As a young man, even before I went full atheist, I decided that there were three likely events that would liquefy the foundations of most of Earth’s religions. These three events were:
- The cloning of a human being.
- The singularity of AI and human intelligence.
- First contact with an intelligent alien species.
It was fairly obvious when I made the list that cloning would be the first event fully realized. With ideas like immaculate conception and divine sourcing of souls the concept of cloning would provide fertile ground for questioning the mundane sourcing of humanity. In particular, if people could make humans without sex the preoccupation with sex that many religions has would suffer the decoupling of procreation from pleasure; a philosophical event much anticipated by devout hedonists around the globe.
Successful cloning was performed less than two decades after I made the event list. In 1996 researchers at the Roslin Institute in Scotland cloned a fuzzy white Finn-Dorset sheep; they named her “Dolly”. The source of Dolly’s DNA was a mammary gland and Ian Wilmut who led the team which cloned Dolly thought Dolly Parton’s mammary glands were impressive; hence Dolly’s name. The proper term for this type of cloning is: “somatic cell nuclear transfer”. Dolly had three mothers; one provided the egg, the second provided the DNA, and the third provided the womb in which she gestated. Dolly was genetically identical to Mom number two. In 2003 Dolly died of a respiratory infection that had no linkage to her cloning. Her remains were expertly taxidermied, and are on display at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.
Since Dolly a whole slew of different animals have been cloned.
The cloning of a human has occurred at least partially. In 2008 Samuel Wood and Andrew French of Stemagen created five mature human embryos using DNA from a few of Wood’s skin cells. Wood destroyed his progeny, but there is little doubt that mature human children could be produced from cloned embryos.
Where are the throngs of emancipated hedonists burning effigies of the Virgin Mary in the street? The churches are relatively silent on the issue of cloning. They have come out in force to deride the cloning of humans as unethical, but they balk on the big questions. Would the cloned human have a soul, and if it did where would it have come from? The theologists I have pinged seem only interested in the cloning of a human insofar as they insist that it is not a theological issue. They think they have dodged this issue, and an examination of the second event might tell us why.
The singularity of human and AI is the point where the two are essentially indistinguishable. I did not realize it when I made the list, but the singularity had already been essentially realized.
Human intelligence is such an ephemeral concept that identifying a singularity with it would appear to be an impossible task. In 1950 Alan Turing (one of the world’s most revered thinkers) published the paper titled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”; four years later, at age 41, he was dead (suicide). In his famous CMI paper Alan came up with a way of identifying the singularity.
Alan’s test was simple. Let people decide what they think is more human like. The idea here is be that one could at least test human-like intelligence and that would be at least equivalent to testing for human-level intelligence. There is the potential for greater than human intelligence, but that would be a different question. The idea of the Turing Test was to provide a means to assess the human-likeness of an intelligence.
The test is a simple blind study. A group of people interact with humans or AI’s and then guess at whether the entity they are interacting with is human or AI. If an AI scored as high as humans it would be accurately described as human-like and a type of singularity would have been achieved.
The implications of one possibility have not been exhaustively explored, and that possibility is that one could create an AI which did better on the Turing test than humans. It is almost inconceivable that an AI would be more human-like than actual humans. This possibility leaves the domain of Artificial Intelligence research and creates a field better named Artificial Psychology.
In 1966 Joseph Weizenbaum published a paper introducing the program he named “ELIZA” after a character in Pygmalion. He had begun coding ELIZA in 1964, and his aim was to create a program that fooled people into believing that it was human. ELIZA became the first of a class of human fooling programs known as chatterbots.
I had the opportunity to interact with an early ELIZA back when she was still confined to a monochrome screen with the ghostly images of Wordstar’s main menu permanently etched into its phosphor. One would type in a question and ELIZA would respond with a question. Apparently Weizenbaum was mimicking the approach a Rogerian psychologist takes with their patient. The responses I got were interesting at first, but frayed at the edges. I though it a clever ploy, but believed that AI would reach singularity via another path. I was wrong.
Chatterbots regularly beat humans in humanness. Even with a highly educated group of human competitors chatterbots are almost impossible for a highly educated panel of judges to identify. In other words chatterbots are more human than most humans when the humans are trying to be normally human.
Chatterbots are now employed as call center workers for some major international banks as well as the car companies Renault and Citroen. They populate social media and chat rooms. Some of them have been employed to convince people to reveal personal data about themselves, and they are quite good at it. Perhaps someone you know only through electronic communication could be a chatterbot. Maybe I am?
Many AI researchers look down on chatterbots as tricksters, but that only raises the question of what most people are. How much of human interaction is simply people attempting to convince us that they are people? How much intelligence is required for Human Intelligence?
Perhaps human interaction is largely comprised of convincing people that you are like them, and although I’ve approached that question via AI in this post that same conclusion can be reached through other lines of reasoning. If it is the process of belief and faith is more a communal delusion than a personal choice. The impact of any particular event on belief is moderated more by its ability to be glossed over (like the cloning event) than by the intrinsic implications of the event itself.
This would explain why iron-age religions have survived thousands of years of information that should have sublimated their foundations. I’m not just talking about great scientific theories like evolution. What about simple things like the lightbulb? “Let there be light and I flipped a switch” does not carry the booming voice of Charleston Hesston creating the world from void.
I do not want to knock the idea of selective reconciliation of natural and scriptural phenomena as a similar process has allowed us to discard most of Leviticus, and that has been a good thing. Are all possible theology challenging events to be disarmed by banal assimilation? Could there exist an event so shocking that it would force re-calibration of earthly theology?
That question brings us to both event 3, and a surprisingly bad movie.
The main character in Prometheus is a woman both unable to face her own sterility and able to blindly program a surgical machine to perform a amazingly unanethestized caesarian section on herself. Then within minutes of the surgery –still sporting a brightly stapled abdominal incision- she confronts her creator, and destroy him at the tentacles of her now gigantic birthling. Although I strongly believe that suspension of disbelief is aided by detailed computer animation I find it difficult to understand the uber-waif’s inability to discard her Christianity in the face of the superlative generating evidence supplied her.
She is convinced that she has discovered a race of giants who are both her creators and cousins. They have planned on destroying her planet with poly-morphing mucus-resplendent weaponized aliens. Yet she still clings to her" Jesus died on the cross to atone for our sins" ideal. It is so cute, and she almost does it justice with her doe eyes, but what was she thinking?
She had apparently set the whole mission in motion by discovering messages in cave paintings that pre-dated her atonement mutilation by thousands of years. Her belief requires that the whole sin-atonement thing went down, but that Jesus neglected to mention that there was a fleet of ships aimed at Earth with the sole purpose of raining Armageddon-like slimy death upon it.
There was a shining opportunity for the protagonist to reclaim the movie, and her own dignity at the same time. In one of the last scenes she is clipping into a miraculously appearing climbing rope to rappel out of the crashed alien ship. She is having a few words with the disembodied head of “Dave” who as an AI has been poorly treated throughout the movie by his creators. He is surprisingly polite for a disembodied head, and perhaps the most empathetic character in the movie. She has lowered his body over the side, and is about to zip his head into a duffle bag. She could have paused for a second, and in a contemplative voice suggested: “creators can be such douche-bags”.
If aliens are contacting the Human race it may be as likely that they have approached some chatterbot as it is that they have approached a flesh-and-blood human. Maybe they will be sent some DNA through a strategic glitch in some clinical-sample processing program, and they will be able to clone up some flesh-and-blood humans of their own. Perhaps they will send them back to earth, and the appearance of chatterbot-raised alien-human clones will finally create a theology attenuating event.
I suspect not though.
But it might make for a cool movie.