Humanist Futures

by Robert D. Finch


1. The Story so Far

This is intended to be the last of a series of open discussions on the main themes in Humanism.  Thus far we have covered philosophy, history, religion, ethics, social issues, economics, politics and law, art, technology and science and humanist institutions.  My introductory talks are being published in the Houston Humanist Newsletter and I am also trying to convert this and the previous series on Humanist Ethics into books for publication by the ASA.  Today our subject is Humanist Futures and we are asking such questions as: Can we predict the Future? What are the methods of Prediction? Do the methods differ for near future and far future? Will there be a Singularity?  Do we have Purposes and Objectives? What are the Options for …individuals? …relationships? …in science? …language & mathematics? …engineering & medicine? …in society & economics? …for the Humanist Movement?

It is just over ten years since I wrote my first article on this topic (see Finch (1999)) and it was interesting for me to review the article again since the intervening decade has provided some evidence of how well the predictions I made then have actually panned out.  There have also been a number of other publications on futurology methods which we might review.  I began the 1999 article with remarks on Futurology and its History.  From the oracles and prophets of ancient times to the weather forecasters and stock market pundits of our own day there have always been those whose livelihood depended on seeing the future course of events.  These predictions can be of enormous importance to us, even matters of life and death, and thus their accuracy is of some consequence.  Humanists also have a vested interest in prediction, since we are staking our future on the assumption that it will be rosiest if we follow humanist principles and methods, participate in humanist societies and develop a humanist cosmology.  This article follows the format of the 1999 paper with some additional comments where further information has become available.


2. Futurology

Perhaps the primary prophet of human progress as a result of scientific enlightenment was Condorcet (see Goodell (1994)), who wrote his “Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind” in 1794.  The first nine chapters of this work recounted the historical advance of human science and technology.  The tenth chapter is a prediction of the future.  Condorcet argued that the future development of the intellectual and moral faculties of man was as much subject to scientific laws as any other phenomena of the universe, and therefore as predictable. He foresaw an inevitable growth of knowledge until we reach “a condition in which everyone will find the means of providing for his needs and in which at last misery and folly will be the exception”. For the less fortunate he predicted a system which we would nowadays call social security.  He believed that the inequality between nations would be abolished and there would be progress toward equality within each nation. He concluded that the perfectibility of man is infinite.  Condorcet’s work might be termed the Promise of the Enlightenment.

Condorcet’s ideas crossed the Channel and were taken up by Godwin (1796) who elaborated on the perfectibility of man and promoted the idea that population growth was desirable on the grounds that it represented a growth in the labor pool and consequently a growth in wealth.  In Godwin’s Earthly paradise people became immortal, marriage was exposed as a sham and passion between the sexes became extinct.  It was partly as a reaction to the optimism of Condorcet and Godwin that Malthus (1798) produced the famous essay in which he predicted that the outlook was really for misery and starvation and continued poverty since he claimed that the determining scientific principle was that the Earth’s population always rose geometrically until it exceeded the available resources which only rose arithmetically.

One person who was influenced by these ideas was Karl Marx (1848) who claimed to have found the scientific laws governing human development in the socio-economic sphere.  Marx believed that the capitalist system would inevitably lead to its own demise under the relentless drive for profit.  The workers would eventually rise against their exploiters bringing about a revolution which would usher in the communist era of egalitarianism in which each would contribute according to his ability and receive according to his needs.  Marx regarded his work as a scientific prediction and was quite detailed in his writings.  For example, the revolution was expected to start in the most advanced capitalist countries such as Germany and England, where the workers were predominantly industrial as opposed to agricultural.  The state, war, prostitution and crime would wither away after the revolution.  The Russian revolution occurred in a predominantly agricultural economy against a feudal system, and the state, far from withering away, was just as ubiquitous and ruthless, if not more so, than it had been under the Csars. It was the communist regimes which eventually collapsed under their economic inefficiencies which kept innovation stifled and their populations in relative poverty.

Charles Darwin was another reader of Malthus and in fact he asserted that the crucial idea in his “Origin of Species” (1859) came to him while reading the essay.  He was musing on the situation which would occur when the population rose to the point where the available resources were only just adequate to sustain it.  It occurred to him that only the fittest would survive.  Thus if small mutations occurred in a population those which improved their recipients’ fitness would be passed on to succeeding generations while those which diminished fitness would die out.  This theory of the “evolution” of biological populations has been very successful in explaining the diversity of life forms on the planet and the fossil record they have left behind them.


3. The Methodology of Prediction

It was Karl Popper (1957) who has most clearly pointed out the shortcomings of the Marxist thesis in his book “The Poverty of Historicism”.  His argument is that it is not possible to extract “laws” of human behavior from the study of history, in the same sense that physicists discover deterministic relationships in certain physical systems.  In later work Popper argued that it since is impossible for us to predict our own thinking in advance, and since the course of human history depends on our thinking, then the concept of historicism is refuted on purely logical grounds.  Small wonder that Marx’s predictions were at variance with the facts.  Popper argued that political change was best carried out in a piecemeal way, by incremental steps, in order to best permit the evaluation of the results. Thus political change is best carried out in an evolutionary as opposed to a revolutionary fashion.

There is nothing predestined about evolution: the insight into the process that Darwin had was the realization that if an organism adapts to the circumstances in which it found itself then it would survive. The humanist position is that people are a part of the biological family of life: as much products of evolution as all the other creatures.  Evolution did not stop when men and women appeared on the Earth.  Evolution continues on in the development of the various artifacts and practices we humans have created. Basalla (1988) has pointed out that many artifacts can be arranged in the form of a family tree, similar to the tree of life. But the essence of an artifact is contained in its design which is encapsulated in blueprints and specifications produced by engineers.  From one generation of a product to the next there transpires a process known as the design cycle.  Various evaluations of the product are received from users, maintenance workers, sales people and marketers.  In addition the management of the company may make reassessments of their strategy calling for changes in the product line.  All of this feedback will be incorporated in the modified design of the next generation product.  Dennett (1995) has made much of the analogy between biological and technological evolution, going so far as to state that Biology is Engineering.

Human technology encompasses much more than physical artifacts extending to a wide assortment of systems we have invented from language to mathematics and science, business, finance and economics, medicine and surgery, laws and government, poetry and literature, art and music.  In all of these designed and activity systems we find the equivalent of the design cycle: a pragmatic learning from experience and consequently a history of evolution.  The scientific revolution was nothing more than the realization that our knowledge of the world could be improved by systematic, pragmatic evaluation of our theories. Humanism incorporates pragmatism and evolution among its basic principles. The humanist includes pragmatism and evolution as a part of his every day lifestance.  Thus when we look to the future, we expect the same principles to apply then as now and in the past.  The future will be evolved in a pragmatic way.  In recent years there has grown up a discipline of prediction known as futurology, complete with learned societies and journals.

One lesson which we already have been taught is that in running societies of intelligent and creative beings it is ineffective to attempt to close off the decision making process.  Openness and Democracy must be the order of the day. We are always going to be confronted by alternatives and it is to be expected that different groups will select different possibilities, so that we should expect a pluralistic world.  Tolerance of the solutions chosen by others has to be a principle of Humanism.  That is why this essay is entitled Humanist Futures.  Utopias and dystopias can play a useful role in imagining the effects of putative policies, as scenarios, provided we do not fall into the trap of thinking that the world will ever reach an unchanging steady state.  It is this diversity among our options that gives rise to evolution.


4. Purposes and Objectives

Both Drucker (1973) and Checkland (1981) stress that the defining of purpose is the key to the design of an artificial system.  Before we attempt to design a future world we have to ask ourselves what it is that we are trying to accomplish.  The goal of achieving the maximum liberty for everyone is accepted by most humanists with the proviso that we may have to accept certain restrictions on our own freedom in order not to impinge on the freedom of others.  Fraternity or the Brotherhood of Man is also a widely accepted social goal.  There are still authors advocating equality as a social goal. Equality, however, is problematic.  Exact equality is clearly no one’s objective.  An unchanging world in which everybody is of the same age and sex, with exactly the same genome, the same amount of money and situated at equal distances from their neighbors boggles the imagination. Some degree of inequality has to be accepted, the issue being which inequalities are unacceptable and how can they be eliminated.  Given that differences in ability have a biological component, meritocracies have been established in many countries, whereby everybody is given the same opportunity to show their abilities.  Such systems have been developed in an attempt to ensure fairness in the treatment of all people and a number of legal rights have been established for everyone.

We need to relate our individual purposes and those of our personal relationships to the purposes that have been established for the social world. We thus achieve happiness and a sense of flow, by accepting it as our duty to achieve a consonance of purpose between ourselves as individuals and of the society as a whole.  If we ask what is the purpose of each one of the divisions of the social world, and if as individuals we each try to help in accomplishing those purposes then we may venture to predict that that is the way the world will actually evolve.  In other words we may predict that it is our best prophecies that will come to pass.  Let us look at each of the major classes of artifacts of the man-made world in turn, and ask their purpose.

The family tree of languages is another fine example of the evolution of human systems. The purpose of language is communication between human beings.  Surely one of the primary purposes of the social world must be the improvement of both language and communication.  Many of the world’s conflicts stem from failures in communication.  The development of machines capable of speech recognition has been accomplished.  These are being closely followed by voice-writers, voice-actuated natural language computers and robots and natural language translators.  We may speculate whether it may eventually be possible to communicate directly between minds.

What is the purpose of science and mathematics?  The theories of Science provide us with mathematical models of the physical world.  Mathematics provides us with internally consistent logical constructions, which according to Popper may be said to have some form of objective existence, even if they do not serve as a model of the physical world.  Certainly society supports Science and Mathematics for their applications but many scientists and mathematicians pursue the subjects to learn the truth.  Our motivation then is at least partly curiosity.  So long as questions of burning interest remain, the agenda is not complete.  Is there a single physical law from which all the others are derived?  Did the Universe start with a bang?  Will it finish with a bang?  Are we powerless to alter these events?  How did life begin?  (or how did the first viable strand of DNA get organized?) What is the relationship between mind and matter?  What is the explanation of consciousness?  Will our children be men or machines? Are there other intelligent creatures in the Universe?  Why should it be possible to describe the Universe in mathematical terms?  Any one of these questions and many more could be regarded as a basis for research.

What is the purpose of art?  Gombrich has presented an analysis of the work of the artist in which we may see a parallel with science.  The artist takes experience, including an appreciation of the work of his predecessors and presents a new statement of the way he sees the world.  Human beings have the ability to perceive relationships between objects and then in turn to regard these relationships as yet more objects in their imaginations.  Such activity might be thought of as the creation of systems.  As we craft and refine these systems they will be imbued with feelings, emotions and values. If the systems are symbolic of the natural world they may be regarded as scientific theories.  If they are purely subjective in their significance they will be works of art.  If the beholder comprehends some truth in the artist’s statement then he might say he finds it beautiful.  Many authors have commented that the experience of truth and beauty have much in common.

What is the purpose of engineering?  Based on an historical appreciation of the activity we might say that its purpose is to provide people with the physical structures necessary to satisfy their needs and desires.  Thus we imagine mechanical engineers giving us automobiles; civil engineers, bridges and roads; electrical engineers, power lines and televisions, etc. But this definition of engineering purpose is too simple.  Consider the case of a consulting engineer who supplies ideas on how to artifacts.  So we may revise our statement of engineering purpose:  to supply people with the information or prescriptions for constructing the physical structures necessary for meeting their needs and desires.

Until quite recently the sole purpose of medicine was regarded as healing injuries and curing ailments.  It is only in the past few years that the concepts of preventative medicine and health maintenance have begun to be accepted.  With the bacterial and viral diseases largely under control, public awareness is shifting to curing and avoiding cancer and adopting life-prolonging regimens.  Some forms of cosmetic surgery are becoming acceptable and the engineering of prostheses is becoming increasingly sophisticated.  What this implies is that we have added to the purpose of medicine.  Now it might be stated to be: intervention with the body to cure malfunctions and to accomplish the patient’s needs and desires.  I have deliberately stated the purposes of engineering and medicine to emphasize their similarities.

Social organizations in general exist to accomplish some form of intervention in the physical world, in the social world, in men’s minds or all three.  Humans know they can accomplish more by working together than they can separately by themselves.  There are certain purposes that have been accepted as functions of government as opposed to being the province of private institutions.  The maintenance of law and order within the realm and its protection from external threats are accepted as governmental responsibilities.  Governments have undertaken other activities on occasion, such as large scale engineering projects, stimulative economic intervention, research and development, and educational and social programs.  The best mix between government and private institutions probably varies from time to time and from country to country.  The correct policy at any time is the one that reflects the wishes of the governed.

Humanists favor a personal philosophy of existence which can be subject to critical evaluation, and modified and improved when found to be deficient.  Humanism may be described as a search for humanity, as expressed in our various principles.  We need to belong to humanist organizations to get the benefit of exchange of views and to share resources.  Religions have always served such a function, and as they adapt and become more tolerant and pragmatic, so they will become more and more akin to humanist institutions.  At the same time as the humanist movement grows we may expect it to assume more and more of the traditional roles of religion.  Similarly we may expect religions to evolve in the direction of Humanism.


5. Options for the Individual

There is a continuous advance in the health and medicine for the individual.  One such development would be the understanding and control of the process of aging and death, as discussed by Walford (1983) who observed that a calorie restricted diet prolonged the lives of various laboratory animals. Walford himself was endeavoring to find out if the effect pertained to humans by following such a regimen until his recent death at age 86 years.  We presume that the contention is unproved.  Some gerontologists argue that the mechanisms of death are too complicated for simple predictions to apply.   But what would be the outcome should the gerontologists discover the secret of eternal life?  Would we want to live for ever?  Understanding of the mechanism of death lies within the realm of molecular biology, and given the present rate of advance the question may very well be answered within the next hundred years.  There are other earth shaking possibilities for the lives of individuals within molecular biology.  We may eventually be able to alter our genetic make-up, not only to correct genetic diseases but also to make changes within the range of normality (to improve memory, as an example).  We may be able to specify the characteristics of our children.  It may eventually be possible to arrange for our children to have characteristics which are currently possessed by no human beings.  Suppose, for example, that we eventually gained sufficient knowledge to understand the mechanism of mind.  We might then be able to enhance the power of the mind by changes in the “programming” of the genome.

Hermann Kahn (1976 and 1982) made an interesting analysis of the environmental movement.  He pointed out that environmentalists are anti-technology and largely middle class.  His explanation for this connection was that technology had in fact lowered the standard of living for the middle class.  In technologically backward countries the middle class can afford a maid, a cook and a gardener; it is only in technologically advanced countries that no-one is prepared to work in such menial positions for the sort of wages that the middle class can afford to pay.  Can there be any doubt of the need for the truly effective household robot?  It could be that the first robot in our entourage will be a chauffeur, or rather a car that drives itself when given a destination as a coordinate on a map.  Will it be safe?  It won’t get drunk.  It would be less difficult from the technical standpoint to replace the locomotive engineer.  Already driverless trains are operating on some well controlled routes.

I also venture the prediction that along with longer, healthier lives, with technological assistance, we will also have the opportunity to be wealthy enough that no-one will have to work for a wage at a task they dislike. A man who saves $50 per month starting at age eighteen, with ten percent interest, will be a millionaire by the time he is seventy.  In the United States there are already one million millionaires and the number is rising rapidly.  In the future we will all enjoy the standard of living of yesterday’s aristocrat.  We will be able to afford mansions, and like yesterday’s aristocrats we will be concerned to furnish these mansions with works of art.  Some of our time will be spent in upkeep of these estates and some on paid work of our own choosing.  We will have time to travel and pursue learning and research and will undertake public service work in support of causes we believe to be important.  We will have the time to develop many friendships to greater depth and intimacy than we do now.


6. Options in Relationships

Caroline Bird (1983) has written an account of our lives in the Twenty-First Century which has much to say about future possibilities for personal relationships.  Bird points out that the youth culture of recent years must give way to a greater respect for the older person as the population ages.  She reports interviews with people in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s who viewed their lives in terms of continued growth.  As more and more people live to these advanced years we may expect to gain a better picture of the stages of late adulthood.  But it is clear that with good physical health the person retains a strong, altruistic and uninhibited interest in the human condition.  To overcome the shortage of men in the older age brackets, Bird recommends man-sharing and that women seek sexual satisfaction with one another.  Although her book emphasizes the life of the elderly she also has some ideas for other generations, including sex lessons for all ages starting with masturbation for children.  Such ideas may be shocking to many people with simple, old-fashioned views on sex.  But research in the area is showing that sex is anything but simple.  William Simon (1998) believes that the project of understanding our sexual identity is second only to understanding our humanity.  This is a viewpoint that should certainly commend itself to humanists.


7. Options in Language, Science and Mathematics

In support of the contention that the growth of science and mathematics should be a high priority item, consider some of the burning questions that remain to be answered.  In Physics the quest for a single unifying law of nature continues, and seems to be closely connected to such issues of cosmology as the nature of the big bang at the start of the universe.  Does Physics predict that the universe will expand forever or collapse?  Does the increase of entropy described by the second law of thermodynamics imply that the universe will culminate in a state of lifeless constant temperature uniformity?  If Popper is correct and there exists an interacting system of mind-society-universe, then to what extent can the intervention of mind(s) alter the state of the state of the physical universe?  How did life get started?  How do new species come about?  If these processes are as commonplace in the universe as many believe, then where, as Fermi asked, are the others?  What is the nature of mind?  To what extent can a machine duplicate the functions of the mind?  What is the relationship between mathematical truth and the truth of the physical universe?  Are the truths of the universe in some way the product of a greater and earlier intelligence than our own?


8. Options in Engineering

One of the options which we have is movement into space.  The development of rocket flight is perhaps one of the greatest sagas of this century, starting with the pioneering experiments of Robert Goddard who established the basic principles of liquid fueled propulsion.  The conversion of this scientific base into engineered products was carried out by the Germans by the end of the second World War.  When I was a boy I lived close to London, under the path taken by the V2’s, as these first missiles were called.  They were Hitler’s final terror for the British people.  From Peenemunde the German rocket technology travelled west to the U.S.A. and east to the U.S.S.R.  In 1957 came Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and soon thereafter Yuri Gagarin was the first man to orbit the Earth. The Russians scored a great propaganda victory with these successes resulting in the American political establishment becoming committed to the Space Program in a major way. In 1969 came Apollo 11 and the first Moon landing. The successful accomplishment of John Kennedy’s objective of landing a man on the Moon was remarkable both as an engineering feat and for its prodigious expenditure of public money.  It became clear that after the Apollo Program the N.A.S.A. budget was going to be reduced, and the way to keep the space program alive was found in the reusable shuttle.  One benefit of the interest in space came during the 1970’s when the communications satellite came into its own.  Some of the most spectacular achievements of the space age came from unmanned Voyager missions, managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratories, with the objective of exploring the planets.  Most recently the World has been dazzled by the images of the distant universe returned by the Hubble telescope.  At the time of writing in 1999 we were witnessing the beginning of the assembly of the Space Station as a collaboration between the Russian and American governments.

In years to come the pressure to send human beings to colonize space may become irresistible, especially as our life span increases and the Earth’s population grows.  The strategy for such a program, as described by O’Neill (1981), starts with the establishment of space stations to orbit the Earth.  We proceed by colonizing the Moon and using material from it to extend the Earth satellites.  According to Berry (1974) we may eventually control the climates of the planets to render them habitable.  We will first build huge collectors of solar radiation to supply the energy needs of the burgeoning civilization.  Finally we may totally enclose the Sun to capture its energy and provide living accommodation for our growing billions.  Eventually we may voyage to distant stars in monster space ships.  Perhaps we will find the journey more tolerable if there is a prospect of living indefinitely.

We will review Kurzweil’s predictions based on computer technology in a later section.  But there is another very recent and interesting book by Kelly (2010) who maintains that technology I a living system of global extent which he calls the technium and which he claims will decide our fate.  There is of course another way in which technology is credited with influencing our future, by the action of greenhouse gases causing global warming, as Al Gore (2006) has warned us.  But even if the increase in the mean temperature is not man-made, there may be natural processes at work, as detailed by Singer and Avery (2007).


9. Options in the Socio-Economic World

For those of us who prefer not  to be incinerated without notice, or subsequently to die of cancer or the consequences of a nuclear winter, or to produce mutant children, the problem is to prevent nuclear war.  The arms reduction treaties between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. are certainly steps in the right direction, but are probably not enough.  Means to prevent these weapons from getting into the hands of criminals or madmen in the smaller countries have to be devised.  In the last resort there will have to be an agreement not to use nuclear weapons by all national governments.  Such an agreement would constitute a world law.   Any institution set up to monitor and police such an agreement would be supranational.  It would in fact be part of a world government, although presumably by human beings.  World government was first proposed by Immanuel Kant (1795) and more recently by Clarence Streit (1938) who advocated its accomplishment through the technique of federation, as adopted at the time of the formation of the U.S.A. and now in the European Community.   In point of fact we already have a substantial number of international institutions and a considerable body of world law.  National governments will probably continue to be useful, just as within the U.S.A. state governments continue to serve their citizens, but we need to strengthen the supranational institutions.

One of the major impediments to the growth of effective world government is the disparity of the social development in different countries.  Advanced democracies in western Europe, north America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan are able to interact amicably because of similarities in economies and social institutions.  These are the countries with what Popper has described as Open Societies, i.e. their political and economic institutions are open to criticism and new ideas and can be modified without civil war or violent revolutions.  These countries are not all precisely alike, nor is it desirable that they should be.  The essence of open-ness in a society is that “experiments” can be tried and evaluated.  What then should be the obligation of the world community as a whole to the countries that have not achieved the same measure of social and economic progress as those more advanced nations?  There should be certain minimum standards for nutrition, health, housing, income, education and legal rights which should be accorded to every human being on the planet.  The cost of providing this minimal support should raised from each nation according to the size of its economy.


10. The Singularity

This is an idea famously advanced by Ray Kurzweil (2005). The mathematical function 1/x shows interesting behavior as x approaches 0.  The values of the function approach infinity.  The point x = 0 is termed a singularity.  In astronomy if a massive star undergoes a supernova explosion its remnant collapses to a point of zero volume & infinite density – a singularity.  Light cannot escape it and so it is called a black hole.  We believe that the universe began with a singularity.  An ultraintelligent machine is defined as one that that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of the cleverest man.  Therefore an ultraintelligent machine could design better machines than itself and therefore there will be an intelligence explosion.  As time goes on evolution will be faster and faster because we will be able to run “what if” experiments at much higher speeds than ever before.   Von Neumann (in the late 50’s) was the first to apply the term singularity to an event rupturing the fabric of human history. Kurzweil, Moravec, Broderick & Smart took up the prediction in other books.

Kurzweil is concerned with the Computational Capacity of the Human Brain.  Several estimates have been made based on replicating the functionality of regions of the brain that have been reversed engineered.  These various estimates provide reasonably close estimates for the entire brain.  These are order of magnitude estimates.  For instance Moravec bases an estimate on the transformations performed by the retina.  He estimates 1014 instructions per second can be performed by the entire brain.  Lloyd Watts’ estimate comes from simulations of the auditory system, and is again 1014 cps.  An estimate from UT based on functionality of the cerebellum is  1015 cps.  Kurzweil uses 1016 cps in subsequent calculations.  Functional simulation is sufficient to recreate human pattern recognition, intellect, and emotional intelligence.  To upload a person’s knowledge, skills and personality may require simulation of neural processes.  IBM’s Blue Gene/L supercomputer was scheduled to be completed in 2005 and perform 3.6 × 1014 cps.  Supercomputers will perform at 1016 cps early in the next decade.  We then estimate Human Memory Capacity.  The number of chunks of knowledge mastered by an expert is about 105 for a number of domains.  Chunks = patterns such as faces as well as specific knowledge.  Eg a world class chess master is estimated to have mastered about 10,000 board positions.  Shakespeare used 29,000 words but close to 100,000 meanings of these words.  Development of expert systems indicate humans can master about 100,000 concepts in a domain.  If this professional knowledge is 1% of the total we arrive at 107 chunks total.  Kurzweil’s experience in designing rule-based expert systems makes him believe there are about 106 bits per chunk for a total of 1013 bits for a human’s functional memory.  We should be able to purchase this for $1000 by about 2018.  It will be millions of times faster than our electrochemical processes.  We get a higher estimate from interneuronal connections or 1018 bits.  This should be available for $1000 by 2020.  By 2050, $1000 of computing power will exceed the processing power of all human brains on earth.   Finally Kurzweil is ready to set a date for the Singularity  We will be producing an amount of nonbiological computing about equal to that of biological computing in the 2030’s, but it will not correspond to a profound expansion of our intelligence.  By the mid 2040’s, however, computation will equal 1026 cps so that the intelligence created per year will be one billion times more powerful than that of all human intelligence today.  So Kurweil sets the date of the Singularity at 2045Indeed a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability.

After the Singularity things will be as different from our human past as it was from that of lower animals.  Can the pace continue to speed up indefinitely?  Can we imagine what 1000 scientists, each one 1000 times more intelligent than contemporary humans and operating 1000 times faster, could come up with?  Kurzweil stresses that the post singularity civilization will continue to be human and indeed what we have is already a human-machine civilization.


11. Thoughts on the Singularity

There are several chapters in Kurzweil’s book discussing the impact of the singularity, what it is like to be a singularitarian, the risks associated with it and finally a reply to his critics.  I have some thoughts on what it would mean for Humanism.  In the first place I believe we should treat the book with real seriousness.  It seems to me that as a piece of Futurology it is unusually well argued.  Are we not learning how to cure more and more degenerative diseases (heart disease, cancer, and stroke).  We are living longer.  Surely there will come a time when aging will be reversed and death itself will yield.   If we believe that progress is being made then we also have to believe that Kurzweil has made a persuasive case that it is speeding up.  We could view Kurzweil’s work as a warning that the time at which death will become curable could be much sooner than we might think.  As Humanists we have always taken issue with the religions that life is finite, and we read books such as Corliss Lamont’s “The Illusion of Immortality” as the foremost exposition of the inevitability of death.  It would be quite a reversal to have to change our tune on this.

Kurzweil maintains that such a change would not mean that people would opt to live forever, just for as long as they want.  How much longer would they want to live on the average?  The Earth’s population is excessive already by some reckoning.  Where are all these extra folk going to live?  Would space habitation become the norm?  The way we live now we rely on one generation succeeding the next.  What happens when we start living forever and younger generations do not come into an inheritance from their long-lived parents?  When everyone is as rich as Croessus what will happen to economic incentive?  Perhaps it is the next 40 years, before the Singularity arrives, that will be the hardest to endure.  Who would want to be the last person to die?  How many people will opt to be frozen to ensure making it through to the Singularity?

Another aspect of the prediction with far reaching implications is the explosion in general intelligence.  Computers and the internet have already resulted in one of the greatest increases in intelligence since the invention of the book, but the prospect of everyone being superintelligent and superfast in intellectual processes seems to be profound.  So much of our lives are spent defending or combating patently stupid traditions that it is hard to imagine a world of Einstein’s living free of superstition.  Kurzweil discusses not only the experience of virtual worlds but also the possibility that consciousness is a form of virtual reality.  We may be able to experience the consciousness of another person.  The six epochs that Kurzweil envisages display the evolution of information processing from atoms and molecules to a state in which the entire universe wakes up.  Kurzweil believes humans are unique and puts us back at the center of this universe.   He presents a picture in which the entire universe is saturated with intelligence originating in and centered on the human world.  Is that Humanism in extremis?


12. Conclusions for the Humanist Movement

I would argue that the first lesson is to learn to appreciate the value of being systematic ourselves.  We need especially to define our objectives and purpose, the search for humanity, and the education of our own members and others on our humanist principles.  We need to measure the results of our actions, and assess and evaluate these results to define our problems.  We need to document our decisions and policies so that what we learn remains in our corporate memory.  We can learn from religious organizations the benefits they accord to their members: shared principles and values, shared experience and literature, psychological support and rites of passage, and the numerous internal and outreach services and charities, sometimes employing investments which have been accumulated over hundreds of years.

But it is central to Humanism that we understand the importance of philosophy, which, in the words of Lamont (1982): “stems from the perennial need of human beings to find significance in their lives, to integrate their personalities around some clear, consistent and compelling view of existence, and to seek definite and reliable methods in the solution of their problems.  Philosophy as synthesis attempts to work out a correct and integrated view of the universe, of human nature, of society, and of the chief values man should seek”.  We need to be aware of our own history and heritage in philosophy, science, literature and the arts and in the freethought, rationalist and ethical culture movements.  At the same time we must recognize that these same influences are at work in other organizations which are evolving along parallel paths to our own.  For example, the Unitarian-Universalist Church has recently adopted a statement of principles which are essentially humanist in form and which contain no mention of God or any superstition.

The Humanist movement could learn much from secular institutions such as the universities.  We need to synthesize what has been learned in the various disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, management, humanities and social sciences.  But we also need to evaluate this synthesis and examine how it will help us in our quest for humanity.  In this respect Humanism should be seen as an academic discipline in itself.  Thus we see that we could learn a great deal from the administration of universities and also of professional societies.  We could learn much from the business world in terms of budgeting, management, compensation of our professional workers, publishing and investments.

Opinions have varied as to whether or not there should be a Humanist political program.  One position is that the Humanist movement, like the churches, should keep out of politics, leaving such matters to its individual members.  In the recent past Paul Kurtz has been arguing that there are issues on which humanists have positions and that there is no reason why we should be disenfranchised because of our humanism.  What then should be the Humanist political program?  Surely we should stand for a pragmatic approach to political and social problems: a systematic and scientific evaluation of alternative social structures. Obviously any political impact we might have will be confined to the near future since it becomes increasingly unclear what the far future holds.  We should aim to educate those less fortunate than ourselves so that they can rise above poverty, and enter into healthy and satisfying lives.  We should welcome the improvement of science and technology. We should welcome the solution of both regional and world issues encouraging the development of World Government. We need to recognize that humanists alone do not have a monopoly on science and other useful practices.  Therefore we should be willing to work with others in coalitions for common purposes.  We could certainly learn more about democratic action, lobbying and public relations.  Above all we need to be tolerant and understanding of others because there is not going to be one monolithic future but a plurality of futures.

Consider our progress. Life for the individual has been steadily improving over the centuries.  We live longer, with less disease, better nutrition, in pleasanter housing.  Pain and suffering can be alleviated.  Psychology shows how we can experience loving and secure relationships.  We have greater ability to travel and communicate.  It has been shown that it is not necessary to force people into drudgery to earn a living, or to lead existences governed by fear.  But many people do not know how to achieve benefits available now.

Hence our quest for humanity is to put meaning into our lives, as individuals, and to help other people; to improve the world and ourselves; to overcome the obstacles to progress: nihilism and hopelessness; hatred, racism and sexism; arrogance, intolerance and greed; jealousy and resentment;  to eliminate such social ills as poverty, drug abuse and crime, overpopulation and pollution;  to ensure the end of war and guarantee basic human rights everywhere.

Finally we reiterate the promise of the enlightenment. Advances in science and technology will permit current trends to continue.  At a point in the future everyone will be independently wealthy.  We will control genetic as well as communicable diseases.  The scourge of cancer will be banished and the processes of aging will be conquered.  We will learn the nature of consciousness.  We will find life on other planets and communicate with it.  We will understand why there is something rather than nothing.  We will control our own future evolution and destiny.



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