The Singularity as Religion

The Singularity as Religion April 11, 2011

by Eric Steinhart

I think much of the culture and discourse around the singularity is religious. I say this based in part on my reading of David Noble’s book The Religion of Technology and my reading of Robert Geraci’s Apocalyptic AI. Both are fantastic books. And I’ve compiled a long list of articles and books on technology and religion on my website.

The singularity as religion might not be an entirely bad thing. Religion can be a positive force in many ways. At the very least, singularitarianism would be an interesting new type of religious engagement.

I’m going to explain why I think the singularity is a religion. I’ll do this by replying to ten reasons I’ve seen on the Internet on why the singularity can’t be a religion:

(1) The singularity isn’t Christian or Abrahamic. My reply is that lots of religions aren’t Christian or Abrahamic. I claim that the singularity is a new religious movement – it need not look like Christianity or any Abrahamic religion. To scholars of religion, it pretty clearly does incorporate many elements of Christianity. Nevertheless, I think the singularity is a fairly novel form of religious participation. It often looks to me like a kind of animism in which technology (especially computers) is the locus of the sacred.

(2) The singularity is atheistic. My reply is that religion can be atheistic. I take it that atheism is denial of theism – which mainly means denial of the Abrahamic God. There are many ways to be religious without believing in God (here one thinks of Neoplatonism, some forms of liberal Protestantism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, and a host of smaller movements). So the fact that most singularitarians say they don’t believe in “God” doesn’t mean that they aren’t building a new religious movement. Indeed, I think singularitarians are often reviving old Neoplatonic ideas. The Super-AGI looks lots and lots like the Plotinian Nous. And there’s an old tradition of Western animism that seems to be re-activated in much singularitarian writing: the material becomes infused with spirit; dead matter wakes up and turns into mind-stuff, into pure computronium.

(3) The singularity isn’t about anthropomorphic projection – it doesn’t posit a human-like deity. My reply is that deities obviously don’t have to be human-like. The Neoplatonic One is a totally abstract entity with no mind or personality whatsoever. Of course, my reply is tempered by the fact that many singularity activists portray the Super-AGI of the future as a mind built initially by humans. So the Super-AGI may be human-like. Or the divine for singularitarians could just be pure abstract rationality. It’s possible to worship pure reason – especially if it has an incarnation as a concrete entity, namely, the Super-AGI.

(4) The singularity doesn’t posit the appearance of a god of any kind. My reply is that no matter how secular or profane the singularitarians say they are, the singularity is the locus of an ambivalent holiness (in the sense of Rudolph Otto). The singularity is numinous. The Super-AGI of the future may not be a god in the Abrahamic sense; but it is divine nonetheless. It will be full of super-love for us or full of super-wrath. It will be an extreme good (ushering in the new golden age) or an extreme evil (destroying the human race). The singularity (or the Super-AGI) offers damnation or salvation. It’s interesting to note how many singularitarians seem to think that the singularity promises personal immortality (or even the resurrection of the dead). The Time Magazine cover says it all: “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal”.

(5) The singularity isn’t the second coming of Christ. My reply is that singularitarianism very closely fits the pattern of millenarian or apocalyptic movements. The Great Event has been interpreted as the return of Christ, as the landing of the UFOs, as the Mayan apocalypse, the emergence of the Great Computer. It will, in any case, be a radical break; it will be the ending of profane history and the beginning of sacred history. The appearance of the Super-AGI will be the breaking apart of secular history. I love it when singularity activists talk about “event horizons” beyond which we cannot see.

(6) The singularity is based on rationality rather than faith. My reply is that reason and faith are not opposites. One sense of faith is that it is belief in things unseen – in things to which we have no empirical access. It may be highly rational to believe in such things. A Platonist may have an entirely reasonable faith in the existence of purely mathematical objects. Or a modal realist may have an entirely reasonable faith in the existence of other possible universes. For older writers like Kant and Hegel, reason goes very far beyond the empirical structure of the universe. Or perhaps to be rational is merely to engage in logical symbol-manipulation. If that’s right, then Anselm’s ontological argument is a wonderful piece of pure reason. The Five Ways of Aquinas are rational. The very impressive work of Alvin Plantinga on modal ontological arguments is extremely rational. And it’s worth noting that Auguste Comte tried to develop a religion of reason.

(7) The singularity is based on science rather than superstition. My reply is that much of what I read about the singularity goes so far beyond any scientific data or present technical achievement that it looks very unscientific. Perhaps someday there will be an artificial general intelligence that far outperforms humans. But plenty of scientists and engineers seem highly skeptical about the grandiose claims of singularitarians. Are any of the claims of the singularitarians empirically testable? Verifiable or falsifiable? Only in some indefinite future. This is what John Hick called eschatological verification. But that’s not science at all. An interesting point here is that many singularitarians don’t seem to be interested in scientific research – such as writing papers for peer-reviewed journals. There is no such thing as the singularitarian research program in any standard academic or commercial sense. It looks like what Feynman called “cargo cult science”. And singularity activists have their own version of Pascal’s Wager. The singularity is so overwhelmingly transformative that even if it has a teeny-tiny chance of happening, the reward or punishment for us will be extremely great. It’s so easy to see! You just have to write out an expected utility equation.

(8) The singularity is naturalistic but religious involve the supernatural. My reply is that religion can be naturalistic. There’s even an interesting movement called religious naturalism. The singularity is a kind of religious technologism. Technology is the locus of the holy or the sacred. Here I’m thinking of Durkheim and Eliade. Of course, this reply is tempered by the fact that, for singularitarians, the Super-AGI of the future often does seem to have supernatural powers, even if it is made of some kind of matter.

(9) The singularity will be human-made, not made by some deity. My reply is that there is a large part of religion that says that humans have to do the bootstrapping for the kingdom of heaven. The Old Testament has elaborate instructions for the construction of various technologies: the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, the Temples. Only if these are built in exactly the right way will God appear and live among the people. Singularitarians of a certain sort say that after we build the first AGI, it will become recursively self-improving. This fits the pattern: we do the basic gruntwork that shows that we’re holy enough to receive the blessing; then the divine appears and takes over.

(10) The singularity doesn’t have the appearance of a conventional religion – it has no rituals, no clergy, no scriptures, no churches. My reply is that it does indeed have all these things – they are all slowly taking shape. Some singularity groups look more like churches than like scientific research foundations, political think-tanks, or business enterprises. After all, they’re not doing experiments, writing peer-reviewed research, trying to influence legislation, developing products or services. For scriptures, well, the big names are pretty obvious. As far as I can see, there does seem to be a kind of ecclesiastical society forming around the singularity. There are singularity “activists” and “evangelists”. Some singularity activists are highly charismatic personalities. Much of what singularitarians do is make claims about the future that look more like prophecies than like empirically grounded extrapolations. It’s not clear that religion needs rituals. Still, I can easily see the day when the singularitarians develop explicit liturgies and ceremonies. Perhaps they will incorporate as a religious organization to gain various legal benefits. Your kids might get married by a singularitarian celebrant or you might have a singularitarian funeral. Here again Comte comes to mind – he worked out some liturgical structures for his positive religion, including catechism, saints, a religious calendar, etc. It would be a short step to move from a religion of humanity to a religion of super-human reason.

I’ve listed ten reasons why I think singularitarianism is a new religious movement. I might add that I think Clifford Geertz had a pretty nice (though very abstract) definition of religion. And I think singularitarianism fits Geertz’s definition (but that’s for another time).

My main interest is this: if singularitarianism is a new religious movement, then what should we make of it? Will it mainly be a good thing? A kind of enlightenment religion? It might be an excellent alternative to old-fashioned Abrahamic religion. Or would it degenerate into the well-known tragic pattern of coercive authority? Time will tell; but I think it’s worth thinking about this in much more detail.

Guest Contributor Eric Steinhart is a professor of philosophy at William Paterson University. Many of his papers can be found here .
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