The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

Excerpt from The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, by Ray Kurzweil (Penguin Books, 2006). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 9: Response to Critics

The Criticism from Theism

Another common objection explicitly goes beyond science to maintain that there is a spiritual level that accounts for human capabilities and that is not penetrable by objective means. William A. Dembski, a distinguished philosopher and mathematician, decries the outlook of such thinkers as Marvin Minsky, Daniel Dennett, Patricia Churchland, and Ray Kurzweil, whom he calls “contemporary materialists” who “see the motions and modifications of matter as sufficient to account for human mentality.”[44]

Dembski ascribes “predictability [as] materialism’s main virtue” and cites “hollowness [as] its main fault.” He goes on to say that “humans have aspirations. We long for freedom, immortality, and the beatific vision. We are restless until we find our rest in God. The problem for the materialist, however, is that these aspirations cannot be redeemed in the coin of matter.” He concludes that humans cannot be mere machines because of “the strict absence of extra-material factors from such systems.”

I would prefer that we call Dembski’s concept of materialism “capability materialism,” or better yet “capability patternism.” Capability materialism/ patternism is based on the observation that biological neurons and their interconnections are made up of sustainable patterns of matter and energy. It also holds that their methods can be described, understood, and modeled with either replicas or functionally equivalent re-creations. I use the word “capability” because it encompasses all of the rich, subtle, and diverse ways in which humans interact with the world, not just those narrower skills that one might label as intellectual. Indeed, our ability to understand and respond to emotions is at least as complex and diverse as our ability to process intellectual issues.

John Searle, for example, acknowledges that human neurons are biological machines. Few serious observers have postulated capabilities or reactions of human neurons that require Dembski’s “extra-material factors.” Relying on the patterns of matter and energy in the human body and brain to explain its behavior and proficiencies need not diminish our wonderment at its remarkable qualities. Dembski has an outdated understanding of the concept of “machine.”

Dembski also writes that “unlike brains, computers are neat and precise…. [C]omputers operate deterministically.” This statement and others reveal a view of machines, or entities made up of patterns of matter and energy (“material” entities), that is limited to the literally simpleminded mechanisms of nineteenth-century automatons. These devices, with their hundreds and even thousands of parts, were quite predictable and certainly not capable of longings for freedom and other such endearing qualities of the human entity. The same observations largely hold true for today’s machines, with their billions of parts. But the same cannot necessarily be said for machines with millions of billions of interacting “parts,” entities with the complexity of the human brain and body.

Moreover it is incorrect to say that materialism is predictable. Even today’s computer programs routinely use simulated randomness. If one needs truly random events in a process, there are devices that can provide this as well. Fundamentally, everything we perceive in the material world is the result of many trillions of quantum events, each of which displays a profound and irreducible quantum randomness at the core of physical reality (or so it seems—the scientific jury is still out on the true nature of the apparent randomness underlying quantum events). The material world—at both the macro and micro levels—is anything but predictable.

Although many computer programs do operate the way Dembski describes, the predominant techniques in my own field of pattern recognition use biology-inspired chaotic-computing methods. In these systems the unpredictable interaction of millions of processes, many of which contain random and unpredictable elements, provide unexpected yet appropriate answers to subtle questions of recognition. The bulk of human intelligence consists of just these sorts of pattern-recognition processes.

As for our responses to emotions and our highest aspirations, these are properly regarded as emergent properties—profound ones to be sure but nonetheless emergent patterns that result from the interaction of the human brain with its complex environment. The complexity and capacity of nonbiological entities is increasing exponentially and will match biological systems including the human brain (along with the rest of the nervous system and the endocrine system) within a couple of decades. Indeed, many of the designs of future machines will be biologically inspired—that is, derivative of biological designs. (This is already true of many contemporary systems.) It is my thesis that by sharing the complexity as well as the actual patterns of human brains, these future nonbiological entities will display the intelligence and emotionally rich reactions (such as “aspirations”) of humans.

Will such a nonbiological entity be conscious? Searle claims that we can (at least in theory) readily resolve this question by ascertaining if it has the correct “specific neurobiological processes.” It is my view that many humans, ultimately the vast majority of humans, will come to believe that such human-derived but nonetheless nonbiological intelligent entities are conscious, but that’s a political and psychological prediction, not a scientific or philosophical judgment. My bottom line: I agree with Dembski that this is not a scientific question, because it cannot be resolved through objective observation. Some observers say that if it’s not a scientific question, it’s not an important or even a real question. My view (and I’m sure Dembski agrees) is that precisely because the question is not scientific, it is a philosophical one—indeed, the fundamental philosophical question.

Dembski writes: “We need to transcend ourselves to find ourselves. Now the motions and modifications of matter offer no opportunity for transcending ourselves…. Freud … Marx … Nietzsche, … each regarded the hope for transcendence as a delusion.” This view of transcendence as an ultimate goal is reasonably stated. But I disagree that the material world offers no “opportunity for transcending.” The material world inherently evolves, and each stage transcends the stage before it. As I discussed in chapter 7, evolution moves toward greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, greater love. And God has been called all these things, only without any limitation: infinite knowledge, infinite intelligence, infinite beauty, infinite creativity, and infinite love. Evolution does not achieve an infinite level, but as it explodes exponentially it certainly moves in that direction. So evolution moves inexorably toward our conception of God, albeit never reaching this ideal.

Dembski continues:

A machine is fully determined by the constitution, dynamics, and interrelationships of its physical parts “[M]achines” stresses the strict absence of extra-material factors The replacement principle is relevant to this discussion because it implies that machines have no substantive history…. But a machine, properly speaking, has no history. Its history is a superfluous rider—an addendum that could easily have been different without altering the machine…. For a machine, all that is is what it is at this moment…. Machines access or fail to access items in storage…. Mutatis mutandis, items that represent counterfactual occurrences (i.e., things that never happened) but which are accessible can be, as far as the machine is concerned, just as though they did happen.

It need hardly be stressed that the whole point of this book is that many of our dearly held assumptions about the nature of machines and indeed of our own human nature will be called into question in the next several decades. Dembski’s conception of “history” is just another aspect of our humanity that necessarily derives from the richness, depth, and complexity of being human. Conversely, not having a history in the Dembski sense is just another attribute of the simplicity of the machines that we have known up to this time. It is precisely my thesis that machines of the 2030s and beyond will be of such great complexity and richness of organization that their behavior will evidence emotional reactions, aspirations, and, yes, history. So Dembski is merely describing today’s limited machines and just assuming that these limitations are inherent, a line of argument equivalent to stating that “today’s machines are not as capable as humans, therefore machines will never reach this level of performance.” Dembski is just assuming his conclusion.

Dembski’s view of the ability of machines to understand their own history is limited to their “accessing” items in storage. Future machines, however, will possess not only a record of their own history but an ability to understand that history and to reflect insightfully upon it. As for “items that represent counterfactual occurrences,” surely the same can be said for our human memories.

Dembski’s lengthy discussion of spirituality is summed up thus:

But how can a machine be aware of God’s presence? Recall that machines are entirely defined by the constitution, dynamics, and interrelationships among their physical parts. It follows that God cannot make his presence known to a machine by acting upon it and thereby changing its state. Indeed, the moment God acts upon a machine to change its state, it no longer properly is a machine, for an aspect of the machine now transcends its physical constituents. It follows that awareness of God’s presence by a machine must be independent of any action by God to change the state of the machine. How then does the machine come to awareness of God’s presence? The awareness must be self-induced. Machine spirituality is the spirituality of self-realization, not the spirituality of an active God who freely gives himself in self-revelation and thereby transforms the beings with which he is in communion. For Kurzweil to modify “machine” with the adjective “spiritual” therefore entails an impoverished view of spirituality.

Dembski states that an entity (for example, a person) cannot be aware of God’s presence without God’s acting upon her, yet God cannot act upon a machine, so therefore a machine cannot be aware of God’s presence. Such reasoning is entirely tautological and human-centric. God communes only with humans, and only biological ones at that. I have no problem with Dembski’s subscribing to this as a personal belief, but he fails to make the “strong case” that he promises, that “humans are not machines—period.” As with Searle, Dembski just assumes his conclusion.

Like Searle, Dembski cannot seem to grasp the concept of the emergent properties of complex distributed patterns. He writes:

Anger presumably is correlated with certain localized brain excitations. But localized brain excitations hardly explain anger any better than overt behaviors associated with anger, like shouting obscenities. Localized brain excitations may be reliably correlated with anger, but what accounts for one person interpreting a comment as an insult and experiencing anger, and another person interpreting that same comment as a joke and experiencing laughter? A full materialist account of mind needs to understand localized brain excitations in terms of other localized brain excitations. Instead we find localized brain excitations (representing, say, anger) having to be explained in terms of semantic contents (representing, say, insults). But this mixture of brain excitations and semantic contents hardly constitutes a materialist account of mind or intelligent agency.

Dembski assumes that anger is correlated with a “localized brain excitation,” but anger is almost certainly the reflection of complex distributed patterns of activity in the brain. Even if there is a localized neural correlate associated with anger, it nonetheless results from multifaceted and interacting patterns. Dembski’s question as to why different people react differently to similar situations hardly requires us to resort to his extramaterial factors for an explanation. The brains and experiences of different people are clearly not the same, and these differences are well explained by differences in their physical brains resulting from varying genes and experiences.

Dembski’s resolution of the ontological problem is that the ultimate basis of what exists is what he calls the “real world of things” that are not reducible to material stuff. Dembski does not list what “things” we might consider as fundamental, but presumably human minds would be on the list, as might be other things, such as money and chairs. There may be a small congruence of our views in this regard. I regard Dembski’s “things” as patterns. Money, for example, is a vast and persisting pattern of agreements, understandings, and expectations. “Ray Kurzweil” is perhaps not so vast a pattern but thus far is also persisting. Dembski apparently regards patterns as ephemeral and not substantial, but I have a profound respect for the power and endurance of patterns. It is not unreasonable to regard patterns as a fundamental ontological reality. We are unable to really touch matter and energy directly, but we do directly experience the patterns underlying Dembski’s “things.” Fundamental to this thesis is that as we apply our intelligence, and the extension of our intelligence called technology, to understanding the powerful patterns in our world (for example, human intelligence), we can re-create—and extend!—these patterns in other substrates. The patterns are more important than the materials that embody them.

Finally, if Dembski’s intelligence-enhancing extramaterial stuff really exists, then I’d like to know where I can get some.

Excerpted from The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil. Copyright © Ray Kurzweil, 2005. All rights reserved.


[44] William A. Dembski, “Kurzweil’s Impoverished Spirituality,” in Richards et al., Are We Spiritual Machines?

Ray Kurzweil has been described as “the restless genius” by the Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison​”, and PBS included Kurzweil as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America”, along with other inventors of the past two centuries. As one of the leading inventors of our time, Kurzweil has worked in such areas as music synthesis, speech and character recognition, reading technology, virtual reality and cybernetic art. All of these pioneering technologies continue today as market leaders. He has received twelve honorary Doctorates and honours from three U.S. presidents.

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