Saving Our Metaphors: Transhumanity and the Posthuman (Part 4 – The Materialist God)

How contemptuously do we look beyond ourselves and this world we inhabit! Most strangely is that this new brand of ‘looking beyond’ has no requirement for the bifurcation of reality into spiritual and material as its agents are fully beings-in-the-world and understand themselves to be constructed wholly of corporeal matter. Even more disturbing than this is the reverence we have for the sages of Information Technology, the new priesthood of the Word. Instead of being reduced to an essential incorporeal soul, the modern reduction reduces matter to a fixed informational pattern. Ray Kurzweil writes: “I describe myself as a patternist, someone who views patterns of information as the fundamental reality. For example, the particles composing my brain and body change within weeks, but there is a continuity to the patterns these particles make”. The path to eternal life for Kurzweil lies in discerning and caring for this informational pattern, one unsurprisingly discerned by ample project research funding, faith, reverence and awe.

Here is the old narrative at work, the transcendent spiritualism of Judeo-Christianity lingering and implicating even the most radical materialist agendas. The idea that the souls of the dead await the messiah and will be resurrected and transported into God’s kingdom upon the return of a Messianic figure sounds suspiciously alike the consciousness of the cryogenic or software-instantiated subject awaiting advanced technology so it may be transported into a virtual world. Presumably this world is a utopian one, an Eden, without the war, pollution and political fragmentation of our own, hence the euphoric name of the ideology that underlies it: The Singularity.

Astute readers’ eyes will widen when Kurzweil calls this future human-machine civilization our “destiny”. He argues that the Singularity will arrive as a result of unstoppable new technological advances which, by 2030, will lead to the proliferation of non-human intelligences. As these intelligences reproduce and replicate, an “inflection point” in history is created called the Singularity. It is a wide sweeping change that will, like an avalanche collecting snow, occur slowly at first and then exponentially accelerate. Kurzweil’s view is teleological through and through, his science and technology are autonomous and directed toward something external to, and better than, itself. The key element in his ideology is the notion that technology increases exponentially, as “if on rails” and is unstoppable. Nothing, short of a cataclysm, can stop this march of exponential progress. Events such as 9/11 are merely, as Kurzweil explains, “meltdowns in the capital markets – they don’t affect the fundamental issues that are driving this progress.” The idea of technology for Kurzweil possesses a sort of hidden hand that guides both inventions and the evolution of the human species. This hand is impervious to the transient effects of current world events. But his teleology is disturbing because he is not entirely ignorant of the socio-technological fabric in which we all are enmeshed. His view is not simply of a linear and autonomous technology but a linear and autonomous socio-technological fabric. He understands the human and the technological as progressing and influencing one another. Our society changes alongside the technology.

This complicates matters, for do we not hear something like Hegel amidst this? In the Introduction to the Philosophy of History, Hegel writes that:

…the real world is as it ought to be, that the truly good, the universal divine Reason is also the power capable of actualizing itself. This good, this Reason – in its most concrete expression is God. God governs the world: the content of His governance, the fulfillment of His plan, is world history. Philosophy seeks to understand this plan: for only what is fulfilled according to that plan has reality; what is not in accord with it, is but a worthless existence. In light of this divine Idea (which is no mere ideal) the illusion that the world is a mad or foolish happening disappears.

One certainly has the sense that the linear and cumulative Law of Accelerating Returns, the doctrine that underlies Kurzweil’s ideas, casts technology and evolutionary processes as progressive and becoming exponentially more complex and better. Nick Bostrom asks “Could continued progress in AI lead to the creation of machines that can think in the same general way as humans?” But the question for Bostrom is not if, but when, computers will pass the Turing test? Kuzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns and the Singularity that emerges hinges on a comment by the Hungarian mathematician John Von Neuman claiming that there will be changes in the “modes of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs as we know them, could not continue”. Kurzweil bases his view both on Von Neuman’s idea and Moore’s Law, the belief that computing power doubles every 18 months to 2 years. Kurzweil’s observations have allowed him to discern that the future is one of self improving AI which could design increasingly intelligent machines. This would be an explosion of intelligence and creation. When this superhuman intelligence is created, the human era will have ended. This final point for humanity is called the Singularity. Contemporary models of neural regions, when observed against the Law of Accelerating Returns, appear to be growing in complexity due to some internal logic or “divine Reason”. The ideas presented in The Singularity is Near are similar to those of a philosopher meditating on the future of world history (or if you prefer you might call it God’s plan).

——Cybject is only a thought experiment——–

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~ by dccohen on January 3, 2010.

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