Singularity: The New Religion.

Introduction

The Singularity may be defined in different ways depending upon whom you are talking to. In this article, I’m particularly interested in discussing the utopian vision posited by Ray Kurzweil and supported by Singularity University. In this sense, ‘the singularity’ is a point of technological innovation to be pursued that will result in a fundamental disconnect from reality as we now experience it. This culmination of technological process will continue to escalate and result in beyond-humans or perfected-humans.

I Am An IT Geek

Ray Kurzweil at Stanford Singularity Summit.

Ray Kurzweil at Stanford Singularity Summit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m an IT Geek. I spent the last six years working full-time in the IT world and spent most of my self-aware life before that immersing myself in technology. So, I’m interested in the singularity and I am especially interested in the ways in which technology can be utilized to improve the world we live in, for example:

  • Reducing healthcare costs while improving outcomes.
  • Advanced warning systems for earthquakes and tsunamis.
  • Automated Cars that can drive themselves and eliminate the tens of thousands of deaths each year in accidents.
  • Improved political processes through public awareness made possible via the internet and mobile device networking.
  • Innovations in “green” technologies that allow for a healthier environment.
  • Innovations in food production and distribution which could eliminate starvation.

I get really passionate about the ways that technology can change our lives. My smartphone has changed my life – just ask my wife. I am now a more responsible version of me b/c I have a “brain enhancement” in my smartphone that alerts me to upcoming meetings and ensures I don’t miss them.

I am an early adopter when it comes to using technology to improve health – I bought a Zeo, want a Withings, use Noom, and so on.

I Am A Christian Pastor

At the same time, I am also a Christian. I went to Cairn University for Pastoral Studies, have spent nine years as a youth minister, the last two to three years pastoring, and now am full-time as a pastor. I am passionate about Jesus in an evangelical way. I believe that Jesus has changed my life and continues to do so – and I believe He can change yours as well. Yeah, I know, I know – you may not like that – but I’m just being honest.

I believe that God has intervened in history (through Jesus) and will bring history to its ultimate consummation at some junction in the future. I believe I will become a beyond-human or perfected-human and that I have that life in seed already within me.

In other words, I believe in a Christian singularity, but I also am fascinated by a technological singularity…and I think the greatest challenge to Christian belief in the future will not be from another traditional religion (e.g. Buddhism or Islam) but from The Singularity.

Singularity vs. Christianity?

“But the Singularity isn’t a religion.” In one sense it is not, but in another sense it is. It is the “higher power” to which men call out in hope of a better future. It is the way many are looking for ‘salvation’ to be realized.

“Singularity is more of a philosophy.” The fields of philosophy and religion overlap. Both are inherently a worldview which represents how one lives and acts in the world. But I digress, I don’t need to convince anyone it is a religion to suggest that it could replace religion.

I don’t want to spread FUD[1] and encourage Christians to be afraid of the singularity or to think those spearheading it are evil. I believe people who are pursuing the singularity are well-intentioned – desiring to see a better world. I do want to encourage Christians to interact more intentionally with the concept of the singularity and to talk more deeply about how it interacts with Christian theology.

Theoretically – what would keep us from “saving ourselves” via technology? The traditional answer is that we will keep ourselves from saving ourselves. But is this a legitimate answer? And if it is not, then what role should the Christian take in pursuing the singularity? Should the Christian be opposed to the singularity?

I pursue technological innovation, I pursue medical innovation, I advocate for better lives lived now – yet I also believe in Christ and His sole ability to reconcile us to Himself and one another. How do I (we) balance our belief in technological/natural progress with the belief in the necessity of divine progress?

I know this will skirt on the fringes of heresy [2] – but I think it is an important question for us to interact with: “Could God use the singularity as the means of bringing about His intended reconciliation?”

In the Singularity we are facing a variant of humanism, but perhaps it should have a different name – technologyism. We recognize our inherent flaws, but believe we can rectify them through technology (see for example, Peter Kramer’s[3] excellent book Against Depression which discusses the disease processes behind depression and how we may soon be able to “cure” these problems).

Obviously, for premillennial[4] Christians there are significant issues with a divinely guided singularity redemption, but for postmillennials or amillennials perhaps there is not such a dilemma?

Conclusion

At this juncture, I am positing that while it is theoretically possible that a technological singularity could “redeem” mankind, that it is practically impossible. That is, that humankind’s interactions with nature[5] and each other will ultimately sabotage such an effort. That while life exists on earth there is always the “hope” that man could “save himself” through technology, but that in reality this cannot occur. That is, in all possible universes that God could have created while retaining humanity with the freedom and design He has given us, there is no universe in which humanity would embrace technological salvation, thus the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice.

This is a variation on the Law. That is, just as the Law could theoretically result in a beyond-human/perfect-human yet it never will,[6] so a singularity could result in the same, but it never will. If it was possible, Christ would not have needed to die and rise again.

On the other hand, I am willing to contemplate the possibility that God would divinely utilize a singularity to bring about the perfection of His people. This tastes bitter to my tongue and rough to the touch of my hands – I cannot (barely) imagine it as such – but if we as Christians believe that humans[7] could be so wrong about the Messianic prophecies – is it possible we could be wrong about the end-of-the-world prophecies? Could the conquering hero come as suffering servant? Inconceivable! I cannot imagine it! But could He? I will not limit Him, I lay the matter in His hands, while embracing what seems the clearer teaching of Scripture.

Questions

  • Do you believe in a coming technological singularity? If so, what are your thoughts on religion, Christianity, etc.?
  • Is anyone aware of materials written by Christians interacting other than from a FUD perspective with the concept of the singularity?
  • What about more generally the role of technological progress and supernatural salvation and our relative dependence/investment in either?

Postscript

“Boy, Dave, this rant came out of left-field.” Well, not exactly. It was inspired by Steve Aoki, Angger Dimas, and My Name is Kay’s music video “Singularity.” (HT: Tom Olstead/Mashable) I’ve embedded it below. Note, it is quite disturbing – it doesn’t contain offensive language or sexual content but it does portray a disturbing reality including some disconcerting forms of becoming beyond-human.

  1. [1]Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.
  2. [2]I am not advocating such a position, but I think it must be discussed. We cannot simply close our eyes to the implications of singularity philosophy upon the future of the world.
  3. [3]I do not know if Kramer is even familiar with The Singularity, I am not suggesting he is an advocate of it, only that his work demonstrates how technology could cure significant ‘human problems’ – and if it can be used for this – could it not be used to restrain people from violence, etc.?
  4. [4]Those who, generally speaking, believe in a eschatology in some form similar to the Left Behind series. Though even here, there is significant freedom in fictional work and many who would hold to a premillennial eschatology would not hold to a pretribulational rapture as is represented in the Left Behind series.
  5. [5]I hypothesize, based on chaos theory, that all natural disasters, etc. are the result of humanity’s sins. Not that those who are destroyed by such disasters are the sinners – but the conglomeration of our sins causes the disasters. Even to say that sins in America might result in a natural disaster somewhere on the other side of the world would be a vast oversimplification of the matter. It is more that all humanity’s negative actions past and present have resulted in those disasters.
  6. [6]Perhaps it could have if God had created a different universe, but perhaps such a universe could not have had humans such as us in it.
  7. [7]I say humans rather than Jews b/c I believe that the Jews of Jesus’ time were not more stubborn or wicked or etc. than we, but are representative of us – their stubbornness and wickedness, their rejection of Christ is our rejection. There is no grounds for anti-semitisim within the Christian faith.

5 Responses

  1. Steve Morris says:

    Interesting line of thought. I think that Kurzweil is predicting the singularity rather than advocating it (although he is clearly also in favour of it). What intrigues me is that whereas the vast majority of Christians reject everything that seems to threaten their belief system, you have accepted the SIngularity and assimilated it into your faith. Intriguing, and for me as an atheist further proof that humans create religious belief.

    I enjoyed your article, although I find the fatalism depressing. Why bother to try and better ourselves if we can never be free of sin? If God is going to destroy the world and then save us, what is the point of anything?

    • davemackey says:

      Steve – Thanks for the thoughtful response. You may be right about Kurzweil predicting rather than advocating, though I am fairly certain that many in the larger realm of technology/science are advocating and seeking to advance it, rather than just predicting…

      I’m not sure that I’d say I’ve assimilated the singularity into my faith, but the possibility of the singularity. That is, I don’t believe that if the singularity occurred it would necessarily disprove my faith. Along similar lines, if we were able to create humans without the use of sperm and egg and bring them to maturation and they began to live amongst us, I would not see this as necessarily destroying my faith either – though many Christians reject this as impossible due to God’s breath infusing humans with life and positing that these humans would lack such a soul and thus could not exist.

      As far as “creating religious belief” – I’d respond that we create all belief. As Brian Greene aptly notes in The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, pg. ix, “And physicists such as myself are acutely aware that the reality we observe–matter evolving on the stage of space and time–may have little to do with reality, if any, that’s out there.”

      The question is not whether I create my religious belief – but whether we all do not create all our beliefs – thus, your atheistic beliefs as just as subjective as my religious beliefs. =) Or would you disagree?

      I am not suggesting that there is not objective truth (I believe there is) or that Christ is just a choice among many equivalently likely choices – but I am suggesting that everything we know or think we know requires a “leap of faith.”

      I’m not particularly happy with my own fatalism either…but I have not found an escape from it. That said, I don’t think that a fatalistic perspective requires us to give up trying and bettering ourselves. In all likelihood, if there is no God, the world will one day be destroyed apart from any action on mankind’s part (e.g. a meteor, a dying sun) and human life will cease to exist. If this is so – why aspire to better ourselves and free ourselves from sin? I am interested – for what reason do you seek to better yourself as an atheist?

      I hope none of this comes off as combative – I truly appreciate your comments and would love to hear more of your thoughts on these topics.

      Respectfully,
      Dave Mackey

  2. Steve Morris says:

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I agree with everything you say. Belief is belief (“acceptance of a statement as true”) after all. Some philosophers argue that we can’t know anything and that all is subjective, and while that may be strictly true, if such a philosopher gets run over by a truck, the philosopher can deny the objective reality of the truck as much as he/she likes, but it doesn’t change the reality of the situation. As someone with a scientific background, I believe that there probably is a reality out there, even if our beliefs about it are created by ourselves and are subjective.

    As for, “why seek to better yourself as an atheist?” the alternative is not to bother, which has very limited appeal. I guess you would say the same as a Christian Pastor.

    I’m personally looking forward to the Singularity. I don’t think it will unfold exactly like Kurzweil believes (prediction has a very poor track record after all), but I think it will be just as “big” as he thinks. I think we are about to step over a threshold where *everything* changes. That’s a cause for optimism in fact.

    Enjoy your Sunday and keep blogging!
    Steve

  3. Paul M. says:

    Dave, as always I appreciate your willingness to ask questions that challenge our conventional views. I haven’t read much about the Singularity myself, but find it an interesting concept and appreciate the efforts of those who are working towards it. However, while I appreciate the efforts towards the Singularity, I have my doubts about it’s successfulness.

    First of all, taking a look at human history, I don’t know that we are in that much better of a place today as a human race than we were a millenium ago. Though the progression of human thought and technology throughout history has made labor less difficult, food more accessible, education more common and accessible, etc. we still see starvation, slavery, genocide, and so many other atrocities being carried out by mankind. Prior to the great World Wars, many thought that education was what lay between mankind and a sort of utopia, but when the most educated nations on the planet committed such atrocities as the Holocaust, it became clear that more than education was needed.

    I think that this is where we will find the pursuit of technology will lead us. I stand behind all efforts to provide food to the hungry, homes to the homeless, education to the uneducated, jobs to the jobless, etc. and I believe that technology can be a powerful tool in making these goals achievable, but as we see around the world, deposing one brutal dictator often leads to an equal or worse man taking his place. I don’t mean that we should give up. As Abraham Lincoln wisely said “The probability that we may fall in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just; it shall not deter me” (I don’t view these efforts as a failure, but merely as against odds which humans alone cannot overcome). I believe that humanity cannot be saved merely by being given more powerful tools. The problem lies within us.

    This is where my beliefs as a Christian play a big role in how I view the potential of the Singularity. To say that what makes us human is our ability to choose, or our ability to love is to simplify the complexity and beauty of humanity. To be human is to be more than these things, but it is not to be less than them. Though technology has the potential to limit violence and poor behavior (as you mentioned), I don’t believe it could do so without either destroying what we know as humanity altogether (making us something else entirely) or by imprisoning humanity in such as way as many would call tyranny. If we are nothing more than chemical reactions, and if we come from nothing more than random chance (i.e. evolution), then perhaps the Singularity is plausible. However, if this is the case, then there is no concrete basis for the goal of the Singularity in the first place, since it’s end goal has no concrete premise, and it will merely be a power play as Nietzsche asserted, by those seeking to control others.

    Ultimately, I believe the Bible presents the only plausible worldview that explains both human history, and the solution to the problem of evil within us and around us. God becoming man and sacrificing Himself to make our reconciliation to Himself possible, is the only means by which I can understand both the evil I see in the world, and the hope of salvation apart from the destruction of humanity. Since God offers a willful, but empowered return to the original perfection of humanity, He offers mankind both the freedom to choose, and the freedom to be transformed. Only by such a benevolent offer from an omnipotent being can mankind be saved. All other efforts will be, as you have posited, sabotaged by mankind himself.

    • davemackey says:

      Paul,
      Thanks for the thoughtful response…Unfortunately, it pushes me up against the unanswerable question which I oftentimes find myself encountering regarding freedom of the will. At a practical, personal, experiential level everyone experiences freedom of the will, but at a theoretical/philosophical level, freedom of the will seems like an illusion.
      For example, placing you or I into the same historical context, familial upbringing, social relationships, and underlying genetic and biological constraints – would we act any different than Ted Bundy or Adolf Hitler…and if so, why? What is intrinsically different about us than them?
      If we answer nothing and that we would do the same as them placed into that context, then it would seem that by changing the variables (genetics, context, relationships) one could change the outcome…If we answer something, how do we define that intangible something?
      These are questions I’ve beat my head against for years and have found no ready answers. I continue to pursue answers, but not desperately, instead choosing to fall at the foot of the cross and trust in the goodness of God.
      Dave

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