Religious Belief Might Bring About the End of the World

I recently did a book review of Phil Torres‘ important new book The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse. Here is a sample of my effusive praise for the book:

… Torres’ book is one of the most important ones recently published. It offers a fascinating study of the many real threats to our existence, provides multiple insights as to how we might avoid extinction, and it is carefully and conscientiously crafted. Perhaps what strikes me most about Torres’ book is how deeply it expresses his concern for the fate of conscious life, as well as his awareness of how tenuous consciousness is in the vast immensity of time and space. The author obviously loves life, and hates to see ignorance and superstition imperil it. He implores us to remember how the little light of consciousness that brightens this planet can be quickly extinguished—and that we will only be saved by reason and science.

This praise was ever so slightly mitigated by my concern that the “secular apocalypse can arrive independent of any belief in a religious eschatology … We might use nuclear or chemical weapons to kill each other because we are greedy, aggressive, racist, ideological, or territorial . . . [so]. . . consideration of biological, psychological, social, cultural and economic factors are also important in understanding how we might avoid oblivion.”

Torres replied with a powerful response that I’ll reprint in full:

I would agree that the book doesn’t adequately deal with apocalyptic scenarios brought about by phenomena that are “non-religious” in nature. In one of the appendices, I do mention how eschatological beliefs imbue and animate strictly-speaking “secular” ideologies, such as Nazism and Marxism. The point of the book, though, is to specifically focus on the potential connections between religion and existential risks — to show that these two topics are mutually relevant, and therefore that the secular community and the x-risks community ought to be speaking to each other. According to the Global Terrorism Index, religious terrorism is the leading motivator of terrorism today, and as I attempt to argue in a forthcoming Skeptic article, I think there are fairly robust reasons for thinking that apocalyptic terrorism — arguably the most dangerous kind — will actually increase in the future. (Several terrorism scholars that I’ve sent the paper to share my conclusion, as it happens!)

Furthermore, while human irrationality — the ultimate danger here — can take many forms, such as nationalism, radical anarchism, and so on, I take it that religion offers perhaps the most compelling instance of bad epistemology in the world today. It’s also an immensely pervasive social-cultural phenomenon that, according to Pew, is projected to grow this century. Reasons like this are why I focus on religion in particular. But the ultimate point here is a very, very good one: there most definitely are other phenomena that could nontrivially increase the probability of an existential risk. (Is North Korea motivated by religion? Arguably, yes, a “cult of personality.” But there’s a lot more to be said here about this ongoing, and possibly increasing, danger, that doesn’t immediately fit into the categories that I discuss.) As John mentions, we could be greedy, aggressive, racist, ideological, territorial, and so on. So the point is definitely understood, and further exploration should be a focus of future work! In the last chapter of the book, I note that there are few shoulders upon which to stand when it comes to x-risks studies, simply because the field is a mere 20 years old, at most (in my estimation; starting with John Leslie’s The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction. Once the field emerges a bit more from a “pre-paradigmatic” state, perhaps a more comprehensive analysis can be given.

In conclusion let me reiterate that Torres’ book is extraordinarily important.

More Reflections on the Meaningful Life

Comments from a colleague solicited a recent blog post “Do We Make Our Lives Meaningful By How We Live Them?” In that post I reached this tentative conclusion:

… Not only do we live best by doing our duty and then recognizing that the outcome is out of our control, but we should remember that meaningful lives are those in which we are actively engaged as subjects in objectively projects—helping people, trying to achieve inner peace, pursuing the good, true, beautiful, etc. From an external perspective good results—people really being helped, more peace, truth, goodness, and beauty in the world—is an added bonus. So I now think … meaningful living is mostly about something inside of us … Still our lives are made even more meaningful to the extent that we affect the world for the better.

I still agree with the above, but further discussions with my colleague have helped understand the situation more clearly. Since we don’t know whether or lives are subjectively or objectively meaningful or meaningless, let’s put that issue aside. The main issues are: 1) whether meaning emanates primarily from our intentions, or from achieving our goals; 2) our actions are directed toward ourselves or others; and 3) whether meaning emanates primarily from a moral life rather or immoral one. In that case there are 8 possibilities:

1 – focus on intention, self-directed, immoral – Example – I intend to live the life of a self torturer, and my life is meaningful independent of whether or not I’m successful.

2 – focus on intention, self-directed, moral – Example – I intend to be a good monk, and my life is meaningful independent of whether or not I’m successful.

3 – focus on intention, other-directed, immoral – Example – I intend to live the life in which I torture others, and my life is meaningful independent of whether or not I’m successful.

4 – focus on intention, other-directed, moral – Example – I intend to help other people, and my life is meaningful independent of whether or not I’m successful.

5 – focus on consequences, self-directed, immoral – Example – I want to achieve my goal of being a self torturer,  and my life is meaningful if I’m successful.

6 – focus on consequences, self-directed, moral – Example – I want to achieve my goal of being a good monk, and my life is meaningful if I’m successful.

7 – focus on consequences, other-directed, immoral – Example – I want to achieve my goal of torturing others, and my life is meaningful if I’m successful.

8 -focus on consequences, other-directed, moral – Example – I want to achieve my goal of helping other people and my life is meaningful if I’m successful.

Most of us would say that lives 2, 4, 6, & 8 are more meaningful than the other ones because they are moral lives. It seems morality has something to do with meaning. It is hard to say whether self or other directed lives are more important or whether intention or consequences or more important. Perhaps we need to attend both to our own development as well as other people and, at the same time, recognize that we might fail in both endeavors. So I still do believe that meaningful lives are both those that try to transform the self and, in the process, hopefully transform reality.

Is The Singularity A Religious Doctrine?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, April 23, 2016.)

A colleague forwarded John Horgan‘s recent Scientific American article, “The Singularity and the Neural Code.” Horgan argues that the intelligence augmentation and mind uploading that would lead to a technological singularity depend upon cracking the neural code. The problem is that we don’t understand our neural code, the software or algorithms that transform neurophysiology into the stuff of minds like perceptions, memories, and meanings. In other words, we know very little about how brains make minds. 

The neural code is science’s deepest, most consequential problem. If researchers crack the code, they might solve such ancient philosophical conundrums as the mind-body problem and the riddle of free will. A solution to the neural code could also, in principle, give us unlimited power over our brains and hence minds. Science fiction—including mind-control, mind-reading, bionic enhancement and even psychic uploading—could become reality. But the most profound problem in science is also by far the hardest.

But it does appear “that each individual psyche is fundamentally irreducible, unpredictable, inexplicable,” which that suggests that it would be exceedingly difficult to extract that uniqueness from a brain and transfer it to another medium. Such considerations lead Horgan to conclude that, “The Singularity is a religious rather than a scientific vision … a kind of rapture for nerds …” As such it is one of many “escapist, pseudoscientific fantasies …”

I don’t agree with Horgan’s conclusion. He believes that belief in technological or religious immortality springs from a “yearning for transcendence,” which suggests that what is longed for is pseudoscientific fantasy. But the fact that a belief results from a yearning doesn’t mean the belief is false. I can want things to be true that turn out to be true.

More importantly, I think Horgan mistakenly conflates religious and technological notions of immortality, thereby denigrating ideas of technological immortality by association. But religious beliefs about immortality are based exclusively on yearning without any evidence of their truth. In fact, every moment of every day the evidence points away from the truth of religious immortality. We don’t talk to the dead and they don’t talk to us. On the other hand, technological immortality is based on scientific possibilities. The article admits as much, since cracking the neural code may lead to technological immortality. So while both types of immorality may be based on a longing or yearning, only one has the advantage of being based on science.

Thus the idea of a technological singularity is for the moment science fiction, but it is not pseudoscientific. Undoubtedly there are other ways to prioritize scientific research, and perhaps trying to bring about the Singularity isn’t a top priority. But it doesn’t follow from anything that Horgan says that we should abandon trying to crack the neural code, or to the Singularity that might lead to. Doing so may solve most of our other problems, and usher in the Singularity too.

Meaning in Life as Being Part of Cosmic Evolution

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, April 22, 2016.)

Below is an excerpt of comments from an astute reader of my  book, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives:

The scope of the universe is too large for one human life to have an impactful upon it … The story of life in general, however, is big enough to have meaning in the universe. And our role in the story of life could actually be quite large. Even if individually a life were not very important, we’ve evolved to feel pleasure at the scale we can affect life, so our lives can still feel quite meaningful … The big freeze or the big crunch are still possibilities for universal death within this universe, but maybe … dark energy, dark matter, or something else altogether unknown can be manipulated in such a way as to balance things for survival. Until we can do that, that is a goal which gives meaning to life. We may not be able to answer any ultimate questions now of why the universe and life exist, but maybe someone will be able to someday. It is our job to do what we can to get to that. Survival and scientific progress are prerequisites along that path. Just as Renaissance people (to take one example) could be said to have found meaning in supporting a society that lead the growth of the scientific method, which helped us get this far, we can find meaning today by doing our job to support a society laying the groundwork for future knowledge explorers too.

I think the reader has it about right. The only way our individual lives have objective meaning is if they are part of something larger. We hope then that we are links in a golden chain leading onward and upward toward higher levels of being and consciousness. The effort we exert as we travel this path provides the meaning to our lives as we live them. And if our descendents, in whatever form they take, live more meaningful lives as a result of our efforts, then we will have been successful. Hopefully there will be no end to this progressive, cosmic evolution. Walt Whitman put the point poetically:

This day before dawn I ascended a hill and look’d at the crowded heaven,
And I said to my spirit When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the
pleasure and knowledge of every thing in them, shall we be fill’d and
satisfied then?

And my spirit said No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond.

The Meaning of Life: Does It Make Sense To Talk About It?

I recently received this query from a thoughtful reader:

can doubts about our ability to know–really know–anything be a legitimate source of life’s meaninglessness?  Bryan Magee‘s just published Ultimate Questions is a meditation about just that. I suppose this is the Kant phenomenon/noumenon thing—albeit taken to a sophisticated level with Magee’s elegantly reasoned arguments …  If our senses, however carefully filtered by reason, together with the limitations of a necessarily subjective vantage point, cannot provide sure knowledge of the “thing-in-itself,” how does it even make sense to discuss the meaning of anything? This would seem to be the kind of thing you’d have to get out-of-the-way before even wrestling with the merits of the arguments for the many forms of intrinsic and extrinsic meaning you’ve been addressing in recent weeks in your blog.

In my view our inability to know the truth about many things may be part of what makes life meaningless, although you could maintain life was meaningful even given our ignorance. Our inability to know things certainly seems to make life less satisfying, although if the truth is really terrible perhaps it is good we don’t know it.

I would disagree that our inability to know the meaning of life implies that it doesn’t make sense to think about our discuss the issue. As I say in my book about the meaning of life, we cannot demand precision about such issues, but that hardly means it’s worthless to discuss them.

I do agree that we can’t really discuss metaphysics with any precision until we know the answer to epistemological questions. John Locke made a similar point about religion. Before we can have productive discussions about religion, we need to ask whether we possess the intellectual wherewithal to really understand the subject. This line of thought eventually led the British Empiricism to Hume’s skepticism, and Kant’s rejection of metaphysics in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.

The problem is you can’t really get epistemology out of the way. The epistemological turn in philosophy has led to centuries of dispute about what we can know. The main problem is that we must investigate our cognitive faculties with those same cognitive faculties, so we can’t be any more sure of our thoughts about epistemology than we can about metaphysics. Again I address this in my book on the meaning of life by claiming that we will do the best we can to try to answer urgent questions about life’s meaning, with the caveat that we can’t achieve much precision in this area. Still there is value in reflecting about life’s meaning because doing so may aid our understanding and help us live better. If the effort does that, it is worth it.