GIULIO PRISCO’S TURING CHURCH
Giulio Prisco has published an article for H+ magazine, which may well re-open the debate regarding the religious overtones of transhumanism.
Prisco is by no means the only person to perceive a link between transhumanism and religion. Robert M. Geraci, who is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College, points out that the historian of religion, David Chister, defines religion as “the negotiation of what it means to be human with respect to the superhuman and the subhuman.” This would equally serve as a definition of transhumanism. Belgian visual artist and filmmaker Frank Theys’ documentary, ‘Technocalypse’, finds many ways in which transhumanism and religion intersect.
The religious aspects have also been picked up by critics of transhumanism. Nobody can promote transhumanism for long without being confronted with the retort that it is “the rapture of the nerds”. And while he is assuredly not anti-transhumanist, philosopher Max More has cast a sceptical eye over the concept of a technological singularity, calling it “a classic religious, Christian-style, end-of-the-world concept….that can lead to cultishness and passitivity”.
Prisco is not content merely to notice a comparison between transhuman and religious beliefs, but also wants to encourage the development of a transhuman-based religious movement. Given that quite a few members of the transhuman community are outspoken atheists, the very idea that there is any commonality between religion and transhumanism is often hotly denied, and any suggestion of building bridges linking the two is denounced. “Religion is not something I want Transhumanism associated with, thank you”, was one curt reply to Prisco’s latest article.
It has to be said, though, that quite a lot of those speaking out against Prisco’s ideas have a rather limited view of religion and those who practice it. If you have ever read Richard Dawkins’ book, ‘The God Delusion’, you will have a fair idea of how some people in the transhumanist community regard religion and people of faith. To be religious is to have abandoned all reason and to positively embrace the irrational. It is to be intolerant of any worldview save your own, and to have an unshakable conviction in whatever dogma the faithful adheres to (and, by and large, transhumanists equate ‘religion’ with Christianity). With such anti-religious sentiment within the transhuman community, it is hardly surprising that Prisco’s promotion of a transhumanist religion raises many an objection.
Still, perhaps one should question Prisco’s conviction that bridges can be built between transhumanism and religion. Maybe the two really are fundamentally opposed and no common ground can ever be formed between them? Those adhering to this point of view would need to show how and why Robert M. Geraci is wrong with regard to the many comparisons transhumanism has with religion, as explored in his book ‘Appocalyptic AI’. By and large, such refutations seem to be a bit, shall we say, lacking in depth. Refutations offered tend to be along the lines of “I am a transhumanist and I do not believe in God so transhumanism is not a religion”. Confronted with more evidence of the links between religious beliefs and transhuman beliefs, the counter-argument becomes “well some people might see it that way, but I do not. Transhumanism is not a religion”.
While I am persuaded by such people’s conviction regarding their own stance toward religion and transhumanism, I find such arguments rather weak in comparison to the evidence gathered by the likes of Geraci and Frank Theys, establishing links between the two. And Giulio Prisco himself writes eloquently about the good that could come if the religiosity of transhumanism encouraged rather than rejected.
Prisco has no time for the supernatural. He is a strict materialist. That being the case, what is he doing promoting a “transhuman religion”? I think the answer to that lies in appreciating that being a materialist leaves room for believing in a form of transcendental power: The power of a whole to be more than the sum of its parts; the beauty of patterns. Ray Kurzweil spoke of this transcendental power of material things when he said: “Random strokes on a canvas are just paint. But when arranged in just the right way, it transcends the material stuff and becomes art”. And, of course, he cites technology as the quintessential example of the transcendental power of matter and energy.
“Mind uploading is not religion, it’s technology”, was what Eray Ozkural had to say about Prisco’s H+ article, “Engineering Transcendence: Addendum from 2011”. One can view cathedrals or the Egyptian Pyramids in the same way. They too are technologies and not religion. But equally, one can hardly deny that religious significance surrounds those amazing constructions. Representations of gods have been carved out of wood and stone, practices that, we may assume, were undertaken so that the artists might come closer to their real gods. While I too reject superstition and irrationality and do not believe cathedrals or the Pyramids have any power other than their architectural magnificence, I am rather less inclined to pour scorn on people’s search for the godlike. Jaron Lanier poured scorn on the idea of a near-term arrival of the Singularity, but also conceded that “there might be some truth to the ideas associated with the Singularity at the very largest scales of reality. It might be true that on some vast, cosmic basis, higher and higher forms of consciousness inevitably arise, until the whole universe becomes a brain, or something along those lines”. This is pretty much the line of thought that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (a Jesuit priest who trained as a geologist and paleontologist) used to reconcile his religious beliefs with the theories of Charles Darwin. God is what evolution is heading towards. I have to say I find such speculations to be rather appealing. To my mind, while our previous attempts to get closer to God were obviously deluded, I do not think the desire itself is necessarily deluded in principle. Maybe Lanier and Teillhard were right in thinking God might be what evolution on cosmic scales is heading towards?
Our ancestors assembled stone bricks into temples with which to honour and worship their gods. Hugo de Garis and others argue that, provided Moore’s Law can be sustained until 2020 or so, we will acquire the ability to store one bit of information on a single atom. And, given that even the smallest speck of matter that can be seen with the naked eye contains billions of atoms, you can appreciate why de Garis believes we may one day coax matter into performing astonishing feats of computation. After all, we do this already and all we need to do is keep doing what we have been doing, which is successfully research and develop ways to do it better. If we can only sustain Moore’s Law long enough, matter will not only transcend itself into computers; computers will transcend into artilects, artificial intellects with minds immeasurably superior to ours. Well, OK, this will require more than just extending Moore’s Law, but the point is it all falls within the realms of the materialistic worldview. You could say the theoretical possibility of artilects depends upon a couple of assumptions being true. One is the computational theory of mind which, according to Steven Pinker, “can be unpacked into several claims. The mind is what the brain does; specifically, the brain processes information and thinking is a kind of computation”. If the brain is a kind of computer that leaves open the possibility that we might one day build computers that are a kind of brain. The second assumption is that the physics of computation is correct in positing the theoretical existence of computers (and, therefore, if the first assumption holds, brains) that are many orders of magnitude faster and more powerful than the human brain. Maybe even all human brains put together. Currently we have neither the science nor the technology to create superbrains like these, but if we could, wouldn’t some people be inclined to treat these material marvels as if they were gods, just like our ancestors treated stone statues as if they were gods? Hugo de Garis thinks so. He can be found on documentaries like the aforementioned ‘Technocalypse’ claiming with a mixture of sheer enthusiasm and end-of-times angst, “they will be gods!”. One gets the feeling he considers the caveat ‘as if’ rather superfluous.
What might these gods be capable of? If we assume they are not capable of any supernatural acts, that limits their capabilities to anything physically possible. Something that might fall into that category is the creation of a new universe. Alan Guth is a theoretical physicist who came up with the concept of ‘inflation’, probably the most important contribution to cosmology since Einstein’s general theory of relativity. As Guth himself found out, the concept of inflation leads to a startling possibility:
“One of the most amazing features of the inflationary- universe model is that it allows the universe to evolve from something that’s initially incredibly small. Something on the order of twenty pounds of matter is all it seems to take to start off a universe. This is very different from the standard cosmological model. Before inflation, the standard model required you to assume that all the matter that exists now was already there at the beginning, and the model just described how the universe expanded and how the matter cooled and evolved. Given the inflationary model, it becomes very tempting to ask whether, in principle, it’s possible to create a universe in the laboratory — or a universe in your backyard — by man-made processes”.
So, is it possible in principle? The truthful answer is, we do not know. A definitive answer requires better theories of the behaviour of matter at extremely high energies, and a quantum theory of gravity, neither of which we possess at this point in time. Let’s assume we determine that, no, it is not possible in principle to create a universe. In that case I am certain that Giulio Prisco, being of materialistic, scientific mind, would utterly reject the claim that universes will ever be created via artificial processes. On the other hand, if it were determined to be a theoretical possibility, the transhumanist in Prisco would consider this to be an eventual actual capability, no matter how far advanced such a capability might be compared to our current technological progress. Of course, it is far more likely to be artilects who achieve such potential, if it can be achieved at all. And if they can actually create universes, then by definition they are gods. It becomes possible to be entirely materialistic and to believe in the existence of creator gods. In the same way that the moai (those wonderful statues that stand sentinel on Easter Island) were ‘sleeping’ in the rocks from which they were carved, waiting for the stone chisel to free them, gods could be said to be ‘there’ in the matter and energy of our universe, waiting for intelligent life to arrange the stuff of the universe into the correct transcendental patterns.
It was Freeman Dyson who commented, “The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming”. This observation is based on certain properties of the universe that need to be fine-tuned in order for our kind of life to exist at all. Personally, I find the concept of a multiverse plus a weak anthropic principle a sufficient explanation. There are infinite universes with different properties, and for obvious reasons we find ourselves in one that can support our kind of life. But Teillhard’s concept of evolution progressing towards omega point, de Garis’s theoretical artilects and Guth’s hypothesis of man-made universes might just be part of a grand evolutionary process. Perhaps universes that allow for the development of intelligent life that can acquire the scientific knowledge and technological capability to create new universes have an advantage? Perhaps there are more universes in the multiverse that are children of this process than those that are not?
Many scientists would deny the existence of any direction to evolution at all. By their way of thinking, human beings are here by accident and if prehistory were run again, chances would accumulate differently and the Earth would be inhabited by different species. But not all scientists agree that the direction of evolution is so random. One advocate of the idea that evolution might actually head somewhere is Simon Conway Morris. He argues that constraint and convergence act on evolution to ensure similar species evolve if history is rerun. Richard Dawkins explained what he meant:
“The materials of life, and the processes of embryonic development, allow only a limited range of solutions to a problem. Given any particular evolutionary starting situation, there is only a limited number of ways out of the box. So if two reruns…encounter anything like similar selection pressures, developmental constraints will enhance the tendency to arrive at the same solution”.
In his book “Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans In A Lonely Universe“, Conway Morris argues that life is extremely improbable but that once it emerges and evolution gets underway, a humanlike species is likely to evolve. To me, what is most persuasive about his argument is not so much the evidence he marshals in its favour, but the fact that he once held the opposite point of view. As a young grad student, Conway Morris spent years studying an extraordinary fossil collection known as the Burgess Shale. The Burgess Shale is actually a region in the Canadian Rockies, which has become famous for its fossils of soft-bodied animals, including species that are billions of years old. When they were first classified, the burgess shale fossils appeared to be unlike anything alive today. The thinking went that, if they had not been accidentally wiped out, life today would look very different. However, later research determined the diversity of the Burgess Shale fossils to be less than had been previously thought, and Simon Conway Morris changed his mind about his earlier radical classifications.
The concept of evolutionary convergence puts a new spin on the idea of a universe that ‘knew we were coming’. While modern cosmological models show how gravity will inevitably ‘sculpt’ matter into galaxies and stars, and nuclear physics shows how stars will inevitably seed the universe with the elements of the periodic table, convergent evolution perhaps shows how star-stuff will coalesce into the patterns of intelligent life. Some thinkers argue that evolution can also account for a belief in God. The argument is that ancestors who saw purpose and design around them (that bush moved because something caused it to move) had a survival advantage over those that were inclined to see everything as causeless (that bush moved for no reason whatsoever). Selective pressure would act against the latter mind-set because believing there is a predator in that bush when there is not has costs (like always running away, which costs energy) but not as much as believing there is no predator when there is (which increases the chances of your being eaten and taken out of the gene-pool). Being the product of billions of years-worth of evolution selecting for minds that see purpose, design, and intent all around them, is it any wonder we invented God to explain the origins of the universe?
But, we might also ask if our search for gods in the universe is not also a part of a future selective pressure. Perhaps species that are not inclined to ask sweeping metaphysical questions like ‘is there a god’ are not well-adapted to seek out the subtlest laws of physics and, therefore, less likely to ever develop the scientific knowledge and technological capability to design and build artilects? No artilects, no artificial baby universes. On the other hand, a tendency to believe in gods might, after scientific inquiry eventually steers such minds away from superstitious nonsense, converge on the transhuman goal of vastly transcending the material achievements of natural selection. As a continuation of evolution by other means, technology might evolve toward the artilect, which in turn sets the stage for the inevitable development of universe-creating technologies? The artilects’ development is more likely in a universe inhabited by minds looking for god and acquiring the scientific capability to build gods.
I believe this is the ultimate purpose of Giulio Prisco’s religious movement: To promote the idea that gods are transcendent patterns inherent in the fabric of the universe, that natural selection and technological evolution might steer toward their creation, and that a beautiful, rationality-based spiritual movement can and should be developed based around such concepts.