"The civilizing impulse of True Humans is to harmonize the forces of nature." ~Sophia
Aligning nature, humans & technology
We are all indigenous to this earth. This is home. There’s no away. Mars is a sucky surrogate. for Terran life. It’s home or bust.
As AI explodes into our world, I find myself in a heightened state of obsession, asking how to align AI with the continuity and wellbeing of humanity and our planet. The question of alignment isn’t a “new” question, it’s just that the exponentiation of AI makes it an exponentially more urgent one.
“Misaligned context cannot create aligned AI.”
So, the questions become: what kind of context can create alignment? And, what kinds of context can nourish continuity — of human consciousness, agency and cultures and of the natural living systems and biosphere that makes our lives possible and livable?
To be clear, I’m no expert in the AI Alignment problem, but I am a person who’s spent the majority of my life helping to reconnect (or re-contextualize) humans with nature and the soul. I have no particular leverage with which to influence the AI community. But, I do have power as a culture creator, storyteller and participant. As you read, I encourage you to receive my words as invitation to your power as a co-creator of the world we share. Your work may or may not be directly related to AI, but you are none the less a seat of choice, influence, care and culture creation. This is an invitation to care with me, and to think through how our thinking creates our world.
Given how deeply disenfranchised our media, science, economy and politics are from our shared humanness and the animate intelligences all around us, I don’t believe our current culture holds the necessary and sufficient wisdom to effectively align human beings with each other and nature’s wellbeing, and by extension, to align AI with the wellbeing of humanity and our planet.
What would this take?
Nourishing the right breadth and depth of context and tending right care for the continuity of Life over time.
Context is defined as:
the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.
Continuity is defined as:
the unbroken and consistent existence or operation of something over a period of time.
This article invites us to interrogate the assumptions of Cartesian Dualism that underly many of the ways we have come to “know” the world, and to apply essential insights of indigenous thought and cosmology to deepen our care for and understanding of context and continuity in support of sense making and design as we work our way through the narrows of exponential tech.
First thing: we are all indigenous to this earth. We are made to know ourselves in relationship to nature.
Second thing: humanity is a super-organisms nested within the larger super-organism of Gaia. The Human Project is currently severely out of alignment with the Earth Project. AI will only amplify this if we don’t do deeper work around alignment now. In other words, we need to align context with that which nourishes the continuity of the Earth System if we want human systems to persist. Culture must align with nature. Tech must align with nature and humanity.
Third thing: to do this, we need to assume/restore/remember our belonging to the greater family of Life. We need to think and behave as though we are actually members of and participants within the Circle of Life. This the most basic premise of indigenous wisdom and worldview. We are living beings who are embedded within the natural world and whose lives are made meaningful by participating in the continuity of this larger system.
Fourth thing: the tendency to romanticize, cherry pick, extract from, and/or colonize indigenous wisdom is harmful to those carrying it, and frankly a bit embarrassing. Don’t do it. Learn from Indigenous People respectfully.
Fifth thing: just because we bumble around when learning from our indigenous relatives doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to revivify our innate, biological and spiritual capacity to belong to the natural world. You’re an organism whose life is made possible by all of life. Start to notice the patterns yourself. Evolution made us to co-regulate with, richly attune to, and participate in our environments and our earth.
Sixth thing: if we want to build a human world that works (and flourishes) in the long term, we need to support each other and our children to FALL IN LOVE with the living, ecological CONTEXTS that makes us possible. Embodied, embedded, erotic love for Life is the necessary foundation for truly contextual wisdom. Only by coming home to this place, this planet, the ecologies and watersheds and real places that make life livable, do we have a chance to align human beings, human cultures and human-created technologies with the wellbeing of all of life.
Where to begin?
Let’s start by assuming that we hardly know what it is to belong to life. As children of migrants, immigrants and genocides, and good students and practitioners of Enlightenment Rationality, we are the forgetful children of generations of trauma and decontextualization who scarcely know how to relate to place, time and memory with any real depth or breadth wisdom — or any real trust.
Most of us are uneducated orphans when it comes to embodied knowledge of ecology, kinship and intergenerational continuity. But we want to find our way back home. We’re like contextual babies trying to figure out how to better relate with and belong to an animate, intersubjective world filled with intelligences we have been trained to disbelieve, yet which our DNA, our senses, our embodied cognition and (I believe) our souls, are innately designed to commune and collaborate with. Developmentally, we’re stunted. Yet there’s an instinctive grasping to find our way back into coherent connection with nature, ancestry, place and the sweet communion we crave with other animals, plants and forces of nature. This causes us to make up infantile stories, confuse instinct with intuition, and generally act out all kinds of Pre/Trans Fallacy BS, simply as a result of trained ignorance and the absence of generational knowledge or initiation.
Indeed, few psychological models for health and stage development even include ecological, place-based or inter-generational lines and levels of development or metrics for wellbeing. Those who wished to include them, like James Hillman, have often been pushed to the margins and denied academic respect.
Honestly, I would say that the Cartesian Revolution, with it’s emphasis on rationality and disdain for the inconvenience of bodies and emotions, retarded our capacity to enjoy or feel ourselves, others or our environments enough to belong to the world we occupy.
Enlightenment rationality offers a rigorous training in dissociation that allows an individual or culture to master the objective dimensions of world creation (science, technology and fungible economies of scale). The observer takes the perspective of omniscience. This distancing empowers “objectivity,” precision and measure, but radically denatures our capacity to experience ourselves as embodied, embedded members and kin within an intelligent world filled with immanent, intersubjectively bound beings and things. The Cartesian view obscures interbeing and intersubjectivity as it blocks us from feeling or valuing the relationships through which self evolves. (I wrote my undergrad thesis as a refutation of Cartesian dualism and an inquiry into embodied models of cognition and selfhood before there was any science about it. There is now voluminous science about it. )
We have to get beyond the mind-body, spirit-matter, soul-body split and learn to think and feel and see like people who belong to life.
Indigenous ways of knowing generally begin from the perspective of embeddedness (in places, in bodies, in cosmos and in time) with emphasis on kinship/relationship/context, rhythm and continuity.
I am here, therefore I belong.
I experience, therefore, I am.
You are, therefore I am. (Ubuntu)
We are, therefore I am.
“I think therefore I am” can be seen as the penultimate act of colonization, inviting the view that the “subject” is separate from the “object.” From this view, one can create comfortable value statements founded on a formalized yet false separation. (To be clear, objectivity is a thing, but not because a subjective mind makes it so. For more on this, I’d suggest Forrest Landry’s Immanent Metaphysics). Privileging the mind above the body and relationship breaks the implicate order of wholeness. It’s powerful, but that power is zero sum rather than omni-win.
In general, the cultural project of Indigenous Cosmologies orients towards tending the ongoing, evolutionary harmonics and processes of LIFE — not mind alone — but a synthesis of body, mind, feeling and inter-subjective sense making — through rich fields of mythos, practice and right relationship. The question isn’t “what is consciousness?” but “what creates greater creative potentiality for all beings within the world we already know to be conscious?” Or, “Given that I am here and embodied, how can I contribute in a way that makes sense for the harmony of the whole?”
Death is also embraced. Death, change, chaos, loss, error. They are all necessary ingredients of the larger, Infinite Game.
As the Bwiti of Gabon say, Life is a gift. Not a problem to be solved. I know of no indigenous wisdom traditions that seek to transcend “the problem” of life and humanness by becoming enlightened. The goal is to become sufficiently initiated into intimacy with one’s own soul and life so as to be an effective participant in the continuity of things.
As a subset of this, indigenous worldviews generally build the concepts of sacred and sacredness around embeddedess, interbeing, collaboration and participation. Sacredness is. All things are sacred. Sacredness is amplified through the currencies of consciousness that flows in the between. Sacredness is a reciprocal collaboration between subjects. Sacredness flows intersubjectively through witness, naming, praising, offering (sacrifice) and grief. Something is sacred because it is part of a greater whole and becomes more so in recognition of this part-whole relationship. In contrast — the Judeo-Christian definition of “sacred” is based on setting something apart from everything else.
Belonging to Life
It seems to me that it’s healthy, sane and bio-spiritually non-trivial to reach towards indigenous wisdom at this time. Why? because we’re trying to figure out how to love the world well. We’re working to remember something we are bio-spiritually designed to be, do, and become — dignified members and kin within a larger circle and spiral of life and time. We’re working to protect, restore, regenerate and ultimately experience longterm flourishing within a world where both humans and more-than-humans mutually thrive. At the very least, we want (and need) to find a way to do humanness in a way that isn’t unconsciously fucking or raping our mother Gaia.
Continuity and context are the horizons we need to tend if we want to get this stage of civilizational development right. The path to creating a world that works for all of life has to be grounded in contextually rich relationships between things over long arcs of time. Or, as Charles Eisenstein has said hundreds of times, this needs to be a revolution of Love.