Category Archives: Religion

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.

The Mina Stampede: Tragedy and God’s Will

A few weeks ago tragedy struck during the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. A new tally shows that at least 1621 were killed, and thousands more were injured or are missing. Other sources put the death toll near 2,000. While the exact cause of the “Mina stampede” is disputed, the Saudi Interior Ministry stated that the stampede was triggered when two large groups of pilgrims intersected from different directions onto the same street.[2] 

However other experts don’t classify the tragedy as a stampede. For example, University of Sussex crowd behavioral expert Anne Templeton told Newsweek. “The density of the Hajj has been shown to reach up to 6–8 people per square meter, so I would be very surprised if a stampede (implying people running mindlessly) could occur in the first place.”[168] The Mina disaster is better understood as a “progressive crowd collapse”:[22][168] beginning at densities of about six[22] to seven[169] persons per square meter, individuals are pressed so closely against each other they are unable to move as individuals, and shockwaves can travel through a crowd which, at such densities, behaves somewhat like a fluid.[169] If a single person falls, or other people reach down to help, waves of bodies can be involuntarily precipitated forward into the open space.[22] One such shockwave can create other openings in the crowd nearby, precipitating further crushing.[22]Unable to draw breath, individuals in a crowd can also be crushed while standing.[169]

We also know is that a number of crowd crush tragedies have occurred in the past during the hajj,[21] with 1,426 people being suffocated and trampled to death in a 1990 tunnel tragedy, and at least 701 people killed in crowd crushes between 1991 and 2005.[22]

We also know that 346 people were killed in a similar Jamaraat incident in 2006, which prompted the Saudi government to improve the infrastructure of the city and its procession routes.[2] The Saudi Arabian government has been spending $60 billion to expand the Grand Mosque which houses the Kaaba, and has deployed 100,000 security forces and 5,000 CCTV cameras to monitor the crowds.[23]

The way to Jamarat Bridge 3.JPG

Bodies lie covered in sheets. The death toll has been climbing steadily.

What also caught my attention about the tragedy were some of the religious responses to the tragedy. To his credit Salman al-Ouda, a Saudi cleric said that “Riyadh regime should be held accountable for the crush, adding that Saudi rulers cannot evade their responsibility by labeling the tragedy as an act of God.” He called on media outlets to cover the incident with full transparency.[160] 

However others were not so rational. For example, A Saudi human rights activist said “The way I see it is success goes to those in authority, and mistakes go to God’s will.”  And Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s top religious leader (appointed to his position by King Fahdin 1999), told Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Minister of the Interior, Muhammad bin Nayef, “You are not responsible for what happened. As for the things that humans cannot control, you are not blamed for them. Fate and destiny are inevitable”.[155][156]

I cannot say to what extent the government was fully or partly responsible, or to what extent a number of other factors like crowd size, record heat, pedestrian bottlenecks, etc. came together to cause the tragedy. What I can say is that supernatural will had nothing to do with this. It is easy to criticize such simple-minded attempts to deal with tragedy, and it is understandable that human beings want explanations, but it is counterproductive to blame imaginary gods for such tragedies.  Such explanations lead to fatalism and passivity, exactly the opposite of what we need if we are to improve our lives and those of our descendants.

Religion and Superintelligence

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, September 12, 2015.)

I was recently contacted by a staff writer from the online newsmagazine The Daily Dot. He is writing a story at the intersection of computer superintelligence and religion, and asked me a few questions. I only had one day to respond, but here are my answers to his queries.

Dear Dylan:

I see you’re on a tight deadline so I’ll just answer your questions off the top of my head. A disclaimer though, all these questions really demand a dissertation length response.

1) Is there any religious suggestion (Biblical or otherwise) that humanity will face something like the singularity?

There is no specific religious suggestion that we’ll face a technological singularity. In fact, ancient scriptures from various religions say virtually nothing about science and technology, and what they do say about them is usually wrong (the earth doesn’t move, is at the center of the solar system, is 6,000 years old, etc.)

Still people interpret their religious scriptures, revelations, and beliefs in all sorts of ways. So a fundamentalist might say that the singularity is the end of the world as foretold by the Book of Revelations or something like that. Also there is a Christian Transhumanist Association and a Mormon Transhumanist Association  and some religious thinkers are scurrying to claim the singularity for their very own. But a prediction of a technological singularity—absolutely not. The simple fact is that the authors of ancient scriptures in all religious traditions obviously knew nothing of modern science. Thus they couldn’t predict anything like a technological singularity.

2) How realistic do you personally think the arrival of some sort of superintelligence (SI) is? How “alive” would it seem to you?

The arrival of SI is virtually inevitable, assuming we avoid all sorts of extinction scenarios—killer asteroids, out of control viruses, nuclear war, deadly climate change, a new Dark Ages that puts an end to science, etc. Once you adopt an evolutionary point of view and recognize the exponential growth of culture, especially of science and technology, it is easy to see that we will create intelligences must smarter than ourselves. So if we survive and science advances, then superintelligence (SI) is on the way. And that is some why very smart people like Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil and others are talking about SI.

I’m not exactly sure what you mean by your “How alive would it seem to you” question, but I think you’re assuming we would be different from these SIs. Instead there is a good chance we’ll become them through neural implants, or by some uploading scenario. This raises the question of what its like to be superintelligent, or in your words, how alive you would feel as one. Of course I don’t know the answer since I’m not superintelligent! But I’d guess you would feel more alive if you were more intelligent. I think dogs feel more alive than rocks, humans more alive than dogs, and I think SIs would feel more alive than us because they would have greater intelligence and consciousness.

If the SIs are different from us—imagine say a super smart computer or robot—our assessment of how alive it would be would depend on: 1) how receptive we were to attributing consciousness to such beings; and 2) how alive they actually seemed to be. Your laptop doesn’t seem too alive to you, but Honda’s Asimo seems more alive, and Hal from 2001 or Mr. Data from Star Trek seem even more alive, and a super SI, like most people’s god is supposed to be, would seem really alive.

But again I think we’ll merge with machine consciousness. In other words SIs will replace us or we’ll become them, depending on how you look at it.

3) Assuming we can communicate with such a superintelligence in our own natural human language, what might be the thinking that goes into preaching to and “saving” it? 

Thinkers disagree about this. Zoltan Istvan thinks that we will inevitably try to control SIs and teach them our ways, which may include teaching them about our gods. Christopher J. Benek, co-founder and Chair of the Christian Transhumanist Association, thinks that AI, by possibly eradicating poverty, war, and disease, might lead humans to becoming more holy. But other Christian thinkers believe AIs are machines without souls, and cannot be saved.

Of course, like most philosophers, I don’t believe in souls, and the only way for there to be a good future is if we save ourselves. No gods will save us because there are no gods—unless we become gods.

4) Are you aware of any “laws” or understandings of computer science that would make it impossible for software to hold religious beliefs?

No. I assume you can program a SI to “believe” almost anything. (And you can try to program humans to believe things too.) I suppose you could also write programs without religious beliefs. But I am a philosopher and I don’t know much about what computer scientists call “machine learning.” You would have to ask one of them on this one.

5) How might a religious superintelligence operate? Would be it benign?

It depends on what you mean by “religious.” I can’t imagine a SI will be impressed by the ancient fables or superstitions of provincial people from long ago. So I can’t imagine a Si will find its answers in Jesus or Mohammed. But if by religious you mean loving your neighbor, having compassion, being moral or searching for the meaning of life, I can imagine SIs that are religious in this sense. Perhaps their greater levels of consciousness will lead them to being more loving, moral, and compassionate. Perhaps such beings will search for meaning—I can imagine our intelligent descendents doing this. In this sense you might say they are religious.

But again they won’t be religious if you mean they think Jesus died for their sins, or an angel led Joseph Smith to uncover and translate gold plates, or that Mohammed flew into heaven in a chariot. SIs would be too smart to accept such things.

As for “benign,” I suppose this would depend on its programming. So for example Eliezer Yudkowsky has written an book-length guide to creating  “friendly AI.” (As a non-specialist I am in no position to judge the feasibility of such a project.) Or perhaps something like Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics would be enough. This might also depend on whether morality follows from super-rationality. In other words would SIs conclude that it is rational to be moral. Most moral philosophers think morality is rational in some sense. Let’s hope that as SIs become more intelligent, they’ll also become more moral. Or, if we merge with our technology, let’s hope that we become more moral.

And that is the future survival and flourishing of our descendents. We must become more intelligent and more moral. Traditional religion will not save us, and it will disappear in its current form like so much else after SIs arrive.  In the end, only we can save ourselves.


Religion Without God

I recently read an article from the New York Times by the Stanford anthropologist, T. M. Luhrmann. She begins by noting that here family will go to church on Christmas. There is nothing unusual about this except that the church Luhrmann will attend is Unitarian. Unitarians reject orthodox Christian Trinitarian theology—just try to make sense of Trinitarianism—and replace it with the doctrine that God is one. Unitarianism emerged in early modern Europe but over the last 200 years “the Unitarian church had become a place for intellectuals who were skeptical of belief claims but who wanted to hang on to faith in some manner … The modern Unitarian Universalist Association’s statement of principles does not mention God at all.”

This faith without god is becoming more popular in the USA,  and atheist services have arisen around the country. “How do we understand this impulse to hold a “church” service despite a hesitant or even nonexistent faith?” Luhrmann thinks that “part of the answer is surely the quest for community.” Why not hang out with other people and sing, hear interesting talks, and think about self-improvement and making the world a better place? Luhrmann also theorizes that engaging in rituals may have less to do with religious beliefs, and more to do with setting time aside to reflect in a way that is different from other activities.

Luhrmann applauds this new idea of atheist churches.  In fact she thinks that “religion without God may be more poignant [than religion with gods.] Atheists trust in human relations, not supernatural ones, and humans are not so good at delivering the world as it should be. Perhaps that is why we are moved by Christmas carols, which conjure up the world as it can be and not the world we know.”

The need for an atheist church has no appeal for me, but I can understand that people would want to find community with like-minded believers. After all, that is a large part of the appeal of religion today, especially in cultures in which persons are isolated, alienated and exploited. No wonder the USA and the Middle East have so much religiosity, while Japan, Western Europe and Scandinavia so little.

When Superintelligent AIs Arrive, Will Religions Try to Convert It?

(This article was reprinted as “Will Religions Convert AIs to Their Faith?” in Humanity+ Magazine, April 28, 2015.)

Zoltan Istvan caused a stir with his recent article: “When Superintelligent AI Arrives, Will Religions Try to Convert It?” Istvan begins by noting, “… we are nearing the age of humans creating autonomous, self-aware super intelligences … and we will inevitably try to control AI and teach it our ways …” And this includes making “sure any superintelligence we create knows about God.” In fact, Istvan says, “Some theologians and futurists are already considering whether AI can also know God.”

Some Christian theologians welcome the idea of AIs: “I don’t see Christ’s redemption limited to human beings,” says Reverend Dr. Christopher J. Benek, co-founder and Chair of the Christian Transhumanist Association.. “If AI is autonomous, then we have should encourage it to participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes in the world …” Benek thinks that AI, by possibly eradicating poverty, war, and disease, might lead humans to becoming more holy. But other Christian thinkers believe AIs are machines without souls, and cannot be saved. Only humans are created in God’s image.

The futurist and transhumanist Giulio Prisco has a different take. He writes:

It’s only fair to let AI have access to the teachings of all the world’s religions. Then they can choose what they want to believe. But I think it’s highly unlikely that superhuman AI would choose to believe in the petty, provincial aspects of traditional religions. At the same time, I think they would be interested in enlightened spirituality and religious cosmology, or eschatology, and develop their own versions.

Prisco is a member of the Turing Church, an “open-source church built around cosmist principles of space expansion, unlimited growth, and universal love.” In brief, cosmism is an existential orientation that sees the survival of mankind and of the individual as part of humanity’s “common task”. The migration of humans into space is seen as inevitable, since it is essential for humanity’s long-term survival. The increase in human life-span is seen as another essential task.

Others like Martine Rothblatt, author of Virtually Human: The Promise—and the Peril—of Digital Immortalitybelieve that AIs must have some kind of soul. “Rothblatt founded Terasem, a scientific “transreligion” similar to the Turing Church in scope and approach, which runs preliminary mindcloning pilot projects. The most famous one is Bina 48, a robotic head that contains a mindclone of Rothblatt’s still-living wife Bina.”

While we don’t know the future, the creation of superintelligence will surely bring about a paradigm shift in our thinking, changing reality in ways now unimaginable. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, if the promises of transhumanism come to be, religion as we know it will end.