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)

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The singularity as a religion (extended abstract)

Diane Proudfoot and B. Jack Copeland, University of Canterbury

Software Immortals—Science or Faith?

The 20th century futurist Julian Huxley called for a new religion, allied with science, to replace the (he said) ‘progressively less and less tenable’ hypothesis of a supernatural god or spirit. 21st century technological futurists have in effect answered Huxley’s call. They predict a post-Singularity future that is remarkably similar to the post-salvation (or post-spiritual liberation) life promised by major world religions: a software-based existence that is ‘immortal’, ‘truly meaningful’, and ‘blissful’. Modern physics and computer science, they claim, can give us ‘transcendence’, ‘resurrection’, ‘souls’, ‘spirit’, ‘heaven’, and even ‘God’. Proponents of the Singularity hypothesis claim that their predictions are very different from those of (what Kurzweil calls) ‘traditional’ religions. Futurists are materialists (they have no time for ‘ornate dualism’ or souls composed of a ‘ghostly substance’), and their forecasts are based on science rather than faith. Yet, as we shall argue, the Singularity hypothesis fares little better than established religions in answering the philosophical challenges that arise for afterlife beliefs.

The ‘old’ religion (i.e., the supernatural god or spirit hypothesis) and the ‘new’ religion (i.e., the Singularity hypothesis) have a shared metaphysic of personhood and of the persistence of individual persons. For the former (at least for Western religions influenced by Platonic dualism), the soul is an incorporeal ‘form’. For the latter, the mind is a substrate-independent computer file. In each case cognition is independent of any particular bodily process. (Dualist theology and technological futurism downplay the human body, on the ground that matter hinders the soul, or that biology imposes limitations to be remedied by software enhancements.) Both sorts of theorist identify the person with the soul or mind, and hold that individual survival consists in the persistence of the ‘pattern’ of information contained in the form or computer file.

Even leaving aside the futurists’ confident assumption of the computational theory of mind, many difficult questions remain, including the following. Are uploads conscious? Are persons no more than (‘disembodied’) programs? Can ‘patternism’ provide an adequate theory of persistence conditions for persons? Futurists typically claim that a program is conscious, and even is a person, just if it can pass the Turing test—but the imitation game as described by Turing is a criterion of (human-level) intelligence, rather than of consciousness or personhood. As to persistence, futurists typically underestimate the conceptual difficulties for patternism, perhaps because of their belief that the move from human being to computer simulation involves no greater change than normal cellular turnover. In addition to these metaphysical problems, the futurists’ prediction that ‘simulation resurrection’ will enable every human being to live again simply leads to the simulation argument: how can we know that this life isn’t a simulation? Technological futurism presents the same opportunity for scepticism as Cartesian dualism.

Kurzweil’s standard response to the numerous objections to his technological forecasts is that his critics are wedded to an ‘intuitive linear view’ obscuring the real evidence of exponential growth. This is tantamount to treating the Singularity hypothesis as unfalsifiable by apparent counter-evidence, and more akin to religious faith than science. Similarly, although Kurzweil recognises ‘dilemmas’ in his theory of the persistence conditions for persons, and although he thinks that the Turing test fails as an ‘objective’ test of consciousness, he holds both to patternism and to the imitation game as a means of certifying an upload as conscious. Patternism is just, he says, his ‘personal philosophy’—in other words, faith. Futurists also present detailed hypotheses concerning the nature of post-Singularity super-human-level AI and posthuman life. Yet predicting the actions of a super-human-level artificial intelligence would seem to be as much a matter of faith as predicting God’s acts. And what is ‘bliss’, or a ‘truly meaningful’ life, and how can this be guaranteed (or even possible) for ‘ex-biologicals’? Futurists do not say; some claim—along with traditional theologians on the joys of paradise—that human beings cannot understand the nature of posthuman life or experience. In this case, their predictions seem mere hand-waving, with little substantive content.

Traditional religions, Kurzweil claims, attempt to rationalize death as giving meaning to life, whereas for futurists death is a tragedy that technology will soon postpone indefinitely. However, replacing dualism by materialism does not eliminate key philosophical problems for the concept of spiritual (or physical) resurrection. And although proponents of the Singularity hypothesis claim to ground their forecasts on scientific evidence, they also resort to faith. Despite the futurists’ optimism, the choice seems still to be mystery or tragedy.

1 comment:

  1. Nice to see someone else taking up this issue.

    My own work on the subject focuses more on the behavior of the people involved in the "Singularity Movement," and how they tend to use the ideology (as opposed to Hypothesis) of the Singularity as a Proxy for a Theistic Religion (See my informal article in H+ Magazine "The Technological Singularity as a Religious Ideology")