The History of the Singularity

by Eric Steinhart

Many philosophers portray the cosmic process as an ascending curve of positivity. As time goes forward, the quantities of intelligence, power, or value are always increasing. These progressive philosophies have sometimes been religious and sometimes secular. Secular versions of progress have sometimes been political and sometimes technological. Technological versions have sometimes invoked broad technical progress and have sometimes focused on the recursive self-improvement of artificial intelligence.

For some philosophers of progress, the rate of increase remains relatively constant; for others, the rate of increase is also increasing – progress accelerates. Within such philosophies, the singularity is often the point at which positivity becomes maximal. It may be an ideal limit point (an omega point) either at infinity or at the vertical asymptote of an accelerating trajectory. Or, sometimes, the singularity is the critical point at which the slope of an accelerating curve passes beyond unity.

Although thought about the singularity may appear to be very new, in fact such thought has a long philosophical history. To help increase awareness of the deep roots of singularity thought within traditional philosophy, I have compiled some historical resources. I’ve posted links to the following:

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit – The Phenomenology of Spirit, written by G. W. F. Hegel about 1800, is perhaps the first singularitarian philosophy. It describes the ascent of spirit to an ideal limit point of absolute knowing. At this link you will find a website that introduces and outlines The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Samuel Butler on Machine Evolution – Around 1870, the British writer Samuel Butler used Darwinian ideas to develop a theory of the evolution of technology. He argued that machines would soon become artificial life forms far superior to human beings. The chapters from Erewhon dealing with the evolution of machines are excerpted here.

Charles Sanders Peirce Evolutionary Cosmology — The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, writing in the late 1800s, developed an evolutionary cosmology. It portrays the universe as evolving from an initial chaos to a final singularity of pure mind. The evolution is accelerating as the tendency to regularity acts on itself.

Henry Adams on the Rule of Phase – Around 1900, the American writer Henry Adams (descendent of President John Quincy Adams) was probably the first writer to describe a technological singularity. His essay The Rule of Phase portrays history as accelerating through several epochs – including the Mechanical, Electrical, and Ethereal Phases. This essay contains what is almost certainly the first illustration of history as a curve approaching a vertical asymptote. The link takes you to an edited version of his essay.

Henry Adams on the Law of Acceleration — Henry Adams was almost certainly the first person to write about history as a self-accelerating technological process. His law of acceleration prefigures Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns. The link takes you to an edited version of his essay.

Teilhard de Chardin and Transhumanism — Teilhard is the fore-runner of all contemporary theorists of the singularity. He is among the first to seriously explore the future of human evolution. He advocates both bio-technologies (e.g. genetic engineering) and intelligence technologies. He discusses the emergence of a global computation – communication system (and is said by some to have been the first to have envisioned the Internet). He advocates the development of a global society. He describes the acceleration of progress towards a technological singularity. He discusses the spread of human intelligence into the universe and its amplification into a cosmic-intelligence. The link takes you to a published essay discussing the ways that Teilhard develops singularitarian thought.

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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.