The Singularity is Near!

The much mythologized Singularity which is said to be near by transhumanists is the point in time when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence prompting the exponential curve of technological growth to go vertical. The growth will be so rapid as to supersede our current abilities of imagination. You see, Ray Kurzweil and other transhumanists believe that through modeling the human brain artificial intelligence will become conscious.  In fact, he goes so far as to argue that machines will have spiritual experiences and will even worship:

Twenty‐first‐century machines—based on the design of human thinking—will do as their human progenitors have done—going to real and virtual houses of worship, meditating, praying, and transcending—to connect with their spiritual dimension. [1]

While one marvels at what precisely he thinks they would worship, he seems to intuitively acknowledge that consciousness entails a sense of the divine. While many may suppress the truth, people know in their hearts that God exists. God wired us to seek him. Solomon said it this way:

 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end (Ec 3:11).

Kurzweil has been challenged by John Searle the distinguished philosopher at the University of California at Berkeley. Searle has criticized the view that AI can become conscious with his “Chinese Room” argument which holds that software cannot give a machine a mind or true understanding, regardless of how cleverly it behaves.  Kurzweil responded to this argument in the last chapter of The Singularity is Near with some sound counter-arguments. While the debate is interesting, ultimately they are both wrong because they are arguing from a naturalistic worldview.

The scientific paradigm of materialism reduces humanity to a byproduct of chemistry and physics. But if my thoughts are merely chemical reactions, then I would have no good reason to believe they are true. Atoms and chemical reactions just do not discern truth. In this way, scientism (the belief that science is the only way to know truth) is self-defeating. The atheistic material reductionist view of consciousness is that it is an emergent property of the brain. This is the dominant scientific view point. For instance, even Kurzweil’s critic Searle has written:

The brain is a machine, a biological machine to be sure, but a machine all the same. So the first step is to figure out how the brain does it and then build an artificial machine that has an equally effective mechanism for causing consciousness. We know that brains cause consciousness with specific biological mechanisms.[2]

The understanding about consciousness in the case of artificial intelligence is that consciousness will arise from the material structure of electronic hardware as an emergent property.  Emergent properties are seen from a bottom up approach.

An emergent property is a property that emerges from a certain organization of matter. For instance, the taste of salt or saltiness is an emergent property of sodium and chloride when combined as NaCl or common salt. In this case, on the bottom we have subatomic particles forming sodium and chlorine atoms and then on the next level the matrix of atoms causes the property of saltiness to manifest. It is important to note that saltiness is an effect of the matter. Salty taste doesn’t change the salt. It is simply the property that emerges as an effect when the salt molecules come together. The matter is a cause and the emergent property is an effect.

Given the naturalistic worldview, spirituality and consciousness are merely functions of the brain. If that is the case, then consciousness is also on the top not on the bottom. Therefore it’s an effect not a cause. Accordingly, consciousness doesn’t cause things.  It’s simply the effect of fatty tissues, neurons and information. In the case of AI it is just a physical thing, computer hardware, programmed with software that allegedly produces consciousness. If the computer is producing consciousness, then consciousness is similarly an effect.

The problem is that consciousness is seen as the result of a purely material process. Being the effect it cannot also be the cause. If it is not a cause, then it does not make decisions or choices. Yet, the problem with that is, it seems that mental states do cause things. Think of it this way, you need legs to walk, but you’d never say that your legs are walking.  Another major problem with this is willful actions. It seems to me that I will something in my mind and then my body acts. In fact, I can imagine events in my mind that never physically occur at all. It seems to me that conscious beings do make choices. We do think about things and decide between alternate ideas and exercise rationality. This is what consciousness really means. Computers may mimic consciousness but they will never really achieve it.

Kurzweil’s dream of the Age of Spiritual Machines is logically incoherent.  His point of view doesn’t leave room for a soul that is a thing in itself with mental properties, but that mental properties are merely the effects of the physical thing itself.  The Christian view is that man is made up of two distinct substances: an immaterial substance (mind) and a material substance (body).  It is a top down approach in which you are not your body rather an eternal immaterial being that is having a temporal material experience. Evidence is mounting for this reality in the area of Near Death Experiences.  Look for a post on those coming soon.

If the singularity represents the event horizon of a major paradigm shift then I agree it is near. However, ultimately, the singularity is not at all what transhumanists expect. It will not mark the crowning achievement of mankind to godhood and the transcendence of machines. When it comes to human behavior, past performance is usually a good predictor of future results. A realistic view of history reveals that man is rapidly plunging himself into trouble. Some might even call it great tribulation. The real singularity will be when God decisively intervenes into the world in what is known as the Parousia or second coming of Jesus Christ.  Indeed, defined this way, I believe the Singularity is near:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.(Mt 24:29-30)

The singularity is near…  Maranatha!

מרנא תא


[1] Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence(New York: Penguin (Non-Classics), 2000), 106.

[2] Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: The Viking Press, 2005), 329.

I modeled some of my argument after a similar one here: Greg Koukl, “When the Enterprise Got a Soul,”, (accessed 8/05/2011).

Movie Review: Transcendent Man …the despair of modern existence

I saw a really well made documentary film last weekend: Transcendent Man. It is a biographical sketch of visionary computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil. The strength of the film is that shows the heart and soul of the man. Kurzweil is a bonafide genius, a fact which certainly comes through in the film, but overall he is still a profoundly tragic figure. He is extremely talented and successful. He has much to be grateful to God for. Yet he denies his creator (Rom 1:21). Many of you are aware of my recent research in the area of transhumanism as it interfaces with a Christian worldview. My argument is that the two are incompatible worldviews. Of course that research was speaking to bible believing Christians, I would write it differently to nonbelievers. If you do not have Christ, I suppose all you have to hope for is transhumanism. I believe it is a false hope (Heb. 9:27). However, whether you accept the authority of scripture or not, Ray Kurzweil’s tragic desperation is laid bare by this film.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Th. 4:13)

Modern man has no hope without God. Life is precious and yet fleeting (Jas. 4:14). Not only does Kurzweil believe that he can personally achieve immortality, he believes he can bring his dead father back to life using computer science. Having lost my own father to an untimely stroke in 2005, I certainly have empathy. My Dad was only 67 and I had hoped to garner much more of his wisdom. I spent most of my young adulthood in rebellion, now those years seem wasted. I would like to have them back but I know better. Ray doesn’t accept death. I suppose his own hype has gone to his head because he is determined to defeat it. He has collected all of his father’s writings with the audacious hope of recreating him from the raw data. Unfortunately, I am not exaggerating.

The film lays bare the utter desperation and futility of modern man. Kurzweil is a naturalistic scientist and he does not appear to have any belief in a theistic God. Naturalism and materialism leave the scientist in a cold, hopeless, mechanical universe. I think Richard Dawkins has encapsulated it well, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”[i] Atheists necessarily live in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. The internal conflict is that no matter how convincingly they might protest, the atheist cannot really live with the universe Dawkins describes. They leap into the infinite. This film Transcendent Man is a shining evidence of that.

Kurzweil is lashing out at the scientific determinism that leaves him so hopeless. He is embracing the irrational. Francis Schaeffer’s seminal work The Escape from Reason has an answer for transhumanism. Schaeffer wrote, “So man, being made in the image of God, was made to have a personal relationship with Him. Man’s relationship is upward and not merely downward. If you are dealing with twentieth-century people, this becomes a very crucial difference. Modern man sees his relationship downward to the animal and to the machine. The Bible rejects this view of who man is. On the side of personality you are related to God. You are not infinite but finite; nevertheless you are truly personal; you are created in the image of the personal God who exists.”[ii] It is especially poignant that he associated modern man to the animal and machine. Darwinism is the starting point in transhumanist thought. Despite his seemingly naïve optimism, Kurzweil’s worldview looks downward to the animal and then forward to the machine bypassing God altogether. His presupposition of naturalism limits his search for truth.

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ec. 3:11)

Because God has written eternity into men’s hearts they instinctively seek the eternal. C.S. Lewis said it this way, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[iii] Ray is not being irrational in seeking the infinite or the “upper story” as Francis Schaeffer put it. He is being irrational by denying his creator. I applaud this film for including criticisms of Ray’s ideas. Christianity was represented well by Dr. Chuck Missler and William Hurlbut M.D.. Those links tell you about the men, but I want to talk about what they said in the film.

Missler, a childhood computer prodigy himself, is a Bible teacher and lifelong student of prophecy. Missler offers Ray a salient word of correction, “God is who He is… And our challenge should be to know Him, not to try to create Him.”[iv] Missler believes we are on the precipice of the end times and I tend to agree with him but there is no guarantee it will be within my lifetime. Chuck contends that Kurzweil is going to run out of time. Perhaps he is correct?  Because when I ponder the extent to which man is violating the sanctity of life, I do not think the Lord will stand for it much longer. The other noteworthy Christian voice, Hurlbut, is also very impressive. He is a medical Doctor who serves on the Presidents’ bioethics commission. He argues that Kurzweil has vastly underestimated biological complexity. Kurzweil is an expert on the computational end not the biological. While we might have the number crunching ability in the near future, mapping the human brain is the limiting factor. It is being worked on. Yet even if the brain is reverse engineered, you are not your brain.  This is a fact Kurzweil doesn’t seem to get and it is because he begins with naturalism. A belief which ultimately reduces to materialism, the belief that matter and energy are fundamentally all that exist.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Pr 9:10)

While it is a widely held position by scientists, philosophical materialism is incoherent. In fact, the things that are most important to us don’t exist in the physical world, but they really do exist. Things like love, friendship, education, knowledge, ideas, virtues, morals and even scientific theories. All of those things are not physical. They are not made of atoms. It follows that whatever linking there might be between mental states like thoughts and feelings with biochemical brain-states, the connection is not identity. Brain-states have a specific location in the brain but mental states do not. Brain-states exist independent of a perceiver but mental states are not. In other words your brain chemistry may play a role in your thought life but chemistry is not your thoughts. Consciousness is something more than a physical process. Kurzweil would probably argue that it is a function of information but this is also incoherent.

He cannot explain the connection between the material and immaterial. Mental events cause physical events. For example, your mental decision to throw a ball causes it to fly. In a similar fashion, physical events cause mental events. You see a ball flying toward your face and become excited. Clearly there are laws that govern mind-body communication. Mental and physical events are related but distinct. Scientific materialism and naturalism cannot adequately explain this. This called the mind/body problem in philosophy. Kurzweil smuggles the immaterial in the back door as “information patterns” but his reasoning is incoherent because he cannot account for the connection. He starts from the wrong place. The only satisfactory explanation for the connection between the two is a theistic one. God sustains the coordination between mind and body (Col. 1:17). No matter how brilliant he is, no matter how accurate his calculations, Ray Kurzweil can never get the right answer because he started from the wrong beginning. Renowned philosopher Alvin Plantinga has put it this way, “If we don’t know that there is such a person as God, we don’t know the first thing (the most important thing) about ourselves, each other and our world. This is because… the most important truths about us and them, is that we have been created by the Lord, and utterly depend upon him for our continued existence.”[v] Indeed it is the most important thing, it is the beginning of all wisdom. One is lost with out it.

I ask you to join me in prayer for Ray Kurzweil and all the lost transhumanists who instinctively know that there is more to life than blind pitiless indifference. Pray that they will come to realize there really is a God who is there and that he can be known. Christians do not need to fear death. Only through the Lord Jesus Christ can we exclaim,
O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”(1 Co. 15:5)

[i]Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American, November, 1995, p. 85.

[ii]Francis A. Schaeffer, The Escape from Reason in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer : A Christian Worldview. (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1982).

[iii] C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity, (NY: Harper Collins, 1980), 137.

[iv] Chuck Missler quoted from “Transcendent Man Film Trailer” 2:00 (accessed March 17, 2011).

[v] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (accessed March 17, 2011).