« Carnival of Tomorrow #16 | Main | He looks like a blogger to me... »

God and the Singularity

Thanks for the link, Glenn, and welcome InstaPundit readers. For those who inquired about the subtitle and the "1." below -- yes, this is the beginning of a series. I'm hoping to have the second entry up sometime this week. So don't be a stranger.

1. God as Model of the Good

Ray Kurzweil lays out some challenging ideas in The Singularity is Near, perhaps none is more challenging than this passage which concludes the chapter entitled "Ich Bin Ein Singularitarian":

Evolution moves towards greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love. In every monotheistic tradition God is likewise described as all of these qualities, only without limitation: infinite knowledge, infinite intelligence, infinite beauty, infinite creativity, infinite love, and so on. Of course, even the accelerating growth of evolution never achieves an infinite level, but as it explodes exponentially it certainly moves rapidly in that direction. So evolution moves inexorably towards this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal. We can regard, therefore, the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form to be an essentially spiritual undertaking.

This raises some interesting questions about the relationship between God and the Singularity. Just to rattle off a few...

Does the Singularity bring us closer to God?

Does God show up at the Singularity?

Are we going to somehow create God?

Are we going to somehow become God?

These kinds of questions would have gotten me in a lot of trouble years ago at (Southern Baptist) church camp. Actually, the first two wouldn't have, so long as everyone assumed that by "Singularity" I really meant "Rapture." And, come to think of it, the latter two wouldn't have gotten me into trouble so much as they would have worried people sick about the state of my soul, subjecting me to the kind of additional attention and counseling that every 14-year-old boy hopes to get on summer afternoons while everyone else is out swimming and playing softball.

To tell you the truth, even today I'm glad that my Mom rarely looks in on this site. I'm not sure that I would want her to know that I'm raising these kinds of questions. You want to talk about being in trouble...

Anyhow, before we get to the answers, let's spend some time on why we would even be talking about God in relationship to the Singularity. For starters, there's probably not a lot of overlap between theists and Singularitarians. Devout believers tend to view the Singularity as a kind of competing eschatology, while "devout" (doesn't seem to be the right word, does it?) Singularitarians tend to be agnostics and atheists. There are exceptions, of course, but they are mostly outliers -- scientifically minded folks who have room in their world view for an amorphous, noncommital "spirituality" and fringe believers who are okay with making pretzels out of established doctrine (a la Tipler) in order to be able to affirm everything they want.

Those are perhaps needlessly nasty caricatures, but they get the point across. Very much to his credit, what Kurzweil seems to be presenting is a merger of both these positions, absent the cynicism and simplistic rationalizations.

A while back, during a between-session break at Accelerating Change 2005, I had the good fortune to have a chat with two prominent individuals, one a life-extension advocate, the other a thought leader on the subject of artificial intelligence. We were talking about the Singularity and the probability of a hard versus soft takeoff when suddenly we found oursleves on the topic of where this is all going in the long run. One of us dared to suggest that God might figure into the picture, pointing out parallels between the scenario we were examining and a story from the Bible. This was immediately dismissed by another as reliance on "fiction," but the third participant suggested that the Bible story referenced should be viewed as myth, not in a pejorative sense, but as a potential source of wisdom and instruction irrespective of whether it describes something that happened historically.

This was an attempt, I believe, to establish some kind of common ground between believers and nonbelievers. And I think it's similar to what Kurzweil does above by referring to God not as an entity but rather as a collection of characteristics. Some of the characteristics that Kurzweil mentions are things that we would normally associate with the idea of the Technological Singularity, namely:





...while the rest might seem a little out of place:



subtle attributes such as love

But then again, maybe not so out of place. If we add empathy and kindness as subheadings under the "subtle attributes," what begins to emerge is something not unlike Friendly AI as defined by our friends at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence:

A "Friendly AI" is an AI that takes actions that are, on the whole, beneficial to humans and humanity; benevolent rather than malevolent; nice rather than hostile. The evil Hollywood AIs of The Matrix or Terminator are, correspondingly, "hostile" or "unFriendly".

Friendly AI is the intelligence of the soft-takeoff Singularity, the version of the Singularity in which good things happen. It is distinguished from non-friendly AI, which we would encounter in the hard-takeoff Singularity -- the version where superhuman intelligence emerges and immediately destroys us, either deliberately or inadvertently. There is a third option, what I call the "missed flight," where the new intelligence emerges, wants nothing to do with us, and starts doing its own thing in such a way that neither hurts nor helps us.

Any of the three flavors of Singularity described above will involve a massive increase in the qualities named in the first list. But only a soft-takeoff, Friendly AI Singularity will involve an increase in the qualities named in the latter list, or at least that final item on it. Arguably, a highly creative intelligence could emerge with a strong aesthetic sense and still have no empathy for us whatsoever. But I believe that if we find a way to instill a notion of beauty into an artificial intelligence, that notion will depend upon an underlying concept of goodness, which -- with any luck at all -- we will help the new intelligence to extend into the ethical as well as aesthetic sphere of thought.

So there, I believe, is the common ground that believers and Singularitarians have in exploring the relationship between God and the Singularity. Both have a keen interest in goodness. In working to bring about an emergent superhuman intelligence, the Singularitarian can find in the idea of God (or at least in some of the more prominent ideas about God) a model, a template, an ideal. A believer might counter that to attempt to create God would be the worst kind of hubristic folly, and blasphemy to boot. We'll look at these objections in greater detail later.

But no one is talking about creating God. A Christian mother who tries to instill Christ-like qualities in her children would not be accused of blasphemy, nor have I ever heard anyone ascribe hubristic folly to that book by Thomas a Kempis. And if anything is blasphemous, surely it's the name "Christian," meaning "little Christ."

As our evolutionary heirs, these intelligences which are to emerge will be either extensions of ourselves or they will be our offspring. Either way, the effort to make them God-like -- or do I ruffle fewer feathers on one side, while perhaps making folks on the other side uncomfortable, if I trade that term for "godly"? -- seems like something we can all agree is a pretty good idea. Technologists will see this as responsible design, akin to the safety considerations that must enter into the introduction of any new machine. Believers will see it as a moral imperative. If the new intelligence is our offspring, the imperative is to raise the child with the right values. If it is a soulless machine, the imperative is to see to it that it is used for the best ends possible.

UPDATE: Here's a follow-up to this entry in response to one of the reader comments. And now Frank Tipler himself has weighed in on the discussion.


A large part of why I blog nicknonymously is to avoid conversations with my family about how I came to hold unacceptable beliefs.

Triticale (from Stephen):

I have a sister-in-law that's discovered The Speculist (by Googling me I think) and said to me, "I had no idea you were so weird."

I just smiled and said, "You STILL have no idea how weird I am."

I've worried a couple of times about how my blogging might negatively affect my profession. But, I think the williness to consider and debate ideas outside the mainstream is a symptom of intelligence, not "weirdness."


Civilization's path to the Singularity has at least this much in common with religion: both arise out of a deep spiritual dissatisfaction with certain limits - limits of "complexity, elegance, knowledge, intelligence, beauty, creativity, and love." I'd add to that the we are also dissatisfied with our ethical imperfection and our mortality.

We are unique amoung all the animals on earth in this way. We are the only ones that really chafe at our limits.

Thanks for linking 'God' with the Singularity, which connection I never thought about before. For me, 'God' is little more than 'collective consciousness', so I would vote that 'the upcoming Singularity will create God', though that view may not be the most popular. -KE

Thinking about the singularity and theology can lead to some weird ideas. I sometimes wonder if the notion that we have been created in the image of God shouldn't be taken litteraly. What I mean is that a creator could have created the universe to evolve into a god. Yet if the real God is an actual infinite and the singularity god is only a potential infinite then no matter how close to infinite the singularity god is it will always be an infinity away from the original. Plato discusses an idea similar this in the Timeaus, and it is the foundation for the idea of eternal Forms as the model of this universe which is mere image.

Actually "devout singularitarian" seems appropriate since it becomes a religious faith at extreme levels.


One of the things Ray does not seem to consider is that we already live forever. The human soul is immortal.
. . .
Since we are immortal, there is good reason to believe that the civilization of human souls from which we come when we are born is already a vastly superior civilization than that on the earth today. Imagine a civilization a million years or a billion years past the singularity, and the behavior of what are called "spirits" is not so farfetched. A quite reasonable conclusion is that we have already passed the singularity.

i view the topic of this discussion with suspicion, and i see a fundamental problem in your reasoning, namely that you seem to automatically equate moral goodness with christian values and belief systems. while this may seem to be sound reasoning from a US citizen's point of view, it certainly doesn't seem all that appropriate thinking on an more global scale. after all, a solid part of the world population will not agree with that assumption to start with. futhermore, i think you will have quite a hard time instilling the notion of an all-powerful, all-mercyful god into a piece of software (especially one written in java as singinst suggests :P), and without it, christian ethics necessarily crumble. it may well be that there is a common denominator in christian morality and a supposed "perfect" ethic system for a benevolent ai; however, a humanitarian approach to safe ai design would certainly offer better possibilities (without being chained by a belief system), and this is a different vector of thought entirely.

i also have a remark about the debate itself, namely that it is obvious where the participants hail from. in hardly any other (western) country would you find anyone being afraid of getting into trouble at a church camp or having struggles with their mothers over their, well, wider points of view. this, paired with the earlier notion of you guys suggesting a soft takeoff to best happen within the US gives me the creeps, to be honest. do you really consider yourself and your nation to be the paragon of ethics in the world? neither your governments nor your major companies ethical policies suggest so, at least not from a european (actually, rest-of-the-world) view. to be honest, having a recursively evolving ai instilled with american/christian ethical values around on this planet looks no different to me than hard takeoff. but bear with me, i may be prejudiced by impartial news coverage.

One of the things that I've thought about recently with regards to humanity, nature, God and singularity, has to do with our purpose on this earth. With a single, albeit big, assumption, the answer seems to be literally, go forth, multiply and get smart.

That assumption is that the universe, a naturally entropic entity, is in fact trying to find ways to survive despite itself, and uses life, and it's evolution to intelligence, to find ways to beat that entropic nature.

So the singularity isn't about creating God or finding God, so much as about taking the first step in saving God.


The problem with the world's view of Americans is that we (the rest of the world) usually only see the problems as shown by hollywood and CNN (and other news networks). The fact is that Americans are no less moral then Europeans (although both Americans and Europeans seem to have the belief that they are the moral ones). And just like Europeans, there is not one set of ethical values, although there is a strong undercurrent of respecting your church (whichever one you belong to). It's kinda funny, really, how many people in the States seem to expect everyone to respect the values of their own churches (you respect your church's beliefs, I'll respect mine, now let's go bowling). This may be the reason why moderate American Muslims can thrive in the States while their French brethren are disenfranchised.

Further, so long as you consider America as one monolithic entity, you will be steered wrong. Imagine instead of one country, 50 countries, and most of those divided into their own little regions (which may or may not resemble the counties on the map). Each region has its own traditional customs, some of which are shared by surrounding regions, others of which are not shared or only shared by a region on the other side of the country. And that's just a general overview. Remember, America really is like any other country, in that it gets more complicated the more you want to know about it.

And therein people end up simplifying things, until America represents only a few things on someone's list. The land of the free. An oppressive imperial state. The land of oppurtunity. Freedom of speech. Bushitler. Free love. Commercialism. Consumerism. Corporatism. Fascism. Capitalism. Democracy. Replublic.

Most commentators have neither the time nor the incentive to explain all that. Instead, they go for the sound bite, picking and choosing what they think will give them the strongest backing for whatever argument they're peddling.

Take the peddlers with a grain of salt

I find these Singularity discussions interesting, but most overlook an important point: If humans succeed in creating some kind of superhuman intelligence, isn't it rather arrogant of us to assume that such an intelligence will allow itself to be subject to our desire that it be benevolent to humans? Why would such an intelligence, once attained, not immediately redesign itself to meet its own needs? Are we as a species truly willing to accept the consequences of creating something more powerful than ourselves and completely out of our control?

To these four questions:

Does the Singularity bring us closer to God?

Does God show up at the Singularity?

Are we going to somehow create God?

Are we going to somehow become God?

I would add:

Is the Singularity God?

Over at Instapundit, where I found the link that brought me here, Reynolds made the passing comment that some people had referred to the Singularity as "the rapture for nerds". There may be more truth in that than he thinks, though -- belief in the Singularity seems to fill the same psychological/spiritual (pick either or both) niche as belief in God does. And both the Singularity and God are, ultimately, incomprehensible to us poor merehums. :)

Anywho, thanks for posting this. It's given me food for thought -- and another interesting blog to explore!

The Singularity reminds me of a few scriptures.

One is Luke 12: 2-3 which in the KJV reads:

For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.

Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.

The other is from the Doctrine and Covenants (Section 130:9) of
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

"This earth, in its sanctified and immortal state, will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon, whereby all things pertaining to an inferior kingdom, or all kingdoms of a lower order, will be manifest to those who dwell on it; and this earth will be Christ’s."

The Urim and Thummim, Hebrew for lights and truths, are two crystal stones used to aid in the reception of revelation.

The Singularity is not God, but it may be more like the Mind of God.


Interesting thoughts. I would add that, seeing as there is an order and hierarchy of infinite numbers, might there not also be an order and hierarchy of infinite beings? We assume that once you hit infinity, you've met God, but maybe not.


Frank Tipler suggests something similar here. I would only say that if I'm a post-singularity being, then being such is not nearly as big a deal as I thought it would be!

screwball --

On the idea of "saving God," Have you read God's Debris by Scott Adams? it touches on a similar (sort of) idea.

Brandon --

Good question. I'm adding it to the list.

Post a comment