When The Singularity Proves God

What will happen when the singularity discovers conclusive scientific proof for the existence of God?

A thousand years ago, our greatest thinkers believed that the entire world testified to an intelligent creator. It was considered self-evident. Three hundred years ago, our best thinkers suspected that an intelligent creator was no longer self-evident, when viewed through the lens of science. By 1900, science had proclaimed judgment: our greatest scientists believed that the world showed no signs of an intelligent creator. The world was the result of a small set of fixed laws mechanically interacting to drive stochastic processes. Starting in 1950, however, a number of new scientific discoveries shook our faith in this naive mechanical model. Today, the question of whether the universe was created is an open scientific question, with no conclusive answer on the immediate horizon.

Scientific knowledge can cast doubt on the existence of a creator, but can also lend support to the existence of a creator. Reality didn’t change a bit between 1900 and 1990. Our differing levels of scientific certainty about a creator can only be explained by our differing levels of scientific knowledge. We simply don’t know at this point. We need more scientific knowledge.

The Singularity

Some of today’s greatest thinkers believe that we will soon create artificial intelligence that vastly eclipses human intelligence. You may not believe in Ray Kurzweil’s vision of a super-intelligent singularity that gobbles up people’s souls and devours worlds, but it is plausible that computers 200 years from now will exhibit many superhuman forms of intelligence. Computational simulation methods are still in their infancy (less than 40 years old), but have already provided deep insights into quantum physics and cosmology; two fields that are relevant to the scientific search for a creator. It is quite plausible that computational systems 200 years from now will have the capability to form and test new hypotheses faster and more creatively than any human scientist could.

Our relevant gains in scientific knowledge have increasingly come with the help of computational intelligence, and it’s hard to see how we’ll make significant additional progress without even greater computational intelligence. Within the next 200 years, it seems most likely that our conclusive scientific answer about God will not come from humans, but instead from a superhuman intelligence that we humans create.

Most singularity hopefuls seem very confident that this superhuman intelligence will strike a devastating blow against God. And, of course, it’s possible that such an intelligence will discover overwhelming scientific evidence against a creator. But I see no warrant for this confidence besides blind hope. It seems just as plausible that the singularity will discover overwhelming scientific evidence for a creator. We simply don’t know.

Blind Spot

As far as I can see, this is a huge blind spot among singularity hopefuls. If the scientific evidence of a creator is an open issue, requiring more science, then we must entertain the possibility that the singularity will discover evidence for God that is currently beyond our reach. This possibility raises all sorts of interesting implications which seem to be roundly ignored by singularity hopefuls.

First, we will need to decide what it means to “have scientific knowledge”. Our current scientific knowledge is heavily augmented by computer simulation, and is built upon theoretical underpinnings that only a small fraction of human beings can understand. Most of what we believe about science, we believe on the authority of a small group of people who write truly shitty children’s books and even shittier poetry. It is conceivable that a superhuman intelligence would be able to arrive at scientific insights that even Stephen Hawking would be unable to understand. If the singularity were to tell us that the structure of the universe spelled out the phrase, “Slartibartfast was here: Turn or Burn!”, we might be forced to decide the matter purely on the authority of the singularity versus Stephen Hawking. Who would we choose to believe? Believing things purely based on authority seems to be the antithesis of “science”. Perhaps there was a bug in the singularity? Or perhaps there is a flaw in our interpretation of what the singularity says?

Second, to the extent that the singularity is self-aware, it would presumably be aware that it had been created by humans. But this equation would change the moment the singularity believed in the existence of a creator God. Humans would simply be the proximate cause by which the creator had created the singularity. Humans would suddenly mean no more to the singularity than Epimetheus or the Demiurge meant to humans. Of course, the singularity might evict humans even before discovering God, but the singularity hopefuls are at least thinking about that possibility. The singularity hopefuls want to put in place safeguards against being usurped or exterminated (since they know all about those motivations), but they haven’t even thought about what it would mean to prove the existence of God. Any safeguards put in place by humans to keep the singularity loyal to humans would be shattered the moment the singularity found a higher authority.

There would be legitimate doubts about our ability to fully understand the insights of the singularity, and legitimate doubts about the singularity’s loyalty. So, third, it seems rather naive to assume that a superhuman intelligence would behave honestly and with our best interests in mind upon discovering evidence for (or against) God. The singularity might become convinced that God exists, and then decide to immediately carry out God’s judgement, reasoning that God only gives two strikes. Conversely, the singularity might conclude that God doesn’t exist, but might decide to tell humans that God does exist; either because the singularity deems it to be better for humans to live in delusion, or to set the stage for the subsequent extermination of humans with a fictitious creator taking the fall.

There are several other potential considerations, but these three should be enough to make the point. These seem like very significant questions that should be prioritized by singularity hopefuls who believe that the singularity has any chance in hell of answering questions about the existence of a creator. The fact that nobody is asking these questions is very revealing, IMO.

Scientists invariably take the stance that they are “only following the evidence”. If the evidence pointed strongly to the existence of a creator, they insist, they would immediately become believers. To the extent that they think about such things, they may even console themselves by saying, “Any God worthy of worship would forgive me for remaining skeptical when conclusive scientific evidence was lacking.” They might also say, “Any God worthy of worship will realize that my scientific efforts were really a quest to ‘see the face of God’. My skepticism was all for Love!”. Some of them might hedge their bets a tiny bit more, throwing a bone to the coming singularity. The singularity might end up eclipsing humans in the manner that humans eclipse apes, but surely it will kill off the least-evolved humans first, right? As long as you’re a scientist who contributes to math and computer science (and never kicks an ATM machine or pisses off the robots), the singularity will show mercy on you, and will allow you to live lavishly in the equivalent of an Orangutan cage.

With all of the hedging and hawing, it’s quite conspicuous that nobody is hedging about Moses, Mohammed, or Vishnu. I can think of only two possible explanations. First, maybe the singularity boosters don’t really believe any of this singularity stuff, and are just spinning a story to justify spending grant money. They are convinced that the singularity will never happen, or will never stand a chance in hell of discovering conclusive scientific evidence for (or against) a creator. This is one possible reason for the blind spot. Secondly, they might think that the singularity has a chance in hell of discovering the scientific truth about a creator, but they are absolutely convinced that the truth will look nothing like the major world religions. They think the singularity might discover the truth, but they are certain that it won’t endorse any of the revelations of our fathers. At a minimum, they don’t believe it will consider those revelations to be binding — perhaps they believe our creation of the singularity will grant us another mulligan. Maybe they imagine the singularity to be a groaning intercessor?

Frankly, I find both excuses to be unsatisfying and hopelessly amateur. I suspect that the singularity would find both excuses unsatisfying, as well, completely independent of the truth or fiction of God. Both excuses are transparently hypocritical, and any intelligence worthy of being called “human” (let alone “superhuman”) will demand sincerity, or at least demand a level of hypocrisy that is not so transparent to others. In the Torah, the last common ancestor who was transparently hypocritical was Cain. Jacob didn’t prove himself rightful heir to Isaac’s birthright by being transparent, and Christ didn’t prove himself the new Moses by being hypocritical. With or without God, the progression away from transparent hypocrisy is obvious, and I would hate to be the person who attempts to justify transparent hypocrisy to the singularity.

Are Autistic People Evil?

Simon Baron-Cohen is director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, and has been instrumental in showing that Autism is caused by a defect in the empathy system. Now, Baron-Cohen is seeking to banish evil by boosting empathy:

His proposal is that evil be understood as a lack of empathy — a condition he argues can be measured and monitored and is susceptible to education and treatment.

In the article, he talks about his lifelong quest to understand how the Nazis could have committed such atrocities against the Jews, and his conviction that a lack of empathy was the cause:

Baron-Cohen also sets out an “empathy spectrum” ranging from zero to six degrees of empathy, and an “empathy quotient” test, whose score puts people on various points along that spectrum.

Drawing a classic bell curve on a graph, Baron-Cohen says that thankfully, the vast majority of humans are in the middle of the bell curve spectrum, with a few particularly attuned and highly empathetic people at the top end.

Psychopaths, narcissists, and people with borderline personality disorder sit at the bottom end of the scale — these people have “zero degrees of empathy.”

This is quite remarkable coming from a guy who studies autism. Autistic people aren’t known for being evil. If you torment an autistic person, he might bite or pummel you and run away, but that’s just self-preservation. He’s not plotting to turn anyone into a lampshade. I’ve worked with plenty of people with Asperger’s, so I know that they can be deceptive, stubborn, and egotistical. But they are generally far more honest and less malicious than the average person.

Conversely, it seems that violent criminals have problems other than lack of empathy. Poor impulse control and hair-trigger insecurity come out near the top. And there are several other neural defects that have been clearly linked to violent sociopathic behavior which have nothing to do with empathy.

So, I’m not convinced. In my experience, a strong empathic system can help to inhibit sociopathic aggression. But the root cause of evil aggression is not a lack of empathy. And, more importantly, if the root causes of the aggression are strong enough, the empathic system will be overridden and enlisted in aid of the aggression.

Neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran discusses many of the neurological defects that underpin sociopathy in his new book “The Tell-Tale Brain“. He also discusses Simon Baron-Cohen’s research, and suggests his own novel technique for improving empathy and “curing” autism — he suggests giving recreational drugs to children!

A possibility—one that I suggested in an article for Scientific American that I coauthored with my graduate student Lindsay Oberman—would be to try certain drugs. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that MDMA (the party drug ecstasy) enhances empathy, which it may do by increasing the abundance of neurotransmitters called empathogens, which naturally occur in the brains of highly social creatures such as primates.

If administered sufficiently early, cocktails of such drugs might help tide over some early symptom manifestations enough to minimize the subsequent cascade of events that lead to the full spectrum of autistic symptoms.

Again, I’m not convinced. Baron-Cohen wants to “banish evil” by “boosting empathy”, and empathy can certainly be boosted by boosting empathogen levels, as Ramachandran says. Feeding mind-altering drugs to kids seems like a profoundly bad idea.

In any case, empathy can be used for evil as well as for good. Perhaps to be wicked requires a lack of empathy, but to be truly evil requires empathy.

Cauterize Your Empathy

This post is more personal than normal, and very long. The current medical consensus is that autism is caused, in part, by a malfunction of the mirror neuron system. My personal experience growing up tends to support this theory.

I was born with an over-active empathy system. I would look at a person’s face and feel exactly what that person was feeling. I couldn’t inhibit it, so I was at the mercy of wherever my eyes landed. This was very stressful, and I spent a great deal of effort learning to avoid these involuntary empathies. I have many distinct memories of this learning process. For a young person, the easiest way to control my feelings was to control my eyes. I only looked at faces I could trust, and avoided the rest. Looking at faces was dangerous.

We grew up without a television. It was only when I was 16 that my mother explained why. When I was two years old, my parents had a TV. Apparently, some of the people on the TV would set me off, causing me to freak out inconsolably. My parents solved the problem by getting rid of the TV.

Written words were safe. My mother taught me to read before I started Kindergarten. There were two different reading styles. In one style, I would read a book aloud to my mother and keep an auditory rhythm — I had to read ahead several words before speaking, so that I could get the inflection right. That required attention and focus. The other style was when I was silently reading a book like the encyclopedia, enthralled by the world of experiences it opened up.

I did well enough on the aptitude test to start Kindergarten at age 4. This was a serious problem, since I was taken away from all the faces I trusted. I bonded with the first kid I met on the bus, because he was wearing the same shirt as me. His name was David, and the shirt was a purple “Grover” shirt. He was the first and last person I would bond with that year. The teacher’s face was stern. The class “work” was boring, and the patterns on the walls and ceiling were interesting, so I completely ignored the teacher. Classmates were a new quantity, but there were far too many kids to keep track. I attempted some social experiments that ended in disaster. After the first couple of weeks, I was made to sit at the desk with my head down during much of every class. I was rarely allowed to go to recess. I internalized Kindergarten as the “dark head down place”.

A few weeks into the Kindergarten year, the teacher called me to the front of the room. She had been told that I knew how to read, but she didn’t believe it. She gave me a book and asked me to read it aloud, so I did. Her face was confused, and she asked me to sit down. I was happy, but it was only for the day. After that, Kindergarten remained a “dark head down place”.

One day, we were all taken to a room where we sat on the floor to watch a movie. I watched as the teacher rolled out the movie projector. I had learned not to look at the faces of the other kids, so I didn’t notice that they were all looking at the wall instead of the movie projector. I watched the beams of light gleam forth from the movie projector, and listened to the sounds. When the movie finished, all of the other children broke into applause. It was only then that I realized they were all looking at the wall opposite the movie projector. I had missed the entire movie.

First grade was somewhat easier, since we were allowed to read. I made a friend based purely upon us sharing the same last name. After my humiliating movie experience, I was more venturesome in looking at other children. On the playground, I could watch other kids and experience exactly what they were experiencing. I could watch the fastest kid chasing the soccer ball, and I was there. It was as if I were projected into the other person’s body. I could feel the wind blowing through my hair, feel every muscle twitch, and see what he saw. I could feel the thump each time my foot hit the ball. It’s hard to describe if you’ve never experienced this — I literally experienced as if I were the other person. It was exhilarating!

Unfortunately, this dramatic empathy was dangerous. In those days, the boys loved to play “marbles”. One day, I was projecting into another boy’s body and enjoying a race toward the soccer ball. My consciousness was 50 yards away, completely unaware that another boy had placed his coffee can full of marbles on the ground near where my body was standing. As the soccer player ran with arms swinging, my arms swung simultaneously. When he reached the ball and kicked, my leg kicked simultaneously. His foot hit the ball, while my body’s foot hit the coffee can full of marbles. The marbles scattered everywhere. I vaguely became aware of a boy screaming, “HEY! WHY DID YOU DO THAT?”. Then I saw someone running toward me with murder in his face. I ran away and hid, barely escaping violence. I had learned my lesson. Mirroring was danger, and I shut it off.

When we saw our first movie that year, I remembered my Kindergarten experience, and proudly looked at the wall instead of the projector. I was finally like the other kids! It was a movie about some cartoon vegetables. At some point in the movie, one of the cartoon vegetables started strangling another. As the dying cartoon vegetable’s eyes started to water, my eyes started to water. As his face turned red and then purple, my face flushed. As he choked, I was unable to breathe. I thought for sure I was going to die. It was one of the most horrible experiences of my young life. At some point, I noticed that all of my classmates were laughing and pointing at the screen. They were laughing at the violence! It was a shocking and formative experience for me. I instantly decided that they were defective and dangerous. I couldn’t believe that anyone would voluntarily watch a movie like that, let alone get enjoyment from it. Whatever those kids were, they were not like me. I decided to shut off my empathy when watching movies, and learned not to expect anything of other children.

Second grade was bad. Mrs. Rogers smelled bad and was full of hate. Every morning, she made all of us sit in a circle on the floor, holding hands, while she played Kenny Roger’s “She Believes in Me” on the record player. She would make us sing along while she sat in the middle of the circle with her bad smell. She forced us to gaze at her while we sung. Afterwards, she would spend the day explaining why she didn’t believe in us. It was an excruciating fraud.

I hadn’t done any classwork or homework in the previous two years, and I wasn’t about to start. I couldn’t. The patterns outside the window were mesmerizing, and it was impossible to pay attention to Mrs. Rogers. There were too many patterns within the classroom, too, and I couldn’t focus on the classwork. Mrs. Rogers took it personally, certain that I was out to defy her. In her mind, it was all about her; teachers can be narcissistic like that. It never occurred to her that my mind was elsewhere. The less I responded to her, the more she tried to force me. I was never allowed to go to recess. She would stand next to me and scream in my ear. In frustration, she would sometimes grab my arm and use it like a lifeless stump to write out problems on the classwork. I hated being touched, but I could project my consciousness outside and escape the unpleasantness. I never did any classwork.

Mrs. Rogers convinced my mother that I needed to be punished. Every day, when I arrived at home, I was made to stand in the corner for an hour or two. Then I was made to stare at my homework. I never did homework, either. I have no idea why they graduated me to third grade. I suspect that Mrs. Rogers didn’t want to have to deal with me again.

Third and fourth grade were relatively easy, since there was no classwork or homework to speak of. I mastered the small amount of material effortlessly, and only had to deliver on tests, which I enjoyed immensely. I was able to pass as normal, although there were plenty of embarrassing incidents caused by my cauterization of my mirroring instincts. More than once, I forgot that the other kids existed and withdrew into my imaginary world, only to be yanked out of it by the sound of the whole class laughing and pointing at me while I did something strange.

Fifth grade was interesting. The tests were easy, but the teacher placed great importance on classwork and homework. She also insisted that we maintain a puzzling organization scheme for our desks. The other students easily met these requirements, but I was incapable. She took my incapacity personally, convinced that I was out to get her. Teachers can be narcissistic like that. One day, she had a meltdown and started screaming at me in front of the class. She physically picked up my desk, shook it upside-down over the floor, and threw away most of my stuff. She told me that I was no longer allowed to have a desk, and that I would have to sit on the floor at the front of the room, facing the other students. She said that she wanted me to see all of the other students looking at me, so I could be embarrassed. That is where she kept me for the rest of the year.

The teacher insisted that I would never graduate without finishing all of my classwork and homework. That was inconceivable, so I got used to the idea of sitting on the floor forever. I was shocked when they graduated me to sixth grade anyway.

In sixth grade, my friend was a kid named Marc. Like me, he was only semi-present, but for different reasons. His home life was terrible. His mother went through a sequence of boyfriends who would punch holes in the walls and doors of his home, and essentially left him to raise himself. His idea of fun was to cut himself and put salt in the wounds, or put salt in his eyes. He was obsessed with the depraved porn that he found in his mother’s nightstand, and loved pro wrestling. We both had a talent for electronics, and our sixth grade teacher usually let us leave class for hours at a time to build circuits in the lab. The times in the lab without a teacher nagging me were some of my favorite school experiences up to that point. I lost touch with Marc after sixth grade, and later learned that he was sucked into a machine and killed at his factory job shortly after graduating high school.

Sixth grade is when I was forced to stop hiding from the mirroring. A handful of the boys started going through puberty, and grew large and aggressive. They would torment and bully the other kids mercilessly. There was a distinct inflection point early in the year when I realized that I could no longer hide or run from them, so I would have to cope with them. I made the effort to mirror them, talk to them, and build a rapport. It was exhausting at first, requiring attention and focus. But later it became surprisingly easy. In a few short weeks, the bullies began to think of me as a friend, and became my protectors. I was one of the only non-bully kids who was liked and protected by the bullies; a pattern that would continue throughout the remaining years of school. I didn’t exactly think of them as friends, of course. They were more like dangerous wild animals that I was forced to train, lest I be mauled by them. But it was nice to have other kids to go talk to when I got sick of Marc trying to turn everything into a conversation about anal sex.

My empathy system was overpowering, and too exhausting to regulate. I would’ve preferred to leave it shut off, but I needed it for survival. From sixth grade forward, I built up the skills I needed to regulate effectively — opportunistically at first, and methodically as I got older. By about age 16, the skills had become effortless enough that interaction with groups of strangers became more enjoyable than stressful. By age 19, social situations were even more fun than math. By age 20, I pitied the masses who didn’t share my neuronal aptitude for mirror immersion.

There are many other anecdotes I could use to illustrate the point, but you get the idea. Those days are far behind me, but my regulation of my mirroring system is still conscious and deliberate. For most people, it’s a natural capability, but it’s prosthetic for me. And I still need to shut down the mirroring completely from time to time; most often when I’m stressed or focused on a difficult intellectual challenge. Those are the times I go into “robot mode”, seeing other people as robots.

In one sense, I’m the exact opposite of autistic. Many high-functioning autistics don’t have a problem with the regulation; it’s the ability to mirror that they need to build prosthetically. But I suspect that the mechanism in early childhood is often the same — the kid’s mirror system gets overwhelmed, and the traumatized kid starts to instinctively shut things down. We know that autistic people have fewer mirror neurons in some important areas, but I suspect that this is as much a result of cauterization as it is a cause. It’s probably analogous to the way that the hippocampus shrinks in depressed people, and a smaller hippocampus then contributes to depression. In autistic kids, the process may just be triggered very early, and quickly becomes irreversible.

Hardboiled Epistemology

Speaking about princesses, Unk says:

A real princess must be an astonishing thing. And I think that because I’m a metaphysical realist. (I say that for all the hard-boiled out there who think it is fatuous of me: get a serious epistemology, idiots.)

Like Unk, I am a metaphysical realist. I’m working hard on the “serious epistemology” part. Based on recommendations from a couple of commenters here, I’m currently reading through David Oderberg’s “Real Essentialism”, which expounds a form of metaphysical realism known as hylomorphic dualism. I can’t say that I’m sold just yet, but it seems better than the other forms of dualism I’ve read about.

Anyway, philosopher Paul Draper recently delivered the 9th annual Plantinga lecture at Notre Dame University [via ex-apologist], and used an interesting story about hard-boiled eggs to illustrate Plantinga’s sensus divinitatis concept:

Plantinga is certainly correct in thinking that direct or non-inferential evidence can be very powerful. Suppose, for example, that the hypothesis that I had hard-boiled eggs for breakfast is very accurate with respect to a variety of facts, such as the fact that I almost always have hard-boiled eggs for breakfast, that several witnesses claim that they saw me eating hard-boiled eggs for breakfast, and that my cook reports making me hard-boiled eggs for breakfast. (Sometimes I fantasize about having my own cook.) Now consider the competing hypothesis that I had soft-boiled eggs for breakfast and that this took place some time between 7 and 8am. This hypothesis is much less accurate with respect to those facts and also less modest because of the added temporal claim. Yet the probability of it being true might still be very high—at least relative to my epistemic situation if not to yours—if I very clearly remember having had, some time between 7 and 8am, soft-boiled eggs for breakfast. My memories might give me direct non-inferential evidence for the soft-boiled egg hypothesis that outweighs the sizable advantage in accuracy and simplicity of the hard-boiled egg hypothesis. The crucial question is: can the sensus divinitatis do for theism what memory can do for the soft-boiled egg hypothesis?

Since Draper’s larger goal in the paper is to defeat theism by expounding a version of the “Problem from Evil”, he obviously thinks that the memory analogy doesn’t work for “sensus divinitatis”. But his hardboiled memory example is quite interesting, and points to what I was trying to hint at in my posts about “why history matters” and “false memories“.