Pre & Post Humanism in Dan Brown’s “Origin”

I’ve been pretty sceptical about AI hype going back a decade or so when Kurzweil coined Transhumanism beyond the Singularity where artificial computer intelligence overtakes real human capabilities. Here my 2010 take on the 2009 Singularity Summit, where one of my heroes, Hofstadter, and others were also sceptical about Kurzweil’s take.

In fact there are many posts in the blog going back to 2002 and 2003 (quite a few now with link-rot) picking up on Steven Wolfram’s “A New Kind of Science” and specifically Kurzweil’s take on “ANKOS”. I was already sceptical for “there’s nothing new under the sun” reasons. Cellular automata were already an established topic in my Dennett & Hofstadter space, building on Conway’s “Game of Life”. Marvin Minsky no less was also pointing out this was hype based on 20 year old material.

The idea that the complex – and the entirely unpredictable – evolves from repeated algorithmic application of very simple rules to simple starting points is long established, the key point being, whether it’s the physical or the biological domain we are talking about, this is an information processing phenomenon – disembodied information independent of its physical or biological substrate. Hofstadter expanded the algorithmic concepts most widely and generally in “Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies“(1995). Dennett has ploughed his furrow, applying it continuously ever since to the evolution of intelligent human consciousness and will, culminating most recently in “From Bacteria to Bach and Back“(2017).

Interest lies in the artificial intelligence field is because it teaches us about the evolution of real human intelligence, not because it enables us to predict the unpredictable. Futurists like Kurzweil at Google obviously make their living predicting the future. Like politics, futurism is as much about making true what you wish to be true than “prediction” per se.

Doubly interesting in this field where Shannon and Turing appear to be as important as Darwin, is that it appears that fundamental aspects of information and computation also lie at the heart of physics, not just biology. The evolution of a whole physical, living and intelligent cosmos simply from information – any differences between points in space-time, prior to any particles, forces or energy (or laws even?). Do ideas come any bigger? [Ref EES (Biology and Philosophy). IIT (Physics and Philosophy). ANKOS (Unger & Smolin). And more.] Well yes they do.

Move over God, you might think. Dan Brown’s “Origin is based on that thought. Half on the futuristic trans / post-humanist “where are we headed”?” angle, and half on the fundamental evolutionary “where have we come from?” angle. It’s a fiction, a conspiracy and code-breaking action thriller in Brown’s usual style, and clearly the protagonists Edmond Kirsch, Robert Langdon and their AI Winston bear more than a passing resemblance to Kurzweil. However the scientific and technical plot components are firmly based – with explicit references in most cases – on the science above.

There are two corollaries to the information-based evolution thread that are also exposed in the plot.

Firstly, the idea that increasingly complex life and human intelligence are an inevitable outcome of physics. A kind of cosmic teleology towards humanity (and beyond). Get that! Brown uses Jeremy England’s Dissipative Systems work as his source. I’ve long used Rick Ryals’ Entropic Anthropic work as my source. Given the 2nd Law – the inevitable dissipation of energy in the increase of entropy in the cosmos – it turns out the most effective and efficient arrangement to achieve that is life. The more complex and intelligent the better. Local pockets of high order and intentional activity maximises the overall disorder – entropy – of the cosmos. Order is the complement to information. Entropy is an informational property.

Secondly, having admitted humans to the party, several other concepts can be rehabilitated after decades, even centuries, of exclusion from science. For example Dennett has pushed consistently to recognise intelligent design – the intentional purposes of naturally evolved intelligence – as one of evolution’s driving forces. Dennett has also consistently warned scientists and philosophers not to be too quick to exclude human subjectivity by rushing to greedy reductive objective definitions. And another example, Iain McGilchrist in “Master and Emissary” has rehabilitated that the fact the human brain has a bicameral design – in two hemispheres – is fundamental to how we function intelligently. Brown exploits the latter – even explaining the hemispherical roles without specific references – in his fictional artificial brain design behind Winston.

As a fiction Brown has used many established sci-fi tropes in his AI knockabout. The cliched HAL(2001) and impossible Déjà Vu technology references are neatly played down by the Winston character of the AI supporting our hero. He plunders the Bach and Familia Sagrada memes much used by evolutionary theorists, including Dennett. As a thriller, it has all the components you’d expect from a Dan Brown block-buster. It has screen-play written all over it.

However, having had the “move over God” thought, it’s worth taking stock. Brown’s conclusion is that rather than a God of the gaps – what gaps? – what we really have here is a natural human bridge between science and theism. Humanity of the gaps, I’ve called it. Like others before him, Sacks for instance, Brown’s futurist predicts a benign, adaptive and progressive fusion. A transhuman fusion between AI and humanity sure, but also a humanist fusion of science and theism – an integrated and enlightened religion by any other name.

“May our philosophies keep pace with our technologies.
May love not fear be the engine of change.”

Whatever the intellectual snobbery Brown’s conspiracy-theory block-busting style might attract, it is excellent that we have a best-seller exposing these fundamentally exciting topics to a wide public. Hopefully more than a few will be moved to curiosity.


Also published on Medium.

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