Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Theologies of Information

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Ray Kurzweil, and the coming singularity

Chris Wiley

If the past is a foreign country where people do things differently, as L. P. Hartley’s adage would have it, the future is something akin to another galaxy, whose denizens’ doings remain maddeningly shrouded in almost total mystery. That, at least, is the common conception. For a growing number of technologically minded prognosticators, however, the future’s track has never appeared clearer, and the endpoint of progress’s rainbow never more certain.

Chief among these modern-day soothsayers is Ray Kurzweil, a renowned inventor, author, futurist, and advisor to the US military. His book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005) has become something of a bible for a cadre of techno-utopians who believe his claims that by the middle of this century—as early as 2030, he states in the book, though he has recently revised the date to 2045—we will cross the threshold into an era in which the development of consciousness in machines will precipitate an explosion of intelligence that will irrevocably alter the fabric of existence. Leading up to this tectonic evolutionary shift, Kurzweil asserts, exponential increases in computing capability will spur a vast array of sci-fi-sounding advances. These range from fully immersive virtual reality to machine-facilitated immortality, the latter of which he has sanguinely trotted out as inevitable science fact in his numerous television and film appearances and in many of his books. However, once his predicted paradigm shift occurs and superintelligent machines begin to spawn ever more intelligent progeny at exponentially increasing rates of speed, the character of the projected future becomes harder to adumbrate, owing to the almost total incomprehensibility of both the scope and pace of its rate of change. As such, this shift has been aptly dubbed “the singularity,” a term borrowed from physics that is most commonly used to refer to the infinite curvature of spacetime predicted to lie at the center of a black hole.

The hazy nature of this new era has by no means prevented Kurzweil from speculating in grand fashion about its ultimate endpoint. In The Singularity Is Near, he outlines a progression of six evolutionary epochs, advancing from the emergence of basic physics and chemistry (Epoch 1), through the development of biology (Epoch 2), the emergence of brains (Epoch 3), and the advent of technology (Epoch 4), which leads, penultimately, to the singularity (Epoch 5). In the sixth epoch, he foresees that the efflorescence of superintelligent life, which began at the singularity, will expand throughout the universe—either at speeds approaching the speed of light or, if a way can be found around it, much faster—until it becomes saturated with sentience, or, in Kurzweil’s words, “wakes up.”

In describing this sixth epoch, Kurzweil has been somewhat careful to skirt the issue of its theological implications. He takes pains, for instance, to explain that despite this awakened universe’s rapid advance toward the acquisition of attributes that normally characterize monotheistic conceptions of God—including “infinite complexity, infinite elegance, infinite knowledge, infinite intelligence, infinite beauty, infinite creativity, [and] infinite love”—it nonetheless “never quite reaches this ideal.” This, it seems, is not simply a rhetorical nod that takes into account the asymptotic nature of this theoretical explosion of sentience, but a symptom of his desire that his theories be taken not as articles of faith but as plausible outlines of our future, grounded in solid, if speculative, science. And given his somewhat remarkable track record for predicting the future’s path, one might be tempted to grant him this indulgence. However, this attempt to hew to a semblance of fact rather than faith is undermined by the almost exact overlap of Kurzweil’s vision of the future with that laid out by the early twentieth-century Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his book The Phenomenon of Man (1955).

This book, which Chardin completed in the late 1930s but was forbidden to publish during his lifetime by the Catholic Church, was the culmination of decades of work, during which he attempted to synthesize his Catholic faith with his knowledge of evolution. The result was a theistic evolutionary theory that, like Kurzweil’s ostensibly technologically deterministic one, charted an inexorable developmental progression that culminates in the appearance of divine cosmic consciousness, which Chardin dubbed the Omega Point. Like Kurzweil, Chardin saw the driving force behind this teleological developmental arc to be the evolutionary tendency toward ever-increasing orders of complexity and consciousness, which he similarly divided into a series of six advancing epochs that mirror Kurzweil’s nearly perfectly: geogenesis (the development of the earth); biogenesis (the development of life); psychogenesis (the development of brains); anthropogenesis (the development of humankind); noogenesis (the development of what Chardin terms the noosphere); and cosmogenesis (the development of cosmic consciousness, which he also calls Christogenesis).

Of Chardin’s six epochs, it is the period of noogenesis that bears the most elaboration, as it is both the least self-explanatory and the most responsible for his reemergence from obscurity during the past two decades. Broadly speaking, Chardin marks the beginning of this period with the emergence of human consciousness, a phenomenon that he believed ushered in the formation of “a new skin” encircling the earth, the noosphere—an ever-tightening web of thought, far greater in power than the sum of its parts, that would reach its apotheosis in a state of ultimate unity embodied by the aforementioned Omega Point. This assertion, which had been summarily tossed in the dustbin of crank theories after a brief period of popularity following The Phenomenon of Man’s publication, found an unsurprising revival among the ranks of the technological elite during the internet’s initial flowering in the 1990s, as it began to take on the euphonious ring of prophecy. Quickly, Chardin’s name began to pop up in the pages of Wired, the era’s defining tech magazine, and in books like Jennifer Cobb’s Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World (1998) and Erik Davis’s cult classic TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information (1998). It almost appeared that Chardin had become Silicon Valley’s patron saint.

With all of this chatter, it is nearly impossible that Kurzweil would have missed it, which makes it all the more telling that Chardin is not mentioned once in the six hundred pages of The Singularity Is Near. Never, in other words, does Kurzweil mention that his vision of the future is not based on the rational deduction of the most likely scenario—that would more likely be one of the panoply of dystopian futures that such technological advancements could unleash, which are largely drowned out by the messianic thunder of his principal argument. Instead, his conception derives from a properly theological conceit that the accrual of human knowledge, our strivings to bring everything within our grasp, will inevitably result in our collective deification. But in this, Kurzweil is not unique. It is a notion that cryptically undergirded Enlightenment thought, and which gave us one of the period’s most enduring cautionary tales, Goethe’s Faust. However, unlike that play’s wayward, knowledge-hungry protagonist, Kurzweil’s push to spread his exuberant brand of techno-theology runs the risk of damning not just himself, but the rest of humanity. The future, as much as we wish otherwise, will remain forever trackless and opaque, and to forget that is to forget that time’s arrow may not always be aimed at a happy target.

Chris Wiley is an artist, writer, and curator who lives in Brooklyn and Woodstock, New York. He has worked on numerous exhibitions at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, as well as the 2013 Venice Biennale and the 2010 Gwangju Biennale. He is a regular contributor to the New Yorker online and to Frieze, where he is a contributing editor.

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