Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Science-synergetic philosophy: the religion of the future?

(This may seem a hackneyed topic, but there are some moderately original points near the end here, if you bear with me ...)

As a card-carrying, future-thinking transhumanist, I take it as obvious that most of the particulars of current religions are relics of earlier eras in human cultural development, which currently do a lot of harm along with doing some good.

But I still find it interesting to ask what aspects of religion reflect underlying phenomena that are essential, meaningful and necessary -- and are likely to continue as humanity transcends the traditional "human condition" and enters its next phase of development....

Fish and Eagleton on the Wonders of Theology

What spurred this blog post was: My dad pointed out to me this New York Times blog post by Stanley Fish reviewing a book that extols the merits of religion (Reason, Faith and Revolution by Terry Eagleton).

The basic point Fish makes is that religion offers something science by its very nature cannot.

Eagleton acknowledges ... many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.”

He notes that science cannot address what he calls "theological questions", where

By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”

He also notes that the author is

... angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins.

I haven't read Eagleton's book and I'm unlikely to do so -- I have a long list of more interesting-looking reading material -- but Fish's summary did resonate with a paper I'm in the middle of writing (it's paused while I work on more urgent stuff) on the limits of science.

My basic point in that paper will be a simple one: science is based on finite sets of finite-precision observations. That is, all of scientific knowledge is based on some finite set of bits, comprising the empirical observations accepted by the scientific community.

To extrapolate beyond this bit-set, some kind of assumption is needed. To put it another way, some kind of "faith" is needed. Hume was the first one to make this point really clearly ... and we now understand the "Humean problem of induction" well enough to know it's not the kind of thing that can be "solved."

The Occam's Razor principle tries to solve it -- it says that you extrapolate from the bit-set of known data by making the simplest possible hypothesis. This leads to some nice mathematics involving algorithmic information theory and so forth. But of course, one still has to have "faith" in some measure of simplicity!

So: doing or using science requires, in essence, continual acts of faith (though these may be unconscious and routinized rather than conscious and explicit). To the extent that Dawkins, Hitchens or other anti-religion commentators de-emphasize this point, they're engaging in judicious marketing. (It's hard for me to feel too negative toward them about this, however, given the far more explicitly and dramatically dishonest marketing that religion has carried out over the last millennia.)

My paper will focus on what the limits of science tell you about AI, machine consciousness and so forth -- and I'll save that for another blog post, or the paper itself. (Don't worry though, my conclusion is not that scientifically enginering AGI is impossible ... I haven't lost the faith!)

Anyway, I certainly agree with Fish and Eagleton that religion addresses very important questions that science cannot, by its nature, answer.

But I find it rather screwy that Eagleton refers to

“Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”

and so forth as theological questions.

Surely, these are philosophical questions.

One can answer them in various ways without invoking any deities or demons!

"Why does God exist?" is a theological question ...

"Why does anything exist?" is philosophical...

(Though, for the record, I don't think "Why does anything exist?" is a very useful philosophical question. I'm more interested in questions like
  • "Why do separate objects exist, instead of just one big fluid cosmic mass?"
  • "In what sense could the universe be considered compassionate?"
  • "How much ethical responsibility should I feel toward (which) other minds?"
  • "Why does my mind perceive such a small subset of the space of all possible patterns?"
  • "How much can a mind grow and expand without losing its sense of self and becoming, experientially, a 'fundamentally different being'?"
  • "What is it like to be a rock?"
  • etc.

Theology is one way of providing answers to philosophical questions ... but by no means the only way.

I think that religion addresses some very important questions, that are beyond the scope of science -- and by and large provides these questions with extremely bad answers.

One of the many limitations of religion as conventionally conceived is indicated by the quote, given above, that religion's

“subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself....”

From a transhumanist perspective, the qualifier "nothing less than" is misplaced, as this is actually a very limiting subject. The nature and destiny of humanity are important; but one of the things that science has opened our minds to is the relative insignificance of humanity in the space of possible minds. I'm more interested in philosophies that address the nature and destiny of mind itself, rather than just the nature and destiny of one species on one planet.

It is of course a subtle matter to compare and judge different explanations to philosophical questions. You can't compare them using scientific or mathematical methods ... and of course the question of how to evaluate philosophical views becomes "yet another tough philosophical question", tied in with all the other ones.

A crude way to say it, is that it comes down to an intuitive judgment ... which leads into questions of how one can refine and improve one's intuition ... and these questions, of course, possess numerous answers that are philosophical- or religious- tradition -dependent...

Science-synergetic philosophy

It does seem to me, though, that there is an interesting notion of science-synergetic philosophy lurking somewhere in all this.

Suppose we take for granted that doing science -- just like other aspects of living life -- relies on a constant stream of acts of faith, which can't be justified according to science....

One may then note that there are various systems for mentally organizing these acts of faith.

Religions are among them. But religions are quite detached from the process of doing science.

It seems sensible to think about philosophical systems -- i.e. systems for organizing inner acts of faith -- that are intrinsically synergetic with the scientific process. That is, systems for organizing acts of faith, that
  • when you follow them, help you to do science better
  • are made richer and deeper by the practice of science
One can broaden this a little and think about philosophical systems that are intrinsically synergetic with engineering and mathematics as well as science.

Now, one cannot prove scientifically that a "scientifically synergetic philosophy" is better than any other philosophy. Philosophies can't be validated or refuted scientifically.

So, the reason to choose a scientifically synergetic philosophy has to be some kind of inner intuition; some kind of taste for elegance, harmony and simplicity; or whatever.

One prediction I have for the next century is that scientifically synergetic philosophies will emerge into the popular consciousness and become richer and deeper and better articulated than they are now.

Because Fish and Eagleton are right about some things: people do need more than science ... they do need collective processes focused on the important philosophical questions that go beyond the scope of science.

But my prediction is that we are going to trend more toward philosophical systems that are synergetic with science, rather than ones that co-exist awkwardly with science.

What will these future philosophical systems be like?

There's nothing extremely new about the concept of science-synergetic philosophy, of course.

Plenty of non-religious scientists and science-friendly non-scientists have created personal philosophies that don't involve deities or other theological notions, yet do involve meaningful approaches to personally exploring the "big questions" that religions address.

Among the many philosophers to take on the task of creating comprehensive science-synergetic philosophical systems, perhaps my favorite is Charles Peirce (who also developed a nice philosophy of science, though one that IMO is significantly incomplete ... but I've discussed that elsewhere.)

Building on work by Peirce and loads of others, I tried to lay out a science-synergetic philosophical system in my book The Hidden Pattern -- but like Peirce's writings, that is a fairly academic work, not an informal tract designed to inspire the common human in their everyday life.

My friend Philippe van Nedervelde likes to talk about this sort of thing as a "TransReligion/ UNReligion", but I confess to not finding that terminology very compelling.

Philippe is interested in (among many other things!) developing vaguely religion-like rituals that coincide with some sort of science-synergetic philosophy. There has been talk about formulating a "TransReligion/ UNReligion" as an outgrowth of the futurist group now called "The Order of Cosmic Engineers." Which I think is an interesting idea ... yet I'm not really sure it's the direction things will (or should) go.

I'm not sure there will emerge any one "Bible of science-synergetic transhumanist philosophy" ... nor any science-synergetic-philosophy analogues of speaking in tongues, kneeling at the altar, or consuming the simulated blood and flesh of the Savior the Son of God who gave his life for our sins. Perhaps, science-synergetic philosophy may wind up being something that pervades human culture in more of a broad-based, implicit way.

Time will tell!


Thom Blake said...

Yes - the author makes himself seem as though he's not well-read, to call such questions 'theological' rather than 'philosophical'. Plenty of atheist philosophers deal with these sorts of questions, thank-you-very-much.

Ben Collins said...

I look forward to your paper as I am sure some details will emerge about your concepts to reinforce these intriguing and very positive ideas.

I've thought about similar subjects for many years and lately I feel it is becoming very important to the evolution of mind to consider new ways to examine faith patterns and emergence of new paradigms of science and philosophy.

The power of God.It is one thing to be in awe of our universe, to wonder at beauty, and another to feel God in your heart. Certainly those who follow religions generally sense that they have experiences that are ineffable and unsharable, only available to those who embrace a certain pattern of recognition of God within a religious construct. These feelings can lead to extremes of psychosis or insanity, perhaps wiping the self clean for injection of propaganda or acceptance of authoritarian law - those who are not "above" the plane of religion could indeed be at risk of becoming a slave to social organization. Regardless of the risk, there appears to be a place in the conscious mind for connection with God that can be immensely rewarding and perhaps with the right science-synegistic patterns of "worship" new ideas and positive advances in knowledge towards the overall fitness of mind could occur.

The inertia of the Skeptic.When I was young, I once approached an astrophysicist/cosmologist who was regarded as one of the most intelligent persons on a local campus. I asked him, "What is the meaning of life?" His answer was "Life doesn't mean shit." I was somewhat taken aback, but this example is a good way of describing a certain inertia of the skeptic. While this professor may every day be in awe of our universe, in love with the beauty of cosmic patterns and such, there very well might have been missing a connection with feelings about meaning and purpose, or specifically a lack of faith in regards to life or mind or the universe having some sort of ultimate direction. Others who are extreme aetheists who decry religion as archaic and damaging generally tend to be appreciative of our cosmic phenomena, but perhaps lacking in an ability to benefit emotionally from anything remotely mystical. I believe that there are emotional forces related to a mystical appreciation of patterns of faith that may reveal new methods, new purpose that could define a future for mind that is more beneficial to all life, or even to synergies and harmony of a mind of minds.

Meta-mythological truths.As Timothy Leary once pointed out, the number of realities we experience is increasing. Likewise, the number of mythological realities we are exposed to are also increasing. As cultures collide, we are learning about stories and gods and heroes that span vast and short times. Also, new fantasies and concepts of faith and metaphysical structures for our future purpose are created each day by artists and thinkers. All of these are like celestial bodies orbiting some central truth about ourselves, about the universe. The absolute facts about the nature of reality as science discovers them (within its own bit-set) can still be colorful and fantastic. We need not forget or degrade what man has invented that is not "real" but "imaginary" when proceeding forth with describing a new methodology for patterns of faith that lead to new truths.

The possible necessary evil of hierarchy.So, Dr. Goertzel, how would you like to be the "Pope" or "Grand Poobah" or "Level 1 Synergist" of this new system? At least the human mind has shown a need or a penchant for organizational hierarchy. While science itself may be able to craft sensible equations for a philosophy that embraces progress, the people who participate in any related religion-like systems generally find shelter or meaning or more-productive-membership in hierarchical structures. I am not personally a big fan of anarchistic or all-are-equal-in-the-scheme-of-things ideas because they just don't work. People need leaders. Heroes. There are seemingly infinite threads through time that connect individuals to Gods to individuals through things like courage, communication, and travel towards the divine by our leaders within faith-pattern sets.

Synchronicity and self reference.I recently discovered a quote by Peter Russell about the three rules of synchronicity. They are (paraphrasing) wholeness/centered-ness, play/outward experience, and focus/will/knowledge of desire. You can be zen and be extremely centered and enlightened, but you have to get out there and meet people and express yourself and play and be. Being super enlightened on the top of a mountain all alone doesn't do anyone any good, really. It's key to have a keen focus on what it is you want, what it is you believe. This is the "truth" about synchronicity and synchronicity is good stuff. Can you possibly measure synchro-experience with science? Can you measure or equate these odd and vague concepts like "centered-ness?" This would be very difficult to do within a science-synergistic philosophy I think, but should not be excluded. One of my favorite things in our universe is self-reference synchronicity and in this case, your blog post provided an opportunity to mention a recent discovery about synchronicity itself and, well, how beautifully, synchronistically self-referentially synchronistic.

Ben Goertzel said...

Ben Collins: OK, OK, you talked me into it ... I'll volunteer to be "Grand Poobah" of the new Science-Synergetic TransReligion.

Do I get to wear a funny costume?

But, the Pope has got to be an AGI, obviously ;-D

Actually there may be something to the "AGI as transreligious leader" meme. We have Japanese synthetic pop stars, right? Why not synthetic philosophical leaders?

Jef said...

Nice to see you expanding on this topic Ben, since (as you know) I see synergetics as central to a more coherent understanding of scientific progress, practical artificial intelligence, and ethics.

I would suggest, however, that the apparent problem of extrapolation or transcension of our inherently finite state is a non-issue. Not so much a category error, but an error of misapplied context.

As necessarily embedded observers of our world, but most pointedly, of ourselves, subjectivity is to be acknowledged, not overcome. And just as naturally, our (pan-psychically-applicable, if you like) context of observation and meaning-making tends only to increase, with selection for increasing coherence over increasing context, exploiting and persisting synergistic efficiencies corresponding to increasing mutuality of trophic flows within the adaptive system.

So transcension is continually ongoing, but always only at a level beyond that of the present observer. In my view, your view assumes an unnecessary ontic entity, where an epistemic explanation will do.

As you know, I support "growth", the joyousness of which emerges from our identification with the promotion of an increasing context of increasingly coherent, hierarchical, fine-grained values, via methods increasingly effective (in principle) over increasing scope of interactions. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I wish you ongoing growth in your discovery, expansion, and application of these patterns on the cusp of much that matters in these times of visibly accelerating change.

Ted Goertzel said...

The distinction between theology and philosophy is not so sharp or obvious. It can be argued that atheism is a religion, indeed the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "Atheism is [the inmate's] religion, and the group that he wanted to start was religious in nature even though it expressly rejects a belief in a supreme being," in the context of giving equal rights to an atheist group. The distinction is in some ways like the one between prose and poetry; religion relies more on symbolism and metaphor rather than on cold logic. It can be inspiring if you don't take it too literally.

Unknown said...

You said "I have a long list of more interesting-looking reading material". I would be grateful if you could write at least part of the books that are on your list.

I'm interested in the future and mind and I have read most of your recent books. I found them very interesting. I also read Ray Kurzweil books.

Now I don't see that fascinating books on the market but maybe I'm missing somethig? I will be thankful for any suggenstions.

Anonymous said...

This hidden pattern you speak of may be the gap between the mind and the physical universe.

With all possible states of mind in the mindscape to explore, it is important that we develop a notion of where we are and where we are going.

The synergy will come with a Unified field theory. This is ultimately what we need, a theory that incorporates mind and matter.

Till then the singularity is being approached with great deal of "faith" for the best.

Seek Truth

Melissa - Mindful Construct said...

@ Jef: “As you know, I support 'growth', the joyousness of which emerges from our identification with the promotion of an increasing context of increasingly coherent, hierarchical, fine-grained values, via methods increasingly effective (in principle) over increasing scope of interactions. Lather, rinse, repeat.”

Well scientifically said! You took the magic right out of that everday term – in order to show it. :P

@ Ben Collins: “Can you possibly measure synchro-experience with science? Can you measure or equate these odd and vague concepts like 'centered-ness?' This would be very difficult to do within a science-synergistic philosophy I think, but should not be excluded.”

Hmm, perhaps cognitive science will come close. There is certainly a community of scientists who are pushing in this direction.

The “Law of Attraction” is not just a philosophy based on dishonest marketing (some details of which I’ve written about on my blog) – there is something to be said about the powers of synchronicity, as well as the direct implications to psychonueroimmunology.

As I see it, science can’t answer the questions that people need to “go on” when things get tough. It can’t make a case for emotional resilience in the face of any adversary – though, cognitive-affective science is heading in that direction (and from my view, it has already made the case).

The perspective of “Law of Attraction”/Holographic Universe can very well be practiced as a science-synergistic philosophy, meeting both criteria outlined.

It’s been on my mind for quite some in fact. And it’s great to have a *name* for it now.

Thanks for the thought-provocative post. Looks like I’ve found a great blog to read around. :)

Ken Ewell said...

I have not read Fish or Eagleton. I wonder if you would defend an idea that was not yours Ben. I doubt it.

That is how I feel about stories that try to defend the ideas of religion or science; it is senseless to my mind, to defend either. Beliefs are to religion what axioms are to science. The guidance posited by religious beliefs are the laws and methods by which one should conduct (all) the affairs in their life, e.g. the ten commandments. The guidance posited by science are the natural laws and scientific methods for conducting an inquiry into worldly facts.

They both offer methods purporting understanding of the entire world, or universe if you prefer. I count this as a rather acceptable characterization that places each in proper perspective. Each school of thought employs ritual, and there is no cause for it to be introduced to confuse the facts.

I found your philosophical questions readily addressed. Here are my answers:

"Why do separate objects exist, instead of just one big fluid cosmic mass?"
Because a cosmic mass cannot be differentiated or distinguished without them.
"In what sense could the universe be considered compassionate?"
In the sense that it may desire that we know of its Unity.
"How much ethical responsibility should I feel toward (which) other minds?"
None. The only responsibility anyone has is to their own self and to the salience of (and relevance to) a comprehensive Unity.
"Why does my mind perceive such a small subset of the space of all possible patterns?"
This is one I don't know. Maybe because that is all you allow for yourself?
"How much can a mind grow and expand without losing its sense of self and becoming, experientially, a 'fundamentally different being'?"
Define mind. There are boundaries to every being; the sense of being oneself included.
The limits are fixed by the natural laws at the physical substrate and by unity on the manifold of consciousness.
"What is it like to be a rock?"
At the very least, it is the same as it is for any discrete unity: It is the essence of being here as an effect of the incorrigible power and the natural order of universal Unity.

Here are a few questions for you Ben:

Is your personality and your awareness unified as one person, being, existing in this world?
If you answer no; get help. If your answer is yes: What causes the comprehensive unity of your awareness?
What natural power causes an object to come be, to exist in the physical substrate or in the consciousness; do you know the simple natural (not supernatural, spiritual, or extraterrestrial) cause of its occurrence?
What is the function of conceptions, if it is not to apprehend the objects of sensuous impressions and comprehend, appreciate, recognize and reflect on the unity of that awareness?
What unifying processes must exist in order to achieve to a comprehensive understanding of unity?
What are the elements and operatives of these universal processes?

Miranda DL said...

Fascinating reading. I'm going to have to look at some more of your posts...

Based on personal experience, I would say that humans adopt philosophical structures because our minds can't deal with a vacuum. We're curious. We want to KNOW how things work. It's an evolutionarily useful trait; having mind models of the world that can make accurate predictions is a huge boon to survival.

Science is fulfilling that curiosity, but slowly. In the meantime, we need to believe that there ARE answers to our burning questions; we need to have faith that the universe is understandable. Philosophy acts as a mental platform and lever, helping us manipulate other questions.

Curiosity varies. Some people pick a framework of meaning that may or may not be logical and consistent with world evidence, and use it without questioning it. Other people constantly question their 'interim answers' to fundamental problems. Some philosophies directly contradict current scientific evidence. It seems likely that the world was NOT created 6000 years ago. I would say that many current philosophies are true in the sense that Newtonian physics is true; they describe a small subset of initial conditions, which we don't realize because those are the conditions we experience. More complete models would be 'truer'. But I doubt whether any individual's model could be complete, since necessarily the space and complexity INSIDE our brain is smaller than the universe outside. Even if the huge majority of information in the universe is random 'noise'. And I would argue that a complete model of the universe necessarily involves a complete understanding of your own understanding processes, since you are a part of the universe with the power to influence it.