Transhumanism’s prophetic future

Today I had the pleasure of attending a panel at the 26th World Congress of Political Science titled ‘Technological Innovation, Religion, and Politics in the 21st Century: Current Debates and Prospective Developments.’


My own contribution was a small piece on ‘Transhumanism’s prophetic future’ which compared certain medieval prophecies – like those of Joachim of Fiore around 1200 – to some more recent ones like Ray Kurzweil‘s The Singularity is Near of 2005. A brief summary:

Transhumanism’s Prophetic Future

Although it has always been a favorite pastime of poets, philosophers, and historians to divide the unmanageable chaos of history into more user-friendly ages or epochs, the ultimate boom of such speculations began with the Middle Ages in Europe. The main reason is not difficult to figure out: the linear (or rather vectorial) concept of time as something with a beginning and end, as well as a definite direction, made it possible not only to speculate about the past but to link this up with the even more exciting project of speculating about the future. It would have indeed been strange if it had not happened in ‘a time when all minds lived on the memory of an historical fact, of an event to which all previous history led up, from which was dated the beginning of a new era; a unique event, which might almost be said to mark a date for God himself’, as Étienne Gilson wrote.

Although there are many examples of projecting historical periodization into the future, the most important and most influential one is arguably that of Joachim of Fiore in the late 12th and early 13th century. Based on a chronological understanding of the Holy Trinity, the Calabrian abbot transformed earlier doctrines of the three ages (‘before law’, ‘under law’, and ‘under grace’, meaning the age before the Mosaic law, the age of the Old Testament, and the age of the Christian Church) into the ages of the Father (combining ‘before’ and ‘under’ law), the Son (the present age ‘under grace’), and a new addition, the age of the Holy Spirit, a coming future state under ‘greater grace.’

The exact details of the latter are no doubt intriguing but are beyond the scope of the present investigation. There are only a few important points that are worth remembering for later comparison:

  • According to Joachim, history is a linear process. It comes from somewhere and goes somewhere. (In Joachim’s case, from the creation of Adam to the end of the world.) There is no turning back or decline.
  • Historical time is not homogeneous, it may be divided into different epochs which are highly different from each other. (Joachim and his followers used various names to call these: the ages of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the ages under law, under grace, and under greater grace; the ages of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Eternal Gospel; of hope, faith, and charity; of patriarchs, priests, and monks; etc.)
  • There is, however, also an intrinsic unity, a historical logic in the process, and that is why, based on the knowledge of previous phases, predictions can be made about the next one. These predictions, moreover, are not mystical ramblings, but can be proven mathematically.(The main argument of Joachim was based on calculations about the number of generations in human history – which he, of course, equated with its biblical description – and the time of appearance of several key persons and events in this history.)
  • There is also a last age to be expected, and – fortunately for us – this last one is right now at the threshold. (Based on the calculations mentioned above, Joachim’s disciples took it for granted that after the first 42 generations from Adam to David, and the second 42 generations from David to Jesus, the present age could also not last longer than 42 generations, or, counting with 30 years per generation, 1,260 years. Which was, by the way, also confirmed by many other examples from the Bible. See e. g. the 42 months’ trampling of the holy city in Revelations 11, after which two witnesses will prophesy for another 1,260 days; but also in Revelations 12, the woman clothed with sun flees into the wilderness for 1260 days; while ‘three and a half years’ is also mentioned in the Old Testament, see Daniel 7:25 and 12:7.) So, the beginning of the last age was expected in 1260; in the near, but not very near future. 
  • The last age will not only be different from anything humanity experienced so far, but also better, transcending all physical limitations, a truly spiritual awakening. The age of the ‘Spirit’ explicitly refers to this transformation, when people – at least the most advanced among them – will no longer need priests or books, because they communicate with the Spirit itself, understanding its ‘eternal gospel’ not by traditional learning but by immediate experience.  
  • This is also something unavoidable: whether or not someone joins the trend, the process will reach its climax, because it is the work of a higher force.

The historical lineage of Joachimism was long and tortuous: from heretical movements in the Middle Ages to Thomas Müntzer during the Reformation, and from there to the German enlightenment (Lessing, Hegel, Schelling) and Karl Marx, not to mention more obscure figures like Merezhkovsky or Moeller van den Bruck, who directly link the tradition to the Third International or Hitler’s Third Reich. In a less radical way, however, all historically oriented political utopias betray a degree of Joachimism, when they treat humanity’s movement toward prosperity, democracy, freedom, or world peace (any or all of them) as a movement from somewhere to somewhere, taking distinct epochal steps in the process, the next one of which can be predicted, and we are almost there, in this – obviously happiest – state of affairs, which may be hindered for some time but not ultimately avoided.

Some of today’s most fashionable predictions are related to technology, artificial intelligence, and transhumanism. To review all those would require a whole book, so here I choose only one example, Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, first published in 2005. The title is already a paraphrase of Mark 1:15, ‘The Kingdom of God is near,’ and this is no mere accident. The very idea of singularity means that constantly accelerating technological growth at one point becomes so fast that it becomes independent of human control, manifesting a ‘superintelligence’ that surpasses everything we call human intelligence today. In Kurzweil’s own words, ‘It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.’

Although Kurzweil does not call his own view of history ‘linear’ but ‘exponential’, it is only to emphasize the growing speed of changes, not to abandon the original idea of history as a process coming from somewhere and going somewhere (as in point 1).

He also divides history into epochs (see point 2). Not into three as Joachim did, but into six, it is true; which is, however, not a crucial difference, since the medieval abbot himself used the more traditional scheme of six epochs sometimes (that corresponded to the six ages of human life). In any case, it is not the number of epochs that is important here but the idea that history – however linear or exponential it may be – is not a continuous series of events but something that produces momentous qualitative changes from time to time. Epoch one is that of ‘physics and chemistry’ (from the Big Bang to the emergence of living organisms); epoch two is about ‘biology and DNA’ (until the appearance of organisms ‘that could detect information with their own sensory organs and process and store that information in their own brains and nervous systems’); epoch three is about ‘brains’; epoch four is about ‘human-created technology’; and this is where we are at the moment. Epoch five is the imminent future, ‘the merger of human technology with human intelligence’, while epoch six is the more distant – albeit not very distant – future, when ‘the universe wakes up’, which is the most mystical part of the speculation.

Whether our civilization infuses the rest of the universe with its creativity and intelligence quickly or slowly depends on its immutability. In any event the ‘dumb’ matter and mechanisms of the universe will be transformed into exquisitely sublime forms of intelligence, which will constitute the sixth epoch in the evolution of patterns of information. This is the ultimate destiny of the Singularity and of the universe.

All this may sound scientific only if by ‘science’ one means the most fashionable discipline of the day. For Joachim it was mathematics and biblical history (see point 3 above), for Kurzweil it is information science. Predicting the future in a scientific way always requires such reductions; what we should not forget is that detecting any ‘inherent logic of progress’ depends on explanatory frameworks that are not ‘given’ but are themselves the constructions of human minds. We may describe the history of humankind or even the history of the whole universe in terms of an increasing capability to store and handle information, but this will never be more than one possible approach among others.            

Kurzweil’s prophecies about the last age also repeat the age-old pattern of being ‘almost there’ but still a little far away (see point 4). Citing other authors who put the beginning of singularity to the 2040s, he himself votes for 2045:

“So we will be producing about 1026 to1029 cps of nonbiological computation per year in the early 2030s. This is roughly equal to our estimate for the capacity of all living biological human intelligence. Even if just equal in capacity to our brains, this nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be more powerful because it will combine the pattern-recognition powers of human intelligence with the memory- and skill-sharing ability and memory accuracy of machines. The nonbiological portion will always operate at peak capacity, which is far from the case for biological humanity today; the 1026 cps represented by biological human civilization today is poorly utilized. This state of computation in the early 2030s will not represent the Singularity, however, because it does not yet correspond to a profound expansion of our intelligence. By the mid-2040s, however, that one thousand dollars’ worth of computation will be equal to 1026 cps, so the intelligence created per year (at a total cost of about $1012) will be about one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today. That will indeed represent a profound change, and it is for that reason that I set the date for the Singularity – representing a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability – as 2045.”

Which is, apart from the technical language, the most convenient solution, regarding that Kurzweil will be 97 years old at the time. As for points 5 and 6, we have already seen that being ‘transhuman’ means exactly the same as the spiritual awakening implied by Joachmist prophecies, and it is just as unavoidable as anything that a superhuman (divine) force brings about.

Let us add, however, that none of the above claims is self-evident. The most important question to be asked is what makes them more plausible when they are made by a computer scientist and not by a medieval theologian. In what sense are computer scientists in a better position to make such bold claims than the prophets of earlier ages?

The main problem with prophecies was neatly summed up by Arthur C. Danto in his 1985 book Narration and Knowledge:

“A prophecy is not merely a statement about the future, for a prediction is a statement about the future. It is a certain kind of statement about the future, and I shall say, pending a further analysis, that it is an historical statement about the future. The prophet is one who speaks about the future in a manner which is appropriate only to the past, or who speaks of the present in the light of a future treated as a fait accompli. A prophet treats the present in a perspective ordinarily available only to future historians, to whom present events are past, and for whom the meaning of present events is discernible.”

To which it might be added that to view history in its fullness, as a process with meaning and purpose would require an observer who stands ‘outside’ or ‘above’ history, a divine point of view. For Joachim, this point of view was provided by revelation, but computer scientists can only rely on themselves and their own divine interpretation of history, without realizing how deeply embedded they are in a specific human tradition.

As for social and political implications, Kurzweil’s futurology is even less imaginative. Joachim’s Liber figurarum at least outlined a form of ‘government’ for future communities: a hierarchy of monks who would reign over the rest of society (an obvious extrapolation from the theocratic principles that had been present in Europe since at least the monastic reform movements and the Investiture Controversy).

The most striking feature of the Singularity is Near is not that it also extrapolates from our present social and political institutions, values and principles, but that it readily admits this is the case: nonbiological intelligence ‘is and will be embedded in our societies and will reflect our values’; ‘our application of these greater intellectual powers will be governed by the values of its creators’; ‘democratic values’ or values like ‘liberty, tolerance, and respect for knowledge and diversity’, while the exact nature of future social institutions remains vague, and political institutions (like forms of government or models of democracy) are barely mentioned at all.

One might of course say that Kurzweil is not a political philosopher (let alone a political scientist), so it would be foolish to expect from him a detailed description of what sort of political regime (or rather regimes) will come in an age of singularity. The issue is a bit more complicated, though:

  • If someone thinks that singularity is indeed something beyond the scope of human understanding, it is difficult to see how any prophecy can be made about theconsequences of technological progress, regardless of whether these prophecies are social, cultural, economic, or anything else.  
  • Yet, if someone’s aim is indeed to prophesize about such consequences, it is impossible to avoid prophecies of a political nature, unless one implicitly suggests that the political will somehow be dissolved in the social, the cultural, or the economic; but this is already a claim of political nature.
  • Moreover, such a claim presupposes an approach that is but one among many, and not something inevitable or self-evident. The strange thing is that sometimes even Kurzweil himself admits that his approach is something worth fighting for in the face of opposing ideologies (even if in the long run it is bound to be triumphant).
  • And this is where the argument which otherwise relies on ‘social and political innovations’ takes a paradoxically conservative turn: one that explicitly commits itself to ‘our’ (whose?) ‘traditional’ (liberal, democratic, pluralistic, etc.) values, a commitment that is once again difficult to defend on purely rationalistic grounds, especially in the pluralistic intellectual environment of the 21st century, in which ‘different gods’ (different social and political Absolutes) may appear as well.

As John Gray ironically remarked in his Seven Types of Atheism:

“Humans may well use science to turn themselves into something like gods as they have imagined them to be. But no Supreme Being will appear on the scene. Instead there will be different gods, each of them a parody of human beings that once existed.”

Which is itself a sort of prophecy, however; showing that most authors in the Western tradition (Joachimist or otherwise) are still incapable of omitting the ‘prophetic future’ from their vocabulary.