Sunday, January 18, 2009

Teilhard and Transhumanism

The Journal of Evolution and Technology of the IEET has a very interesting and thoughtful article by Eric Steinhart on Teilhard de Chardin and Transhumanism.

Teilhard is almost surely the first to discuss the acceleration of technological progress to a Singularity in which human intelligence will become super-intelligence. He discusses the spread of human intelligence into the universe and its amplification into a cosmic intelligence. More recently, his work has been taken up by transhumanist authors including Moravec and Kurzweil. Wikipedia: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest... In his posthumously published book, The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard writes of the unfolding of the material cosmos, from primordial particles to the development of life, human beings and the noosphere, and finally to his vision of the Omega Point in the future, which is "pulling" all creation towards it. He was a leading proponent of orthogenesis, the idea that evolution occurs in a directional, goal driven way. To Teilhard, evolution unfolded from cell to organism to planet to solar system and whole-universe (see Gaia theory). Such theories are generally termed teleological views of evolution. Teilhard attempts to make sense of the universe by its evolutionary process. He interprets mankind as the axis of evolution into higher consciousness, and postulates that a supreme consciousness, God, must be drawing the universe towards him. Human beings, Teilhard argued, represent the layer of consciousness which has "folded back in upon itself", and has become self-conscious. Julian Huxley, Teilhard's scientific colleague, described it like this: "evolution is nothing but matter become conscious of itself. So in addition to the geosphere and the biosphere, Teilhard posited another sphere, which is the realm of human beings, the realm of reflective thought: the noosphere.

While the author is hardly the first to explore the relations between Teilhard's thinking and contemporary transhumanism, the article is a good and accessible summary of Teilhard's ideas written for transhumanist readers with some knowledge of the work of more modern thinkers like Moravec, Tipler and Kurzweil, whose ideas are used as entry points. Following Moravec, many transhumanists imagine our post-human mind children and Exes leaving the Earth and biology behind and spreading into the universe as pure information processors running on post-biological computational supports. In Teilhard's language, this is entering the pleroma: the critical point [where] future human intelligence will no longer be realized by any network of material particles and forces. We will cease to be realized by matter. This does not contradict the naturalistic thesis that we are entirely physical. It simply implies that not every physical thing is a material thing -- physics has deeper levels. The pleroma is physical, but its physicality is deeper than material... For Teilhard, spirit looks very much like energetic information. Spirit is software in action. As humanity becomes super-intelligent, it will cease to be material and will become purely informational. Future intelligence will cease to be materially realized. Evolution will pass into the pleroma. Steinhart explains Teilhard's pleroma with examples from the computational physics of Fredkin, Zuse and other scientists who consider information and computation as the basic fabric of physical reality at a fundamental level.

The resurrection of the dead is the religious concept that most transhumanist find harder to swallow. Perhaps because they had to make significant efforts to break free from religious upbringings, and are afraid of falling back into blind faith. As a religious person, Teilhard did not have any problems with the concepts of resurrection and afterlife: "For Teilhard, faith in Christ is the conviction that the cosmic process is tending to a final state in which all persons are saved. Salvation is the recovery and perfection of what is most personal in every human. Teilhard often writes about this salvation in psychological terms (e.g., in terms of consciousness)." The possibility of resurrection as re-instantiation of consciousness has also been discussed by more modern authors like Tipler and Moravec, who consider the resurrection of the dead of past ages as something that science and engineering may permit achieving in the far future.

Both Tipler and Moravec think that we may find ourselves resurrected in the far future as computational emulations of our current selves, and "copied to the future". I have illustrated this concept with the short video clip CA Resurrection, made with a Game of Life program. The protagonist pattern is doomed to certain death by interaction with an environment that, except in very carefully controlled conditions, is very unfriendly to the stability of patterns (sounds familiar?), but is copied before death and restored to life in a friendlier environment.

Universal Immortalists do not propose any specific engineering approach to resurrection, but consider it as an objective that future technology may be able to achieve, someday, based on future scientific advances. In his book ”Forever for All”, R. Michael Perry writes: “To that end, we dedicate ourselves to finding a way one day to bring back all persons who have ever lived, so they can join in our eternal adventure”. Perry considers resurrection as something that may one day be achieved by engineering, rather than by "supernatural" means, but I think Teilhard would not disagree. As I mentioned, most transhumanist don't like the concept of resurrection at all, and most religious people don't like the idea of resurrection as something that will be achieved by engineering, but I think this meme has a very strong potential to bridge the gap between transhumanism and religion.

Steinhart argues that transhumanists should study Teilhard's writings, not only as part of the history of transhumanist philosophy, but also because of their relevance to the memetic war between religion and transhumanism, which is beginning to develop and can only become much more intense. The conclusions of the article: Transhumanism and Christianity share common themes and are likely to meet soon in a fateful way. Conservative Christians stand ready to condemn transhumanism as a heretical sect and to politically suppress the use of technology for human enhancement. A study of Teilhard can help in this defense... As the cultural profile of transhumanism rises, conservative Christian groups are beginning to notice it. There are two ways this encounter can go. On the one hand, the encounter can involve mutual hostility. The transhumanists and conservative Christians will denounce one another as enemies. Each side will attack a cartoon version of the other. Such hostility could be fatal for transhumanism in the West. On the other hand, the encounter can be more diplomatic. If transhumanists learn more about the similarities between Christianity and transhumanism, they can respond carefully and successfully to attacks. Since Teilhard is clearly in favor of the use of technology for human enhancement, and since his arguments for human enhancement are developed within a Christian framework, a study of Teilhard can help transhumanists defend against religious conservatives.