(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")
Religion and the Law of Accelerated Exaggeration
Robert Geraci of Manhattan College, in his book "Apocalyptic A.I." (2010), showed that Singularity thinking borrows motifs and practices from Jewish and Christian apocalyptic scriptures. The Judaistic/Christian religions offer a dualistic view of the world: good and evil are fighting a cosmic battle. "Evil" materializes as bodily decay, earthly world, and limited intellect. "Good" will someday materialize as eternal life, paradise and unlimited knowledge. Singularity thinking (which he calls "Apocalyptic A.I.") adopts a similar view, cursing the mortal body and the limited knowledge of the human mind while envisioning a future in which we will become immortal and omniscient in cyberspace.
To celebrate the age of Web 2.0, in 1999 Yale University's computer scientist David Gelernter wrote a manifesto titled "The Second Coming".
The enabler is the high priesthood of A.I. scientists and engineers, whom Geraci nicknames "mystical engineers".
Geraci points out how apocalyptic thinking arose among Jews and Christians: they were both persecuted people. The Jews endured slavery and/or occupation by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans. The Christians were persecuted by the Romans. Geraci thinks that A.I. scientists such as Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil feel similarly persecuted, except that now it is "bodily alienation": they want to escape the limitations of the biological body.
New York University anthropologist Stefan Helmreich in "Silicon Second Nature" (1998) studied the "mystical" attitudes of the practitioners of Virtual Reality and Artificial Life. In 2003 Philip Rosedale's Linden Lab launched "Second Life", a virtual world accessible via the Internet in which a user could adopt a new identity and live a "second life" as an avatar, and Geraci views Second Life as a sort of temple where people perform religious functions.
Incidentally, the Singularity bears obvious similarities with the Omega Point, described by Pierre Teilhard, a Catholic priest from France, in his book "The Phenomenon of Man" (1955), and conceived as a point of super-human intelligence towards which the universe is evolving. The physicist Frank Tipler gave the omega point a formal mathematical and scientific formulation in his book "The Physics of Immortality" (1994).
Cultural historian Margaret Wertheim in "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace" (1999) argued that cyberspace represents the high-tech equivalent of religious paradise, an identification that goes back to Michael Benedikt of the University of Texas at Austin, who wrote in the introduction to the collection "Cyberspace" (1992) that cyberspace is the equivalent of the biblical "Heavenly City".
Jeffrey Fisher's study "The Postmodern Paradiso" (1997) shows similarities between medieval Christian mythology and cyberspace utopia.
The impact on mysticism of the discovery of cyberspace has not been too different from the impact that the discovery of America had five centuries earlier: when in 1503 Amerigo Vespucci wrote to Lorenzo de Medici that Cristoforo Colombo had actually discovered a "new world", many viewed this "New World" as the new Eden. America (named after Amerigo) became the natural vehicle for Europe's utopian dreams at a time when Europe was launching into the humanistic, scientific and artistic revolutions of the Renaissance. The great utopian works of the following century, from Thomas More's Utopia" (1516) to Francis Bacon's "New Atlantis" (1627), were influenced by the myth of America as a blank space where a superior society could be created. Six centuries later what today's futurists are imagining in cyberpace is not all too different from what those 16th-17th century futurists imagined in their utopian books.
In "The Future of Religion" (1985) sociologists Rodney Stark of the University of Washington and William Bainbridge of Boston University argued that secularism encourages religious innovation rather than signalling the outright demise of religion. In other words, an increasingly secular science has not killed religion but rather has created an opportunity for reforming religion. When Nietzsche announced "the death of God" in his book "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" (1883), he had basically opened the doors for a new religion, and the first one to take advantage of that opening had been the scientistic religion presented by Karl Marx in "Capital" (1894): communism. In his "Religions for a Galactic Civilization" (1982) Bainbridge advocated establishing a scientistic theocracy along the lines of UFOlogy as something that humans need in order to survive (UFOlogy was replaced by Singularity thinking in the revised 2009 version).
Wertheim thinks that humans naturally want a spiritual dimension to their lives. Science, by banning the spiritual out of the physical universe, has created the need for a new kind of spiritual space. If they can no longer find it in the physical universe, today's humans will find it in cyberspace. Virtual life on the Internet has been getting more and more interesting and meaningful, and the line between the real world and the virtual world has gotten more and more blurred.
Bainbridge wrote in "Religion for a Galactic Civilization 2.0" (2009) that religion and science are not opposed at all; instead, they coevolve: "Religion shapes science and technology, and is shaped by them in return". And, without mentioning the Singularity, he added that the "creation of a galactic civilization may depend upon the emergence of a galactic religion capable of motivating society for the centuries required to accomplish that great project".
Traditionally the strength of religion has been proportional to ignorance of science. But this time the new religion of A.I. is about science itself and it is being created by people who are very knowledgeable about the science. This is not the first time that scientists present technology as a sort of divine power, as David Noble of York University in Toronto has shown in "The Religion of Technology" (1997), and it would not be the first time that a new science rises in parallel with a new organized religion, as Wertheim has shown in "In Pythagoras' Trousers" (1997). Francis Bacon's "New Atlantis" (1627) was the first scientific utopia, and Isaac Newton wrote (unpublished) books of prophecy such as "Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St John" (1733). Sometimes we forget that science and technology evolved from the Catholic monasteries and from the Church-controlled universities (and from the Islamic madrasas) of the Middle Ages. The culture of the San Francisco Bay Area lies at the same intersection of science and spirituality, the former represented by Silicon Valley's high-tech industry and the latter by the "New Age" movement. Fred Turner calls it "digital utopianism" in his book "From Counterculture to Cyberculture" (2008).
Just like prophetic books mediated between science and religion back then, today it is science fiction that has mediated between religion and technology. Critical studies such as David Ketterer's "New Worlds for Old" (1974) showed that science fiction routinely borrows concepts from the Christian scriptures. Studies such as Thomas Disch's "The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of" (1998) and Jason Pontin's "On Science Fiction" (2007) documented how science fiction exerted a huge influence on A.I. scientists. Pontin once wrote "Science fiction is to technology as romance novels are to marriage: a form of propaganda" (MIT Technology Review, 2005). Many future A.I. scientists were inspired to enter the A.I. field precisely because they were fans of science fiction: Isaac Asimov's "I Robot" stories of the 1940s and "Multivac" stories of the 1950s, Osamu Tezuka's manga "Tetsuwan Atomu/ Astro Boy" (1951), Arthur Clarke's short story "Dial F for Frankenstein" (1964),
Frank Herbert's "Do I Wake or Dream/ Destination Void" (1965),
Brian Aldiss' short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" (1968), Philip Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (1968), Algis Budrys's "Michaelmas" (1977), Douglas Adams' "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979), Vernon Vinge's novella "True Names" (1981), William Gibson's "Neuromancer" (1984), which was predated by his short story "Burning Chrome" (1982), Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" (1991), Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep" (1992), etc. After all, even the great theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson wrote in his visionary book "Imagined Worlds" (1998) that "science is my territory, but science fiction is the landscape of my dreams".
Science fiction inspired the "transhumanist" movement way before the Singularity became a popular concept. The Extropian movement believed in the power of science and technology to yield immortality. Its members practiced cryogenics to preserve their brain after death. The term "extropy" was coined by Tom Bell, juxtaposing it to "entropy". The Oxford philosopher Max More had helped set up the first cryonic service in Europe (later renamed Alcor). Relocating to Los Angeles, in 1988 More started the magazine Extropy, subtitled "journal of transhumanist thought" and founded the Extropy Institute, which in 1991 had its own online forum. The Extropian movement had strong anti-government libertarian/anarchic political views, predicting a technocratic society in which power would be wielded directly by the people. By the time Wired published the influential article "Meet The Extropians" in 1994, the extropian movement included members and sympathyzers such as Hans Moravec, Ralph Merkle, Nick Szabo, Hal Finney, as well as co-founders Tom Bell (Tom Morrow) and Perry Metzger. Merkle would go on to become a leader in nanotechnology, Szabo and Finley would pioneer Bitcoin, Metzger would launch the cryptography mailing-list.
The original prophet of what came to be called "transhumanism" was probably Fereidoun "FM-2030" Esfandiary who wrote "Are You a Transhuman?" (1989) and predicted that "in 2030 we will be ageless and everyone will have an excellent chance to live forever". He died from pancreatic cancer (but was promptly placed in cryogenic suspension).
Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher at Oxford University, has pursued more social and ethical concerns in the several organizations that he established: in 1998 Bostrom and fellow philosopher David Pearce founded the World Transhumanist Association that later changed name to Humanity+, and in the year Bostrom published "How Long Before Superintelligence?" (1998). In 2004 Bostrom and James Hughes founded the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies; and in 2005 Bostrom founded the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.
Kevin Kelly explored the connection between information and God in the article "Nerd Theology" (1999).
In 2006 the Italian physicist Giulio Prisco became an advocate in virtual reality for the transhumanist movement, initially through his avatar Giulio Perhaps in Second Life. In 2007 he published the article "Engineering Transcendence" predicting that in the future it will be possible to become immortal inside cyberspace and to create perfect simulations of the past that will revive all those who have ever been alive. In 2008 he founded the Order of Cosmic Engineers (in a virtual world) and in 2010 the Turing Church (in the real world). The latter was initially just a "mailing list about the intersection of transhumanism and spirituality", but in 2014 it evolved into a "minimalist, open, extensible" religion whose manifesto preaches: "We will go to the stars and find Gods, build Gods, become Gods, and resurrect the dead from the past with advanced science"
These "un-religions" (religions with neither a hierarchy of priests neither immutable dogmas) are reminiscent of the church of engineers envisioned by August Comte, the founder of positivism, in his book "Catechism of Positive Religion" (1852). Comte was hoping to replace all religious institutions (in his view outdated) with a scientistic religion.
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