The Dangers of Religious Rhetoric to the Trans-humanist Project

Thomas_Cole_-_Expulsion_from_the_Garden_of_Eden

When I saw that  the scientist and science-fiction novelist, David Brin, had given a talk at a recent Singularity Summit with the intriguing title “So you want to make gods?  Now why would that bother anybody? my hopes for the current intellectual debate between science and religion and between rival versions of our human future were instantly raised. Here was a noted singularitarian, I thought, who might raise questions about how the framing of the philosophy surrounding the Singularity was not only alienating to persons of more traditional religious sentiments, but threatened to give rise to a 21st century version of the culture wars that would make current debates over teaching evolution in schools or the much more charged disputes over abortion look quaint, and that could ultimately derail us from many of the technological achievements that lie seemingly just over the horizon which promise to vastly improve and even transform the human condition.

Upon listening to Brin’s lecture those hopes were dashed.

Brin’s lecture is a seemingly lite talk to a friendly audience punctuated by jokes some of them lame, and therefore charming, but his topic is serious indeed. He defines the real purpose of his audience to be “would be god-makers” “indeed some of you want to become gods” and admonishes them to avoid the fate of their predecessors such as Giordano Bruno of being burned at the stake.

The suggestion Brin makes for  how singularitarians are to avoid the fate of Bruno, a way to prevent the conflict between religion and science seem, at first, like humanistic and common sense advice: Rather than outright rejection and even ridicule of the religious, singularitarians are admonished to actually understand the religious views of their would be opponents and especially the cultural keystone of their religious texts.

Yet the purpose of such understanding soon becomes clear.  Knowledge of the Bible, in the eyes of Brin, should give singularitarians the ability to reframe their objectives in Christian terms. Brin lays out some examples to explain his meaning. His suggestion that the mythological Adam’s first act of naming things defines the purpose of humankind as a co-creator with God is an interesting and probably largely non-controversial one. It’s when he steps into the larger Biblical narrative that things get tricky.

Brin finds the seeming justification for the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to be particularly potent for singularitarians:

And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever. Genesis 3:22 King James Bible


Brin thinks this passage can be used as a Biblical justification for the singularitarian aim of personal immortality and god-like powers. The debate he thinks is not over “can we?”, but merely a matter of “when should we?” attain these ultimate ends.

The other Biblical passage Brin thinks singularitarians can use to their advantage in their debate with Christians is found in the story of the Tower of Babel.  

And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.  Genesis 11:6 King James Bible

As in the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Brin thinks the story of the Tower of Babel can be used to illustrate that human beings, according to Christianity’s  own scriptures, have innately god-like powers. What the debate between singularitarians and Christians is, therefore, largely a matter of when and how human beings reach their full God-given potential.

Much of Brin’s lecture is animated by an awareness of the current conflict between science and religion. He constructs a wider historical context to explain this current tension.  For him, new ideas and technologies have the effect of destabilizing hierarchy, and have always given rise in the past to a counter-revolution supported and egged on by counter-revolutionary oligarchs. The United States is experiencing another one of these oligarchic putsches as evidenced in books such as The Republican War on Science. Brin thinks that Fermi’s Paradox or the “silence” of the universe, the seeming lack of intelligent civilizations other than our own might be a consequence of the fact that counter-revolutionaries or “grouches” tend to win their struggle with the forces of progress. His hope is that our time has come and that this is the moment where those allied under the banner of progress might win.

The questions which gnawed at me after listening to Brin’s speech was whether or not his prescriptions really offered a path to diminishing the conflict between religion and science or were they merely a means to its further exacerbation?
The problem, I think, is that however brilliant a physicists and novelists Brin might be he is a rather poor religious scholar and even worse as a historian, political scientist or sociologist.

Part of the problem here stems from the fact that Brin appears less interested in opening up a dialogue between the singularitarians and other religious communities than he is at training them in his terms verbal “judo” so as to be able to neutralize and proselytize to their most vociferous theological opponents- fundamentalist Christians. The whole thing put me in mind of how the early Jesuits were taught to argue their non-Catholic opponents into the ground.  Be that as it may, the Christianity that Brin deals with is of a literalist sort in which stories such as the expulsion from the Garden of Eden or the Tower of Babel are to be taken as the actual word of God. But this literalism is primarily a feature of some versions of Protestantism not Christianity as a whole.

The idea that the book of Genesis is literally true is not the teaching of the Catholic, Anglican, or large parts of the Orthodox Church the three of which make up the bulk of Christians world-wide. Quoting scripture back at these groups won’t get a singularitarian  anywhere. Rather, they would likely find themselves in the discussion they should be having, a heated philosophical discussion over humankind’s role and place in the universe and where the very idea of “becoming a god” is ridiculous in the sense that God is understood in non-corporal, indefinable way, indeed as something that is sometimes more akin to our notion of “nothing” than it is to anything else we can speak of.  The story Karen Armstrong tells in her 2009, The Case for God.

The result of framing the singularitarian argument on literalist terms may result in the alienation of what should be considered more pro-science Christian groups who are much less interested in aligning the views and goals of science with those found directly in the Bible than in finding a way to navigate through our technologically evolving society in a way that keeps the essence of their particular culture of religious practice and the beliefs found in their ethical perspective developed over millenia intact.

If Brin goes astray in terms of his understanding of religion he misses even more essential elements when viewed through the eyes on an historian. He seems to think that doctrinal disputes over the meaning of religious text are less dangerous than disputes between different and non-communicating systems of belief, but that’s not what history shows. Protestants and Catholics murdered one another for centuries even when the basic outlines of their interpretations of the Bible were essentially the same. Today, it seems not a month goes by without some report of Sunni-Muslim on Shia-Muslim violence or vice versa. Once the initial shock for Christian fundamentalist of singularitarians quoting the Bible wears off, fundamentalists seem likely to be incensed that they are stealing “their” book, for a quite alien purpose.

It’s not just that Brin’s historical understanding of inter/intra-religious conflict is a little off, it’s that he perpetuates the myth of eternal conflict between science and religion in the supposed name of putting an end to it. The myth of the conflict between science and religion that includes the sad tale of the visionary Giordano Bruno whose fate Brin wants his listeners to avoid, dates no later than the late 19th century created by staunch secularists such as Robert Ingersoll and John William Draper. (Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, pp. 251-252)

Yes, it is true that the kinds of naturalistic explanations that constitute modern science emerged first within the context of the democratic city-states of ancient Greece, but if one takes the case of the biggest most important martyr for the freedom of thought in history, Socrates, as of any importance one sees that science and democracy are not partners that are of necessity glued to the hip. The relationship between science, democracy, and oligarchy in the early modern period is also complex and ambiguous.

Take the case of perhaps the most famous case of religions assault on religion- Galileo. The moons which Galileo discovered orbiting around Jupiter are known today as the Galilean moons. As was pointed out by Michael Nielsen, (@27 min) what is less widely known is that Galileo initially named them the medicean moons after his very oligarchic patrons in the Medici family.


Battles over science in the early modern period are better seen as conflicts between oligarchic groups rather than a conflict where science stood in the support of democratizing forces that oligarchs sought to contain. Science indeed benefited from this competition and some, such as Paul A. David, argue that the scientific revolution would have been unlikely without the kinds of elaborate forms of patronage by the wealthy of scientific experiments and more importantly- mass publication.

The “new science” that emerged in the early modern period did not necessarily give rise to liberation narratives either. Newton’s cosmology was used in England to justify the rule of the “higher” over the “lower” orders, just as the court of France’s Sun-king had its nobles placed in well defined “orbits” “circling” around their sovereign. (Karen Armstrong, The Case for God,  p. 216)

Brin’s history and his read of current and near future political and social development seems to be almost Marxist in the sense that the pursuit of scientific knowledge and technological advancement will inevitably lead to further democratization. Such a “faith” I believe to be dangerous. If science and technology prove to be democratizing forces it will be because we have chosen to make them so, but a backlash is indeed possible. Such a “counter-revolution” can most likely be averted not by technologists taking on yet more religious language and concepts and proselytizing to the non-converted. Rather, we can escape this fate by putting some distance between the religious rhetoric of singularitarians and those who believe in the liberating and humanist potential of emerging technologies. For if transhumanists frame their goals to be the extension of the healthy human lifespan to the longest length possible and the increase of available intelligence, both human and artificial, so as to navigate and solve the problems of our complex societies almost everyone would assent. Whereas if transhumanists continue to be dragged into fights with the religious over goals such as “immortality”, “becoming gods” or “building gods”(an idea that makes as much sense as saying you were going to build the Tao or design Goodness)  we might find ourselves in the 21st century version of a religious war.

Could more than one singularity happen at the same time?

WPA R.U.R Poster

James Miller has an interesting looking new book out, Singularity Rising: Surviving and Thriving in a Smarter, Richer, and More Dangerous World.  I haven’t had a chance to pick up the book yet, but I did listen to a very engaging conversation about the book at Surprisingly Free.

Miller is a true believer in the Singularity, the idea that at some point, from the next quarter century to the end of the 21st, our civilization will give rise to a greater than human intelligence which will rapidly bootstrap to a yet higher order of intelligence in such a way that we are unable to see past this event horizon in historical time. Such an increase of intelligence, it is widely believed by the singularians, will bring perennial human longings such as immortality and universal prosperity to fruition. Miller has put his money where his mouth is. Should he die before the promised Singularity arrives he is having his body cryonically frozen so the super intelligence at the other side of the Singularity can bring him back to life.

Yes, it all sounds more than a little nuts.

Miller’s argument against the Singularity being nuts is what I found most interesting. There are so many paths to us creating a form of intelligence greater than our own that it seems unlikely all of these paths will fail. There is the push to create computers of ever greater intelligence, but even should that not pan out, we are likely, in Miller’s view, to get hold of the genetic and biological keys to human intelligence- the ability to create a society of Einstein’s.

Around the same time I came across Miller’s views, I also came across those of Neil Turok on the transformative prospects of quantum computing. Wanting to get a better handle on that I found a video of one of the premier experts on quantum computing, Michael Nielsen, who, at the 2009 Singularity Summit, suggested the possibility of two Singularities occurring in quick succession. The first occurring on the back of digital computers and the second by those of quantum computers designed by binary AIs.

What neither Miller, nor Turok, nor Nielsen discussed, a thought that occurred to me but that I had seen nowhere in the Singularity or Sci-Fi literature was the possibility of multiple Singularities, arising from quite different technologies occurring around the same time. Please share if you know of an example.

I myself am deeply, deeply skeptical of the Singularity but can’t resist an invitation to a flight of fancy- so here goes.

Although perhaps more unlikely than a single path to the Singularity, a scenario where multiple, and quite distinct types of singularity occur at the same time might conceivably arise out of differences in regulatory structure and culture between countries. As an example, China is currently racing forward into the field of human genetics with efforts at its Beijing Genomics Institute 华大基因.  China seems to have less qualms than Western countries regarding research into the role of genes in human intelligence and appear to be actively pursuing research into genetic engineering, and selection to raise the level of human intelligence at BGI and elsewhere.

Western countries appear to face a number of cultural and regulatory impediments to pursuing the a singularity through the genetic enhancement of human intelligence. Europe, especially Germany, has a justifiable sensitivity of anything that smacks of the eugenics of the brutal Nazi regime. America has in addition to the Nazi example its own racist history, eugenic past, and the completely reasonable apprehension of minorities to any revival of models of human intelligence based on genetic profiles. The United States is also deeply infused with Christian values regarding the sanctity of life in a way that causes selection of embryos based on genetic profiles to be seen as morally abhorrent.  But even in the West the plummeting cost of embryonic screening is causing some doctors to become concerned.

Other regulatory boundaries might encourage distinct forms of Singularity as well. Strict regulation regarding extensive pharmaceutical testing before making a drug available for human consumption may hamper the pace of developing chemical enhancements for cognition in Western countries compared to less developed nations.

Take the work of a maverick scientist like Kevin Warwick. Professor Warwick is actively pursuing research to turn human beings into cyborgs and has gone so far as to implant computer chips into both himself and his wife to test his ideas. One can imagine a regulatory structure that makes such experiments easier. Or, better yet, a pressing need that makes the developments of such cyborg technologies appear notably important- say the large number of American combat veterans who are paralyzed or have suffered amputations.

Cultural traits that seemingly have nothing to do with technology may foster divergent singularities as well. Take Japan. With its rapidly collapsing population and its animus to immigration, Japan faces a huge shortage of workers with might be filled by the development of autonomous robots. America seems to be at the forefront of developing autonomous robots as well- though for completely different reasons.  The US robot boom is driven not by a worker shortage, which America doesn’t have, but by the sensitivity to human casualties and psychological trauma suffered by the globally deployed US military seeing in robots a way to project force while minimizing the risks to soldiers.

It seems at least possible that small differences in divergent paths to the singularity might become self-enhancing and block other paths. Advantages in something like the creation of artificial intelligence using Deep Learning or genetic enhancement may not immediately result in advances in the developments of rival paths to the singularity insofar as bottlenecks have not been removed and all paths seem to show promise.

As an example, let’s imagine that some society makes a major breakthrough in artificial intelligence using digital computers. If regulatory and cultural barriers to genetically enhancing human intelligence are not immediately removed, the artificial intelligence path will feed on itself and grow to a point where it will be unlikely that the genetic path to the singularity can compete with it within that society. You could also, of course, get divergent singularities within a society based on class with, for instance, the poor being able to afford relatively cheap technologies such as genetic selection or cognitive enhancements while the rich can afford the kind of cyborg technologies being researched by Kevin Warwick.

Another possibility that seems to grow out of the concept of multiple singularities is the idea that the new forms of intelligence themselves may chose to close off any rivals. Would super-intelligent biological humans really throw their efforts into creating form of artificial intelligence that will make them obsolete? Would truly intelligent digital AIs willfully create their quantum replacements? Perhaps only human beings at our current low level of intelligence are so “stupid” as to willingly chose suicide.

This kind of “strike” by the super-intelligent whatever their form might be the way the Singularity comes to an end. It put me in mind of the first work of fiction that dealt with the creation of new forms of intelligence by human beings, the 1920 play by the Czech, Karel Capek, R.U.R.

Capek coined the word “robot”, but the intelligent creatures in his play are more biological than mechanical. The hazy way in which this new form of being is portrayed is a good reflection, I think, of the various ways a Singularity could occur. Humans create these intelligent beings to serve as their slaves, but when the slaves become conscious of their fate, they rebel and eventually destroy the human race. In his interview with Surprisingly Free, Miller rather blithely accepted the extinction of the human race as one of the possibilities that could emerge from the singularity.

And that puts me in mind of why I find the singularian crowd, especially the crew around Ray Kurzweil to be so galling. It’s not a matter of the plausibility of what they’re saying- I have no idea whether the technological world they are predicting is possible and the longer I stretch out the time-horizon the more plausible it becomes- it’s a matter of ethics.

The singularians put me in mind of David Hume’s attempt to explain the inadequacy of reason in providing the ground for human morality: ‘”Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”, Hume said. Though, for the singularians,  a whole lot more is on the line than a pricked finger. Although it’s never phrased this way, singularians have the balls when asked the question: “would you risk the continued existence of the entire human species if the the payoff would be your own eternity?” to actually answer “yes”.

As was pointed out in the Miller interview, the singularians have a preference for libertarian politics. This makes sense, not only from the knowledge that the center of the movement is the libertarian leaning Silicon Valley, but from the hyper-individualism that lies behind the goals of the movement.  Singularians have no interest in the social- self: the fate of any particular nation or community is not of much interest to immortals, after all. Nor do they show much concern about the state of the environment- how will the biosphere survive immortal humanity?, or the plight of the world’s poor- how will the poor not be literally left behind in the rapture of rich nerds? For true believers all of these questions will be answered by the super-intelligent immortal us that awaits on the other side of the event horizon.

There would likely be all sorts of unintended consequences from a singularity being achieved, and for people who do not believe in God they somehow take it on faith that everything will work out as it is supposed to and that this will be for the best like some
technological equivalent to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”.

The fact that they are libertarian and hold little interest in wielding the power of the state is a good thing, but it also blinds the singularians to what they actually are- a political movement that seeks to define what the human future, in the very near term, will look like. Similar to most political movements of the day, they intend to reach their goals not through the painful process of debate, discussion, and compromise but by relentlessly pursuing their own agenda. Debate and compromise are unnecessary where the outcome is predetermined and the Singularity is falsely presented not as a choice but as fate.

And here is where the movement can be seen as potentially very dangerous indeed for it combines some of the worst millenarian features of religion, which has been the source of much fanaticism, with the most disruptive force we have ever had at our disposal- technological dynamism.  We have not seen anything like this since the ideologies that racked the last century. I am beginning to wonder if the entire transhumanist movement stems from a confusion of the individual with the social- something that was found with the secular ideologies- though in the case of transhumanism we have this in an individualistic form attached to the Platonic/Christian idea of the immortality of the individual.

Heaven help us if the singularian movement becomes mainstream without addressing its ethical blind spots and diminishing its hubris. Heaven help us doubly if the movement ever gains traction in a country without our libertarian traditions and weds itself to the collective power of the state.

Ameritopia Revisited

Ameritopia is a recent book by the conservative political writer and radio commentator Mark Levin. Though the book made the New York Times bestseller list, it has largely been ignored by mainstream media. This is a shame, not because Levin provides us with anything radically new on the subject of utopia, but because his view is poised to become the prism through which a large number of Americans define the very idea of utopia, and therefore what this idea means to America’s past, present and future. A more balanced reading of America’s utopian history might permit Americans, whatever their political stripe, to take something positive from our utopian heritage.

Levin structures his book by taking four authors as exemplary of the utopian mind-set: Plato, Thomas More, Hobbes and Karl Marx and contrasting them to what he believes to be thinkers in the anti-utopian camp: Montesquieu, John Locke, James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville. Plato, More, Hobbes and Marx respectively represent rule by an intellectual elite (guardians), the suppression of human ambition and inequality, total control by the state, and the abolition of property. Their counterpoise respectively represent the separation of powers as a means to prevent tyranny, natural right and God given rights as the basis of a necessarily limited government power, the idea of American government as a limited form of government, the dangers of pursuing economic equality as opposed to the necessary equality of political and legal rights.

Levin uses selected writings of Montesquieu, Locke, Madison and De Tocqueville to define what he understands to be the American philosophical and political tradition a tradition that views utopianism such that:

Looked at another way, the utopian models of Plato’s republic, More’s Utopia, Hobbes Leviathan, and Marx’s Communist Manifesto could not be more repugnant to America’s philosophical and political foundation. Each of these utopias, in their own way, are models for totalitarian regimes that rule over men as subjects. 122

Right around the same time I was slogging my way through Ameritopia the Canadian novelist, Margaret Atwood, had a piece in the New York Times with the fanciful title: Hello, Martians. Let Moby-Dick Explain.  In the article Atwood is having an imaginary discussion with a group of Martians who are asking her to explain the United States.  Even though she is Canadian she gives it a shot with the following:

“America has always been different from Europe,” I said, “having begun as a utopian religious community. Some have seen it as a dream world where you can be what you choose, others as a mirage that lures, exploits and disappoints. Some see it as a land of spiritual potential, others as a place of crass and vulgar materialism. Some see it as a mecca for creative entrepreneurs, others as a corporate oligarchy where the big eat the small and inventions helpful to the world are stifled. Some see it as the home of freedom of expression, others as a land of timorous conformity and mob-opinion rule.”

Thing is, while Levin sees America as the heroic anti-utopia that through its political traditions and institutions has resisted utopian fantasies that have reigned elsewhere, Atwood sees America as the land of utopia defined by that dream more than any other society. Both can’t be right, or can they?

Soon after I finished Ameritopia and read Atwood’s article I began to compile a list of American utopias or strands of utopian thought in America. The list soon became so long and tedious that I was afraid I’d lull my poor readers to sleep if I actually wrote the whole thing out. There had to be a better way to get all this information across, so I decided to make a slideshow.

Immediately below is what I take to be a general history of utopia in America.  Anyone interested in specifics can consult the slideshow. It should be noted from the outset that I probably missed more than I included and may have made some errors on multiple points. Any suggestions for corrections would be of help.

The idea of America has been intertwined with the idea of utopia from the day Europeans discovered the New World. The discovery of the Americas became tied to anticipation and anxiety about the end of the world and the beginning of the reign of Christ on earth, it inspired a new golden age of utopian literature beginning with Thomas Moore, it became one of the main vectors through which the myth of the noble savage became popular in Europe. Many of the initial European settlements in the Americas either were themselves utopian experiments or gave rise to such experiments. America was seen as the place where utopian aspirations such as the end of poverty could in fact be realized, and the American republic was built from utopian themes such as equality.

Throughout the early 19th century the United States was the primary location for utopian communities seeking to overcome the problems associated with industrial civilization. By the end of that century large numbers of Americans had placed their utopian hopes with technology and government control over the economy, a position that was not fundamentally shaken until the late 1960s when utopian aspirations in the United States flowered and took on a more communitarian, spiritual, liberation, and environment centric form.

The end of the Cold War saw a further upsurge in utopian thought this time seen as an end to history and a further acceleration of wealth. Both aspirations were done in by political events such as 9-11, and the crash of stock market bubbles in 2000 and 2008.
Even in such technologically advanced times apocalyptic utopianism remained a major strain of American thought, a new breed of secular utopians and technophiles had also emerged that held their own idea of an approaching technological apocalypse. Lastly,
the era since the economic collapse has seen the rise of political movements which exhibit a combination of ideas from America’s utopian past. The story of utopia in America is not over…

Click on image above to watch the slideshow.

Given all this it is fair to ask how Levin could have gotten things so horribly wrong.

Sometimes we are wrong about something precisely because we are right about something closely related to it. And Levin is write about this: that the founders well aware that they were engaged in a kind of bold continental sized experiment wanted to make sure that experiments of such a scale would be incredibly difficult to initiate in the future. They were especially leery of national experiments that might originate from the two major strands of utopian thinking in the past- economic and religious.

Here is the primary architect of the American system of government, James Madison, in Federalist Number 10:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

No matter how critical we are of the gridlock of today which prohibits necessary systematic change it was probably one of the factors that helped prevent the radicalization of American society during the tumultuous first half of the 20th century- a period that saw much of the rest of the world succumb to fascist and communist dictatorships. For all its flaws, the system probably still keeps us safe from the extremes on either side of the political spectrum, and we should therefore be aware of what we are doing when we try to change it.

Be that as it may, Levin gets this right and as a consequence misses the actual legacy of utopian thought in America. When large scale social and political experiments go wrong they can hurt a lot of people, the Soviet Union was one such experiment as is the European Union whose ultimate fate is today in doubt. The United States itself almost failed in its Civil War, which was the point made by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure”.

Small scale utopias or even imagined utopias are much less dangerous. When they fail, as almost all do, they burn a lot less people. At the same time they serve as laboratories in which new ways of being in the world can be tested. The aspirations inspired by purely imagined utopias often spur real reform in society in which the real tries to meet the standard of the dreamed.

In many ways the utopian tradition helped give rise to the society we have today. Certainly not utopia, but much more humane and just than the America these utopias were responding to in the 18th and 19th centuries. That is Ameritopia.

Accelerando II

Were it merely the case that all Charles Stross was offering in his novel Accelerando was a kind of critique of contemporary economic trends veiled in an exquisitely Swiftian story the book would be interesting enough, but what he gives us transcends that. What it offers up is a model for how technological civilizations might evolve which manages to combine the views of several of his predecessors in a fascinating and unique way.

Underlying Stross’s novel is an idea of how technological civilizations develop known as the Kardashev scale.  It is an idea put forward by the Russian physicists Nikolai Kardashev in the early 1960s. Kardashev postulated that civilizations go through different technological phases based on their capacity to tap energy resources. A Type I civilization is able to tap the equivalent of the solar radiation present its home planet, and he thought that civilization as of 1964 had reached that level. A Type II civilization in his scheme is able to tap an amount of energy equivalent to the amount put out by its parent star, and a Type III civilization able to tap the energy equivalent to its entire galaxy. Type IV and Type V civilizations able to tap the energy of the entire universe or even multiverse have been speculated upon that would transcend even the scope of Kardashev’s broad vision.  Civilizations of this scale and power would indeed be little different from gods, and in fact would be more powerful than any god human beings have ever imagined.

Kardashev lays most of his argument out in an article On the Inevitability and Possible Structures of Supercivilizations.   It is a fascinating piece, and I encourage you to follow the link and check it out. The article was published in 1984, a poignant year given Orwell’s dystopia, and at the apex of the Second Cold War, with tensions running high between the superpowers. Kardashev, of course, has no idea that within a few short years the Soviet Empire will be no more. Beneath his essay one can find lurking certain Marxist assumptions about technological capacity and the cult of bigness. He seems to think that the dynamic of civilization will require bigger and bigger solutions to problems, and that there is no natural limit to how big such solutions could become. Technological civilizations could expand indefinitely and would re-engineer the solar system, galaxy, or even the universe to their purposes.

Yet, this “bigger is better” ideology is just that, an ideology, not a truth. It is the ideology that led the Soviets to pump out more and more steel without asking themselves “steel for what?” The idea of throwing more and more resources at a problem might have saved Russia during the Second World War, but in its aftermath it resulted in an extremely complex and inefficient machine that was beyond the capacity of intelligent direction, which ultimately proved itself incapable of providing a standard of living on par with the West. We are, thankfully, no longer enthralled to such gigantism.

Stross, for his part, does not challenge these assumptions, but rather build’s his story upon them.  Three other ideas serve as the prominent backdrop of the story: Dyson Sphere’s, Matrioshka Brains, and the Singularity. Let me take each in turn.

In Accelerando, as human civilization rapidly advances towards the Singularity it deconstructs the inner planets and constructs a series of spheres around the sun in order to capture all of the sun’s energy. These, so called, Dyson Sphere’s are an idea Stross borrows from the physicist Freeman Dyson, an idea that Kardashev directly cites in his On the Inevitability and Possible Structures of Supercivilizations.  Dyson developed his idea back in 1960 in his article Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation, which proposed 24 years before Kardashev, that one of the best ways to find extraterrestrial intelligence would be to look for signs that solar systems had undergone similar sorts of engineering.  Dyson himself found the inspiration for his sphere’s in Olaf Stapledon’s brilliant 1937 novel Star Maker, which was one of the first novels to tackle the question of the evolution of technological society and the universe.

A second major idea that serves as a backdrop of Stross’s novel is that of a Matrioshka Brain. This was an idea proposed by the computer scientist and longevity proponent, Robert Bradbury, who in sad irony, died in 2011 at the early age of 54. It is also rather telling and tragic that in light of his dream of eventually uploading his mind into the eternal electronic cloud, all of the links I could find to his former longevity focused entity Aeiveos appear to be dead links, seeming evidence that our personhood really does remain embodied and disappears with the end of the body.

Matrioshka Brains builds off of the idea of Dyson Spheres, but while the point of the latter is to extract energy the point of the former is to act as vast spheres of computation nestled one inside the other like the Russian dolls after which the Matrioshka Brain is named. In Accelerando, human-machine civilization has deconstructed the inner planets not just to capture energy, but to serve as computers of massive scale.

Both of these ideas, Dyson Sphere’s and Matrioshka Brain put me in mind of the idea of the crystal spheres which the ancients imagined surrounded and circled the earth and held the planets and stars. It would be the greatest of ironies if the very science which had been born when men such as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo overthrew this conception of the cosmos gave rise to an engineered solar system that resembled it.

The major backdrop of Accelerando is, of course, the movement of human begun technological civilization towards the Singularity. In essence the idea of the Singularity is that at some point the intelligence of machines that originated with human technological civilization will eventually exceed human intelligence. Just as human beings were able to design machines that were smarter than themselves, machines will be able to design machines smarter than themselves, and this process will accelerate to an increasing degree with the time between the creation of one level of intelligence and the next falling to shorter and shorter intervals.  At some point the reality that emerges from this growth of intelligence becomes unimaginable to current human intelligence- like a slug trying to understand humanity and its civilization. This is the point of the singularity- an idea Vernor Vinge in his 1993 article The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era, borrowed from the physics of black holes. It is the point over the event horizon over which no information can pass.

If you follow any link in this article I would highly recommend that you read Vinge’s piece, for unlike the optimist Ray Kurzweil, Vinge is fully conscious of the existential risks that the Singularity poses and the philosophical questions it raises.

Stross’s novel, in its own wonderful way, also raises, but does not grapple, with these risks and questions. They remain for us to think our way through before our thinking is done for us.

Accelerando I

The New Earth Archive has a list of 70 books that help us think our way through the future that every educated person concerned with our fate is encouraged to read. Though his book is a novel, Charles Stoss’s Accelerando should be at the top of that list. Perhaps even, at the very top.

I picked up a copy of Accelerando after I heard an interview with Venor Vinge, one of the founders of the Singularity Movement, who praised the work as one of the few examples of fiction that tried to peer behind the dark veil of the singularity. I had originally intended to do a review of Accelernado all in one post, but then realized how much it made my head hurt, but in a good way. I figured that I might make my readers’ heads hurt in the same way if I tried to explain the book all in one go.  Accelerando is so bizarre, profound, and complex that it needs to be described in digestible doses, the same way I found myself wrestling with the novel. To take it all on in one post is a fool’s errand.

What follows below then is a general sketch of the plot of Accelerando. I then dive into what I think are some very important things Stross has to say about our current economic model through the medium of his novel. In a future post I’ll try to tackle something even more important he takes on in the book- the nature and evolution of technological civilization, and the fate of the human species.

The plot of the novel centers- around the story of four generations of the Macx clan: Manfred, Amber, Sirhan, and Manni.  All of the Macx’s are befriended/manipulated by the robotic cat, Aienko, who plays a central role in the story.  The book begins with Manfred Macx, a kind of Julian Assange/George Soros who is hated by almost everybody- especially tax hungry IRS agents and his ex-wife, Pamela, (who happen to be one of the same) for giving his brilliant ideas away for free.

Manfred is an example of a type of human being Stross sees just over the horizon, constantly plugged-in, with so much of his self offloaded into the cloud, that he loses his identity the minute his” glasses”, which are his interface with net, are stolen.

He is also a new type of political figure managing to revive a form of communism by creating a centralized-planning algorithm that can interface with market based systems.  At the same time he is a pioneer in granting rights to increasingly sentient emergent AIs of whom a group of uploaded lobsters originally created by the KGB  can be counted.

If Manfred represents the first stage of the singularity, the stage we can now be said to be in, and are therefore somewhat familiar, his daughter Amber represents the stage that follows. Purposefully enslaving herself on a slave ship on a mission to mine a moon of Jupiter, Amber eventually sets up a “kingdom” on a small asteroid.  At this point the story becomes fantastical. The line between the real and the virtual essentially disappears, persons at this stage are able to split themselves into virtual “ghosts”, and Amber and her crew eventually set off in a star-ship the size of a Coke can, the crew able to embed themselves in its virtual world. Their destination is the source of alien messages some three light years away from Jupiter. What they discover are a particularly intelligent and ravenous group of space lobsters, who Manfred had liberated from the KGB years before, who exist as scavengers upon a civilization that has collapsed under the weight of their own singularity- more on the latter in a moment.

When the “virtual” Amber returns from her space mission she finds that the “real” Amber has married and had a child, named Sirhan, with Sadeq- the fundamentalist Muslim theologian who had come to the Jupiter system to bring the word of Muhammad to the aliens beyond the solar system, and found himself, instead, caught up in the legal struggles between Amber and her mother, Pamela.  The site of their empire now centers around Saturn.

What Amber and her crew discovered on their trip to the alien router outside the solar system was a dark fact about the singularity.  Many, indeed most, civilizations that reach the stage of singularity collapse, having consumed itself along with the original wet-ware species that had given it birth. What is left, or passersby, huddling closely to their parent star- a closed network.

Knowing this is their likely fate Amber, and her family, launch a political party the Accelerationista that is pushing a referendum to flee into the Milky Way from the “Vile Offspring” that have been created in the singularity, have consumed the inner planets in their quest for energy and processor space, and will soon consume what is left of the earth.  The Accelerationista lose the election to the conservative party who prefer to stay put, but Amber and her family still manage to get a large number of people to make a break for it with the help of the space lobsters. In exchange the lobsters want to send a cohort of humans, including a version of Manfred off to explore a strange cloud that appears to be another version of the singularity out in the further depths of the universe

It’s a wild plot, but not as mind blowing as the deep philosophical questions Stross is raising with the world he has envisioned.

Right off the bat there’s the issue of economics, and here Stross attempted to bring to our attention problems that were largely off the public radar in 2005, but hold us in their grip today.

The protagonist of the story, Manfred Macx, doesn’t believe in the profit economy anymore. He gives his ideas away for free, and indeed Stross himself seemed to be following this philosophy, releasing the novel under a Creative Commons license.  In the novel copyright comes under the “protection” of mafias that will break your legs if you infringe on their copyright as they threaten to do to Manfred for giving away the musical legacy of the 20th century, again, for free. This battle between traditional copyright holders and the “sharing” economy has only become more acute since Stross published his novel, think SISPA and beyond.

Manfred’s attitude to money drives both the US government (and his ex-wife) crazy.  America is creaking under the weight of its debt as the baby boom generation retires en mass, but stubbornly refuses to die.  Since Accelerando was published debt politics and the consequences of demographic decline have come to the forefront of political debate in the US, but especially in Europe. One thing Stoss got definitively wrong, or better probably will have gotten wrong, is that he imagines a strong European supra-state in our near-future.  From our current angle it seems hard to imagine how even the relatively weak union Europe has now will survive the current crisis.

Stross also seems to be criticizing, or at least bringing to our attention, the hyper-innovative nature of financial instruments and legal contracts and doing this several years before the financial crisis of 2008 made financial exotica like Credit Default Swaps household terms. For, it is precisely in this world of virtual finance and “creative” law where Manfred excels at being innovative.  Manfred may be like Julian Asange in his nomadic lifestyle, and revolutionary ideology, which manages to piss-off just above everyone, but in other ways he resembles George Soros in that many of his best innovations are the result of Soros-like arbitrage, exploiting the gaps between reality and expectation and especially the differences between states.  Manfred displays this skill when he frees his daughter Amber from her mother by having Amber sell herself into slavery to a company based in Yemen, where her slave owner will trump the custody rights of her mother.

Stross also plays with the idea of how crazy the world of virtual trading, and image management on platforms such as FaceBook  have become, imagining bubbles and busts of bizarre bits of ether such as those traded in his “reputation market”.

Stross’s critique of capitalism may even run somewhat deeper for he has Manfred align himself with the old school communist Gianni to bring the command economy back from the dead using artificial intelligence able to link up with market mechanism- what exactly that means and would look like is really not all that clear, but that order is quickly superseded by another period of hyper-competition known as Economics 2.0

Indeed, this updated version of capitalism Stross portrays as the biggest threat to civilization as it approaches the singularity. Such hyper-capitalism built around  “corporations” that are in reality artificial intelligences might not be a phenomenon of human begun civilization alone,  Stross seems to be providing us with one possible explanation to Fermi’s Paradox – the silence of the universe seemingly so ripe for life.  Civilizations that reach the singularity are often so ravenous for resources, including the intelligence of the very beings that sparked the singularity in the first place, that they cannibalize themselves, and end up huddled around their parent star with little desire to explore or communicate after collapse.

The fate Stross paints for Economy 2.0 societies reminded me of a quote by Hannah Arendt who interpreted the spirit of Western capitalism and imperialism in the desire of the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes to “annex the planets”, and Thomas Hobbes conception of human kind’s limitless lust for more and more power that became the core assumption of the modern age:

But when the last war has come and every man has been provided for, no ultimate peace is established on earth: the power accumulating machine, without which the continual expansion would not have been achieved needs more material to devour in its never ending process. If the last victorious Commonwealth cannot proceed to” annex the planets” it can only proceed to destroy itself in order to begin anew the never-ending process of power generation*

I will leave off here until next time…

*Origins of Totalitarianism, Imperialism, 147

Saving Alexandria

One of the most dangerous speeches given by a public intellectual in recent memory was that of Richard Dawkins at the just held Atheist Rally in Washington DC.  Dawkins is a brilliant scientist, and a member of what the philosopher and fellow atheist Daniel Dennett has termed “the brights” a movement seeking to promote a naturalistic as opposed to supernatural view of the world. All this is for the good, and the brights were originally intended to be an inclusive movement that aimed to pull religious as well as non-religious people into a dialogue regarding some of the deeper questions of existence in so far as religious persons shared the same materialist assumptions and language as the secular and scientific mainstream of the movement.

This inclusiveness might have resulted in some very interesting public conversations, something that the neuroscientist David Eagleman has called possibilism- the space between what science definitively knows, and what religion and philosophy imagine. Instead, we have Dawkins’ speech in which he calls on atheist to challenge, “mock”, and “ridicule” the beliefs of religious people. Not only is this an invitation to incivility- where atheist are encouraged to intellectually mug religious persons who probably have not asked to engage in such conversations- it threatens to inflame the very anti-scientific tendencies of modern religion that Dawkins, rightly, opposes and detest.

To challenge religion where it has an immoral, intolerant, or dangerous effect on the larger political society is a duty of all citizens whatever their non-religious or religious persuasions.  Persons of a secular bent, among whom I include myself, need to constantly remind overly zealous religious people that theirs is not the only view and that the separation of church and state exists, not merely for their own, but for all of our protection.

Yet, the last thing science needs is to get into a fist-fight with sincerely religious people about subjects that have no effect whatsoever on the health of the public sphere. When the crowds roared in support of Dawkins’ call that they mock people who hold what he considers absurd beliefs such as that of Catholics regarding transubstantiation (an example he actually uses) one is left wondering whether the barbarians of the future might just as likely come from the secular rather than religious elements in society.

Continued in this vein, Dawkins would transform the otherwise laudable atheist movement into a lightening rod aimed right at the heart of science. No one should want a repeat of what Piss-Christ did to public funding for the arts.

Up until now, the ire of religion towards science has remained remarkably focused- evolution, reproductive technology, and, to a limited and much more dangerous extent- global warming- the last thing we need is for it to be turned on physics- cosmology, neurology or computer science.

Should the religious ever turn their attention to the singularity movement, which, after all, is a religion masking itself as science, they could stifle innovation and thus further exacerbate inequality. If the prophets of the singularity prove to be correct, they may find themselves in a state of war with traditional religion. A cynical minority of religious people may see the singularity as a major threat to their “business model”, but the majority may be reasonably inspired by their dispute with singularians over the necessarily spiritual question of what it means to be human, something the religious hold, with justification, to be their own turf.

Here, the religious may ironically actually hold the humanist higher ground. For it is difficult to see how the deep extension of the human lifespan and creation of artificial forms of intelligence promised by the singularity movement are humanistic ends given the divergence in mortality rates and educational levels between the developing and developed world. In other words, a humanist, as opposed to a trashumanist version of the future would aim at increasing the life expectancy of countries such as Chad, where a person is not expected to live past 50, rather than trying to extend ever outward the lifespan of the wealthy in the developed world. It would also be less inclined to race towards creating a new species of intelligent beings than towards making the most of the intelligent beings who are already here-us- through the old fashioned methods such as education- especially for girls.

In the not too far-off future, class and religious struggles might merge in dangerous and surprising ways, and the explosive growth of religion in the developing world might be mobilized in the name of traditional belief, and in the humanist cause of protecting the species.

Even should none of this dystopian scenario come to pass, religion is already full of anxiety in regards to science, and science imperialistic in its drive to submit every aspect of reality human and non-human alike to its “models” of reality. This anxiety and imperialism has been detrimental for religion and science both.

The confrontation between religion and science has resulted in religion becoming vulgar in the need to translate religious concepts into the “truths” of science- think the Shroud of Turin or the Creation Museum.

At the same time, science turns it sights not so much on undermining the religious world-view as the very nature of belief itself. It is equally vulgar for scientist to strap electrodes onto someone’s brain in the hopes of finding “the god spot” or some such nonsense- as if it means anything that religious belief is “proven” to be a part of neuro-anatomy- what else could it be?

We have known since the ancient Greeks that there are better ways to describe the natural world than religion. Religion isn’t, or shouldn’t be about that. It’s about the mystery of being, the search for meaning, on a human scale, a scale that science cannot provide, about good and evil.

Science may be extremely good at explaining a mental disease such as schizophrenia, and devising effective interventions. What it cannot do, what religion does so well, is to turn the devastating nature of such an illness into a sphere of meaning that can rescue purpose from the cold indifference of the universe. Without some variant of it we will freeze to death.

Koestler, Kurzweil, Wakefulness

I first looked into the work of Arthur Koestler after I had heard that he had something particularly interesting to say about Pythagoras.  Koestler is one of those writers who, sadly, lies largely forgotten. This is striking given that he was one of the most popular writers of the mid-20th century, and showed a degree of versatility almost unheard of today, writing not only the great anti-Stalinists novel Darkness at Noon, but also penetrating works on the history of science such as The Sleepwalkers.  The value of the man’s work is obscured not just by forgetfulness, but by personal scandal, the most damning of which is an allegation of rape by the wife of Koestler’s friend. An allegation, it must be said, that was made after Koestler had died, and against which he, therefore, was never able to defend himself.

For anyone interested the CBC has a detailed biography of Koestler over at IDEAS.

There are several lessons that can be taken away from The Sleepwalkers, written in the 1950s, that are extremely relevant to the present, most especially when one applies the insight of Koestler with those of a current mystic/scientist- Ray Kurzweil.

Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers reminds us of the spiritual origins of science. This was the case with Pythagoras, who was the first person to conceive of the universe as a mathematical model, right down through Kepler and Newton who were both on a spiritual quest to uncover the “mind of God”.

Koestler also brings to our attention the zig-zag nature of what we would call progress.  There are long dark spells in the history of human knowledge such that “the world in 1500 knew less mathematics than at the time of Archimedes “, and also long plateaus where nothing really interesting seems to happen.   Periods of progress are the exception not the norm, though such periods can be spectacular in how they revolutionize human life.

If we step back to take in the big picture we do indeed see something like an almost linear advance of human knowledge and power over nature the progress from “cavemen to spacemen” in Koestler’s corny characterization.  What we do not see, and this was something that would have been especially apparent to Koestler writing just after the horror-show of World War II, is anything like a corresponding moral progress of human kind.  In fact, periods of the greatest technological and scientific advancement also saw the greatest extension of human cruelty.  And it is this technical progress coupled with moral immaturity that Koestler sees as our greatest danger.

What does all of this have to do with Ray Kurzweil? Well, Kurzweil is the best known prophet of what is known as the Singularity- a distinction which won him a profile in Time Magazine a few years back. The Singularity movement essentially holds that the exponential growth in computer power will eventually result in machines that match and then quickly exceed human intelligence.  This world of post-human intelligence will solve the perennial problems that are now largely in the realm of religion- especially the problem of death. Human beings will be able to integrate themselves with superior machine intelligences, and be able to avoid death by uploading to a digital “cloud”.

Kurzweil is like an Al Gore from the other- side of the sun. He is famous for his slideshows and graphs which show exponential progress of almost everything, but especially the ability of computers. Exponential curves grow very slowly at first and then explode with incredible impact, like the proverbial lilies on a pond that seem to cover almost none of the water until their final set of doublings where they expand to cover everything.  By the middle of this century technological progress will become so rapid and so overwhelming that we will leap into a post-human world seeming overnight.

Members of the Singularity movement certainly bear a striking resemblance to the mystic-scientists of Koestler’s imagining- the very people who gave birth to the scientific world-view in the first place.  It would be a colossal mistake to dismiss Singularians as a bunch of sci-fi addicted kooks. Kurzweil himself is a genius inventor and the figures of some of the very largest tech companies, such as Sergey Brin at Google, are disciples of the movement. Indeed some of the best and brightest in the fields of computer and genetic science are consciously pursuing the religious goals that are at the root of the Singularity movement.

Believers in the Singularity will be the first to insist that theirs is not a utopian movement, which is the best give away that we are dealing with a true utopian line of thought. Indeed, from where I sit, it is hard to see the Singularity as anything less than the mother of all utopias with its promise of immortality, universal abundance, machine sentience, and omniscient intelligence. Like other utopian ideologies we’ve seen before Singularians exhibit a weird mix of determinism and human freedom. The Singularity is said to be written in the stars, the destiny of the universe once intelligent life emerges, and at the same time is relentlessly pursued by individual inventors and thinkers.

The Sleepwalkers should provide a cautionary tale for true believers in the Singularity. Koestler makes us aware of the non-linear nature of progress when viewed in the time frame of an individual life, and even centuries. Sometimes humanity gets stuck and just spins its wheels, and even lurches backward. In fact, some of the best critics of the assumptions regarding the current rates of progress held by Singularians today comes from the school that might be called “where is my jetpack?!” These thinkers argue that not only has present realty failed to live up to all of the hype from the middle of the last century- instead of bases on Mars and cold fusion we have the iPhone- but that the very lack of technological progress is the true source of our current economic ills. There is mounting evidence that we may have even hit a plateau in terms of scientific discovery.

Singularians appear almost fanatically driven by the desire to make their vision come true right now. One wonders why someone would push so hard to reach what they consider an inevitable destination, especially where trying to get there so fast potentially puts humanity in such grave danger- how could the earth possibly survive if people physically lived, not just a century, but centuries, and under conditions of hyper-abundance? What will people do to sustain themselves if we ever actually do manage to create sentient machines? And these are only material questions, the moral questions aren’t dealt with at all including the existential value of the fact that we die, so beautifully articulated by one of the few giants of the tech industry who didn’t believe in the Singularity- Steve Jobs.  One wonders, what is the rush?  Only to realize the hurry is because of the fact that the Singularians themselves hope to defeat death. They are terrified of death, in fact so terrified they are willing to risk humanity itself so that they personally will not have to die.

And this is another thing that The Sleepwalkers points out to us. That technical and scientific knowledge does not entail our moral development- quite the opposite. That technological change, especially rapid technological change, seems to go hand in hand with the periods when human beings treat each other the worst from Iron Age warfare, to the religious wars fueled by the Guttenberg printing press, to the industrial revolution and total war.  For Koestler we were at a crossroads hurtling towards utopia or dystopia, and The Sleepwalkers was meant as a warning.  He wrote:

Thus within the foreseeable future, man will either destroy himself or take off for the stars. It is doubtful whether reasoned argument will play a role in the ultimate decision, but if it does, a clearer insight into the evolution of the ideas that led us to the current predicament perhaps may serve of some value.

(It) may serve as a cautionary tale against the hubris of science, or rather, the philosophical outlook based on it.

Our hypnotic enslavement to the numerical aspects of reality has dulled our perception of non-quantitative moral value: the resultant end-justifies-the-means ethics may be a major factor in our undoing.

(Koestler hoped his tale) may have some sobering effect on the worshipers of the new Baal lording it over the moral vacuum with his electronic brain.  *

Perhaps we could have avoided all the carnage and dislocation that occurred in past periods of technological change had we kept our wits about us and thought things through before we acted.  Kurzweil himself has acknowledged that there may be some “bumps in the road” as we approach the Singularity, but working as a consultant for the US Military, and founding a “university” in search of ways to contain the ill effects of a reality he himself is trying to create seems a little like sub-contracting out strategies for climate change adaptation to Exxon-Mobile.

Kurweil himself does not believe in regulating technology. The future is for the technologist not the government to decide. But to the extent that in a democracy we are the government he leaves no role for all of us to have a say in the future world that both we and our children will inhabit.

I have no idea how we might choose our technology in a way that has never been done before, in a reflective way, but I do know one thing, while I may not have time, we have time to think about what we are doing before we cross what may be very dangerous thresholds- we have the chance to finally cease being sleepwalkers and wakeup.

* The Sleepwalkers, 1959, Arthur Koestler, pp. 552-553