost superfluous for being too obvious. However, I nevertheless wanted to highlight it for two reasons. Firstly it is probably one of the few verses of the Bible that is universally recognized and secondly when read with an evolutionary mindset it sets the stage for an understanding YHWH as anthropomorphized evolutionary dynamics for the entire length of the book. See also John 1:3, Col 1:16, and Heb 3:4 as further examples.
“The LORD is my shepherd […]” – Ps 23 Another very well-known passage with an abundance of evolutionary imagery. Firstly the LORD as the shepherd, not only the one whom when one aligns oneself with preserves ones life today but also into the future when selecting the breeding stock for the next generation. A strong evolutionary symbol that when one walks “through the valley of the shadow of death” the path through the “perilously threatening environment” (MacArthur Study Bible, p. 754) of the evolutionary landscape between extinction and continued existence one is guided by the LORD. ‘I will fear no evil, for you are with me’ meaning Gods law is revealing the evolutionary pitfalls and thus guide through the labyrinth of natural selection towards life; ‘your rod and your staff’ are in this context God’s commandments and guidance.
“Who is the man who fears the LORD? Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose. His soul shall abide in well-being, and his offspring shall inherit the land.” – Ps 25:12-13
This passage expresses it literally: align yourself with evolutionary dynamics and your offspring will inherit the land. The same sentiment is repeated for example in Ps 89:3-4, Ps 89:29-33 and Ps 107:38.
“For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord, but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death.” Prov 8:35-36
Here the same principle is expressed a little differently. Whomever finds the principles of evolutionary dynamics will find life, however those that do not will suffer and those that hate or go against evolutionary dynamics ‘love death’ and will find nothing but death. See also Ps 145:20, Prov 7:2, Prov 14:27, Isa 45:22, Nah 1:14, as well as Luke 20:38.
“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Eccl 12:13-14
The notion that God is all-knowing and that no deed will go unexamined in his judgment of man is widely known. In conjunction with my earlier argument above, God becomes the omniscient judge over life and death in line with his laws. Or put in other words: there are no secret sins. This idea is directly parallel to Darwin’s understanding of evolutionary dynamics:
“It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.”, Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, Chp 4
“Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” Ezek 33:11
Evolutionary dynamics are dispassionate about the fate of that which violates the conditions for its existence. While there is no pleasure in the destruction of the ‘wicked’ the fundamental principle that continued existence is far better than death and extinction is reinforced. Numerous verses could be cited to support this perspective but to name just a few compare 1 Tim 2:3-4; 2 Pet 3:9, Eccl 9:4-6, Matt 22:32, as well as John 11:50.
“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.” Prov 24:17 Every fallen enemy was a potential ally in the struggle for existence and should be mourned accordingly. Judgement as well as punishment is with the LORD who extinguishes those not following his commandments. Allegorically the struggle for existence has been fierce in the times of he Old Testament. The Hebrews often faced the choice between exterminating a competing people or being themselves utterly destroyed. In terms of evolutionary dynamics at play at that time, those people who happened to follow a system of beliefs that more closely resembled evolutionary dynamics were those people who outcompeted and yes, destroyed rivaling tribes. That process however was not a matter of sadistic cruelty but rather perceived as executing God’s will in the form of persisting and triumphing over other groups violating God’s law i.e. the laws of evolutionary dynamics. Hence the terminology of ‘devoting something to destruction’, meaning in this context hastening the inevitable perishing of those that had sown in their belief systems the seeds of their own eventual destruction by not only happened to having more closely realized evolutionary dynamics but at the same time threatening the very existence of other groups that have. An unfortunate and grim duty, not unlike that of a gardener pruning back unproductive branches so that the most promising ones can flourish (John 15:2), but a necessary one if continued co-existence more closely aligned with evolutionary dynamics and thus more long-term potential was to be assured. This is the principle behind passages resonate with, that deal with the ‘devoted for destruction’ theme.
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'” Rom 12:19
As time progressed and the constant struggle for existence became less fierce, so could the verbiage be toned down and God became more mellow. For an excellent account of this evolution of God see Robert Wright’s book of the same name. In this stage of spiritual sentiment, the destruction of those not aligned with evolutionary dynamics could be left to the slow process of self-destruction or the mending of their ways. Destruction is replaced with dissociation (Titus 3:10) and other, gentler forms of resistance (Titus 3:2) having faith in the effectiveness of evolutionary dynamics alone to weed out those diverting from the ‘path’ over time without having to lay hand oneself. This notion is already present in the Old Testament (Prov 20:22) but reaches a whole new level in the New Testament. See also 2 Tim 2:24, 2 Tim 4:14, and 2 Pet 3:9.
The Nature of Sin – You Sin, You Die
Understanding the Abrahamic God as an anthropomorphization of evolutionary dynamics would imply that acting against God’s will or in other words to ‘sin’ i.e. acting against evolutionary dynamics, would lead to death and destruction. That is precisely what one finds when examining the biblical concept of ‘sinning’ more closely.
It is widely known that in the Abrahamic tradition death has entered the world (Gen 3:19) through Adam’s original sin (Gen 3). Death through the disobedience of Adam and Eve towards God or in the evolutionary reading: by running counter to evolutionary dynamics violating the conditions of life (Rom 5:12). The evolutionary imagery present in the verses of the Bible describing creation as well as the fall of man (Gen 2-3) is striking. Be that as Adam being created from inorganic matter by God or in our reading through the processes of evolutionary dynamics. As well as in the form of the tree of life that can be understood to be closely related if not identical with the tree of knowledge of good an evil (source) presenting a very intimate, if not direct link between the concepts of understanding good, evil and thereby what leads to life and correspondingly to death. Death in this context is to be understood not just of the individual but failure to attain eternal life – another recurring and well-known theme of the Bible – in the sense of failing to become a direct ancestor of an eternally succeeding chain of progeny be they genetic or spiritual. Or in the more general sense: not having made a sum positive contribution to the continuing of the existential game itself.
The etymology of the original hebrew term for ‘sin’ (hata) is very interesting in this context as well since ‘hata’ originally means to miss a target or to fail to reach it (The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ISBN 978-0-19-504645-8, p. 696). This target is of course continued co-existence as shall become abundantly clear when examining the nature of sin more closely using various passages of Biblical scripture. A particular gold mine in this context is the book Proverbs as explained by the MacArthur Study Bible as following:
“The recurring promise of Proverbs is that generally the wise (the righteous who obey God) live longer (Prov. 9:11), prosper (2:20-22), experience joy (3:13-18) and goodness of God temporally (12:21), while fools suffer shame (3:35) and death (10:21). On the other hand, it must be remembered that this general principle is balanced by the reality that the wicked sometimes prosper (Ps. 73:3,12), though only temporarily (Ps. 73:17-19). Job illustrates that there are occasions when the godly wise are struck with disaster and suffering.” MacArthur Study Bible, p. 864
Other examples characterizing sin as leading to death or as failing to survive as well as the temporary nature and eventual demise of evil are absolutely abundant in the Bible.
“The wage of the righteous leads to life, the gain of the wicked to sin. Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray.” Prov 10:16-17
“The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death.” Prov 13:14
“For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.” Eccl 7:12
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Rom 6:23
“But the wicked will perish; the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.” Ps 37:20
“Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise [the wicked] as phantoms.” Ps 73:20
“Do you not know this from of old, since man was placed on earth, that the exulting of the wicked is short, and the joy of the godless but for a moment?” Job 20:4-5
“Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.” Ecc 9:11
Even Matthew’s narrow gate allegory is hauntingly similar to Darwin’s passage on the struggle for existence drawing on the Malthusian premise when placed side by side:
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Matt 7:13-14
“A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. […] There is no exception to the rule that every organic being naturally increases at so high a rate, that if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair.” Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, Chp 3
The Quintessential Biblical Wisdom – Treating all of Existence as One
By now it should have become abundantly clear that according to the Bible sin leads to death, the wicked will triumph only temporarily and that the righteous will inherit the earth by winning ‘eternal life’. We so far have however not covered what the essence of righteous behaviour is. The Bible contains a long list of often obscure injunctions. Throwing a dart at Leviticus will provide ample examples of such laws. However one can discern a general pattern that can be discerned: the idea that the evolutionary destiny of all of existence is connected – the spiritual concept of oneness or nonduality. And again demands on brevity dictate that I only give a few examples of this general principle that is present as a very distinct red thread throughout the entire Bible:
“The nations have sunk in the pit that they made; in the net that they hid, their own foot has been caught. The Lord has made himself known; he has executed judgment; the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands. Higgaion. Selah” Ps 9:15-16 Since all of existence is One, the evil deeds hurt the evildoer just as much, if not more than the victim. This general principle is expressed numerous times in other verses such as Ps 64:8, Prov 1:18-19, Prov 11:5, Prov 26:27, Ezek 35:6, Gal 6:7-8, and Obad 1:15.
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.” Mat 7:12-13
Here the Bible expresses the Golden Rule right next to Matthew’s narrow gate metaphor, one of the most significant passages of the Bible. The injunction to treat others as one wants to be treated is rooted in the insight that there is in fact no difference between the self and the other. In various other places this beautiful idea is repeated several times. See for example Mat 25:40, Mat 25:45-46 and Luke 6:31.
“For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Gal 5:14
Love is put on a pedestal in numerous Bible verses. The reason is the circumstance that love and compassion is ideally suited to blur the boundaries between the self and the other as well as acting as a social glue between individuals letting them act as one. This reinforces the idea of oneness by utilizing this most powerful of tools to ‘bind everyone together in perfect harmony’ (Col 3:12-14): love. For the same general message see for example Rom 13:8, 1 Cor 13:1-3, 1 Cor 13:13, Col 2:2-3, 1 Pet 4:8, as well as 1 John 3:14-15.
“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” Mark 3:24-25
Here the quintessential idea of oneness as a condition for continued co-existence is highlighted black on white. A nation, a house, a group that is divided can not persist in the struggle for existence against groups that stand in unity – ‘like one man’. E pluribus unum! United we stand – divided we fall. Unless individuals band together into a coherent whole, they are easy to destroy. A remarkably easy concept that lies at the heart of the spiritual concept of ‘oneness’ or ‘nonduality’. In a similar tone this principle is repeated in several other passages as well, such as John 17:11, John 17:22, Eph 1:10, and Jas 2:19.
Other Evolutionary Language in the Bible
The Bible incessantly talks about the ‘chosen people’, ‘salvation’, ‘being saved by the Lord’ etc. The conceptual gap between the biblical idea of ‘chosen’ to the evolutionary concept of ‘selection’ is a narrow one. Correspondingly ‘salvation’ here clearly has the connotation of ‘preservation’ and perpetuation into future generation. This understanding becomes particularly appealing given the discussed background of God as anthropomorphized evolutionary dynamics and sin leading to death while following God’s injunctions leading to life and the multiplication of offspring.
Not exactly evolutionary language per se but still approximating an evolutionarily advantageous strategy is the Apoditic Law:
“eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” Exod 21:24
At the outset of my article I posed the challenge of reconciling so vastly disparate verses such as:
“Blessed shall he be who takes your little one and dashes them against the rock!” Ps 137:9
“For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Gal 5:14
Doing so appears to be boiling down to a number of questions that I shall address one by one.
What is the context in which the Psalmist makes this statement?
The context of Psalm 137 is the Babylonian captivity during which the Babylonians committed the most outrageous atrocities against the Jews.
Does this justify the Psalmist’s anticipation of killing Babylonian children?
The specifics are scant, but it is not too outlandish to assume that the Babylonians actually killed Jewish babies and considering that the Psalmist was aware of this fact and in conjunction with an understanding of Apoditic Law (Exod 21:24) now anticipates the time when these atrocities return back onto the perpetrator (Prov 26:27) seeing it as a fulfillment of God’s prophecy and therefore blessing it.
Is the Psalmist in fact rallying the Jews to kill Babylonian children?
The Psalmist is not calling for his fellow Jews to repay ‘an eye for an eye’. That would be violating the injunction given in Prov 20:22. No – the Psalmist is expressing an anticipation of when the Lord i.e. evolutionary dynamics will have their effect and punish the Babylonian perpetrators according to their deeds by causing their destruction Prov 11:5.
Is Psalms 137 a beacon of the beauty of Christian wisdom?
Clearly not, and Matthew later repeals Apoditic Law (Matt 5:38) making statements like those in Psalm 137 even more outlandish.
Reading the Bible with an evolutionary eye uncovers the often obscure meaning and wisdom of that thousands year old text. Religion “as survival enabling meaning making” in the sense of Roy Rappaport becomes obvious when evolutionary dynamics are understood and biblical scripture interpreted accordingly. I could show that the God of the Bible is in fact an anthropomorphization of evolutionary dynamics, who’s injunctions one is well advised to take to heart in order to stay in the existential game. The essential spiritual notion of oneness or nonduality – a seemingly nonsensical concept – could be shown to make perfect evolutionary sense in maximizing the survival of a group when instilled in its members through the social glue of love and the idea of the perpetrator becoming one with the victim. Difficult passages could be shown to be reconcilable when these concepts are rigorously applied to the context of particular, seemingly cruel and particularly hateful passages.
I have long held the view that one of the worst thought out yet at the same time most persistent articles on the future of human evolution is Nick Bostrom‘s work of the same title. In it, Nick outlines a disastrous outcome for future digital versions of ourselves hashing it out Core War style driven by a skewed understanding of Darwinian dynamics leading to a dystopian cyberspace #ff0000 in tooth and claw. Yet as I outlined in v 1.0 of my refutation of Nick’s paper, nothing could be further from the truth. A good 3 1/2 years later I am going to add to these original arguments against Nick’s 2004 paper by citing more recent research from such diverse fields as origin of life experiments, microbiology, parasite ecology, iterative evolutionary algorithms, game theory as well as intelligence research and building on there with older and more recent works of philosophy and sociology.
Origin-of-life researchers have made great progress in creating RNA molecules with interesting biochemical activities, but they haven’t yet managed to create a molecule that can fully replicate itself, an item that’s considered to be the critical step that could get evolution, and thus life itself, started. But a paper published in this week’s edition of Nature suggests we may be thinking about things a bit wrong. They show that it’s possible to have a population of distinct RNAs that can cooperate to catalyze reactions that expand the population. And, if you mix them together, the cooperative molecules will outcompete any selfish replicators.
In fact, the tendency to cooperate, and collaborate persists as one examines the microbiological interactions of bacteria and fungi:
“The bacteria are beginning to have the aspect of social animals; they should provide nice models for the study of interactions between forms of life at all levels. They live by collaboration, accommodation, exchange, and barter.”, from Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas, p.7
But not only that, plants communicate using fungi Mycelium:
Even vertically transmitted parasites evolve a symbiotic relationship with their hosts over time:
“Vertical transmission tends to evolve benign symbiosis. It is therefore a critical concept for evolutionary medicine. Because a pathogen’s ability to pass from parent to child depends significantly on the hosts’ ability to reproduce, pathogens’ transmissibility tends to be inversely related with their virulence. In other words, as pathogens become more harmful to and thus decrease the reproduction rate of their host organism, they are less likely to be passed on to the hosts’ offspring, since there will be fewer offspring.” from Stewart, AD; Logsdon, JM; Kelley, SE (April 2005). “An empirical study of the evolution of virulence under both horizontal and vertical transmission”. Evolution 59 (4): 730–739.
“The experiment involved programming a base group of 50 simulated ‘brains’ which were required to participate in one of two classical game theory dilemmas — the Prisoner’s Dilemma or the Snowdrift game. Upon completion of either game, each ‘brain’ produced ‘offspring’ asexually, with ‘brains’ that made more advantageous choices during the games programmed to have a better chance to reproduce. A potential random mutation during each generation changed the ‘brain’s structure, number of neurons, or the strengths of the connections between those neurons,’ simulating the evolution of the social brain. After 50,000 generations, the model showed that as cooperation increased, so did the intelligence of the programmed brains.“
Two Michigan State University evolutionary biologists offer new evidence that evolution doesn’t favor the selfish, disproving a theory popularized in 2012. “We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean,” said lead author Christoph Adami, MSU professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. “For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”
Personally I am of the opinion that the above paper does not go far enough in its conclusions and think that the authors by taking their findings to the ultimate consequence could have provided an a priori argument for the spiritual concept of oneness as the logic destiny of spiritual evolution. But then again I am happy that I will eventually be able to connect these dots for them once I am going to continue my academic career in the hopefully not too distant future.
Kropotkin pointed out the distinction between the direct struggle among individuals for limited resources (generally called competition) and the more metaphorical struggle between organisms and the environment (tending to be cooperative). He therefore did not deny the competitive form of struggle, but argued that the cooperative counterpart has been underemphasized: “There is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense…Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.” Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Chapter I However, Kropotkin did consider cooperation as a feature of the most advanced organisms (e.g., ants among insects, mammals among vertebrates) leading to the development of the highest intelligence and bodily organization.
A bit more peripheral to the core subject but none the less highly relevant and in its entirety an absolutely astounding effort by Steven Pinkert, the quantitative analysis of and explanations for the decline of violence over the course of history, The Better Angels of Our Nature:
Pinker presents a large amount of data (and statistical analysis thereof) that, he argues, demonstrate that violence has been in decline over millennia and that the present is probably the most peaceful time in the history of the human species. The decline in violence, he argues, is enormous in magnitude, visible on both long and short time scales, and found in many domains, including military conflict, homicide, genocide, torture, criminal justice, and the treatment of children, animals, racial and ethnic minorities, and gay people. He stresses that “The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue” source.
The principal argument of Nonzero is to demonstrate that natural selection results in increasing complexity within the world and greater rewards for cooperation. Since, as Wright puts it, the realization of such prospects is dependent upon increased levels of globalization, communication, cooperation, and trust, what is thought of as human intelligence is really just a long step in an evolutionary process of organisms (as well as their networks and individual parts) getting better at processing information.
A completely new phase in the evolution of life on Earth has begun. It will change everything. In this new phase evolution will be driven intentionally, by humanity. The evolutionary worldview that emerges from an understanding of our role in the new phase has the potential to transform the nature of human existence. At present humanity is lost. We don’t know what we are doing here. We are without a worldview that can point to our place and purpose in the universe and that can also withstand rational scrutiny. But this difficult period is coming to an end. The emergence of the new evolutionary worldview is beginning to lift us out of the abyss. The new worldview has a unique capacity to reveal who we are and what we should be doing with our lives. It relies solely on scientific knowledge and reason to identify our critical role in future evolution. The evolutionary worldview can unite us in a great common enterprise, and provide meaning and purpose for human existence. At the heart of the evolutionary worldview is the fact that evolution has a trajectory—it heads in a particular direction. However, evolution on Earth will not advance beyond a certain point unless it is driven consciously and intentionally. If this transition to intentional evolution does not occur, evolution on this planet will stall, and humanity will not contribute positively to the future evolution of life in the universe—we will be a failed evolutionary experiment.
I hope that these conglomeration of articles and books makes the point that evolution, where it continued from the micro scale to the macro and forward to the cosmic is nothing but the continued expounding of selfishness as harbinger of death and cooperativeness, collaboration, selflessness and oneness as crucial conditions for life.
It has always bothered me that I was unable to properly contextualize particular passages of the Bible in the face of such vastly divergent commentators as Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong to name but two rather prolific writers exemplary for the opposite ends of the spectrum of biblical interpretation that they stand for. Not to mention young earth creationists of course, the less is said about them in this context the better.
After having read the Bible – or more accurately The MacArthur Study Bible – from cover to cover over the past 18 months, I feel at least somewhat more qualified to comment on the Bible and the passages so very liberally cited in support of positions as far apart as those of Dawkins and Armstrong. But before I begin to present an outlay of my own insights gained and interpretation formed as a result of this journey some words about the journey itself.
Reading the bible was an experience and definitely not for the faint of heart. All in all the Old Testament has about 600,000 words while the New Testament has roughly 180,000 for a combined 780,000 words. Compare that to the complete 7 volume canon of JKR’s Harry Potter of just under 1,100,000 words. Now add to that the fact that the Bible, while technically shorter, is written in a style that required active effort to understand, consists of long stretches of ancient genealogy as well as measurements and descriptions of temples and regalia accounted for in minute and excruciating detail and one gets an idea of the effort required to break through the pain barrier at times and making it through every single page from beginning to the end.
But why read the bible from cover to cover to begin with? Why not just the ‘good’ parts or the ‘bad’ parts? When I mentioned to a Harvard educated professor of the anthropology of religion at the University of Melbourne that I was reading the Old Testament, she made it very clear that she did not see the value in such an endeavor. I however wanted to read the whole Bible. With my particular interpretative approach those passages that I would consider the most interesting to me, may just have been buried in the obscurity of one of the lesser quoted sections of the Bible. Missing those sections is something I simply could not risk.
Further to that, I now know for a fact that Dawkins’ interpretation of the Bible is rubbish at best and utterly schizophrenic at worst. Not to mention the gems of 1 Timothy 5:23 and surely many would have loved to cite Matthew 15:1-10 growing up once a while. On a serious note however the Bible makes no two ways about subordinating women to men and condemns homosexuality as a sin on various occasions. The broader contexts these two examples, and not to mention the treatment of sinners more generally, is embedded in however are so vastly different from what one would have heard from either the atheists
or the fire and brimstone spewing young earth creationists, that only independent study of the broad biblical context in its entirety could reveal. It is clear to me now that the Bible very much stands and falls as a whole, making the all too frequent citation of individual passages out of context worse than useless.
As a whole and after having just finished reading not only the entire Bible but large stretches of biblical commentary and several books on early Christianity I am confident to say that the Bible is not only the most powerful and accessible expression of love and wisdom I have read to date, but – if properly interpreted – very much more relevant today than I could have ever imagined before reading it.
Over the coming weeks I will work on condensing my thoughts on the nature of God, sin, and salvation in line with my interpretation of the Bible. And while I understand very well that the space of interpretation is essentially infinite, only a small subset of interpretations are plausible, and only a small subset of the plausible interpretations are life giving, and strictly speaking only a single interpretation is optimally life giving by fostering a mindset that will enable one – in the words of Shakespeare – to “look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not,”