Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Transhumanism and Christianity

There's a long essay here by a woman who lost her faith in Christianity, and then moved her faith, so to speak, to transhumanism.

I hadn't really much thought about the parallels between transhumanism and (some) religious ideas before (and perhaps Jason Soon was the first to mention them to me), but this essay makes them clear and it is a very good read.  Here is a key section:
Of course, mind uploading has spurred all kinds of philosophical anxieties. If the pattern of your consciousness is transferred onto a computer, is the pattern “you” or a simulation of your mind? Another camp of transhumanists have argued that Kurzweil’s theories are essentially dualistic, and that the mind cannot be separated from the body. You are not “you” without your fingernails and your gut bacteria. Transhumanists of this faction insist that resurrection can happen only if it is bodily resurrection. They tend to favor cryonics and bionics, which promise to resurrect the entire body or else supplement the living form with technologies to indefinitely extend life.

It is perhaps not coincidental that an ideology that grew out of Christian eschatology would come to inherit its philosophical problems. The question of whether the resurrection would be corporeal or merely spiritual was an obsessive point of debate among early Christians. One faction, which included the Gnostic sects, argued that only the soul would survive death; another insisted that the resurrection was not a true resurrection unless it revived the body. For these latter believerswhose view would ultimately become orthodoxChrist served as the model. Jesus had been brought back in the flesh, which suggested that the body was a psychosomatic unit. In contrast to Hellenistic philosophy, which believed the afterlife would be purely spiritual, Christians came to believe that the soul was inseparable from the body. In one of the most famous treatises on the resurrection, the theologian Tertullian of Carthage wrote: “If God raises not men entire, He raises not the dead.... Thus our flesh shall remain even after the resurrection.”

There is much, much more in the essay setting out the pre-history of transhumanism, so to speak.   It's also good in that it points out that Christians, with their disdain for humans "playing God" with biology (and, I think, rather appropriately, for fear of inadvertent suffering that such experimentation risks), are perceived by some transhumanists as the enemy of transhumanist progress.

I'm certainly a skeptic when it comes to the idea of uploading mind into a computer - it makes for good imaginative stories in science fiction, but Kurzweil's optimism about when it could be achieved is just over the top.   On the other hand, if he is right, I didn't realise that a comment I made here once, that a reason for keeping this blog running is so that it might aid my virtual resurrection in the distant future, is an idea directly derived from Kurzweil:
I do plan to bring back my father,” Ray Kurzweil says. He is standing in the anemic light of a storage unit, his frame dwarfed by towers of cardboard boxes and oblong plastic bins. He wears tinted eyeglasses. He is in his early sixties, but something about the light or his posture, his paunch protruding over his beltline, makes him seem older. Kurzweil is now a director of engineering at Google, but this documentary was filmed in 2009, back when it was still possible to regard him as a lone visionary with eccentric ideas about the future. The boxes in the storage unit contain the remnants of his father’s life: photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, and financial documents. For decades, he has been compiling these artifacts and storing them in this sepulcher he maintains near his house in Newton, Massachusetts. He takes out a notebook filled with his father’s handwriting and shows it to the camera. His father passed away in 1970, but Kurzweil believes that, one day, artificial intelligence will be able to use the memorabilia, along with DNA samples, to resurrect him. “People do live on in our memories, and in the creative works they leave behind,” he muses, “so we can gather up all those vibrations and bring them back, I believe.”
I've just got to get some of my DNA details embedded into this blog somehow, and I'll be back!

Anyway, go read the essay.


Jason Soon said...

I believe uploading is possible, but though the uploaded me may be a good copy of me, he isn't the me who is currently existing in this body so for all intents and purposes it isn't *really* me so I would not feel like I was immortal if I were uploaded. and what this current I feels is the only thing that matters from the perspective of immortality. otherwise - think about it, I would be happy for the parallel universe me who is a zillionaire. of course I'm not, he's just another person

John said...

We don't know what to upload. We have barely begun to understand brain function. Eg. Just 2 months ago the long held view that neurons were the sources of transmission was overturned when it was demonstrated that even individual dendrites can act as signal channels. A cerebellar climbing fibre literally has thousands of dendrites ... . Or a report two weeks ago that contrary to the decades held belief that memories are initially stored in the hippocampus and then transported to other regions turns out to be false. The problem with people like Kurzweil is that while he reads the literature he doesn't read enough of the literature. That or he has a bad memory. I don't even follow cog neurosci because I consider so much of it to be analytically embryonic.

Steve said...

I am somewhat sympathetic to the idea that a post death soul is a recreation arising from the mind of transcendent God - and that the reincorporated soul works with reincorporated memories from earlier in life if a person died with lost memories or personality. Of course, given the unreliability of accuracy in memories in even healthy brains, maybe its more a case of correcting memories by external, extra information. But perhaps that fits in with the idea of post death judgement too - especially if its more of a self judgement (in light of a true, more objective, recording of what happened) rather than a divinely conducted one. [CS Lewis used to argue that this was more what judgement was about - people running away from unity with God in light of realisation of what they had done. Thus, return from Hell (or purgatory) was always possible, at least before the end of time when that possibility was to beclosed off.]

Of course, if a spiritual resurrection is sustained by God, it would also mean that it can end at any time, or certain individuals may not get the experience. But it may just be that it is a universal part of the Plan.

As to how long it is sustained - maybe it is left up to the soul to decide when it is to reincorporated back into the giant pool of intelligence from which it arose, rather than going on as an individuated subset of the greater.

There are strains of Christian mysticism - Eckhart but others too who I can't recall now, which suggest this.

And then the Omega Point idea (at least as proposed by Tipler) that says that the transcendent God does indeed arise out of matter, and propagates backwards in influence through the universe.

As you know, I find the idea very appealing, but can't see how the recreation of Soul at the end of time can really work, without having access to a clear recording of what is happening before the Omega Point is reached. Tiplers proposal - relying on Many Worlds - seems a cheat to me.

John said...

and that the reincorporated soul works with reincorporated memories from earlier in life if a person died with lost memories or personality

There are now numerous studies pointing to how previous generational experience influences the current generation. Typically this is put down to epigenetics but I very much struggle to accept that epigenetic programs can instil such behaviors, especially when it relates to specific behaviors.

There are some books written in past life remembering where the claims of the children were investigated and did hold up. I can't dismiss these out of hand, some of the accounts are too remarkable to be flukes and children aren't given to making up stories about street X in far away land Y.

At this point in time consciousness does not appear reducible. There are days when I think consciousness is a mundane thing and days when I am mystified by it.

I have read enough about paranormal studies that as with previous life memories I cannot simply dismiss paranormal phenomena.

I have no firm convictions on any of these matters. What I do know is that so much human behavior mocks evolutionary theories, especially the selfish gene perspective, and that human behavior and culture is so vastly different from other animals that while I accept evolution I cannot deny or affirm the belief that there is also some Other about human beings.