Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Leibnizian Rebuttal to Kurzweil's Singularity.

(Note: This post was written by me approximately a year and a half ago in order to refute certain computational theories of mind that had arisen in another discussion forum. Also refuted here is the related notion that the universe tends inevitably towards an "Omega Point," Teilhard de Chardin's vision of a pole of maximum integration and connotation which draws all things unto itself. Ray Kurzweil, the director of MIT's Media Lab, has argued for decades that this Omega Point {or "Singularity," as he prefers to call it} will be brought about by an ever-accelerating advance of computational power and neural nanotechnology. Obviously, this mistaken understanding is predicated on several false metaphysical presuppositions: 1) That the universe in its basic essence is composed of wholly knowable and predictable digital components. 2) That the mind of man is an epiphenomenon arising from physical interactions among these components. 3) That this mind is a physical structure mirroring the funtion of a von Neumann stored-program computer, and amenable to physical manipulation on that account. I have argued here that not only are these metaphysical notions erroneous, but the Omega Point itself is a corruption of the Christian idea of the Eschaton, which cannot occur within history but only beyond it. Hence, all Omega Point theologies are in fact millenarian heresies with an element of the anti-Christ about them. The Church, while ever striving to perfect all aspects of earthly life as much as possible, must be on her guard against such thinking.)

Since addressing the “theories of consciousness” problem adequately would require stipulating to certain ontological facts that have not really been mentioned here, I think I should begin with a theological examination of the concept of the singularity, from first principles.

Is there an End of History? Are we to seek for a temporal manifestation of the ideal of unbounded liberty? Do such transhumanistic notions spring from a genuine mystical imperative, and are they capable of becoming the object of Man’s ultimate concern? Are these the “Kingdom Come” that our Lord instructs us to pray for? Or are they something else perhaps – something less desirable?

It may not have escaped notice that all proposed actualizations of the omega point involve constructions which are essentially mechanical in nature, whether they be computers made from folded space or artificial neurons made from nanomachines. Nor has it gone unmentioned that this transformation of Man’s physical and mental environment into an all-inclusive, controllable machine has been a distinguishing feature of Western millenarianism whenever the latter has broken out. It is quite possible to doubt the plausibility of such constructions, but that would leave the underlying philosophical problem untouched: With what reason do we regard such a world as being superior to the one we actually inhabit? Or in other words: Why is this necessarily the pole toward which “progress” progresses?

The question goes to the heart of the subjective nature of progress. Among the singularity champions, of course, it is never even asked. The assumption that all progress moves inevitably toward the singularity is the implicit justification of their entire program. By examining carefully the nature of this assumption, we obtain a key as to the theological significance of the singularity. Let us begin by dissecting its aforementioned mechanical nature.

Mechanics, be it noted, is thoroughly positivistic. A technical artifact receives its meaning, and therefore its form, entirely from the purposes it was constructed to fulfill. Its existence is intentional, and as a result its relevant attributes are strictly limited and capable of exhaustive quantitative description. This very purposefulness is the hallmark of all artifacts; there can be accidental discoveries, but there are no accidental technologies.

This immediately sets the artifact apart from the matter from which it is constructed, as the latter always possesses additional attributes that are incidental to the intended purpose of the artifact. These attributes it must possess, if for no other reason than that it was capable (through some sort of physical manipulation) of being transformed into the artifact in question. Any “perfect technology,” as it were, would utilize the full spectrum of attributes of its constituent material, and by definition could not be further transformed into anything else. Nor could it have been transformed from anything else, as this would assume the existence of some mode of action by which the constituent material could be affected, but in which it had no inherent ability to participate – a contradiction. A machine is an orchestration of incidents; mechanical properties of its constituent materials are defined, abstracted out from their carriers, quantified, and recombined in exact ratios in order to produce the intended result. We have shown that a perfect machine must possess at least all the qualities of its material, but also that it cannot possess more than these. In other words, it would be identical in all respects to the material from which it was made. It would seem then, that the only “perfect technology” is reality itself, the unmolested matter, plain and simple.

Important implications follow. If reality is more perfect than any possible machine, then naturally it could not be simulated by any machine – so much for the idea of a computer reconstructing the universe at the end of time. Furthermore, since we now see that any machine must be less than the sum total of its own materials, no computer could even simulate itself, let alone the universe. But it is possible to make an even bolder claim. If reality is more perfect than any possible machine, then it can never be perfectly decomposed into mechanical units by mechanical processes. There can be no completely quantifiable, fundamental building blocks of reality, and consequently no “Theory of Everything” to account for them. No machine, no matter how large, could adequately simulate any bit of reality, no matter how small. Ultimately, the universe is not amenable to technological description. We cannot use physical processes to explain themselves.

Additionally, to make the same point with another argument, we recall from an earlier definition that all technologies are intentional. For the entire universe to assume the properties of a technology then, we would have to enlarge our circle of intentionality to the point that it covered the whole of physical reality. But we have already seen that reality can not be quantified. The furthest advance we can make in this direction is to apply the concept of intentionality ex post facto to the events as they occur. With this, the intellect has dissolved itself and violated its own necessity. Just as a perfect machine would be identical to reality, a perfect intention would be identical to actuality. The theoretical limit of pure, mechanical ideation could only will that the world be exactly as it is anyway. To attempt further alteration would assume the existence of knowledge concerning reality that could not be derived from reality – a contradiction. And since we can only intend that which we have defined, and reality can not be totally defined (see above), it stands to reason that reality is more perfect than any intention.

This being the case, no Theory of Everything can be forthcoming. Furthermore, since no mechanical intention can include all the attributes of a given material, no act of mechanical ideation can even perfectly encapsulate the properties of the very machine it was intended to produce. The bolder claim again follows naturally. Since reality is more perfect than any intention, it could never be decomposed by quantitative means into exactly definable thought-units (for if it could, these thought-units could be reassembled into reality by some larger theory, violating the perfection of reality). No theory, no matter how grand, could adequately explain any bit of reality, no matter how tiny. The universe is ultimately not amenable to technical description.

Neither the physical world nor the spirit who perceives it is explicable in terms of itself or of the other. They must radiate from a source that transcends them both and this source we call God.

We are now ready to get to the crux of the problem, and examine what is implied by this particular notion of progress. Man’s will to technical self-extension is natural and healthy, but it is not perfect. Every act of mechanical ideation must by definition involve a denial of the unrealized attributes. As a result of this, machines not only fail to emulate reality, they also break down and decay. This is the basis of that which, in physics, is known as entropy. Theologically speaking, entropy is the “judgment” of God that brings justice to the unrealized attributes and denies the property of ultimacy to man’s creations. In the will to technical self-extension, Man takes the judgment upon himself sacrificially, and receives in return his “dominion” over the Earth.

But this communion breaks down when the will to self-extension becomes the will to technological transcendence. Ontically, matter exists in a state of created perfection. The will to mechanicalize the entire world must involve the act of denying this created perfection in totality. What once was sacrifice has become hubris. By denying the perfection of created being, we exalt the principle of non-being to supremacy in our minds. The will to technical transcendence is Satanic; the singularity is the Antichrist. It is the form in which the idea of “mammon” receives a logical maximum of connotative weight. It is that which is continuously overcome within the stream of history by the very nature of being itself; by its infinite superiority over non-being, by the eternal operations of divine Providence.

Thus, there is no End of History.

The bearing this all has upon theories of consciousness may not be obvious, but it is nonetheless logically direct. If we take all the proceeding to be true, then it is plain that human consciousness can neither reach matter nor result from matter – and most assuredly can not be replaced by matter. In fact even “matter”, as we commonly use the term, can not be reduced to purely material units.

The Western intellect has come full-circle. The journey out of secular night and into the light of revelation is underway. Due to the very ferocity of our particular style of technical ideation and the self-negating tendencies inherent in it, we have prepared our collective consciousness for that day when the reality of God will once again become a persistent, pervasive, and vivid experience.


  1. Hi Matt, your blog is excellent. I saw your comment on panpsychism in Edward Feser's blog.

    The best defense of panpsychism that I know is in David Ray Griffin's book "Unsnarling the World-Knot". The book is available online here:


    Personally, I think substance dualism (in spite of its problems) is a better position. But Griffin's thesis is an alternative to it (and more sophisticated than other panpsychistic views).

  2. Thanks so much for the compliment, Jime! I'll try to keep this blog updated with new posts 3 or 4 times a week. I'm glad you liked it.

    I'll be sure to check out Griffin. I agree that substance dualism is the better position; for if physicalism entails panpsychism, then panpsychism probably entails something like metempsychosis (but I'll have to read up on the subject). The good news is, at least others are starting to realize that there is more to matter than Descartes allowed.

    Thanks again!

  3. Stumbled upon this today. Great stuff, thanks.