Horned Gods, Dread Bioethicists

From some druid site:

Yet die we must. As Sherwin Nuland points out in his book, How We Die, we must die for the sake of our species; if somehow we contrived to live forever, we would quickly overwhelm our environment’s carrying capacity and all perish like lemmings. “Must,” in biological terms, thus carries not only its ordinary meaning of inevitability, but also a sense of appropriateness. Our need for death is personified in Herne the Hunter, sometimes called Cernunnos by the Celts. He is the god of culling, who takes away life for the sake of balance and health in the world.

Note the uncanny resemblance to an Onion article written a year earlier.

Yahzi Coyote has a saying: “All that is necessary to defeat a theologian is to repeat his arguments back to him, changing the word God to any other word.” Likewise, all that is necessary to defeat a bioethicist is to imagine his eyes glowing red and his voice deepening whenever he mentions death, decay, suffering, and necessity.

Rapture versus MechaRapture

Interestingly enough, RaptureReady.com has a piece up claiming:

transhumanist anticipation of the singularity is comparable to Christian anticipation of the second coming of Jesus Christ

To those of you who dismiss the singularity as the “Rapture of the Nerds”: are you sure you want to agree with RaptureReady.com? Ha!

Read the whole thing, but only if you’re looking for entertainment:

A movement which views its ultimate purpose as bringing enlightenment to the universe sets itself up in direct opposition to God’s own purpose … their ambition — like Satan’s — will one day lead to an outright physical confrontation with God Himself. It’s a battle that God will win.

Why the Brights Make Me Uneasy

Pablo Stafforini wrote:

It seems to me that something truth-seekers can do is make a conscious effort to minimize the number of propositions whose truth-values their identities are built around. Don’t think of yourself as a theist, an atheist or an agnostic; don’t think of yourself as a liberal, a conservative, a moderate, a socialist, or a libertarian; don’t think of yourself as a deontologist, a consequentialist, or a virtue ethicist. Whatever views you have on these and other issues, they should only be views that represent how things are, rather than views that constitute who you are.

When a finger points at the lack of a God, the fool makes up an identity group for the finger.

God Hates Implicature

(Follow-up to Evolution and God are Incompatible)

Paul Grice claimed that in conversations we assume a “cooperative principle“: when we try to figure out what people mean, we assume they are working together to make the exchange as useful as possible. He also stated some more specific maxims, such as “avoid ambiguity” and “make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange”.

There are many parts of the Bible, like the creation story in Genesis, that the last few centuries of science have shown to be literally false. Some Christians are Biblical literalists and just deny the evidence. Other Christians think things like the creation story in Genesis should be taken metaphorically.

Strangely enough I have less respect for the latter view than the former. Being flat wrong is one thing, being confused about subtle philosophical points is often more dangerous.

The default presumption for any statement is that it’s a literal truth claim. If I say my aunt lives in Ireland, then unless context, background information, tone of voice, and so on suggest otherwise, I am trying to make you believe that my aunt literally lives in Ireland. It’s not as if saying my aunt lives in Ireland helps you understand a philosophical point or moves your spirit.

Saying God made the world in a week is like that. That the creation story contradicts scientific evidence is something that hasn’t been widely known until the 19th or 20th century. If 1) God exists, and 2) we can hold God to higher conversational standards than the average internet troll, and 3) Genesis is not literally true, then it follows God would have inserted some sort of warning to guard against misinterpretation. If you want to keep 3) — as you should — then you have to throw away 1) or 2).

Rapture of the Nerds, Not

The idea of a technological singularity is sometimes derided as the Rapture of the Nerds, a phrase invented by SF writer Ken MacLeod [update: this isn't true, see his comment] and popularized by SF writers Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow. I can take a joke, even a boring old joke that implies I’m a robot cultist, but it irks me when jokes become a substitute for thinking. There’s always someone in discussions on the topic who uses the comparison to fringe Christian beliefs about the End Days as if it’s some sort of argument, a reason why all the developments postulated by those who do take the singularity seriously will fail to materialize.

Although the parallel — like any appeal to authority, positive or negative — might work as a heuristic, a hint to look harder for more direct and technical criticisms, it of course fails as such a criticism itself. When computing atom trajectories in a supercomputer, or in nanotechnological devices, Mother Nature doesn’t check the consequences against a List of Ridiculous Beliefs, rejecting any outcomes too similar to those expected by the uncool and stupid.

Now, it could be that if there’s a close similarity between the singularity and the rapture, this points at some sort of psychological flaw shared by believers in both, a seductive but irrational attractor of the human mind that sucks people in, with those raised religiously dressing it up in terms of God, and us technologically-oriented atheists imagining a human-made God-substitute. But that image of a shared psychological flaw is itself so seductive that it has distorted people’s view of what the singularity is about into a kind of geek-bible-wielding strawman — singularitarian ideas are assumed to parallel fundamentalist Christian ideas even where they don’t, just because the comparison is apparently so much fun. “Oh, look at those silly nerds, aping the awful fundies without even knowing it!” In this post, I will list some (but not all) ways in which the singularity and rapture resemble each other less than some people think.

First, though, it’s worth listing some ways in which the singularity and the rapture do resemble each other. Both deal with something beyond human rules emerging into the world, something so powerful that, if it wanted to, it could make human effort from that point on irrelevant. Some predictions about the singularity have included ideas that this power would suddenly help us “transcend” human life and our human bodies, with uploading, in the critic’s mind, parallelling God snatching true believers up to Heaven. And with such an event looming on the horizon, it’s only to be expected that both groups would take the possibility very seriously, in some cases even making it a central concern in their lives.

Now, some differences:

  • Rationalism: Whatever you want to call it — critical thinking, debiasing, epistemic hygiene — I don’t know of any movement that emphasizes this nearly to the extent that the singularity movement does. For example, a few of the posters at Overcoming Bias (a group blog that I highly recommend) are involved somehow in the singularity movement, and several others buy into some sort of transhumanist worldview. I think this convergence is a good sign. Here’s an article by Eliezer Yudkowsky (pronounced “Frankensteen”) that talks about how to avoid biased views of the future. Whatever you might call the rapture believers, paragons of rationality they’re not.
  • Naturalism: Though this should be obvious, all developments associated with a technological singularity would take place within the ordinary physical processes that scientific folks have come to call home. Kooks like Terence McKenna, who connect the singularity to Mayan prophecies, are laughed at by serious singularitarians. Transhuman intelligence, through its ability to explore unexpected corners in solution space, may seem magical, but we all realize no actual magic is involved. I’m not one who would disqualify non-naturalistic claims outright; it’s just that, in my opinion, the evidence so far strongly favors a naturalist world. Still, it’s a difference worth noting.
  • Uncertainty: Contrary to what you might think, most singularity activists don’t think a singularity is in any way an unavoidable consequence of technological progress; the collapse of human civilization, unfortunately, could avoid it quite well. Nor are they anywhere close to absolute certainty that the singularity is going to happen, or happen soon, the way the rapture people have faith in their rapture. It’s possible, after all, that we’ve underestimated the difficulties in making progress in AI, brain scanning, and the like. Experience from past attempts at futurism, as well as psychological research, tells us that it’s easy to be overconfident. But one thing they do agree on is the singularity is worth influencing, and some kinds are worth striving toward. In terms of expected value, even a 10% chance of such a world-changing event should cause many of us to refocus our efforts. A high-profile exception on this point may be Ray Kurzweil, whose overly precise predictions based on such an unreliable methodology as curve-extrapolating should earn him at least a little mockery (though there is also a lot to like in his writings).
  • Human-caused: Rapture believers wait for an external God to save them, independent of human effort. Programming a transhuman AI, on the other hand, is something we humans can do. The singularitarian worldview is sometimes claimed to encourage an attitude of passive waiting. I think that’s an unfair accusation; it actually encourages going out and solving problems, just through a different approach.
  • Nature contingent on human action: Again, contrary to what you might think, singularity activists don’t blindly expect a singularity to be positive. Intelligence sometimes helps humans understand how to bring out the best in themselves, but this will not generalize to AI. Unless thorough precautions are taken from the beginning, a superintelligent AI is likely to be indifferent toward us — not benevolent or cruel, just uncaring, except to the extent that our continued existence might get in the way of whatever it’s trying to achieve. That means it’s crucial for the first successful AI project to work under such precautions. And that is also to say: that a project under such precautions should be the first.
  • No in-group perks: In the Singularity-as-Rapture-for-Nerds analogies that I’ve seen, it’s claimed that the Nerds expect only themselves to benefit, with the rest Left Behind in their misery, in the same way that only Christian true believers are supposed to benefit from the rapture. This seems like a clear example of fitting reality to your analogy when it should be the other way around. I haven’t seen any predictions by singularity advocates that restrict the effects to some elite group of techno-savvy westerners, nor have I seen anyone advocate that this should happen. The singularity is supposed to benefit humanity, not some particular group, and singularity activists understand this. If we succeeded at building an AI that cared enough to leave us alive in the first place, the AI would almost certainly be enough of a humanitarian to help all of us, and with maybe thousands of years of progress in a short time, it would have the resources to make this easy. Scenarios where only the rich and 31337 classes benefit from technological progress seem like a possible danger (though, if the cost of new technologies falls quickly enough, only a temporary one), but these are always pre-singularity scenarios.
  • No religious trappings like rituals, worship, or holy writings. I’d expand on this further if this post were about comparisons to religion in general, but it’s specifically about rapturism.
  • No revenge: One of the dynamics fueling religious rapture beliefs is the expectation of unbelievers being deliciously proved wrong when it happens, after which horrible things will happen to them. As far as I know, no one in the singularity movement deals in anything like these revenge fantasies. This is a good thing.
  • No anthropomorphism: The Christian God is in a way just a big authoritarian alpha monkey, but a superintelligent AI is not expected to think or behave anything like a human. Perhaps it would manifest more like a new set of laws of nature than like a human leader. It might not even be conscious. It would certainly not be a source of arbitrary moral authority.
  • The difference that actually matters, of course, is that a belief in the rapture is not justified by the evidence, and a qualified belief in the singularity, defined as disruptive changes caused by a recursively-improving superhuman AI, is. I have found a truly marvelous proof of this, but alas, it falls beyond the scope of this post.

It’s also interesting to think about what would happen if we applied “Rapture of the Nerds” reasoning more widely. Can we ignore nuclear warfare because it’s the Armageddon of the Nerds? Can we ignore climate change because it’s the Tribulation of the Nerds? Can we ignore modern medicine because it’s the Jesus healing miracle of the Nerds? It’s been very common throughout history for technology to give us capabilities that were once dreamt of only in wishful religious ideologies: consider flight or artificial limbs. Why couldn’t it happen for increased intelligence and all the many things that would flow from it?

It would be tragic if, by thinking of some subjects as inherently religious, we let the religious impose their terms on our understanding of the world.

Right-Down-Down/Right-Punch

People argue a lot about whether Christian and especially Islamic scriptures spur believers on to violent behavior. But did you know that Zen Buddhists, too, can get the wrong ideas from their sacred writings?

From the Gateless Gate:

CASE 36. GOSO’S NO WORDS, NO SILENCE

Goso said, “When you meet a Man of the Way on the road, greet him not with words, nor with silence. Tell me, how will you greet him?”

Mumon’s Comments:
If you can answer Goso exactly, it will be extremely heartening. If you cannot answer properly yet, then you must do your best to watch out everything.

Meeting the man of the Way on the road,
Greeting him not with words, nor with silence.
Give him an uppercut,
Then he will understand you at once.

Worst secret handshake ever.

Evolution and God are Incompatible

Many atheists claim belief in evolution and belief in theism (e.g., Christianity or Islam) are compatible. This claim tends to be motivated not by evidence but by political gain. After all, most people are theists, and if they can be convinced evolution doesn’t contradict their religion, more people will accept evolution, which is good. I have two problems with this stance. One, convincing people of the right belief for the wrong reasons goes against my ethics. Two, I care not just about convincing creationists of evolution, but also about convincing theists of atheism.

So here’s why evolution and theism are incompatible — or at least, why theistic evolutionists have a lot of explaining to do.

Theists believe God created humans. There are any number of ways humans could have been, but we are this particular way, with two arms, two legs, two lungs, anger, love, pain, and so on; and according to theists, the reason we are this way is God chose us to be this way. (A theist who denies this is off the hook as far as this argument goes, but is definitely not any sort of mainstream Christian or Muslim, and probably not really a theist either.)

According to the theory of evolution, humans arose from earlier species all the way to the beginning of life on Earth, in a long sequence of small incremental changes. These changes happened because of natural selection (and random drift); given the environment, organisms with certain genes reproduced more than those with other genes, and so those genes became fixed.

So theism says the explanation for the information contained in the human genome is God, whereas evolution says the explanation is past environments were some way and not some other way, and random chance went some way and not some other way. The only way these two statements can be reconciled is if the information in past environments and random chance came from God. So a theistic evolutionist is forced to claim God created humans by intervening at many times throughout prehistory (setting the initial conditions only doesn’t work due to quantum mechanics) in such a way as to make environments and random chance favor our ancestors.

There’s an old joke that says that to make a statue of an elephant, you just need to take a big rock and cut away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. The position theistic evolutionists are forced to take is that God made humans by killing off everything that didn’t look enough like a human.

It won’t do to say that “God created the process of evolution”. Whatever that means exactly, you can never put enough information into the nature of the “process of evolution” to specify that what comes out is humans. Evolution is a simple algorithm; there aren’t enough degrees of freedom.

We have to presume God could have just created humans complete and in the blink of an eye. If he instead created humans slowly by manipulating environments and chance over billions of years, then that cries out for an explanation. It’s an extremely complicated, high-maintenance way of doing things. It’s dishonest, in that it’s very carefully tuned to leave no evidence, so as to make reasonable observers conclude no God was involved. It flatly contradicts any reading of holy writings, certainly any that would have been reasonable in past centuries, which again implies dishonesty. And there simply doesn’t seem to be any reason.

Conclusion: evolution and God can be made compatible only with far-fetched excuses. To believe in both you have to believe God went out of his way to hide his existence. You might as well believe the desperate story of some creationists that God put all the fossils there to test our faith. People who do claim to believe in both should be expected to explain, the same way I’d be expected to explain if I claimed to believe both in modern meteorology and in Thor throwing lightning, or both in gravity and in the invisible Man pushing the people down.