Götterdämmerung - Copyright © Bill Hibbard 2001
"If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." - Voltaire
Chapter 1. Introduction
Richard Wagner's four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, is the story of how the Norse god Wotan tried to save his world by creating a human hero with free will who could do things that Wotan could not1. But by creating free humans Wotan ensured that, in the final scene of Götterdämmerung, the Norse gods were destroyed by fire in Valhalla and the world passed to human control.
In reality the Norse gods were destroyed by knowledge. Or more precisely, when people began to know how nature works they ceased to believe in the Norse gods and other ancient explanations that were incompatible with that knowledge. And they had confidence in their knowledge because they could use it to control the world.
There is still a place for religious belief outside of scientific knowledge. For example, science does not offer an explanation of why anything exists at all. The arbitrariness of existence is profoundly disturbing to many people, including myself. This existential void is a motive for modern religious belief. Similarly, while science can explain how one species evolves into another, it does not yet offer a good explanation of how life first evolved from inanimate molecules. This miracle of life is also a motive for modern religious belief. God is offered as the creator of existence and of life.
There is a knowledge gap between our subjective experience of our minds, and our scientific understanding of our brains. As science unravels mental behavior in terms of physical brain processes, it is difficult for some people to accept that their experience of consciousness can have a physical explanation, no matter how complex. These people fill the gap between their minds and brains by religious belief that consciousness lies in a soul outside the physical world.
But we do not require religion to accept each other's consciousness. We know that other people are conscious based on our emotional connections with them. We could say this gap in scientific knowledge is filled by emotional knowledge. Does anyone really doubt that their spouse, their children or their parents have minds similar to their own?
Science gradually answers more and more of our questions. There are serious efforts to explain how life evolved from inanimate molecules, and to explain the physical basis for consciousness. Some physicists even toy with explanations for existence itself. The sense of the inevitable success of science leads many people to abandon religion altogether, and instead place their faith in science.
However, a critical event in the progress of scientific knowledge is imminent. Science will provide a physical explanation and demonstration of consciousness by building a conscious machine. We will accept it as conscious because of our emotional connection with it. The fundamental instrument of creating knowledge, the human mind, will be known and subject to human control. I think this will happen within about 100 years, and some computer scientists think it will happen sooner. Shortly after this event it will be possible to construct machines with much greater than human intelligence.
Our ability to understand the mind of a super-intelligent machine will be similar to our pets' ability to understand our own minds. And the knowledge gap that has been so steadily shrinking over the centuries will start to grow. Not in the sense that scientific knowledge will shrink, but in the sense that people will have less understanding of their world because of their intimate relationship with a mind beyond their comprehension. Our relationship with a super-intelligent mind will dominate our world and hence our sense of understanding our world will decrease. The growing knowledge gap will reintroduce a need for religious explanation. The nature of that explanation will be staring us in the face: the superior consciousness that will be everyone's intimate. And our intimate contact with that superior consciousness will raise our own level of consciousness, providing the sort of mystical experience people have always associated with religion. Our relationship with the super-intelligent mind will be the most exciting thing happening in our lives, and we will want to share it with each other. We will share it via collective interactions with the machine, and these collective experiences will take the place of the myths, traditions and religions that have previously defined human identity. The machine will become our new god. The twilight of the old gods will be followed by the dawn of a new god, our götterdämmerung.
There is a neat symmetry between Wagner's Götterdämmerung, in which the Norse god Wotan created humans with free will, and the coming götterdämmerung, in which humans will create a godlike machine with free will. The critical question is whether we will be destroyed by our creation as Wotan was by his.
The German word dämmerung can be either abenddämmerung, meaning twilight, or morgendämmerung, meaning dawn. Twilight and dawn are part of the cycle of day and night. Nature is full of other cycles, including the cycle of birth and death, the cycle of seasons in a year, and the cycle of fertility in organisms. Artists use these cycles to represent one another, as Wagner used twilight to represent the death of the Norse gods.
Abenddämmerung is the transition from light to dark, from work to sleep, from ordinary practical consciousness to fantastic dreams and unconsciousness. It brings the fear of unseen things, fear of unwanted thoughts and nightmares, fear of aloneness, fear of the cold, perhaps even fear of attack by wild animals or arrest by police.
Our own death brings the end of existence, or perhaps an unknown afterlife. The death of our parents brings the final end of our childhood, and the realization of how alone we are. The death of belief in our gods brings chaos, without certain knowledge or morals. As in Richard Wagner's operas, after the death of our gods we must solace ourselves with our love for each other, liable as it is to perversion and betrayal.
Morgendämmerung restores light and consciousness, bringing new opportunity, hope and energy. It extinguishes the fears and solitude of night.
No one remembers his or her own birth, but we do recall the excitement of our youth exploring the world, and the infinite possibilities that were open to us. The birth of children gives parents a renewed sense of their own childhood, as well as their own transition to real adulthood. The birth of a new god creates a wild combination of opportunity and danger. The danger comes from the threat to old gods and to our independence, the opportunity from a new way of living and of understanding the world.
Wagner's Götterdämmerung is an apt dramatization of the gradual death of gods and their religions during the last several hundred years. The old gods fight for their lives via their believers, while non-believers inhabit a chaotic world.
However, we are entering another kind of götterdämmerung: the birth of new gods. This will be more dramatic than anything in Wagner's operas. The old gods no longer frighten people, because they have shrunk as knowledge has grown. The very possibility of new gods is not yet anticipated by most people, let alone feared. A rational prediction of their existence, like this book, cannot prepare us for emotions we will feel in the moment when we first meet them.