Deus Ex Machina: Can transhumanism be reconciled with traditional Abrahamic religions?
July 9, 2011
Bob Dylan said it best: “Oh the times, they are a-changin.'” And while this poignant ballad is often characterized as an anthem of the politically and socially turbulent 1960’s, it probably could be applied to any time period, including the one in which we are living right now.
The times are changing. Faster than most of us can even hope to keep up with. And we are changing too. I did not begin using the Internet until 2001, and before that, as a stubborn Luddite teenager I declared that I would never have an email address. Now I have five, plus a Facebook account, plus this blog. The Internet has changed my life. I’ve managed to stay in contact with far-flung friends I probably would have lost otherwise; nearly all the information I need for my academic research is at my fingertips; my attention span has shortened drastically, and I suspect that I’ve gotten a lot less done in these ten years than I would have otherwise. I am sure that this experience is common to many. But, whether we like it or not, technological advances are happening all the time – nanotechnology, biotechnology, artificial intelligence. Apparently, soon we’ll be able to manufacture goods in miniscule factories and choose which genetic traits to give our children. But in my view, all of these issues pale in comparison with the one that seems the most like a narrative of a science fiction novel, but still holds the potential to become an all-too- real phenomenon: the technological singularity.
What is the technological singularity? Since I am not the best equipped person to explain it, I shall direct curious readers toward this three-part description by the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a nonprofit organization devoted to researching and ultimately developing above-human artificial intelligence. Basically, the singularity entails the technological creation of smarter-than-human minds, leading to a drastic change in reality as we know it. Since our own minds are limited in their intelligence, it is impossible for us to know for certain what this would entail. The term “technological singularity” was coined by mathematician and writer Vernor Vinge . According to Vinge, if the technological singularity comes about, “The human era will be ended,” and a completely new era will begin. Those people who view this transition as inevitable (and also desireable) are called transhumanists.
What does this mean? Well, it depends on whom you ask. Some theorists of the singularity, such as Ray Kurzweil, believe that it will bring about a kind of synthetically created heaven-on-earth in which people might upload their minds onto a computer and retain their consciousness indefinitely in a virtual world. Others, such as Eliezer Yudkowsky, warn that superhuman artificial intelligence would pose many risks as well as potential benefits, the biggest one being “existential risk” – the possibility that a man-made artificial intelligence, in seeking to optimize whatever outcome it had been programmed to optimize, would inadvertently obliterate us all. According to Yudkowsky, the only way to stop this from happening is to make sure that a “friendly” artificial intelligence – one that would not harm and possibly help humans – gets built before a dangerous one.
Does this sound like the stuff of science fiction? It is indeed – just as automobiles, airplanes and vaccinations once were. According to many self-identified singularitarians, this massive technological revolution is at hand, whether we like it or not. I’m not here to speculate on the probability of whether or not this strange new world will come to be. I’m here to raise the question of what this (still hypothetical) scenario means for human beings – particularly for those human beings who maintain faith in a transcendent God beyond the material world as science describes it.
I’ll admit that my own view of the singularity is not a positive one. I’m no transhumanist, and despite having five email addresses, I still consider myself a Luddite. Technology is a very mixed bag, and in my view, most technological developments are not “advances” at all, but paradigm shifts that are neither positive nor negative in themselves, bringing disadvantages as well as advantages. But what interests me most is the way in which technological developments compel us to alter our worldviews – whether we want to or not. This issue – of altered and altering worldviews – brings me to the central point of this post.
Most contemporary religious believers assert that faith is not about trying to explain how the universe works. It’s more about answering the fundamental questions which science cannot explain, the big questions, the naive ones. Why are we here? How should we live? What does it mean to be a human being? Religion is about telling stories, about making myths that bring meaning to human life and experience, about creating a narrative of the world and our place in it. And, while recent centuries have seen a the development of nonreligious narratives, some contemporary philosophers such as Charles Taylor argue that these supposedly secular narratives are not as independent of their religious heritage as we might think. Thus, religion is not here to answer the question how, but why, what for, so what. Nevertheless, as Eliezer Yudkowsky has pointed out quite astutely, religion’s historical roots do in fact involve an attempt to explain natural phenomena:
” Back in the old days, people actually believed their religions instead of just believing in them. The biblical archaeologists who went in search of Noah’s Ark did not think they were wasting their time; they anticipated they might become famous. Only after failing to find confirming evidence – and finding disconfirming evidence in its place – did religionists execute what William Bartley called the retreat to commitment, ‘I believe because I believe,’ ” Yudkowsky states.
While I strongly disagree with Yudkowsky’s overall message – that religion, having been displaced by science as humanity’s most reliable means of gaining knowledge of reality, is no longer relevant for contemporary human problems, he is correct in that, for much of human history, religion did seek to explain natural phenomena, even if that was not its primary function. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the undoing of the medieval cosmos described in Dante’s Paradiso, which placed the earth at is center, the other planets and sun revolving around it, the fixed stars above that, and the heavenly realm beyond that. This image was so prevalent in the collective medieval consciousness (and in official church teachings) that both Copernicus and Galileo faced attacks from the Catholic Church when they revealed that the geocentric theory simply didn’t match up to observable, measurable reality. Similarly, while Darwin’s theory of evolution is not in itself incompatible with a belief in the creation of the world by a deity, it did contribute to a decline in religious faith as humans, showing to have been evolved from apes, were forced to revise their image of nature and their place in it. Now, it seems that we are soon going to be in need of another such revision.
What will it mean to be a human being if the technological singularity really does come to pass? How will we have to change our view of the world and ourselves? Perhaps the reason why this issue hooks me on such a deep emotional level is that it challenges some of my most basic beliefs. All my life I have believed in the inherent dignity of life – what would happen to this concept if life could be emulated by a machine? I’ve also believed that human beings are made in God’s image…But what would that mean if we had the capacity to make a God in our own image – not the God of metaphor, but a physical deus ex machina, a God out of the machine?
According to a recent article published by Richard Cimino in Religioscope, 72 to 85 percent of self-described “futurists” (people who view the singularity as a positive and desireable outcome and are striving to work toward it) identify as atheists or agnostics, and some of these argue that religion should be abandoned altogether. Others, such as Kurzweil, hope that the singularity will ultimately offer humanity a completely new kind of spirituality; essentially, a new religion.
What I want to know is, if this comes about, what will become of the old religions (in particular, the Abrahamic ones which continue to assert that we are under the control of one omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God? Will these beliefs remain relevant, or will the deus ex machina render them obsolete?
“The brain is wider – than the Sky – ,” declares Emily Dickinson in “126.” The human mind has a long history of resolving contradictions, or at least sustaining them gracefully. Since its foundation two thousand years ago, Christianity has remained relevant largely due to its adaptability. When it entered Europe and came into conflict with ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, Augustine and Aquinas worked to build a bridge between these seemingly disparate thought systems; when it made its way (mainly via colonization, alas) throughout the world, it did not manage to wipe out the beliefs of the people who were already there; to a certain extent it had to engage with them, to alter itself and adapt to the beliefs that were already there.
Can Christianity (and Islam, and Judaism, and other world religions) be reconciled with a concept such as the technological singularity? To my mind, it seems impossible. Isn’t it necessary to die to go to heaven? “My kingdom is not of this world,” states Jesus in John 18:36. I somehow don’t think that he meant that his kingdom lay in a virtual, technologically fabricated world. But then…can I already be so sure? According to Cimino, some religious groups are already looking for a way to reconcile with transhumanism: “The Mormon Transhumanist Association held a recent conference on ”Transhumanism and Spirituality,’ which included prominent leaders in the movement. In 2009, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pistoia in Italy held a week-long seminar on ‘The Idea of Immortality on Earth,’ which drew both transhumanist support and criticism,” Cimino says.
There remains the possibility that this hypothetical singularity is physically impossible, that it is nothing more than a lovely, disturbing idea that will never actually come about. But, whether or not it occurs, the world is changing, as is our place in it. One again we are going to have to find a way to reconcile the new myths with the old ones.