Saturday, October 18, 2008

Transhumanist spirituality, again

I have been accused, for example by Wesley J. Smith, of interpreting transhumanism like a religion. While I am only proud of being flamed by anti-progress luddites, I have been displeased by seeing Smith's flames echoed by persons closer to the transhumanist community. I wish to repeat here that, if religion is defined as "seeking to find transcendence and truth, meaning and purpose", then I am ready and willing to accept the label "religious". I want to find meaning and transcendence through scientific means and, if I don't find it, I want to build it. My scientific worldview and my belief in our potential for boundless expansion make me appreciate the plausibility of, for example, omega-point-like scenarios where science and spacetime engineering permit to resurrect the dead. This is very hard to swallow for many transhumanists. Perhaps the communication problem lies in using the world “religion” which has a very negative connotation for some. Maybe “spirituality” would work better. Of course, these ideas generate even stronger debates in conventional religious circles.

I am a full member of the Society for Universal Immortalism and one of the founding members of the Order of Cosmic Engineers, a new group of radical, hardcore transhumanists, also open to spiritual sensibilities, who propose a UNreligion of science with a cosmic engineering plan for tomorrow's scientists and engineers as well as a memetic engineering plan for today's world: let's offer everyone a beautiful cosmic vision of wonder, hope and happiness, firmly based on science and transhumanism.

I am also a full member of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. This may seem a strange place to be for someone who does not believe in any "traditional" God, lives in Europe, has never been in Utah and probably has never met a Mormon face to face, and whose mental image of Mormons, derived from movies, is one of overly serious and zealous people in white shirts, black ties and stiff dresses. To make it even stranger I will disclose that the basic beliefs of Mormons The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), outlined for example here, do not make more sense to me than the articles of faith of other Christian denominations and religions.

But the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation makes a lot of sense to me:
(1) We seek the spiritual and physical exaltation of individuals and their anatomies, as well as communities and their environments, according to their wills, desires and laws, to the extent they are not oppressive.
(2) We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable such exaltation, including realization of diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end.
(3) We feel a duty to use science and technology according to wisdom and inspiration, to identify and prepare for risks and responsibilities associated with future advances, and to persuade others to do likewise.

And readers of my blog will know that I am very fond of the spiritual and cosmic visions of Lincoln Cannon and other people in the MTA. Mormon Transhumanists represent the best synthesis of transhumanism and spirituality that I have found. They are also very nice persons who care for each other and for other people on our planet, and the MTA website is by far the best transhumanist community site in terms of both IT implementation and content.

On March 30 Lincoln gave a presentation in Second Life, and explained that Mormonism is more compatible with transhumanism than other Christian denominations and religions because the LDS doctrine is open to the idea of a God evolving in and with the universe and achieving Godhead by means of a technology enabled evolutionary process. Of course not all Mormon would agree (see this interesting discussion). I was quite pleased with Lincoln’s answer to one of my questions, about the possibility that some future civilization may find a way, by extracting all relevant information from the past, to resurrect us by “copying us to the future”. Lincoln answered that this technological resurrection option is an element of his faith, and also mentioned alternative scenarios based on Nick Bostrom’s simulation theory: perhaps those who are running us as simulations may choose to continue running us after our physical death. This answer is in this video clip.

More recently, the MTA has presented The New God Argument at Sunstone 2008: we should "trust that an advanced civilization more benevolent than us probably created our world”. Not supernatural creation, but engineering work: the authors make many references to the fact that, as we advance toward the capability to create synthetic worlds populated by sentient beings, more and more thinkers are beginning to seriously consider the possibility that we, ourselves, may be sentient beings in a reality computationally created by a higher level of reality (see more comments here). And in a few months there will be an interesting conference on Parallels and Convergences: Mormon Thought and Engineering Vision: "An assumption can be made that, according to LDS understanding, God is the architect of the Creation and the engineer of our bodies and spirits. Man, on the other hand, is believed to be capable of growing to become like God. The theological question is: where does engineering fit in the convergence of these two realms?". The list of topics looks like the program of a radical transhumanist conference.

I have been flamed (see above) for writing "I want our ideas to reach as many people as possible, in a clear and understandable way. Why? Because our worldview can give a sense of meaning of life, a vision of our place in the universe, peace and happiness. This has been the historic function of the world’s great religions, which are now finally beginning to show some fatigue and soon will be completely unable to persuade people more and more culturally sophisticated and used to the scientific worldview... I am very interested in the current experimental activities to create “transhumanist religions”, based on science, but still able to offer hope in “another life” even for those who are already dead. Some information on these experiments, links and my own toughts can be found in my article Engineering Transcendence". This is why I am so interested in the MTA's very ambitious project to present transhumanism as a natural consequence of the basic tenets of an established religion and our wildest dreams, transcending biology, eliminating death and achieving Godhead, as part of God's plan for humankind. I am persuaded that "infecting" established religion with our beautiful and powerful transhumanist memes can only result in a better world and more happiness for more people.

The MTA is a good start, but we should not stop there. The LDS doctrine seems to offer a somewhat easier entry point for transhumanist memes, but what about other Christian denomination and major religions like Islam? I am persuaded that the transhumanist message can be presented in such a way as to be acceptable, while remaining true to its essence, for most religious persons.

And we see more and more people abandoning traditional religions and embarking on their own personal quest for meaning, often joining one or another New Age cult. They leave the beaten path and wander through energy pyramids, crystals, gurus, alternative medicine, meditation, karma, ESP, reincarnation... often falling prey of greedy sharks in the (big) business of spirituality who smoothly steal their money by telling them what they want to hear. Transhumanists are used to making fun of New Agers as naive and gullible people. But I think their honest search for transcendence and purpose is something good and I am sure that, if they were equipped with sharper intellectual tools, they would search meaning in the beautiful cosmic visions of transhumanist thinkers like Moravec, Kurzweil, More, Bainbridge and Gardner. They would not find dogmas and certainties, but reasons for hope. I think the New Age galaxy could represent a very fertile new ground for transhumanist outreach.

Friday, October 10, 2008

CTRL-ALT-R: Another Life

I am reading Extropia DaSilva's CTRL-ALT-R essays and look forward to discussing them with the author at the Next Cosmic Engineers meeting in Second Life: Discussion of CTRL-ALT-R: REBAKE YOUR REALITY. Parts of the essays deal with CA based digital physics and the possibility that we may live in a simulated reality computed by means of digital physics by another level of reality. The short movie below illustrates resurrection in such a scenario.

Extropia describes cellular automata (CA) and Conway's Game of Life, the best known example of CA, and writes: "Working independently of Wolfram, Ed Fredkin believes that the fabric of reality, the very stuff of which matter/energy is made, emerges from the information produced by a 3D CA whose logic units confine their activity to being ‘on’ or ‘off’ at each point in time. ‘I don’t believe that there are objects like electrons and photons and things which are themselves and nothing else. What I believe is that there’s an information process, and the bits, when they’re in certain configurations, behave like the thing we call the electron, or whatever’. The phenomenon of ‘gliders’ demonstrates the ability of a CA to organize itself into localized structures that appear to move through space. If, fundamentally, something like a CA is computing the fabric of reality, particles like electrons may simply be stubbornly persistant tangles of connections. Fredkin calls this the theory of ‘digital physics’, the core principle of which is the belief that the Universe ultimately consists of bits governed by a programming rule. The complexity we see around us results from recursive algorithms tirelessly taking information it has transformed and transforming it further. ‘What I’m saying is that at the most basic level of complexity an information process runs what we think of as the law of physics’... [digital physics] adopts the position that our very thought processes are just one of the things to emerge from the calculations performed by the CA running the Universe.".

And in another essay: "If the freely-compounding robot intelligences ultimately restructure space into an expanding bubble of cyberspace consuming all in its path, and if the post-biological entities inherit a curiosity for their past from the animals that helped create them, the 10^86 bits available would provide a powerful tool for post-human historians. They would have the computational power to run highly-detailed simulations of past histories- so detailed that the simulated people in those simulated histories think their reality is…well…’real’... Such conjectures have stunning implications for our own reality. Any freely-compounding intelligence restructuring our Solar System into sublime thinking substrates could run quadrillions of detailed historical simulations. That being the case, surely we must conclude that any given moment of human history- now for instance- is astronomically more likely to be a virtual reality formed in the vast computational space of Mind, rather than the physical reality we believe it to be.".

If we live in a simulated reality computed by means of digital physics by another level of reality, which may be the primary reality of our computronium based AI mind children in a future time, then we live in a universe with a conceptually simple, and scientifically sound, practical engineering mechanism for our own resurrection, by copying sentient beings living in the simulated reality (us) to another simulated reality (or even the primary reality itself). Of course we probably cannot even imagine the motivations of computronium superintelligences, but it seems plausible that they would copy and store interesting patterns to run them again. At least, this is what CA and Alife researchers do today. This is illustrated by the short movie CA Resurrection, which I just made with a Game of Life program. The protagonist pattern is doomed to certain death by interaction with an environment that, except in very carefully controlled conditions, is very unfriendly to the stability of patterns (sounds familiar?), but is copied before death and restored to life in a friendlier environment.

Video (Youtube)
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From the Cosming Engineers meeting place one can see the ever changing beautiful futuristic architecture of Port Moravec, and Extropia DaSilva is a fan of Hans Moravec, whose work is discussed in the essays. What does Moravec think about resurrection?

The first published account of his early ideas on mind uploading etc. may be Today's Computers, Intelligent Machines and Our Future (1978) - "The machine society can, and for its own benefit probably should, take along with it everything we consider important, up to and including the information in our minds and genes. Real live human beings, and a whole human community, could then be reconstituted if an appropriate circumstance ever arose".

Resurrection is mentioned in his books Mind Children and Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind: "In Chapter 6 robots sweep into space in a colonizing wave, but then disappear in a wake of increasingly pure thinking stuff. A "Mind Fire" burns across the universe in Chapter 7. Physical law loses its primacy to purposes, goals, interpretations and God knows what else.". In the last page of Robot he writes: "When we die, the rules surely change... Perhaps we are most likely to find ourselves reconstituted in the minds of superintelligent successors, or perhaps in dreamlike worlds (or AI programs) where psychological rather than physical rules dominate. Our mind children will probably be able to navigate the alternatives with increasing facility. For us, now, barely conscious, it remains a leap in the dark.", and concludes with Shakespeare's immortal words "To sleep, perchance to dream...".

From a 1995 message of Charles Platt to the Cryonel list: "The question has been asked, is robotics researcher Hans Moravec serious about the possibility of reconstructing a human being from "clues" left behind on an atomic level? The answer is "yes."... I recently did a long interview on this and other topics with Hans, which will appear in the October issue of Wired. He derives a genuine feeling of comfort from his "resurrection by AI" scenario.".

From the Interview with Hans Moravec by Charles Platt:

I'm a little less hard-core in my atheism than I used to be. And my ideas about resurrection in some ways are not so different from those of early theologians, or from the Greek thought that fed into that.
Moravec foresees a kind of happy ending, though, because the cyberspace entities should find human activity interesting from a historical perspective.
We will be remembered as their ancestors, the creators who enabled them to exist.
As Moravec puts it, "We are their past, and they will be interested in us for the same reason that today we are interested in the origins of our own life on Earth."
Assuming the artificial intelligences now have truly overwhelming processing power, they should be able to reconstruct human society in every detail by tracing atomic events backward in time. "It will cost them very little to preserve us this way," he points out. "They will, in fact, be able to re-create a model of our entire civilization, with everything and everyone in it, down to the atomic level, simulating our atoms with machinery that's vastly subatomic. Also," he says with amusement, "they'll be able to use data compression to remove the redundant stuff that isn't important."
But by this logic, our current "reality" could be nothing more than a simulation produced by information entities.
"Of course." Moravec shrugs and waves his hand as if the idea is too obvious. "In fact, the robots will re-create us any number of times, whereas the original version of our world exists, at most, only once. Therefore, statistically speaking, it's much more likely we're living in a vast simulation than in the original version. To me, the whole concept of reality is rather absurd. But while you're inside the scenario, you can't help but play by the rules. So we might as well pretend this is real - even though the chance things are as they seem is essentially negligible."
And so, according to Hans Moravec, the human race is almost certainly extinct, while the world around us is just an advanced version of SimCity.

This interview also appeared on Wired.