Tales of the Turing Church

My futurist friend Giulio Prisco has a new book: Tales of the Turing Church. In some ways, he is a reasonable skeptic:

I think all these things – molecular nanotechnology, radical life extension, the reanimation of cryonics patients, mind uploading, superintelligent AI and all that – will materialize one day, but not anytime soon. Probably (almost certainly if you ask me) after my time, and yours. … Biological immortality is unlikely to materialize anytime soon. … Mind uploading … is a better option for indefinite lifespans … I don’t buy the idea of a “post-scarcity” utopia. … I think technological resurrection will eventually be achieved, but … in … more like many thousands of years or more.

However, the core of Prisco’s book makes some very strong claims:

Future science and technology will permit playing with the building blocks of spacetime, matter, energy and life in ways that we could only call magic and supernatural today. Someday in the future, you and your loved ones will be resurrected by very advanced science and technology. Inconceivably advanced intelligences are out there among the stars. Even more God-like beings operate in the fabric of reality underneath spacetime, or beyond spacetime, and control the universe. Future science will allow us to find them, and become like them. Our descendants in the far future will join the community of God-like beings among the stars and beyond, and use transcendent technology to resurrect the dead and remake the universe. …

God exists, controls reality, will resurrect the dead and remake the universe. … Now you don’t have to fear death, and you can endure the temporary separation from your loved departed ones. … Future science and technology will validate and realize all the promises of religion. … God elevates love and compassion to the status of fundamental forces, key drivers for the evolution of the universe. … God is also watching you here and now, cares for you, and perhaps helps you now and then. … God has a perfectly good communication channel with us: our own inner voice.

Now I should note that he doesn’t endorse most specific religious dogma, just what religions have in common:

Many religions have really petty, extremely parochial aspects related to what and when one should eat or drink or what sex is allowed and with whom. I don’t care for this stuff at all. It isn’t even geography – it’s local zoning norms, often questionable, sometimes ugly. … [But] the common cores, the cosmological and mystical aspects of different religions, are similar or at least compatible. 

Even so, Prisco is making very strong claims. And in 339 pages, he has plenty of space to argue for them. But Prisco instead mostly uses his space to show just how many people across history have made similar claims, including folks associated with religion, futurism, and physics. Beyond this social proof, he seems content to say that physics can’t prove him wrong:

If you want to believe in the cosmological core of your religion without abandoning the scientific worldview, yes you can. … Modern physics permits suspending disbelief and allowing ourselves to contemplate visions of hope and happiness, without abandoning the scientific worldview. …

Many scientists … are outspoken atheists who find support for their atheism in modern physics. But… others … find support for [religious] belief in the same modern physics. Not support in the sense of proof, but support in the sense of compatibility. … God-like Minds exist and have the same properties attributed to the Gods of the world’s religions. …

I don’t know that God spoke to me, … but in retrospect I see that the episode … made me realize that I believe in some kind of God and afterlife, and start searching for ways to make my belief compatible with science.

Why is mere compatibility enough? Because, he says, wishful thinking is virtuous:

I don’t strive to reduce my biases: I am very much biased toward scientific theories compatible with hope in resurrection and a meaningful, transcendent universe. …

I openly and cheerfully admit that our ideas are inspired by intellectual fun and wishful thinking, rather than grounded in mathematical necessity. …

Did I hear “wishful thinking” or something like that? Why, yes. The wishful thinking of Columbus, who stubbornly pursued his dream to sail to a new world. The wishful thinking of the poor young man who decides to become a rich man, and eventually succeeds. …

The kind of faith and hope that we can find in science, philosophy, and abstract theology, is easily shattered by doubt. Faith in God and hope in resurrection only get you through the night if they come from deep inside the heart. We should believe and hope with the heart. Please don’t ask me how. I don’t know how.

Prisco also says wishful thinking has social benefits:

I know the science establishment pretty well, certainly well enough to realize that what I’m saying is so heretic that no scientist can enter safely. … Momentous and catastrophic scientific advances are unlikely to happen in the conservative environment of academic research. In fact, revolutionary developments like chaos theory, cellular automata and fractal geometry were initially developed largely outside of the mainstream academic circuits. …

Resurrect the dead … this vision could reach far … give many more people hope and sparkling transcendent visions, and motivate them to roll up their sleeves and try to do something good. …

Widespread belief in some form of afterlife is also good for modern and future societies, … [and] might be our best protection from the reckless pursuit of risky technologies. … Those who hope to be resurrected after death,… do not feel the same urgency to accelerate at all costs. …

Sagan’s … book is a powerful defense of the scientific method as a better way to search for truth than religious revelation. I agree, with three caveats: First, I don’t entirely dismiss the value of subjective experiences that can’t be reproduced. Second, science at its best starts with visionary leaps of imagination that often have much in common with religion. Third, hope is more important than truth.

In fact, Prisco says that focusing on truth rather than hope is “bad philosophy”:

I find so saddening these words of Sagan’s … wife … “we knew we would never see each other again” … Here are two great persons who gave up hope and accepted despair to remain true to bad philosophy.

Furthermore, he say atheism is equally based on wishful thinking:

Tipler has been accused of … wishfully assuming his conclusions. But it’s easy to see that most of Tipler’s critics are guilty of exactly the same sin: If Tipler stretches physics to adapt it to Christianity, they stretch physics to adapt it to the politically correct atheism which is now fashionable in the scientific mainstream. …

Atheism of many scientists is not motivated by science, but rather by personal and political reasons. Some people want to take revenge for having been personally harmed by religion and/or are persuaded that organized religion plays a harmful role in society and politics.

Now I’m not personally persuaded much by these defenses of wishful thinking, as they don’t address the to-me-overwhelming objection: wishing thinking will likely make you overconfidently believe things that are not true. Yes I may have hidden mental processes that indulge in wishful thinking, but I don’t endorse them.

I want to take the rest of this post to show that Prisco uses wishful thinking not just in his physics, but also in his social science. Let us assume with Prisco that there are very powerful and knowledgeable gods far away out there in space, time, or “level” of physics or simulation. These gods may perhaps include our distant descendants. Let us further assume that these gods have the physical ability to reach into our world and see lots of detail, including reading our mental states, and to also influence our world, such as by whispering to us via our “inner voice”.

Given these assumptions, we must wonder why these gods don’t make themselves better known or do much visible to influence the world around us, or anything we can see. For example, why don’t they help us more, or include us more in their conflicts? One reasonable possibility is that seeing or influencing us is costly, and they simply don’t care enough to bother. Another possibility is that they do care, but have other agendas regarding us that matter much more to them than our happiness, agendas that require them to hide and limit their influence. For example, they might treat our history as an experiment, or they might hide from each other.

None of these scenarios offer much reason to expect these gods to love you, care for you, or help you sometimes. And even less to expect them to take the effort to grab a detailed snapshot of you at moment of death, transport it to somewhere far away, and then reconstruct you to live a “heavenly” life there together with your loved ones. Even if they did bother to transport you far away, they might instead do this to torture or enslave you. Strongly expecting heaven seems a crazy degree of wishful thinking.

Now Prisco does admit he’s not entirely sure:

I refrain from elaborating too much on the morality of higher level intelligences. I think it would be wonderful if the Gods were nice and kind, and… this is plausible, but I don’t think it can be proven.

Okay, but his degrees of belief, both on physics and social assumptions, clearly go far beyond what our evidence or a reasonable Bayesian prior could justify. Yes, one might have to be overconfident, perhaps due to wishful thinking, to draw strong conclusions about what creatures exist out there far away. But it is completely reasonable and not at all wishful thinking to say 1) we seem to understand the world around us pretty well, 2) we’ve not seen any substantial evidence around here of any influence by far away gods, and 3) the hypothesis of gods who mainly only copy our minds to heaven on death seems pretty unlikely a priori.  If such gods exist, they don’t seem to do much around here. I’d call that just plain obvious.

Btw, here are the two quotes in the book that mention me:

A smart friend, Robin Hanson, once warned me that, if you want people to really commit to your ideas and take them seriously, you should ask people to give something up, like fasting on some days, following a strict lifestyle code, or giving part of their income to a church. I think Robin is right, but I am not asking you to give up anything, and this is not a church. …

While Robin’s book [Age of Em] is a fascinating read, I disagree with one key assumption. Robin thinks that mind uploading is likely to be developed much before sentient Artificial Intelligence (AI). I think the two are likely to … reach operational maturity at more or less the same time. But if I had to bet money, I would bet on AI coming first.

I’d just say there’s a good enough chance of uploads coming before other AI to make it worth analyzing that scenario.

Added 3Jan: Prisco claims to care so much about promoting future resurrection that to encourage it he’s willing to promote wishful thinking on future distant gods. But the obvious way to promote future resurrection is to encourage people to get cryonics, which helps preserve brain info and thus make it much easier for future powers to revive people who’ve died in our world. Yet Prisco on briefly mentions cryonics, and doesn’t at all push it, not remotely like he pushes believing in kind gods. This is where wishful thinking can really hurt: people who skip cryonics because they wishfully think gods will revive them no matter what, may miss their only chance to be revived.

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