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.

Thinking Well: Christianity and Singularity (Part 1: Why it Matters)

Christ the Saviour (Pantokrator)
Image via Wikipedia

Introduction:

I still do not know how to answer the question, “Who am I?” When pressed, one method is to describe some of my salient characteristics or interests – and, there are certain ones I am not eager to share. In my life two of the salient characteristics/interests/values are my faith (in Christ) and my technological inclinations.

Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about the intersection of Christianity and the Technological Singularity. There is much that has been said and is being said about the Technological Singularity – but very little (that I am aware of) being said about how Christianity and the Technological Singularity can, should, or cannot coexist.

Let me close my introduction by simply acknowledging my feebleness in approaching this task. While my knowledge on this topic may be significantly more than many, it is also significantly less than all who work within this realm. I apologize for any misrepresentations or misunderstandings that I may make or propagate in this article and look forward to the opportunity to refine this article and (more importantly) my thinking through ongoing discussion and learning.

To the Christian (or Why the Technological Singularity Matters):

I am sure I have already lost a significant percentage of those who visited this posting. Technological Singularity? What is that? There Dave goes talking his geek-speak again. I see it every day when I try to explain technological concepts to others – their eyes immediately gloss over. If you have read this far, please bear with me for a few moments more as I explain why the technological singularity is applicable to the non-geek.

Simply put, the technology singularity (in theory or actual existence) may become the single largest challenge to Christianity in the near-term future.

The technological singularity will allow for the self-improvement of mankind to the point of perfection. Tom Foremski, a technology journalist writes perceptively on this topic in his article, “Is ‘The Singularity’ The Elite Geeks’ Version of ‘The Rapture’?”[1]

Christianity revolves around the central tenets that (a) man is irretrievably broken and (b) Christ is God’s way of fixing the irretrievably broken. Yet, the Technological Singularity offers an alternative. Salvation (fixing) is available not (only?) through God’s grace but also through technological progress. This removes the necessity of a other-natural[2] process for redemption.

Other religions – as we traditionally conceive them – will not be our greatest challenge. Rather, we now face a challenge which will provide a secular alternative to redemption which seems provable and actually occurring[3]

To the Technologist (Or Why This Isn’t an Anti-Tech Rant)

:

At this juncture I am sure many of my technological readers are also beginning to close this page and navigate to some other, less spiritually adventurous blog posting – I would ask you to bear with me as well.

While I view the technological singularity as one of the largest challenges to the Christian faith this does not mean that I am opposed to idea or the pursuit of a technological singularity (necessarily). Rather, I am attempting to discuss in what framework (if any) the singularity may be discussed without abandoning a theological context. I hope (in part) to demonstrate that Christians are not and need not be Luddites, but rather should be amongst the foremost advocates of technological advances – when placed within a correct framework.

Does Anyone Really Believe in the Singularity?

I am not a fan of abstract debates[4], and am oftentimes frustrated when discussions move towards the theoretical too heavily or consistently. I try to be a person who lives in the “real world” and deals with the issues and dilemmas of today. I want to be more concerned about the issues of my own wickedness and apathy than about topics which I cannot do anything more than hypothesize about.

When I talk about the Singularity, for many this will be their first introduction to the topic. It seems like the stuff of science fiction (and surely, much has been written in this vein on the topic), but I firmly believe that it has a much more practical and present application – and is and will genuinely impact our lives.

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to demonstrate the importance of the Singularity is to note some of the individuals and organizations associated with the movement. This does not prove the theory correct, only that it has support and finances behind it – and is likely to garner a growing following in the near future.

The Singularity theory has a number of proponents, one of the most vocal and important is Ray Kurzweil, author of the massive work, The Singularity is Near. While best known for his ideas about the future (the singularity) he is not an ivory tower philosopher. Among his accomplishments were the invention (in high school!) of a “sophisticated pattern-recognition software program that analyzed the works of classical composers, and then synthesized its own songs in similar styles.”[5] He went on to invent a software application that matched high school students to colleges (while a sophmore at MIT), innovations in Optical Character Recognition (OCR), Text-to-Speech synthesization, musical synthesizers, and speech recognition. Seriously, Kurzweil has been involved with some of the most significant inventions of recent times – read the Wikipedia article for more information. Kurzweil co-founded The Singularity University which is located at NASA’s Ames Research Center. This University is backed by corporate funding from Google, ePlanet Ventures, Autodesk, Kauffman Foundation, Nokia, FIAP, 23andMe, Canon, LinkedIn, WordPress, X Prize Foundation, Cushing Academy, International Space University, among others!

If you want to find a list of some of the great intellects today in technological and scientific realms – take a look at the faculty and advisors page of the Singularity University: Neil Jacobstein (Stanford), Dan Barry (NASA), Jason Lohn (Carnegie Mellon), Dharmendra Modha (IBM), Peter Norvig (Google, NASA, Sun Microsystems), Sebastian Thrun (Stanford), Raj Reddy (Carnegie), Daniel Kraft (Stanford), Jim Karkanias (Microsoft), Ralph Merkle (Institute for Molecular Manufacturing), Peter Diamandis (X Prize Foundation), George Smoot (2006 Nobel Prize in Physics), Pete Worden (NASA), Bob Metcalfe (Co-Founder, 3Com), Vint Cerf (Google), Will Wright (Electronic Arts), Brad Templeton (Electronic Frontier Foundation), Tim Ferriss (The 4-Hour Workweek), Matt Mullenweg (WordPress), and Dave Tosh (Elgg). Some of these are academic types you won’t be familiar with (neither was I…), some will be more familiar to those in the tech industry (see bolded), and some may be familiar either by name or affiliation to most readers (italicized). I only listed a few – and didn’t spend any significant amount of time picking out the most important or respected…

End of Part I:

I had hoped to write my entire article on this topic, but I have only introduced the reason this discussion is important…I hope to write some continuing articles on the topic in the near future…

I’ll close by suggesting some reading for those who are interested. The Wikipedia article on Technological Singularity is a good place to start for a brief introduction. The ‘definitive’ text on the topic (which I am currently plowing through) is Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. Once one has a basic understanding of the technological singularity I’d recommend looking at some books that cover where this science fiction is becoming reality and the nature of feedback loops. These books are not about the singularity directly, rather they provide insight into the current and future state of technology and help provide concrete examples of how science fiction is becoming reality. Peter D. Kramer’s Against Depression is an excellent read on the biological and physiological nature of depression and mental illness (and worthwhile, even without its implications for singularity) and Fritjof Capra’s Web of Life is an excellent resource in understanding chaos theory, systems theory, feedback loops, and other concepts that play directly into the singularity philosophy.

  1. [1]Kudos to Foremski for choosing to place his punctuation (?) outside of his quotation marks. This is against traditional English grammar but evolving into acceptability due to technological requirements where punctuation can change the meaning of commands for input/output to a technological device.
  2. [2]I prefer the term other-natural to super-natural. I find super-natural to be too closely identified with the ethereal and unbound, despised by the intellectual. Yet, the spirituality to which I refer and I believe that Christianity teaches is not an unreality but rather a greater or other reality. It is as real, more real, than our reality – it simply is beyond our current comprehension or scientific measurement in many facets and aspects.
  3. [3]More on this later.
  4. [4]This will come as a surprise to many, as I participate in discussion on what many would consider abstract topics…
  5. [5]Wikipedia. Ray Kurzweil