We’ll start with an assumption:
Life is an escape room – one of those games where you’re trapped in a room, and have to find and synthesize strange clues to escape (you may know it best as one of the many online game variants).
This is not a new assumption.
Many religions conditionally promise some version of heavenly escape after death. If you do the right things (and so beat the game), you get to escape the room of suffering. Think Nirvana, Moksha, Valhalla, Jannah, etc.
Science makes a similar sort of promise: we can escape suffering if we gather clues from nature and engineer our way out of planet-bound humanness. Think Interstellar.
We even mirror this in our economic careers by suffering through years of toil to be liberated in retirement.
The first thing that strikes me is how this escape room fantasy requires assuming the present is a tragedy, a torture, or at least not good enough – something to be escaped.
The second thing that strikes me is how pervasive this fantasy is.
Why do we assume our current state is so dire?
I don’t know. Maybe it is.
Maybe it’s not… but maybe it is.
There’s a whole generation’s psychology work to be done there; I’m not getting into it. But I think it’s clear we have a fetish for exaggerating our own struggles. More basically (and less judgmentally), it seems we have an intrinsic need to improve, no matter the relative “goodness” of our situation.
As for why the escape room fantasy is so widespread… I think it’s just really compelling.
It sounds fun and challenging, and if we win we’ll get some kickass rewards.
Ummm, ya. I’ll have that.
I, for one, am into it. I like the idea.
It’s difficult to imagine what kind of reality we might escape to, or which ideology holds the key to the puzzle, but I still like the idea.
Interstellar was dope, anyway; I would be super into that being real life. Dibs on being Coop.
If I were forced to define what lies beyond our little cell, I’d go for something along the lines of Andy Weir’s The Egg. I’m really intrigued by reincarnation (Enter the Void is another good one on this topic).
Yes, I’m skeptical – lack of evidence and all that – but it’s a frickin’ sweet concept: consciousness improving through repeated interaction with itself and “others.”
One of the reasons I find reincarnation and the escape room so coaxing, and the reason I started thinking about all this, is the urge to “contribute” to society.
All for One
Why do we have this urge to “contribute?”
The fruits of such contributions are often not seen for many years, possibly even after the contributor dies. Take early (like 15th century) scientists, for example: they couldn’t have imagined the engineering, energy production, or space travel that would come from their innovations, but they still spent immense amounts of time and effort to pursue intellectual progress.
Cynics may posit that “contributing to society” is really, at the core, a selfish endeavor.
It can be a good way to gain fame or money, but there are easier ways to get those things. I think those are placeholder motivations – they are meant to reward value-added. Even pure curiosity seems a weak explanation – where does it come from and what is its function? I’d say it comes from our need to progress.
Whether you believe in individual motives or a collective fate, there is a consensus that we should be pushing forward. The only way there can be a “forward” is if there is a goal. We’ll say the goal is to escape, but who gives a shit if we all build the steps and the last person on Earth reaches the top, while we’re just dead?
If we are concerned with progress, I think we are necessarily assuming we are part of “something bigger.”
If we take the moral road, we could be good, or at least not bad, by sitting alone in a cave, committing no wrongs, until we die. If we choose the science path, we could each be running our own science labs, trying to figure out how to transcend the laws of nature individually.
But we have tacitly agreed that’s not the way to do it.
We have come to an agreement that the fate of the race outranks individual achievement, that contributing to society is a form of long-term investment (even longer-term than one lifespan). Furthermore, we seem to have some notion that we will reap the rewards of our contributions, even if they manifest after our individual deaths.
I think this is because our individualities are part of an illusion, an evolutionary mechanism to aid our escape from this room.
“Conscious” as a Stage
Let’s assume evolution is completely accurate.
Most (I really hope it’s most) of us already accept this, but it is only a theory, because that’s how real science works.
If evolutionary science has correctly identified the course of Life on Earth, it began as a self-replicating molecule. Since then, it has mutated a butt-ton of times, becoming everything from herpes to pterodactyls to humans. Life has mutated slowly but steadily, gaining an incomprehensible bounty of abilities and features, and so constantly improving its odds of survival, in all conditions.
The newest feature of Life is intellect or Consciousness.
Consciousness is tough to define, and its origins are still not fully understood (This article has a cool take – that consciousness arises from awareness of computation). That said, we confidently point to consciousness as the reason we can do all the shit we can do. Consciousness, in concert with our amazingly versatile bodies, has allowed us to develop weapons, transportation, language, sports, government, and metaphysical philosophy.
Consciousness is allowing us to deliberately evolve ourselves.
We have the ability not only to develop new abilities, but to do so at an ever-more-rapid pace.
It took over 2 million years for Homo sapiens to evolve from the first humans (I recently found out “human” means any member of the genus Homo). It took less than 2,000 years for crankshafts to become combustion engines to become jet engines to propel airplanes and space shuttles. And it took about 60 years for the first electronic computer to become this.
The real enabler of this exponential growth rate is the diversification of consciousness.
As “individuals,” consciousness can experience infinite combinations of natural and social environments and their inherent conflicts. Each individual consciousness then, in a quest to resolve its personal obstacles and curiosities, produces data – either of successful or failed resolutions – which gets added to the collective database of knowledge and wisdom.
This database is our versatility, our adaptability. It is also the adaptability of Life.
Life has been forging its own path of improvement, via evolution, and we are just the latest stage.
If you want a real mindfuck, consider again that Life began as a self-replicating molecule – that Life evolved from Matter.
We are not only individuals contributing to the advancement of the human race; we are a race contributing to the advancement of Life, which is an advanced stage of…
Which is an advanced stage of Energy?
If you don’t feel like someone just set your soul on fire, we will never relate to each other.
If you look at evolution this way, consciousness is more than a new ability.
Over trillions of years, Matter has been, via the ever-faster collection of Life data, producing Consciousness. This isn’t simply a mutant antelope with a longer neck that can eat off higher branches. This is a whole new stage, like Energy begetting Matter.
Consciousness is the next stage of the universe.
We’ve looked at evolutionary science and made some assumptions and suppositions about our collective purpose. Now we’ll go the last mile (via more suppositions).
Suppose perceived identities are simply condensations within the total pool of consciousness, as a cloud is a condensation of water molecules (Oh my golf shoes, is that why Cloud Atlas is called that?!). Perhaps birth and death are simply diffusions of consciousness, the way chemical reactions are diffusions of matter and energy…
Perhaps human bodies are a kind of renewable resource being used by Consciousness to “escape.”
In the way Energy acquired density to produce Matter and Matter acquired processing to produce Life, Life acquired computational awareness to produce Consciousness. Maybe now, we, as a body of contrived individuals scattered around the planet, are providing de-bugging in the process of Consciousness producing the next level of the universe.
Maybe, like in The Egg, the pool of consciousness is undergoing its own evolutionary process to produce something like “God.” Maybe what makes God different is “consciousness processing” – an ability to manipulate Consciousness and Life the way we manipulate Matter and Energy.
I/We are escaping, at least to the next room.