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Summa Technologiae, Or Why The Trouble With Science Is Religion
Rick Searle   Nov 22, 2014   Utopia or Dystopia  

Before I read Lee Billings’ piece in the fall issue of Nautilus, I had no idea that in addition to being one of the world’s greatest science-fiction writers, Stanislaw Lem had written what became a forgotten book, a tome that was intended to be the overarching text of the technological age his 1966 Summa Technologiae.

I won’t go into detail on Billings’ thought provoking piece, suffice it to say that he leads us to question whether we have lost something of Lem’s depth with our current batch of Silicon Valley singularitarians who have largely repackaged ideas first fleshed out by the Polish novelist. Billings also leads us to wonder whether our focus on the either fantastic or terrifying aspects of the future are causing us to forget the human suffering that is here, right now, at our feet. I encourage you to check the piece out for yourself. In addition to Billings there’s also an excellent review of the Summa Technologiae by Giulio Prisco, here.

Rather than look at either Billings’ or Prisco’s piece , I will try to lay out some of the ideas found in Lem’s 1966 Summa Technologiae a book at once dense almost to the point of incomprehensibility, yet full of insights we should pay attention to as the world Lem imagines unfolds before our eyes, or at least seems to be doing so for some of us.

The first thing that stuck me when reading the Summa Technologiae was that it wasn’t our version of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica from which Lem got his tract’s name. In the 13th century Summa Theologica you find the voice of a speaker supremely confident in both the rationality of the world and the confidence that he understands it. Aquinas, of course, didn’t really possess such a comprehensive understanding, but it is perhaps odd that the more we have learned the more confused we have become, and Lem’s Summa Technologiae reflects some of this modern confusion.

Unlike Aquinas, Lem is in a sense blind to our destination, and what he is trying to do is to probe into the blackness of the future to sense the contours of the ultimate fate of our scientific and our technological civilization. Lem seeks to identify the roadblocks we likely will encounter if we are to continue our technological advancement- roadblocks that are important to identify because we have yet to find any evidence in the form of extraterrestrial civilizations that they can be actually be overcome.

The fundamental aspect of technological advancement is that it has become both its own reward and a trap. We have become absolutely dependent on scientific and technological progress as long as population growth continues- for if technological advancement stumbles and population continues to increase living standards would precipitously fall.

The problem Lem sees is that science is growing faster than the population, and in order to keep up with it we would eventually have to turn all human beings into scientists, and then some. Science advances by exploring the whole of the possibility space – we can’t predict which of its explorations will produce something useful in advance, or which avenues will prove fruitful in terms of our understanding.  It’s as if the territory has become so large we at some point will no longer have enough people to explore all of it, and thus will have to narrow the number of regions we look at. This narrowing puts us at risk of not finding the keys to El Dorado, so to speak, because we will not have asked and answered the right questions. We are approaching what Lem calls “the information peak.”

The absolutist nature of the scientific endeavor itself, our need to explore all avenues or risk losing something essential, for Lem, will inevitably lead to our attempt to create artificial intelligence. We will pursue AI to act as what he calls an “intelligence amplifier” though Lem is thinking of AI in a whole new way where computational processes mimic those done in nature, like the physics “calculations” of a tennis genius like Roger Federer, or my 4 year old learning how to throw a football.

Lem through the power of his imagination alone seemed to anticipate both some of the problems we would encounter when trying to build AI, and the ways we would likely try to escape them. For all their seeming intelligence our machines lack the behavioral complexity of even lower animals, let alone human intelligence, and one of the main roads away from these limitations is getting silicon intelligence to be more like that of carbon based creatures – not even so much as “brain like” as “biological like”.

Way back in the 1960’s, Lem thought we would need to learn from biological systems if we wanted to really get to something like artificial intelligence- think, for example, of how much more bang you get for your buck when you contrast DNA and a computer program. A computer program get you some interesting or useful behavior or process done by machine, DNA, well… it get you programmers.

The somewhat uncomfortable fact about designing machine intelligence around biological like processes is that they might end up a lot like how the human brain works- a process largely invisible to its possessor. How did I catch that ball? Damned if I know, or damned if I know if one is asking what was the internal process that led me to catch the ball.

Just going about our way in the world we make “calculations” that would make the world’s fastest supercomputers green with envy, were they actually sophisticated enough to experience envy. We do all the incredible things we do without having any solid idea, either scientific or internal, about how it is we are doing them. Lem thinks “real” AI will be like that. It will be able to out think us because it will be a species of natural intelligence like our own, and just like our own thinking, we will soon become hard pressed to explain how exactly it arrived at some conclusion or decision. Truly intelligent AI will end up being a “black box”.

Our increasingly complex societies might need such AI’s to serve the role of what Lem calls “Homostats”- machines that run the complex interactions of society. The dilemma appears the minute we surrender the responsibility to make our decisions to a homostat. For then the possibility opens that we will not be able to know how a homostat arrived at its decision, or what a homostat is actually trying to accomplish when it informs us that we should do something, or even, what goal lies behind its actions.

It’s quite a fascinating view, that science might be epistemologically insatiable in this way, and that, at some point it will grow beyond the limits of human intelligence, either our sheer numbers, or our mental capacity, and that the only way out of this which still includes technological progress will be to develop “naturalistic” AI: that very soon our societies will be so complicated that they will require the use of such AIs to manage them.

I am not sure if the view is right, but to my eyes at least it’s got much more meat on its bones than current singularitarian arguments about “exponential trends” that take little account of the fact, as Lem does, that at least one outcome is that the scientific wave we’ve been riding for five or so centuries will run into a wall we will find impossible to crest.

Yet perhaps the most intriguing ideas in Lem’s Summa Technologiae are those imaginative leaps that he throws at the reader almost as an aside, with little reference to his overall theory of technological development. Take his metaphor of the mathematician as a sort of crazy  of “tailor”.

He makes clothes but does not know for whom. He does not think about it. Some of his clothes are spherical without any opening for legs or feet…

The tailor is only concerned with one thing: he wants them to be consistent.

He takes his clothes to a massive warehouse. If we could enter it, we would discover clothes that could fit an octopus, others fit trees, butterflies, or people.

The great majority of his clothes would not find any application. (171-172)

This is Lem’s clever way of explaining the so-called “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” a view that is the opposite of current day platonists such as Max Tegmark who holds all mathematical structures to be real even if we are unable to find actual examples of them in our universe.

Lem thinks math is more like a ladder. It allows you to climb high enough to see a house, or even a mountain, but shouldn’t be confused with the house or the mountain itself. Indeed, most of the time, as his tailor example is meant to show, the ladder mathematics builds isn’t good for climbing at all. This is why Lem thinks we will need to learn “nature’s language” rather than go on using our invented language of mathematics if we want to continue to progress.

For all its originality and freshness, the Summa Technologiae is not without its problems. Once we start imagining that we can play the role of creator it seems we are unable to escape the same moral failings the religious would have once held against God. Here is Lem imagining a far future when we could create a simulated universe inhabited by virtual people who think they are real.

Imagine that our Designer now wants to turn his world into a habitat for intelligent beings. What would present the greatest difficulty here? Preventing them from dying right away? No, this condition is taken for granted. His main difficulty lies in ensuring that the creatures for whom the Universe will serve as a habitat do not find out about its “artificiality”. One is right to be concerned that the very suspicion that there may be something else beyond “everything” would immediately encourage them to seek exit from this “everything” considering themselves prisoners of the latter, they would storm their surroundings, looking for a way out- out of pure curiosity- if nothing else.

…We must not therefore cover up or barricade the exit. We must make its existence impossible to guess. ( 291 -292)

If Lem is ultimately proven correct, and we arrive at this destination where we create virtual universes with sentient inhabitants whom we keep blind to their true nature, then science will have ended where it began- with the demon imagined by Descartes.

​The scientific revolution commenced when it was realized that we could neither trust our own sense nor our traditions to tell us the truth about the world – the most famous example of which was the discovery that the earth, contrary to all perception and history, traveled around the sun and not the other way round. The first generation of scientists who emerged in a world in which God had “hidden his face” couldn’t help but understand this new view of nature as the creator’s elaborate puzzle that we would have to painfully reconstruct, piece by piece, hidden as it was beneath the illusion of our own “fallen” senses and the false post-edenic world we had built around them.

Yet a curious new fear arises with this: What if the creator had designed the world so that it could never be understood? Descartes, at the very beginning of science, reconceptualized the creator as an omnipotent demon.

I will suppose then not that Deity who is sovereignly good and the fountain of truth but that some malignant demon who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful has employed all his artifice to deceive me I will suppose that the sky the air the earth colours figures sounds and all external things are nothing better than the illusions of dreams by means of which this being has laid snares for my credulity.

Descartes’ escape from this dreaded absence of intelligibility was his famous “cogito ergo sum”, the certainty a reasoning being has in its own existence. The entire world could be an illusion, but the fact of one’s own consciousness was nothing that not even an all powerful demon would be able to take away.

What Lem’s resurrection of the demon imagined by Descartes tells us is just how deeply religious thinking still lies at the heart of science. The idea has become secularized, and part of our mythology of science-fiction, but its still there, indeed, its the only scientifically fashionable form of creationism around. As proof, not even the most secular among us unlikely bat an eye at experiments to test whether the universe is an “infinite hologram”. And if such experiments show fruit they will either point to a designer that allowed us to know our reality or didn’t care to “bar the exits”, but the crazy thing, if one takes Lem and Descartes seriously, is that their creator/demon is ultimately as ineffable and unrouteable as the old ideas of God from which it descended. For any failure to prove the hypothesis that we are living in a “simulation” can be brushed aside on the basis that whatever has brought about this simulation doesn’t really want us to know. It’s only a short step from there to unraveling the whole truth concept at the heart of science. Like any garden variety creationists we end up seeing the proof’s of science as part of God’s (or whatever we’re now calling God) infinitely clever ruse.

The idea that there might be an unseeable creator behind it all is just one of the religious myths buried deeply in science, a myth that traces its origins less from the day-to-day mundane experiments and theory building of actual scientists than from a certain type of scientific philosophy or science-fiction that has constructed a cosmology around what science is for and what science means. It is the mythology the singularitarians and others who followed Lem remain trapped in often to the detriment of both technology and science. What is a shame is that these are myths that Lem, even with his expansive powers of imagination, did not dream widely enough to see beyond.

Rick Searle, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a writer and educator living the very non-technological Amish country of central Pennsylvania along with his two young daughters. He is an adjunct professor of political science and history for Delaware Valley College and works for the PA Distance Learning Project.



COMMENTS

@ Rick..

“... the trouble with science is religion” - is it though?

Rather than the clinging to religious sentimentality as obstacle to science exploration and technological progress, I would say it rather the limitations of Human intellect to comprehend the depth of complexity and infinity and our insignificance?

The root question and Human need is ultimately ontological, the Super-ego/God complex a mental construction as solution and comforting answer to meaning of existence?

I find your article here and it’s message a little confusing, (the “imperfection” is mine), so am not quite sure where you are heading or to be more specific, what future or rate of progress you would wish/prefer?

Certainly we Humans are becoming more and more reliant upon complex technology to survive and even feed ourselves, our scientific “questions” may indeed hit a “wall” as our Human intellects are too small to contemplate the mass of information/data our machines accumulate and process, leading us to place our trust and security in their automation and omnipotence - I for one, am not fearful of this position, and to degree, in fact welcome this.


Your position here may be clarified by a quote from your blog, (kindly correct me if I am wrong)?


” And this is what people today who talk of us “ becoming gods ” or “ omnipotenders” or any such thing are engaged in- a category error thinkers and poets such as Bacon and Milton warned us against. Or, in secular terms they have taken but one piece of religious mythology, inverted it, and have confused themselves into thinking it is real. God in Christian mythology can be the architect, designer and controller of nature because he is thought to be somehow “outside” or “above” nature like a player of Simcity.

I often wonder whether the type of science we have would have emerged absent this Christian originating confusion that we are somehow “outside” of nature, or if science could have emerged at all without such confusion? There are no real answers to those questions. What we do know is that we are actually inside of nature and therefore incapable of exercising god-like sovereignty over it because affecting one thing means changing another which then affects us and so on and so on ad infinitum.

There is no return to a prelapsarian state as either fully empowered human beings or as gods because no such state ever existed- it was a myth which allowed us to launch and exercise a new form of still very limited control over our surroundings. And still, we can not forget that such limited control is real and its results are astounding, but the powers themselves are morally neutral.

The question is what should we use them for?”

Your final statement is of real concern, and this is an “obstacle” for the philosophy of science exploration which is totally impartial and oblivious to utility of discovery or the application of technology. I am safely betting that science will uncover more and more the impartiality of mathematics and the “incidental” emergence of biological life from physical energy/matter interactions leading to this “miraculous” manifestation of “mind” from cold space-time - and thus we are then left to ultimately return to find value and true meaning in this existence - a circular reference and, (spiritual), conundrum?

Can/will antiquated religion(s) aspire to transform and evolve, or will Humanity “bottleneck” through some dark era of confusion and violence, due to obstacle of intellects to comprehend true meaning from “nothing”?


Regarding Simcity..

If we are destined to become as Gods over our “personalised” all encompassing domain, would it be in “our” best interests to deceive our digital creations, (see Descartes)? Would these not have validity and integrity in and of themselves, and, as within our own constriction of determinism, be at least granted as much free will to action and free thinking as we value for ourselves?

Of what use is a simulation to us that adheres to our every whim and motion to control? What value in Love commanded and not “freely” given? What value in wisdom and enlightenment not comprehended and earned/valued for “OneSelf”?

@ CygnusX1:

“…what future or rate of progress you would wish/prefer?”

Well, what future I would prefer would take a whole book, but for now I’ll merely say a JUST one. As for what rate of progress I would “prefer” that depends on the technology and its primary use. Rates of progress naturally vary across our whole technological suite – plane speeds vs processor speeds- although there is a general rate of change, and I think we need to take that granularity into account when we make projections or take rather simplistic “pro-technology” or “anti-technology” positions.

“Certainly we Humans are becoming more and more reliant upon complex technology to survive and even feed ourselves, our scientific “questions” may indeed hit a “wall” as our Human intellects are too small to contemplate the mass of information/data our machines accumulate and process, leading us to place our trust and security in their automation and omnipotence - I for one, am not fearful of this position, and to degree, in fact welcome this.”

There maybe very real limits to what we can do long before we reach a peak in our understanding. I am always surprised that we assume this condition we’ve been in for only 200 yrs- since the industrial revolution- where our capabilities are constantly increasing- as somehow permanent. We’d have evidence that this was the case if the sky was lit up with the technology of extraterrestrial civilizations, or even if we just saw one, but we don’t, so the assumption that technological progress just continues is just that- an assumption.

I’ve written about this before, but I think the real thing that would slow technological progress is our energy needs (even more so than our environmental limits.) The physicist Tom Murphy calculated that even with 100% solar capture and fusion we’d still need the entire Milky Way to be covered in Dyson Sphere’s in a little over 2,000 yrs if we just continue at a tepid 2.3% growth rate. There are, thus, future and past based arguments for thinking our current period is not the norm. That is not something I would bet the farm on, but it is an argument I think people should pay attention to. 

“I am safely betting that science will uncover more and more the impartiality of mathematics and the “incidental” emergence of biological life from physical energy/matter interactions leading to this “miraculous” manifestation of “mind” from cold space-time - and thus we are then left to ultimately return to find value and true meaning in this existence - a circular reference and, (spiritual), conundrum?

Can/will antiquated religion(s) aspire to transform and evolve, or will Humanity “bottleneck” through some dark era of confusion and violence, due to obstacle of intellects to comprehend true meaning from “nothing”?”

We differ greatly here in that I believe science can give us our place and mechanism, but we need other forms of discourse to find our meaning. For some that’s religion, though I personally prefer literature, philosophy and art. As an example of science being thin on meaning think about a subject such as love. Science can tell you how it came about that a creature such as yourself feels the way it does (evolution), it can tell you about this or that mechanism involved in the feeling (oxycotoxin) and might even be able to artificially induce such as state in you. But I really wouldn’t go to science to learn about what love means for a human being- I go to literature and most of all to other people.

Drawing meaning from science is a dangerous game because science is supposed to be a mechanism for enforcing (temporary) universal consent. Using science as “proof” for what is in fact a philosophical or political position actually endangers science itself, and believe me, we need more good science not less.   

“If we are destined to become as Gods over our “personalised” all encompassing domain, would it be in “our” best interests to deceive our digital creations, (see Descartes)? Would these not have validity and integrity in and of themselves, and, as within our own constriction of determinism, be at least granted as much free will to action and free thinking as we value for ourselves?”

Well, I don’t think we are “destined” to become anything, but more to your point- a simulated universe that looked anything like the one we live in, including hiding the fact that we are in one, should lead to its creator being tried with crimes against humanity- and much else besides.

http://utopiaordystopia.com/2013/03/17/the-ethics-of-a-simulated-universe/
 

@ Rick..

1. I do not personally subscribe to the hypothesis that we are living in a “simulation” presently, even though it would be foolish to discount the possibility, and much like MWI. I believe that the world and population is the size that I have been educated/informed to accept, and yet I have not witnessed this for myself - and in a “holographic” environment my “mind” may be encapsulated in a bath of goo/vat/think-tank.

However, I do prescribe to the future potential of creating “virtual” digital worlds - although not necessarily for purposes of running simulation experiments as some naturally assume. This may seem like a contradiction at first glance?

I would propose an environment for the mind totally free from the constraints of physical form, and total absorption into the “matrix”. This would be freedom from involuntary death, (suffering, struggle is optional and another argument which is fully debated also in the Matrix movie).

This virtual world would support a kind of transcendence and for purposes of longevity, and facilitate further opportunity for enlightenment and pursuit of spiritual meaning, (although this would again be up to the individual and preference)?

The creation of digital/virtual entities/persons I would also speculate as natural expansion of any personal/collective virtual environment, and these entities granted with as much free will to action as my own mind, (as I indicated above, what use an environment filled with digital zombies?)

I don’t buy these exponential speculations on the constraints of energy availability as the entire Cosmos/Universe and beyond is effectively energy, and like any extrapolation of growth, the speculation assumes no progressive energy efficiencies - but more importantly I know my own mind in fact uses only small amounts of energy when I dream of my own virtual worlds unlimited in size and expanse and limited only by my imagination.


2. We assume also that “creation” implies a position outside of our Universe, yet “seeding” life either virtual or not need not imply hierarchies of existence?

Ridley Scott’s movie “Prometheus” implies ETI’s purposefully seeding planets with life for no apparent motive other than they can or should as according to some unknown moral imperative? These Titans are also portrayed as both mortal and fearful, and appear as totally impartial as to the consequences and results of their actions?

So the creation and seeding of life throughout the Cosmos may well be within the means of Humans, (moral or not), without the necessity for qualification as Gods?

 

@ CygnusX1:

“I don’t buy these exponential speculations on the constraints of energy availability as the entire Cosmos/Universe and beyond is effectively energy, and like any extrapolation of growth, the speculation assumes no progressive energy efficiencies - but more importantly I know my own mind in fact uses only small amounts of energy when I dream of my own virtual worlds unlimited in size and expanse and limited only by my imagination.”

It’s understandable if you don’t buy into energy constraint arguments, but just so I’m clear in my meaning, the argument is about – time. It’s that you run into huge energy demands that require you to capture amounts of energy that are almost inconceivable even if we just want to preserve current rates of growth over the next several centuries. Murphy’s doesn’t just assume energy efficiency, but 100% efficiency, again something we do not have.

I suppose we could “go small” and maybe that’s where everyone out here has gone. But we run into questions of how much of something you need to simulate before you have anything close to the real thing. When we imagine world’s in our mind or we simulate them on a computer these are really just shadows. How much energy would we need if we wanted to create a simulated thing that was as detailed as a real one, down the molecular or even atomic level? Well, I think probably as much energy as is required for the real one.

“So the creation and seeding of life throughout the Cosmos may well be within the means of Humans, (moral or not), without the necessity for qualification as Gods?”

It’s a realistic goal, but I wouldn’t confuse it with a cosmic purpose for human jind. Life, I think, should do just fine and emerge on many world through natural evolution, seeding life prematurely may even diminish its potential diversity.

I tend to believe we’re very early in the story of life in the universe and that the golden age of life is far in front of us as heavy elements increase and the risk from gamma rays decrease with the decline in stellar density.

“Life, I think, should do just fine and emerge on many world through natural evolution, seeding life prematurely may even diminish its potential diversity.”

I think the whole message of Scott’s movie was that life is seeded/propagated by his ETI’s purposefully and intentionally to promote diversity, and then planets left to evolve. And there is a very strange point in the film where the only entity intelligent enough to communicate with the Titans is the Android AI, (itself suffering from Pinocchio syndrome). Yet the Titan realises this life-form is artificial and immediately takes offence and violence - why exactly, is open to further speculation?

I am not promoting that Humans should do the same, only the possibility that creators may already reside in our Universe. My own preference of belief is that comets propagate life at the same fundamental level, (panspermia), and thus all again is impartial.


” I suppose we could “go small” and maybe that’s where everyone out here has gone. But we run into questions of how much of something you need to simulate before you have anything close to the real thing. When we imagine world’s in our mind or we simulate them on a computer these are really just shadows. How much energy would we need if we wanted to create a simulated thing that was as detailed as a real one, down the molecular or even atomic level? Well, I think probably as much energy as is required for the real one.”

Well then we are back with the dilemma of Plato’s cave. What exactly is the real world, how do I distinguish the real world and how is this represented in my mind? It is also a matter of trade-offs against freedom from materialism and for purposes of transcendence/longevity - what price are individuals willing to pay - memories? Data/information density of experience/qualia and etc. I could also argue that new experiences are collected and transferred into the virtual collective by bio-artificial intelligences, explorers, hunter/gatherers or whatever, to serve the needs of Human minds that could not possibly hope to explore the size of the Milky Way, let alone other Galaxies or the Universe?

Again this is all future speculation which is not entirely relevant in guiding the future right here and now - yet Human morality, (Humanism), must be high on the list of relevance for creating a more just and equitable planet for future Humans and evolving trans-humans?

I would like to again reflect on your point regarding Christianity, the Gnostic myth and your viewpoint that singultarians have adopted this creation ethos into science and therefore why you see religion as obstacle to science - I still don’t quite get this?

Antiquated religion and indoctrination is certainly an obstacle to progress and stifles intellects, creates exclusion, divisions, fear and violence. Yet aside from the customary delusions and creation myths and pyschopathy - we must still reflect on what makes us Human, what we Humans value, and why? - For this religious philosophy or more accurately, assimilated philosophy by religions is still of great value and worthy in building a morally progressive future? Either that or we ditch morality completely in the name of diversity for Homo-species, augmented and not?

Man creates God creates Man, (historical/ontological/myth and Super ego)  - this does seem like a paradox that is inescapable, and that which may possibly already have happened/evolved? The point is that the mind of God is within man, either seeded there by other, (as Descartes resolved for his own sanity and the sanction of the Sorbonne), or more simply because God = Humanism? This is the more secular position.

So Rick, aside from the obvious negatives of Religion, what of the positives? Are there any?

@CygnusX1:

“Well then we are back with the dilemma of Plato’s cave. What exactly is the real world, how do I distinguish the real world and how is this represented in my mind?”

I think the key to get out of this trap of if I this is all a dream or real is that the end the naturally stopping point is that you can’t get the whole thing going unless you have a real dreamer to start with. The world comes to us refracted through our mind , but that shouldn’t lead us to conclude that the world is JUST our mind and it seems to me that we have much more evidence that our minds are grasping something outside of themselves than the world is all in our heads. 
“For this religious philosophy or more accurately, assimilated philosophy by religions is still of great value and worthy in building a morally progressive future? Either that or we ditch morality completely in the name of diversity for Homo-species, augmented and not?”

“So Rick, aside from the obvious negatives of Religion, what of the positives? Are there any?”

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I am probably one of the most sympathetic people to religion you’ll find here. Religion is the most easily accessible ways for human beings to understand themselves as ethical beings and to orient themselves to the big issues of human life.

Where I think religion goes awry is when it tries to turn its metaphysics into a totalistic world. This is also one of the things you find when utopian movements, which I have a great deal of sympathy for, go awry. It’s almost as if the recognition that the ideal can never be fully reached, that it needs to be negotiated and renegotiated with reality and those who do not share it is enough to temper and give patience to the ideal which helps prevent it from becoming violent.

The dangers I see from interpreting science on the basis of religious concepts are many, but one of the primary ones is that science is the basis of the reality we share across our religious and philosophical differences. When someone says: “this is human destiny because it’s what science tells us” not only are they making a truth claim that science can’t support, and using science to force someone into logical consent, they are undermining science itself by enlisting it in what should be a debate about our future- a type of question science is not made to resolve. 

 

Many statements in this article are worthy of serious thought and discussion.  I would like to comment on just one of them, from the second paragraph:  “Billings also leads us to wonder whether our focus on the either fantastic or terrifying aspects of the future are causing us to forget the human suffering that is here, right now, at our feet.”

The obstacle or “wall” that stops further human intellectual progress might well be social, political, economic, and environmental rather than purely intellectual.  However knowable or unknowable reality might be, human thought has not yet reached the limit of what it can know.  Furthermore, we have not reached the limits to the improvement of human circumstances with applications of knowledge.  The problem is that both the acquisition of knowledge and the application of knowledge are done by people who have to live and work in complex and organized human societies.  Those societies are under stress, both because too much “human suffering . . . at our feet” is not being addressed and because the expedients which have for many people addressed some of life’s difficulties seem no longer adequate for near-future challenges.  Thus, what we now need most is not a new invention, and it is not new knowledge which can lead to new inventions.  On a global scale, the critical problems now are much more practical rather than theoretical.  If these problems can be managed somehow, then collective intellectual endeavor, and beneficial technology based on the results of that endeavor, will go forward.

@ Rick..

“Oh, don’t get me wrong. I am probably one of the most sympathetic people to religion you’ll find here. “

I know this and am certainly not accusing you of anything less, which is why I am hoping you would expand upon your viewpoint/position.

There will always be religious zealots that aim to use science selectively to prove their position, but I still do not see this as any threat to the credibility of science?

To dig up an old bone here, I still feel there is opportunity not to alienate people of religion and faith from techoprogressive philosophy as this is not constructive to building bridges. And these bridges are formed from informed interest in science and new technologies.

By all means Religion is up for critique, and I will join the debate both for and against.

I guess I am hoping that more and more people will come to the conclusion that religion need not be incompatible with future technology, and that science such like astronomy will help reconcile religion and shape individuals views of our place in the Cosmos?

Science and technology will ultimately win the day as cures for diseases and cancers and longevity drugs appear, the religious will be foolish not to subscribe. Yet we can all still do our bit to encourage interest in ethical debate concerning future technologies - in fact I see it as a missed opportunity not to encourage participation to help overcome ignorance and prejudice?

As for fundamentalists that subscribe to violence, hatred and heinous crimes - these groups need their arse kicked, evolution will naturally eradicate such backwards thinking and barbarianism.

so back to Singultarians, is it necessarily detrimental for new age utopians to lean on Gnosticism myths of Gods and transcendence?

(notice I am being hopefully persistent here)?

 

 

@CygnusX1

“I guess I am hoping that more and more people will come to the conclusion that religion need not be incompatible with future technology, and that science such like astronomy will help reconcile religion and shape individuals views of our place in the Cosmos?”

As I see it, it’s only a very small religious fringe that doesn’t take advantage of whatever life sustaining technologies are available. The dispute between religion and science occurs when either some ethical boundary for the religious has been crossed – e.g. abortion, when one or the other violates the other’s “turf” i.e. Gould’s NOMA, or part of each camp sees the other as it enemy and shows it little respect i.e. the new atheists’ attacks on religion or the religious’ assault on “secular humanists”.

“…so back to Singultarians, is it necessarily detrimental for new age utopians to lean on Gnosticism myths of Gods and transcendence?”

Sorry to disappoint your hopeful persistence, but my answer would, yes “is it necessarily detrimental”. In fact, I see so many problems with it I won’t have time enough to go into them all, so let me just hit upon the ones that come to me first.

For one, the ideas that Singultarians pull from religion concepts such as “immortality” or” god-like”have no scientific reality behind them. Have you noticed all the myths are nearly the same? We’ve got these super-intelligent “gods” that are on the way that will either bring us immortal life or destroy us all? (Notice our fears are here as well as our hopes) How are we supposed to take that similarity? Should we take the fact that the same exact ideas have been recycled as premonition, or lack of our own imagination? I lean on the latter, which was kind of the point at the end of my Lem piece, that here was this guy with this incredible imagination that could only give us a materialist version of ideas that are over 2,000 years old. 

The detriment that we risk here is that we will way overestimate what science can do, and thus become dispirited when we run into limits, or that we’ll end up like all past societies where we’ve enabled a power elite and a certain organization of human society on the basis that doing so is the road to paradise or escape from doom. That is, in the hope of obtaining ultimate ends, we’ll end up creating a technologically empowered but reactionary world. 

@Laurence Hitterdale:

“The problem is that both the acquisition of knowledge and the application of knowledge are done by people who have to live and work in complex and organized human societies.  Those societies are under stress, both because too much “human suffering . . . at our feet” is not being addressed and because the expedients which have for many people addressed some of life’s difficulties seem no longer adequate for near-future challenges.  Thus, what we now need most is not a new invention, and it is not new knowledge which can lead to new inventions.”

I completely concur. Our problems are more political (which includes the environmental and the socio-economic) than they are technological, and the most immediate risk to continuing the progress we have seen since the industrial revolution would be failing to address those issues to create a just and sustainable world.

Just dipping my toes in this thread for now.

I find the following from CygnusX1 constructive: “To dig up an old bone here, I still feel there is opportunity not to alienate people of religion and faith from techoprogressive philosophy as this is not constructive to building bridges…I guess I am hoping that more and more people will come to the conclusion that religion need not be incompatible with future technology, and that science such like astronomy will help reconcile religion and shape individuals views of our place in the Cosmos?”

Similarly I think the following from Rick has a lot going for it: “Religion is the most easily accessible ways for human beings to understand themselves as ethical beings and to orient themselves to the big issues of human life.” But for me it does raise two immediate questions (not particularly new or original ones, admittedly but perhaps nevertheless still worthy of consideration?). Firstly, do we have a sufficiently clear and consistent definition of the term “religion” to make this idea testable? And secondly, are we inventing other ways to fulfil this role that can and should eventually supersede religion?

And this also leads to a third question, more in response to CygnusX1’s point: what balance should we strike between providing a hospitable environment for “people of religion and faith” and expressing our own beliefs clearly, even at the risk of alienating some? A related point is that while it is indeed only fringe groups that actively reject technology to a significant degree, it seems to be far more common for religious (and other) groups to cling to beliefs that are severely challenged by technology. An obvious example of this that springs to mind is contraception. Once this became readily and reliably available, it was clear that sexual moeurs were going to change, and some of the beliefs sustaining the pre-existing ones would look shaky. And it does seem to me that the very potency of religion - as a way “for human beings to understand themselves as ethical beings and to orient themselves to the big issues of human life” - tends to make it more difficult for the associated beliefs to adapt to the realities exposed by evolving technology.

As CygnusX1 suggests, the debate needs to be joined both for and against.

@Peter:

“Firstly, do we have a sufficiently clear and consistent definition of the term “religion” to make this idea testable?”
I like Wikipedia’s:

“A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.”

I am not sure if “testable” is the right word, but I think the evidence is that the majority of human beings have always and continue to understand ethical questions and to orient themselves to the big issues of human life through religion as defined above and today primarily through the world’s major religions: Xianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

“And secondly, are we inventing other ways to fulfill this role that can and should eventually supersede religion?”

There’s been a secular tradition of thought for centuries and we are engaged in it now, though that doesn’t necessitate that such thinking should “supersede religion”. How secular the world of the future will be is anyone’s guess, but the trend in modernity certainly isn’t leading the bulk of humanity away from religion in the way it was once thought it would.

“And this also leads to a third question, more in response to CygnusX1’s point: what balance should we strike between providing a hospitable environment for “people of religion and faith” and expressing our own beliefs clearly, even at the risk of alienating some? “

Personally I think the debate between the religious and other elements in society is way off kilter. When a religious person has an objection to contraception or whathaveyou informed by their faith I have no issue with such an objection. But if they want to affect public policy they need to make a very good argument as to why things should be different based on grounds that are shared broadly across the society. Likewise, those who are not religious should respect persons of religious faith and object primarily on grounds that the adoption of their beliefs in public policy would violate some other widely shared values. As for science, it should really be neutral in such disputes because it provides the grounds of our reality rather than the goals we pursue e.g. it can inform us what a fetus is, but can’t establish whether or not we should consider one a person.     

One issue I have with this definition of religion is that it leaves somewhat unclear just how “organised” the collection of beliefs etc has to be in order to qualify. Clearly, all societies everywhere have certain beliefs, world views and cultural systems that are basically shared by everyone. For example, was the communism of the Warsaw Pact a “religion”?

Interestingly, the Wikipedia definition of “secularity” makes separation from religion its defining element: “the state of being separate from religion, or not being exclusively allied with or against any particular religion”. So even in order to have a coherent definition of “secular”, it would seem we need to have a coherent definition of religion. And not only coherent, but also sufficiently close to common usage to be helpful. In that respect, I suspect that Wikipedia’s definition is somewhat too broad, and needs some further narrowing down. Not that I want to drown this thread in semantics, but it would be a pity if we failed to make progress simply because we haven’t made the effort to define terms with sufficient precision.

Perhaps the most fundamental distinction between religion and secularity is the respective weights given to faith vs doubt. Arguably, in religion it is faith that is valued, while doubt is treated with suspicion. In achieving its “separation” from religion, secularity turns this around and champions doubt as an essential crucible in which to test ideas. In this context I would disagree with the idea that any form of “creationism” necessarily gives a system of thought a “religious” dimension. And at the same time, CygnusX1 is right to worry that making the idea that it does a criticism of science implies an antagonism towards religion (and not necessarily for the best reasons). Arguably, what gives a system of thought a “religious” character is the emphasis it places on faith, and it is clear that for science to work this emphasis has to be limited (though not wholly absent). To dismiss any kind of creationism as “religious”, and therefore unscientific, would be to betray the essential open-mindedness that must remain at the heart of scientific enquiry.

I do (strongly) agree that science alone cannot tell us which goals we should pursue. This is, of course, Hume’s is-ought distinction, and I think it is essential. One caveat I would add to the idea that “those who are not religious should…object [to religious beliefs] primarily on grounds that the[ir] adoption…in public policy would violate some other widely shared values” is that some of the real suffering caused by (certain types of) religion takes place very much in the “private” sphere. Just how far secular society should be intruding into the (private) lives of religious communities and families is a distinctly problematic and topical question, but it is certainly clear that it has excellent (utilitarian, which in this context is to say compassionate) reasons to do so. But that really is an expression of my utilitarian ethics, and not something that I would claim, as Sam Harris does, to be dictated by science. (Though I will add, in defence of Harris, that even though I disagree with him I find the coherence and conviction with which he argues his case, notably in The Moral Landscape, quite compelling.)

@Peter re “Just how far secular society should be intruding into the (private) lives of religious communities and families is a distinctly problematic and topical question, but it is certainly clear that it has excellent (utilitarian, which in this context is to say compassionate) reasons to do so.”

Then society has also excellent utilitarian reasons to oppress any minority that doesn’t conform to the cultural and “moral” (whatever that means) standards adopted by the ruling elites. Actually, it could be argued that mass-murdering them is even more expedient, utilitarian and compassionate;-)

This is an example of the absurd conclusions that one can reach when one forgets that society is an abstract construct, while persons are the actual, primary reality.

I have no doubt that a smart sophist could develop apparently solid arguments to show that a society of deeply unhappy persons can be a very happy society indeed, but I would consider any such arguments as yet another “mathematical proofs” that 1 = 0.

(the above is a long and involved way to say that “society” shouldn’t intrude in the private life of anyone, period).

Giulio, what I am talking about here is basic individual rights, which are not always respected by religious (and other) minorities. Are you seriously saying that civil society should stay out of such cases?

Peter, if there is violation of individual rights, then it isn’t private - it involves the individual concerned as offended party. We have laws to deal with that, laws that only need being enforced.

But, leave freedom of thought and association alone. That’s my one and only point.

Well I wasn’t attacking freedom of thought or association, Giulio. When I talk about secular society having good reasons for intruding into the “private” lives of religious communities and families, it was essentially cases of violation of individual rights I had in mind. And this is pertinent, because there is huge pressure on secular society to stay out of such areas, precisely on the grounds that they are “private”. Hence my caveat to Rick’s (otherwise entirely correct from my perspective) point that our objections to religious belief should be limited to cases where their adoption in public policy would violate some other widely shared values (in this case respect for individual rights). It’s not just the role of religion in public policy we have to worry about, it’s also what is going on in the privacy of people’s homes, at least if we have want to have some compassion for the people who live there and are not the ones calling the shots.

Peter, I essentially agree, but only very hard evidence of very serious violations of individual rights would persuade me of the need to intervene in the private lives of religious communities and families.

For example in the recent case in Spain of three priests jailed for documented abuse of a minor, denounced by he victim, I totally agree that the three priests belong in jail.

But hearsay and dislike of others’ chosen lifestyle don’t qualify. Interference in the private affairs of other persons and communities is a very serious violation of their right to autonomy. It can be justified as a necessary evil, but only in extreme cases.

Giulio, there is plenty of evidence that this is happening, and that religious beliefs play a role. This is a fact we need to accept, not brush away. And this brings me back to my earlier question: how far should we go in providing a hospitable environment for the religious, so as not to alienate them from technoprogressive philosophy? I think this is an important issue for IEET, and if we can make some progress towards a consensus on the issue, so much the better from my perspective. I know you see intervention from society - and in particular government - as a greater threat than the lack of it, but that is really a different issue.

Peter and Giulio:

I don’t think you guys are less far apart in your views as you might think. When Giulio says:

“This is an example of the absurd conclusions that one can reach when one forgets that society is an abstract construct, while persons are the actual, primary reality.”

I think this can be interpreted to mean that society can interfere with groups to protect the rights of individuals from concision by those groups, but this should be something done largely only protect individuals not to assert some other norms.

As for Peter’s:

“... how far should we go in providing a hospitable environment for the religious, so as not to alienate them from technoprogressive philosophy? I think this is an important issue for IEET, and if we can make some progress towards a consensus on the issue, so much the better from my perspective.”

I think someone’s religious beliefs should be irrelevant to whether or not their considered technoprogressive. The primary questions there being: 1) do they want to belong to the movement? 2) are they politically progressive ? 3) do they consider questions surrounding technology and their application for progressive ends paramount?

@Peter re “I know you see intervention from society - and in particular government - as a greater threat than the lack of it, but that is really a different issue.”

On the contrary, I see it as the same issue - power, and abuse of power. A family of community can oppress young and weak members because they have power over them. Similarly, a society (or, more precisely, a state) can oppress a minority because they have power over them.

Mao and other clear-minded politicians openly recognized that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” which I consider as a common-sense truth. I don’t recognize a fundamental difference in-principle between a government and a mob of thugs, and in fact, if the citizens don’t keep the government in check all the time (ref. Thomas Jefferson), any government tends to become precisely a mob of thugs.

The problem is power, not religion. People are oppressed with guns, not with books.

Thanks both for the feedback.

Starting with Rick’s “I think someone’s religious beliefs should be irrelevant to whether or not their considered technoprogressive”, I fully agree, but that is not quite the question I was asking. The issue that CygnusX1 raised was the risk of alienating people with religious beliefs from the technoprogressive movement, and it’s an entirely legitimate concern. Essentially my position is that we should be at least somewhat sensitive to their concerns, but not at the expense of clarity in our debates. Where we think that religion does harm or is counter-productive in some way, we must say so, and not censor ourselves for fear of alienating someone. But, of course, we can try to do so sensitively.

And that brings me to Giulio, and the question: “Is the problem power or religion?” Giulio says power; I say neither. It’s just not that simple. To say that people are not oppressed with books (and sermons) is certainly naïve. People are: it’s called psychological harassment, and it’s real. Of course, if I had to choose between being faced with someone pointing a loaded gun at me and someone telling me I’m going to hell then I’ll take the latter any day. But in practice that’s not the choice.

Furthermore, suppose we were to conclude that the problem is indeed “power, not religion”. What are we to do with that conclusion? Argue against power? One might as well argue against the laws of physics. It is useless to see power as the problem in itself, for then we are setting ourselves up to fight an enemy that cannot be defeated. Better to focus on how power is used, and by whom.

In any case, if we are looking for “common-sense truths” from which to draw inspiration, I would certainly recommend Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill over the psychopathic madman Mao.

Peter, perhaps those who are so weak-minded to believe the first asshole who tells them that they are going to hell deserve to go there indeed.

I’ve listened to more than enough apologies of weakness and helplessness, please give me some strength - stop running and fight, that’s the attitude.

So I will repeat it: books don’t hurt people. Guns hurt people, and the only way to fight guns is with bigger guns. But the state wants to have a monopoly on guns, and that’s why I consider a central authoritarian state as the biggest threat.

Well there’s no point in just repeating the same points over and over. To be honest, I find your attitude severely lacking in compassion for those who suffer from the power of words to hurt, but of course it’s up to you what to believe.

Peter, my words are certainly blunt, but I don’t think my attitude is lacking in compassion. I know by experience that life is not always pleasant, and I know by experience that nobody protects those who don’t protect themselves. If I tell you that you will go to hell, just tell me FYA, and use your hands if words are not enough. That is, unfortunately, how things work.

And what if that person honestly believes I am going to hell, and can be saved if I put my faith in Jesus? And what if that person is someone near and dear to me?

No Giulio,  that is not how things work. Words hurt, and FYA is not necessarily the best response. What we can do, though, is to at least recognise the problem. Do you really think that words - and indeed books - played no role when that Afghan woman was stoned for daring to get an education?

And let’s suppose (for sake of argument) that a central authoritarian state is really “the biggest threat”. First of all we need to clarify: threat to what? And then we need to clarify: what should we be doing about it? I know I’ve made that point many times before as well, but it’s a crucial one, because otherwise we are just going to remain in the same stasis of entrenched positions. And while that can be comforting, even fun in a silly way, it does not help us much in dealing with actual threats.

@Peter re “And what if that person honestly believes I am going to hell, and can be saved if I put my faith in Jesus? And what if that person is someone near and dear to me?”

If that person honestly believes that, it’s just the way it is, not much that you can do about it. If that person is someone near and dear to you, then I understand that the situation can be painful. Knowing myself, I guess what I would do is to tell that person that, yes, I put my faith in Jesus, and get on with my life.

re “Do you really think that words - and indeed books - played no role when that Afghan woman was stoned for daring to get an education?”

Yes, I do. That woman was stoned by people like you and I, not by books. Cruel people who happened to have the power to stone her. If they didn’t have that particular book to use as a pretext, they would have used another book, or something else. Like the soccer hooligans who don’t care about soccer at all but only want to smash heads and things - when they don’t have soccer they use basketball, or politics, or religion, or something else. No point in blaming soccer for what hooligans do.

re “Words hurt”

Much less than stones, believe me.

You can’t protect people from everything that hurts a bit. And you shouldn’t, either. Having been in one or two dangerous situations, I thank those primary school bullies and abusive teachers who taught me that people can be cruel and dangerous, and how to protect myself in case of need. Like most people of my generation, I had to use those lessons many times. I am afraid the current tendency to over-protect results in whole generations of people unable to cope with life, who break down at the smallest hit.

I agree that we shouldn’t try to protect people from “everything hurts a bit”, though personally I don’t think tolerating bullying at school is the best way to avoid this. I would also need to see some fairly hard evidence that young people today are over-protected before taking this issue particularly seriously, but I can at least accept it as a legitimate concern in principle.

But the analogy with soccer is misleading. Soccer does not tell anybody to smash things and beat people up. Words and books do. To blame them is not to absolve from guilt those people who act on them, but it is to assert that those words, books, sermons or whatever play part of the causal process. Over the weekend, for example, I read about a Church of England school in the UK that has been faulted in an appraisal procedure for not doing enough to protect its students from Islamic extremism. That it is a Church of England school is neither here nor there, but it seems to me that this is an entirely legitimate concern for secular society to have raised, and the concern is precisely that the kids there are being exposed to words that might put them on a terrible path. Failure to recognise that words can have this effect is to limit our understanding of an important aspect of the world we live in, and thus expose ourselves and others to unnecessary danger.

After all, if words do not have consequences, why do we bother posting comments here? Just for fun?

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