(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.