Eschatology for Nerds
June 24, 2011

I confess I haven’t read all of the relevant literature on the Singularity, and I feel presumptuous for sounding off on such an arcane topic when I understand it only in the broadest sense. But that’s what blogs are for, so I’m going to piggyback on Alex Knapp’s much more well-informed Singularity skepticism and try out an observation I’ve had gestating for a little while.

It seems to me that the Singularity, regardless of its other vices or virtues as a theory, shares some DNA with certain strains of Christian End Times theology, Marxism, and — more recently — humanist, Fukuyama-esque faith in the coming end of history. End Times theology posits a coming battle between capital-G Good and capital-E Evil that will end with the former triumphant and the latter vanquished, at which point worthy mortals will be rewarded with Heaven on Earth. For Marxists, the final battle is not between God and Satan but between labor and capital; after labor wins they will institute a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat, to be later dismantled and replace with a global utopia free of both state and class.

As for the end of history crowd, they’re always waiting for the death rattle of non-liberal, non-democratic government. First it was the Cold War. More recently, it’s been the Arab Spring. But wherever you think the pivot point is, the fact of the matter is that history is on the side of human freedom, and shall be on that side forever — until there is nothing in its way.

You might be noticing a certain pattern here. And the Singularity conforms to that pattern. Except in this case, instead of the Rapture, the global Communist revolution or the collapse of the Communist experiment, we have the development of an artificial intelligence that can outthink humanity in every way that counts. Once again this transformation leads to a worldwide fundamental transformation in which all of our petty struggles and small, meaningless lives are wiped clean to be replaced with something bigger, better and shinier.

Hence the knee-jerk skepticism with which I regard Singularity evangelists. For thousands of years prophets of all sorts have foretold a watershed moment that will change everything and bring about the death of human suffering. If we just believe, have patience and do what we can, we too might live to see the extinction of pain, confusion, death, ambiguity and guilt.

So far none of those promises have been fulfilled. Still, people keep making them, and we keep believing them. Our yearning for paradise is so fundamental and overpowering that we’ll take practically any excuse to believe that it will one day be sated.

But why bother? My pain is my own. If I got rid of it, what would I have left? I would no longer be a person, much less this specific person. It might be very pleasant be one with the grand collective, but there would be no me around to enjoy the sensation. Or if there was, it would be a hollowed out shell: free of desire, yes, but also verve, ambition, passion, depth of feeling. Which is why I’ll take this world over utopia, thanks. Pain and all.

P.S.: The great, great webcomic pictures for sad children has a much less charitable take on the same basic idea.

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