About the “Singularity”

Amit Majmudar
November 29, 2013
Comments 2

To decide whether Kurzweil’s idea of the Singularity is “true” or an “accurate” depiction of our future is to mistake the nature of prophecy. Imagine someone in 1914 predicting the course of world history through to 2014: Not even H. G. Wells could pull off such a rapid-fire sequence of sci-fi and apocalyptic scenarios. Yet the prophecies of science fiction, while not accurate, are true representations of what their creators (and admirers) really think about the nature and potential of human beings. Much like a science fiction novel, the idea of the Singularity is valuable more (only?) as an expression of the anxieties and hopes of an age: an unwitting psychological indiscretion, masked, in this case, as nonfiction.

The Singularity idea follows a very clearly identifiable pattern of Western thinking after the Enlightenment, which involves the simple substitution of the human being for the Judaeo-Christian God. Most secular Western ideas about our existence and our nature, for reasons of geography and history, fall into paradigms set by the Near Eastern (“Semitic”) religions. The human being got switched in for God centuries ago in literature, where “originality” became a fixation around the time of the Romantics. (Before this, God had been the only Originator, and the writer simply worked words in combinations and permutations. Now you can scarcely find a writer who doesn’t imagine himself or herself to be an “original” poet or novelist.)

The Singularity, as an idea, advances the role-takeover quite imperially. Not only do we fashion an undying, infinitely intelligent, superior self, capable of perceiving and processing the universe and of replicating itself (that is, we become the Creator God); we also cease to be present as we now are, leaving the universe to the new species we have created (and hence also become the deus absconditus). The Singularity is infinitely intelligent (call it Omniscient), and this intelligence radiates outward into the universe (perfecting its Omnipresence). We see many traditional Near Eastern “types” of God in one, all of them—us.

All this new old God needs is a prophet. Even Nietzsche’s theory of the ubermench stopped short of promising the man of the future immortality, but in Kurzweil’s Singularity, death is gone, as it must be in any thoroughly religious vision of the future. And so one is promised the immortality of one’s consciousness, another very Biblical turn. In Hinduism and Buddhism, remember, things like consciousness and personality are transient, and do not carry over across deaths and rebirths; the hard drive is periodically purged, as it were. That is the main difference between the two fantasies of immortality, the Eastern and the Near Eastern: The Semitic religions profess a “this-mind” immortality (now-deemphasized traditions surrounding the Last Judgement imagine the body itself popping out of the grave, magically reconstituted after centuries of rot). Eastern religions claim the mind and the body both dissolve; in Hinduism specifically, a new mind and a new body, frequently that of another species, hosts the transmigrating jiva, or life. The Singularity follows the former pattern of immortality-fantasy and, when turning the human being into a divinity, follows the Near Eastern pattern as well. The hybridization of the biological and the machine, after all, is the techie’s version of apotheosis, creating a being superhuman, omnipotent, godlike in its ability to combat evil, overcome death, and mete out justice. Note that a new Robocop movie is being released in 2014. Religious silliness is hard to kill; in the idea of the Singularity, we find old-fashioned fantasies of God and this-mind immortality, like a fair to middling movie, remade.–Or should we say, reborn?

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