Friday, January 15, 2010

Hughes on Problems of Transhumanism: Atheism vs. Naturalist Theologies

On the IEET blog, James Hughes writes on Problems of Transhumanism: Atheism vs. Naturalist Theologies. The article is part of a series on Problems of Transhumanism where Hughes, who recently stepped down from the Board of Humanity+, the former World Transhumanist Association which he led in the 00s, analyses some important issues of contemporary transhumanist culture. James says:

Naturalistic theology may finally have found solid Enlightenment footing in modern transhumanist speculations about the transcendent powers of superintelligent beings...

Even if all matter in the universe is not currently suffused with consciousness, the transhumanist belief in the inevitable progress of intelligence and the ability of science to ultimately control all matter generates its own form of teleological theology similar to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's notion of humanity's evolution into an Omega Point (de Chardin, 1955, 1959; Steinhart, 2008). One early example of such transhumanist theological teleology or "cosmotheism" was Frank Tipler's (1995) argument for a resurrection of the dead at the universe's end...

A more minimalist version of cosmotheology is found in Nick Bostrom's (2003) "simulation hypothesis." Bostrom proposes that if the universe generates vast superintelligences with billions of years to amuse themselves, one of their activities might be the creation of simulated civilizations. Given the vast numbers of potential simulators, their vast computing resources, and the vast numbers of years to entertain themselves, and therefore the vast number of simulations they will likely run, the likelihood is that there are a vastly larger number ofsimulations of lived realities than actual lived realities. Therefore we are probably living in a simulation. Many people have pointed out the similarity between this skeptical view of sense data and earlier theological views...

Another version of transhumanist cosmotheism is found in the "Order of Cosmic Engineers" (OCE). The OCE describes itself as a transhumanist spiritual movement that foresees a future in which intelligence engineers the universe and becomes godlike. They distinguish between belief in a "supernatural" god, and belief in inevitable natural superintelligent, superpowerful gods. These natural gods might in fact already exist, produced by prior civilizations, or might be able to reach back from our future to influence the past. Religious beliefs in gods, the OCE contends, might simply be a primitive apperception of these superbeings...

Do any of these positions represent a backsliding towards irrationalism, a compromising of the core Enlightenment commitment to scientific naturalism? In principle, no. Naturalist predicates and arguments, coupled with an openness to transhumanist conclusions, are leading to new scientific theologies and spiritualities...


Spirituality and transcendence are not incompatible with Enlightenment values. On the contrary, they meet in the Cosmist vision of a physical reality re-engineered by intelligent life. I prefer not to speculate too much on how intelligent life may be(come) able to resurrect the dead, build natural gods, and spawn baby universes. This is very far from current scientific understanding, and must be left to future generations. But modern science shows that reality is full of unexplored possibilities in the sense of Clarke's Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and the immortal words of Shakespeare: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. On the basis of these vague glimpses of a future powered by Clarke's magic technology, I allow myself to contemplate possibilities similar to those proposed by religions. And this, for me, is a fusion of Enlightenment and spirituality.