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God and the Singularity

2. The Question of Hubris

Last time, I asked whether those who are looking for the soft-takeoff version of the Singularity should focus on trying to instill a notion of goodness, in particular the idea of an ultimate good, into the conceptual framework of the emerging intelligences. Irrespective of whether it would be a good idea to try to do so, I don't think we can make machines that "believe in God" in a meaningful sense. But a notion of the good, a good that is transcendent, a good that should always be strived for -- could we make such a notion axiomatic for an emerging intelligence?

From a strictly practical standpoint, an AI hard-coded with a combination of the golden rule and Kant's categorical imperative would be about as unlikely to go hard-takeoff on us as any being that can be imagined -- assuming, of course, that it considers us to be among the "others" unto which it must reciprocally "do," and that it doesn't immediately begin formulating Universal Ethical Precepts that involve removing all the "organic infestation" from the planet. Failing a hard-code option, we can attempt to communicate these ideas to the new intelligence. If the ethical cure doesn't take, getting the AI tangled up reading Kant might at least buy us a little time. Although with the AI's million-to-one mental speed advantage, the operative word there is "little."

However, instilling the emerging intelligence with a beneficial ethical sense is not the only moral consideration that we have to look at when exploring the relationship between God and the Singularity. The over-arching issue is the moral character of the Singularity itself. Is the Singularity a moral event?

There are many possible answers to that question -- yes, no, don't know, can't know, the question is irrelevant -- just as there are adherents to many different philosophical schools among those who are watching for the Singularity. Most would agree that the soft takeoff, in which humanity participates in and benefits from this next stage of evolution, is an optimum, a best case scenario; the hard takeoff is a worst case scenario; and the missed flight is hard to classify in a tree-falling-in-the-wilderness kind of way. But there will probably be fewer takers if the best case, worst case, and hard-to-classify categories are relabeled moral, immoral, and amoral, respectively. We can discuss AI ethics from a strictly utilitarian, human-centric perspective, but to give the Singularity itself a moral dimension is to posit a broader moral context.

Of course, this is precisely the perspective from which religious believers approach the question. Which is not to suggest that they are alone -- clearly, one need not believe in God in order to believe in a broader moral context. For example, a Singularitarian could define that which adheres to John Smart's developmental spiral as moral and that which diverges from it as immoral. So those actions that tend to lead towards the Singularity would be moral. The distinction between hard takeoff and the soft takeoff would not be an important consideration from this perspective. We don't know whether our participation in the Singularity (or its benefiting us) will represent a developmental optimum. So we could only evaluate the morality of a hard-takeoff or soft-takeoff Singularity after the fact. Only post-Singularity beings will have the perspective to make that determination.

For the religious believer, the question is not whether we have achieved a developmental optimum, but whether what has occurred is in accordance with God's will. As I mentioned previously, there is a presumption among many believers that the Singularity, by definition, could not be a moral event. In response to the earlier piece, blogger Randy Kulver wrote:

If there was a question, which i doubt there is, I would definitely fall in the camp who argue that the ideal or aspiration to the singularity is indeed hubristic, even Babel-like...

This is a good summary of what I would characterize as the mainstream religious response to the idea of the Singularity. There is (apparently) a strong prima facie case against the Singularity. If the subject is worth talking about at all, it is in order to dismiss it. The idea of the Singularity does, indeed, resonate with the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. If building that tower was regarded by God as sinful hubris, why would he look at the Singularity in any other way?

Before we attempt to answer that question, let's ask a more fundamental question: what does God want human beings to be? What does he want them to become? I think most believers would agree that the short answer to that question is that God wants human beings to be capable, even powerful, beings; but that capability and power must be subject to goodness. If it comes down to a choice, goodness always has to win out.

In the Biblical creation story in Genesis, God forbids that Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Why? Did God not want human beings to have a moral sense? Some would argue that God intended for Adam and Eve to disobey, so that they might understand their free will and learn to enter into a relationship with him of their own volition, but the mainstream view is that God's intention was not for humanity to come to moral knowledge and understanding of free will via disobedience. However, that is not to say that God never wanted human beings to know these things. Rather, I think most believers would agree that God wanted them to come to knowledge of these things by a different route, a route of obedience.

The Serpent, generally associated with Satan, tempted Adam and Eve into taking a shortcut to this knowledge by way of sinful disobedience. By gaining knowledge via these means, they were also subjected to a curse of mortality, struggle, and pain. Had they not taken that shortcut, wouldn't another route to this knowledge have been opened up to them -- one in accordance with the divine will? I think most believers would agree that this is true.

Contrast the Serpent with Prometheus in the Greek creation myth. Prometheus is very fond of the new human creatures. As a boon to them, he brings fire from heaven and gives it to them. This is technological knowledge. Human beings are made more capable by this gift. There is no notion of moral knowledge or free will. Zeus is angry because he sees the humans as a potential threat now that they have so much power. He punishes Prometheus accordingly.

Unlike the Serpent, who in conventional interpretations is seen as a malevolent figure, hoping to bring about the downfall of humanity, Prometheus is sympathetic to humanity. He gives us fire to help us. The Serpent isn't trying to increase humanity's standing in the world; quite the contrary. The Serpent is not a Singularitarian. But maybe Prometheus is.

Now let's take a look at the idea of hubris. Who in these two similar (yet very different) stories is guilty of hubris? If Kulver is correct in stating that belief in and promotion of the Singularity amounts to hubris, that question could be rephrased as this: who in these stories are the Singularitarians? I would suggest that Adam & Eve are misguided Singularitarians, trying to bring themselves to a new level of existence via the wrong path. (The Serpent is apparently not a Singularitarian; he wants humanity destroyed. One could argue that he is a proponent of a hard takeoff, but his end is not to usher in a new developmental level, merely to destroy his enemy.) Prometheus, on the other hand, is a Singularitarian hero, insisting on the developmental optimum of humanity's adoption of fire at great personal cost.

Both Prometheus and Adam & Eve commit what we might describe as spiritual hubris -- arrogance that usurps divine authority. The extent to which we think that Prometheus was justified in his hubris and that Adam & Eve were rightly punished for theirs is the extent to which we accept moral authority (i.e., God's authority) as valid and brute force (i.e., Zeus's authority) as invalid. The difference is that the Greek myth has no notion of an alternative developmental path (or at least blissful state of existence) intended for humanity which has been thwarted by the act of disobedience. The Serpent brings the apple to destroy; Prometheus brings fire to save.

However, there is another kind of Hubris -- what we might call practical hubris -- which is often overlooked or confused with the spiritual variety. When the resting place of the Titanic was discovered, many commentators described it as a great monument to "man's hubris." More recently, some have suggested that the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center was a demonstration of the consequences of hubris. I think one of those two is a pretty good example of practical hubris, but neither is an example of spiritual hubris. After all, few would seriously suggest that the Titanic or the twin towers somehow violated God's will just by their existence. If God is opposed to the construction of large ships or tall buildings, we have to ask why. Is he like Zeus on Olympus, threatened by the power that humanity displays through these inventions? It would take a very petty and small God to be so threatened.

Practical hubris is the hubris of Icarus, son of Daedalus. In Greek myth, Daedalus, imprisoned on an island, devises a novel means of escape -- he crafts wings which enable him (and his son) to fly. Before they make their departure, Daedalus warns Icarus of the dangers of flying too high or too low. However, once they are underway, Icarus gets carried away with the joy of flying and ascends to a great height up near the sun. The heat from sun melts the wax that holds the wings together, and Icarus plunges to his death.

I have never heard this story told in such a way that Icarus violates an edict from the gods or that he is struck down by their wrath. Falling is just the natural, tragic result of his playing fast and loose with the new power that his father's invention has given him. If one wants to apply the word "hubris" to the sinking of the Titanic, this is kind of hubris that applies. I doubt there are many who seriously believe that a divine hand shoved the ship into the iceberg in retribution for the haughtiness of the ship's builders. Hitting the iceberg was simply the natural, foreseeable result of steaming full-speed into iceberg-laced waters on a moonless night.

So if we accept this distinction, we now face two questions: Is it hubris to work towards the Singularity? If so, what kind of hubris is it? All of which leads us, at last, to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, found in the book of Genesis. Here's the story:

A fellow named Nimrod establishes what sounds like the world's first empire in the land of Shinar, which includes Babel, where the tower is built. Nimrod is described as a "mighty hunter," a powerful and charismatic leader. People begin to settle in Shinar, which is something of a prototypical silicon valley, with a charismatic entrepreneur at the helm and a booming technology (brick making) driving a whole new culture (based on progress and unhindered communication; this story occurs at a time when all people speak the same language.) The people of Shinar declare that they're going to build a city with a tower reaching to heavens and "make a name for themselves." God looks at what they're doing and comments as follows:

"If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."

So he confounds their language and scatters them out over the world.

Why does he do it? The traditional interpretation is that God acts primarily out of retribution for the arrogance and blasphemy of the people building the tower. There is no question that their self-aggrandizing behavior would be displeasing to him. So is his action here comparable to that of Zeus smiting the disobedient Prometheus?

Personally, I had always read it that way. But recently, a friend offered me a different interpretation -- drawing attention to what it is that God specifically says before acting. He does not refer to the pride or arrogance of the people of Babel. He expresses concern about allowing their upward spiral of progress to continue unabated.

"Nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them."

So what? Nothing they do represents a threat to him. It is much more likely that their actions may represent a threat to the people themselves. And note that these sinners are not killed as the people were in the story of the Flood. They are merely scattered.

In the story of the Tower of Babel, God does not seem primarily interested in punishing spiritual hubris, but rather in preventing the devastating consequences of practical hubris. He is not Zeus chaining Prometheus to a rock, he is a very forceful Bill Joy protecting people from the unforeseen consequences of their actions.

So the Tower of Babel is, indeed, a cautionary tale for Singularitarians, believers and non-believers alike. We would all be well advised to pay close attention to it. But it is not primarily a story about the consequences of violating the divine order; that's what the story of Adam & Eve is all about. It is about the need to tread lightly when setting out on a path of rapid development of knowledge and power, especially when so many of the consequences of that path must be unforeseen. The safest path forward surely lies in the avoidance of hubris of both varieties. Non-believing Singularitarians might not immediately resonate with the idea of spiritual hubris, but all can agree that we should proceed with humility, nurturing a respect for the potential dangers that is at least as great as our hope and longing for the wonders to come.


A non biblical tale that is closer would be in the Simarillion...when Aule makes the dwarves...
The dwarves are spared and blessed by Eru because 1) Aule made them as children to teach, not as slaves... 2) he repented his hubris in making them and offered to destroy them if Eru wished...
The problem is not the singularity per se, but the hubris of much of modern technology, that refuses to listen to both the religious prophets and the prophets of Science Ficion...
And by prophets I mean wise men like Ratzinger, not the usual a..H.... usually quoted by the press

I expect that any viable AI would eventually evolve. The species would split, producing the equivalent of carnivores, grazers, herd animals, solitary hunters, packs... Pretty much the whole species gamut that has characterized complex life on this planet for at least a billion years.

God is like Bill Joy...well, minus that whole "personal wealth accumulated from same progress he now deplores" thing.

God is a limousine liberal. Who'da thunk it?

I don't think Bill Joy is particularly hypocrytical, and he certainly doesn't "deplore" progresss. I'm sure he would argue that his experience with technology is a large part of what qualifies him to identify and assess the risks he describes.

thanx for fixing the comments, phil. ;)

umm...i don't actually agree with Dean Hamer's stupid book, "The God Gene", where he postulates some sort of locus or complex that causes some homo sapiens to be more receptive to "god belief", but i do actually believe some, umm, "god friendly" characteristics are hardwired to some extent in our genome. caring for kin, promoting kin and sharing memembership benefits with your genetic relatives. religion (imho) just attempts to extend those kinship benefits to a wider class of homo sapiens, who are your memetic, if not genetic, kin.

so, if the awkward trial and error paradigm of evolution machined god traits into our DNA, when AI's design other AI's won't the new more efficient, more "intelligent" design (ha ha, as opposed to "natural" design) result in even more godlike characteristics?

and...on the subject of hubris--perhaps the singularity is instead an example of koros, right action in harmony with the gods. ;)
Do you know the Turing Heresy? If god made man in his image, then can man make a sentient being in his image? Perhaps this is something we are supposed to do.

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