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Holy Singularity! - will it be a “Messianic/Idolatrous” or “Ineffable/ Transcendent” Event?

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”.

SINGULARITY= ‘OTHERNESS’

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



Comments:

Thank you, Extropia. I enjoyed and agree with your analysis.

By Lincoln Cannon on Feb 09, 2013 at 6:43am

... although I’d add that “idolatrous” is not the word I’d choose, as it has negative connotations, and I don’t think there’s anything necessarily negative about our posthuman projections that affirm and extend human strengths and virtues, as there’s nothing necessarily negative about our posthuman projections that deny and negate human weaknesses and vices. Both can and should be leveraged in the work to transfigure humanity into a radically compassionate and creative posthumanity.

By Lincoln Cannon on Feb 09, 2013 at 6:47am

It seems the religious takeover of the Singularity is progressing well but ultimately the religious hijacking will fail due to the augmentation of intelligence, which will allow people to see how all religious belief is nonsense associated with primitive pre-Singularity cultures. It is interesting to see how atheists generally don’t feel the need to proselytise, they usually don’t feel the need define the Singularity as atheist, which it is, although considering the near incessant badgering by some religious orientated futurists I am beginning to think it is time to create the Atheist Transhuman Association or the Turing Atheists. It is sad that religious people have not changed after all these years, it is sad they are continuing to try and save our souls via their holy enlightenment.

I am very familiar with the religious views of Extropia, Lincoln, and Giulio Prisco (Turing Church), where discuss the supposed religiosity of Transhumanism and the Singularity. I have addressed their religious fantasies (yes that is the correct term, it is not an insult, go an read The God Delusion) on numerous occasions but in the typical modality of religious people their views are currently unshakable.

The religious takeover of the Singularity is almost identical to the creationists attempting to hijack evolution via the term Intelligent Design. Hopefully true intelligence will prevail, hopefully the modern from of technological Intelligent Design promulgated by Extropia, Lincoln, Giulio and others will fail.

I have previously commented on an earlier version of Extropia’s Holy Singularity via the H+ platform, and you can read those comments here: http://hplusmagazine.com/2012/07/05/holy-singularity/

There is not much else to add. I find the logical fallacies associated with the religious takeover of the Singularity are very depressing, which is the case with all aspects of religion because irrationality dominates. Don’t forget how I religious people often think in this modern age. UK Parliamentarians recently voted to legalise Gay Marriage, thus one young woman wilfully aired her bigotry very publicly via the BBC, thereby highlighting the irrationality behind all religions, she said: “There’s definitely help for people out there who do have homosexual feelings. If they repent their sins, God will still love them. There’s ways of dealing with it.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/21335610

Religious belief is fundamentally unintelligent, it has no place within a movement regarding the augmentation of intelligence.

I look forward to the day when all religions are obsolete, if I can survive that long because in the meantime religious people sap my will to live. It is a very depressing religious-tainted world we live in.

By Singularity Utopia on Feb 09, 2013 at 3:19pm

When it comes to the religiosity issue, SU’s arguments always have the same flaw. She comes up with a definition of A religion (usually an extreme form of fundamentalist Christianity) and then sets out to persuade that this worldview is incompatible with transhumanity. Maybe so, but the question we should ask is: Does the definition SU provide work equally well for all religions? For me the answer, based on what I know about the world’s religions from books like Karen Armstrong and also by talking with people of many different faiths and philosophical schools of thought, is ‘no’.

So the final paragraph of my article stands as a rebuttal to SU’s remarks. It is quite possible that, in the future, people will have beliefs which are unrecognizable from the POV of religion as SU defines it. However, that does not mean others who have a less narrow concept of religiosity will not recognize such people as belonging to a faith system of some kind or other.

By Extropia DaSilva on Feb 10, 2013 at 12:40am

I am fully cognizant of all definitions of religion. All definitions of religion are essentially the same because they are all irrational. If the definition of religion is so loose that anything can be a religion, merely because it makes you feel good or improves the world partially, for example some people may think chocolate is holy, they may religiously be devoted to chocolate, then this tendency to imbue things with religiosity is also identical to the essence of all religions, it is irrational, it is a failure to understand meaning, it is tantamount to stating a cat is a dog because you like dogs, thus if you like something with four legs and a tail it must be a dog even if it is a cat. The principal irrationality is not the mere sloppiness of definition, my prime objection to the taint of religion is the meaning religion holds for people, it is essentially escapism, thus people eat bars of chocolate while watching mindless TV, or they worship Prajāpati or Allah or Zeus instead of addressed real world issues, or they think Buddha has wisdom to impart when in reality Buddhism is merely hand waving no different to spiritualism, or séances. The magical fantasy of all religions, the escapist nature of the belief, it is irrational. If something improves the world then it improves the world, there is no need to call it a religion if it is not a religion but sadly there is a tendency to imbue the truth of reality with otherworldly fantasy, religions distort reality, thus the planets and stars can reveal our future if we can read the Star Signs, or people think the Singularity or Transhumanism is religious.

I could modify you final sentence Extropia thus:

“Like God, the transcendent/ineffable Chocolate is a symbol of our perpetual desire to progress toward a state of holiness.”

Or “Like God, the transcendent/ineffable Beyoncé performing at the Super Bowl is a symbol of our perpetual desire to progress toward a state of holiness.”

Or “Like God, the transcendent/ineffable President Obama is a symbol of our perpetual desire to progress toward a state of holiness.”

This the irrationality of God, of all religious yearning. It is escapism, it is distortion of reality, it is a confusion of meanings, thus archetypal religious people define life as creationism instead of evolution but that’s only a metaphor regarding the entire field of religions belief.

By Singularity Utopia on Feb 10, 2013 at 5:31am

I notice that every one of your modifications contains the word ‘God’. Why is that? I suspect it is because you believe religion to be synonymous with a belief in some kind of supreme being. But not all religions are theistic. As Armstrong wrote in ‘the history of God’, “humanism is itself a religion without God..Our own secular ideal has its own disciplines of mind and heart and gives people the means of finding truth in the ultimate meaning of human life that were once provided by the more conventional religions”.

So, quite frankly, I doubt the truth of your opening remark in your last reply.

By and large I do not think the world’s religions have come up with interesting answers (which is not to say there is nothing useful to be learned by studying the teachings of Jesus or Buddha etc) but I do think people of faith ask legitimate questions, such as ‘is there a reason I exist?’, ‘is there such a thing as objective evil?’ and ‘why is there someting rather than nothing’? It seems to me that believing ANY human-derived system can find definitive answers to such questions has to be taken on faith rather than certainty.

By Extropia DaSilva on Feb 10, 2013 at 10:33am


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