Up Ahead: the Event Horizon and the Abyss We Call ‘Self’

I cried when Gus Grissom died, along with two crewmates, in a smoky blaze aboard Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967.  The three astronauts were testing equipment in the capsule prior to the next day’s scheduled launch, when fire broke out and they were unable open the hatch to escape.  I was ten at the time, a Catholic boy living in a Jewish neighborhood in Boston, and just weeks before had received in the mail an autographed photo of Grissom from NASA (a teacher had made our class request one, after his speech on the space program). The accident appeared to be a fatal blow to the Kennedy quest (borrowed from a Nazi’s dream) to land an American on the moon (before the Russians did) by the end of the decade.

But the Show went on, and, thanks to Wernher von Braun, America launched Apollo 8 and safely landed a spacecraft on the moon on July 16, 1969.  I was “away” at summer camp, and sat around in a semicircle with other campers, in the middle of the night, watching the landing take place on the rec hall black-and-white TV.  Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong planted a stiff flag and bounced around on the sandy surface together; cups of strawberry “bug juice” were passed around, while La Salette Brother Chick strummed us along to a sleepy version of Kumbaya.  It was a glorious moment, topped up over the next few years by the human journey and scientific romanticism depicted in Star Trek episodes. William Shatner’s sappy smirk and Spock’s logical positivism helped keep me starry-eyed through a sometimes dark and gravity-filled childhood.

Later, in one of the great episodes of the dreamy, Vangelis-driven TV series, Cosmos, Carl Sagan explained the symbiotic relationship between outer space and inner Man: We are “star stuff,” he said, literally composed of the same chemistry of the stars; when we look out at the firmament, we look in on ourselves, cosmos to cosmos, as it were. From microscope to telescope, from eyeball to eyeball, adjusting the focus, we are constantly searching for the meaning of our existence. Such “magical realism” buoyed me for years, right up to the day John Lennon died, when the world seemed an even colder place, now lit by the dim light of mourners mourning dead dreams.

The late Stephen Hawking’s new book, Brief Answers to Big Questions, re-energizes the value of knowing, after a long hiatus in the void of postmodernism; his book brings the affirmative gift of fresh light; the swashbuckling smirk is mostly gone, the romance of discovery replaced with the growing desperation of a planet in peril needing new answers.  The topics Hawking explores include: God and the origin of the universe, space colonization, time travel, black holes, artificial intelligence, and extraterrestrials.  The book, largely a compilation of notes Hawking had for a book he was working on, is presented in a question-answer format for each subject. Most compelling to me, because most relevant to our current paradigm shift, were Hawking’s answers to the God question, the nature of black holes, and the implications of Artificial Intelligence to the future of biological humans.

God,” John Lennon once sang, “is a concept by which we measure our pain.”  It turns out, Hawking’s view is not dissimilar to Lennon’s, conceptually.  Hawking rejects a world and universe explained by an omni- God.  “Religion was an early attempt to answer the questions we all ask: why are we here, where did we come from? Long ago, the answer was almost always the same: gods made everything. The world was a scary place, so even people as tough as the Vikings believed in supernatural beings to make sense of natural phenomena like lightning, storms or eclipses. Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science.”

Hawking’s explanation mostly addresses the human intellectual engagement with the world, but he stays away from the moral grounding of religion altogether. As the enlightened Voltaire tells us, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” The triadic dialectical God Abraham has handed down to the world in the form of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, theoretically supply such moral “comfort,” although you wouldn’t know it from the state of the Middle East today.

Hawking’s rejection is closer to Nietzsche’s God Is Dead, beyond-good-and-evil embrace of the Overman, a future Man that will look back on current humans the way we now look back on our ape-like pasts.  The paraplegic ubermensch writes, “…[K]nowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature. My prediction is that we will know the mind of God by the end of this century.” And, he recalls: “For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God.”  Who’s in the wheelchair now, Big Guy? Hawking seems to ask.

And it’s just as well that Hawking disposes of God before he leads the reader into the mind-blowing cosmological territory of black holes, quantum theory, and the potential multi-histories of the universe. Nietzsche (again) admonished, “When you look into the Abyss, the Abyss also looks into you.” If you look too deeply into the black hole for enlightenment, you may find yourself drained of light. Right now, black holes seem to us kind of like giant highway potholes future space explorers should avoid.

But imagine, as Hawking does, the Big Bang coming as the result of a Black Hole implosion. He writes, “As we travel back in time towards the moment of the Big Bang, the universe gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it finally comes to a point where the whole universe is a space so small that it is in effect a single infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense black hole.” Now imagine black holes banging, overflowing, like popping corns, into universes, each possessing multiple possible histories, each filled with endless popping corn stars. Some cinema we’re in. That’s the Out There, the firmament away from our troubles, placid and serene, a guide to Wise Men, it seemed, until the “cripple” Hawking came along with his trapeze tricks, and showed us a teeming cosmos, alive as Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

He doesn’t paint a picture of the In Here that is any easier to grasp.  Artificial Intelligence (AI) is just as much a problem of In Here as it is Out There.  The problem with AI isn’t, as many people believe, about how to bring machines up to snuff so that they can be as intelligent as humans; it’s a given that they will be and almost are.  The question is: what happens when gain “consciousness” and begin to outsmart us to the degree that we can no longer understand their language, such as when quantum computing come along (soon) and processors can calculate thousands of times faster than today, not just in digital sequences of either on or off (1 or zero), but on and off — at the same time.

Hawking writes, “There is no physical law precluding particles from being organised in ways that perform even more advanced computations than the arrangements of particles in human brains.”  He continues, “…we cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI,” such as is the case with NZT, the mind-enhancing drug of the fictional TV series, Limitless, where the main protagonist, an ordinary person, achieves extraordinary feats while “high.” Could humans become so dependent on this “high” that they virtually merge with their PCs or, more likely, smartphones?  (Conceptually, we may be be already there.)

Further, along the lines of such worry, what happens when we not only begin to over-rely on such machinery, but, with the dreamy urge to shed our “mortal coil,”  we converge with them, leaving behind our biology? There’s the rub. He writes, “Quantum computers will change everything, even human biology.” Imagine a quantum scanner that review human genes and suggest ways of making them more efficient, say, for space travel and intergalactic colonization.  Would this be the rise of Lamarckianism, a final imposition of the human will over Nature, or, ironically, a kind of planned obsolescence of the species, the final step in human evolution before our extinction?

Will we need bodies?  Stephen Hawking himself may be almost the prototype of such a situation.  Take away the biological package that houses his vital organs, he was essentially a disembodied brain merged with a voice synthesizer.  One can imagine all manner of ways to move forward from this:  a replacement body built from a 3D printer; a cloned body; a removal of the need for a body, per se, by synthetic methods of delivering “blood”; or, even the creation of full-body avatar, a kind of hologram that takes your place in public full of such avatars. Hawking writes, “Creating realistic digital surrogates of ourselves is an ambitious dream, but the latest technology suggests that it may not be as far-fetched an idea as it sounds.” It may be here already.

Hawking is ever-aware of the paradigm shift we face in our choices up ahead. He knows there are very real risks that we will misuse AI and other emerging technologies to further ensure our collective demise.  Our track record leans that way. “[T]he Earth is becoming too small for us. Our physical resources are being drained at an alarming rate. We have presented our planet with the disastrous gift of climate change. Rising temperatures, reduction of the polar ice caps, deforestation, overpopulation, disease, war, famine, lack of water and decimation of animal species; these are all solvable but so far have not been solved.” He adds, ominously, “It is time to explore other solar systems. Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth. If we stay, we risk being annihilated.” Nevertheless, the book is imbued with Hawking’s survivalist optimism married to the natural curiosity of scientific endeavor.  Mostly.

Even the Pentagon seems to be aware that we need to start looking for answers beyond the confines of the Earth. Recently, for the first time, and after years of denial, the military admitted that they are actively looking for UFOs — even going so far as to include photographic evidence in their release to the New York Times.  Hawking would have been impressed by this new interest in aliens, although very cautious about what we’d be getting in to.  One recalls the Twilight Zone episode involving a “cook book”. With climate change heating us up, we could be going from the fires into the frying pan.

Brief Answers to Big Questions is a great read — serving to reiterate our current understanding of the concept of cosmos and the inner world that houses it.  The trip Out is the trip In.  The short, easy-to-read book has some astonishing revelations — especially about Hawking’s specialty: black holes.  While short on viable answers to some of the many problems facing humans during our current paradigm shift, Hawking chooses the optimism of Can-Do technology over the pessimism of falling skies and melting ice.  I procured both the ebook and the audiobook, and found the latter more entertaining, containing the voice of both a surrogate reading Hawking’s notes, as well as snippets of Hawking himself providing tiny intro answers at the beginning of each question. It’s like man and machine together.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.