Our relationship to death has a funny effect on the mind. Clinging to our bodies or waiting for transcendence, the importance we place on our mortality is often a very powerful motivation for action.
Back in the 19th century the Civil War left America reeling, and the untoward number of dead helped encourage the rise and spread of what became known as Spiritualism, and in France, under a more science leaning orientation, Spiritism.
Trance mediums and seances spread through the United States with surprising vigor, spreading to Europe the phenomena met with a sustained interest as well. It wasn’t that these phenomenon hadn’t been around before, but in prior centuries these visionary states helped plant the seeds for very different mentalities. The Shakers, Quakers, Boehemists, Philidelphian Society, and a whole host of Protestant and Revivalist religions used the same phenomenon to call up radical new theosophic and Utopian visions of society and religion. What was different about the Spiritualist and Spiritist movements was their surprisingly secular focus, which quickly lead to a divorce from traditional orthodoxies and the development of the New Thought and Mind Science movements, among other tangential offshoots.
This transition is interesting because it leads to one of the core tenants of a movement active today that most wouldn’t tie to table tapping and ectoplasm. The Singularity movement, spearheaded by Ray Kurzweil, holds as one of it’s main goals the transfer of human consciousness into machines. Now a lot of cognitive scientists and philosophers are digging deep into the grey matter to find the material basis for consciousness that would make this transition easier. If you do a close read on Kurzweil’s writing, however, he’s talking about something more ephemeral, something closer to a mechanized seance.
“In 1970, well before the era of nanobot doctors, Mr. Kurzweil’s father, Fredric, died of a heart attack at his home in Queens. Fredric was 58, and Ray was 22. Since then, Mr. Kurzweil has filled a storage space with his father’s effects — photographs, letters, bills and newspaper clippings. In a world where computers and humans merge, Mr. Kurzweil expects that these documents can be combined with memories harvested from his own brain, and then possibly with Fredric’s DNA, to effect a partial resurrection of his father.”
In a number of interviews Kurzweil mentions that the death of his father is an impetus for his research. The idea of reconnecting with his father in the digital domain is a personal quest that guides much of his theorizing about the possibility of man-machine interface and the possibilities of virtual reality. Some would like to think that this is just a convenient example he uses to illustrate a point, however a storage locker filled with memorabilia is not very convenient.
One is reminded of a psychic gathering up articles of clothing and items from a missing person or someone who has passed away in order to get a sense of their “psychic residue.” The similarities don’t end there, the Singularian promise of a more perfect world is surprising in it’s correspondence to the Spiritist concept of evolution:
“In the measure that the spirit is purified , the body it wears becomes more spirit-like. The matter is less dense; it no longer creeps laboriously along the surface of the earth; physical needs are less gross; living beings no longer need be mutually destructive in order to feed themselves. The spirit is freer and has perceptions unknown to us, of things far removed. It sees with bodily eyes what we see only in thought. In the beings in which spirits are incarnated, this purification leads to moral perfection . Animal passions are weakened,and egotism yields to sentiments of fraternity. Thus in worlds superior to the earth, wars are unknown; hatreds and discords have no object because no one dreams of working ill against his neighbor.”
– Le Livre des Esprits, Allan Kardec (Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail)
Compare this to Kurzweil’s intimations in a foreward he wrote for James Gardners’ Intelligent Universe:
“By 2029, sufficient computation to simulate the entire human brain, which I estimate at about 1016 (10 million billion) calculations per second (cps), will cost about a dollar. By that time, intelligent machines will combine the subtle and supple skills that humans now excel in (essentially our powers of pattern recognition) with ways in which machines are already superior, such as remembering trillions of facts accurately, searching quickly through vast databases, and downloading skills and knowledge.
But this will not be an alien invasion of intelligent machines. It will be an expression of our own civilization, as we have always used our technology to extend our physical and mental reach…Once we saturate the ability of matter and energy to support computation, continuing the ongoing expansion of human intelligence and knowledge (which I see as the overall mission of our human-machine civilization), will require converting more and more matter into this ultimate computing substrate, sometimes referred to as “computronium.”
The utopian spirit world envisioned by Kardec turned into some easy cash for those willing to take advantage of the public’s credulity in dealing with communiques from their dearly departed. Today Kardec’s ideas form the a basis for a number of thriving traditions in Latin America, but in the United States and Europe more often one encounters pay for play psychics and degenerate instances of trance channeling.
The Traditionalist philosopher Rene Guenon critiqued the Neo-Spiritists of his time for being prolific in inventing words for the purpose of popularizing their ideas. In his essay on Spiritist evolutionism Guenon begins his critique with an assault on this tendency:
“One can hardly imagine the seduction that grand words offering a false semblance of intellectuality exercise on more or less uneducated or elementary spiritists. This is a kind of verbalism which provides the illusion of thought for those incapable of really thinking; it is also an obscurity which passes for profundity in the eyes of the common man. The pompous and empty phraseology in use among all ‘neo-spiritualist’ schools is certainly not one of the least elements in their success.
But spiritist terminoogy is particularly ridiculous because it is composed in large part of neologisms coined by quasi-illiterates in defiance of all the laws of etymology. For example,if one wishes to know how the word ‘perispirit’ was coined by Allan Kardec, it is quite simply thus: ‘As the seedof a fruit is covered by a perisperm, similarly the spirit properly so called is surrounded by an envelop which may by comparison be called perispirit. Those with a penchant for linguistic research could find in this kind of thing the subject of a curious study, but we will only note it in passing.”
The Singularity movement seems to have picked up on this playful, etymology defying, word creation without hesitation. Kurzweil’s “computronium” is not alone in the Singularian lexicon. In his article From Cosmism to Deism, the writer Hugo de Garis uses the term ‘artilects‘ which he defines as “artificial intellects, i.e., godlike massively intelligent machines with intellectual capacities trillions of trillions of times above the human level” which will, in his opinion, finally give reality to the concept of deity (which he defines as “a massively intelligent entity capable of creating a universe.”)
When Plato defined man as a hairless biped, Diogenes of Sinope came up with a plucked chicken and exclaimed “Here’s Plato’s man!” In the same light we could put an AI processor on a toaster, label it ‘Deity’ and hand it to de Garis. Although it may seem an unfair critique for Guenon to call the Neo-Spiritist movement illiterate, especially considering the vibrant Latin American traditions that have grown in their wake, if we take de Garis as an example of a contemporary proponent of this kind of theorizing, it becomes more clear where Guenon is coming from.
The idea that Deity can be reduced to “a massively intelligent entity capable of creating a universe,” flies in the face of a more mature reading of traditional texts. Illiteracy is not defined by the inability to read, it’s core component is in the inability to comprehend what is read.
This lack of intellectual maturity is also shown in Kurzweil’s need to resurrect his father. To have this kind of regressive goal is, in my opinion, disturbing for someone with a powerful influence on the culture and the funding to make his ideas come to fruition.
His theories at this point are calling for the complete overhaul of the solar system to support some vague notion of a hyper intelligent machine:
“What is that limit? The overall solar system, which is dominated by the sun, has a mass of about 2 × 1030 kilograms. If we apply our 1050 cps per kilogram limit to this figure, we get a crude estimate of 1080 cps for the computational capacity of our solar system. There are some practical considerations here, in that we won’t want to convert the entire solar system into computronium, and some of it is not suitable for this purpose anyway. If we devoted 1/20th of 1 percent (.0005) of the matter of the solar system to computronium, we get capacities of 1069 cps for “cold” computing and 1077 cps for “hot” computing. I show in my book how we will get to these levels using the resources in our solar system within about a century.“
What decides the material used and not used? The needs of the grand ‘artilect’ made from ‘computronium’. L. Ron Hubbard couldn’t have written something more ridiculous in his most devious, reality rewriting moment.
Kurzweil’s excitement over technology’s capabilities for “remembering trillions of facts accurately, searching quickly through vast databases, and downloading skills and knowledge,” show his idea of what it means to be “intelligent.” Even more telling is his continued repetition of factored numbers to explain his points. He doesn’t need to upload any nanobots, his brain’s already made the leap.
This isn’t to say that these men are not intelligent within a limited sphere. They are highly functional, as functional as the machines they love, and are useful fleshy components in the technological and scientistic society that has been created to foster the profit margins of corporate entities that operate on the same mathematics Kurzweil envisions for the triumphant rise of artificial intelligence. It’s very telling that one of the most immediate uses for these AI advances is in military applications and the banking industry.
Just as Spiritualism as it decayed into a populist curiosity turned humanity’s discomfort with mortality, and interest in anomalous phenomenon, into a secular past time, a commodity that could be sold through Ouija Boards and television psychics, the Singularity takes the potentials of mathematics and science and turns them into a jargon filled playground for corporate interests. Remember, the same folks selling you on an immortalist techno-utopia are the one’s who try to humanize their websites with stock photos and annoying chat bots.
“I see the Fourfold Man; the Humanity in deadly sleep,
And its fallen Emanation, the Spectre and its cruel Shadow.
I see the Past, Present, and Future existing all at once
Before me. O Divine Spirit! sustain me on thy wings,
That I may awake Albion from his long and cold repose;
For Bacon and Newton, sheath’d in dismal steel, their terrors hang
Like iron scourges over Albion. Reasonings like vast Serpents
Enfold around my limbs, bruising my minute articulations.
I turn my eyes to the Schools and Universities of Europe,
And there behold the Loom of Locke, whose Woof rages dire,
Wash’d by the Water-wheels of Newton: black the cloth
In heavy wreaths folds over every Nation: cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic,
Moving by compulsion each other; not as those in Eden, which,
Wheel within wheel, in freedom revolve, in harmony and peace.”
- “A Vision of Albion” from Jerusalem, William Blake