Henri Bergson is barely remembered today outside of France, and if at all for his theory of the comic in Le rire: Du mécanique plaqué sur du vivant, the humiliation of life through physics, as when a purposeful walker slips on a banana peel. Under the influence of Darwin, Bergson’s “vitalist” thought attributed to living beings an élan vital, a drive to maintain themselves and reproduce, and he was ready to attribute this élan in a less advanced form to matter itself.
As AI moves inexorably toward the Singularity, predicted for the 2040s, when machines will become more intelligent than humans across the board rather than merely better at mathematical calculations or playing chess, I thought I should get in a few human thoughts while we’re still ahead. These thoughts are in response to what has been so far the only dynamic internal challenge to GA, that of Adam Katz, who is, as his forthcoming book review makes clear, attracted to a less “humanistic” understanding of originary thinking than mine, one that brings together, as Bernard Stiegler seeks to do in his La technique et le temps, the two halves of the division between tekhne and episteme that Stiegler sees, in a manner not altogether incompatible with the GA critique of metaphysics, as the point of departure for Greek philosophy and its prolongation in metaphysical/scientific thought.
As a preliminary reflection in this domain, I thought I would try to take “originary thinking” as far as it can go, answering, independently of Heidegger’s never-quite-stilled reminiscences of the Schwarzwald and its pre-Christian nature mystique, his Urfrage: why are there “essents” rather than nothing; Warum ist überhaupt Seiendes und nicht vielmehr Nichts?
One might think that if there is one question we certainly cannot answer, it is this one. We have no access to extraworldly decision processes, and if one thing is clear, it is that we cannot hope to answer it by seeking in the depths of our brains/minds/souls the “meaning” of Being and/or Nothingness. We can nevertheless attempt to explore the issue from a perspective more epistemological than ontological; as Kant might say, we need not trouble ourselves about the Ding-an-sich.
One thing that the progress of the cognitive sciences reveals to us is that the “mystery” of life is most simply understood as the propensity of things that last to… last. All of Darwin is contained in that negentropic principle. One needs no external will, no watchmaker God, simply “stuff” let loose in time. For as the billennia and trillennia go by, the stuff will form structures by chance, and those structures that don’t endure will come to be replaced by those that do.
The theorists of the Big Bang occurring 13.8 billion years ago and its succeeding nano-seconds have gone into great detail in retrodicting the origins of the universe we now experience. But if we assume not just a paltry few billion years but a truly unlimited amount of time—say, the time necessary for me to bet a billion dollars a second on the outcome of the Monte Carlo “paradox” and in the end turn a profit—then whatever material we began with will have arguably achieved an extremely high level of organization. Unless, of course, as our religious tradition and others suggest, negentropy holds within it a perverse tendency to turn on itself and accelerate the triumph of its entropic enemy.
The emptiness of questions such as asking whether or not the existence of time calls forth beings rather than nothing—or what “time” would mean with no beings to exist “within” it—is precisely why people no longer take metaphysics seriously. All too clearly, these are the kind of questions one comes to ask as a result of possessing language without ever having thought about how language came to exist; it doesn’t matter where the words came from, one feels one can just use them to ask whatever one likes.
How then can we handle the situation in order to situate the human and its language in what we might call the history of “systems”?
Although blind faith in the uniformitarian principle incites our scientists to obsess about life on other planets, the fact that so far we haven’t observed any strikes me as a pretty good indication that it doesn’t exist, and certainly not on the level of ETI. Regardless, even if we are (for the moment) unique, we need not consider ourselves the first or last “intelligent” creatures to evolve, since we have no idea how long the universe, or multiverse, has existed, or even if it makes sense to conceive of such a duration.
Once again, given “stuff” of some minimal level of complexity and mobility, and as much time as necessary, the stuff will spontaneously counteract entropy by arbitrarily forming negentropic structures, things like protons and electrons, atoms, molecules, and all the rest. Hence given enough time, it would be inevitable that “life” would evolve, creatures capable not just of forming and enduring but of reproducing themselves with variations and hence of “evolving” over time into increasingly capable creatures. This is Darwin’s theory in a nutshell, which in effect requires no premises other than those used to explain the origin of the stars, or of our solar system: “stuff,” and time.
In this context, then, language being a useful device, it makes sense to assume that at some point it would evolve. But here is where our “materialists” go wrong. I note not altogether parenthetically that Terrence Deacon’s long-awaited 2012 Incomplete Nature, where he describes quite persuasively in systems-theory terms How Mind Emerged from Matter, unexpectedly deals not at all with mind’s greatest achievement, that of human language—and this despite Deacon’s illuminating focus on language in his 1997 The Symbolic Species.
Why indeed would he not take this step? Could the explanation be the same as that for his refusal to engage with the originary hypothesis, about which we exchanged a couple of emails in the last years of the last century, and this after his having been just about the only cognitive scientist to conceive a “scenario” for language origin rather than simply assuming that it “evolved”? (See Chronicle 490.)
Human language is not simply a useful tool; its emergence is necessary, as Girard understood concerning human culture in general, to provide a means of allowing creatures of a high level of mimetic intelligence (as if any other kind could emerge among living creatures) to function together in sufficient harmony to pursue existence and evolution by deferring mimetic violence. The terms of the originary hypothesis indeed imply that proto-humans who did not “discover” the sacred and language would have died out, precisely because their growing intelligence would have made them otherwise incapable of living harmoniously—on the principle that humanity alone among the species poses the chief danger to its own survival.
No doubt in the broader scheme of things, this “discovery” is just one more example of evolutionary adaptivity, a way of permitting a higher level of intelligence to operate in a complex society. But given that in humans, the origin of language accompanies that of the sacred, and that we have no counterexamples, the question, not of “the existence of God,” which is not a truly intelligible idea in any case, but of the sacred’s conceptual necessity, must go unanswered. Were AI indeed eventually to evolve a mode of “life” independent of humans, whose existence might then no longer be “necessary,” this would only corroborate the necessity of a Creator outside the universe of his creation…
Hence we must return to Roy Rappaport’s intuition, now abandoned by the social sciences, of the coevality of language and the sacred. The sacred is not an arbitrary addition to the evolutionary schema. It is the communal deferral it commands that permits the generation of language as a means of communication among individual beings, each capable not merely of perceiving external reality but reflecting on it in such as way as to be able to share thoughts about it with his fellows. Language “exists” nowhere but in individual minds, but its objective or “inscriptive” reality is shareable. And this shareability that makes it so useful a tool is predicated on the emergence among the first humans of the intuition of a sacred will preventing mimetic conflict and concomitantly inaugurating communication through symbolic signs.
Given that there are no other examples in the animal kingdom of truth-capable or propositional languages, it is empty speculation to assume that such languages could emerge without requiring the evocation of a sacred interdiction to provoke the institution of the “symbolic” sign. The fact that contemporary social science finds no reason to consider this filiation is of no value as evidence; and whether AI itself can evolve a different conception of language does not remove the sacred from the filiation that led to it from its biological creators.
What of the future? If a mere few billion years sufficed to produce all this, assuming the universe has unlimited time at its disposal, one might expect far more. Asking where we are in “universal” history only poses new questions: if the negentropic principle is in principle eternal, what reason can we give for the inadequacies we still find? In a trillion, a quadrillion years, how much better will things be? Or will they be at all? No doubt the overall entropy of any “universe” continues to increase, but if so much matter/energy came together at the start, why must we assume that the universe’s total supply of matter/energy is thereby exhausted? If in the beginning there was Nichts, then whatever source supplied the original stuff need not exhaust itself in that single act. The fact is that, however naïve these speculations may appear in comparison with those of serious cosmologists, the more we learn about the universe, the less we are able to comprehend even the sense of what it means to speak of its “origin.”
Was the Big Bang truly the beginning (or rebeginning) of “everything”? Is ours but one sub-universe in a multiverse? None of these speculations is satisfying; the originary principle of the system remains hidden. And the disquieting fact that the composition of matter/energy, which the 20th century seemed to be on the way to successfully theorizing, continues to grow more complex with each generation of particle accelerators, suggests to some that there are an infinite number of layers and that the multiplication of “elementary” particles will never end. At least if the Singularity bears the fruit its conceptualizers endow it with, machines thinking billions of times faster than humans will have a better chance than we at understanding the universe, or in other terms, embodying the universe’s self-understanding.
This might seem to be the “destiny” of the universe as an entropic system: negentropic subsystems emerge within it and maintain themselves, and ultimately come to “understand” the universe as a whole. At this point, we might say that they “master” it, as God made us the “masters” of the Earth and its creatures. What that will allow such beings to do with this mastery we clearly cannot conceive. In contrast, thinking of humans, as Pascal always saw us, as intermediate beings, neither tiny nor vast, divine nor infernal, is probably the best way of understanding ourselves in every sense.
The purpose of GA is not to master the universe and resolve its mysteries, but to help us to operate for the best in our limited locality, expanding it as we can, less with a “sense of our limitations,” given how far these have already been pushed back, than with an understanding that we have limitations, and that so to speak by definition we cannot grasp what they are.
In the back of our minds while conceiving such speculations remains the sinister thought that the conquests of deferral such as we have known them have regularly brought along with them the dangers of ever-greater violence. Since Hiroshima, we have been faced with a realizable vision of humanity’s self-destruction. The deferral of violence can work well almost everywhere, but if a single act, a finger on The Button, can precipitate the apocalypse, how much longer can we expect to remain immune from it? Is it this that explains what, all things considered, might appear as the brief duration of our present universe?
Generative anthropology cannot answer such questions. But as for the origin of human language and the culture that has accompanied it, the originary hypothesis must be recognized as having provided the only explanation so far of the inextricable relationship of the sign to the sacred that enables it and to the mimetic violence it defers. The foundations of cosmology may remain ever beyond our grasp, but we can indeed make progress in our worldly self-understanding by going back, once more, to the origin of language.