Justin Li


Dinner Table Conversations

2008-02-15

I had two philosophically deep conversations at two recent meals. Only one was at dinner, despite the title of the post, but both contained profound ideas.

The lunch was between someone I had met last year at another meal, and during the latter stages of the conversation one of his friends joined us. I forgot how the conversation started, but the relevant part started with me describing to him what the technological singularity was. I asked him what he thought the future would be like, and him being a fairly religious person, he said that the far future, at the time of the apocalypse, the world will be very different. His idea of it was not the usual everybody dies and goes to heaven though. He had envisioned it as a transformation of the physical world; that is, the earth will still be here, but it will be somehow different. Heaven on earth, I think, is the basic idea. From this, he said he therefore believes that technology will be around for a very long time.

His friend then arrived, and asked a few questions clarifying her understanding of his religion (alright, he's Mormon). My friend explained that he believed humans are literal spirit children of God, and would therefore "grow up" to be like God, with all His powers, including creation. The way I envision it is there's a whole God species, of which we are all spiritual parts.

It occurred to me then, although I didn't say it at the time, that our theories are actually surprisingly compatible. Granted, my not believing in God is a big difference, but I see some of my version of the future being described in his terminology. That a change will abruptly take over all of earth - isn't that exactly what the technological singularity is about? We will not longer be the dominant species, but will instead "share" the world with the machines and its artificial intelligence. Arguably, we will be living under a greater intelligence - that of the machines. And in this way, we have outgrown ourselves and transformed into something bigger: a planet wide machine consciousness.

This (and therefore I myself as the author) probably seems crazy to many of you. Well, I won't be the first person on earth to have strange beliefs.

My friend's friend brought up a good point, however, when I explained the technological singularity to her. As an economics major, she saw change as driven by need. What she questioned was that, since the technological singularity will be in some sense incomprehensible by humans, whether it would be "needed". And if it's not needed, that it wouldn't happen at all.

I haven't thought about that before, and I haven't thought about it enough since to give a good answer.

My dinner conversation was also about religion, as me and one of my friends exchanged our worldviews. He managed to elicit and generalize my reasons for being an atheist into broad strokes:

  1. There is no (perceptual) evidence for God.
  2. Believing in God is not useful.

I have had vague thoughts in the direction of the second idea before, but this is the first time I've realized it is in some sense necessary. There may not be perceptual evidence of quarks either, or of radiation or other phenomenon. However, I and a lot of people take it's existence to be real, because it serves a purpose - quarks explain certain aspects of physics, and radiation helps with cancer and nuclear weapons.

God is different. I don't think God's existence can be taken as real, because I don't see any benefits to believing in God. My friend made me explain what I mean by useful, which I replied by some sort of utility in helping survive, or otherwise make life better. That could be money, power, a sixth sense, whatever. While I have never believed in God, and therefore don't have first hand experience in saying that it's not useful, this seems to be something which we can test for statistically. Is it the case that religious people earn more money, or live a happier life? Nope.

One argument against this is that people who believe in God go to heaven, while others don't (in the most dichotomized case). Well, yeah, okay, but you'll have to prove heaven first.

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