Human history is a cycle of ego inflation and ego death.
Of hubris and humility.
Of ripe and ruin.
Our literature is chock-full of this perennial mythopoetic theme: Icarus, Narcissus, Phaethon, the Tower of Babel, Ozymandias, the Frog King, Lucifer, Macbeth, Daedalus, Frankenstein, and many more.
They all touch on humanity’s propensity for hubris and the inevitable fall from grace.
In the peak of the ripe phase, societies begin to feel invincible, excessively proud, and overly-confident in their own positions and abilities.
In the ruin phase, decay, decline, and failure sets in. It’s a time for reflection, learning, and often, a forced humility.
Our time is unique in that these cycles are beginning to converge, coalesce, and curdle.
The creation of “artificially intelligent” entities that can think, learn, and potentially outthink us, blurs the line between our greatest achievements and the humbling realization of our own limitations.
Our ability to think is what our age has told us makes us human. (Has it not been said that “I think therefore I am.”?)
This transformation will require a collective ego death and a reevaluation of what it means to be human.
Before we dive into what this might look like…
Let’s consider the last time this happened.
500 years ago, the streets of Europe were cobblestoned and winding, reflecting the wild and unplanned growth of medieval cities.
This was a world completely different from our own, and not just because it lacked modern technology and conveniences.
The biggest difference in this world— the difference that made all the difference — was that the earth stood at the center of the universe, also known as “geocentrism.”
Many would say that Church and Monarchy ruled the West during this time.
Institutions do not rule. Cosmologies do.
The West was ruled by the geocentric cosmology, which justified in the minds and hearts of individuals the power of the Church and Monarchy.
[Heuristic: Politics is indeed downstream of culture, but if you go upstream far enough, you’ll find the ocean: cosmology. Cosmology informs everything: child rearing, romance, marital styles, food and drink, religion, “proper behavior”, pop culture, and architecture. Yes, they all matter in political trajectories, but their roots sit in the cosmological framework.]
The idea of Earth at the universe’s center had a profound effect on the human psyche and cultural identity. It fostered a sense of centrality and importance in human existence. It instilled a sense of purpose and importance inside each individual.
BUT this paradigm had a shadow side.
As it happens…
Geocentric is pretty close to egocentric, and that describes the effect it had on the individual. An inflated ego is a powerful force, but it’s one riddled with blind spots.
The acceptance of geocentrism made Western societies resistant to new scientific ideas that contradicted this view, affecting their openness to change and innovation.
As we know, stagnation and decay paves the way for massive disruption.
In Italy, a man named Galileo Galilei, armed with a telescope, brought that disruption. He revealed a universe far more complex and dynamic than anyone dared imagine.
Moons orbiting Jupiter, phases of Venus, sunspots — these weren’t just celestial anomalies; they were glaring testimonies to a sun-centered solar system.
This shift prompted a recalibration of humanity’s place and role in the grand scheme of the cosmos, leading to existential introspection and philosophical debates about human significance.
In other words…
It led to an ego death of epic proportions, changing the cosmology and eventually shifting the European power dynamics.
A similar shift is happening right now, in our own time, as you read this…
But here, it’s happening with the very idea of intelligence.
Again, history is a tale of hubris and humility.
We can’t help but find ways to make ourselves the main characters of the Universe — place ourselves at the center of attention.
Given we couldn’t be at the physical center of the universe, we decided to put ourselves there in another sphere: intellectually.
We now have a “sapiocentric” cosmology.
We‘ve been under the impression that only humans are capable of any intelligence of major consequence.
Like geocentrism, this has reinforced the notion of human centrality in the Universe, leading to a sense of importance and purpose in the cosmic scheme.
Yes, this has pushed us into new frontiers, BUT it also has a shadow side…
Once again, the acceptance of a sapiocentric cosmology has made us resistant to new scientific ideas that contradict this view, affecting our openness to change and innovation.
With “artificial intelligence,” the very idea of intelligence is beginning to usher in another collective ego death.
No longer will humans be at the center of all intelligence. Instead, AI will force us to ask one question:
If intelligence isn’t at the foundation of our being, what is? What makes us human?
The answer to this question will define the next 500 years.
Artificial intelligence will reveal the intelligence in all things — in both natural and artificial systems.
It will show that intelligence is all around us, all the time, everywhere we look. It is baked into the very substructure of reality. And there’s no such thing as artificial intelligence.
There’s an intelligence in biological cells and their propensity to expand life in a virtually infinite number of forms wherever and whenever they can. There’s an intelligence in the solar systems and in dying red stars that spew out everything needed for that life to exist in the first place.
There’s an intelligence in the universe’s most primordial carbon molecules — also known as fullerenes, named after the futurist Buckminster Fuller — which, as I suggest in C60 Science: The God Molecule Hypothesis, form the backbone of all life.
There’s intelligence in the way fungi spin mycelial webs through the forest floors to create a “Wood Wide Web” for plant life — facilitating communication and nutrient exchange in forests.
There’s an intelligence inherent in the way that water forms, freezes, and vaporizes.
Intelligence is all around us.
Artificial intelligence has the potential to reveal this intelligence, but it will also decenter us from the nature of intelligence itself.
Hubris will be removed from science.
It will require an existential crisis and ego death of epic proportions.
Our entire cosmological paradigm will shift in ways we cannot predict.
It will require a reformation of our institutions and a massive shift in the dynamics of power on Earth.
As went the Church and the Monarchy, so will go the State, the University, and the Bank.
In the words of Alt-J: