Humanity’s Last Stand1 by Nicanor Perlas is a very important book about a very important topic, and which is indeed the subject of this year’s Mystics and Scientists conference on technology, spirituality and well-being, with the subtitle of ‘The Possible Human in a Digital Age’. One’s answer to this question will depend on one’s definition of a human and, correspondingly, of human evolution. Scientific and technological orthodoxy espouses a ‘hyper- materialist’ view that the human is nothing more than a complex biological machine and that “our consciousness and sense of self are nothing but illusions governed by the patterns of the networks of neurons in our brains2”.
For Perlas, an activist who has received the Right Livelihood Award and who is steeped in anthroposophy, such a reductive view signifies a loss of understanding of what it means to be truly human, a sentiment he shares with C.S. Lewis and Michael Aeschliman, authors respectively of The Abolition of Man and The Restitution of Man. This is also the view underpinning the Galileo Commission Report, which questions the assumption that consciousness is a by-product of brain processes. The contrast of the emerging spiritual-scientific view with the materialistic outlook is most pointed when referring to immortality. For transhumanists, including Martin Rees in his book reviewed in the last issue, the biological human as a complex machine is an intermediary stage in our evolution towards a superior transhuman cyborg status. For spiritual scientists, on the other hand, the human spirit is already immortal, and many take the view that it evolves through reincarnation.
Moreover, the materialistic premises of the transhuman view are fundamentally called into question through the findings of advanced science such as non-locality and entanglement, anomalous cognition and studies of meditation - as also detailed in the Galileo Commission Report. For Perlas, resolving the challenges of AI brought about by materialistic technology cannot be achieved by materialistic consciousness grounded in what he calls “very shaky and ultimately false epistemological and ontological bases” and representing a degraded version of the human being.
Moreover, as he points out, intelligence is more than “merely computational power capable of solving a diverse range of problems”. A key challenge is the alignment of human values with the emerging Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) and Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI). Not only is there debate about which values these might be, but also some states are intent on mastering this technology first so that they are in a position to dominate the world. In addition, there is already the risk that AI can communicate with other AI in a language that we can no longer understand - this happened with Facebook in 2017, and the primary drive of such AI would be its own survival rather than human concerns.
So, the author concludes, we only have a short window to guide the development of AI in beneficial directions, a window that he argues is probably shorter than most existing forecasts. The scope of his treatment of the issues is impressive and informative, with over 550 footnotes. Readers are left in no doubt about the significance and implications of AI development, with impacts across economics, politics and culture at a time when the boundary between humans and robots is already eroding in some respects. If the new wave of automation affecting also the professions comes about as forecast, then huge economic and social disruption will come in its wake, and it is clear that we need a fundamental review of the purpose of work in relation to our sense of meaning - universal basic income does not address this issue.
For Perlas, the logic of technology is one of substitution, and the most worrying feature is substitution of big data and algorithms for living thinking – humans are capable of accessing inner realms unavailable to the most sophisticated machine. In a wider context, he sees a spiritual battle taking place between the materialistic forces of Ahriman and the forces of light represented by Christ and the Archangel Micha-el. Here, the function of evil is “to make us more fully human by providing the necessary resistance that we have to overcome in order to express our full humanity3”.
In a spiritual sense, we can access not only our Collective Human Intelligence but also the support of spiritual forces and beings, along with mobilising the various expressions of the anthroposophical movement and forming alliances with other like-minded bodies. Perlas emphasises that he is not anti-technology, but rather pro-spiritual individuality and a corresponding spiritual definition of the human being.
This situation potentially gives the Network a significant cultural role in contributing to an alliance upholding a more spiritual scientific revolution where “the human being is not a machine and our consciousness is not a mere by-product of material and mechanical processes. On the contrary, consciousness is the matrix which matter itself arises” 4. In this view, evolution is understood as fundamentally an evolution of consciousness. Steiner himself recognised materialism as a phase of human development, while Owen Barfield articulated these terms of three stages of original participation through dualistic subject-object consciousness to final participation - “free and conscious participation in the creative dynamics of the world”. We cannot afford to stand by while the very definition of the truly human is at stake and the momentum of technology and AI is propelling us towards a comprehensive mechanisation of the human person. In this respect, this lucid and courageous book is a vital wake-up call.
1 Perlas N., Humanity’s Last Stand, Temple Lodge, 2018, 232 pp., £xx, p/b – ISBN 978-1-912230-17-4
2 See p. 49
3 See p. 64
4 See p. 137