ARE WE SPIRITUAL MACHINES? | Chapter 10: The Material World — Response to George Gilder and Jay Richards

June 7, 2001
author |
Ray Kurzweil
year published |

In their foreword, George Gilder and Jay Richards describe me (as well as John Searle and Thomas Ray) as “philosophical materialists,” a term they define by quoting Carl Sagan’s view of the material world as “all there is, or ever was, or ever will be.” Kurzweil, Searle, and Ray, according to Gilder and Richards, “agree that everything can or at least should be described in terms of chance and impersonal natural law without reference to any sort of transcendent intelligence or mind. To them, ideas are epiphenomena of matter.”

There are many concepts here to respond to. But my overriding reaction is: What’s the problem with the so-called material world? Is the world of matter and energy not profound enough? Is it truly necessary to look beyond the world we encounter to find transcendence?

Where shall I start? How about water? It’s simple enough, but consider the diverse and beautiful ways it manifests itself: the endlessly varying patterns as it cascades past rocks in a stream, then surging chaotically down a waterfall (all viewable from my office window, incidentally); the billowing patterns of clouds in the sky; the arrangement of snow on a mountain; the satisfying design of a single snowflake. Or consider Einstein’s description of the entangled order and disorder in, well, a glass of water (i.e., his thesis on Brownian motion).

As we move into the biological world, consider the intricate dance of spirals of DNA during mitosis. How about the “loveliness” of a tree as it bends in the wind and its leaves churn in a tangled dance? Or the bustling world we see in a microscope? There’s transcendence everywhere.

A comment on the word “transcendence” is in order here. To transcend means to “go beyond,” but this need not compel us to an ornate dualist view that regards transcendent levels of reality (e.g., the spiritual level) to be not of this world. We can “go beyond” the “ordinary” powers of the material world through the power of patterns. Rather than a materialist, I would prefer to consider myself a “patternist.” It’s through the emergent powers of the pattern that we transcend.

Consider the author of this chapter. I am not merely or even principally the material stuff I am made of because the actual particles that comprise me turn over quickly. Most cells in the body are replaced within a few months. Although neurons persist longer, the actual atoms making up the neurons are also rapidly replaced. In the first chapter I made the analogy to water in a stream rushing around rocks. The pattern of water is relatively stable, yet the specific water molecules change in milliseconds. The same holds true for us human beings. It is the immense, indeed transcendent, power of our pattern that persists.

The power of patterns to persist goes beyond explicitly self-replicating systems such as organisms and self-replicating technology. It is the persistence and power of patterns that, quite literally, gives life to the Universe. The pattern is far more important than the material stuff that comprises it.

Random strokes on a canvas are just paint. But when arranged in just the right way, it transcends the material stuff and becomes art. Random notes are just sounds. Sequenced in an “inspired” way, we have music. A pile of components is just an inventory. Ordered in an innovative manner, and perhaps with some software (another pattern), we have the “magic” (i.e., transcendence) of technology.

We can regard the spiritual level as the ultimate in transcendence. In my view, it incorporates all of these, the creations of the natural world such as ourselves, as well as our own creations in the form of human technology, culture, art, and spiritual expression.

Is the world of patterns impersonal? Consider evolution. The “chance…impersonal” swirl of dust and wind gave rise to ever more intelligent, knowledgeable, creative, beautiful, and loving entities, and has done so at an ever accelerating pace. I don’t regard this as an “impersonal” process because I don’t regard the world and all of its attendant mysteries as impersonal. Consider what I wrote in the first chapter, that “technology is evolution by other means.” In other words, technology is a continuation of the evolutionary process that gave rise to the technology creating species in the first place. It is another paradigm shift, a profound one to be sure, changing the focus from DNA-guided evolution to an evolutionary process directed by one its own creations, another level of indirection if you will.

If we put key milestones of both biological and human cultural-technological evolution on a single graph, in which the x-axis (number of years ago) and the y-axis (the paradigm shift time) are both plotted on exponential scales, we find a straight line with biological evolution leading directly to human-directed evolution.

There are many implications of the observation that technology is an evolutionary process, indeed the continuation of the evolutionary process that gave rise to it. It implies that the evolution of technology, like that of biology, accelerates.

It also implies that technology, which is the second half of the evolutionary line above, and the cutting edge of evolution today, is anything but impersonal. Rather, it is the intensely human drama of human competition and innovation that George Gilder writes about (and makes predictions about) so brilliantly.

How about the first half of the line, the story of evolution that started with the swirling dust and water on an obscure planet? The personalness of the biological stage of evolution depends on how we view consciousness. My view is that consciousness, the seat of “personalness,” is the ultimate reality, and is also scientifically impenetrable. In other words, there is no scientific test one can postulate that would definitively prove its existence in another entity. We assume that other biological human persons, at least those who are at least acting conscious, are indeed conscious. But this too is an assumption, and this shared human consensus breaks down when we go beyond human experience (e.g., the debate on animal consciousness, and by extension animal rights).

We have no consciousness detector, and any such device that we can imagine proposing will have built in assumptions about which we can debate endlessly. It comes down to the essential difference between objective (i.e., scientific) and subjective (i.e., conscious, personal) reality. Some philosophers then go on to say that because the ultimate issue of consciousness is not a scientific issue (albeit that the more superficial, i.e., the “easy” issues of consciousness as the philosopher David Chalmers describes them, can be amenable to scientific exploration), consciousness is, therefore, an illusion, or at least not a real issue. However, a more reasonable conclusion that one can come to, and indeed my own view, is that precisely because these central issues of reality are not fully resolvable by scientific experiment and argument alone, there is a salient role for philosophy and religion. However, this does not require a world outside the physical world we experience.

The arguments that I do make with regard to consciousness are for the sole purpose of illustrating the vexing and paradoxical (and in my view, therefore, profound) nature of consciousness, how one set of assumptions (i.e., that a copy of my mind file either shares or does not share my consciousness) leads ultimately to an opposite view, and vice versa.

So we could say that the universe—“all that is”—is indeed personal, is “conscious” in some way that we cannot fully comprehend. This is no more unreasonable an assumption or belief than believing that another person is conscious. Personally, I do feel this to be the case. But this does not require me to go beyond the “mere” “material” world and its transcendent patterns. The world that is, is profound enough.

Another conclusion that I come to in considering the acceleration of evolution is that ultimately the matter and energy in our vicinity will become infused with the intelligence, knowledge, creativity, beauty, and love of our human-machine civilization. And then our civilization will expand outwardly turning all the “dumb” matter we encounter into transcendently intelligent matter. So even in its present largely dumb state, the Universe has the potential for this explosion of intelligence, creativity, and other qualities we attribute to the spiritual aspect of reality. And if you do the math, because of the power of exponential growth, it won’t take that long (mere centuries) to transform the Universe into smart matter. That is, of course, if we can figure out some way around the speed of light. I have some theories on this too, but I’ll leave that train of thought for another time.

Let’s consider the opposite direction for a moment, plumbing to the very smallest grains of reality. One would think that as we probe smaller and smaller aspects of the world, that they would become simpler and easier to understand. Yet, we’ve found the opposite to be the case. At the physically large level of reality that we live in, we often find a predictable Newtonian world, or at least we find many mechanisms that appear to work this way. Yet, as we consider the reality of a single photon, we encounter deep mysteries. We discover the photon simultaneously taking all paths available to it, only retroactively resolving the ambiguities in its path. We notice the photon taking on the properties of both wave and particle, an apparent mathematical contradiction. Photons are part of the material world, and we’ve got trillions of trillions of them. Is the world of matter and patterns not profound enough?

The Bible says that “the eyes of the Lord are in every place” (Proverbs 15:3). Admittedly, this view commonly expressed in both the Old and New Testaments is subject to dualist interpretations, but many religious traditions speak of God being manifest in the world as opposed to being a world apart. Dostoevsky (in The Brothers Karamazov) wrote, “Every blade of grass, every insect, ant, and golden bee, all . . . bear witness to the mystery of God and continually accomplish it themselves.” Spinoza expressed it well when he wrote, “God reveals himself in the harmony of what exists.”

The problem with conveying transcendent ideas with the models expressible in human language is that our language necessarily reduces their grandeur and subtlety. If we say that “God is everywhere,” someone might interpret that to mean that God is some kind of gas that fills up the space, or an ether in which particles and waves move about. Language can only provide imperfect metaphors for transcendent thoughts. Thus apparently contradictory notions (i.e., God is manifest in the material world; versus God is everywhere but nonetheless of a different nature than the material world; versus God is an all powerful person with whom we can communicate and establish covenants; versus God created the world and is now watching from afar. . .) can be different views of the same transcendent reality. The ability to overcome apparent contradiction is what makes the spiritual aspect of reality transcendent. We also note with regret that these apparent contradictions are the source of much conflict.

Gilder and Richards’ characterizations of Searle and Ray as philosophical materialists is fair enough, only theirs is a materialism stripped of any sense that the issue of consciousness introduces any mystery into our investigations. There is nothing special about Searle’s concept of consciousness. Searle states that “consciousness is a biological process like digestion, lactation, photosynthesis.” Searle goes on to say that “the brain is a machine, a biological machine to be sure, but a machine all the same. So the first step is to figure out how the brain does it and then build an artificial machine that has an equally effective mechanism for causing consciousness.” Searle’s view of consciousness is quite straightforward, and no different from, well, digestion. It is ironic that Searle has a reputation, totally undeserved in my view, for defending the deep mystery of the issue of consciousness, and the ultimate limits of scientific experimentation to resolve the issue.

As for Thomas Ray, consciousness hardly seems to impinge at all. Indeed, if we limit ourselves to scientific observation only (i.e., to objective, and therefore not subjective consideration), we can safely ignore it. Ray’s view of quantum mechanics recognizes no difference between measurement and observation, because after all we need not concern ourselves with the who who is observing.

Denton describes his “awe” at the “eerie, other-worldly. . . impression” of the asymmetric patterns in nature. He contrasts the “self-organizing . . . self-referential . . . self-replicating . . . reciprocal . . . self-formative, and . . . holistic” qualities of designs in nature to the modular mechanisms of most contemporary machines. While I share Denton’s sense of “wonderment” at the design principles manifest in nature, he makes the unsupported leap that patterns with such properties are inherently limited to biological processes, that machines could never display the same “other-worldly” (i.e., spiritual) dimension. I’d have to say that Denton does a good job of describing how transcendent attributes can be emergent properties of very complex systems. However, aside from pointing out the obvious limitations of much of contemporary technology, he fails to cite any compelling reason that our own creations are intrinsically restricted from emulating these powerful natural design principles.

As for Dembski, Gilder and Richards accurately describe his view as theistic, in the sense of an uncomfortable duality, with God and the spirit (i.e., consciousness) operating outside the material world. Many philosophers have pointed out the pitfalls of the dualistic view. If God and spirit operate outside the material world and have no effect on it, then perhaps we can safely ignore them altogether. On the other hand, if they do affect and interact with the material world, then why not consider them part of it? Otherwise, our metaphysics becomes hopelessly elaborate.

Gilder and Richards describe my view as “a substitute vision for those who have lost faith in the traditional object of religious belief.” The traditional object of religious belief is often referred to as God. But if we are to understand God as infinite in intelligence, knowledge, creativity, and so on, then it would seem reasonable to explore new metaphors to attempt to express what is inherently not fully expressible in our finite language. To restrict our view of God to only one tradition limits Who should be regarded as without limit. The words and stories of our ancient traditions may indeed lose their resonance over time, not because the timeless truths have changed, and not because of any inconsistency with our expanding scientific knowledge, but rather because they were attempts to express transcendent ideas in language poorly equipped for such a purpose. It makes sense to update not the truths themselves but our expressions of these truths in keeping with our evolving understanding of the world we live in.

Furthermore, it is not my view that “the very notion of improvement” is “alien in a materialistic universe.” One of the ways in which this universe of evolving patterns of matter and energy that we live in expresses its transcendent nature is in the exponential growth of the spiritual values we attribute in abundance to God: knowledge, intelligence, creativity, beauty, and love.

Joy Drives Off the Road?

Fundamentally, Gilder and Richards and I share a deeply critical reaction to Bill Joy’s prescription of relinquishment of “our pursuit of certain types of knowledge.” Just as George Soros attracted attention by criticizing the capitalist system of which he was a primary beneficiary, the credibility of Joy’s treatise on the dangers of future technology has been enhanced by his reputation as a primary architect of contemporary technology. Being a technologist, Joy claims not to be anti-technology, saying that we should keep the beneficial technologies, and relinquish only those dangerous ones, like nanotechnology. The problem with Joy’s view is that the dangerous technologies are exactly the same as the beneficial ones. The same biotechnology tools and knowledge that will save millions of future lives from cancer and other diseases could potentially provide a terrorist with the means for creating a bioengineered pathogen. The same nanotechnology that will eventually help clean up the environment and provide material products at almost no cost are the same technologies that could be misused to introduce new nonbiological pathogens.

I call this the deeply intertwined promise and peril of technology, and it’s not a new story. Technology empowers both our creative and destructive natures. Stalin’s tanks and Hitler’s trains used technology. Yet few people today would really want to go back to the short (human lifespan less than half of today’s), brutish, disease-filled, poverty-stricken, labor-intensive, disaster-prone lives that 99 percent of the human race struggled through a few centuries ago.

We can’t have the benefits without at least the potential dangers. The only way to avoid the dangerous technologies would be to relinquish essentially all of technology. And the only way to accomplish that would be a totalitarian system (e.g., Brave New World) in which the state has exclusive use of technology to prevent everyone else from advancing it. Joy’s recommendation does not go that far obviously, but his call for relinquishing broad areas of the pursuit of knowledge is based on an unrealistic assumption that we can parse safe and risky areas of knowledge.

Another reason that Joy’s call for relinquishment of broad areas such as nanotechnology is unrealistic is that nanotechnology is not a simple unified field. Rather, it is the inevitable end result of the ongoing exponential trend of miniaturization in all areas of technology, which continues to move forward on hundreds of fronts (we’re currently shrinking both electronic and mechanical technology by a factor of 5.6 per linear dimension per decade). It’s not feasible to stop nanotechnology or other broad areas of technology without stopping virtually all technology.

In an article on this same issue, titled “Stop everything . . . It’s Techno-Horror!” in the March 2001 issue of The American Spectator, George Gilder and Richard Vigilante write, “in the event of . . . an unplanned bio-catastrophe, we would be far better off with a powerful and multifarious biotech industry with long and diverse experience in handling such perils, constraining them, and inventing remedies than if we had ‘relinquished’ these technologies to a small elite of government scientists, their work closely classified and shrouded in secrecy.”

I agree quite heartily with this eloquent perspective. Consider as a contemporary test case, how we have dealt with one recent technological challenge. There exists today a new form of fully nonbiological self-replicating entity that didn’t exist just a few decades ago: the computer virus. When this form of destructive intruder first appeared, strong concerns were voiced that as they became more sophisticated, software pathogens had the potential to destroy the computer network medium they live in. Yet the “immune system” that has evolved in response to this challenge has been largely effective. Although destructive self-replicating software entities do cause damage from time to time, the injury is but a tiny fraction of the benefit we receive from the computers and communication links that harbor them.

One might counter that computer viruses do not have the lethal potential of biological viruses or of destructive future nanotechnology. Although true, this only strengthens my observation. The fact that computer viruses are not usually deadly to humans (although they can be if they intrude on mission critical systems such as airplanes and intensive care units) only means that more people are willing to create and release them. It also means that our response to the danger is relatively relaxed. Conversely, when it comes to future self- replicating entities that may be potentially lethal on a large scale, our response on all levels will be vastly more intense.

Joy’s treatise is effective because he paints a picture of future dangers as if they were released on today’s unprepared world. The reality is that the sophistication and power of our defensive technologies and knowledge will grow along with the dangers. When we have gray goo, we will also have blue goo (“police” nanobots that combat the “bad” nanobots). The story of the twenty-first century has not yet been written, so we cannot say with assurance that we will successfully avoid all misuse. But the surest way to prevent the development of the defensive technologies would be to relinquish the pursuit of knowledge in broad areas, which would only drive these efforts underground where they would be dominated by the least reliable practitioners (e.g., the terrorists).

There is still a great deal of suffering in the world. Are we going to tell the millions of cancer patients that we’re canceling all cancer research despite very promising emerging treatments because the same technology might be abused by a terrorist? Consider the following tongue-in-cheek announcement, which I read during a radio debate with Joy: “Sun Microsystems announced today that it was relinquishing all research and development that might improve the intelligence of its software, the computational power of its computers, or the effectiveness of its networks due to concerns that the inevitable result of progress in these fields may lead to profound and irreversible dangers to the environment and even to the human race itself. ‘Better to be safe than sorry,’ Sun’s Chief Scientist Bill Joy was quoted as saying. Trading of Sun shares was automatically halted in accordance with Nasdaq trading rules after dropping by 90 percent in the first hour of trading.” Joy did not find my mock announcement amusing, but my point is a serious one: Advancement in a broad array of technologies is an economic imperative.

Although I agree with Gilder and Vigilante’s opposition to the essentially totalitarian nature of the call for relinquishment of broad areas of the pursuit of knowledge and technology, their American Spectator article directs a significant portion of its argument against the technical feasibility of the future dangers. This is not the best strategy in my view to counter Joy’s thesis. We don’t have to look further than today to see that technology is a double-edged sword. Gilder has written with great enthusiasm and insight in his books and newsletters of the exponential growth of many technologies, including Gilder’s Law on the explosion of bandwidth. In my own writings, including in this book, I have shown how the exponential growth of the power of technology is pervasive and affects a great multiplicity of areas. The impact of these interacting and accelerating revolutions is significant in the short-term (i.e., over years), but revolutionary in the long term (i.e., over decades). I believe that the most cogent strategy to oppose the allure of the suppression of the pursuit of knowledge is not to deny the potential dangers of future technology nor the theoretical feasibility of disastrous scenarios, but rather to build the case that the continued relatively open pursuit of knowledge is the most reliable (albeit not foolproof) way to reap the promise while avoiding the peril of profound twenty-first century technologies.

I believe that George and I are in essential agreement on this issue. In the American Spectator article, he and Richard Vigilante write the following which persuasively articulates the point:

“Part of the ‘mysterious’ realm that Einstein called ‘the cradle of all true art and true science,’ chance is beyond the ken of inductive reason. When Albert Hirschman writes that ‘creativity always comes as a surprise to us,’ he is acknowledging this essential property of invention. Any effort to reduce the world to the dimensions of our own present understanding will exclude novelty and progress. The domain of chance is our access to futurity and to providence. ‘Trusting to chance’ seems terrifying, but it is the only way to be open to possibility.”

Copyright © 2002 by the Discovery Institute. Used with permission.