Documenting the Coming Singularity

Monday, May 28, 2007

Is There Sin in Singularity?

Having been a Christian minister for a large portion of my life (though I am neither a minister nor a Christian today), I am perhaps more acutely aware of religious opposition to the ideas behind the singularity than I would otherwise be. This may be because I understand the divergence of viewpoints between the two sets of ideas.

Christianity, at its heart, teaches that humans are irredeemably corrupted by sin, with only one available cure: confessing faith in the only sinless God/man, Jesus Christ. Once this confession of faith is made, a person's guilt is exchanged with Christ's righteousness, thus leading to a resurrection from the dead and life everlasting.

Singularity and transhumanism believe that it will soon be possible for humans to migrate into non-biological substrates, thus achieving virtually unlimited lifespans without the need for any supernatural intervention.

Christianity's heretofore monopoly on solving the problem of death is therefore being challenged, not by another faith, but by technology.

One Christian thinker sees in the ideas behind transhumanism a resurgence of an ancient heresy. Here is a sample of the article:
Examination of the underlying philosophy to remake the human person exhibits qualities that are as old as the Greeks. Disdain for the body, the quest for hidden knowledge, and the goal to lead others to a higher plane of existence all smack of ancient Gnosticism, an idea that goes back nearly two millennia. Students of New Testament history will recognize Gnosticism as an early opponent of the newfound church, fought by the early Church Fathers into the second and third century.

The Gnostic impulse is first characterized by its disdain for the physical body and the general restraints of time and place. Since the temporal was thought to be evil and unredeemed, the Gnostics developed a profound dualistic schism between the body and the mind, which was spiritual and potentially immortal. The body, being bad, was eschewed while the mind was exalted. This led to two poles of behavior regarding the physical. One pole was asceticism with its denial of creature comfort. Material pleasure and comfort was disdained due to the undeserving nature of the body. The other pole was radical libertinism, with an anything goes attitude regarding the attainment of physical pleasure. Why worry about the body and behavior if it was degenerate anyway?

The second primary distinction regards redemption via attainment of secret knowledge, or gnosis. This knowledge was potentially available to only a few gifted select people who were endowed with the desire and capacity to attain and use this hidden wisdom. It was only through careful, diligent study that release from the bonds of material existence. Once attained, a person would be able to transcend the bounds of time, nature and history, reaching a plane of spiritual existence.

With the Transhumanist movement, one sees the Gnostic strain reasserting itself in the quest to transcend the degenerate body. The body is held in disdain. Advocates for enhancement technology exhibit disdain for the current status of the physical body. There is an abhorrence of the limitations that nature has placed upon the species. The insufficiencies of height, strength, vision, hearing, longevity and cognition are roadblocks to happiness and perpetual fulfillment. Nature has gotten the human race this far, but the inherent limits of existence are hurdles to be leapt.
I suspect that if the singularity occurs and humans do, in fact, overcome death via technology, Christianity will find a way to accommodate that reality into its system of belief, just as it has largely accommodated the discovery that the Earth is not the center of our universe and that humans are the product of Darwinian evolution.

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7 comments :

Spaceman Spiff said...

I don't think christianity teaches that man is "irredeemably corrupted" since the possibility of redemption is kind of the whole point.

Also I don't think the soteriology you suggest is representative or inclusive of Christianity as a whole. Better to break it down the way CS Lewis did in Mere Christianity: all that it means to be "Christian" is to believe that Jesus died, and that somehow opens up the possibility of salvation.

Both the idea of exchanging our guilt for Christ's righteousness, and that the cure can be boiled down to "confessing faith in Jesus" as such, are ideas I'd want to argue and clarify, as would plenty of Christian thinkers.

Secondly, I think this guy is right about some of the strains of Transhumanism, though certainly not all Transhumanists. I think in some of the people you've quoted, we see an inherent disdain for our short life, for those who aren't smart enough to have the same hope they do, etc. So there, you certainly have some negative elements of old-school elitist gnosticism.

And then when we look at these explorations are taking place in a nation that holds much the rest of world in irreparable debt, takes more and more ownership and rights away from individuals and towards corporations, and destorys its land, air and water in pursuit of comfort, it becomes a little more suspect.

The sort of Reaganomic way of thinking about technology betrays a greed and a complacency about the rest of the world that sullies the whole project. By saying "the really cool stuff we invent for our comfort will someday reach the poor people too" we try to make our astronomical greed a virtue, when the truth is if we really cared we'd spend our time making things right now.

So I say, find. Invest your money in ways to change the body. But I will remain ultimately concerned with how to live well in 75 years, and how to share what I have in a just and kind way, before I start spending extravagant amounts to try to get more time.

Barry Mahfood said...

Hi Spaceman, thanks for your comment.

Christianity teaches that man is irredeemably corrupted *apart from supernatural intervention.* That is what I meant.

I don't know what soteriology is. I am not competent to discuss theology at the level of a theologian, or an aspiring theologian in your case.

Regarding poverty, I think it is clear that technology has raised the standard of living, not only of the rich, but also of the poor. Yes, there are places where despotic leaders, who are continually commiting genocide, prevent the aid from the west to reach the average person. But that cannot be blamed on the greed of corporations as you claim.

Do you not realize that the so-called greedy corporations are owned by regual citizens? The widow's pension, the blue-collar worker's annuity, are invested in these corporations and these are the people who benefit from the corporation's profits, not only the CEO.

Please point out the anti-capitalist nation that is doing better for its people that are western democracies.

And the really cool stuff we make for our comfort *has* reached the poor. Look at cell phones, electricity, indoor plumbing, cars, public transportation, big screen TVs, computers, etc., etc., etc.

If one believes in Christianity, as you do, one will naturally "remain ultimately concerned with how to live well in 75 years, and how to share what I have in a just and kind way." That, afterall, is the point of my post to begin with.

You believe in eternal life through faith in Christ, so for you, an indefinite human existence holds little appeal.

I do not believe those things, so I might feel differently about prolonging this life. Which does not mean that I am not concerned about how to live well in 75 years, and how to share what I have in a just and kind way. I'd like to do those things too, whether I live 50 years or 1,000.

citizencyborg said...

Barry

You may find my recent musings on the compatibility of religious and transhumanist worldviews interesting:

http://www.metanexus.net/magazine/tabid/68/id/9930/Default.aspx

http://ieet.org/archive/20070326-Hughes-ASU-H+Religion.pdf

J. Hughes

Spaceman Spiff said...

Soteriology= doctrine of salvation. Sorrry bout that.

So the following is a rant that probably isn't terribly readable, but attempts to express my thoughts and feelings about capitalism, technology and poverty. Forgive the jumping around, but I hope something good is communicated.

As far as poverty, yes I am aware that technology has provided a lot for a whole lot of people, and that companies (due to regulations, unions, and probably a fair amount of time the good will of executives) do generally provide a benefit to their employees and their customers. If it was completely one-sided they couldn't exist. Of course it's in their interest to get their phones/computers/widgets in the hands of the poor, because poor people's dollars are just as valuable as rich people's.

It is just such a nice, neat little narrative to believe that our greed today will benefit others tomorrow, as if that had anything to do with why we were doing it, or as if that somehow excused the way our greed takes advantage of other people right now.

But one can provide a benefit to another and still be exploiting them. Arguably if not for the generally unregulated rise of major corporations(encouraged by increases in interest rates to regular folks and tax benefits and incentives for corporations) contributes to the necessity of things like pensions and retirement plans, not to mention mortgages and other loans. The corporations give pensions, but without the corporations, a pension wouldn't be nearly as necessary.

We could have the benefits of technology without such exploitation, though likely at a much slower pace. I would guess that in such a society, we might not be having discussions about radical life extension. But we could be assured that we weren't ruining the topsoil that our children will need.

We might not have developed that expensive surgery that saves people from that rare disease, or that fancy prosthetic leg that replaces a real leg perfectly, which everyone would be able to afford *someday*.

But on the other hand, a lot more people would get basic health care, *today*.

More people would have to farm, but more people would own their farms, their land, their shops, etc. and they wouldn't have to go into debt to break even later. Everyone loses a little in material benefits, but gains a lot in property and self-sufficiency. The major loser would be the banks and the credit card companies, and therefore the rich.

So while capitalism does increase the standard of living *by the measures of capitalism*, but that is not the only worthwhile measure.

This is why I say we are so far from living well in the *present*. We have so much *now* we should be sharing that it is ridiculous to talk about how the nice things we create for ourselves will someday belong to some future poor people as well because we so graciously bought it today.

It isn't that I think those individuals are all living poorly compared to me, or compared to Christians in general, or that I don't think research science is worthwhile. But I think the whole enterprise which pushes this forward so relentlessly is a system which perpetuates the brokenness of our society and of our world and puts off wholeness and justice till some future time.

And I think the fact that we can ask such questions speaks to how ridiculously far our greed has gone. So I get this increasing sense that sooner or later, something's going to collapse and this will all feel silly and sad in retrospect.

That's my reaction to this stuff. As you can see, I don't think it has a whole lot to do with the idea of living forever in heaven. I think it has a lot more to do with the idea of what life on earth is supposed to look like that I have gotten from Jesus.

Spaceman Spiff said...

My comments demand a reply!

Barry Mahfood said...

Sorry for responding sooner. I've been trying to come up with more controversial posts. :-)

You said:

"It is just such a nice, neat little narrative to believe that our greed today will benefit others tomorrow, as if that had anything to do with why we were doing it, or as if that somehow excused the way our greed takes advantage of other people right now.

But one can provide a benefit to another and still be exploiting them. Arguably if not for the generally unregulated rise of major corporations(encouraged by increases in interest rates to regular folks and tax benefits and incentives for corporations) contributes to the necessity of things like pensions and retirement plans, not to mention mortgages and other loans. The corporations give pensions, but without the corporations, a pension wouldn't be nearly as necessary.

We could have the benefits of technology without such exploitation, though likely at a much slower pace. I would guess that in such a society, we might not be having discussions about radical life extension. But we could be assured that we weren't ruining the topsoil that our children will need."

I think we are in basic agreement that there are two sides to the coin. Yes, much of technology's advances come as a result of the profit motive. I wouldn't go so far as to assign most of it to greed. Many corporations are run by people who are trying to provide a useful product and feed their families and those of their employees. And there's a fair amount of innovation that comes from people who just like what they do.

I tend to have a more benign view of the people responsible for the development of technology.

And keep in mind that you too are adopting a narrative that fits with your world view. I guess we all do that.

Spaceman Spiff said...

When I said its a nice and neat narrative, I sort of hint that its self-serving. It would also be self-serving to me, since I could probably be a beneficiary of such technology, capitalist, etc. Heck I could have a career making money creating it for people.

So it'd be really nice to believe that by creating nice things for myself. It'd be reaaaal nice.

But the narrative I'm choosing requires that I share radically, that I don't accept economic and social injustice, even if it leads to more material stuff overall.

It could still be self-serving. Maybe I buy into my narrative because it satisfies some liberal guilt-urge in my psyche. I don't think so though.

When I say greed, I mean that I think as a society we are disconnected from the suffering of others. So if a lot of people have to work terrible jobs with incredibly low standards of living compared to ours so we can have shoes for cheaper, so be it. We tell ourselves "well if Wal-mart hadn't come in and offered them these jobs they'd be starving and slaving away farming" as if the idea of a worse fate somehow justified the situation any better.

And I don't say this to judge or condemn any group of people that doesn't include me. But I do say, there's no other word for the middle and upper middle class American lifestyle but greedy. But we are so disconnected from the suffering of those on the margins that it doesn't bother us.

And this is the system that supports such development of technology. We say we have such good doctors because health care is privatized, and we're right. And we say the advanced medicine and procedures we develop trickle down over time, and its true.

But none of that makes it ok that right now people don't get basic health care who could. Right now people don't eat who could. Right now people don't get a good education who could. And we justify by saying market forces will fix it, if rich people just buy more stuff it'll fix it. But I call it greed, in myself, and it others.