What will the world look like in ten years? Thirty? Fifty? Until recently I cannot say I’ve given the future much thought beyond idle, offhanded speculation. While well aware of many of the challenges facing humanity over the next decades – continued environmental, economic and political strife, as well as new technological developments – I honestly do not expect to see major changes in the world and the ways in which we imagine our place in it. However, according to inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, my intuitive view of the world does not correspond to reality. Kurzweil asserts that, when considered from the standpoint of technological development, human history is not linear, but exponential. Citing example after example of cases in which technological change started off slowly, then took off at an alarming rate, Kurzweil has formulated a concept which he calls the law of accelerating returns – the observation that right now the pace of change is itself accelerating exponentially. During the first half of this century, Kurzweil asserts, developments in biotechnology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will bring about changes so profound as to lie beyond the scope of our current imagination. Nanobots will be implanted in our bodies to regulate our health, and also in the earth to clean up our environment. We will come to spend so much time in virtual realities that the distinction between “real” and “simulated” will lose its meaning. Ultimately, the creation of superintelligent robots and the reverse-engineering of the human brain will enable us to upload our consciousness onto computers and live forever in a virtual world. The term which Kurzweil uses to describe these mind-boggling changes is the technological singularity.
“What is the singularity?” Kurzweil asks at the beginning of 2005 book on the subject, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. “It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed. Athough neither utopian nor dystopian, this epoch will transform the concepts that we rely on to give meaning to our lives, from our business models to the cycle of human life, including death itself” – which, Kurzweil believes, will ultimately be transcended as humans transition from their biological state to a machine state. If Kurzweil can be believed, we will have human-level AI – robots that can tell jokes at cocktail parties, empathize with us, and pass the Turing Test of machine intelligence, in which robots attempt to personify human conversation so well as to convince judges of their humanity – before the end of the 2030’s. The Singularity itself – when, in the words of science fiction writer Vernor Vinge “the human era will be over” – is charted to occur in 2045.
The purpose of this essay is not to speculate over the likelihood of the huge technological and social transformations that Kurzweil predicts, but rather to explore transhumanism, the philosophical and political movement that has developed around the Singularity idea. Although this social phenomenon is relatively new, World Transhumanist Association Founder Nick Bostrom seeks to contextualize the movement, suggesting that its antecedents can be found in the Greek myths of Prometheus and Daedalus and its true intellectual roots can be located in Pico della Mirandola’s concept of man as the shaper of his own destiny and Francis Bacon’s emphasis on relentless empiricism as the most reliable way toward understanding the truth. According to Bostrom, the transhumanist movement is not restricted by its association with the technological Singularity, but rather encompasses all attempts to use science and technology to enhance human beings, whether through cosmetic surgery or memory pills or mind uploading. In the Transhumanist Declaration published in 2009, Bostrom asserts,
Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.
For Kurzweil, Bostrom and other transhumanist thinkers, the desire for a transition toward what some have called “Humanity 2.0” is a logical extrapolation of Enlightenment values focused on the rational ideals of human progress and advancement. Indeed, rationality and the desire to brutally and unrelentingly correct one’s own cognitive biases constitute a major priority for many in this movement, who view such rigor as the first line of defense against many of the risks inherent in the technological developments which they hope to realize. However, looking at the relentlessly optimistic, euphoric tone and totalizing teleological worldview expressed in Kurzweil’s book (he predicts that by the end of this century our artificial intelligence apparatuses will have gained domination over the entire universe) I cannot help but notice some correlation with the religious worldviews that proponents of this movement largely reject – an eschatological zeal parallelling that of certain millenarian religions. Is this growing movement – whose largely atheistic membership eschews any association with religiosity really as objective as it appears, or is its purported rationality underpinned by an unacknowledged irrationality? And, what is the relation between transhumanism and the human? On the one hand this movement, which traces its roots to Enlightenment thought on the dignity of man, purports to embody the essence of humanity – an essence which Ray Kurzweil describes as the desire to constantly extend and transcend our boundaries (374). On the other hand, I cannot help but observe a latent anti-humanism at work as well. For Kurzweil and his fellow Singularitarians, human enhancement is needed because, in our natural state, human beings are well-intentioned but simply not intelligent enough to solve our most pressing problems, such as environmental destruction, resource depletion, economic inequality and continued political strife. “I’ve never had much respect for the human body,” states Kurzweil in the film Transcendent Man, in which we see our zealous inventor downing 200 pills a day in the hope of defeating his biological limitations. For transhumanists, our biological bodies and brains are simply not good enough. Humanity 1.0 has seen its day, they tell us. Prepare to evolve.
“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome,” proclaims Nietzsche in the famous prologue to Thus Spake Zarathustra. “What have you done to overcome him?” All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?” With this famous statement, Nietszche’s prophet calls for a radical transformation of mankind, a rejection of corrupted instincts that lead toward weakness and decay in favour of those that lead toward greater power. Transhumanist philosophy resonate with many Nietzchean ideals – the materialist rejection of dualism, the repudiation of so-called slave morality that previously glorified human weakness, and the high valuation of the will to power and transcendence. However, while Nick Bostrom acknowledges this apparent connection, he seeks to distance his movement from Nietzche as quickly as possible. According to Bostrom in his “A History of Transhumanist Thought,”
What Nietzsche had in mind was not technological transformation but a kind of soaring personal growth and cultural refinement in exceptional individuals (who he thought would have to overcome the life‐sapping “slave‐morality” of Christianity). Despite some surface‐level similarities with the Nietzschean vision, transhumanism – with its Enlightenment roots, its emphasis on individual liberties, and its humanistic concern for the welfare of all humans (and other sentient beings) – probably has as much or more in common with Nietzsche’s contemporary the English liberal thinker and utilitarian John Stuart Mill (5).
While Bostrom’s point is certainly fair, I cannot help but raise an eyebrow at Bostrom’s insistence on grounding his movement in the Enlightenment rationalist tradition and rejecting a philosophy commonly (perhaps not correctly) associated with a kind of irrationalism or mysticism seen as abundant in the critique of that tradition – an irrationalism which Bostrom prefers to attribute to the contrary movement, bioconservativism, with what he describes as its “Romanticist view of nature, certain religious (anti-humanistic) interpretations of the concept of human dignity and of a God-given natural order, and…various Continental philosophers’ critiques of technology, technocracy, and the rationalistic mindset that accompanies modern technoscience (23). Perhaps, in Bostrom’s view, Nietszche’s philosophical approach is just too “spiritual,” too anti-irrational for the rational transhumanist movement. After all what is there less spiritual or irrational than wanting to live forever? But, before I can charge transhumanism as being too narrow in its concern for a wide range of human values (including supposedly irrational ones), I must return to Kurzweil, who incidentally also refers to Nietzsche in his book, as well as to a panoply of philosophy, literature and religious traditions. While Kurzweil clearly disavows traditional religion’s search for truth in revelation, he reveals a greater sensitivity than Bostrom to that side of human experience which is sometimes called spiritual. Kurzweil has no qualms about describing his particular approach to transhumanism as a new form of religiosity which combines traditional religion’s respect for human consciousness with the secular arts and sciences’ value of knowledge and learning. For Kurzweil, who believes that at some point the entire universe will be infused with the power of machine intelligence, the answer to the question of whether God exists is “not yet.”
Evolution moves toward greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love. In every monotheistic tradition God is likewise described as all of these qualities, only without any limitation…So evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal. We can regard, therefore, the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form to be an essentially spiritual undertaking (389).
Kurzweil even goes so far as to describe his new religion as the antithesis to the deist creationism residual in many religious worldviews today. While the former conceived God as an entity which created the world and then withdrew from it, Kurzweil sees God as an entity that is created by humanity and gradually becoming a reality through the promise of technological transcendence. It is easy to see why Kurzweil might seem something of a prophet; however, I would argue that his eschatology – which conceives of nonbiological human machines creating a completely new order on earth and then spreading throughout the entire universe before the end of this century – as embodying some of the negative aspects of religion: a totalizing, eschatological worldview that dismisses or at best marginalizes those people who hold opposing values.
By seeking to reveal this inherent contradiction within a movement that overwhelmingly disavows traditional religiosity while continuing to adopt many of its forms, I hope to point toward the greatest contradiction of all. Is this movement humanistic or anti-humanistic? By seeking to contextualize transhumanism within a history that they view as teleological, forward-progression, both authors suggest that their goals and desires embody the essence of humanity itself – a curious desire to seek new knowledge and perpetually transcend limitations. But, this is clearly not the only characteristic of the human, and one might question if it really is as universal as Kurzweil and Bostrom would have us believe. One such questioner is the well-known environmentalist Bill McKibben, who offers a different vision of human nature. In a talk entitled “Being Good Enough,” he states,
The default assumption in our lives as modern Americans is that more is better—more stuff, more power, more intelligence, more years, more dimensions. When I say default assumption, that’s just what I mean. In fact, we’ve come to call this assumption and the set of traits that underlie it—curiosity, greed, technical prowess, competitiveness—we’ve come to call them human nature. This hyper-individualism is most fully developed in our own culture, and in recent times has produced a political ideology that bridles at any attempt to restrain it in the name of community.
McKibben seeks to expose the extreme individualism embedded in so many aspects of the transhumanist worldview, particularly surrounding the idea of radical life extension, and he expresses concern for the loss of human communities that might be brought about by the libertarian stance underpinning transhumanism. For McKibben, the essential defining characteristic of humanity is not the constant desire for more knowledge and greater personal capacity, but rather the ability to set limits on those desires, to stand back and say “Enough,” to forgo some individual desires in the name of humanity. What transhumanists view as flaws and grave defects in humanity 1.0 which the upgraded version will surely correct, McKibben views as our strength. Referring to one futurist’s view of the immortal conscious machines that transhumanists hope to create through technology, McKibben cites them as celestial beings who will travel the universe seeking answers to some of the deepest philosophical questions, such as why is there something rather than nothing, and where did the universe come from. With a hint of irony, McKibben declares that for him, “With all due respect, these strike me as profoundly uninteresting, at least compared with the deeply human questions of how are you feeling, and can I give you a hand with that, and do you think you could ever love me too.” For McKibben and others of his persuasion, Singularitarian transhumanism is not humanistic, but essentially anti-humanistic, threatening some of our deepest values and traditions – the ability to form close relationships and communities.
As I bring this discussion to a close, I should stress that I have barely scratched the surface of this complex discussion. I have sought to raise the question of whether transhumanism is humanistic or anti-humanistic, but as I think my examples have shown, there is no real consensus on the meaning of these terms, and I have to face the frightening but real possibility that they have no meaning at all. Donna Haraway’s well-known Cyborg Manifesto suggests that we are already a hybrid human machine culture; we are already cyborgs and the attempt to draw a clear distinction between the human and machine or establish defining characteristics for what it means to be human no longer make much real sense. The challenge is to look at the possibility of greater artificiality and increasingly blurred boundaries between the biological and the artificial from multiple perspectives at the same time:
From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war (Sofia, 1984). From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point.
Nevertheless, I end with my original question. However we may define the human, does transhumanism elevate or denigrate? Does this movement promise ecstatic transcendence, misanthropic contempt for the flesh, downright foolishness or the only logical path forward? Regardless of whether or not Kurzweil’s predictions turn out to be true, this movement forces us to consider crucial questions that will only become more salient as technology continues to develop. And so, we are left with the pressing question – what kind of future do we truly want?
Note: A version of this essay was presented at the 2012 American Comparative Literature Association’s Annual Meeting at Brown University on March 30, 2012.
Some Dutch clerics are adapting the Christian story so far as to deny the divinity of Christ or the probability of life after death. While traditionalists view this “adaptation” as a rejection of the central beliefs of Christianity and thus not worthy of bearing that name, these churches are eager to reach out to anyone who believes in “something,” anyone seeking to find God even in his absence.
August 2, 2011
It’s hard to maintain religious faith in the secular world which I live in. Over time, I let my faith grow weak and began to take it for granted, assuming that it would still be there for me when I needed it. Now, I am learning the hard way that there is nothing in life which we can afford to take for granted; there is nothing we have which we might not lose. I have not yet lost my faith, but I’ve come to realize that if I want to keep it, I’m going to have to put up at least something of a fight.
During the past weeks I’ve offered several posts about the “Ideological Turing Test” which Leah Libresco (of the atheist blog Unequally Yoked) ran in order to give Christians and atheists the opportunity to find out if they could know the other side’s arguments so well as to fool a panel of judges. There are many flaws in this kind of exercise, but Leah herself has a post in which she addresses the ethical issues raised by the project. In any case, I’ll admit that during the atheist round I wasn’t trying too hard to fool the judges. While posing as an atheist, I tried to keep my answers as close as possible to my actual beliefs, even though I certainly did a fair amount of bluffing (for anyone interested, my answers to the atheist questions can be found here). I only managed to convince 35% of readers that I was an atheist (though an additional 25% voted me a “lean atheist,” meaning that more people considered me to be a nonbeliever than a Christian. However, I didn’t even come close to fooling enough people to “win” the round.
More interesting to me were the questions for the “Christian” component of the test. As a member of the control group I did not find it necessary to argue or apologize for my faith, but merely to assert the things that I genuinely believe. I took the exercise as an opportunity to make a profession of faith, to state the credo that I uphold in my heart and try my best to live by. When I wrote my answers, the words flowed out in a stream of passion, a kind of thrill and excitement that I only experience when stating something which I deeply, genuinely believe. Faith is a constant struggle for me, but in the moment of sharing those particular answers, I knew that I was winning:
What is your best reason for being a Christian?
I am a Christian because I believe that God exists – in the complexity of nature, in the beauty of art, and in the human capacity for empathy and compassion. Some people have told me that this belief is irrational. I am not so bothered by this charge.
I am a Christian because I believe that, while there are many ways of seeking knowledge of the divine presence in the world, Jesus Christ’s simple commandment for us to love one another (and his following of that commandment in his own life, through his ministry, suffering and death) is the best model for me to follow.
I am a Christian because I want to be part of the tradition that gave birth to Augustine’s Confessions and John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, to Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater,” to Chartres Cathedral and to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to Archbishop Oscar Romero and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, if you believe what Charles Taylor says in Sources of the Self, our entire modern identity. I want to belong to the community that (if it practices what it preaches) is supposed to treat all people with mercy and compassion.
I realize that by identifying as a Christian, I also claim membership in a tradition that is hardly beautiful, one that burned so-called witches at the stake and excommunicated supposed heretics, one that started brutal wars and destroyed entire civilizations in the name of God, one that continues to breed intolerance toward women and anyone who does not identify as straight. However, I do not understand these actions/attitudes as manifestations of Christianity but perversions of it, just as the Gulag was a perversion of Karl Marx’s humanistic philosophy and the Taliban is a perversion of another beautiful religion, Islam.
I don’t claim knowledge of the truth, but for me, Christianity is the best path toward it.
What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to stop believing in God?
For me, faith is very subjective, and I suspect that what would most likely cause me to lose it would be some sort of drastically traumatic personal experience in which I felt God’s absence very strongly, as it appears to have happened to Elie Weisel in the Holocaust. As for empirical evidence against God…The reality is that (for the moment anyway) there isn’t any. I know that this is a claim which atheists dispute, but for now at least, science has been unable to prove or disprove God’s existence. Also, I do not consider science the only valid approach to human knowledge. It is certainly the best means of explaining to us how the universe works, but it cannot tell us why the universe exists, or what the purpose of life is. For this we turn to other sources: art, philosophy and (for some people) religion. Some Christians concede that a confirmed discovery of the remains of the body of Christ in Jerusalem would force them to abandon Christianity, for its central claim – that Christ rose from the dead – would be proven false. However, I do not think that this would be enough to make me abandon Christianity. The religion would be proven factually false, but I maintain that factual truth is not the only kind of truth. At best, Christ is the God who created the universe and destroyed death; at worst, he’s a very wise man who was just a little bit better than the rest of us, and that alone, for me, is enough of a reason to follow his teachings and seek to emulate his life.
Why do you believe Christianity has a stronger claim to truth than other religions/On what basis do you reject the truth claims of other traditions and denominations but accept your own?
I do not believe that Christianity has a stronger truth claim than other religions. Religion is the creation of fallible human beings who are very limited in our capacity to understand God. Consequently, all religions contain many flaws, and while all can claim to approach the truth, none can claim to have attained it (and, with the exception of the fundamentalists, most religions do not make this claim). No one knows for certain whether or not God exists, or whether or not humans have an immortal soul, or what (if anything) happens to us after death. Religion is a product of the human imagination. While critics of religion would dismiss this imaginative nature of religion as grounds for its falsity, I maintain that imagination is one of our most important human faculties. The ability to tell stories and find beauty and meaning in our experience constitutes a significant part of who we are, and in my view, this drive for myth and narrative is the most important thing that religion offers to humanity.
My decision to be a Christian is a very subjective one, and to be honest, it’s based largely upon aesthetics. Whether or not you believe in Christ’s divinity, it is hard to dispute that this outspoken, passionate man who healed the sick and ate with tax collectors was a beautiful person. The parables which he tells are beautiful stories; the morality which he outlines is a beautiful morality. Of course, one might argue that all religions contain such beauty – and they do. Christianity is just the one that speaks to me most personally.
How do you read the Bible? Do you study the history of its translations? How do you decide which translations/versions/books are the true Bible? How does it guide you if you have a moral or theological dilemma?
I belong to a Christian denomination which is notorious for its lack of biblical knowledge; the majority of us encounter the Bible in a liturgical setting, where various passages are read, but very few actually study it. I must confess that I have not yet compared translations or read the apocryphal books of the Bible (though both of these activities are definitely on my to-do list)! Also, I do not interpret the Bible literally, but as an allegory and an image of one particular human community’s experience of the Divine.
Other than one religion class taken in high school, I have only studied the Bible seriously while preparing to teach it to a group of literature students. In this class we read the New Revised Standard edition of the Bible as a secular literary text. Interestingly, reading the Bible in this nonreligious context allowed me to rethink my faith and to renew my religious beliefs. I was struck by the various images of God in the Old Testament, which I view as complementary rather than contradictory (the transcendent creator-God in the first Genesis creation story followed by the immanent human-God in the second one, for example) and the revolutionary spirit of the New Testament (I sometimes wonder if most Christians even realize that we believed in a God who told us to give all our possessions to the poor, to drop absolutely everything in order to follow him, and to love our enemies). I do sometimes turn to the Bible for inspiration in times of moral crisis; I have several favorite passages, and when feeling flippant I occasionally open the book to a random page (Magic 8-Ball style!) and read whatever message I find there, just as Augustine did.
I meant everything I said in this post, and I still mean it. So, you can imagine my shock when I looked at the statistics from the readers’ responses to my post. Only 10% of voters were definitely convinced that I was a Christian, with an additional 20% voting me a “lean Christian.” 70% found me to be either a “lean” or complete nonbeliever. Seeing these answers, I couldn’t help but shuffle nervously in my chair and read my responses again. Did I really sound so weak in my convictions that only a minority of readers found me to be a genuine Christian? My answers had not sounded or felt weak in the moment when I was producing them – why, then, did they fail to convince everyone else? Or is it just that these were not the responses that someone would expect a true Christian to offer? Looking through the post again, I certainly understand why people might be unconvinced of my religious conviction. What gives Christianity a higher truth claim than other religions? Nothing, I say. Is Christ the Son of God? Maybe; I hope so. These are not the answers of a person of strong faith. These are the answers of a person mired in doubt and uncertainty, someone who has tottered for years on the precarious tightrope between belief and unbelief. Perhaps my one strength is that I do know which side I want to be on, and I do manage to land there, even if staggering, time and time again. But somehow, this is not enough of me. I recall the ending of Flannery O’Conner’s classic short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” After the Misfit finally kills the racist, hypocritical grandmother, he makes an interesting comment:
“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Fortunately for me, I don’t have someone there to shoot me every minute of my life, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of person I might turn out to be if I did. Maybe at least then I would learn to have some convictions that others could know and recognize to be genuine. But for now, I continue to walk the fence, struggling to avoid the sharp metal spokes but continuing on even when my feet get pricked, naively trusting some unseen higher power that I’ll continue to fall down on the side of faith, which is still the side where I so vehemently want to be.
July 15, 2011
Can you tell which of these writers are Christians and which are atheists pretending to be Christians?
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.
July 7, 2011
Can you figure out which of these atheists are the real deal and which are faking it? Can you figure out which one is me? Fifteen entries in total; voting opens tomorrow!
June 29, 2011
Terry Eagleton reviews George Levine’s The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now.
June 24, 2011
“Come on, let’s say hello to Nancy,” my mother urged, nudging me slightly as we stepped out of our pew. The church service had just ended, and my heart was pounding. I was visiting my parents in Buffalo, NY after a significant amount of time away, and while I loved returning to the Catholic church of my youth, I dreaded seeing all those former teachers, family acquaintances, and other parishioners who’d known me since childhood. Would they be disappointed to see how I – who once served on three parish committees and talked about becoming a nun – had turned out?
These people couldn’t possibly know that my church attendance in my new home had become sporadic, or that some of my political views had diverged from traditional Catholic teachings, or that at times my very belief in God wavered. But I knew these things, and like Dostoevsky’s guilt-ridden Raskolnikov, I couldn’t help but read my own insecurities into their pleasant smiles.
Nancy, a woman in her seventies, was a veteran member of the parish. I knew her well from many Sunday afternoons during high school when I would accompany my mother to parish council meetings. “So, what have you been up to lately?” she asked.
I began telling her about my latest activities– studying for a Ph.D. at University of Toronto and teaching beginning Spanish to fifty sweet but reticent eighteen-year-old undergraduates. “Do you plan to stay in Toronto permanently?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I responded honestly. “The academic job market is a roller coaster – who knows where I’ll end up?”
“You’re educating yourself away from us,” she said.
These words caught me off guard. I knew that Nancy meant that I was “educating myself away” from my hometown, with no plans to move back any time soon. However, my underlying insecurities gave them a different undertone. Might she mean that I was abandoning the faith in which I’d been raised?
Her comment forced me to reflect on my own religious journey. I was raised Catholic, and throughout my childhood I rarely questioned Church teachings. My first shock came on my first day of high school in the cafeteria when one of my new classmates declared her unbelief. “There isn’t any evidence for God,” this black-clad atheist declared. “I think it’s just a story we’ve made up.”
I nearly spit out my chicken souvlaki in bewilderment, but I quickly launched into a diatribe defending all the teachings of my youth. However, her words remained with me – especially as we engaged in more debates and, as our high school years passed, became close friends. I soon realized that, like it or not, atheism was a force to be taken seriously. The teachings of my youth were no longer the absolute truth, but one of many paths towards it.
When I arrived at my non-sectarian liberal arts college and saw my new classmates in all their pink-haired, multi-pierced glory, I knew I wasn’t in Catholic school anymore. My resident advisor eyed me quizzically when I asked where to find the nearest church in town; the girls on my hall viewed my religiosity as outmoded. And while I later realized that several of my classmates and teachers were indeed religious, I realized that nonbelievers were a huge presence not only in my new college, but in society at large. I had no choice but to take them seriously.
Unlike what I’d previously been led to believe, atheists were not bad people; in fact, many of them seemed to live much more ethically and meaningfully than a lot of religious believers I knew. And yet, while many of the people I spoke to looked at religion with interest and curiosity, they did not feel a need for it in their own lives. They did not report feeling like they were missing something; there was no “God-shaped hole” in their universe. For them, religion simply didn’t figure as necessary.
When I moved to Toronto for graduate school, I found myself in a definite minority. There are many reasons for the lack of religious belief in academia. One is its ongoing debt to the Enlightenment tradition. During the eighteenth century, thinkers like Voltaire stormed into the dusty halls of the old religious institutions, affirming scientific reason based on evidence and raising a suspicious eyebrow toward any kind of mysticism.
All academic disciplines, including the humanities, are heavily influenced by this rationalist approach. As I focused more and more of my energy on approaching texts critically, I found my own beliefs challenged. If every text can be subject to rational inquiry, just what exactly is the place of revealed truth? As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor remarks in A Secular Age – his study of the decline in Western religiosity – we now live in a pluralistic society where unbelief is the default position. And this can make it very difficult for people who are struggling to maintain their religious faith.
At one moment in my senior year of college, I became struck by depression and temporarily lost my faith. When I told my philosophy professor about my situation, she offered me two books – Fritjof Schuon’s The Transcendent Unity of Religions and Martin Buber’s I and Thou – that transformed my understanding of religion. I started to view faith not as a set of dogmas, but as a way of understanding human experience.
For both authors, religious experience shakes us out of our habitual ways of thinking and compels us to face the divine presence in our lives. Schuon suggests that all of the major world religions consist of two dimensions: the exoteric realm of belief, doctrine, and ritual (inhabited by the masses) and the esoteric realm of contemplation (inhabited by a small, generally self-selected group of monks or nuns who have opted to devote their lives to the mystical pursuit of divine knowledge. For Schuon, the realm of the esoteric is a point of intersection of all religions as well as the centre of each individual religion itself. When focusing on the esoteric, one sees that religion is not about explaining phenomena in the world, but about experiencing the presence of the divine. In this schema, questions about doctrine and belief fade away; only the experience matters.
Jewish theologian Martin Buber takes a similar approach in his I and Thou, which describes religion as an alternative way of relating to the world. In our everyday lives, we tend to view phenomena in our environment – places, things, and indeed other people – as objects for our instrumental use, or understanding, or interpretation. This he terms the “I-It” relation, and it is in this state that most of us lead the greater portion of our lives. However, there are moments when something in our environment catches us off guard, and we come face to face another subject with whom we enter a relation based on equality. For Buber, it is in this moment of mutual recognition that religious experience lies.
I am happy to say that these readings saved my religious beliefs when I was twenty-one. However, lately some of the old doubts and questions have been coming back. If religion is fundamentally experience, then what is the place of doctrine and belief? I can follow Schuon and argue that experience lies at the core of all religion, but what of the periphery? What will happen to us if it just withers away? And finally, while Schuon manages to reveal the lack of contradiction between different faith traditions, can his model be extended to those who subscribe to those of no faith?
The conflict in today’s world, as I see it, does not lie between one religion and another, but between theism and atheism – faith and no faith. For atheists of the Richard Dawkins persuasion, all religious believers are misguided; their claims are simply wrong when held up to empirical scrutiny, and religion holds no legitimate place in the modern world; for many believers it is easier to relate to other theists (even those coming from other religious traditions) than to non-theists. But if we start from the premise that we are on different paths toward truth (and not in absolute possession of the truth), is there a way that we might all turn out to be right?
These are the questions that I continue to grapple with while struggling to maintain my faith in the land of academia. And, at this point I can say that while my perspective on life has definitely become more secularized over the years, I haven’t educated myself out of faith. God appears in so many ways – not only when I must make tough decisions or grapple with life’s uncertainties, but also in the everyday experiences of appreciating the beauty in a work of literature, or witnessing the flash of understanding as one of my students comes to master a new concept, or reconnecting with an old friend who, after a long absence, happens to reappear in my life. Everyone’s path toward the truth is different, and while I don’t consider the religious perspective to be inherently superior to the non-religious one, I also can’t accept it as inferior. For me, the rational approach just isn’t enough to make sense of the world, or my own place in it. There are some experiences that I can only understand as divine.