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But Could Techno-Immortality Ever Be the Real Thing?

Oxford mathematician John Lennox looks at Ray Kurzweil’s techno-immortality from a Christian perspective

Recently, Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks sat down to talk with John Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and an internationally renowned as a speaker and author on the interface of science, philosophy, and religion. His most recent book is Can Science Explain Everything? (2019). Here’s the podcast, “John Lennox on the Promise and Threat of AI,” seen from a Christian perspective:

Excerpts:

14:09 | Tower of Babel

Robert J. Marks: Humans are trying to build a Tower of Babel, in a way, in order to achieve something that God has already achieved.

John Lennox: That’s an important way of describing it. In the Book of Genesis, the whole experiment of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11: 1–9)) was to try to build a tower in a city that reaches to heaven. And that idea of reaching up to become a god is a central part of some of the writings on AGI [artificial general intelligence]. One book in particular that has sold in the multi-millions, by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian, is called Homo Deus, the man who is God. And his concept of AGI is precisely that, a god-like man or a man who is God. And of course, he does not believe in the Christian message because if he did, he would already have realized that there is a man who is God!

Note: Yuval Noah Harari, ’s views have significant implications for politics today, as Michael Egnor points out.

For example, Harari sees free will as a dangerous myth because “”Governments and corporations will soon know you better than you know yourself. Belief in the idea of ‘free will’ has become dangerous. Dr. Egnor disagrees: “Free will is real, and the denial of free will is far more dangerous than government or corporate surveillance. In fact, denial of free will greatly magnifies the danger of surveillance and of the repression that may follow it.”

Harari also sees AI as a threat to democracy and Egnor, while agreeing in part, changes the focus: It’s not that AI is so smart but “An aspiring totalitarian need not rent a stadium or evade the Kaiser’s police. He merely needs a Google account and some spare moments, and he can reach you anywhere you live.”

15:29 | Downloading Immortality

Robert J. Marks: Materialist AI enthusiasts think they can download themselves into a digital copy and thereby achieve immortality. From a Christian viewpoint, the AI goal of immortality is also behind the times in terms of the Christian faith. You brought this point out in your lecture. Could you elaborate on this a little bit?

John Lennox: Yes, again, it’s very interesting to see how many parallels there are to the desires of some people in the AI community to preserve themselves after death. And the idea is that they can somehow download themselves digitally, whatever that means, to download a self. Nobody has told me what that has meant. But the fascinating thing is that the central gospel of Christ is that if we trust him as Lord, then we receive his life. And that life, the New Testament calls eternal life. And we receive it when we trust Christ. But it doesn’t end at death because it is eternal. So the promise that’s made to Christians in the New Testament is that this mortal body which we inhabit at the moment will put on immortality. And therefore the going beyond death and surviving death—not only surviving it but having a positive existence, an even more glorious existence in the future—is something that is guaranteed to the Christian through trust in Christ. It doesn’t depend on any notion of downloading ourselves onto silicon.

Tower of Babel/Peter van Brueghel the Elder, 1563, public domain

26:18 | Trans-humanism

Robert J. Marks: One of the things I don’t understand totally is materialists pursuing something called transhumanism from the perspective of AI. I know that in Silicon Valley there has actually been a religion which has been started, which celebrates AI. What is transhumanism? What’s going on here?

John Lennox: Well, as the word implies, transhumanism means “trans-human, beyond human.” I suppose you could describe it as a kind of philosophical movement that is in many countries these days. And it is pushing for the transformation of humans by developing and making available sophisticated technologies that will greatly enhance human intellect and physiology. So it’s stating with a human and moving beyond it, believing that the human race can go/evolve beyond its current mental and physical limitations and that we can build technology in to achieve this. That’s the basic idea, I think. And, of course, AGI is particularly, exactly that.

27:38 | Kurzweil and Human Enhancement

Robert J. Marks: Ray Kurzweil, in his first book, talks about the enhancements we’ll have in the future. I always look at Kurzweil’s work with a grain of salt because he always assumes this exponential rise and he assumes anything he can assume. But that’s kind of the crux of his work. He says that someday we won’t need a tongue because we can probably tap right into our taste buds. We won’t need a nose because we can actually do artificial noses which will smell for us and all of these other things and I just wonder.

I’m not ready for such a transformation myself. I don’t want a chip replacing me. I don’t want to download myself into some computer and have a bunch of sensors tasting and eating and smelling for me…

So that seems to be a challenge. he also says that we will have all of the knowledge of mankind, all of Wikipedia available to us. And that always seems to be kind of a crazy way of thinking. Is that the concept of transhumanism. Does it embrace this sort of thing?

John Lennox: Well, partly. I think what complicates the discussion is that several things are being thought about. First of all, there’s the ideas we discussed earlier of downloading whatever we are onto silicate and somehow doing it that way. The other is to keep the biology but to enhance the biology, to build into it chips, to build into it all kinds of artificial things.

Of course, there is a sense in which we are already doing some of that and doing it usefully. I’ve got a tiny little pipe in my heart that’s saving my life. And some people have pacemakers and so on. Now, of course, what they’re claiming is at the moment perhaps in the realms of fantasy. Except perhaps for one thing: The web could probably very easily be brought nearer and nearer to us. If you watch people going around the world today; they’ve got a smartphone in their ears or they are watching it. I suspect it won’t be long before it’s connected to us much more intimately.

So certainly they will do some things in that direction. I have no doubt about it whatsoever. People are already, particularly in Sweden, getting chips put under their skin so that they can pay for things and all this kind of stuff. So in bits and pieces, people are becoming part biological and part mechanical, which often we describe as a cyborg. Something like this will happen but whether it will reach Kurzweil’s extent, I doubt. I’m always amused that they say this is going to happen within thirty to fifty years. It’s always thirty to fifty years.

Note: Many people today take transhumanism seriously, especially in Silicon Valley. At the COSM conference, prominent transhumanist Ray Kurzweil forecast for the audience that by 2045, we can merge with AI to avoid physical death. Others contemplate the gap that will exist between the rich who can afford immortality and the merely mortal remainder.

Self-driving car pioneer Anthony Levandowski has founded a Church of AI.

and

The CIO of AT&T,Andre Fuetsch, predicts that the smart phone will disappear in favor of glasses or other more closely attached chipwear.


More from John Lennox:

“Can science explain everything?” is also the name of a debate (April 17, 2019) debate with British chemist Peter Atkins, an atheist:

And here’s John Lennox on the “Promise and threat of AI”

“…far from science having buried God, not only do the results of science point towards his existence, but the scientific enterprise itself is validated by his existence.” – John Lennox


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But Could Techno-Immortality Ever Be the Real Thing?