“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C. Clarke
Imagine that the human race avoids self-destruction and continues on the path of increased mastery of technology. Imagine that, as seems credible some time in the future, humans will eventually gain the ability to keep everyone alive indefinitely, in an environment of great abundance, variety, and intrinsic interest.
That paradise may be a fine outcome for our descendants, but unless the pace of technology improvement becomes remarkably rapid, it seems to have little direct impact on our own lives. Or does it?
It may depend on exactly how much power our god-like descendants eventually acquire. For example, here are two of the points from a radical vision of the future known as the Ten cosmist convictions:
- 5) We will develop spacetime engineering and scientific “future magic” much beyond our current understanding and imagination.
- 6) Spacetime engineering and future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. Eventually we will be able to resurrect the dead by “copying them to the future”.
Whoa! “Resurrect the dead”, by “copying them to the future”. How might that work?
In part, by collecting enormous amount of data about the past – reconstructing information from numerous sources. It’s similar to collecting data about far-distant stars using a very large array of radio telescopes. And in part, by re-embodying that data in a new environment, similar to copying running software onto a new computer, giving it a new lease of life.
Lots of questions can be asked about the details:
- Can sufficient data really be gathered in the future, in the face of all the degradation commonly called “the second law of thermodynamics”, that would allow a sufficiently high-fidelity version of me (or anyone else) to be re-created?
- If a future super-human collected lots of data about me and managed to get an embodiment of that data running on some future super-computer, would that really amount to resurrecting me, as opposed to creating a copy of me?
I don’t think anyone can confident about answers to such questions. But it’s at least conceivable that remarkably advanced technology of the future may allow positive answers.
In other words, it’s at least conceivable that our descendants will have the god-like ability to recreate us in the future, giving us an unexpected prospect for immortality.
This makes sense of the remark by radical futurist and singularitarian Ray Kurzweil at the end of the film “Transcendent Man“:
Does God exist? Well I would say, not yet
Other radical futurists quibble over the “not yet” caveat. In his recent essay “Yes, I am a believer“, Giulio Prisco takes the discussion one stage further:
Gods will exist in the future, and they may be able to affect their past — our present — by means of spacetime engineering. Probably other civilizations out there already attained God-like powers.
Giulio notes that even the celebrated critic of theism, Richard Dawkins, gives some support to this line of thinking. For example, here’s an excerpt from a 2011 New York Times interview, in which Dawkins discusses an essay written by theoretic physicist Freeman Dyson:
In one essay, Professor Dyson casts millions of speculative years into the future. Our galaxy is dying and humans have evolved into something like bolts of superpowerful intelligent and moral energy.
Doesn’t that description sound an awful lot like God?
“Certainly,” Professor Dawkins replies. “It’s highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures.”
He raises his hand, just in case a reader thinks he’s gone around a religious bend. “It’s very important to understand that these Gods came into being by an explicable scientific progression of incremental evolution.”
Could they be immortal? The professor shrugs.
“Probably not.” He smiles and adds, “But I wouldn’t want to be too dogmatic about that.”
As Giulio points out, Dawkins develops a similar line of argument in part of his book “The God Delusion”:
Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine. Their technical achievements would seem as supernatural to us as ours would seem to a Dark Age peasant transported to the twenty-first century…
In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way…
Giulio seems more interested in the properties than the provenance. The fact that these entities have god-like powers prompts him to proclaim “Yes, I am a believer“. He gives another reason in support of that proclamation: In contrast to the views of so-called militant atheists, Giulio is “persuaded that religion can be a powerful and positive force”.
Giulio sees this “powerful and positive force” as applying to him personally as well as to groups in general:
“In my beliefs I find hope, happiness, meaning, the strength to get through the night, and a powerful sense of wonder at our future adventures out there in the universe, which gives me also the drive to try to be a better person here-and-now on this little planet and make it a little better for future generations”.
More controversially, Giulio has taken to describing himself (e.g. on his Facebook page) as a “Christian”. Referring back to his essay, and to the ensuing online discussion:
Religion can, and should, be based on mutual tolerance, love and compassion. Jesus said: “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and added: “let he who is without sin, cast the first stone”…
This is the important part of his teachings in my opinion. Christian theology is interesting, but I think it should be reformulated for our times…
Was Jesus the Son of God? I don’t think this is a central issue. He certainly was, in the sense that we all are, and he may have been one of those persons in tune with the universe, more in tune with the universe than the rest of us, able to glimpse at veiled realities beyond our senses.
I’ve known Giulio for several years, from various Humanity+ and Singularity meetings we’ve both attended – dating back to “Transvision 2006” in Helsinki. I respect him as a very capable thinker, and I take his views seriously. His recent “Yes, I am a believer” article has stirred up a hornets’ nest of online criticism.
Accordingly, I was very pleased that Giulio accepted my invitation to come to London to speak at a London Futurist / Humanity+ UK meeting on Saturday 14th July: “Transhumanist Religions 2.0: New Cosmist religion and spirituality for our boundless future (and our troubled present)”. For all kinds of reason, this discussion deserves a wider airing.
First, I share the view that religious sentiments can provide cohesion and energy to propel individuals and groups to undertake enormously difficult projects (such as the project to avoid the self-destruction of the human race, or any drastic decline in the quality of global civilisation). The best analysis I’ve read of this point is in the book “Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society” by David Sloan Wilson. As I’ve written previously:
This book has sweeping scope, but makes its case very well. The case is that religion has in general survived inasmuch as it helped groups of people to achieve greater cohesion and thereby acquire greater fitness compared to other groups of people. This kind of religion has practical effect, independent of whether or not its belief system corresponds to factual reality. (It can hardly be denied that, in most cases, the belief system does not correspond to factual reality.)
The book has some great examples – from the religions in hunter-gatherer societies, which contain a powerful emphasis on sharing out scarce resources completely equitably, through examples of religions in more complex societies. The chapter on John Calvin was eye-opening (describing how his belief system brought stability and prosperity to Geneva) – as were the sections on the comparative evolutionary successes of Judaism and early Christianity. But perhaps the section on the Balinese water-irrigation religion is the most fascinating of the lot.
Of course, there are some other theories for why religion exists (and is so widespread), and this book gives credit to these theories in appropriate places. However, this pro-group selection explanation has never before been set out so carefully and credibly, and I think it’s no longer possible to deny that it plays a key role.
The discussion makes it crystal clear why many religious groups tend to treat outsiders so badly (despite treating insiders so well). It also provides a fascinating perspective on the whole topic of “forgiveness”. Finally, the central theme of “group selection” is given a convincing defence.
But second, there’s no doubt that religion can fit blinkers over people’s thinking abilities, and prevent them from weighing up arguments dispassionately. Whenever people talk about the Singularity movement as having the shape of a religion – with Ray Kurzweil as a kind of infallible prophet – I shudder. But we needn’t lurch to that extreme. We should be able to maintain the discipline of rigorous independent thinking within a technologically-informed renaissance of positive religious sentiment.
Third, if the universe really does have beings with God-like powers, what attitude should we adopt towards these beings? Should we be seeking in some way to worship them, or placate them, or influence them? It depends on whether these beings are able to influence human history, here and now, or whether they are instead restricted (by raw facts of space and time that even God-like beings have to respect) to observing us and (possibly) copying us into the future.
Personally my bet is on the latter choice. For example, I’m not convinced by people who claim evidence to the contrary. And if these beings did have the ability to intervene in human history, but have failed to do so, it would be evidence of them having scant interest in widespread intense human suffering. They would hardly be super-beings.
In that case, the focus of our effort should remain squarely on building the right conditions for super-technology to benefit humanity as a whole (this is the project I call “Inner Humanity+“), rather than on somehow seeking to attract the future attention of these God-like beings. But no doubt others will have different views!