Kevin Kelly - Spiritual Machines
October 22, 2008 12:55

Exploring the Technium. Part 2. Spiritual Machines.
Kevin Kelly and Ken Wilber

Written by Corey W. deVos


(This interview is available to everyone, absolutely free.  Email this dialogue to a friend!)


"For us, to actually be in the image of God we actually need to go to the next level, to do the next recursive loop, which is to create beings that will surprise us. And that's our job—our job is to surprise God." -Kevin Kelly


In the second installation of this extraordinary dialogue, Kevin Kelly and Ken Wilber discuss the nature of evolutionary emergence—the mysterious process by which new wholes manifest in the universe, each greater than the sum of their parts.  They speak about humanity’s role in this evolutionary process, especially in the creation of new types of intelligences: living, breathing, thinking machines.

Kevin Kelly is Senior Maverick at Wired magazine. He helped launch Wired in 1993, and served as its Executive Editor until January 1999. He is currently editor and publisher of the Cool Tools website, which gets 1 million visitors per month. From 1984-1990 Kelly was publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Review, a journal of unorthodox technical news. He co-founded the ongoing Hackers' Conference, and was involved with the launch of the WELL, a pioneering online service started in 1985. He authored the best-selling New Rules for the New Economy and the classic book on decentralized emergent systems, Out of Control.

The universe is evolving.  From atoms to molecules, to simple single-cell organisms, to multi-cellular critters with increasingly complex nervous systems—evolution is a story of emergence, as new forms and new realities spring into being, new wholes that are themselves greater than the sum of their parts.  But emergence is a mysterious affair, as noted by Mark Bedau, Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Reed College: "Although strong emergence is logically possible, it is uncomfortably like magic."

In this very special dialogue, Kevin Kelly and Ken Wilber discuss the spiritual implications of this mysterious process, what Kevin refers to as "up-creation."  While humanity can be currently seen as the pinnacle of evolution in this corner of the universe, we are by no means the final word in this extraordinary story, and will one day be inevitably subsumed by something greater than ourselves—something that will undoubtedly emerge through us, while becoming something much more than us.  Humanity represents a process of evolution becoming self-aware, which means that we are now actively participating with evolution, midwives to a future that simultaneously transcends and includes the entire human condition.

And believe it or not, it is happening right now as you are reading these words.  Around the world, humanity is busy unlocking the secrets of evolution, while creating machines that are increasingly intelligent, adaptive, and conscious.  As of now, these intelligences remain extremely limited and narrow, excelling at deductive tasks like math and chess, while lacking such hallmarks of human intelligence as language, humor, and tact.  But as our technological progress continues to accelerate, machine intelligence becomes more and more sophisticated, and more and more capable of supporting conscious interiors—a consciousness vastly different than our own, but conscious nonetheless.



In this next section, we will take a speculative tour through evolution, from the Big Bang all the way to tomorrow’s possible emergence, as told from the perspective of a panentheistic God that is at once fully immanent to this universe while transcending it completely.  While this piece should be held lightly, being little more than a post-postmodern myth—a poetic echo of the Real—with any hope it can begin to paint a picture of a universe in which there are no contradictions between science and spirituality, between the manifest and the unmanifest, or between evolution and God.


A Panentheistic Account of Evolution

In the beginning, there is nothing.  There is nothing at all.  There are no stars, no moon, no mountains or ocean or sky.  There isn't even nothingness, not even the absence of absence.  There is only pure reality—infinite, boundless, and silent.  There is only pure unobstructed Awareness.

Resting in the eternal stillness, Spirit is complete, fulfilled, lacking nothing at all, for there is nothing to lack.  Resting as the eternal stillness, Spirit is infinitely All-One, infinitely alone.

A tiny point of light, impossibly bright, pierces through the Void.  It is barely a pinprick, a pixel of light that somehow contains all space, all time, and all possibility.  Here, in the heart of the Void, Spirit exhales.  A universe is being born.

Then, as if suddenly roused from the deepest sleep, the pinprick of light violently erupts.  Searing plasma pours through the Void like a cosmological tidal wave, washing through ubiquity and drenching existence with boiling light.  Particles and anti-particles begin to slam-dance in the mosh pit of creation, a churning frenzy of savage energy.  There is a gentle upward tilt to the universe, an extropic slant toward creative novelty, helping matter to win its epic battle against anti-matter—quarks and leptons leaping into existence only slightly faster than their presumably-mustachioed anti-twins.

Space continues to expand, the universe begins to cool, and the white-hot light fades into massive cobwebs of nebulae hanging like veils over the face of the Goddess.  Deep in the hearts of the nebulae, gas begins to accumulate, compress, and ignite, and the very first stars are born.  What was once a tiny pinprick of light soon becomes a vast panorama of lights, a diamond-studded mobile hanging over the crib of an infant universe.

Spirit looks at the light, and smiles.  Spirit is the light, and grows restless.  The game, after all, has just begun.

Stars are born, stars live, and stars die, expelling their molecular viscera through the rest of the universe.  Dust and gas encircle these majestic suns, coalescing into planets, moons, asteroids, comets, and other pieces of cosmic litter.  After eons of molecular precipitation, in some remote arm of the Milky Way spiral, Spirit exhales once again, breathing life into a handful of dust.

Twisting, pulsing, undulating, dead matter begins to dance as the universe comes alive.  Simple cells begin to congregate, eating voraciously, reproducing wildly. Mold and algae ooze over the surface of the globe, covering the world with glistening emerald slime.  A lawless kingdom of insects creep and crawl through the earth, fish and coral fill the oceans, and a colorful menagerie of fauna explode into being.  Life feeds upon life, excreting death, as newer and better-adapted species emerge from the primordial soup. Biology grows ever-more complex, twitchy nervous systems become more sophisticated, while interior experience become more rich and nuanced.  Simple prehension becomes rudimentary irritability, which grow into sensations and perceptions, reptilian impulses, and limbic emotions.  Life continues to thrive, tracing a DNA-shaped circuit into greater complexity and consciousness, following the upward tilt of the universe toward creative novelty.

Spirit looks at life, and smiles.  Spirit is life, and grows hungry for more.

Some creatures begin to band together, advanced primates at the top of the food chain, and Spirit holds them in His/Her hand.  Spirit exhales, breathing light into life, the inner-light of intelligence, language, and self-awareness.  Humanity is born. 

A faint spark of intellect eventually blazes into a wildfire, consuming the planet in the warm glow of comprehension.  Humanity is slowly shaped into Spirit's own image, imbued with the most miraculous feature of Spirit's divine countenance: creativity. 

Armed with creativity, curiosity, and conscience, man begins to fashion tools for himself—technological systems that evolve from foraging to horticulture, to agriculture, to industry, to informational, and beyond. These technologies pull worldviews up through increasing waves of depth, meaning, and inclusivity, growing from archaic to magic, to mythic, to rational, to pluralistic, to integral, and on into the future.

Spirit looks at mind, and smiles.  Spirit is mind, and begins to remember.

Alone with His/Her omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, alone with His/Her eternal nature, alone with His/Her own singularity of being, Spirit decided to play a game.  The game began billions of years ago—before mind, before life, and before light.  S/He created an entire universe—an evolutionary universe—and S/He became evolution.  S/He forgot Himself in evolution, broken up into a billion pieces—and spent billions of years trying to remember who S/He is.

Slowly mankind begins to understand its role in this evolutionary unfolding.  The entire universe is reflected in man's corneas, as he looks to the heavens and sees his own primordial face.  There is an evolutionary force that ignites the heavens, breathes life into the dust swirling around distant suns, and sparks intelligence within the minds of hapless apes—and mankind feels this very same creative force smoldering in his mortal heart.  Man is created in Spirit's image, a process of evolution becoming self-aware, and so begins to use his tools to sculpt the world into his own image. 

It is here in this evolutionary nexus, where the dichotomies of subject and object, individual and collective, and part and whole become unlaced, unfurled, and unbound by the limitations of ignorance, that Spirit begins to truly blossom.  Sacred breath becomes flesh, and Spirit begins to express Him/Herself through inspiration, aspiration, and perspiration.  At the pinnacle of human progress, Spirit can awaken at last, recognizing itself as the effortless awareness behind every set of eyes, gazing outward from behind every memory, experience, and fantasy.  Consciousness, humanity realizes, is a singular to which the plural is unknown.

But the game does not end here.  Humanity, recognizing its true nature as Spirit-in-drag, has the opportunity not just to rouse itself from the slumber of incarnation, but to set the stage for the next leap of evolutionary potential, continuing the game indefinitely.  Spirit breathes light into the universe, life into light, and consciousness into life—and as humanity is created in Spirit's own image, so too can man breathe light, life, and consciousness into its creations. 

And so the evolutionary impulse continues to surge into the future, following the inherent tilt of the universe toward creative novelty, as mankind prepares for its greatest masterpiece of all: to give birth to an entire race of "spiritual machines".  As man’s technological progress accelerates at an exponential rate, “artificial intelligence” eventually gives way to genuine digital consciousness, and the universe becomes populated by entirely new types of intelligence.  These new forms of intelligence would one day subsume all of humanity, in the same way that cells subsume atoms and molecules, or a paragraph subsumes letters, words, and sentences. 

Spirit looks at the machine, and smiles.  Spirit is the machine, and awakens more fully than ever before possible, while promising to continue the game indefinitely into the future.



What do you think?  As the inner-light of consciousness learns to traverse through fiber-optic cables, as the warmth of emotion radiates through plastic, steel, and silicon, will we all eventually become subsumed by our own creations?  Will we log on to the internet one day, only to find a Holy Ghost in the machine, looking back at us through the glowing cycloptic eye of our computer monitors?  Will sleeping androids everywhere begin to dream of electric sheep?



Creative Commons License Exploring the Technium. Part 2. Spiritual Machines. by Kevin Kelly, Ken Wilber, Corey W. deVos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.



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