Acceptance vs Questioning, Kurzweil, Jobs and Francis Bacon

In an interview with Wired about his work building a brain at Google, Ray Kurzweil was asked about his thoughts on Steve Jobs’ notion of death as a natural part of life, and a provider of meaning and urgency (from his now-famous speech at Stanford).

“…This is what I call a deathist statement, part of a millennium-old rationalization of death as a good thing. It once seemed to make sense, because up until very recently you could not make a plausibly sound argument where life could be indefinitely extended. So religion, which emerged in prescientific times, did the next best thing, which is to say, ‘Oh, that tragic thing? That’s really a good thing.” We rationalized that because we did have to accept it.”

If it’s your first time reading about radical life extension, the statement might come across as arrogant (when in fact I believe Ray likely state it matter-of-fact-ly), but usually gets the point across. If death wasn’t 100% inevitable, would we still will it to happen? For most of us, the answer is likely not a cold “Yes.”

I’m sometimes surprised that there are not more similarities drawn between Kurzweil and the late Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the famous philosopher and promoter of science who exclaimed the following in his “New Atlantis”:

“My only earthly wish is… to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds… [nature will be] bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets.”

This defeat of death itself through deliberate effort and “torturing nature for her secrets” is – in the “New Atlantis” as in Ray’s modern projects – only a small (though unquestionably important) facet of overcoming our condition and leveraging the secrets of nature. While Kurzweil’s opinions are somewhat more mainstream today, they would still be considered ahead of their time – and were most certainly well ahead of their time in the 80’s and 90’s.

Death is Not the Last Condition to be Questioned 

If death were to remain inevitable, and our present lifespans were somehow to be the peak of human achievement (around 75 or 80 years), then acceptance and meaning-making would seem appropriate. There are plenty of rational, science-minded individuals who – like Steve Jobs – would find some semblance of meaning in death. With no other alternative, making peace and making meaning are good choices.

What about our intellectual capacities? At present, without any additional skull-room to fit more cortex, our intelligence might be seen as being close to topped out. What about the fact that time can only be experienced moving forward? What about our sensory experience being limited to five senses?

Without any ability to change any of the above conditions, the only reasonable response would be acceptance, and meaning-making. It might be comforting to think that the reality we stumbled into the the perfect one, and that it is to be embraced and accepted – and held as sacred. This “surrender” is not a perspective that I disregard as inherently “wrong” in a moral sense, but it certainly isn’t the only “right,” and it seems to yield little in the progressive betterment of our condition as people or nations.

If you’re reading this on a personal computer, it is presumably due to someone’s non-acceptance of the inaccessibility of knowledge. This is not to say that this person held no respect for their present condition, but instead that they set their mind to improving it along their terms, to vigilantly working away to yield the result – the computer you look into now. Better than mere books. Certainly better than microfiche.

It should be noted that there are those who likely argued against the spread of the computer, believing that books would make us appreciate information more, or prevent our technological laziness. The vast majority of these people now likely use the internet daily, and a great number of them likely have iPhones.

Why? Because this technology served it’s purpose, it delivered a value, it furthered our aims. At a certain point… it would make others faster or more connected than ourselves, and we’d have to catch up. For these reasons and others, the fear of losing the “meaning” of taking a book off of a shelf did not hold back computing.

Stepping Into the Future, Modulating Non-Acceptance

Think of how absurd it would have been to tell someone in 1869 that in 100 years, man would walk upon the moon.

Think, also, of how absurd it would have been just 50 years ago to tell someone off the street that in 50 years we’d have paralyzed people moving robotic arms to sip their coffee – using their thoughts alone.

Is it to be supposed that the next 20, 50, or 100 years (with the massive speed of technological progress) we are to see any less of this kind of seeming absurdity? Would we not expect to see so much more in our time than in any previous generations? How could we not question all that we know – or at least know that anything we’ve ever known can and one day must be brought to question?

We do not know what we are capable of – and though the exploration of these reaches indicates massive responsibility, it also seems like a duty to continue to break free of any notions of what we feel binds us or restrains us from the betterment of our condition. Of course there is danger in surpassing ourselves (hence the original myth of Atlantis), but the tremendous possibilities of “progress” seem to beat the dangers of technological and scientific stagnation.

This is the perspective of questioning the inevitable, and not settling with meaning-making upon all the topics with which we can do nothing… yet. It should be noted that I hold nothing against meaning-making, and putting a “positive frame” on a condition in order to feel better or promote action.

Due to the fact that the technology did not exist, it was likely best for Jobs to accept and make meaning of death – for him it likely was inevitable in every sense of the word. Right now (assuming you read this well before life-extending technology exists), if you were lying in your death bed it might make sense to come to the same conclusion. Let it be known also that Jobs also questioned the accepted – and will go down in history as one who did not accept – but created the world and conditions of his vision. In some circumstances, acceptance is called for – and in others, it is not.

Jobs, after all, was one of those “questioners” and “non-accepters” who forced the personal computer to be in existence, and the iPhone which squarely fills the pockets of so many who would have initially clamored for books over computers (let it be known that I love a good book – but not enough to prevent the furthering knowledge through other mediums than paper).

What Jobs and Kurzweil (and Bacon) seem to both show us, is that everything at least can be questioned, and that acceptance need not result in resignation. Though we’ve made meaning of death and of books, if we are vigilant we will see them for what they represent, and we will be capable of making new meaning – a process that needn’t imply an insult to our past.

If we are strong enough to detach from outdated ideas, or to mold meaning in accordance with new knowledge or possibilities (as the three men here listed have done), then we may become contributors and directors of the future in addition to curators of the past.