Steve Martin used to say “I learned enough philosophy in college to mess me up for the rest of my life.”
There’s a bit of truth to that. Philosophy — the real stuff, not the stuff you learn mostly in college today — makes you deal with a lot of things you’d rather not.
Your death is imminent. No way around that. In the big scheme of things, you’re not even an ant. In fact, you exist for such a vanishingly-small amount of time and have such a tiny impact on anything that for all intents and purposes you don’t exist at all. The question shouldn’t be “How can I really know the rest of the universe exists?” The real question is more like “How does the universe really know I exist?”
Science is just a bunch of guesses. Yes, we’ve gotten really good at guessing, but for all we know we’re just getting better at describing the workings of the computer simulation we all live inside of. We can do amazing things by empirically observing things, noting patterns, creating possible rules, and testing those rules. Science rocks. But there’s always the chance we didn’t observe enough, that our model is lacking fidelity and we just don’t know. There were no black swans — until somebody saw a black swan. Newton’s laws worked awesomely well — until they stopped working. Induction, the idea that if we see something over and over again we can infer a general pattern, works until it does not work. The turkey thinks the farmer is a friend and always brings food — until the day he shows up with a hatchet. Mars had canals, hell they were empirically observed by multiple scientists, until we realized we were just looking at the backs of our own eyeballs.
Everything really cool is always going to be 20 years away — right up until the day you die. Twenty years is about the size of something that looks possible, yet has so many problems we’re not really sure how long it will take. So when people ask experts how long it’s going to be until some super-cool new thing comes out, the answer more than likely will be “20 years.” One day you’ll be dying of disease X and read that a cure for disease X is only 20 years off. That’s probably going to suck a lot.
Trans-humanism is going to take a lot longer than people think. On one hand, we’re already at the singularity: people are integrated with machines to a point right now where only twenty years ago it would have been a miracle. The folks from twenty years ago could not have predicted how all the technology is starting to interact with each other. On the other hand we can get carried away with this very easily. To take the idea of a singularity to it’s most extreme level, to say that some mystical far-out world will come into existence where literally everything will be possible? Not so much. Even if the technology races ahead, we are in for a long struggle as the human side of the changing world adapts. Don’t expect this to happen overnight. Odds are we end up with a machine in a few decades that has the horsepower of a human mind; and then we abuse it or fight over it for years afterwards. We have no history of welcoming new intelligent species with open arms. Don’t expect that to change.
Science will never be able to transfer your mind into a machine. Yes, maybe one day in the distant future some miracle will happen where all of your mind can be analyzed and copied, but that will only be a copy. The “real” you will die. There will just be a twin that’s born with everything about you. You won’t magically pop over from one head to the other. Yes, “you” might continue, but only in the sense that a new person begins that’s just like you — a super twin — while you die. Not a pleasant thing to look forward to. However the future works out, the wetware that exists inside your skull is subject to the limitations of being a biological device. Not going to change. Ever.
The religious people were right all along. Given all this uncertainty and almost pointless nature of existence, the only rational course of action is to creatively speculate on what values you want for your life and why. Then make decisions every day based on that creative speculation. Remember that the driver of all religions is each individual having to make value decisions based on incomplete information. This is a good thing and, in fact, the only thing you really have. Don’t confuse that with religion in the sense of an organized social structure. I’m not saying join a church, or start believing in a deity (although many religions have rather vague deities which sound a lot more like “the universe” or “nature” than anything else.) The existentialists argue that any formal, self-consistent religious structure is necessarily broken — God is dead — not that the essence of religion, finding meaning by artistically living an authentic life, doesn’t work. Living life is an art, based in your own creative speculative imaginings of what the universe expects of you. You can start with somebody else’s imagination of how it all fits together, but at the end of the day it’s up to you to take ownership of this — complete with all of the doubts that you might have made the wrong choice.
While these things are indeed sucky, they are also reality, which means we might as well get used to them. After all, there are some pretty good things too. You live at the pinnacle of modern thought. Billions of years of evolution has happened to put you exactly where you are today. Nobody else has lived in a time where lifespan is so extended, living is so easy, and people from all over the world are so connected. The poorest person in the United States has things that Louis XIV could have never imagined.
But you can’t experience the total awesomeness of life unless you own the bad parts too. It’s been my experience that you have to absorb these sucky things — take them in and let them wash over you — in order to truly move past them and enjoy life. Otherwise they always seem to be nagging at your heels. You can live in total denial of reality, or you can push through these sucky things to the other side. Being in the middle is unpleasant. Yeah, college can screw you up for the rest of your life. You can end up thinking nothing is true and everything is pointless. But that should only be a pit-stop on the way to the “dancing above the void” that marks a truly meaningful and enjoyed life.If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.