The Singularity is the deus ex machina of the transhumanist narrative

Paul Raven @ 05-05-2011

The presumably pseudonymous Extropia DaSilva neatly sums up my problems with Kurzweil-branch Singularitarianism (and one of the major reasons I repeatedly identify as a fellow traveller of the transhuman project rather than a card-carrier) over at H+ Magazine; in a nutshell, the Singularity is the ultimate authorial handwave:

The ancient Greeks also gave us the phrase “deus ex machina,” which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.” A deus ex machina makes audiences and readers roll their eyes when they encounter it in a play or a story, and we should likewise roll our eyes when we encounter a deus ex machina being used to resolve all questions regarding the feasibility of achieving transhuman goals within our lifetime. “The Singularity will fix it” is a deus ex machina.

It also turns transhumanism into an infinitely variable explanation. Just like the myth of Demeter, you can continue to believe in the swift and inevitable success of transhuman dreams if you can invoke a godlike power that can fix anything. Hell, you can even posit a total rewrite of the laws of physics, thanks to the Singularity hacking the program that runs the universe. So even if some of our dreams turn out to violate physical laws, there is no reason to abandon faith.

To me, there is something deeply troubling about using the Singularity as a kind of protective barrier against all skepticism regarding the likelihood of achieving transhuman goals within a generation. It is difficult to reason with people who use the Singularity concept in this way, and even harder to have a logical debate with them. They have a deus ex machina to hand that can demolish any argument designed to show that transhuman dreams will not inevitably come true within our lifetime. This kind of reaction takes reasonable, scientific expectations of a brighter future and pushes them dangerously close to being an irrational pseudo-religion. And I find pseudo-religions boring.

I actually find pseudo-religions fascinating, but as subjects rather than objects; indeed, it’s the current schismatic/metastasising phase of transhumanism-as-pop-culture-meme that attracts my interest, far more than the promises of the technology on which it builds. The latter is pure speculation, which has its own intellectual rewards, but the former feels more like a chance for me to observe the way ideas spread and mutate in the antfarm of a networked global society.

(Now that I’ve typed that out, I realise it makes me sound like some sort of cultural peeping-tom. Ah, well. 🙂 )

However, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater here, I think the Singularity has a certain value in its ability to attract attention. From a personal perspective, I would probably never have discovered transhumanism if it weren’t for the rash of science fictional Singularities I encountered over the last decade or so. Compressing the transformative power of technological change (and our convergence with such) into a momentary timeframe makes the underlying point – that we change as our technologies change, and that the relationship is a positive feedback loop – much clearer to the uninitiated.

However, that same temporal compression chimes with the transcendent Final Trumps of apocalyptic religions, and there’s a very frustrating human tendency to read metaphorical truths as literal ones (which I claim no immunity from myself, I might add); explicitly reframing the Singularity as a rhetorical narrative device might make it a slightly more useful thing, but I suspect the real root of the problem is that we all secretly long for something to swoop in and fix everything for us (hence the 90s popularity of the alien intervention narrative – surely an extant intelligence greater than [or perhaps merely different to] our own offers hope of us surviving our imminent civilisational bottlenecks?).The Singularity’s seductiveness lies in its tendency to brush aside unanswerable questions.

I imagine anyone who’s written fiction knows the temptation of the deus ex machina; the only alternative to its deployment is to think hard and rationally about ways to overcome an obstacle. Religions – and their rationality-tinged descendents, like Singularitarianism – are an inevitable by-product of human intellectual laziness.

Transhumanism is a philosophy, but Singularitarianism is a cult.


Atheism, proselytism and other isms

Aliette de Bodard @ 09-09-2010

There’s an interesting article by Alom Shaha over on the Guardian’s blog, on why he’s no longer an “angry atheist”. The gist of it is basically that the “preaching” atheists (those who claim loudly that to believe in God is the act of morons) can be as annoying as religious fanatics.
It’s an interesting comparison, and one which reminds me of a conversation I had a while ago over on Gareth’s blog with Cecile Cristofari. Cecile pointed out an article by Tatiana Chernyshova, which explained that

Only a fraction [of people], however, is actually able to explain what e=mc² stand for; and even fewer can understand the theory and explain precisely why it makes sense. The rest of us simply accept scientific facts in the same way as uneducated people in the 19th century accepted the idea that God existed: because competent authorities have said so, but this knowledge still relies on faith, not proof, in spite of the fact that science is supposed to be about proof, not faith.

To me, there’s a fair amount of similarities between atheism, science and religion: they’re all beliefs. Religious faith is the most obvious one; but faith in science (the idea that science can explain and/or control everything) is also one. So is atheism. Some of those beliefs seem more substantiated than others: science seems to work so far at explaining the world around us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s perfect or even that it’s a good explanation. After all, the medieval Christian mythos also worked pretty well to explain the world ten centuries ago–until it became clear that particular worldview wasn’t equal to the task. At some point, all of those require a leap of faith: that science is an accurate representation of reality, that there is a God and that he spoke through the mouth of prophets or of the Messiah, that there is not and will never be a God.

But as beliefs? They’re not equal. Being a loud atheist is OK; being a loud religious person is… well, generally an embarrassment in most First World nations. Believing in science is reasonable and sensible (in spite of the fact that most people have no idea at all how most of it works or what assumptions it rests on, as Chernyshova points out); believing in God is much less so. As a scientist and a believer, I find it fascinating how some beliefs can end up more valued and/or socially acceptable than others, sometimes to the point of being accepted as gospel truths.

(also, I’m very much fascinated by the idea that faith in science has replaced faith in God, which is worryingly plausible, and possibly explains why I always end up in such acrimonious arguments about the fallibility of science)

PS: I welcome notes and comments on the subject, but could you please try to keep to basic rules of politeness. I have seen the Guardian’s comment thread, and I’m not over-enthusiastic to replicate it here…

Aliette de Bodard is a Computer Engineer who lives and works in France. When not wrestling with Artificial Intelligence problems (aka teaching computers how to analyse what they see), she writes speculative fiction. She is the author of the Aztec fantasy Servant of the Underworld from Angry Robot, and has had short fiction published in Asimov’s, Interzone and the Year’s Best Science Fiction.


Another thing to worry about: anxiety breeds extremism

Paul Raven @ 07-07-2010

Does anxiety breed religious extremism [via FuturePundit]?

Across all studies, anxious conditions caused participants to become more eagerly engaged in their ideals and extreme in their religious convictions. In one study, mulling over a personal dilemma caused a general surge toward more idealistic personal goals. In another, struggling with a confusing mathematical passage caused a spike in radical religious extremes. In yet another, reflecting on relationship uncertainties caused the same religious zeal reaction.

Researchers found that religious zeal reactions were most pronounced among participants with bold personalities (defined as having high self-esteem and being action-oriented, eager and tenacious), who were already vulnerable to anxiety, and felt most hopeless about their daily goals in life.

A basic motivational process called Reactive Approach Motivation (RAM) is responsible, according to lead researcher Ian McGregor, Associate Professor in York’s Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health. “Approach motivation is a tenacious state in which people become ‘locked and loaded’ on whatever goal or ideal they are promoting. They feel powerful, and thoughts and feelings related to other issues recede,” he says.

“RAM is usually an adaptive goal regulation process that can re-orient people toward alternative avenues for effective goal pursuit when they hit a snag. Our research shows that humans can sometimes co-opt RAM for short term relief from anxiety, however. By simply promoting ideals and convictions in their own minds, people can activate approach motivation, narrow their motivational focus away from anxious problems, and feel serene as a result,” says McGregor.


NEW FICTION: MIGUEL AND THE VIATURA by Eric Gregory

Paul Raven @ 01-06-2010

One of the best things about publishing new stories is seeing writers take old ideas and remake them afresh. A few months ago, we had Sandra McDonald remixing the post-apocalypse trope, and now Eric Gregory updates the urban vampire for a nanotech-infested near future in the favelas of the Global South.

“Miguel and the Viatura” mashes up religion, poverty, exploitative corporations and transcendant technology, but remains at its heart a powerful story of character, of a younger brother led astray. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have.

Miguel and the Viatura

by Eric Gregory

“We’re close,” said Joaõ. “Keep your eyes open.”

It was hard enough to watch the road. Foot traffic was heavy, and police in hardsuits patrolled the walks, faceless behind their faceplates. The air was usually fine in Pinheiros District, but Joaõ had insisted they both wear masks, and Miguel’s eyepieces fogged constantly. “Are we late?” he asked. The only thing worse than crossing the city to see his father would be doing it for no reason at all. If they missed him, Miguel would punch something.

Preferably Joaõ. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: MIGUEL AND THE VIATURA by Eric Gregory”


Storming heaven: Craig Venter and team create synthetic life

Paul Raven @ 21-05-2010

Schematic demonstrating the assembly of a synthetic M. mycoides genome in yeast.Unless you’ve been underneath that oft-mentioned hypothetical internet-proof rock for the last twelve hours or so, you’ll already have an idea of what today’s (and probably this year’s) big science story is. It is, of course, the announcement by Craig Venter and his team that they’ve successfully created the first fully synthetic self-replicating bacterial lifeform. There are many bits of coverage, though The Guardian has been good enough to include a document scan of the actual scientific paper on which the stories are based. [image credit Science/AAAS; ganked from Wired article]

The tabloid terror and hand-wringing will take a few days to filter through, I expect, as will the condemnations from religious figureheads and marginal cranks… quality fire and brimstone takes time to write, as any author will tell you. That said, The Guardian (yes, again – I’m just such a Limey pinko leftie progressive at heart, sorry) sets their religion-beat blogger on the matter early, and he manages to ask the questions that everyone else will pose, only without resorting to the apocalyptic imagery and overstatement required to elevate the uninterested to the outraged: has Venter made mankind into gods?

“Life is basically the result of an information process – a software process” says Venter, and “Starting with the information in a computer, we put it into a recipient cell, and convert it into a news species”. But though this information clearly exists in some sense, it’s impossible to say what kind of thing it is, because it isn’t a thing at all. Whatever this may be, it isn’t material, and it isn’t bound by physical laws. Information turns out to be as elusive and as omnipresent as God once was.

I don’t mean that they are both the same because clearly they are not. What’s important is that neither fits into any kind of common sense category; in orthodox theology, the idea of existence without God is senseless: not meaningless, but self-contradictory. Something similar is true of information in the sense that Venter uses it. It isn’t the things that people tell each other: it is the fundamental regularities of nature that scientists discover. A universe without information could not exist and certainly couldn’t contain scientists.

[…]

“We are limited mostly by our imaginations” Venter says. The worry is whether our imaginations will prove up to the task. The trouble with gods, as the Greek philosophers observed, is that they were not any morally better than humans, just more powerful.

Smart people, the Ancient Greeks. I can’t see synthetic life driving any definitive nails into the coffin of faith, myself; that particular battle is a movable feast, and I’m increasingly convinced we’ll never be free of it. But what’s very certain is that we just stepped into a bigger, scarier, more amazing and more science fictional world… and what’s almost as certain is that the real benefits and pitfalls of this new phase of scientific and technological endeavour will probably be very different to the speculative ones that will be kicked around for the next few weeks.

But hey, why let that stop us? Speculation can be it’s own reward, after all – at least, that’s one of the many reasons I enjoy reading good science fiction. So sound off in the comments – is Venter trespassing in the realms of the divine, or is this just the next glorious and inevitable step in the apotheosis of the naked apes?


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