Why I Don’t Dig the Singularity

“I think that’s sort of Kurzweil’s vision — that we’ll be able to make our fantasies real. Why would you actually need another human being?” – Joe Quirk

I was thinking about technology and the soul, recently. (Doesn’t everyone?) Which led to a story idea. Which led, inevitably, to research. I decided I needed to read up on the Singularity, which at its simplest is the idea that at some point technological and cultural change will become so rapid that there will come a point in history after which humans will become unrecognizable…a metaphorical cultural-historical event horizon. I don’t necessarily think the idea of the Singularity is wrong or impossible, and it may indeed be inevitable; serious expansion into space, or other strategies of long-term survival, may require adaptations that will indeed make our descendants very, very different from us. However, a kind of gee-whiz wannabe-post-human subculture has grown up around the idea of the Singularity as both absolutely inevitable and (mostly) unquestionably awesome. To catalogue all of my objections would require a book, but suffice it to say that I do not agree with many of the underlying assumptions I am seeing in that subculture; I find them either philosophically objectionable or simply factually wrong.

A good example of the kind of thing I’m speaking of is “Why Chicks Don’t Dig the Singularity,” an interview with Joe Quirk by RU Sirius. Points for the title (got my attention, didn’t it?) but the interview is so full of earnest, face-palmy foolishness (“There’s not a big female fan base for science fiction, right?”) it’s hard to see past it. I’ve come to think of evolutionary psychology as a logical fallacy masquerading as a field of study, and Mr. Quirk writes books on the subject; consequently the interview is full of pronouncements such as, “Women are early adopters of youth technology in terms of looks,” and “[women] want to get together at lunch with their friends and make eye contact and stand way too close to each other.” The problem there (and with evo psych in general) is not the observation; the problem is with the assumptions about why. It requires an utter disregard for the mountains of evidence that our brains and even physiology are actually pretty plastic, and an insistence on biology-is-destiny reification of gendered cultural behavior…all of which, Pangloss-like, serves to justify the status quo which conveniently enough favors men. Who are, I have to point out, the majority of evolutionary psychologists. Not because of any glass ceiling or gender bias in the field, of course, but because men evolved to hunt and think abstractly and women evolved to…oh, Jesus.

The most insightful comment in the whole thing is this: “I think male geeks in the futurist community assume that human nature is the same as the nature of male geeks in the futurist community. And it’s kind of become a little religion; we have our own Rapture and our own eschatology and all that sort of stuff. But I think the idea of merging with machine intelligence is not appealing to lots of different kinds of people.” This, I agree with. I would only add that it is possible that the disconnect between what male geeks in the futurist community believe about human nature and what the rest of humanity responds to is so wide because male geeks in the futurist community are simply wrong about human nature…including their own.

Human beings are social animals. Human beings have a psychological and even physical need for direct contact that social interactions mediated by the Internet or similarly attenuating technology cannot (at this stage, and probably ever) fulfill. The fact that some people seem to think that they can get along fine without it is a kind of Platonic-dualism-induced hallucination, a desire to believe that they are “really” a refined intellect separate from and superior to the grunting, sweating, soft and breakable human body that lives, eats, emotes and defecates in meatspace. This fundamental mistake…that the mind and body are somehow separate…is arguably the big lie of Western culture. It’s also, not coincidentally, the basis for all hierarchies. Mind over body, civilization over nature…men over women. To the extent that women are somehow inherently inoculated against this particular delusion, it is because the facts of reproduction tie us to our mortal bodies by necessity more than men generally are, and also because those hierarchies rarely if ever work in our favor. But the reason men in particular are encouraged to think of their identities as essential and separate from their bodies is cultural, not biological.

A related, immediate, and serious objection is that while most of geek culture gives lip service to democracy, in practice many if not most online and geeky spaces are dominated by white middle-class men and boys…that is, they are kyriarchal and exclusionary. The more anonymous and removed from the possibility of face-to-face interaction the online space is, the more brutally the unspoken exclusionary rules are enforced. The mild end of the scale is micro-aggressions and relative status; the extreme end includes threats of real-world violence including rape. I see absolutely no reason to think that the magic of more and better technology will solve this problem, because the problem again isn’t technical, it is cultural. Even talking about it meets with a sullen wall of resistance.

But here’s the real reason I don’t dig the singularity: The mind and body are not in fact separate. Our consciousness is created by and inseparable from the structure of our brains, the input of our senses, the subtle and complex interactions with our biochemistry, our bodies as a whole. You cannot upload your consciousness to anywhere, because the process of doing so will change it fundamentally. At best, you could create a different being with some memories that resemble those of a human being (though even they will not be the same). But this is not, as some would have it, a road to immortality. The original human being will still be just as dead.

I can always be wrong, of course. But the other possibility…that our consciousness and will are actually separable from our bodied selves…means something other than the brain and body has to be at work, a notion that does not square with the materialism from which the notion of the Singularity sprung. It requires a mechanism that we do not understand and cannot perceive…that is, for lack of a better word, a soul. Now, I’m not against the idea of souls. I’m not even against the idea of machines having them; most days I am an animist. I do however emphatically think that souls are not logically consistent with a world view that posits a technological Singularity, and therefore the movement as a whole has a giant ineluctable blind spot. Not its only one, as I’ve mentioned. But when you’ve got a problem with the implications of your own metaphysics, what then?