Category Archives: Religion – The Future

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.

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.

JGM

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.

The End of Religion: Technology and the Future

(Reprinted in Institute for Ethics & Emerging TechnologiesHumanity+ Magazine,  and Brighter Brains and Church and State.)

History is littered with dead gods. The Greek and Roman gods, and thousands of others have perished, yet AllahYahweh and a few more still survive. But will belief in these remaining gods endure? It will not. Our descendants will be too advanced to share such primitive beliefs.

If we survive and science progresses, we will manipulate the genome, rearrange the atom, and augment the mind. When science defeats suffering and death, religion as we know it will die—religion will have lost its raison d’être. For who will pray for heavenly cures, when the cures already exist on earth? Who will die hoping for a reprieve from the gods, when science offers immortality? With the defeat of death, science and technology will finally have triumphed over ignorance and superstition. Our descendants will know that they are stronger than imaginary gods.

As they continue to evolve, our post-human progeny will become increasingly godlike, eventually achieving superintellgence, either by modifying their brains or interfacing with computers. From our perspective, our offspring will come to resemble us about as much as we do the amino acids from which we sprang.

As our descendants distance themselves from their past, they will lose interest in the gods. Today the gods are impotent, tomorrow they’ll be irrelevant. You may doubt this. But do you really think that in a thousand or a million years your descendants, traveling through an infinite cosmos with augmented minds, will find their answers in ancient scriptures? Do you really think that powerful superintelligence will cling to the primitive mythologies that once satisfied ape-like brains? Only the credulous can believe such things. In the future, the gods will exist … only if we become them.

Still, the future is unknown. Asteroids, nuclear war, environmental degradation, climate change or deadly microbes may destroy us. Perhaps the machine intelligence we create will replace us, or we might survive but create a dystopia. None of these prospects is inviting, but they all entail the end of religion.

Alternatively, in order to maintain the status quo, some combination of neo-Luddites, political conservatives or religious fanatics could destroy past knowledge, persecute the scientists, censor novel ideas, and usher in a new Dark Ages of minimal technology, political repression, and antiquated religion. But even if they were successful, this would not save them or their archaic ideas. For the killer asteroids, antibiotic-resistant bacteria or some other threat will inevitably emerge. And when it does only science and technology will save us—prayer or ideology will not help. Either we evolve, or we will die.

But must we relinquish religious beliefs now, before science defeats death before we become godlike? We may eventually outgrow religious beliefs, but why not allow them to comfort those who still need them? If parents lose a child or children lose a parent, what’s wrong with telling them they’ll be reunited in heaven? I am sympathetic with noble lies; if a belief helps you and doesn’t hurt others, it is hard to gainsay.

Still, religious consolation has a price. Religion, and conservative philosophies in general, typically opposes intellectual, moral, and technological progress. Religion has fought against free speech, democracy, the eradication of slavery, sex education, reproductive technologies, stem cell research, women’s and civil rights, and the advancement of science. It has been aligned with inquisitions, war, human sacrifice, torture, despotism, child abuse, intolerance, fascism, and genocide. It displays a fondness for the supernatural, authoritarian, misogynistic, hierarchical, anti-democratic, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-progressive. (UPDATE: Consider just the role that evangelical Christians played in the recent American elections.) As any honest student of history knows, religion has caused and continues to cause, an untold amount of misery.

One could even argue that religious beliefs are the most damaging beliefs possible. Consider that Christianity rose to power as the Roman Empire declined, resulting in the marginalization of the Greek science that the Romans had inherited. If the scientific achievements of the Greeks had been built upon throughout the Middle Ages, if science had continued to advance expeditiously for those thousand years, we might live in an unimaginably better world today. Who knows how many diseases would be cured by now, or how advanced our intellectual and moral natures might be? Maybe we would have already overcome death. Maybe we still die today because of religion.

The cultural domination by Christianity during the Middle Ages resulted in some of the worst conditions known in human history. Much the same could be said of religious hegemony in other times and places. And if religion causes less harm in some places today than it once did, that’s because it has less power than it used to. Were that power regained, the result would surely be disastrous, as anyone who studies history or lives in a theocracy will confirm. Put simply, religion is an enemy of the future. If we are to survive and progress, ideas compatible with brains forged in the Pleistocene must be replaced. We shouldn’t direct our gaze toward the heavens but to the earth, where the real work of making a better world takes place.

Of course, religion is not the only anti-progressive force in the world—there are other enemies of the future. Some oppose progressive ideas even if they are advanced by the religious. Consider how political conservatives, virtually all of whom profess to be Christians, denounced Pope Francis’ role in re-establishing Cuban-American relations, his criticism of unfettered capitalism and vast income inequality, and his warnings about the dangers of climate change. Plutocrats and despots hate change too, especially if it affects their wallets. The beneficiaries of the status quo don’t want a better world—they like the one they have.

How then do we make a better world? What will guide us in this quest? For there to be a worthwhile future we need at least three things: 1) knowledge of ourselves and the world; 2) ethical values that promote the flourishing of conscious beings; and 3) a narrative to give life meaning. But where do we find such things?

Knowledge comes from science, which is the only cognitive authority in the world today. Science explains forces that were once dark and mysterious; it reveals the vast immensity, history, and future of the cosmos; it explains our evolutionary origins and the legacy that leaves upon our thoughts and behaviors, and it tells us how the world works independently of ideology or prejudice. And applied science is technology, which gives us the power to overcome limitations and make a better future. If you want to see miracles, don’t go to Lourdes, look inside your cell phone.

Ethical values do not depend on religion, as can easily be demonstrated, and the idea that people can’t be moral without religion is false, no matter how many think otherwise. Instead, ethical values and behaviors arose in our evolutionary history, where they may also find their justification. Yes, some moral-like behaviors sometimes favored by evolution have also been prescribed by religion—cooperation and altruism come to mind—but the justification of these values is biological and social, not supernatural. We are moral to the extent that we are because, for the most part, it’s in our self-interest—we all do better if we all cooperate. And everyone can endorse values that aid our survival and flourishing—even our godlike descendants.

Finally, to truly give our lives meaning, we need scientific narratives to replace outdated religious ones. We need stories that appeal to the educated, not ones based on superstition, mythology or obscurantism. With the death of religion imminent, we need to look elsewhere for meaning and purpose.

And one such narrative already exists. It is the story of cosmic evolution, of the cosmos becoming self-conscious. Nature gave birth to consciousness, and consciousness comes to know nature. Through this interaction of the universe and consciousness reality comes to know itself. Surely this story is profound enough to satisfy our metaphysical longings. And, it has an added benefit over supernatural accounts of being based in a scientific account of the world.

What is our role in this story? We are the protagonists of the evolutionary epic, and determining its course is our destiny. We should willingly embrace our role as agents of evolutionary change, helping evolution to realize new possibilities. We are not an end, but a beginning. We are as links in a chain leading upward to higher forms of being and consciousness. This is our hope, this gives our lives meaning.

I don’t know if we can make a better future, but I know that no help will come from the gods. Turning our backs on them is the first step on our journey. It is time to put the childhood of the species behind.

Transhumanism and Religion

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 18, 2015 and in Church and State.)

Transhumanism is: 

The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities … transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.1

Transhumanism appears to have nothing in common with religion, defined as: “the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or any such system of belief and worship…”In transhumanism the gods play no role.

Yet the two are not entirely dissimilar. Religious people generally want to overcome the limitations of the body and live forever, just like transhumanists. Arising before transhumanist ideas were conceivable, religions had no other option but to advise their followers to accept death and hope for the best. Religious beliefs provided comfort in the face of death and natural evils before the advent of science and technology. We might think of religion as premature transhumanism. Religion is not the opposite of transhumanism but a seed from which transhumanism can grow.

However today the comfort provided by archaic religious superstitions impedes advancement and therefore should be set aside. We need to grow beyond religion. But must we relinquish religious beliefs now, before science gives us everything we want? Yes. The most important reason to abandon religious belief is religion’s opposition to most forms of progress. For the most part, religion has opposed: the elimination of slavery, the use of birth control, women’s and civil rights, stem cell research, genetic engineering, and science in general. Religion is from our past; it opposes the future.

Can humans function without the old religious narratives? They can, they just need new narratives based on a scientific worldview. Such narratives could be transhumanist, of humans playing their role as links in a chain leading to greater forms of being and consciousness; or perhaps they will focus on the idea that cosmic evolution is the story of the universe becoming self-conscious through conscious beings like ourselves. Whatever shape those narratives take, they must be informed by the belief that humans can evolve into something much more than they are now.

But against this seemingly infinite temporal background, what of the significance of a single, finite human life, and what is the significance of all of cosmic evolution? We are significant if we play our part in advancing evolution if we accept our role as the protagonists of the evolutionary epic. And if we succeed our post-human descendants will understand these ultimate questions, giving our own lives—by then long past—a significance we can now hardly fathom. For the moment we must take solace in the hope that the better world we imagine is indeed possible.

1. This quote is from the Humanity+ website’s FAQ section.

2. From “The Cambridge International Dictionary of English.”