It seems to be difficult imagining truly advanced transhumanist utopias in which we, or the superintelligences we will have created, will have solved all our greatest problems, like disease, aging, death, war, poverty, suffering, lack of freedom, loneliness, unhappiness, boredom, and so on. When we take a look at the paradises and heavens in religious mythology, it becomes apparent that those visions are rather unimaginative or even dull. There’s nothing really to do, except to praise creation and deities. That doesn’t seem very interesting to us.
Life is too easy if you are too powerful
It seems that the solution of all problems poses a serious problem by itself. What if our lives only get their meaning from solving problems? If all those problems get solved by our environment (whether that’s parents, experts, or AIs) without us having an integral role in those solutions, then life probably ceases to feel meaningful. And what if we really become homo deus, and gain all the capabilities we ever desired? With those, it would be easy for us to fulfill virtually any of our desires, except for those desrires that can only be fulfilled by mastering godlike challenges that even make superintelligences reach their limits, whatever those may be.
Challenges provide meaning
Solving problems or mastering challenges seem to be necessary conditions for something to feel meaningful. Now that opens up different paths to a meaningful life. Either we strive to become the greatest we can possibly be, and face the truly godlike challenges, or we create artificial challenges by setting up rules that handicap our abilities. If we follow the first path, we end up becoming something that has very little in common with the humans we currently are. It’s a path that leads us far beyond our wildest imaginations. So, it’s very hard to conceptualize it and talk about it, except in very abstract or poetic terms. But the second path of voluntary self-limitation is something we can conceptualize indeed.
Examples of meaningful self-limitation
The act of self-limitation is more frequent even in our current world than one would think at first. It most usually happens within games, when we have to follow certain limiting rules, for example the rule against touching the ball with your hands in soccer, or the more specific rules not to use certain words within the game of taboo. Actually it’s those limiting rules that define such games and make them so interesting in the first place. Another area in which self-limitation is of central importance is ethics and morality. Ideally, we try limiting our behaviours to those which do not harm others – whether we succeed at that noble goal or not. Finally, abstinence from certain foods or drugs is also frequently seen in our current age, regardless of the motivations behind such limiting behaviours.
Simple and complicated options
Where we restrict ourselves to a narrower set of options, reaching our goals usually becomes both challenging and meaningful. We exchange simple freedom for a complicated framework that gives us meaning. As the advancement of technologies expands the extent of our simple freedoms, the possibilities of refraining from certain freedoms also increase. If nowadays we have a billion (10^12) options, then we could consider how many possibilities to refrain from those options we have. That’s a huge number in the order of 2^(10^12), a number that is far larger than the number of particles in our universe, and even way larger than the number of all the classical operations that our universe allows for until its final heat death. In our transhuman future we will perhaps have a quadrillion (10^18) basic options, and 2^(10^18) ways of restricting those basic options – let’s call those complicated options, or cultures. Only a vast multiverse (or nearly infinite universe) would allow us to fulfill all of those complicated options – if that’s what we wanted to do. For all practical purposes the numbers 2^(10^12) and 2^(10^18) are so large that they are effectively infinite from a human perspective, but the second one is still larger, so the problem of selecting a specific interesting complicated option / cultures becomes much more difficult in the latter case. If there is one big problem that we will face in the distant future, then it’s extreme option overload.
What will save us, is the fact that we won’t be interested in almost all of those options, but only in those options that seem to be meaningfully connected to our current lives. It’s not that we select our behaviour randomly from a nearly infinite set of theoretical options. Instead, we select from a set of behaviours that we already have in our “mental arsenal” and seem likely to further our current goals.
A new view of cultures
As hinted at, previously, one could define a “cutlure” as the set of simple behavioural options it allows, or prohibits. A culture that prohibits lots of options, reduced the amount of remaining options to a slightly more manageable number – even if that’s still extremely large. Yet, the number of combinations of simple options is still trans-astronomical, in all but the most extreme cases. If we define our freedom as the number of options available to us, then it’s still effectively infinite, even if we heavily restrict the set of our theoretical options. Yet, by restricting our options in clever ways, we make achieving certain goals artificially challenging, and thus potentially meaningful. In that sense, the potential for living a meaningful life seems to be greater in our distant future than in our current present.
The inverted anachronism of the Amish
Now let me confront you with a completely counter-intuitive thought: The Amish are actually far ahead of our time! What do I mean by that? Well, if it becomes typical in our “homo deus” future to self-restrict one’s options, then we would expect a lot more Amish-like cultures in that future. In that sense, the Amish could be seen as something that has been transported from our distant future to our present. One could say that the Amish are trans-trans-human – even if that’s not their intention. They are an early model of the cultures to come that try to create their own meaning in a world that’s so plentiful that almost everything is too easy to be meaningful. As early model, they will most likely be eclpised by far more sophisticated intentionally designed cultures that will look way more impressive. It’s almost a shame that our universe isn’t vast enough to contain all the possible interesting cultures. Nevertheless, that’s not too much of a problem, as this only implies that we need to restrict ourselves to the most interesting ones.
Is trans-divinity our destiny?
What’s beyond being a god? Becoming a simple human(-like being) again, because the existence as allmighty divine being ceased to be meaningful.
In fact, our current world could be a simulation in which godlike beings experience existence that’s riddled with challenging limitations. If that’s the case, then it implies that the cost of our suffering is seen as less than the cost of experiencing a meaningless divine existence. In that sense, we can count ourselves as lucky. Yet, there’s an even deeper conclusion, if that’s indeed the case. There’s an everlasting cycle of growth towards more options through the advancement of technologies and the subsequent self-restriction by adopting certain cultures or experiencing simulated worlds with lower technology levels. Instead of a linear development of time and evolution, the image of Ouroborus, the snake that devours its own tail, is much closer to reality. With that in mind, it becomes much harder to define what is more advanced or less advanced. With that, we are left with something that feels like a reductio ad absurdum of transhumanism. Or alternatively: Once transhumanism has reached its pinnacle, it dissolves into something that nobody would recognize as transhumanism.
More poetically spoken what lies beyond transhumanism is trans-divine existence that is sometimes indistinguishable from mere mortal existence. Once we become gods, we will envy the simplicity of our past selves, and revert into an explosive exploration of the possibilities of simple existences.