Editorial of the December 2017-February 2018 issue

This issue was published in December, 2017. You can receive the PDF by purchasing an E-Subscription today.

Thirteen point eight billion years after its birth, our Universe has awoken and become aware of itself.

This thought from a recent book (Max Tegmark, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Penguin, 2017) echoes Hegel’s insight: the world-spirit bestows being on the universe, pours itself out in creation and awakens to itself through human self-awareness. Many readers of Perspectives will know the verse by Rudolf Steiner, ‘The stars spoke once to man,’ which describes the same thing in poetic language: the world is waiting for what human beings will ‘speak’ to the world of their origins.

The following quotation from the same book may seem more of a challenge to us:

Life, defined as a process that can retain its complexity and replicate, can develop through three stages: a biological stage (1.0), where its hardware and software are evolved, a cultural stage (2.0), where it can design its software (through learning) and a technological stage (3.0), where it can design its hardware as well, becoming the master of its own destiny.

With ‘software’, the author means human culture and also what we call the soul. The ‘hardware’ is the body. Stage (3.0) refers to the likelihood that within the coming century (estimates vary wildly), artificial intelligence will have reached a point where it can design the hardware – the body – for more powerful versions of itself. This will usher in a process of exponential expansion, which could soon outstrip human intelligence many times over.

If the first quotation sounds like a fulfilment of Hegel, the second one could be seen as a distorted version of the story of the preparation of the body of the Messiah. The divine word or Logos is the world-mind, the true intelligence that underlies all of creation. His incarnation as man at the beginning of our era is the turning point of history, making it possible that human beings may become co-creators, learning to speak to the stars, the world of their origin. The prophecy of the embodiment of artificial intelligence shows that our age asks of us not just that we deal with the social and economic consequences of technological change, but that we recognise the spiritual challenges that it will bring. We will need to define and nurture the truly human, that essence of our being which for Max Tegmark is merely a step on the way to the perfection of artificial intelligence. Only in this way will we be able to discern the powers at work behind technological advances and ensure that they can serve the purpose of progressive evolution.

When Rudolf Steiner was instructing the founders of The Christian Community, he gave a powerful illustration to make them aware of the inner reality of the offering. He pointed out that it would be possible to have a system of pulleys and vessels that would replicate the filling of the cup with water and wine and its subsequent elevation. Why would that not be the equivalent of the offering? With this quite stark image, he pointed to the irreducibly human element without which offering is quite meaningless: the thoughts, feelings and moral impulses that we connect with the pouring in of water and wine, which open the process for the active co-working of spiritual beings.

We may find in coming years that the space for the irreducibly human seems to become ever smaller. More and more activities that we have considered to be uniquely human will be taken over by robots, as Peter van Breda examines in his article. If past experience of the adoption of medical technology (pacemakers, transplants) and communication technology (email, web) is a guide, many spiritually-minded people will vehemently reject these developments at first, only to adopt them a little later. It is all the more important that we conduct our own research and find the language to describe what will never be replaced – the irreducibly human. Perhaps altars where there is a true understanding of sacramentalism will be one of the last refuges for those in search of the truly human.

When we are preparing to receive the communion, we pray that Christ will give us his peace so that we may ‘unite with the world’s evolving’. This prayer expresses something of fundamental importance: we are praying for the strength to unite with the forward movement of the world. This does not mean blithely accepting everything as good, just because it represents progress of a kind. However, we clearly do not wish to shelter from the development of the world in other-worldly denial. The altar is intended not as a refuge but as a source of strength. Andrew Linnell’s article gives us one possible orientation for thinking about technology in this way.

We were grateful for the many articles that were written in response to a call for this issue. We hope that our readers will find the variety of insights and opinions interesting and that they give rise to further debate. It is always possible to send a reader’s letter to the address inside the front cover or via email.

Tom Ravetz

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