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IEET > Vision > CyborgBuddha > Directors > Giulio Prisco

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Engineering Transcendence

Giulio Prisco
Giulio Prisco

Posted: Dec 1, 2004

Gazing at the stars in the clear night sky, and feeling that there is something greater than us, which gives a meaning to our little life down here. Being afraid to die, and hoping that our selves may somehow survive death. Grieving for our loved ones who are not with us anymore, and hoping to meet them again, somewhere else.

Such feelings and hopes have been part of us since the dawn of time. Perhaps, as it has been suggested, our minds are hard-wired for religion: “Just as the mind has the capacity for analytical thought, abstract mathematical reasoning, and invention of highly sophisticated technology, it also has the capacity - and the built-in design - to experience God”. Or, the capacity to experience “the transcendent” or “Reality” - which can stand in place of God for some spiritual people such as Buddhists.

I think there is substantial evidence already for the neural basis of religion but there is also a strong case for the evolutionary advantage conveyed by religious memes, at least in terms of group selection if not individual survival. See Pascal Boyer’s excellent book “Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought”. Indeed, I think the fact that all human societies have invented religion can be simply explained, without assuming any specific neural basis, by noting that religion can provide some hope in a hostile universe. This is an evolutionary advantage at societal level, because religious individual who hope to wake up after death in a better world can be more willing to sacrifice themselves for the community.

In modern times many of us are too intellectually sophisticated and have lost the ability to accept things on faith without any explanation or at least suggestive evidence. I am just unable to believe in anything like a Christian God who created the universe in seven days, sits on a cloud watching us with a fatherly smile, answers our prayers, and grants us resurrection and immortality. I just can’t. That is, I cannot believe without any explanation or at least suggestive evidence. I have known deeply religious people who can. Religion provides them with a deep peace of mind, a sense of purpose, and the ability to calmly accept their death, and the death of their loved ones.

Engineering Resurrection

Death. I am part of the cryonics movement because I don’t want to accept that I will die. But some people I love are not persuaded by cryonics, and other people I loved are dead already. If I were my grandfather, I could find comfort in thinking that I will see them in Heaven. But, I don’t believe Heaven exists, at least not in the clouds, and not my grandfather’s Heaven.

Perhaps Heaven exists after all, in the sense that after we die we may wake up “somewhere else”. This concept can actually be formulated without having to resort to any supernatural belief, as a “simulation theory”: the idea that, as in the movies Matrix and Vanilla Sky, we are actually living in a computer simulation. Many science fiction books and stories also deal with the theme of living inside a virtual world. Vernor Vinge’s short story set in a virtual world “Cookie Monster” (2003) includes within it a list of other short stories of the same theme. The best analysis of a simulation theory is the “simulation argument” of Nick Bostrom: “There is a significant probability that you are living in computer simulation. I mean this literally: if the simulation hypothesis is true, you exist in a virtual reality simulated in a computer built by some advanced civilisation. Your brain, too, is merely a part of that simulation… a technologically mature civilisation that has developed at least those technologies that we already know are physically possible, would be able to build computers powerful enough to run an astronomical number of human-like minds, even if only a tiny fraction of their resources were used for that purpose.”

Bostrom presents some mature arguments to show that the probability that we all live in a simulated world is significant. I must say that I don’t find his arguments very persuasive, but the bottom-line is, you cannot rule out that you live in a computer simulation on the basis of observation, logic, or current scientific knowledge: the simulation theory is perfectly compatible with today’s scientific knowledge and worldview.

It is easy to conclude from reading Bostrom’s simulation argument that he thinks the probability that we are living in a simulation now is quite high. That was certainly my impression. But, commenting on an earlier draft of this article, he distanced himself from the inference that this probability is high. Bostrom said that, if he were to make a guess, he would estimate the probability that we are living in a simulation at a mere 20%. That’s not insignificant, but it’s far lower than I inferred from his simulation argument.

If we live in a computer simulation run by some future sociologist, mad scientist, ET or whatever, then we can assume that like every good system administrator she is keeping regular backup files and can, if and when she thinks it is appropriate, “extract you” from a backup file and “inject you” into another simulation, or even into her real world. Perhaps her civilization has defeated death and given everyone immortality and happiness. Or, perhaps the civilization simulated in the new virtual world where she has saved your backup copy has defeated death and given everyone immortality and happiness. In other words, if you live in a computer simulation you can wake up in Heaven after death.

From a practical point of view, the simulation theory is indistinguishable from conventional religion: somewhere there is an extremely powerful being who is watching your life and can send you to Heaven, or to Hell, after you die. Perhaps the Big Programmer will even listen to your prayers if you pray often and hard enough.

Another possibility is that heaven will exist where, and when, we will build it.

This is the thesis defended by Prof. Frank. J. Tipler and detailed in his seminal book “The Physics of Immortality”.

Here is my very brief and incomplete version of “The Omega Point Theory in a nutshell”: intelligent beings of a far future epoch close to the gravitational collapse of the universe (the so called Big Crunch) may develop the capability to steer the collapse along a specific mode (Taub collapse) with unlimited subjective time, energy, and computational power available to them before reaching the final singularity. Having done so, they may wish to restore to consciousness all sentient beings of the past, perhaps through a “brute force” computational emulation of the past history of the universe. So after death we may wake up in a simulated environment with many of the features assigned to the afterlife world by the major religions. I am using a weak “may”, but Prof. Tipler thinks that there is plenty of evidence for the Omega Point Theory in today’s universe. See my “Interview with Frank J. Tipler” and Tipler’s website for a more detailed description of his ideas, but also: read the book.

Note that since a simulated world is Tipler’s preferred scenario for resurrection, the Omega Point theory is an extension of the simulation theory, providing a possible sketch of the civilization running the simulation: they are our descendants at the end of time, with perhaps only a couple of seconds of objective time left, but an infinite span of subjective time and computing power.

Tipler’s Omega Point Theory has been criticized on the basis of his own belief that there is plenty of evidence for the Omega Point Theory in today’s universe. Some do not see that much evidence, and as a consequence reject the theory as a whole. Others disagree on some or some other specific mechanism proposed by Tipler. This is, in my opinion, missing the point entirely: perhaps Leonardo’s aircraft sketches would not have been able to fly (the knowledge needed to design a flying machine was just not available at his time), but this does not lessen the value of Leonardo’s insight that a device conceptually similar to his own sketches would, someday, fly. Similarly, we may just not know enough physics and mathematics to evaluate the plausibility of a specific Omega Point mechanism, but this does not lessen the value of Tipler’s insight: someday science may develop the capability to resurrect the dead.

Most objections to Tipler’s Omega Point mechanism are based on its assumption of a universe which begins to contract at some point after an expansion phase (Big Crunch). Indeed, some cosmological observation performed after the publication of Tipler’s book seem to suggest that the universe will continue expanding forever. But even in this case, a recent article on “The Ultimate Fate of Life in an Accelerating Universe” supports the idea that life and computation can continue forever in an accelerating universe. In Tipler’s Omega Point scenario it does not matter that conscious beings at the end of time have only two seconds of objective life left, as both their subjective time and the number of computations that they can perform before the end of the universe are infinite. Similarly, perhaps in an expanding universe life and computation will “slow down” as longer and longer times will be required to perform the same computation, but it does not matter since there is infinite time ahead. This is not necessarily true mathematically but you get the idea.

I will repeat it: someday science may develop the capability to resurrect the dead. And I will add: perhaps much, much sooner than the end of the universe. Perhaps in a few hundred years.


Of course, I just don’t know. But I can imagine some scenarios compatible with our current scientific knowledge. The simplest scenarios involve time travel, but not the sort of time travel where you physically go back in time and kill your grandfather with all the logical inconsistencies that follow. What is needed is just the capability to acquire detailed information from the past. If and when our descendants develop such capability, they will be able to look back into the past and extract all information contained in our brains. Then, assuming that by this time our descendants have also developed the capability to load and “run” such information in a new physical or virtual body, they will be able to revive us in their physical reality or in one of their simulated realities.

The first writer to propose an idea conceptually similar to this was the 19th-century Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorovich Fyodorov. Of course his scenarios reflect 19th-century models of the universe and seem naive today. In the words of Mike Perry (same reference): “A person is made up of atoms, and when a person dies these (finitely many) particles are scattered. Resurrection of the person occurs as a consequence of restoring the atoms to their previous arrangement. To carry out the resurrection it is necessary to determine what this arrangement was and then to reposition the particles. This is a problem to be solved by science rather than by appeals to an outside power.”

Fyodorov’s mechanism is perhaps naive, but his concept is not. In his book “Forever for All”, Mike Perry presents scenarios more compatible with today’s models of the universe and takes the arguments for physical immortality fare beyond what others have done. Mike Perry carefully examines the scientific, technological and philosophical requirements for the achievement of immortality and gives reasoned hope for the eventual realization of eternal life for all of us. Frank Tipler’s work overlaps part of Perry’s, but is more focused on a single possibility for universal resurrection at the end of time under a particular cosmological scenario that, unfortunately, does not seem very probable given the latest astronomical discoveries. So Tipler’s theory becomes just a special case within Perry’s much larger and more comprehensive work.

But, as it is frequently the case, some of the most suggestive resurrection scenarios have been proposed by science fiction writers. In “The Light of Other Days”, Sir Arthur C. Clarke (who else?) and Stepten Baxter imagine a near future world profoundly transformed by the invention of a “Wormcam”: a remote viewing device that permits scanning every position, including in the past, by using micro wormholes naturally embedded with hugh density in the fabric of spacetime. At some point things start to progress very fast, and soon after scientists develop the capability to resurrect the dead: “It was possible now to look back into time and read off a complete DNA sequence from any moment in an individual’s life. And it was possible to download a copy of that person’s mind and, by putting the two together, regenerated body and downloaded mind, to restore her… We live on Mars, the moons of the outer planets, and we’re heading for the stars. There have even been experiments to download human minds into the quantum foam… We intend to restore all human souls, back to the beginning of the species. We intend to put right the past, to defeat the awful tragedy of death in a universe that may last tens of billions of years.”

Of course when Clarke refers to soul, he does not mean a non-material, metaphysical entity. Perry and Tipler provide an informational definition of human personhood which I find quite persuasive and is, I think, what Clarke also believes. The terms “individual” or “person” should be preferred to the term “soul” because the latter term is easily confused with idealist superstitions.

And perhaps an all powerful civilization at the Tiplerian Omega Point will indeed restore all human persons. But it seems reasonable to assume that more mundane, albeit powerful, earlier future civilizations will still have to contend with the scarcity of resources. In this case, the first persons to be restored will be selected on the basis of appropriate criteria such as their “worth” (you can derive complete moral systems from this), or their value to some specific entity. In other words, if you are still around at that time, you may be able to sponsor the resurrection of your family and friends.

I definitely intend to be still around at that time: I will cryonically transport myself to a suitable future and, as soon as science develops all the necessary capabilities, I will reach back in time to retrieve all the persons I have loved.

Engineering God

Let’s go back to Prof. Tipler. He states that his future Omaga Point civilization at the end of time will consist of eternal entities able to manipulate the physical fabric of spacetime, able to command infinite amounts of computing power to create virtual universes at will, and with other advanced abilities compared to which the trivial resurrection of the dead will be routine maintenance work. And he asks: what name should we give them but God? Indeed, such entities possess many, if not all, of the attributes of religious Gods including the Christian God.

What about earlier future civilizations, incredibly powerful by our standards but still having limited resources? Well, perhaps they will not be Gods, but at least demigods. Yes it is fiction, but if the near future civilization portrayed by Clarke and Baxter can already resurrect dead souls and encode them in the fabric of space-time, try imagining what may come next.

So we can imagine a hierarchy of more and more powerful civilizations, filling the universe and acquiring more and more God-like powers. This would be a God who was not around to create things at the time of the Big Bang when the Universe came into existence, but is born and evolves with the Universe - the God of Teilhard: “If one were to project the forward edge of evolution into the future, especially as it falls increasingly under human direction and control, then it makes increasing sense to talk of a higher consciousness as being the inherent end and purpose of evolution. If evolution itself points toward a form of conscious life which has personality, perhaps God is the goal toward which this universe is moving after all”. Teilhard (see also this Wired article) was actually the first to use the term “Omega Point”.

Freeman Dyson, author of “Infinite in All Directions” is another modern thinker who entertains similar notions on Divinity. He writes: “I believe that we are here to some purpose, that the purpose has something to do with the future, and that it transcends altogether the limits of our present knowledge and understanding. ... If you like, you can call the transcendent purpose God. If it is God, it is a Socinian God, inherent in the universe and growing in power and knowledge as the universe unfolds. Our minds are not only expressions of its purpose but are also contributions to its growth”. And: “I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it is passed beyond the scale of our comprehension. God may be considered to be either a world-soul or a collection of world-souls. We are the chief inlets of God on this planet at the present stage of his development”.

But of course, the idea of “engineering God” has not been invented by modern thinkers. It is already present in the writings of Socinus, a Renaissance philosopher and one of the fathers of Unitarian Universalism, who could not spell it out in too much detail for fear of retaliation by the Church, and of many other philosphers and theologians down to our time.

In summary, and spelling it out as clearly as I can: someday we may create God. And if we create God, then We are God.

Of course, to do that we must overcome our current limitations and dramatically expand our capabilities by taking control of our evolution as a species. In particular, we must leave our frail flesh bodies behind and migrate our minds to more powerful containers, and we must expand our mental powers by merging with the smarter-than-human artificial intelligences that we will develop. The beginning of this new phase of evolution is being spearheaded today by the transhumanist movement. Though most transhumanists would agree with the long-term perspective outlined here, current transhumanism focuses more on short-to-medium-term improvements of the human condition. From the website of the World Transhumanist Association: “We support the development of and access to new technologies that enable everyone to enjoy better minds, better bodies and better lives. In other words, we want people to be better than well”.

Engineering Hope and Happiness

So far I have been talking of future physical engineering: retrieving the souls of the dead and building God as soon as technology permits. Now I wish to talk of memetic engineering in today’s world: crafting a system of belief, a religion if you like, able to provide modern generations used to the scientific worldview with the same benefits that religion gave to our grandfathers: a deep peace of mind, a sense of purpose, and the ability to calmly accept their death, and the death of their loved ones.

The still very young Society for Universal Immortalism aspires to fill this memetic niche by adopting many of the memes described here, and in particular the resurrection of the dead enabled by future technologies: “All souls (past, present, and future) have a right to exist and grow and improve eternally. We regard it as a supreme tragedy that past souls have been lost and not preserved. To that end, we dedicate ourselves to finding a way one day to bringing back all persons that have ever lived, so that they can join us in our eternal adventure”. Universal Immortalist literature is always very sober and reasonable, always compatible with scientific knowledge, yet it manages to convey part of the religious experience that some of us seek. I say “part of” because religion is more than an attempt to deal with death. It is also about establishing a personal and immediate sense of divine or transcendental presence in the present moment. This experiential aspect of religion, which can be called spirituality, is not about thinking, but about feeling, sensing and doing. See the paper of Mike La Torra in the Journal of Evolution and Technology titled “Trans-Spirit: Religion, Spirituality and Transhumanism”.

The much older and more established Unitarian Universalism is a beautiful religion of love, based on very reasonable and liberal premises. More interested in spiritual humanism than in worshipping this or that God, Unitarian Universalists are open to a whole range of beliefs on divinity. I was traveling in Transylvania this summer and was surprised by the size of the large Unitarian Universalist community there. Then I found out that Socinus (see above) lived some years in Transylvania. With such historical beginnings, it is not surprising that at least some Unitarian Universalists are very open to the transhumanist message. James Hughes, raised Unitarian Universalist and now the Executive Director of the World Transhumanist Association, has written a good paper on “Transhumanism and Unitarian Universalism: Beginning the Dialogue”.

I have used the words “sober” and “reasonable” referring to Universal Immortalism and Unitarian Universalism. Well, perhaps too sober and too reasonable. Perhaps most people still need some messianic fire.

In a very interesting article on “Weak Theology”, the author Jeffrey Robbins talks of secularism as weakening of thought: “Weak thought is not a term of derision, but a positive term of praise that can be used as a tool for political emancipation and a more democratic philosophy. It produces a desirable humility about our own moral intuitions and about the social institutions to which we have become accustomed. This humility will encourage tolerance for other intuitions, and a willingness to experiment with ways of refashioning or replacing institutions”.

Now if this is “weak thought”, I am happy to be a weak thinker. But why is it called weak?

It is called weak in opposition to “strong thought”: thought based on absolute truths, certainty, totality, aiming at providing absolute foundations for knowledge and action. The contemporary philosopher Gianni Vattimo has used the “strong” and “weak” terminology extensively.

As a weak thinker, I am afraid I have to acknowledge that strong thought is, well, stronger than weak thought in terms of its immediate emotional appeal to the majority of people. While weak thinkers talk of rights and appeal to reason with measured arguments, always open to criticism and doubt, strong thinkers talk of duties and appeal to gut feelings with the passion of true warriors. And apparently this still resonates more with the minds of the majority of people.

In passing, it is worth noting that the political differences between Americans and Europeans which are evident from recent events can be formulated in terms of conflict between weak and strong thought. While a religious fundamentalist has been re-elected to the US presidency, in Europe a religious fundamentalist (Buttiglione) has not been been accepted as a member of the European Commission. Most European nations have strongly resisted proposals aimed at introducing strong references to the European Christian heritage in the new European Constitution. It appears that many Europeans are weak thinkers, and many Americans are strong thinkers. Perhaps this is because in Europe we once fell in love with strong ideologies in Germany and Italy before the Second World War, and have seen the catastrophic consequences.

Going back to religion, perhaps the reason why it is still such an important factor after centuries of scientific advances is that it is strong thought, and this is what most people still want: absolute certainties and strong truths delivered with religious fervor. So while I like very much the Unitarian Universalist calm and thoughtful approach, and consider Universal Immortalism as a very interesting route to a “practical transhumanist religion” for the future, I fear that it will be difficult to win minds and hearts without a stronger formulation.

Before concluding and to avoid misunderstandings, I wish to say that I am definitely not proposing a transformation of the transhumanist movement into some sort of irrational religious sect. If anything, I believe the transhumanist movement should evolve into a mainstream cultural, scientific and social force firmly established in the world of today - to prepare the world of tomorrow. But as all good salespersons know, different marketing and sales techniques have to be used for different audiences, and perhaps we should also explicitly address the needs of those who are hard-wired for religion. Doing so will be facilitated by understanding the neurological and social basis of religion - why most humans are religious to varying degrees and why some humans are almost completely resistant to religion. Then we can utilize this understanding in the creation of a religion for the Third Millennium.

So, I would support developing a strong, religious formulation of transhumanism as a front-end for those who need one. A possibility, in my opinion compatible with both the path taken by Universal Immortalists and current efforts to understand the neurological and social basis of religion, would be presenting the ideas outlined here - moving on to the next evolutionary phase enabled by technology, resurrecting the dead, and building God - as a strong duty of our species, packaging them with some of the rituals whose appeal is demonstrated by the history of religions, and delivering them with some messianic fervor.

Giulio Prisco is a physicist and computer scientist, and former senior manager in the European space administration. Giulio works as a consultant and contributes to several science and technology magazines. In 2002-2008 he served on the Board of Directors of Humanity Plus, of which he was Executive Director, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Italian Transhumanist Association. He is often in Hungary, Italy and Spain. You can find more about Giulio at his Turing Church, RSS feed and skefi'a science/fiction, RSS feed.
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