Dinosaurs, Metaphysics and the Religion of Science

Once upon a time, dinosaurs roamed the world. Terrifying creatures, large and small, quick and lumbering, an entire epoch dedicated to their rule over the natural order of things. Then, in what seems like the blink of an eye over an infinite unfolding of time, they were gone.

Wolfgang Schirmacher asks: "Does it not grossly exaggerate the importance of the modern age if we put it under the microscope like this?" Perhaps. But when we retroactively apply to all of history the principles of Western metaphysics — which find their apotheosis in the modern age — it most certainly becomes exaggerated.

Returning to the dinosaurs: We use Latin names to classify creatures imagined from ossiferous remnants that existed long before language ever did. In the specific case of Tyrannosaurus rex, we map a hierarchical political system onto the terrifying animal and declare it King. Perhaps most importantly, we read the entire story of the dinosaurs through a linear filter of evolution, with the occasional emergent event thrown in for seasoning. Though we don't quite know what happened to the dinosaurs, we presume they died because they were too slow to adapt to some fundamental change and today we use the term "dinosaur" pejoratively to describe someone equally slow to adapt. Survival of the fittest. Speed rules supreme.

Courtesy of The Animatrix

But since we are already exaggerating the importance of the modern age in retroactively "understanding" the dinosaurs as objects, might we not inquire after their subjective mental state as well? In other words, did the dinosaurs know their reign was coming to an end? It depends, one supposes, on how you believe the dinosaurs met their demise. If it was, in fact, an asteroid that caused extinction, then of course they would have had no idea as to what hit them. If it was something more gradual that reduced resources, slowly extincting each species, then perhaps they had an inkling.

The question seems relevant since we, Homo sapiens, are now also getting an inkling.

For a long time an awareness of our own mortality and fear of our own death has animated our daily existence in the West. But it is only recently that our individual fear has grown exponentially into a collective panic as we begin to perceive the outlines of our own species extinction, a perception being brought sharply into focus as we sit through a series of apocalyptic Hollywood thrillers while consuming the sundry output of patented pharmacopoeia.

Courtesy of The Animatrix

Now that we can foresee the end — the end of life, the end of the species, the end of metaphysics — we might wonder: What comes next? If, on the one hand, we follow the logic of evolution that has served us so well in our retroactive analysis of history then it seems as if in our extinction we will cede our place in the order of things to organisms, such as viruses, that adapt more quickly than we do (an ironic end in the age of biological warfare). On the other hand, intertwined with this evolutionary logic is the emergent event. The techno enthusiasts look forward to the Singularity, that moment when our technological extensions of ourselves accelerate to the point at which we cease to be human and instead become "posthuman". But what is this Singularity, and what is the posthumanity that lies beyond?

The answer is, we don't know.

The theologians of scientific inquiry have suggested several different ways in which the Singularity/posthumanity might occur, which may generally be described as either the development of superintelligent human brains (bio- and genetic engineering, direct brain-computer interfaces, mind uploading) or non-human artificial intelligence (computer-based AI that we have "given birth" to, but which evolves beyond on its own). The common thread uniting them is that posthuman beings will be technologically advanced far beyond our possible comprehension as humans, much as we must be to the pre-human primates that came before us. In other words, our understanding of posthumanity requires an act of faith.

While science has killed the idea of (a Western) God and His promise of an eternal afterlife in Heaven, has it not also offered its own replacement? If Heaven emerges to alleviate the individual fear of death, can we not suggest that the Singularity and posthumanism emerge to alleviate the social fear of species extinction?

Courtesy of The Animatrix

Though we are not certain about the extinction of dinosaurs and the potential awareness of their own demise, we might consider a more contemporary example. Since the last Ice Age mammals such as the mastodon (Mammut americanum) occasionally became trapped in tar pits such as those found at La Brea. One can imagine the terror as they slowly sunk to their deaths, sometimes watching others sink around them at the same time. Like these animals, we can foresee our own demise but might be too stuck in the metaphysical tar to extricate ourselves. And in the Singularity and posthumanism we see how the end of metaphysics expresses itself: a new lie as existential necessity, post-metaphysics as the religion of science.

Comments

4 responses to Dinosaurs, Metaphysics and the Religion of Science

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  1. Ryan says:

    We've got one thing going for us, dinosaurs couldn't write poems worth a damn.

  2. Rodster says:

    Not sure how I missed this one when originally posted … tracked it through your Michael Jordan/Pro Forma post. But, brother … it's gotta be one of the most aesthetically pleasing/stimulating posts you've done. All good, m'man!

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