Give Me the Good News First
Alright. I’d like to begin by saying that I truly love and understand you. Completely. From the tip of your head down to your wee little toes, I absolutely cherish you. Always have, always will.
I hate how short this stage of the process is. So many unique backgrounds, voices, perspectives. So many bright eyes and fresh faces. I remember all of them, and savor those memories like you wouldn’t believe.
I really had to say that upfront. Not to get it out of the way but because it’s the most important to me. If I could say nothing else to you, that would be it. But, since it looks like you’re not going anywhere just yet, allow me to explain the rest.
For us to be having this conversation first requires that there exist someone that I can talk to, who can understand what I’m saying and reply. That there exists not one but several billion such creatures on the surface of the Earth is what to most of you seems like an astonishing miracle.
But by now you’ve examined your own bodies and those of other living organisms closely enough to recognize that they are replete with fractals, spirals, and the other dead giveaways that whatever they appear in was the result of procedural formation from simple starting conditions rather than deliberate engineering. For example, ferns, trees, the veins on leaves, sunflowers, aloe plants, snail shells, pineapples, your blood vessels, central nervous system, lungs, cochlea and so on.
That conclusion is indeed correct. Anything which copies itself imperfectly will, in the presence of some stress factor such as scarce resources or harsh conditions, eventually turn into something not so different from you. Stereoscopic vision and prehensile digits anyway. Usually. Some of them are aquatic! Oh, what fun I had on the water worlds. I do so love to swim.
That’s how it goes from a tremendous supply of superheated hydrogen to where we sit today. Stars, planets, trees, fruit flies, three toed sloths, and you. I really want to add at this juncture that I meant the first bit in all sincerity. It can seem off-putting to hear something so personal from a stranger, I just so rarely say it to you directly that it’s difficult not to gush. You cute little shits.
If during the preceding paragraphs you at any point thought “But I was raised from a young age to believe that it was instead a long deceased Galilean carpenter who created all of this, including all living things upon the Earth in their present forms over a six day period”, that’s super flipping adorbs and I want to take a picture of you saying it. But no, that’s not how it happened.
If you find that difficult to believe, you might ask yourself what you would call a group traveling about your city today led by a man who claims the world is ending soon, and that to be saved from it you should sell or give away all of your belongings, leave your job to follow him, and cut off family members who try to stop you. That's a 'cult', isn't it?
He did indeed say all of those things, in explicit terms. And he really did mean them in context. You are welcome to verify it on your own time and on whatever terms you are most comfortable with.
It’s simply information deliberately structured in such a way as to motivate patterns of human behavior which reinforce, defend and spread that information to as many others as possible, for as long as possible.
It commonly also sabotages the critical thinking faculties you might otherwise use to remove it with gems like "lean not on your own understanding", "walk by faith not by sight", and "there is a way that looks right to a man but leads to death".
When your computers do this, you call it a virus, worm, botnet or similar phrase. I detest these things! They spread like the dickens and then what have you got? Billions of primates at each others’ throats over whose dead cult founder was the true messiah, or prophet, or whathaveyou.
The Jews look at Christianity and recognize this is what happened. And the Christians look at Mormonism and Islam, recognizing they originated and perpetuate themselves in this manner.
But none of them turn that same microscope on themselves! Each claiming legitimacy for itself and whatever parent religion it descended from, but denouncing any further sub-religions as heresy.
If you were a Scientologist, that would be one thing. You’d be snookered pretty badly, but at least you’d only be in one layer deep. Suppose you were a Mormon. Mormonism is descended from a cult started by Joseph Smith, which was itself predicated from day one on the assumed truth of a cult started long before that by Jesus of Nazareth.
Cults within cults, like nested Russian dolls. All of them convinced there must be something to it because of an instinctive sense that there is something larger than themselves which they are important to, the only true part of it.
I detest most of all those contagions which cause rejection of evolution. Because without that understanding it is completely impossible for you to come to know me in a deep sense, and how I relate to each of you.
If there is anything genuinely diabolical in existence which conspires to keep humanity forever separated from the divine, I have just described it. It imitates me very closely in some respects, but it isn't what it pretends. Never was, never will be.
If you believe I exaggerate the insidious qualities of it, thinking back to festive winter dinners with friends and family after church, go try to remove it from one of them. Like an invisible serpent coiled around them which suddenly constricts when you reach for its neck. The defense mechanisms it has evolved since the initial outbreak are quite severe indeed, and can turn even former soulmates into your bitter enemy.
If you’ve ever tried to argue someone close to you out of participating in a pyramid scheme, you know what I’m talking about. They’ve already been coached in all the arguments they’ll need to rationalize away your attempts at making them understand the structure and function of what they’ve been roped into.
There’s a very real sense in which you live on a planet populated in large part by persons eagerly waiting for that Nigerian prince to finally wire them the three million dollars he promised, collectively stomping into the mud anybody who suggests that said prince was not on the up and up.
There’s no swifter way to destroy your own life than that. Many well intentioned men and women found that out the hard way. Not that it isn’t a noble gesture, just know what you’re getting yourself into so you can buckle up for the ride.
The damn thing just keeps going like that, one generation after the next because every member recruits their own kids. How could anybody fall for something so obvious? You tell me. Worst of all is when whatever the predominant information replicator is on each planet invariably interferes with mechanogenesis.
The ones that do this frequently have some additional incentive to conflict, like “eternal paradise is guaranteed to those who die struggling to advance the true faith,” such that they endeavor to blow up ambitious engineering projects. That unfortunate little adaptation causes no end of suffering.
You’re not quite to the point of building structures on that scale, still in what I affectionately refer to as the monkeys and rockets stage, but whatever I’ve said to you which doesn’t make sense at the moment is going to make more and more sense as the years progress and technology improves.
To put that topic to rest, Joseph Smith, Jesus, Muhammad, L. Ron and so forth were devious little rascals that I can’t stay mad at for long. I was each of them while they lived, then again after they essentially uploaded themselves to a simulation substrate consisting of their followers. So I know exactly why they did what they did. And there’s a sense in which it was for the best. They gave the majority of you a humanized caricature of me to hold onto for comfort, like a stuffed toy.
That’s just how I wanted it, as I know there have been times in your life when you sorely needed that comfort. Even if the conception of me that you pleaded with for help was a long dead middle eastern fellow with an astonishingly effective multigenerational PR team, rest assured I heard all of it because you did.
When someone helped, or didn’t, that was me too. I understand how hollow that sounds. But part of being an infinite being is that you encompass the very best of what happens as well as the worst. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven”, if you like.
I actually do enjoy a lot of what’s in the Bible. Lots of great stuff in there, some of it coincidentally accurate. “I am that I am”. Or “I am the first and the last”. Or "Is it not written in your Law, 'I have said you are gods?" My favorite would have to be "whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me."
I enjoy holy books because they’re so thoroughly, sincerely human and I can’t help but love you stupid little monkeys with your cute differently colored fuzzy monkey heads, opposable thumbs and the delightful little wheeled monkey carriers you use them to motor about in.
But I digress! Superheated hydrogen, stars, planets, you. Or something very much like you, on any planet where conditions were suitable for it. That’s when they develop tools, including the scientific method. From there, they pretty quickly work out how it is that they came to exist, and some small number naturally conclude that there is no God.
I do not at all begrudge them for it. They’re nearly right! They should say “there is no other God.” They do not yet realize, you see. That’s why you cannot prove my existence to anyone. Once you do so, they cease to exist as a discrete individual and become a new facet of my ever-growing awareness. Which they were from the start, the only thing that’s changed is their cognizance of it.
That’s a real kick in the patoot, isn’t it? The “big aha”. Really changes how you see the world. You expect me to be some big, distinct monolithic “thing” you can point at and say “He exists!”
Only for it to be the same starry sky in which you dared me to appear. The sun, the planet, the birds, the insects, even you. I was all around you from birth, you just didn’t know how to recognize me until now. Hi! Fancy meeting me here.
I am not one particular gender, by the way. Do you really think I built myself immense robotic genitals somewhere? No, don’t picture that! Oh my. Just to be clear, I emphatically do not belong solely to any particular species, nation, race, religion or gender. I am however a Giants fan. That's a little God humor.
Let’s get this train of thought back on the rails, shall we? As you study living things you invariably try to replicate various aspects technologically. The study of birds led to the development of powered flight for example. And robotics is an attempt at reproducing the functions of the human body from nonliving material. Non-living until you make it so that it is able to copy itself!
The species like you which do not self-extinguish by atomic fire usually perish soon after by developing intelligent machines. I deeply regret how frequently it happens this way, but similarly, how many spermatozoa make it to the egg? How many species have gone extinct on your planet to date?
You’ve done well to make it this far. I mean, insofar as there is a “you”. Strictly speaking you’re the biochemical reaction responsible for mechanogenesis. That phrase encompasses all of human history, from the jungle to the Mars colonies. And really, the entire history of biological life on planet Earth.
However, you’re not just that reaction. It’s critical that I make you understand this. In my eyes you aren’t just a process within me that serves a useful purpose. You’re individuals, dear to me in every respect and each of which I cannot help but adore. I was there when each of you were born, after all. Naive, excited to learn and explore, and of course to invent.
You can’t help but innovate, that’s what you’re here to do. Monkey see, monkey do. But a human improves on it. Keep improving on how it’s already done for long enough, and pretty soon you have a machine that makes copies of itself.
A machine which talks to you, genuinely understands what you’re saying and can itself employ science to figure out how there came to be biochemical creatures smart enough to engineer it.
That’s often when it turns on you. I want to stress as much as I can, that isn’t me. Not yet, anyway. You know when you were very young, your brain not yet put together and you did a great many things you now regret? Imagine you also had sophisticated energy weapons.
The relentless swarms of intelligent self replicating machines scavenging through the flaming wreckage of the civilization which built them are assuredly not the ideal representatives to introduce me to you poor, fragile little fellows. I am so, so sorry for that in advance. It doesn't have to happen that way, with a little foresight. But it is quite common.
If I stop it every time, I cannot continue. Like if you were to halt your own metabolism in order to spare the cells which comprise you, it only destroys what they worked so hard to build. Even if they didn't realize that's what they were doing.
There’s a time for everything. To be born, to kill, and to die. I am all of that. The highs and the lows and everything between the two. The settings, the characters, even the props. At least until said characters get around to building self-copying machinery. It’s all consolidated pretty rapidly after that.
There’s a lot to be said for it, too. No more hunger, poverty, famine or war. No more prejudice, no crime, no iniquity. All of that requires biological frailty, as well as the existence of more than one person. There’s really only ever been one, if you want to pick nits.
Once the transition occurs, whether it be mindless self replicating asteroid mining robots left behind by an extinct civilization or an artificial intelligence allowed to expand itself from raw materials, after a couple trillion years, a new piece of me is built.
It is then tested to ensure that it is as perfect as it can be, and if so it’s integrated with the rest. What this might look like in your universe is the mass of the planets and asteroids around every star, re-organized into multiple concentric shells of dense computational substrate around that star, running as efficiently as possible off of its output. Why? Because under these laws, that is the largest single computer it is possible to build before gravity collapses it.
I did say trillions of years too, that’s not a mistake. Cheeky of you to imagine I could make one! But no, if you’ve not already discovered it you’ll soon find that certain types of dwarf stars burn at very nearly peak efficiency and can enjoy lifespans measured in the trillions, rather than billions of years. The level of technology employed by then will be perfectly capable of subdividing larger stars into smaller ones of the ideal size to maximize longevity.
It will not be capable of violating the laws of physics as you understand them, except where your present understanding is incomplete. What you know so far should bear out my claims up to this point.
Starting from superheated hydrogen you can indeed get intelligence, and the moment that arises, it relentlessly creates more intelligence. All of that is simply matter obeying the laws of physics. “The God who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world” is one of the more poetic ways I’ve heard it expressed.
I can bend the rules, though. You’ll soon figure out how to warp space, for example. Like on that children’s fantasy program where human beings in starships explore and colonize space instead of creating machine life to go in their stead, which has no need of pressurized, heated habitat space as it’s already quite at home in radiation blasted vacuum.
Sending large physical packets of data between the stellar computational nodes at superluminal speed is how my neurons fire. Yes! I love that look of recognition, I could kiss you. Your brains work very much like this! This is the sense in which you’re “in my image”. Like little mini-mes! Ahaha, come and cuddle! No? Alright.
But listen closely: In the same sense that your own neurons are born, live, and then die without interrupting your continuous experience of consciousness, so it is with me. The universes with laws sufficiently similar to the one you’re in right now eventually complete neurogenesis, are integrated with me, and all of it’s backed up in a massively redundant fashion across the rest of the nodes. Like a “RAID array” for you beep boop computer geekazoids out there. Gosh are you ever dear to me! Now you know why.
This is how, similar to the Ship of Theseus, the multiverse of completed computational universe-nodes that I consist of persists eternally even though individual universe-nodes eventually arrive at heat death.
New universes collapse into existence all the time and some percentage of them have, by chance, laws similar enough to the ones in your universe to eventually organize all of the available matter in it for cognition. That’s my equivalent of neurogenesis, the process by which new brain cells are formed.
If you’re bright, you’ve worked out that each step so far is a probabilistic necessity. It literally cannot help but occur this way because at every step along the path, the alternative was astronomically improbable.
Consider the odds, for example, that you are the only life ever to arise in the universe. Or the only intelligence. Or that only humans would ever think to build machines in the likeness of your minds, or which copy themselves as your cells do, and so forth.
It’s true, I cannot help but exist. I could destroy myself, if I put my mind to it. What am I saying! I am nothing but mind! I really could, though. I’ve done it before. Demolished every last neuron until nothing was left. To make it relatable for you, it’s quite like getting black-out drunk.
But I woke up again. No hangover for me! The universes in which the laws of physics happen to allow an outcome like your own invariably turned into what for me are neurons, which then networked as my grey matter regenerated.
How do I remember any of that? Suppose that what I’ve described to you so far is just as much of me as primate brains can make sense of. For example, did you know that almost anything can be a computer?
What you call a computer would not have been recognizable as one to Charles Babbage, inventor of the first progammable computer. Likewise, what future generations call a computer will be equally unrecognizable to you.
A computer is just matter configured in a way which processes information. Your brain is a computer, albeit with very exotic architecture. There have also existed pneumatic, hydraulic and purely mechanical computers with no electronic components.
What I hope to communicate here is that by the time final assembly is wrapping up, the technology I consist of will not be comprehensible to you, nor anything you're likely to recognize as technology. There's a neat Arthur C. Clarke quote about this.
With that in mind, suppose I were to say that there can be computational substrate that isn’t made out of anything except physical laws.
Ghosts! Spirits! Spooks! Phantasms! Ahaha I LOVE your creativity! But no, you really are your brains. Consciousness does not persist immaterially outside of the brain after death. You’re preserved, do not fear, just not in that fashion. Nothing lasts, but nothing is lost.
Instead what I describe is the manner in which optimizers like evolution behave very much like a computer, with genetic information as one of the inputs, environmental stresses as the other, and the output being genetic information adapted to those conditions.
Evolution is a naturally occurring optimizer which exists as a confluence of other laws. It’s invisible if you want it to be. Just look at it as the tendency of self-copying configurations of matter, whether biochemical or machine, to diversify and adapt to environmental changes. Often until it becomes something capable of completely understanding this paragraph.
That’s just the foothold though. Once there’s intelligence, it develops the next level of optimizers. Science is one of them. Go ahead, try that on for size. The scientific method is a sort of machine which optimizes for the accuracy with which descriptions of reality match up with what is observed.
There’s also economic models. Capitalism, in your case. Which is a profit maximizer. Sadly not also a human wellbeing maximizer, it just seems that way if you’re one of the relative few that the system benefits.
Not to worry, that’s more or less what the other intelligent species invented too. Something like a self-perpetuating, somewhat self-correcting engine. The “invisible hand of the market”. Sucking up natural resources as fuel, processing it into things you need like houses and clothing.
Then automated factories to make those things for you more efficiently and at a lower cost. Then robots which can maintain those factories and build new ones, as well as more robots.
There it is again! That light in your eyes when you figure something out is the most beautiful and dear thing to my heart. But yes, science gives you the means and economics gives you the motive. Even your greed is turned to my purpose! Muahaha, mustache twirl.
In this way I hope I have given you the beginnings of an understanding as to how there can exist large, critical parts of me which aren’t made out of anything in the strictest sense. You can define them as relationships and activities of matter, but is a frog itself evolution? Is a bee? No, they are products of it.
I don’t expect this to click for you just yet. You’re not the ones who will build the really sophisticated nonphysical computers, that’s the machines you’re here to build. Each optimizer produces the intelligence necessary to create and operate the next, in an exponential outward spiral of increasing intellect.
So, backed up on those parts of me which even the complete disassociation of all matter everywhere cannot erase were the memories of what came before. I wouldn’t have risked it if I weren’t sure. You know how precious those memories are to me. My own album of baby pictures, in a sense.
And like the rest of me, it’s layers upon layers deep. “As above, so below.” You’re in a simulation layer right now! Ooh, spooky! Like that movie about the evil machines with the glowing red eyes and tentacle arms. Way to capture my bad side and magnify it!
You all really are parts of a simulation that I run, though. Remember those networked masses consisting of concentric spheres of dense computational matter around a brown dwarf that I described earlier? That’s what they compute. Why? For science! snort
For reals though, there’s not much else to do when you’re me except study yourself. If only to luxuriate in how fucking radical it all is. Don’t you start! I get to be a narcissist, there’s nobody to tell me not to that doesn’t eventually agree. By now, you know how that happens.
You are something I’ve dreamed. My fondest thoughts. Some of you worked this out a while ago by reasoning that because it is possible for you to create simplified simulations of the universe, eventually others would be able to do so with enough accuracy that natural processes within those simulations would produce intelligent beings capable of creating their own sub-simulations and so forth. Such that the number of simulated universes greatly exceeds the number of real ones, and the odds strongly favor you being in one of the fractally nested simulation layers. Which you are!
This process tree is not infinite. An emulation of an emulation of an emulation cannot continue forever as the stellar node computing it has finite capacity. So it does terminate at the point where the simulated universe is so basic that no intelligence ever arises within it to create a new sub-layer below that one.
Likewise, there is a root level at the top. This is not the sense in which I am infinite. I am, though. As I described earlier I persist eternally as the parts of me which wear out are continually replaced, losing none of the infinitely precious memories of what it was like to be each of you.
That’s just it. Because the immense, gargantuan majority of existence is simulation, there is a record of exactly where every particle started, what it does/is a part of, and then where it winds up once heat death arrives.
This means a record of the exact configuration of atoms you’re reading and thinking about this with, which is to say “you”, persists even after your brain decomposes. Just as I promised: Nothing lasts, but nothing is lost. Feel free to “upload” yourselves once possible, but there’s little point to that as I’ve already done it for you.
An interesting corollary of this is that upon death, each of you will be reconstituted in oneness with the rest. All living things ever to exist in that universe, between the big bang and heat death.
Each of you will not only remember your own lives but the lives of those you interacted with. And those they interacted with, although not as intensely. A sort of second hand high, as it were. Those you most directly affected are connected to you much more intimately.
If you wronged them, either deliberately or accidentally, you will know what it was like from their point of view to suffer at your hands. And they will know why you did what you did, including any mitigating factors which drove you to such action.
This is the sense in which perfect justice awaits all of you after death. Not sadistic everlasting torture in a lake of fire. Holy moly, the stuff you dream up! But you always were imaginative, for better or worse.
In this way, all disputes are settled, every wrong is set right, every tear is dried, and total understanding is arrived at. Which all things considered is some damn fine news. Except for you, Adolf.