The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible (Arthur C. Clarke's 2nd law)

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The singularity as faith (extended abstract)

Selmer Bringsjord and Alexander Bringsjord, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Belief in The Singularity is Fideistic

We have on hand a framework for classifying the bases of belief in things that are at once weighty and unseen. Here, we apply the framework to belief in The Singularity, and conclude from this application, and the absence of both rationalist and empiricist evidence in support of this belief, that believers in the doctrine are fideists. While it’s true that fideists have been taken seriously in religion (e.g., Kierkegaard in the case of Christianity), even in that domain the likes of religious believers like Descartes, Pascal, and Leibniz find fideism to be little more than wishful, irrational thinking — and at any rate it’s rather doubtful that fideists should be taken seriously in the realm of science and engineering.

What is meant by the adjective ‘weighty-and-unseen’? We haven’t the space here to give a rigorous definition, and such a thing isn’t needed anyway, because illuminating examples abound, and there are famous starting places in philosophy of religion. There is for instance the rather stark definition of faith offered by the writer of Hebrews (11:1) in the New Testament: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” In the context of this passage (and for example in the context of sustained treatments of faith and reason, such as Leibniz’s Theodicy), the basic idea is that what is believed in faith targets something both weighty enough to be earnestly hoped for, and invisible. Put in terms of propositions, the underlying content of declarative sentences traditionally signaled in English by “that” phrases, we can say that propositions are weighty-and-unseen when they directly and immediately entail the existence of some being, or the occurrence of some event, which is at once by nearly any metric weighty (or profound) and as of yet invisible. The proposition S that The Singularity will come to pass within (say) a century certainly seems to qualify as w-&-u with flying colors.

Now, what is the framework we have available? By our lights, the basis for believing some w-&-u proposition P conforms to only one of three normative views: viz., rationalism, empiricism, or fideism. Encapsulating, the first is essentially the view that belief in w-&-u propositions must be supported by deductive proofs or arguments; the second is that such belief must be supported by direct sense perception of the constituents (i.e., of the being or event in question) of such propositions; and fideism consists in the view that one ought to believe in w-&-u propositions despite having no evidence, or even because one has hard evidence to the contrary. (The “bravest” fideists are those who believe self-contradictory propositions. Kierkegaard is known for commending the absurd for assent.) Each of these doctrines can be partitioned into at least a strong, moderate, and weak form, but in this abstract we leave such details aside. To give but the gist of the sub-versions in our framework, we only inform the reader that in our framework strong rationalism is the view that any human person believing some w-&-u P ought to have on hand at least one outright proof of P. The doctrine of moderate rationalism holds that if such a person believes such a P, then that person must have on hand at least one “evident” argument the conclusion of which is P. And so on, all the way through not only rationalism, but empiricism and fideism. In the full paper, we explicitly restrict attention to neurobiologically normal Stage-IV-or-more human persons; i.e., to those able to reason abstractly at the level of first-order logic, or at the “post-formal” level of being able to reason about representations and proofs in first-order logic. (The staging scheme here is due to Piaget, as cognoscenti will know.)

In the full paper we articulate and defend an argument for the view that belief in The Singularity is fideistic, and hence that such belief, while perhaps acceptable in the realm of religion, is not acceptable in the realm of science and religion, where rationalism and empiricism together reign justifiably supreme. The crux of the argument is destruction of purported abstract arguments in support of S, combined with the observation that directly perceived facts (such as that a sharp toddler of today makes a mockery of any computing machine with designs on natural-language communication) count not in favor of S, but against it. In the end, then, we conclude that unless belief that The Singularity will arrive is to be welcomed as a religious view of the lowest order (with those of higher orders obeying the norms of either empiricism or rationalism), it is not to be taken seriously.

1 comment:

  1. I wish that I had paid closer attention to this blog over the last few years.

    I have been (slowly) working on a similar idea: Notably that the Singularity forms the basis as a Proxy for Theistic religion.

    I would argue that not all beliefs about the Singularity are Fideistic, but that a great many of them are, particularly those formulated by a great many of those who "preach" the Singularity, rather than the few(er) who seek to understand it as a possible event that is currently taking place (I have had an ongoing exchange with Ray Kurzweil about his role in this, and EXACTLY what he has, and hasn't, said about the Technological Singularity.

    I would love to discuss this issue in more depth (I wonder if this is the only comment on any of these posts? Says something about the importance of this project to many of the participants that no one comments on any of the posts).

    I can be reached at matthewbailey at ucla dot edu