Posted: Sat, February 09, 2013 | By: Extropia DaSilva
While reading ‘The History of God’ by Karen Armstrong, it became apparent that we conceptualise God in two different ways. It struck me that we approach the Singularity with similar conceptualizations.
THE PERSONAL GOD
The concept of God that I am most familiar with is of a being not unlike a human, but with special powers which, so many have promised over the centuries, will soon be used to transform the world into a better place, or remove those who have lived ‘correctly’ from this reality to another, presumably better, one. This sort of God is an idol, a personification of our hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow. Similarly, we find it easiest to conceptualise robots when they are built in our image. Not only that, we hope that the robotic/ nanotechnological future the likes of Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil forecast will finally deliver a return to a garden of Eden where there is no toil and no death.
Of course, I am not the first person to see some connection between religiosity and singularitarianism. Back in the 90s, somebody wrote a satirical piece for an issue of ‘Extropy’ in which a term that has since been used to pour scorn on the Singularity was coined: ‘The rapture of the nerds’. In his book ‘The Spike’, Damien Broderick described “devotional art (showing) whole families rising into heaven…into the arms of a smiling and radiant Californian Jesus”, before going on to point out that, yes, technology may someday realise many religious visions but no “it won’t be the rapture- nobody expects Jesus Christ to be there”. In ‘You Are Not A Gadget’, Jaron Lanier also makes a reference to Californian devotional art but makes no attempt to differentiate between American evangelicalism and singularitarianism. In his mind, both believers are equally nutty.
Regardless of whether you have complete faith in the Singularity, dismiss it outright like Lanier or believe in it partially like Broderick seems to do, there is something about this concept of a holy singularity that is contrary to the original definition of ‘technological singularity’. No matter how unlikely you may deem this coming utopia to be, it is not unimaginable. In fact, people have imagined this kind of future for many hundreds of years. Aristotle figured that “there is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not needing subordinates and masters not needing slaves. This would be if every machine could work by itself, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation”.
The word ‘Holy’ has taken on a meaning that differs from its original definition. In ‘Isaiah 6,3’, the prophet describes a vision in which six seraphs cry “Holy, holy, holy is the lord of hosts”. Armstrong pointed out that this “was nothing to do with morality as such but means ‘otherness’, a radical separation… the seraphs were crying, ‘Yaweh is other! Other! Other!’”.
As I said, for many people, God is conceived of as being a kind of celestial Big Brother- a projection of our needs, fears and desires. But many others have stressed the ineffable quality of the Divine. The ‘Otherness’ of the Divine finds its most extreme form in the Hindu concept of Brahman, which is by no means a personal God but more of an ultimate reality beyond concepts and reason. Thinking along similar lines, Philo of Alexandria insisted that the highest truth we can apprehend about God is that it symbolises that which utterly transcends the human mind. Theologians who grasp that point say that God should be described as ‘Nothing’, because it does not exist in any sense that can be understood by human minds.
When Vernor Vinge thought about the Singularity, he was considering it to be ‘holy’ but in the sense of ‘otherness’ rather than moral excellence:
“It’s a problem we face every time we consider the creation of intelligences greater than our own. When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of Singularity… and the world will pass beyond our understanding”.
In his ‘Tract On Ecstacy’, Rabbi Dou Baer insisted that contemplation of God must begin with a heart-breaking perception of inadequacy. One finds self-confessed inadequacy in Elizer Yudkowsky’s ‘Staring Into The Singularity’:
“I am a Singularitarianism because I have some small appreciation of how utterly, finally, absolutely impossible it is to think like someone even a little bit smarter than you are… I know, in a dim way, just how dumb I am”.
Throughout his paper, via analogies to numbers too large to imagine and damage to the visual cortex resulting in an inability to see, remember, or even imagine colour, Yudkowsky stresses this fact about the Singularity: “The powers are beyond our ability to comprehend”.
THE NEED TO PERSONALISE THE INEFFABLE
How are we to handle this Otherness? In Hinduism and Buddhism there is the practice of Bhakti which means ‘personal devotion’. Now, personal devotion to Brahman is inappropriate because it is not something that can be thanked for creating the universe and nor is it something that can be said to ‘care’ if you are naughty or nice. So, we invented the mythology of the avatar and focused our devotion on incarnations of Brahman closer to personal gods than the Grounded Reality itself.
Ditto with Buddhism. Anyone who believes Siddharta Guatama achieved nirvana and understood what that means aught to appreciate how inappropriate it would be to idolise him. And yet there are more idols in the image of Buddha than just about any other person or god.
Noting this tendency to personalise the ineffable, Karen Armstrong suggested, “it may be that without this degree of identification and empathy, religion cannot take root”. In other words, we have a need to turn the ineffable into a projection of our hopes and dreams. Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that Vinge’s ‘transcendent/ ineffable singularity’ would develop into a ‘Messianic/ idolatrous singularity’. It arguably makes for a much more powerful meme in the short to mid-term, because provided you can accept that certain technologies are headed in certain directions (such as robots doing all the work and nanotechnology enabling super-efficient handling and recycling of resources, thereby enabling riches for all), you have to conclude that 2045 will be paradise on Earth. And who wouldn’t want that?. On the other hand, it is harder to see why anyone toiling with the hardships of life should care that one day super intelligences will be thinking lofty thoughts beyond the ken of humankind.
On the other hand, I would argue that we will come to need to believe in a Vingean ineffable/ transcendent Singularity once SciTech has made immortality a reality. The aforementioned utopia has the same promise and problems as any other vision of heaven as a garden of earthly delights: It sounds like a great place to be for a while, but eventually its appeal would wane. Realising that earthly pleasures are not unlimited in their appeal, many theologians have concluded that heaven is utopia, but in the sense of it being a progress toward no-place, no-where and no-one. In other words, as one becomes closer to God, there must necessarily be a transcendence of the personal category towards the impersonal reality similar to Brahman-Atman or Nirvana. Not ‘nothing’ in the sense of no longer existing, but in the sense of progression to a state of being beyond anything that can be currently understood.
TRANSHUMANISM IS A RELIGION
The messianic/idolatrous singularity with its promise of all your most pleasant dreams come true should be seen as an interim period rather than an ultimate destination. The Marxist philosopher, Ernst Bloch, saw the whole of human life as directed toward the future, a kind of perpetually incomplete project seeking to transcend the current stage. Armstrong said, “the very nature of humanity demands that we transcend ourselves and our current perceptions and this principle indicates the presence of what has been called the divine in the very nature of human inquiry”.
If that is the nature of humanity, then those who deride transhumanism as religious and those who deny on there being any connection between the two are making the same basic mistake. We should not confuse particular aspects of particular religions- ancient beliefs that no longer make sense in light of modern science and philosophy- for religiousness itself, which has always evolved in order to remain relevant to contemporary people. Like God, the transcendent/ineffable Singularity is a symbol of our perpetual desire to progress toward a state of holiness.
This essay previously appeared in the blog TuringChurch, HERE