Sunday, August 15, 2010

Singularity Summit interim review

I'm almost disappointed, but the Singularity Summit (so far) has been decidedly less flaky than I anticipated. At least the talks were largely by actual scientists, with only a smallish percentage of random flamage. The crowd is something else again though -- the cultish aspects come through in my casual conversations with people. The speakers barely mention the singularity, confining themselves to actual technoscientific developments, but the audience has been murmuring complaints about this.

One particular event that was telling -- Anita Goel was one of the presenters, and she's apparently a very high-powered scientist, with expertise and work in medicine, physics, and biology. But at the end of her talk she dared to raise the possibility that the metaphysical foundations of this community were just wrong -- to be precise, she challenged the idea that information, mind, and consciousness were emergent phenomenon based on a purely material substrate.

I tweeted approval of this (I've been experimenting with live-tweeting during the conference), since this is something I like to think about. After her talk, which was about a great many interesting things besides metaphysics, she was absolutely swarmed with people who thought that within the space of 30-second chat in the midst of a mob they could get meaningful answers to whether she believed in God or whatnot. I was in the mob, and felt the impulse myself, but managed to turn the conversation to something more real (her Gene RADAR testing machine, which sounds intriguing).

Partly this is just because science is hard but everybody thinks they are a qualified metaphysician. And partly it's because what brought people to this gathering was a pseudo-religion and they are feeling like victims of bait-and-switch if all they get is boring, down-to-earth science.

This sounds like critique but it is only partial. I have nothing against a search for the transcendent; god knows I spend more energy on philosophy than science myself. I just think it needs to be labeled as such. The irritating thing about singulatarianism is not that it's a religion, but that it pretends not to be.

2 comments:

TGGP said...

"Partly this is just because science is hard but everybody thinks they are a qualified metaphysician. And partly it's because what brought people to this gathering was a pseudo-religion and they are feeling like victims of bait-and-switch if all they get is boring, down-to-earth science."
Sounds like the opposite. You said most of the presentations were just about science, but Anita Goel got swarmed because she touched on metaphysics.

Do you think it's possible to deny the existence of the transcendent (Auster's spider-sense is tingling) while not constituting a religion?

mtraven said...

"Anita Goel got swarmed because she touched on metaphysics."

I'm not sure what you are asking, but my point was that people are more interested in metaphysics than science, whether they are for or against transcendence or consciousness as fundamental or whatever. Being opposed to religion effectively is a religion and this happens to be one of its meeting places.

Do you think it's possible to deny the existence of the transcendent (Auster's spider-sense is tingling) while not constituting a religion?

Actually, no, not really. During the conference I came up with the idea of "conservation of transcendence". Scientific materialism ostensibly kills transcendence, but it pops up again like a bad if shiny penny. The singulatarians represent the leading edge of this tendency, although it was mostly held in check at this meeting.