Engineering Transcendence: Addendum from 2011
In 2004 I wrote an essay on “Engineering Transcendence” [Prisco2004], published it on several websites, and sent it to several mailing lists. The essay may be included in a soon to be published anthology of transhumanist writings. Of course a lot has happened since 2004, and the essay needs clarifications and updates. Instead of writing a revised version, I prefer to leave the original intact, with this Addendum as a complement. The content of this Addendum is similar to my recently published interview with Ben Goertzel [Goertzel2011] (same topic, very close in time), but not identical.
In “Engineering Transcendence” I argued that science may someday develop the capability to resurrect the dead and build (and/or become) God(s), and proposed to base a “transhumanist religion” on this idea.
I also argued that the ultra-rationalist, aseptic engineering language dear to most transhumanists does not seem able to have an emotional impact on the majority of other people. This means that “traditional” transhumanist ideas will remain confined to a very small minority of technically oriented nerds, and never make a difference to the rest of people.
Which is a pity, because I think our ideas are beautiful and could give happiness, hope, sense of wonder, sense of purpose and peace of mind to multitudes of seekers. To do this, we must develop formulations and interpretations of transhumanism more emotionally appealing to persons with artistic and spiritual inclinations.
The “transhumanist religion” is addressed at persons with spiritual sensibilities and needs. It is designed to appeal to their sensibilities, and fulfill their needs, while at the same time remaining firmly grounded in the scientific worldview. Instead of “their”, I should of course say “our”: I am a person with spiritual sensibilities and needs. At the same time I am a physicist and an engineer by training and by inclination, and my worldview is strictly materialist, with no room for the supernatural.
I have been a member of the Extropy mailing list since the late 90s. Ever since, the Extropy list has been one of my main sources of intellectual stimulation and fun. I was already interpreting transhumanism (also) in a spiritual sense at that time, and I remember thinking of Extropy as a beautiful and powerful new religion for the new millennium. I also remember my very first post to the Extropy list, about the possibility of technological resurrection of the dead, and some encouraging replies.
“Engineering Transcendence” was not received enthusiastically by most transhumanists, but it was received with interest by some transhumanists and some spiritually minded people. Over the years I have continued to write about these things, I have refined my own thinking, and I have enjoyed the ongoing discussion, online and face to face, with a small but growing group of like minded persons.
The cornerstones of this transhumanist religion are:
Mind uploading — someday it will be possible to transfer entire personalities from their original biological brain to more durable and powerful engineered substrates. See my interview with Natasha Vita-More [Vita-More2010] for more thoughts and links.
Time scanning — someday it will be possible to acquire very detailed information from the past. Once time scanning is available, we will be able to resurrect people from the past by “copying them to the future” via mind uploading. Note: time scanning is not time travel, and it is free from the “paradoxes” of time travel. Time scanning is just a form of archaeology — uncovering the past by means of available evidence and records. Of course the very high definition form of time scanning proposed here is orders of magnitude more powerful and sophisticated than archeology as we know it, but the concept is the same.
Synthetic realities — someday it will be possible to build artificial realities inhabited by sentient life. Perhaps future humans will live in synthetic realities, and perhaps we will wake up in a synthetic reality after having been copied to the future. Or… perhaps we are already there.
This transhumanist religion offers not only one, but two possibilities of resurrection: We may be copied to the future by future civilizations using resurrection archaeology and mind uploading. Or, we may be already living in a synthetic reality and the system admins may make a backup copy of interesting patterns every now and then. Hope in resurrection is, I believe, a necessary component of any effective alternative to traditional religions.
I am the first to admit that this is a mythology and not a scientific theory. But, I believe, it is a mythology compatible with rationality and the scientific worldview. Modern science says that reality, at a fundamental level, is much weirder than our simple intuitive models, and lets us glimpse at vague and veiled shadows of wonderful things in heaven and earth. If anything, I am persuaded that reality may much weirder than mythology.
Many transhumanists with a ultra-rationalist approach have a very hard time considering parallels between transhumanism and religion. This is evident from the frequent discussions on mailing lists, blogs and Facebook threads. They don’t reply to arguments, never say things like “you are wrong because this thing that you just said goes against scientific fact”, but take refuge in “you are wrong because this thing that you just said sounds like religion”, which is not an argument. Of course, I can understand them: mistaken interpretation of religion have done great harm to many people, and I suspect most of them had a harmful religious upbringing and are so scared of getting close to religion again that they become blind to the good aspects of religion. But good interpretations of religion have done great good to many people, and following William James [James1896] I think a modern transhumanist religion, with religion’s contemplation of transcendence and hope in personal resurrection but without its bigotry and intolerance, can be a powerful positive force in the life of a person, which is what really matters.
I often call this transhumanist mythology “The Turing Church”, to emphasize the key role of substrate-independent mentality. The Turing Church is not an organization, but a meta-organization, mailing list and online meeting point for spiritually oriented transhumanists. The Turing Church’s mythology does not make a great difference in practice: we still live in a difficult and dangerous world, cancer still kills, we still age and die, there are still wars and atrocities, and billions of persons are still hungry, powerless, sick and unhappy. But contemplating the cosmic visions of the Turing Church gives me a sense of wonder and a sense of hope in a beautiful future… if only we can build it. It also gives me more motivation, energy and drive to try to give a little contribution to making our world a better place.
After writing “Engineering Transcendence” I have become part of a small but growing community of like minded persons. I have taken the role of organizer of meetings in virtual reality spaces, first in Second Life and then in other next generation metaverses, and I have organized and participated in the organization of many virtual talks and conferences focused on transhumanist spirituality. The most recent has been the Turing Church Online Workshop 1 [TuringChurch2010].
I have also joined three organizations focused on transhumanist siprituality: the Society for Universal Immortalism, the Mormon Transhumanist Association, and Terasem.
The Society for Universal Immortalism, already described in the original article, is a beautiful religion of hope and happiness, inspired by Mike Perry’s masterpiece “Forever for All” [Perry2000], now available in full text on the Terasem website of Fred and Linda Chamberlain. The Universal Immortalist program “we dedicate ourselves to finding a way one day to bringing back all persons that have ever lived, so that they can join us in our eternal adventure” says it all, but the Society has not been able to attract many members and supporters, perhaps because having a cryonic suspension contract has been a pre-requisite for membership until recently. Also, the Society has always kept a very low profile, very (perhaps too) reasonable and soft-spoken, like those persons who are often right but nobody listens to because they don’t speak loud enough. Well… I recently had the honor of being elected as President of the Society, and I will try to do something to change that.
Though not a Mormon, I am an active member of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, which is one of the best and most active transhumanist communities. MTA members are only supposed to accept the Transhumanist Declaration and the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation, and the New God Argument resonates deeply with my own thinking. Lincoln Cannon and other MTA members claim that their transhumanist interpretation is perfectly compatible with standard Mormon doctrine, which includes theosis (Man can and should become like God, and God was once limited like Man). I doubt that a majority of Mormons would agree with this position, but the MTA actively promotes transhumanism in the mainstream Mormon community, and is the best and most successful transhumanist group established within a major religion. I think both the strength and the weakness of the MTA is in its integration in the Mormon community: the MTA is in a very good position to promote transhumanism in Mormon circles, but I doubt it will ever attract many non Mormons. I look forward to seeing other successful transhumanist groups within major religions but perhaps, as Lincoln says, Mormonism is an especially fertile ground.
Last October I had the honor to give a (remote) talk at the Transhumanism and Spirituality Conference in Salt Lake City, organized by the MTA. The talk was inspired by my article “In Whom we live, move, and have our being” [Prisco2010], and the slides of my presentation are available online [Prisco2010a]. Recently, a great dialogue between Ben Goertzel and Lincoln Cannon, titled “Mormonism: The Most Transhumanist Religion?” [Goertzel2011a], has been published on H+ Magazine. Read it for some really fascinating insight on Mormonism, transhumanism, spirituality, and religion.
Both the SfUI and the MTA have central, “official” websites. On the contrary Martine Rothblatt’s Terasem, “A Transreligion for Technological Times”, has a more distributed and almost chaotic online presence [Rothblatt2010]. At this moment the most active Terasem website is the “Truths of Terasem Podcasts” blog maintained by Fred and Linda Chamberlain, but by the time you read this another Terasem website may have taken the lead. In the blog Fred and Linda (who are, among other things, the two founders of Alcor) explain and comment the concise and almost hermetic foundational text “The Truths of Terasem” [Terasem2002]. See [Chamberlain2010] and [TuringChurch2010] for a fascinating first person account of the “cosmic download” of Terasem into Martine Rothblatt’s mind.
I have been associated with Terasem for a few years, and recently I have formally joined. I think the nice and warm New Age look/feel of Terasem is our best chance to build bridges to the very large, scattered communities of spiritually oriented persons. Terasem offers a formulation and interpretation of transhumanism more emotionally appealing to persons with artistic and spiritual inclinations, which will help communicating our beautiful ideas in a simple and effective format and give happiness, hope, sense of wonder, sense of purpose and peace of mind to multitudes of seekers.
Ultra-rationalist “bureaucrats of philosophy” usually dismiss “hippie New Age attitudes”, but we should not forget that the hippie New Age attitude of the 60s shaped the Internet technology revolution [RUSirius2006]. Perhaps we had the right attitude in the beautiful, visionary anti-authoritarian 60s, and we should recover it somehow. My experience with New Agers is that, yes, they are easily deluded or scammed, yes, they move from a guru to a new guru and from crystals to pyramids, but they are intellectually and spiritually alive persons, perhaps more alive and awake than others, who are seeking something beautiful that they cannot define. I look forward to Terasem bridging the gap between the 60s and the 10s, cosmic visions and technology, spirituality and transhumanism.
All three groups mentioned above affirm the possibility of technological resurrection, the MTA and the SfUI very openly. We can find it also in the Truths of Terasem, for example in: “Souls of our ancestors come back to life when we emulate their lives and their environment.” [Terasem2002]. In his great Cosmist Manifesto [Goertzel2010], Ben Goertzel endorses the possibility of technological resurrection by including the Ten Cosmist Conviction which we have co-authored, in particular “Spacetime engineering and future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. Eventually we will be able to resurrect the dead by ‘copying them to the future’” and more subtly in other passages. I had fascinating discussions with Ben and many others on specific technologies for resurrection (Perhaps there are micro wormholes permeating the fabric of spacetime and connecting eack spacetime pixel with every other spacetime pixel, which could be used for time scanning? Perhaps quantum entanglement across time? Perhaps something else?), but probably we cannot even begin to imagine a detailed solution. My answer to “Do you believe in an afterlife?” (a recent Facebook poll) is very simple: Time will tell.
Chamberlain2010 – Podcast No. 22 on The Truths of Terasem, http://truthsofterasem.wordpress.com/2011/01/06/podcast-no-22-posted-on-itunes-12272010/
Goertzel2010 – Ben Goertzel, A Cosmist Manifesto, http://cosmistmanifesto.blogspot.com/
Goertzel2011 – Ben Goertzel, Technological Transcendence: An Interview with Giulio Prisco, https://hplusmagazine.com/2011/02/08/technological-transcendence-an-interview-with-giulio-prisco/
Goertzel2011a – Ben Goertzel, Mormonism: The Most Transhumanist Religion?, https://hplusmagazine.com/2011/05/09/mormonism-the-most-transhumanist-religion/
James1896 – William James, The Will to Believe, http://educ.jmu.edu//~omearawm/ph101willtobelieve.html
Perry2000 – R. Michael Perry, Forever For All, http://truthsofterasem.wordpress.com/forever-for-all/
Prisco2004 – Giulio Prisco, Engineering Transcendence, http://giulioprisco.blogspot.com/2006/12/engineeringtranscendence.html
Prisco2010 – Giulio Prisco, In Whom we live, move, and have our being, http://giulioprisco.blogspot.com/2010/03/in-whom-we-live-move-and-have-our-being.html
Prisco2010a – Giulio Prisco, The Cosmic Visions of the Turing Church, http://giulioprisco.blogspot.com/2010/10/cosmic-visions-of-turing-church.html
Rothblatt2010 – Martine Rothblatt on Reconstructing Minds from Software Mindfiles, Teleplace, September 18, http://telexlr8.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/martine-rothblatt-on-reconstructing-minds-from-software-mindfiles-teleplace-september-18/
R.U. Sirius2006 – How the Sixties Shaped the Personal Computer Revolution, in True Mutations, http://boingboing.net/2007/02/13/ru_sirius_true_mutat.html
Terasem2002 – The Truths of Terasem, http://terasemfaith.net/beliefs
TuringChurch2010 – Turing Church Online Workshop 1, Teleplace, Saturday November 20, http://telexlr8.wordpress.com/2010/11/21/turing-church-online-workshop-1-teleplace-saturday-november-20/
Vita-More2010: Natasha Vita-More, MIND and MAN: Getting Mental with Giulio Prisco, https://hplusmagazine.com/2010/09/12/mind-and-man-getting-mental-giulio-prisco/