Singularities Happen: Alan Watts explains the Singularity

by Matt Swayne on January 14, 2011

So suppose that the Singularity happens…

That’s what scientists, futurists, transhumanists, and entire conventions of science fiction writers have pondered over the years, especially since remarkable technologies have moved from science fiction to science fact.

The camps are deeply divided on what happens after the Singularity.

For instance, the Singularity has its completely negative scenarios. Think of it as the Apocalypse without the cool cars that can traverse vast stretches of desert without a fill-up. But there are those who think the Singularity will be positive. Effusively positive even. The Singularity won’t be a game changer. It will be the ultimate reality changer creating the best of all possible situations for all of us. It will be a world of immortality, abundance, physical enhancements, and, if Hollywood is correct, really brightly lit, stoically-decorated rooms.

As is often the case, though, when our imaginations reach the precipice of our current knowledge, pessimism reigns. Suppose the Singularity happens. Suppose, even further, that the positive Singularity happens. What then? What if technology could provide every need and desire? Do we sit around plugged into our 3-D Wii consoles all day and - since sleep is no longer needed - all night?

In short: will we get bored?

I’m going to let a Western zen monk answer that. And he may even lead us to new speculations about not just what the Singularity is, but, possibly, what the Singularities (note the plural) are.

Alan Watts, one of the West’s most celebrated experts on Zen Buddhism and panpsychism, wrote several groundbreaking works of philosophy, including The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. One of his lesser known - for which I’m hard pressed to explain - pieces is called, Cosmic Drama. In it, he lays out a very similar, although more spiritually-oriented, scenario as the technological one I described above.

Alan starts out like this:

“Suppose you’re God. Suppose you have all time, eternity, and all power at your disposal. What would you do? I believe you would say to yourself after awhile,

“Man, get lost.”

For Watts, when this absolute potential meets absolute power, the result is a creative explosion. All isn’t just possible, all is probable. No doubt, the more base desires are dealt with first.

“Naturally, you could dream any span of time - you could dream seventy-five years of time in one night, a hundred years of time in one night, a thousand years of time in one night - and it could be anything you wanted - because you make up your mind before you go to sleep,

‘Tonight I’m going to dream of so-and-so.’

Naturally, you would start out by fulfilling all your wishes. You would have all the pleasures you could imagine, the most marvelous meals, the most entrancing love affairs, the most romantic journeys, you could listen to music such as no mortal has heard, and see landscapes beyond your wildest dreams.”

Eventually, though, Watts speculates that you would get bored.

“And for several nights, oh, maybe for a whole month of nights, you would go on that way, having a wonderful time. But then, after a while, you would begin to think,

“Well, I’ve seen quite a bit, let’s spice it up, let’s have a little adventure.”

What would follow would be type-A-infused fantasies. You’d imagine wars and battles. You’d dream about dramatic rescues. You’d move from the Spice channel to the Adventure channel. Eventually to the Military Channel. And maybe to Lifetime, for more domestic drama.

The end result would be you would get lost in the drama. You would forget that you created the drama.

Watts suggests that this is precisely where our civilization is headed and technology is the driver.

Remember, he wrote this decades ago, but here’s how he sees it:

“Look at it another way. The object of our technology is to control the world, to have a super electronic push button universe, where we can get anything we want, fulfill any desires simply by pushing a button. You’re Aladdin with the lamp, you rub it, the jinni comes and says,

‘Salaam, I’m your humble servant, what do you wish? Anything you want.’

And after a while, just as in those dreams I described you would decide one day to forget that you were dreaming, you would say to the jinni of the lamp,

‘I would like a surprise.’

To me, at least, this sounds exactly like the Singularity.

While it’s impossible to rule out the idea that there are further levels of development above our pale human imaginations, Watts believes that, eventually, we would get tired of this technology.

“So if our technology were to succeed completely, and everything were to be under our control, we should eventually say,

‘We need a new button.’

With all these control buttons, we always have to have a button labeled SURPRISE, and just so it doesn’t become too dangerous, we’ll put a time limit on it - surprise for 15 minutes, for an hour, for a day, for a month, a year, a lifetime. Then, in the end, when the surprise circuit is finished, we’ll be back in control and we’ll all know where we are. And we’ll heave a sigh of relief, but, after a while, we’ll press the button labeled SURPRISE once more.”

Watts points out that the cycle matches exactly the Hindu belief of cosmic destruction and creation.

“During the manvantara when the world is manifested, Brahma is asleep, dreaming that he is all of us and everything that’s going on, and during the pralaya, which is his day, he’s awake, and knows himself, or itself (because it’s beyond sex), for who and what he/she/it is. And then, once again, presses the button—surprise!”

It’s a circular thing. Coming at it from a Western point of view, it’s a weird concept. We tend to think of time as being linear. There’s a creation and eventually an end of time judgment, or an apocalypse.

The Singularity may share more with the Hindu kalpas and yugas and less with the notion of a “rapture of the nerds” or a TechnoCalyps.

So, my question to you is this:

Suppose the Singularity is near? Is this just another touch of the cosmic “surprise” button?

How do you know the Singularity hasn’t happened again and again?

Man, get lost!

About the Author:

Matt Swayne is a blogger and science writer. He is particularly interested in quantum computing and the development of businesses around new technologies. He writes at Quantum Quant.

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  • Nikki_Olson

    Hi Matt,

    This is interesting to think about in the context of Mircea Elade’s ‘The Myth of The Eternal Return’, as he argues that the earliest humans tried to ignore history, and then tried to tolerate it through archetypes and beliefs in cosmic cycles and repetition. Then of course, in the West, eventually embracing the notion of history, linear time, with the Judeo-Christian tradition. But as you point out, there are still (major) belief systems that adhere to ‘eternal return’ philosophies.

    The concept of eternal recurrance was perhaps most famously discussed by Nietzsche, first in ‘The Gay Science’ and then developed in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

    Neitzsche describes the notion of ‘eternal recurrence’ as the ‘greatest burden’ that man could imagine. It is posed by Neitzsche as a hypothetical, metaphysical, ‘state of things’ meant to demonstrate the ‘hell’ that such a reality would entail for man existentially.

    One feels more than just boredom in imagining having to witness the ‘recurrence of the same’ over and over and over… There is something about us, existentially, that is bothered by this notion. There is something about us, that longs for ‘evolution’, a feeling of progress, and feeling that we have ‘moved on’, and ‘improved’. What you discuss, the idea that we will, in our familiar instincts, look for the button that entertains us and destroys us, even at this future point in time, is upsetting to think about for reasons similar to that of the notion of eternal recurrence. More upsetting is that it is a real, and some would argue likely, future scenario.

    How meaningless the lives of humans would seem if bound to the same limitations, mentally, for all of time. If all that changed was the external world, and that we were left, bound to the same mental limitations. As if we had been transplanted into a different time, not part of the process in getting there.

    I think its important to remember that through technology, especially as we approach the Singularilty, that we too will change.

    Through genetic engineering we are going to re-make ourselves. We are going to become, as Gregory Stock puts it in the film Technocalyps, “the objects of conscious design”. And also, that this ‘will rip free all of the anchors that until now told us who we are as human beings”

    We have to assume that we will augment our minds in such a way that we are no longer bound by the same limitations that have so far bound humans historically.

    Of course there are too many possibilities, looking out onto the horizon of genetic engineering, to speculate intelligently about ‘future minds’. Too little is understood about the human brain. Some would argue, that would need to augment ourselves in order to fully ‘get our head around’ the subjects you discuss, our more elusive, cosmic, instincts.

    Nietzsche’s ‘Overmen’ can be thought of as a kind of response to the hell that is the doctrine of ‘eternal recurrance’. In ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ Nietzsche posits the ‘Overman’ as a kind of goal for humanity. A humanity that is ‘beyond’ itself in moral, cultural, psychological and physical ways. To Transhumanists, the way this becomes (really) possible is through advanced technologies such as genetic engineering.

    Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddessy accomodates both philosophies: linear time/evolution and death/re-birth. The stargate experience of David Bowman is thought by some to portray ‘consciousness expanding’ where in which afterwards Bowman ‘sees the world with new eyes’. A star child is born in the sky, finishing the sequence, which resembles both a human embryo and an alien; suggesting continuity, re-birth, and, evolution.

    In Kevin Kelly’s latest book “What Technology Wants” he writes that humanity is best thought of as a ‘process’. I like this way of thinking about it very much. A process can be thought of as a ‘phenomenon marked by gradual changes through a series of states’(princeton wordnet). Internal consistency but also change; a conflation of ‘eternal return’ and ‘evolution’, perhaps.

    In talking about ‘what humanity wants’, I think one thing that characterizes one of our most fundamental desires, is that of ‘transcendence’. Breaking free of the past and previous constraints; breaking free of cycles while maintaining our sense of origin.

    Thanks for the great post. Very thought provoking!

  • Matt

    Hi Nikki-
    Thanks for the awesome reply! I never thought of connecting Nietzche with this, but you’re absolutely right, his concepts were in line with what I was trying to get at.
    You have inspired me to break out my Joseph Campbell books that have been lining my bookshelves for far too long. Time to put them to use. Although, they do look impressive there!

  • Matt

    I’m also thinking that Schopenhauer could be called into this discussion of cyclical Singularities.
    I can understand that type of existential dread of a circular Singularity.
    But, then again, maybe there is something deep within the human experience-maybe even its very vulnerability-that keeps us coming back?
    I have a deep belief though that as we stretch our minds and imaginations further, or have them stretched for us, we will be delivered into new levels of being and perhaps new levels of freedom to experience reality as we see fit.

  • Matt
  • Nikki_Olson

    The link you provide adds another dimension to what’s already been discussed.

    “Schopenhauer suggests that the way in which we can become better is through ceasing to be conscious beings, and immersing ourselves in art, music, or intellectual pursuits.”

    Bringing technology into the discussion more directly, Jaron Lanier writes about what he calls “Post-Symbolic Communication”, a theory he hasn’t filled out yet, but that is in line with some of the main thoughts in this article on Schopenhauer.

    Post-symbolic communication is a form of communication he thinks will be possible through advanced technologies such as immersive (really immersive) virtual reality. It would involve our senses in ways we are unable to experience in the ‘physical’ world, with unique configurations of sensory experience in magnitudes not possible through ordinary means.

    Post-symbolic communication, as he discusses it, is beyond ‘language’ (in the symbolic, ‘intentionality’, ‘semiotic’ sense), where instead, ‘communication’ happens through sensory experiences with sound, touch, shapes, patterns, colors etc. Like some of the more ‘transcendent’ aesthetic experiences we have through artistic means today, it is not something that will be perceived or understood ‘consciously’ (through deliberate means), but will give the feeling of ‘consciousness expanding’.

    The idea of non-conscious means to transcendence through aesthetic experience is a central aspect of Kubrick’s 2001 (in a different way than Lanier’s PSC). “The Meaning of the Monolith Parts 1 and 2″ give some of the best discussion on the matter I have seen to date. I very much recommend watching these!

    Part 1:
    Part 2:

    During the Q&A portion of the Montreal screening of “The Singularity is Near”, (which was great to attend), Greg Weintjes of SU Alumni 09 asked Ray what excited him/meant the most to him in terms of the advanced technology he sees on the horizon, and about the Singularity, etc. His answer was ‘Transcendence’.

  • Nikki_Olson

    Hi Matt,
    Good idea, I should also read Joseph Campbell :)

  • Socrates

    Very interesting points Nikki! I particularly like the 2 monolith videos discussing Stanley Kubrick’s classic masterpiece 2001 Space Odyssey.

  • Michael Nuschke

    Hi Matt (and Nikola).

    Thanks for this post. Alan Watts was one of my first spirituality “reads” and I hadn’t remembered his ruminations on this. Watts description reminds me of buddhism’s “Six Realms of Existence” - namely the “god realm” where the mind is beyond all want and dwells in pleasure. However, because it is manufactured, this state will eventually change, decay and fade away. (the buddhist truth of impermanence)

    I think this discussion in a buddhist setting would get into the nature of “awareness/consciousness/mind” is “not created” and that the god realm could be a really big trap along the path of self-realization.

    The Singularity, however, could bring further strength and capabilities to the mind that would enhance the path to self-realization - if one were inclined in that direction…methinks.

  • Matt

    I have watched that movie a dozen times and never considered those interpretations. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for that.

  • Matt

    Hi Michael-
    Glad you like the post and I appreciate your comments
    Ultimately, I believe that the Singularity is a spiritual or consciousness expansion, not necessarily a technological expansion. Technology is just another way to open the door.
    The deeper point is that transcendence is merely an expansion of freedom-how that experience is realized (recurrence, or expanding into higher states of being) is probably up to us.

  • Matt

    If Joseph Campbell was still with us, I would recommend that he read you.

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