Predicting Religion

Predicting Religion June 23, 2011

Charlie Stross wrote a piece explaining his skepticism about some of the more radical predictions from the futurists: Three arguments against the singularity. His short version, “Santa Claus doesn’t exist.” The long version is worth reading, but he references some other works that are also worth reading, so go in with some time to kill.

One of the ideas that Stross considers is “mind uploading.” Our minds are systems of information stored in the chemicals and electrical movements of our nervous system. Theoretically, there’s no reason our minds cannot be moved to a different substrate; say, the memory of a super computer. This is sometimes mentioned as a type of immortality.

Stross considers some of the technical problems, but he also touches on some potential religious and political problems:

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.

John Scalzi disagrees:

I think Charlie’s correct that there will be theological arguments about it; I don’t think he’s necessarily correct that trying to upload one’s brain into the cloud implicitly refutes the soul any more than any other non-organic life-extending therapy, like getting an artificial heart or blood dialysis. In the case of a brain upload (or more accurately, I suppose, mind upload) what would be extended is not the physical body but some aspect of the consciousness, but it’s an open question of whether this represents a difference of degree or of kind. I think a theologian worth his or her salt could very easily make the argument that if the soul is not threatened by an artificial heart, neither is it threatened by the consciousness having its lifespan artificially extended via the cloud (or the net, or the wire, insert your favorite computing metaphor here).

The only thing I’d add is that it’s very difficult to predict what issues are going to become religious and political firestorms. When Evangelical Christianity became America’s majority religion, its first big issue was stopping Sunday mail delivery. This, when the issue of slavery was beginning to split the nation. After that, the big issue was temperance and prohibition, which isn’t a natural outgrowth of the supposedly bible centered worldview of the Evangelicals.

Stross’ mention of abortion is probably the best example. It’s been well documented that Evangelicals once considered abortion a Catholic issue and were reluctant to get involved. It wasn’t until Francis Schaeffer made it the centerpiece of his campaign, which crystallized the movement we call the Religious Right, that the issue took center stage. It’s possible to imagine a world were Schaeffer never got involved, and so abortion would not be the flashpoint it is today.

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