Note: A solicitation recently arrived in my mailbox from a leading atheist organization. Its lead caption, in bold letters, was the phrase: “WE ALL DIE.” The flyer then went on to speak of the importance of leaving behind a personal legacy to serve as a lasting memorial of one’s high moral character, like, for instance, a generous tax-deductible gift.
Ironically, the “WE ALL DIE” pitch is set in the context of a historic and game-changing new development on the atheist landscape: the Singularity. Led by technology expert and futurist Ray Kurzweil, the battle cry of singularitarians is not: “WE ALL DIE,” it’s: “Screw the legacy, live long enough to live forever!”
“I don’t want to be immortal through my work; I want to be immortal by not dying.”
Just as Martin Luther created a counter-movement against Catholicism in the early sixteenth century, Ray has created an atheist alternative for nonbelievers, who now have a choice between “WE ALL DIE” atheism and Atheism Plus. Though I doubt Ray’s losing any sleep over it, many orthodox atheist leaders view him in the same way the Pope viewed Martin Luther, as a heretic and apostate.
For obvious reasons, the leaders of “WE ALL DIE” atheism have concluded that Atheism Plus poses an existential threat to their historical role as the sole voice of the greater atheist community. To counter Atheism Plus, “WE ALL DIE” leaders turned to professional skeptic Michael Shermer, an apologist for classical atheism who, at the time he was recruited, had a reputation as a fair and impartial judge of extraordinary claims. By any definition, the Singularity is definitely extraordinary.
In his 2018 book Heavens on Earth, Michael, as newly appointed attack dog, attempted to deconstruct the Kurzweil Model of the Singularity by associating it with two of his favorite bogeymen: junk science and religion.
In full disclosure, Michael and I have exchanged numerous emails over the years. We have a lot in common. At one time we were both deeply involved in Christian fundamentalism, me as a pastor and Michael as a young missionary. Disillusioned, we both left the church. The difference is that when Michael left, he denied his faith, denied the Bible, and denied Jesus Christ. When I left, I took all three with me, albeit in a different, non-religious context.
As a point of clarification, in the following essay I use the word “atheist” in its most comprehensive sense. It includes all types of nonbelievers: freethinkers, agnostics, humanists, brights, nones, secularists and others. With this as the background, let’s get on with our conversation.
The Evolution Revolution
Ray’s Claim: “The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots. There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.”
“Many commentators on these changes focus on what they perceive as a loss of some vital aspect of our humanity that will result from this transition. This perspective stems, however, from a misunderstanding of what our technology will become. All the machines we have met to date lack the essential subtlety of human biological qualities. Although the Singularity has many faces, its most important implication is this: our technology will match and then vastly exceed the refinement and suppleness of what we regard as the best of human traits.” From: The Singularity is Near.
Michael’s Response: “Finally, cryonics, transhumanism, the singularity, and mind-uploading all sound utopian, the other thread we will explore in the next section of the book on the quest for perfectibility and why, like the quest for immortality, it fails to deliver on its promises.” From: Heaven on Earth.
Don: Okay Molly, let’s discuss the Evolution Revolution.
Molly: I’ve heard Ray talking about it. It’s when natural evolution is overtaken by artificial intelligence.
Don: You got it. Fifty years ago, some of the smartest people on the planet, including Carl Sagan, saw this paradigm shift coming. Here’s what Carl wrote:
“We are at a crossroads in human history. Never before has there been a moment so simultaneously perilous and promising. We are the first species to have taken our evolution into our own hands. For the first time we possess the means for intentional or inadvertent self-destruction. We also have, I believe, the means for passing through this stage of technological adolescence into a long-lived, rich and fulfilling maturity for all the members of our species. But there is not much time to determine to which fork in the road we are committing our children and our future.” [underlines mine]
Molly: It’s quite a contrast: “WE ALL DIE” atheism against Atheism Plus.
Don: For decades, “WE ALL DIE” atheist leaders ignored Singularity science in the hope that, like most fads, it would simply go away. How wrong they were! Rather than going away, awareness and appreciation among atheists of what the Singularity is and how it can enrich our lives continued to grow, to the point where “WE ALL DIE” atheist leaders felt they had no choice but to do something drastic to stop the hemorrhaging of their supporters. They called on one of their leading apologists for help.
Don: Enter Michael Shermer, a defender of natural evolution. Let’s be clear, while there’s nothing wrong with advocates of one science-based position countering the advocates of an opposing science-based position, I think we can both agree that it should be done with fidelity to scientific accuracy, and, equally important, done in a spirit of mutual respect. Sadly, Michael’s effort to deconstruct the science that underpins the Singularity not only slanders Ray, but grossly misrepresents the underlying technology that verifies Singularity research as legitimate science.
Molly: That doesn’t make any sense. Michael built his reputation on scientific rigor and intellectual honesty. Why would he jeopardize his high standing as a truth-seeking atheist who embraces high moral principles?
Don: It’s called desperation.
Molly: Can you give me an example?
Don: Sure, plenty of them. Remember, Michael has written extensively about junk science. Three of his bestselling books: Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, and How We Believe are tutorials for non-scientists who want to develop the critical thinking skills that will enable them to separate truth from what Carl Sagan called “baloney.” Tragically, Michael, an expert in how charlatans bamboozle the public, used many of those same dark strategies in his effort to bamboozle his fellow atheists, particularly older, less technology savvy atheists, into rejecting Atheism Plus.
One proven technique Michael borrowed from the charlatan playbook is “guilt by association.” In the following excerpt, he creates the impression that any atheist who shows an interest in the Singularity is obviously gullible and uninformed, making him or her susceptible to the same delusional impulses as religious people:
“In the second half of the twentieth century there arose a number of groups and movements dedicated to extending the human life span into centuries, millennia, or beyond – possibly even forever. It is a colorful cast of characters, many of whom I have met and come to know well enough to assure readers that this is no cult movement or financial scam exploiting the fearful. They are cryonicists, extropians, transhumanists, Omega Point theorists, singularitarians, and mind uploaders, and they are serious about defeating death.” From: Heaven on Earth.
Molly: I see what you mean. By including singularitarianism on a list of what he considers fringe sciences, Michael paints the image of a “group” or “movement” which educated people will instantly associate with a restless time in America in the second half of the 19th century, when a number of religious utopian and dystopian “groups” and “movements” led by “a colorful cast of characters” popped up, seemingly out of nowhere, who convinced millions of disenchanted Christians to abandon long-held belief systems. It’s a clever tactic.
Don: Knowing how enthusiastically supportive atheists are with technology, “WE ALL DIE” atheist leaders and organizations have a palpable and justifiable fear that, if forced to choose between their “no hope” model and Atheism Plus, they will bolt. Should that happen, “WE ALL DIE” atheism would likely to go the way of the dodo bird.
Molly: Michael’s phrase “colorful cast of characters” is code-speak for “weird,” “flake,” and “nutty.” By including Ray in that motley group, the reader is left with the impression that Atheism Plus is something that rational, clear-minded atheists should avoid at all costs.
Don: Correct. It conveniently overlooks the fact that singularitarians believe in Darwinian evolution just as much as anti-singularitarians. The difference is that singularitarians believe what Carl Sagan believed, that humans, for the first time in our two-billion-year history, are in control of our own evolution.
Following is another example of Michael’s duplicity:
“In the 2014 film Transcendence, Johnny Depp’s scientist character, Dr. Will Caster, has been working on a computer capable of achieving sentience when he is attacked by terrorists and shot with a polonium-laced bullet that leaves him with a month to live. Just before he dies, Caster uploads his mind into his quantum computer such that the continuity of his personal perspective is not broken. His self has moved from a biological medium to a silicon platform. Since there was no distinct break between conscious states, Dr. Caster’s continuity of self continues. He has transcended his body. He is his pattern, not his matter. He then wants to go online because, as he explains to an audience of neuroscientists, mathematicians, and hackers, ‘once online, a sentient machine will quickly overcome the limits of biology. And in a short time its analytical power will become greater than the collective intelligence of every person born in the history of the world. So imagine such an entity with a full range of human emotion, even self-awareness. Some scientists refer to this as ‘the singularity.’ I call it ‘transcendence.’” From: Heaven on Earth. [Underlines mine].
Don: In this excerpt, Michael draws an analogy between Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity, and Johnny Depp and Transcendence.
The dictionary definition of transcendence refers to things that are religious in nature, things that exist beyond the limits of the material universe. While it’s true that the Singularity is virtual rather than material, everyone understands that it is science, not religion. In an act of intentional misrepresentation lifted straight out of the junk science playbook, Michael resorts to using half-truths in an effort to undermine the Kurzweil Model of the Singularity.
Molly: And he doubles down when he suggests that he, as a scientist, chooses to call the Singularity “transcendence.”
I’ve checked out his bio. It turns out that Michael’s doctoral degree is in the humanities, not in STEM, and not from a Harvard, Stanford, or MIT, but from a small liberal arts college. By insinuating that he is a “scientist” in the same vein as Ray Kurzweil, a graduate of MIT, he’s trying to trick readers into believing that his knowledge of the Singularity is on par with Ray’s, entitling him to change the name. Disgusting!
Don: I’m not done yet. Here’s another, much darker example:
“Kurzweil’s motivation stems in part from the premature death of his father at age fifty-eight.” “Kurzweil’s mission in life seems more focused on resurrecting his patriarch than in resuscitating humanity.” From: Heaven on Earth.
Don: Michael doesn’t stage a direct attack on the science undergirding the Singularity - because he knows he isn’t professionally qualified. Instead, as an expert in disinformation, he launches an ad hominem attack focused on Ray’s relationship to his deceased father.
In Why People Believe in Weird Things, Michael describes an ad hominem attack as the following:
“The goal of an ad hominem attack is to discredit the claimant in hopes that it will discredit the claim.” “. . . these fallacies redirect the focus from thinking about the idea to thinking about the person holding the idea.”
Molly: Holy crap! How could atheist leaders condone such underhanded tactics?
Don: For years Michael made a good living writing things that “WE ALL DIE” atheist leaders believed but were too afraid to speak about or write about in public. Though many of Michael’s tactics were outside the bounds of scientific ethics, you can bet that leaders of the “WE ALL DIE” narrative were secretly cheering him on.
But I’m not done, here’s another Shermer low blow:
“Everyone feels special, and every generation believes they are living in special times, but statistically speaking this cannot be true. Thus, the chances that even a science-based prophecy such as those proffered by cryonicists, extropians, transhumanists, singularitarians, and mind uploaders will come true is highly unlikely. Prophets of both religious and secular doom foretell the demise of civilization within their allotted time (and that they will be part of the small surviving enclave while everyone else will be left behind). Prognosticators of both religious and secular utopias always include themselves as members of the chosen few, with the paradisiacal state just within reach. Rarely do we hear a scientific futurist or a religious diviner predict that the “big thing” is going to happen in, say, the year 7510. But where’s the hope in that?” From: Heaven on Earth.
Molly: This guy doesn’t let up, does he? He’s like a jackhammer. In this one paragraph he manages to cram in a half dozen pejoratives. It makes me sick.
Don: Calm down, please don’t upchuck. I don’t think our readers would like that. Be assured that Ray wasn’t sitting idly by while Michael was spewing out his invectives. He had a response.
Molly: Good, what is it?
Don: We’ll get to it shortly, but, first, I need to move on to another Shermer slam:
“I am also skeptical of extrapolating trend lines very far into the future. Human history is highly nonlinear and unpredictable. All those nifty graphs of accelerating technological change may not continue at those rates, nor apply to all biotechnologies. The downsizing of computers from room size to pocket size is one thing; it is quite another to go from pocket size to cell size. The miniaturization of computer chips must one day run up against the limitations imposed by the laws of physics and impede many of the laws of accelerating returns that Kurzweil envisions getting us to forever. Plus, in my opinion, the problems of aging and artificial intelligence are orders of magnitude harder than anyone anticipated decades ago when these fields began. Machine learning intelligence of a human nature is probably decades away, maybe a century, and immortality is at least a millennium away, if not unattainable altogether.” From: Heaven on Earth.
Don: This paragraph is an example of the pot calling the kettle black. Michael’s book, The Moral Arc, is chuck full of dozens upon dozens of graphs, with most having a predictive component. It appears that Michael’s skepticism of graphs applies only to others, not to him.
Molly: I checked the book out at my local library. You’re right, the guy is a bona fide graphaholic.
Don: In his book Skeptic, Michael insists that his goal is to write about “deeper truths within scientific discoveries.” The above excerpt is evidence that he’s either clueless about the concept of exponential growth, or he’s being intentionally dishonest. Contrast this with Ray, who writes with great clarity about “the knee of the curve,” when the trajectory of accelerating progress in AI R&D results, in a short period of time, the invention of the Singleton.
Molly: Here’s another oddity. In The Moral Arc, published in 2015, Michael states that machine learning intelligence of a human nature is “probably decades away, maybe a century.” Ray and other Singularity experts say the same thing, making his statement the literary equivalent of a false flag operation.
Don: Let me build on that thought. Michael states that “immortality is at least a millennium away, if not unattainable altogether.” He is telling atheists that while the Singularity is likely to become a reality, there’s no possibility of it happening in their lifetimes. On that flimsy basis he argues that it should be rejected.
Molly: Right. Michael’s time-line is that of a turtle, while Ray’s is that of a hare. In the fable, the turtle wins because the overconfident hare, rather than running, idles his time away. But the Kurzweil hare is not that kind of bunny. It’s not only racing full speed towards the finish line, he’s getting faster as he goes.
Don: Now, as far as Ray’s counterpunch, he describes Michael as a modern-day version of Ned Ludd – a young English ignoramus in the early 19th century who fought, unsuccessfully, against the newly invented mechanical loom. Ray sees Michael as a modern Ned Ludd, fighting against a technology-driven model of atheism that includes the hope of personal immortality.
It’s a brilliant counter, because Michael, throughout his career as a professional skeptic, has portrayed conservative Christians as Luddites, individuals whose irrational fear and suspicion of science and technology leaves them looking like Neanderthals. Ray, very effectively, turned the tables on Michael by implicating him and his fellow “WE ALL DIE” atheists as ignorant, in-grown, and narrow-minded, unwilling to recognize or accept new technological advances:
“The Luddite philosophy remains very much alive as an ideological inclination, but as a political and economic movement, it remains just below the surface of contemporary debate.” From: The Age of Spiritual Machines.
Molly: This confirms your suspicion that Michael is a mouthpiece, for “WE ALL DIE” atheist leaders who fear that their reign as the Rulers of Secularism is about to end.
Don: Yeah, but they won’t leave without a fight; they’re going to have to be booted off the throne.
Don: Following is a brief excerpt from The Singularity is Near. It’s a conversation between Ray and Ned Ludd, personified by Michael Shermer.
NED (Michael): "Biological is what we are. I think most people would agree that being biological is the quintessential attribute of being human.”
Ray: “That’s certainly true today.”
Ned (Michael): “And I plan to keep it that way.”
Ray: “Well, if you’re speaking for yourself, that’s fine with me. But if you stay biological and don’t reprogram your genes, you won’t be around for very long to influence the debate.”
Don: The book has another Ray/Ned exchange, even more telling:
Ned (Michael): “These future intelligences will be worse than the textile machines I fought back in 1812. Back then we had to worry about only one man with a machine doing the work of twelve. But you’re talking about a marble-sized machine outperforming all of humanity.”
Ray: “It will only outperform the biological part of humanity. In any event, that marble is still human, even if not biological.”
Ned (Michael): “These superintelligences won’t eat food. They won’t breathe air. They won’t reproduce through sex . . . So just how are they human?”
Ray: “We’re going to merge with our technology. We’re already starting to do that in 2004, even if most of the machines are not yet inside our bodies and brains. Our machines nonetheless extend the reach of our intelligence. Extending our reach has always been the nature of being human.”
Ned (Michael): “Look, saying that these superintelligent nonbiological entities are human is like saying that we’re basically bacteria. After all, we’ve evolved from them also.”
Ray: “It’s true that a contemporary human is a collection of cells, and that we are a product of evolution, indeed its cutting edge. But extending our intelligence by reverse engineering it, modeling it, simulating it, reinstantiating it on more capable substrates, and modifying it and extending it is the next step in its evolution. It was the fate of bacteria to evolve into a technology-creating species. And it’s our destiny now to evolve into the vast intelligence of the Singularity.”
NOTE: Parentheses mine.
Atheism Plus? Yes, please!
Molly: So, who do you think is winning, Ray or Michael?
Don: In his 2005 book The Singularity is Near, Ray anticipates Michael’s 2015 rant by directly addressing the subject of incredulity. Following are a few snippets:
“Perhaps the most candid criticism of the future I have envisioned here is simple disbelief that such profound changes could possibly occur.”
“But scientists’ ethics call for caution in assessing the prospects for current work, and such reasonable prudence unfortunately often leads scientists to shy away from considering the power of generations of science and technology far beyond today’s frontier.”
“. . . this ingrained pessimism does not serve society’s needs in assessing scientific capabilities in the decades ahead. Consider how incredible today’s technology would seem to people even a century ago.”
Don: The bitter reality for “WE ALL DIE” Singularity deniers is that Singularity research is on track to making Ray’s predictions come true - within the timelines he has set. Even more significant, after decades of fruitful research that has benefited humankind in all sorts of ways, Ray has earned the respect of much of the world’s intellectual and scientific elite, not only as a technology genius, but as a man of great personal integrity. The bottom line is that while Ray can survive Michael’s assault, I’m not sure that Michael and his fellow “WE ALL DIE” atheists can shed the Luddite label Ray has pinned on their foreheads.
Of equal concern, while Michael cavalierly dismissed Atheism Plus as junk science, and smeared Ray in the process, the way he went about it was an egregious violation of long-held rules of conduct formalized by Ray Hyman, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Oregon, rules that have informed and guided professional skeptics for decades. It appears to be a clear case of “Rules for thee, but not for me.”
Molly: So, how do you think Michael will respond?
Don: He won’t, because he’s no longer on the scene. His 2015 anti-Singularity diatribe was followed by a ME TOO scandal, where he was publicly accused of misogynistic behavior. The news spread quickly over the internet, and, soon after, his stint as a monthly columnist for Scientific American came to a sad and abrupt end. Michael is now preoccupied with trying to salvage his career.
Molly: So who’s representing “WE ALL DIE” atheism now?
Don: Until recently, no one, but things have changed. A new leader has emerged, and you’ll be surprised to learn who it is.
Molly: I’m not leaving this conversation until you tell me.
Don: All right, if you insist. It’s Carl Sagan. We’ll discuss it in detail in our next conversation.
“What I mean by a skeptic is one who questions the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it.” From:Why People Believe Weird Things.
Advice to skeptics: “Try to make it clear that you are attacking the claim and not the claimant.”