Friday, April 21, 2023

Equivalence of the metaphors of the major religions and transhumanism

This post is the third installment of my passing on to both MindBlog readers and my future self my idiosyncratic selection of clips of text from O’Gieblyn’s book ‘God, Human, Animal, Machine’ that I have found particularly interesting. Chapters 3 and 4 form the second section of her book,  titled "Pattern."

From Chapter 3:

Once animal brains began to form, the information became encoded in neural patterns. Now that evolution has produced intelligent, tool-wielding humans, we are designing new information technologies more sophisticated than any object the world has yet seen. These technologies are becoming more complex and powerful each year, and very soon they will transcend us in intelligence. The ‘transhumanist’  movement believes that the only way for us to survive as humans is to begin merging our bodies with these technologies, transforming ourselves into a new species—what Kurzweil calls “posthumans,” or spiritual machines. Neural implants, mind-uploading, and nanotechnology will soon be available, he promises. With the help of these technologies, we will be able to transfer or “resurrect” our minds onto supercomputers, allowing us to become immortal. Our bodies will become incorruptible, immune to disease and decay, and each person will be able to choose a new, customizable virtual physique.

From Chapter 4:

…how is it that the computer metaphor—an analogy that was expressly designed to avoid the notion of a metaphysical soul - has returned to us ancient religious ideas about physical transcendence and the disembodied spirit?

In his book “You Are Not a Gadget”, the computer scientist Jaron Lanier argues that just as the Christian belief in an immanent Rapture often conditions disciples to accept certain ongoing realities on earth—persuading them to tolerate wars, environmental destruction, and social inequality—so too has the promise of a coming Singularity served to justify a technological culture that privileges information over human beings. “If you want to make the transition from the old religion, where you hope God will give you an afterlife,” Lanier writes, “to the new religion, where you hope to become immortal by getting uploaded into a computer, then you have to believe information is real and alive.” This sacralizing of information is evident in the growing number of social media platforms that view their human users as nothing more than receptacles of data. It is evident in the growing obsession with standardized testing in public schools, which is designed to make students look good to an algorithm. It is manifest in the emergence of crowd-sourced sites such as Wikipedia, in which individual human authorship is obscured so as to endow the content with the transcendent aura of a holy text. In the end, transhumanism and other techno-utopian ideas have served to advance what Lanier calls an “antihuman approach to computation,” a digital climate in which “bits are presented as if they were alive, while humans are transient fragments.

In a way we are already living the dualistic existence that Kurzweil promised. In addition to our physical bodies, there exists—somewhere in the ether—a second self that is purely informational and immaterial, a data set of our clicks, purchases, and likes that lingers not in some transcendent nirvana but rather in the shadowy dossiers “of third-party aggregators. These second selves are entirely without agency or consciousness; they have no preferences, no desires, no hopes or spiritual impulses, and yet in the purely informational sphere of big data, it is they, not we, that are most valuable and real.

He too found an “essential equivalence” between transhumanist metaphors and Christian metaphors: both systems of thought placed a premium value on consciousness. The nature of consciousness—as well as the question of who and what is conscious—is the fundamental philosophical question, he said, but it’s a question that cannot be answered by science alone. This is why we need metaphors.  “religion deals with legitimate questions but the major religions emerged in pre-scientific times so that the metaphors are pre-scientific. That the answers to existential questions are necessarily metaphoric is necessitated by the fact that we have to transcend mere matter and energy to find answers…The difference between so-called atheists and people who believe in “God” is a matter of the choice of metaphor, and we could not get through our lives without having to choose metaphors for transcendent questions.
Perhaps all these efforts—from the early Christians’ to the medieval alchemists’ to those of the luminaries of Silicon Valley—amounted to a singular historical quest, one that was expressed through analogies that were native to each era. Perhaps our limited vantage as humans meant that all we could hope for were metaphors of our own making, that we would continually grasp at the shadow of absolute truths without any hope of attainment.

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