Robot cult or Religion 2.0?

My essay “YES, I am a believer” does not contain the word “robot” or refer to robotics, and I am not very interested in robots (I prefer cyber angels). But, predictably, anti-transhumanist blogger Dale Carrico replies with a post titled “Robot Cultist Admits He’s A Robot Cultist.” He says:

“I’ve been pointing out the obvious for years and he’s been whining about me calling him mean names for all those years, but Giulio Prisco has now proudly declared that he is a full on fulminating wish-fulfilment fantasist skimming a few hyperbolic tech company press releases and some new agey pop-tech journalism clichés and some hoary science fiction conventions and mixing them into a faith-based initiative dreaming of Making It Big and become Raelianism or Scientology or Mormonism some day. The Very Serious Futurologists at the would-be stealth Robot Cult outfit IEET, the so-called “Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies” (of which Prisco is a Director) have published Prisco’s declaration and it has attracted enormous positive comment there, exactly as I would expect.”

There is a lot of meaningless noise here, but I believe he refers to “Future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. Future Gods will be able to resurrect the dead by ‘copying them to the future.’ Perhaps we will be resurrected in virtual reality, and perhaps we are already there.” He sees that I and other spiritual transhumanists advocate a convergence of transhumanist science and religion, cosmist spirituality and technology, and plan to build/become God(s) and engineer resurrection with science and technology, and he calls us a “Robot cult.” I prefer “Religion 2.0.”

Most of the comments to my article on the IEET site are indeed surprisingly positive, more so than I hoped. IEET articles about religion always attract many comments, see for example a previous article by George Dvorsky on “Why Humanists Need to Make the Shift to Post-Atheism” and the many intense reactions in the comment thread. I think this says something about the strong parallels between transhumanism and religion, and the need for new formulations and interpretations of religion (Religion 2.0) compatible with science.

It is true that Carrico has been insulting me for years (I must admit to having fun reciprocating his insults every now and then), but I don’t recall many insults on this particular topic. If anything, in a post titled “The Robot Cultists Have Won?” Carrico said: “[Giulio Prisco] has long been far more honest than is usual for a Robot Cultist about the techno-transcendentalizing impulse of the various superlative futurological sects as straightforwardly religious.”

I must admit to regularly reading Carrico’s blog, and that I consider him as an excellent writer and a smart person. A few years ago I used to participate in discussions on his blog, but he is only comfortable with his followers and cannot take criticism, so one day he told me that I was no longer welcome.

When he forgets for a moment his juvenile predilection for lies and personal insults, Carrico understands transhumanism better than most transhumanists. In particular, he understands that transhumanism is more about soft aesthetics than about hard rationality and science (we are really science fiction fans, like it or not), and that transhumanist aesthetics is but an alternative formulation of religious aesthetics (I propose to merge the two to make things simpler). Carrico likes to pretend that he considers transhumanist aspirations as scientifically impossible, but I suspect that he knows better.

In another recent post Carrico says: “I sometimes find that I am making arguments that have a certain kinship with some of the arguments at least some people of faith also make in defending their moral and cultural values from the more strident champions of scientism or objectivism. I believe that there is more to being reasonable than being scientific, and indeed I believe it is both unreasonable and unscientific to pretend that what makes moral, aesthetic, legal, ethical, and political beliefs reasonable (and most religious beliefs seem to be moral and aesthetic in character to me) is the same thing that makes scientific beliefs reasonable.”

I totally agree (Carrico will probably insult me for saying so). He even acknowledges that this tolerance of believers extends to some “Robot Cultists”:

“You know, although I am a convinced and cheerful atheist of many many years standing, I must admit I am not a militant about it, at least not so long as “militancy” is meant to indicate the belief of some atheists that everybody should be an atheist like they are. I am perfectly content to affirm, for example, that there are technoscientifically literate people of faith who embrace the secular separation of church and state and who struggle for social justice and who are perfectly lovely, reasonable people. Probably that includes at least some Robot Cultists in their transhumanoid, singularitarian, and techno-immortalist faiths as well, although I wonder if they really can have thought about their position very clearly.”

Again, I totally agree, and this statement comes as a very welcome surprise. (Carrico will probably insult me for saying so, and I guess I am not included among the lovely and reasonable transhumanists).

One of Carrico’s followers refers to Charlie Stross’ essay “Three arguments against the singularity” and reports interesting excerpts from the comments:

—-

Giulio Prisco: In reply to: “I can’t disprove [the Simulation Argument], either. And it has a deeper-than-superficial appeal, insofar as it offers a deity-free afterlife… it would make a good free-form framework for a postmodern high-tech religion. Unfortunately it seems to be unfalsifiable, at least by the inmates (us).”

My question is, what is wrong with this. Some persons function better _in this life_ if they can persuade themselves to contemplate the possibility of an afterlife compatible with the scientific worldview. They become happier and better persons, help others, and try to make the world a better place.

In other words, the pursuit of personal happiness without harming others. Charlie, what the fuck is wrong with this?

Charlie Stross: Nothing’s wrong with that particular outcome.

Where it goes wrong is when the belief system in question acquires a replicator meme (“tell all your friends the good news!”), a precedence meme (“all other beliefs are misguided!”) and finally goes on a bender and turns mean (“unbelievers are soulless scum! Kill them all before they pollute our children’s precious minds with their filth!”).

That’s why I take a negative view of religions in general. It’s not what the founders say or think, it’s not about what the mild-mannered ordinary folks who use it as a compass to guide them through life’s heartache think … it’s all about the authoritarian power structures that latch onto them for legitimization, and the authoritarian followers (pace Altermeyer et al) who take their insecurity out on the neighbourhood.

Giulio Prisco: Of course I totally agree with this, which why I also take a negative view of _traditional_ religions. Yet, I keep hoping that we can find ways to use the positive aspects of religion (relief from life’s heartache) without falling into the negative aspects.

—-

These excerpts  summarize the pros and contra of the emerging transhumanist spirituality and Religion 2.0.

I suspect that Charlie Stross shares Dale Carrico’s negative view of transhumanist spirituality more than my positive view, but I am an avid reader of his blog and his books, and he does not put himself in a corner by pretending to consider transhumanist aspirations scientifically impossible. He knows better: “I’m not convinced that the singularity isn’t going to happen. It’s just that I am deathly tired of the cheerleader squad approaching me and demanding to know precisely how many femtoseconds it’s going to be until they can upload into AI heaven and leave the meatsack behind. Moravec’s writing is what turned me on to transhumanism in the first place, in the late 1980s/early 1990s,” he says.

  • If “robot” is understood to mean creative and compassionate posthumanity then I worship robots. The problem is that almost no one understands “robot” in that way, which means Dale’s criticism is more likely to confuse than clarify.

  • Giulio Prisco

    I guess he intends “robot” as metallic, cold, technical, science-fictional, de-humanized, this kind of things, which _is_ the way “robot” is usually understood, so he uses the word that better suits his purpose. Dale is a master wordsmith, he chooses his words well. It is the substance that is weak.

    Of course this is the opposite of what we mean, but I am afraid he doesn’t want to understand that.

    • I have found that I need to clarify this mis-interpretation of the term “robot” all the time, especially when communicating transhumanist ideas to the already religious. It’s fascinating to see the same thing coming up when going the other way, defending religious transhumanism to an atheist.

      All robots are not necessarily the cold, science-fiction, de-humanized kind of thing. After all, our current bodies already ARE Robots (or replicator survival machines as Richard Dawkins would say). The question with regard to transhumanism is only about whether we can make them better or not. I think that the answer to that question is remarkably obvious.

  • Giulio Prisco

    Hi James. Of course I totally agree, as you say robots are not necessarily the cold, science-fiction, de-humanized kind of thing, and (especially) our current bodies already ARE Robots.

    This is evident to us, but many people still see robots as cold, metallic and de-humanized (even anti-human), and of course bioluddites use this in support of their positions.

  • Giulio Prisco
  • Singularity Utopia

    There is no “intersection of science and religion”, they don’t intersect. Robots or uploaded entities are not “cyber angels” but considering the legacy of Christianity (2012 years since the start of the Christian era) it is understandable how people with religious leanings want to fit everything into the religion box. Our realities so often must conform to the religious bent of civilization, but thankfully religious conformity is less forced these days (no Inquisition or stake-burnings). Thankfully religion is becoming redundant. To describe technological advancement as “Religion 2.0.” is absurd. Belief in God is absurd thus the absurdity of seeing religion in something not religious (technology) is understandable.

    I fail to see what benefits people get from thinking technological advancement is religious. Sloppy thinking is bad, there is no excuse, no justification. If God created the universe why does God allow suffering and why does God refuse to communicate (in any meaningful, logical sense) with humans?

    If I was designing a universe/humans I could a far better job with my mere human brain than God has done. If God exists I think God is an a-hole (I am not trying to offend you). Surely you can see how our world is deeply flawed? Surely you can see how no rational being would create life and the universe to be the way it is? We can’t know for certain at this point in time how our universe was created but it’s structure and human life indicates accident rather than design, unless God is a sadistic lunatic.

    Religions and cults are essentially the same thing (note Opus Dei) but technology is neither.

    Why do people need to worship things or beings? I think overbearing parents and institutions have indoctrinated people into roles of submissiveness and worship. Worship is a weakness of mind in my opinion. A weakness arsing from an intellectually primitive culture.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Singularity Utopia – as I said on G+, feel free to consider belief in God absurd, as you say today there is no Inquisition and stake burning. I will feel free to believe.

    You are referring to the Problem of Evil: a good and omnipotent God would not permit evil, so since evil exists, (a good and omnipotent) God cannot exist.

    Two answers: One, we should resist the temptation to anthropomorphize evil. We find the sight of a wolf eating a rabbit disturbing, but eating rabbits is what wolves do. Any empty ecological niche is always filled by evolution, and wolves just happened to fill that particular niche of rabbit-eaters.

    Two, “omnipotent” is a concept that needs to be defined and limited. No God can ever draw a triangle with four sides, because a triangle with four sides cannot exist by definition. I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I can believe in natural Gods, and I can believe that natural Gods created our reality. A natural God is only omnipotent in the sense that he is much more powerful than us, but still has necessary limitations.

    It makes sense to assume that the universe is the fastest computer that can compute itself. In other words, a 100% complete and accurate prediction of tomorrow’s weather cannot be done in less than 24 hours, and the only way to predict the future with complete accuracy is waiting for the future to happen. This assumption makes sense because the existence of a faster-than-the-universe computer would lead to logical contradictions.

    This “solves” the Problem of Evil, because God is unable to predict with complete accuracy that certain events would lead to, say, Auschwitz, and can only work with incomplete resources and information, like us.

  • Singularity Utopia

    So if the universe is a computer it is safe to assume the creator had a competent computer to create it. We see how computers allow us to predict the outcome of creations. We can compute the aerodynamics of a car, we can compute the requisite strength for the foundations of buildings. We can forecast many things.

    Computational skill and personal intelligence needed to create a universe implies a level of thoughtfulness not evident in our universe. I assert any being competent enough to create a universe is competent enough to create things far greater than our universe; what I mean is that the hypothetical creation of our universe by God was probably akin to humans (circa 2012) creating a hamster cage and some hamsters to populate the cage, or perhaps the creation of a tasty God-meal, thus God would have possessed a computer far more powerful than the computational capacity of our universe, similar to how our computers are more powerful than the meals we cook. Both God and I can predict the behavior of hamsters, we can also state a tasty meal will be tasty. Everything in our universe could have been easily predicted if our universe was created by an advanced being.

    I don’t find the sight of a wolf eating a rabbit disturbing, but I find human stupidity disturbing. The wolf and rabbit are not intelligent because they are not human, they don’t know any better, but God would be intelligent, God would be human in the humane intellectual sense of empathy for fellow intelligent beings, God should know better, God should have the intelligence to comprehend the ramifications of a creation. Evil and pain do not need to be impossible, a good and omnipotent God could permit evil, my point is that life seems to have been created to encourage evil and pain; there is an excessive focus on evil and pain; it is as though God has intentionally created the most painful universe imaginable, thus if God exists or existed then he/she/it is undoubtedly a sadist, but instead of a mentally deranged God it is more logical and natural to assume no God, pure accidental creation by nobody.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Singularity Utopia – I am afraid I can’t follow your logic.

    “I assert any being competent enough to create a universe is competent enough to create things far greater than our universe.”

    Why? Perhaps the being is just competent enough to create our universe, but nothing greater.

    “[hamsters and tasty meals]”

    Either you are much smarter than I, or you are typing too fast. I don’t understand what you say.

  • Singularity Utopia

    OK, so things progress. Over time our computers become more powerful, for example the Law of Accelerating Returns defined by Ray’s data.

    When we reach Singularity we could be seeing, based on the 2001 rate of progress, around 100 or 2,000 years of progress or more (becoming quicker all the time) within 1 year.

    Upon reaching Singularity circa 2045 I think we won’t immediately be able to create new universes. My guess is the creation of new universes will be towards the end of this century, which will be: Singularity plus approximately 55 years, which means the rate of technological progress will be a lot faster at the universe creating point.

    So if someone wants to create a universe, the question is would they immediately rush into creating a universe upon the instant they gain the technological proficiency to do so, or would they take time to plan and test how their universe will evolve over billions of years?

    If they take time to consider how their universe will evolve I am sure considering the accelerating rate of progress they would have better modeling computers with a short period of time, before they actually create the universe, due to the Law of Accelerating Returns; they would quickly surpass the technological pinnacle of universe creation within a few years or perhaps within a few seconds, or milliseconds. So it is very likely they would possess computers more powerful than the universe before the universe is created thus they could predict absolutely everything that would happen in the universe they were about to create.

    I will also consider the possibility they rushed blindly and stupidly into the creation of a universe the first moment they had the capability to do so.

    Consider the technolgical accomplishment needed to create a universe; it is safe to state such creators are very intelligent, thoughtful people, very considerate regarding their actions, but maybe recklessly insane people will also exist in the super-intelligent future. People must have an utterly AWESOME level of technology if they can create universes; the mind boggles thinking about it but surely we can see how even in the case where a flawed universe is impetuously created by amateur-creators the corrections could easily be fixed within a few seconds, hours, or years after creation due to the Law of Accelerating Returns? Our universe would be obsolete within a few days or years.

    We can update our computers with patches to secure a vulnerability, we can even install an entire new OS. Surely advanced beings could update the universe to eliminate all bugs?

    Surely God has heard of Beta-testing? I think nobody created our universe but if they did it would’ve been very stupid to rush into the creation process because a universe is for life not just Christmas.

    http://youtu.be/o4nUCWWxjYQ#t=1m34s
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogs_Trust#Slogan
    http://www.dogstrust.org.uk/az/a/adogisforlife/default.aspx

    Our universe is comparable to a dog, hamster, or a tasty meal. Considering super-intelligence, our universe is not very technically accomplished. It would be easy to predict everything that happened in our universe or if sufficient prediction capability was not available at the time of creation it would be easy to install an update a few seconds or years after creation. The update would be feasible due the ever advancing nature of progress.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Singularity Utopia re “Surely advanced beings could update the universe to eliminate all bugs?”

    Take it from an old software pro with many, many years of experience: there are always some bugs left.

  • Singularity Utopia

    With a brain exceeding humans brains circa 2012 by many billions, and a time span of billions of years I am sure all bugs could be eliminated.

    Since the point when the universe was created the technology and brains of the hypothetical creators would have progressed dramatically. Our universe is hopelessly obsolete by many billions of years from the creators viewpoint, thus fixing bugs after only a few years would be akin to a Matrioshka-Brain fixing a flaw in an abacus or rewriting Windows XP to eliminate all bugs. It would be easy, very easy.

    Technology will not have stood still for the hypothetical universe creators.

    Within 100 years from now, at the most, a Matrioshka-Brain could eliminate all bugs from all 2012 software.

    The question is: how quickly would the intelligence of universe creators evolve after creating the universe? I doubt progress would have stopped so even if exponential growth of intelligence has somewhat plateaued I expect the progress within 100 years would nevertheless be exceedingly dramatic, thus universe bugs could be fixed or least they could send us a message, but they don’t exist, thus we live a Godless universe created by nobody.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Singularity Utopia – I think your assumption is flawed. You assume that our universe is an extremely “easy” computation for the creators, but I don’t see any reason to make this assumption. On the contrary, it may be a computation at the limits of their ability, or even beyond.

    I think we should just agree to disagree. You want to conclude that “we live a Godless universe created by nobody,” and nothing that I can say will persuade you. Similarly, you will not persuade me and I think your logic is very weak. Let’s leave it at that, shall we.

  • Singularity Utopia

    The creation-computation of our universe may have been very difficult initially.

    We all know how the first computers created by humans occupied the size of a very large room but they had a processing power less than the mobile phones we carry in our pockets. Is it so unreasonable to assume computational skill of universe-creators would similarly progress dramatically over a short space of time?

    Do you realise how many billions of years old our universe is? 100,000 years after the creation of our universe the universe was nevertheless VERY YOUNG. 100,000 years is nowhere near one billion years. 100,000 years after the first universe was created I am sure the technology to create universes would have progressed radically thus universe computation would have been very easy billions of years ago. All bugs could have been fixed before the creation of our solar system.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Dale re “Giulio Prisco admits he is a Robot Cultist but then complains that I call him one” (http://amormundi.blogspot.com/2012/06/robot-cultists-ready-for-some-re.html)

    I don’t complain (I said “I don’t recall many insults on this particular topic”). May be next time you finish reading before you start writing?

  • Hi. I am half of a podcast you might be interested in hearing. We critically discuss transhumanist futurism but we also model respectful dialogue between theists and atheists. Please check us out if you get a chance.