Uploading and Religion: Criticism of Stross

by Eric Steinhart

Charlie Stross, author of the highly-praised novel Accelerando, has written an interesting skeptical article on the technological singularity. The article makes many good points — except when it comes to “religion”. When it comes to “religion”, specifically religion and mind-uploading, what he says is remarkably silly. Here it is:

Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist. However, if it becomes plausible in the near future we can expect extensive theological arguments over it. If you thought the abortion debate was heated, wait until you have people trying to become immortal via the wire. Uploading implicitly refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul, and therefore presents a raw rebuttal to those religious doctrines that believe in a life after death. People who believe in an afterlife will go to the mattresses to maintain a belief system that tells them their dead loved ones are in heaven rather than rotting in the ground.

Pretty much every statement in that paragraph is false — and reflects a surprising ignorance about both Western philosophy and Christianity.

Stross says; “Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist.” On the contrary, mind-body dualism is maximally congenial to uploading. Dualism says that minds are separable from bodies. And classical writers like Locke used this separability to argue that minds could swap bodies – as in his famous Prince/Cobbler case. Functionalism is also friendly to uploading. Functionalism says (roughly) that the mind is to the brain as software is to hardware. And of course, Moravec and Kurzweil are functionalists. Uploading is harder the closer you get to mind-brain identity. If my mind is identical to my brain, then uploading is impossible.

Stross says: “Uploading implicitly refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul.” Huh? It surely doesn’t refute the existence of a Socratic-Cartesian soul, thought of as an immaterial thinking substance. Nor does it refute the Aristotelian theory that the soul is the form of the body. Souls are perfectly compatible with uploading. On the Aristotelian theory, uploading merely copies your soul from some natural biological substrate to some artificial computational substrate. Writers like Tipler (and Barrow and Tipler) are explicitly Aristotelians. And when Moravec and Kurzweil talk about patterns, they are talking about Aristotelian universals. Here it’s worth pointing out that the Aristotelian soul-theory was taken up by Thomas Aquinas (in his Treatise on Man in the Summa Theologica). Writers like Tipler, Moravec, and Kurzweil are in fact adopting something very close to the orthodox Catholic theory of the soul. Uploading goes quite nicely with traditional theories of the soul.

Stross says that uploading “presents a raw rebuttal to those religious doctrines that believe in a life after death.” And that’s really absurd. On the contrary, uploading would be a kind of empirical confirmation of the Thomistic doctrine of resurrection, and thus of the Catholic doctrine of resurrection. Uploading is exactly analogous to the doctrine of resurrection as replication developed by the Protestant theologian John Hick. Indeed, many Christian writers use computational analogies to develop their resurrection theories. These writers include Reichenbach, Mackay, Polkinghorne, Ward, and others. And here it’s worth noting that Moravec and Tipler explicitly use the term resurrection when they discuss uploading or its continuation into ancestor simulation. Uploading is just a technological resurrection theory.

Stross says: “People who believe in an afterlife will go to the mattresses to maintain a belief system that tells them their dead loved ones are in heaven rather than rotting in the ground.” But this doesn’t even make sense. The whole point of uploading is that, rather than rotting in the ground, you’ll be living in a computer. So uploading, rather than refuting life after death, vividly confirms it.

Stross writes that if uploading “becomes plausible in the near future we can expect extensive theological arguments over it. If you thought the abortion debate was heated, wait until you have people trying to become immortal via the wire.” There are already extensive debates about it. Look at David Noble’s older book, The Religion of Technology. Or look at Robert Geraci’s brilliant book Apocalyptic AI. Or at the long list of publications on religion and transhumanism on my website.

Contrary to Stross, I think Christian traditions would encourage uploading. The pro-life doctrines of both Protestant and Catholic ethics would probably compel you to upload yourself (and others) if you could afford to do so. Uploading is just another form of life-extension technology, ethically no different than other life-support or extension technologies already in use. Indeed, it is easy to imagine Christian practices extending into cyberspace: you could get communion in cyberspace. And, if you had not yet converted to Christianity in your organic life, it is probable that you could convert in cyberspace.

Uploading would be a great confirmation of traditional Christian doctrines about life after death: it would be practical resurrection. Christians would surely say that if we can do it, then God can do it. Of course, they would also insist that our technical prowess can’t replace the glory of God. Human uploads, after all, won’t really be immortal – the sun will soon incinerate the earth, the universe will run down. Uploading will allow Christians to argue that God will upload us into heaven.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Apocryphon

    But what happens when it turns out that you can make copies of uploads en masse? Or modify them?

  • David E

    For anyone who hasn’t read it I highly recommend the novel DEUS X by Norman Spinrad. It’s about the Catholic Church several decades in the future (led by the first female pope) struggling with the question of whether uploads are persons who have a soul or are just nonsentient simulations. One of my all-time favorite science fiction novels.

  • David E

    “Contrary to Stross, I think Christian traditions would encourage uploading.”

    I think you’re dead wrong on that point. I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of Christians would view uploading as an abomination. Many versions of Christianity would probably adapt to it eventually but only after long struggle within the churches.


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