The Proper Use of Technology: Kurzweil vs. Ratzinger – A Conversation

Thus far in this series of blog posts, I have been pulling paragraphs directly from my more academic and probably boring Bachelor’s thesis. Reading over them again has been a little painful, so I’ve decided to rewrite the long boring argument between Kurzweil’s and Ratzinger’s viewpoints into a hopefully more interesting – though fictional – conversation(Note: I do not know the writing or conversational styles of either Kurzweil or Ratzinger, this is merely a vehicle to give each side’s argument.)

Ratzinger: It appears, Mr. Kurzweil, that your argument for the close relationship between humanity and technology rests on the idea that an organism is the same as a machine.

Kurzweil: an organism is the same as a machine, just one of a more advanced pattern than anything we have built thus far in human history.

Ratzinger: But an organism is fundamentally different from a machine. First, an organism is incomparably smarter and more daring than most sophisticated machines. Machines in comparison are dully planned and dully constructed. Second, An organism also moves itself from within, while a machine must be operated by someone from without. Third, an organism has the power to reproduce itself and bring into existence another living being like itself. A machine can’t do the same.

Kurzweil: Cardinal Ratzinger, your reasons are outdated and don’t encompass some new facts which point to the reality that organisms and machines exist on a continuum. In response to your first point, I grant you that organisms are smarter than current machines. But when a machine is built that copies the pattern of an organism, that pattern can be analyzed and improved. The new machine built upon the improved pattern would surpass the original organism. On your second point, the advent of computers brought machines that are capable of self-direction. The software of the computer acts like the mind and the hardware like the body of an organism. As to your third point, machines are increasingly capable of building other machines and even of replicating parts of themselves. It is now feasible that they will reproduce themselves just like biological organisms.

Ratzinger: You do have a point…but, since we are talking about the relationship between humanity and technology, the one organism which is different from any other organism is the human being. Any attempt to reduce the human being to a machine necessarily rejects man’s moral dignity of being made in the image of God. This does not liberate the human person but crushes him or her. Man must not be considered only by the physical-natural scientific reason but also by the moral-religious reason which recognizes this moral dignity of human beings. This moral reason cannot be rejected as gross unreason or superstition as not being mathematical because it is the more fundamental of these two kinds of reason. Moral reason alone will preserve the human dimensions of both the natural sciences and technology and prevent them from destroying the concept and fact of humankind.

Kurzweil: All your claims about this supposed dignity of man will be called into question when machines attain consciousness. Your denial of the ability to machines to have consciousness is based on the fact that today’s machines are not as capable as humans and on your rejection of technology’s continued march toward imitating the human pattern. When machines successfully attain consciousness, man will not only understand how his thinking arises from matter but will also vastly extend and expand its reach by merging human and machine consciousness. This would allow humankind to transcend its biological roots while maintaining the fundamental human quality of seeking extend physical and mental reason beyond current limitations. Technology will not destroy humankind. It will allow human beings to no longer be bound by the limitations of biology and to expand the human pattern into the nonbiological world.

Ratzinger: Your claim that mind arises from matter makes no scientific sense. Matter is inherently unstable and chaotic. Your claim might have made sense in the nineteenth century when the theories of the conservation of matter an the conservation of energy made the whole universe appear ever-existent, unchanging and depending only on itself. But because of the discovery of the theory of entropy and the theory of relativity, science now knows that temporality is inscribed in the universe. Mind cannot arise from matter, it must be imposed upon it.

Kurzweil: you are right that matter is temporal, but wrong that it tends to disorder. Evolution demonstrates that by following the law of accelerating returns. This law states that matter under the evolutionary process becomes increasingly ordered, continually building upon previous stages of evolution. This is best demonstrated in the evolution of technology, which grows and improves upon an exponential curve. The theory of entropy which you mention, only affects a closed system, but the law of accelerating returns applies to the open system of evolution. Each stage of evolution draws upon the surrounding chaos of matter to create more diversity from which greater order can be formed

Ratzinger: The theory of Evolution you mention seeks to understand and describe biological developments. It does not tell of where the human person came from, where he is going, or what is his purpose. Without know the end of humankind, your cannot claim that evolution achieves a higher order from a lower, because there is no standard from which to measure. The inability of science to explain man’s final end seems to be acknowledge even by science itself, for even an attempt at an explanation merely replaces God with the unscientific idea of blind chance. Something within man demands a reason for existence that is more than blind chance. The claim that blind chance is the reason for existence removes the possibility for a meaningful existence as well as the ability to measure progress.

Kurzweil: Ah, but you see, the purpose of the human person is perfectly evident if you examine the evolution of technology. Just as nature, over millions of years, evolved the human person with an intelligence that set it apart from the rest of nature, so will the human person, in a few decades, evolve technology until it surpasses his intelligence. Man and machine will merge, each build on the strengths of the other, allowing for the development of even more advanced and intelligent beings. Ultimately, the final end will be realized when intelligence – that is, the pattern capable of recognizing and manipulating patterns – permeates the universe and decides the destiny of the cosmos.

Ratzinger: This end of man that you mention has one fatal flaw, and it is a flaw which Catholics faced before in the heresy of Gnosticism. This isn’t an end of man, it’s a desire for complete control of the universe. If the complete permeation of intelligence is the final end of the universe, it can only happen through complete control of the world and of life, a fundamental tenet of Gnosticism. Gnosticism does not embrace reality, but rejects it for a future reality to come, and you, Mr. Kurzweil, seem too focused on the future of technology. You fail to answer the most important question raised by the temporality  of matter, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” You ignore it and seem to claim that all questions concerning origin are unnecessary. This implicit arational or antirational claim allows the living souls of all organisms to be reduced to mere patterns of information that keep  matter in order. But a living soul requires a beginning and an end, while a pattern simply exists. Machines can be built according to patterns, so it would appear that organisms and machines are the same, but organisms act through a force innate to them, a living pattern that is imposed remotely by God through the proximate means of the genetic code which is unique to organisms. Machines are run by programs which make them ultimately dependent upon human beings. Rather than elevating man, you have reduced man to a machine, making him a creature of man rather than a creature of God and giving him a purely material end in place of his supernatural end. This material end, the “waking up” of the universe, would remain in the control of those scientists who create the machines bring it about. You, Mr. Kurzweil, as a scientist researching and pushing for these changes, seem to be positioning yourself to be one of those scientists in control, who will subject humankind to the determinism of the machine.

The next post will look at the claims of those who insist that technology is evil and should be rejected.


1 thought on “The Proper Use of Technology: Kurzweil vs. Ratzinger – A Conversation

  1. Pingback: The Proper Use of Technology: Luddites | Catholic Hacker

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