Wednesday, January 18, 2006

God and the Singularity

The Speculist: "All of which leads us, at last, to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, found in the book of Genesis. Here's the story:

A fellow named Nimrod establishes what sounds like the world's first empire in the land of Shinar, which includes Babel, where the tower is built. Nimrod is described as a "mighty hunter," a powerful and charismatic leader. People begin to settle in Shinar, which is something of a prototypical silicon valley, with a charismatic entrepreneur at the helm and a booming technology (brick making) driving a whole new culture (based on progress and unhindered communication; this story occurs at a time when all people speak the same language.) The people of Shinar declare that they're going to build a city with a tower reaching to heavens and "make a name for themselves." God looks at what they're doing and comments as follows:

"If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."

So he confounds their language and scatters them out over the world.

Why does he do it? The traditional interpretation is that God acts primarily out of retribution for the arrogance and blasphemy of the people building the tower. There is no question that their self-aggrandizing behavior would be displeasing to him. So is his action here comparable to that of Zeus smiting the disobedient Prometheus?

Personally, I had always read it that way. But recently, a friend offered me a different interpretation -- drawing attention to what it is that God specifically says before acting. He does not refer to the pride or arrogance of the people of Babel. He expresses concern about allowing their upward spiral of progress to continue unabated.

"Nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them."

So what? Nothing they do represents a threat to him. It is much more likely that their actions may represent a threat to the people themselves. And note that these sinners are not killed as the people were in the story of the Flood. They are merely scattered.

In the story of the Tower of Babel, God does not seem primarily interested in punishing spiritual hubris, but rather in preventing the devastating consequences of practical hubris. He is not Zeus chaining Prometheus to a rock, he is a very forceful Bill Joy protecting people from the unforeseen consequences of their actions.

So the Tower of Babel is, indeed, a cautionary tale for Singularitarians, believers and non-believers alike. We would all be well advised to pay close attention to it. But it is not primarily a story about the consequences of violating the divine order; that's what the story of Adam & Eve is all about. It is about the need to tread lightly when setting out on a path of rapid development of knowledge and power, especially when so many of the consequences of that path must be unforeseen."

This is a discussion of a book that I just bought and plan to read soon: The Singularity is Near

I believe that it is important to be conversant on these issues of humanity, technology, morality and ultimately eschatology.


chris said...

wow. I always enjoy your posts, Ryan. thanks for finding this stuff.

Stephen Gordon said...


Phil and I (the main two bloggers at The Speculist) are both Christians that have found ourselves challeged by the ideas in that book and its predecessor "The Age of Spiritual Machines."

We are both philosophically Singularitarians. There are those who go further - religious Singularitarians.

Anyway, I'd like to hear your thoughts on the subject after you read the book.

Andy said...

You also might be interested in "In Our Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Spirit" by Noreen Herzfeld. She is a professor of computer science who also holds a doctorate in theology. I read it a couple years ago for a class on the doctrine of the imago Dei, and I found it very interesting and helpful. She points out that the discussions of AI/technology etc that Kurzweil et al undertake tell us more about what we value about humanity, more so than what our technology may or may not be capable of. That is, the desire/fascination for AI reveals that our conceptions of human identity and worth are bound up in our valuation of rationality and intelligence. I think you'd find it interesting.

Interesting Stuff