The dominant trajectory of Enlightenment thought over the last three hundred years has been towards atheism. Most transhumanists are atheists. But some transhumanists, like many of the original Enlightenment thinkers, are attempting to reconcile naturalism and their religious traditions. Some transhumanists even believe that the transcendent potentials of intelligence argue for a new form of scientific theology.
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A central theme of the Enlightenment was religious tolerance and skepticism about superstition and Biblical literalism. However, most of the Enlightenment philosophers of the 17th century through the 19th century were theists of some sort. In general they were attempting to reconcile belief in God with rational skepticism and naturalism.
One common theological stance of the Enlightenment thinkers was Deism. Deists rejected blind faith and organized religion, and advocated the discovery of religious truth through reason and direct empirical observation. Deists believed divine intervention in human affairs stopped with the creation of the world. They rejected miracles, the inerrancy of scripture, and doctrines such as the triune nature of the Christian God (trinitarianism). Deists like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine (1794), and Benjamin Franklin helped establish the separation of church and state in the new United States, arguing that doctrinal differences were irrelevant to good citizenship.
Deism declined in the nineteenth century, gradually replaced by atheist materialism. But the engagement with Enlightenment values continued in liberal strains of Christianity such as Unitarianism and Universalism. Many of these attempts to root theology in Enlightenment rationalism fall flat on modern ears and consequently are seen today as transitional to atheism, or even as insincere covers for an underlying atheism that could not yet speak its name. Certainly many orthodox believers also accused the Enlightenment-influenced theologians of being closet atheists.
I grew up in the Unitarian-Universalist church, to which I still belong. Its attempt to run spirituality through the rationalist Enlightenment sieve removed God seventy years ago, leaving mostly vague affirmations. As a consequence UU-ism has grown only slowly, and is often a way station for families moving from traditional religions to atheism. Sociologically, the decline of liberal churches and the rise of fundamentalism has seemed to prove that liberal religion is incoherent, that one either needs to check one’s brain at the door or become an atheist.
I believe, however, that we need to take more seriously the effort of Enlightenment theologians to argue for a naturalist theology. Although their previous efforts to affirm some form of deity through the rational, scientific investigation of nature may have failed, naturalistic theology may finally have found solid Enlightenment footing in modern transhumanist speculations about the transcendent powers of superintelligent beings.
Transhumanists and Religion
Self-identified transhumanists today are mostly secular and atheist. In a survey conducted in 2007 of members of the World Transhumanist Association (Humanity+, 2008), 93% answered ‘yes’ to the statement “Do you expect human progress to result from human accomplishment rather than divine intervention, grace, or redemption?” Ninety percent denied “clear divinely-set limits on what humans should do,” and ninety percent affirmed that their “concept of ‘the meaning of life’ derived from human responsibility and opportunity, not than from divine revelation.”
When those transhumanists were asked for religious affiliations, two-thirds identified as atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, or non-theist. On the other hand, a quarter self-identified as religious of some sort, including Christian (8%), spiritual (5%), Buddhist (4%), religious humanist (2%), as well as pagans, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and other faiths. Echoing Goldberg’s 2009 thesis that transhumanism is itself a religious point of view, about 1% of transhumanists listed transhumanism as their religion.
So while transhumanism reflects the atheist trajectory of the Enlightenment for most of its adherents, for up to fifteen percent or so some concept of God is compatible with their transhumanism. (For a fuller parsing out of the religious views of transhumanists, please see my essay 2007 essay on the compatibility of religion and transhumanism.)
Intriguingly, 1% of respondents to that survey offered “pantheist” or “scientific pantheist” as either a religious or secular philosophy. Pantheism appears to have become popular because of the belief among some transhumanists in panpsychism, the idea that all matter in the universe partakes of consciousness (Goertzel, 2004; Rucker, 2007). This conjecture emerges out of the ideas that consciousness is an emergent property of matter, and that matter is a form of computation, articulated for instance by Stephen Wolfram.
Even if all matter in the universe is not currently suffused with consciousness, the transhumanist belief in the inevitable progress of intelligence and the ability of science to ultimately control all matter generates its own form of teleological theology similar to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s notion of humanity’s evolution into an Omega Point (de Chardin, 1955, 1959; Steinhart, 2008). One early example of such transhumanist theological teleology or “cosmotheism” was Frank Tipler’s (1995) argument for a resurrection of the dead at the universe’s end. Tipler assumed the universe would eventually stop expanding and end in a Big Crunch, allowing subjectively eternal supercomputation within the accretion ring of the Crunching black hole. One of the things that could be accomplished at that point would be the “resurrection” of every intelligent creature, or even every living thing, that had ever existed. In the last decade it has become clear that the universe is likely to continue expanding and dissipate in heat death. Nonetheless, smaller versions of these simulated heavens could be created in the matter around the black holes at the centers of galaxies.
A more minimalist version of cosmotheology is found in Nick Bostrom’s (2003) “simulation hypothesis.” Bostrom proposes that if the universe generates vast superintelligences with billions of years to amuse themselves, one of their activities might be the creation of simulated civilizations. Given the vast numbers of potential simulators, their vast computing resources, and the vast numbers of years to entertain themselves, and therefore the vast number of simulations they will likely run, the likelihood is that there are a vastly larger number of simulations of lived realities than actual lived realities. Therefore we are probably living in a simulation.
Many people have pointed out the similarity between this skeptical view of sense data and earlier theological views. For instance Rene Descartes begins his meditations with three reasons to doubt our senses: (a) that we could be dreaming; (b) that we could be living in a deceptive reality created by God; and (c) that we could be living in a deceptive reality created by an evil demon. Similarly, Bishop Berkeley prefigured the quantum observation effect by proposing that reality doesn’t exist unless it is perceived by a mind, and that the reason that our reality persists around us when we aren’t looking is because it all is being perceived within the mind of God. David Hume grappled with these skeptical challenges to epistemology and concluded there was no way to prove we were actually in reality, so we might as well ignore the question. (See the excellent Wikipedia page on Simulism for more discussion of these parallels.)
Bostrom disputes the similarity between his argument and these prior theological and epistemological arguments.
It has no direct connection with religious conceptions of a literally omniscient and omnipotent deity. The simulation-hypothesis does not imply the existence of such a deity, nor does it imply its non-existence.
The simulators who created us in this naturalistic theology would be importantly different from the traditional Creator of Christianity. Our Simulator(s)
would be naturalistic entities, subject to the laws of nature at their own level of reality; they would not be strictly omniscient or omnipotent, and they might well be finite.
On the other hand, they
would be able to monitor everything that happens here, and they would be able to intervene in ways that conflict with the simulated default laws of nature. Moreover, they would presumably be superintelligent (in order to be able to create such a simulation in the first place). An afterlife in a different simulation or at a different level of reality after death-in-the-simulation would be a real possibility. It is even conceivable that the simulators might reward or punish their simulated creatures based on how they behave, perhaps according to familiar moral or religious norms (a possibility that gains a little bit of credibility from the possibility that the simulators might be the descendants of earlier humans who recognized these norms)….
So the simulation hypothesis, working from naturalistic assumptions to naturalistic conclusions, ends up as an argument for a kind of naturalistic God that may perform miracles, reward and punish behavior, and grant an afterlife or reincarnation.
The Order of Cosmic Engineers
Another version of transhumanist cosmotheism is found in the “Order of Cosmic Engineers” (OCE). The OCE describes itself as a transhumanist spiritual movement that foresees a future in which intelligence engineers the universe and becomes godlike. They distinguish between belief in a “supernatural” god, and belief in inevitable natural superintelligent, superpowerful gods.
..(in the) very far future one or more natural entities—i.e. entities existing within our present universe—are highly likely to come into being—plausibly resulting from the agency of our and other species—which will to all intents and purposes be very much akin to “god” conceptions held by theist religions. We refer to conceptions of personal, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent super-beings, “deities” or “gods”. (OCE, 2009)
These natural gods might in fact already exist, produced by prior civilizations, or might be able to reach back from our future to influence the past. Religious beliefs in gods, the OCE contends, might simply be a primitive apperception of these superbeings.
The OCE, following Gardner (2007), Lanza and Berman (2009), also suggest that these superbeings might have the power to shape our universe, or create new universes specifically designed for life. They may then have dissolved themselves or diffused themselves into our universe at the moment of creation. The perfusing of intelligence into the universe will therefore lead to the re-connection with or (re-)creation of these godlike beings.
The OCE views as its ultimate, very long-term aspiration—its cosmic-scale mission if you like—the permeating of this universe—by means of cosmic engineering interventions such as so-called ‘computronium’—with benign intelligence. We see the perfusing of our universe with benign intelligence as a step towards the (re-)constitution or (re-)integration of (possibly hive-like) “societies of mind” or “global brains”. These in turn would ultimately evolve into—a possibly new and ever so slightly improved version of—these ‘original’ god-like super-beings.
Is Naturalistic Trans-Spirituality Compatible With New Atheism?
The IEET, like the transhumanist movement, tilts towards atheism. IEET Fellow Russell Blackford and IEET Managing Director Mike Treder argue passionately that advocating for atheism is a central responsibility for partisans of Enlightenment values today. Nonetheless we also embody some of these contradictory tendencies. Our Chair Nick Bostrom articulated the simulation hypothesis. IEET Fellow and Humanity+ Chair Ben Goertzel is a self-identified panpsychist. IEET Trustee Martine Rothblatt and IEET Board member Giulio Prisco are stalwarts of the Order of Cosmic Engineers. IEET Board members George Dvorsky, Mike LaTorra, and I are atheist Buddhists, pursuing our “Cyborg Buddha” project of trying to integrate neurotechnologies with a spirituality grounded in naturalism, an effort that we share with New Atheist Sam Harris.
Do any of these positions represent a backsliding towards irrationalism, a compromising of the core Enlightenment commitment to scientific naturalism? In principle, no. Naturalist predicates and arguments, coupled with an openness to transhumanist conclusions, are leading to new scientific theologies and spiritualities. Since this tension between the atheist, anti-spiritualist wing and the natural theology wing is already three hundred years old, however, it seems like it will probably not be resolved any time soon.