There is good reason for thinking that posthumans will, on the whole, be atheists. And there is good reason for thinking that widespread apostasy would, on the whole, be desirable.
According to IEET readers, what were the most stimulating stories of 2010? This month we’re answering that question by posting a countdown of the top 31 articles published this year on our blog (out of more than 600 in all), based on how many total hits each one received.
The following piece was first published here on June 1, and is the 7th most viewed this year.
“It seems obvious,” Russell Blackford wrote recently, “that something of an atheist movement really has developed in the past few years.” In fact, according to American Religious Identification Survey 2008 [PDF], 15% of Americans in 2008 identified as non-religious – an increase of 6.8% since 1990 and .9% since 2001. As one of the principle investigators of the survey, Ariela Keysar, notes: “The ‘Nones’ are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union.”
Such facts raise a number of questions (that is, “futurological” questions that have not much been discussed, as far as I know) about whether the observed trend will continue, and for how long. On the assumption that humans succeed in engendering a “species” of technologized posthumans, one might ask whether such advanced beings will be atheists or not. And furthermore, would it be a good thing for our technological progeny to be atheists?
In my view, there is good reason for thinking that posthumans will most likely, on the whole, be atheists. In addition, there is good reason for thinking that widespread apostasy would, on the whole, be desirable – that is, it would be beneficial for Earth-originating intelligent life, promoting overall post/human well-being.
To begin, then, consider the concept of ‘posthumanity’. According to Bostrom [PDF], a posthuman is an organism (note the etymology of this term) with no less than one “general central capacity [that greatly exceeds] the maximum attainable by any current human being without recourse to new technological means.” Such a capacity may pertain to any of the broad domains of healthspan, emotion, or cognition.
Only the third capacity listed is germane to the present discussion. We may refer to creatures satisfying this condition as “superintelligent posthumans,” or SIPs. Note that there are a number of distinct routes to the SIP destination. First, through an “extendible” method [PDF], as David Chalmers terms it, we could create superintelligent AI systems that inhabit either a virtual world or the real one. In the latter case, the AI may take the form of an android having a robotic body of some sort.
Alternatively, we could pursue the strategy of cyborgization, whereby a biological human is enhancively modified through a variety of possible techniques (tissue grafts, genetic engineering, neural implants, nootropics, etc.). If one accepts the extended mind hypothesis, enhancement technologies need not be located within the traditional (but arbitrary, or so the argument goes) skin-and-skull boundary of the individual: as long as they satisfy the “parity principle,” they may be physically “external” (though cognitively internal) to the subject.
Another recent paper [PDF] (by several controversial psychologists) similarly argues that average IQ “predicts” the prevalence of atheism in 137 nations around the world, including the US, based on data from the NLSY97. All-in-all, virtually every study investigating intelligence and religiosity has found a negative correlation between these two phenomena (and thus a positive link between IQ and atheism).
In addition to such studies, IEET denizens are no doubt familiar with a well-known 1998 survey of the most accomplished members of the National Academy of Sciences. This survey found that only 7% of “greater” scientists believe in the existence of a personal Deity. Similarly, in How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, Michael Shermer discusses the results of a sizable survey of randomly selected Americans that he and his colleague conducted. Consistent with the above studies, they concluded that “more highly educated people are less likely to be religious” (from The God Delusion, by Dawkins).
Thus, we have the following argument: if (p1) we manage to create SIPs, and (p2) intelligence is indeed positively correlated with atheism, then (c) SIPs will likely be atheists. Or, given the ostensible connection between education-level and atheism, if posthumans are not just superintelligent but highly knowledgeable beings as well (I take it that intelligence and erudition are logically independent variables), then we have at least one additional reason for expecting them to be – as it were – “Nones.” This seems to provide one possible reason for atheists to support the R&D required for the creation of SIPs.
This conclusion seems to conform well with intuition (or at least my intuitions). The theologian Paul Tillich once said* that “He who knows about depth knows about God,” but just the opposite seems, as far as I can tell, to be true. Consider the fact that, generally speaking, the more knowledge one has of the Bible, especially when combined with critical reflection, the more doubt one tends to have about the veracity of Scripture.
In contrast, the more knowledge one has of science, especially when combined with critical reflection, the more confidence one tends to have about its particular model of reality – from cosmogony (the Big Bang) to eschatology (the “entropy death”). Thus, one finds many more atheistic scientists with a deep knowledge of religious matters (e.g., individuals raised in religious households but who later jettisoned their faith) than religious authorities with a deep knowledge of science. (This is precisely what makes Alister McGrath anomalous: he had a formal, and quite superb, education in the sciences before pursuing theology.)
The question remains, though: Would a technological future populated by atheistic SIPs be a good thing? Atheists are, of course, the least trusted demographic in America [PDF] – in part because many believe that rejecting religion is tantamount to adopting a kind of moral nihilism. But this is clearly false, as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and the other “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism have cogently argued ad nauseum.
In fact, the evidence available at present seems to suggest that a world of atheists would actually be far less risky than one full of “believers.” Consider the fact that the most serious terror risks today originate from groups explicitly motivated by Christian, or Islamic, etc. dogma. In their book Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism [PDF], for example, authors Charles Ferguson and William Potter identify “politico-religious” (al Qaeda) and “apocalyptic” (the Christian Identity movement) groups as the actors most likely to perpetrate a nuclear attack.
There are, furthermore, a number of rather consternating studies linking religious belief with attitudes that are, by most accounts, morally suspect at best. For example, a 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that the more often one attends church, the more likely one is to condone torture. (Evangelicals turn out to be the most likely to support acts of torture against “detainees.”) And a 2010 meta-analysis of 55 independent studies establishes a significant correlation between religiosity and racism; as the authors conclude, “only religious agnostics were racially tolerant.” (Obviously, racism goes far beyond being merely “suspect” – it is downright repugnant: intolerance towards this kind of intolerance is justified intolerance!)
It thus appears that a society-wide move towards atheism would not only decrease phenomena like racism and (the acceptability of) torture, but it might also result in a mitigation of certain catastrophic risks.** This seems to provide a good reason for anyone interested in the perpetuation of Earth-originating intelligent life to advocate the R&D required for SIPs.
More philosophically, we might add that if one agrees with Kant that rationality and morality are correlated, then, as Chalmers writes [PDF], “a fully rational system will be fully moral as well. If this is right, and if intelligence correlates with rationality, we can expect an intelligence explosion to lead to a morality explosion along with it.”
In sum, given the putative connection between intelligence and atheism, it seems reasonable to conjecture that SIPs – possible future beings more intelligent than any living human – will all be atheists. Furthermore, a world of atheistic SIPs would likely be a better world than the contemporary one in which we reside.
This provides one possible response to a previous article in which I suggested that more intelligence might actually exacerbate rather than ameliorate our present situation. But, of course, the issue here is still very much open to debate.
* In all fairness, this quote is taken out of context, which is why I provide the citation.
** As William James once argued, atheists cannot take “moral holidays” like the theist can – global warming, for example, will not be solved by divine intervention (if enough believers pray), but because of assiduous human effort.