In his new book, Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion, Mike Keas, lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science at Biola University, draws attention to the striking similarities between two staples of pop science news, superintelligent AI and superintelligent ET.
Both types of mythical being lurked just around the corner for the better part of a century at least. Popular science media are profoundly unskeptical about their existence, probably because they prop each other up. As Keas documents, taken together, they form an emergent secular religion. For example, cosmologist Paul Davies “along with many other scientists, anticipates that “an encounter with ET will end human-centeredness and cosmic loneliness, ushering in an age of universal spirituality beyond sectarian terrestrial religion.” When people talk that way, we can be sure that it is a new religion (Kindle 2227-2235).
Keas unpacks the key religious characteristics of the AI/ET cult, including the Central Dogma that AI and/or ET (they are hard to separate) are superior to humans. For example, exponents/evangelists Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke agreed in 1973 with the general view of ET that humans are “dumb compared to any aliens that we would potentially meet.” One reason ET and AI are hard to separate, of course, is that many commentators, like astronomer Sir Martin Rees assume that ET has probably already become AI (“long ago transitioned beyond the organic stage”). And that humans will surely follow. Yes, according to the “new secular Bible story,” humans are moving toward a Singularity too, where we merge with machine intelligence (Singulatarians).
“C. S. Lewis anticipated this bizarre trend in his space trilogy, especially in the last novel, That Hideous Strength (1944). Ironically, several critics have complained about the scientifically unrealistic occult content of Lewis’s space trilogy—it is not scientific (Kindle 2354-2362),” Keas notes.
The critics are right in saying that the occult content is not scientific. But in that respect, Lewis was, ironically, a reliable prophet of the modern AI/ET scene. Many Singulatarians hold that their soon-to-be-realized technology will be indistinguishable by the rest of us from magic. Are they serious? Well, in 2005, Kurzweil said that the magical Harry Potter stories “are not unreasonable visions of our world as it will exist only a few decades from now” when, due to AI, “the entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence.” (Kindle 2376-2385) Keas warns that this type of thing encourages people “to expect the experiential equivalent of occult phenomena.”
There are many reasons to doubt the “conscious machines” myth, including Levin’s Law and the general difficulty of pinning down what “intelligence” actually means in a specific enough way to ever give instructions to a machine. Similarly, serious analysts are diminishing, not increasing the hopes of finding ET Out There.
We asked Dr. Keas some questions:
Mind Matters: Do the pundits predicting the takeover of artificial intelligence or our morphing into artificial intelligence-enhanced beings know very much about AI? Do they seem aware of its limitations?
Mike Keas: Some of them know a great deal about AI, but are guided by materialistic presuppositions and so are predisposed to make ridiculous claims about our future. According to the grand narrative of materialism, consciousness already arose out of unintelligent material at least once (here we are), so why not multiple times, including from biological to post-biological life? That’s how they think, regardless of how informed they are (or not) about AI.
Mind Matters: The AI Singularity includes a quest for immortality. Is there any equivalent in that religious world of “sin”? Of a “Savior”?
Mike Keas: Sin is reduced to errors in programming. So it is really not a moral concept anymore. Salvation is achieving conditional immortality by making the transition to digital personhood, or something along those lines.
The loosely flowing relationship between AI and ET cults may help believers deal with the ongoing lack of evidence for any intelligent life in our universe other than ourselves. They can endure disappointment because there is always a buzz that inflates the significance of a new AI project to provide a welcome distraction. Anyway, if they are indeed waiting for “magic,” patience is certainly a virtue.
See also: Robotic religion is not just sci-fi anymore.
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