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Kurzweil: Cardinal Ratzinger, your reasons are outdated and don’t encompass some new facts which point to the reality that organisms and machines exist on a continuum.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.

The Proper Use of Technology: The Genesis of Catholic Human Dignity

In opposition to Kurzweil (see previous post) are some Catholic Theologians, most notably Joseph Ratzinger (Now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), who argue that the dignity of man needs to be defended in this world of technology. When forming their argument on the relation and of man and technology, these Catholic Theologians, first listen to the facts of human biology and the history of technological advances and then point to the agreement with those truths developed or revealed in both philosophy and theology. The first principles of this argument, as presented in the book In the Beginning by Joseph Ratzinger, are found in the two creation narratives that open the book of Genesis.

The very first statement in the first creation narrative, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” indicates one of the most important distinctions: God is separate from his creation, He is entirely other. The second statement, “the earth was without form and void, and darkness wason the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters,” indicates that matter is, of its nature, unstable and without any internal order, and in need of some kind of order that must be imposed from without. This natural tendency toward disorder was postulated scientifically with the theory of entropy, which states that energy, when used up in a particular area, can never be restored, and was confirmed with the discovery that matter could be converted into energy and the theory of relativity. Into this disordered matter, God built or imposed order, separating light from darkness, heaven from earth, and creating moon, sun, stars, plants, and animals. The face of the reasonableness of creation is only confirmed by the presence of the sciences themselves, and so for order to exist in the world as taught by science, something or Someone must have instilled order and keeps that order in place. Ratzinger notes that the Creation narrative is not a scientific or historical account of the formation of the world or the development of life, but an allegory to emphasize that God created the world. Since evolution is only a description of how life developed, God could have created the world directly or through evolution.

In the second creation narrative, “The Lord God formed man of dust form the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” this statement indicates two principles, first that God formed man from unstable matter, that his basic material is earth, and second that the human being comes into existence after God has breathed into the nostrils of the body formed from this unstable matter. From the first principle, there is something both humbling and consoling. Humbling because man is told that he is not God, he did not make himself, he does not rule the universe, he is limited, and he is destined for death as are all living things. Consoling because man is no demon or evil spirit, he has been fashioned from God’s good earth, and despite all distinctions the human race is fundamentally the same and are of equal value. From the second principle, we see that a divine reality is essential to man, a reality more deeply stated in the first Creation narrative “Let us make man in our own imge and likeness.” In the human being, God enters into his creation, for the human being is directly related to God. the fact that each human being is God’s image is the deepest reason for the inviolability of human dignity.

Because of the divine reality essential to man’s being, technological advancement springs both from an urge to create that reflects that divine reality as well as a grasping of man upon the fact of matter’s instability and the order God imposed upon it. The building of robotic and retinal prosthetics and the brain-machine interface demonstrates man’s desire to both understand this order imposed upon matter by God as well as to instill order upon unstable matter. The fact of creation imposes a necessary rational and order upon the world, and man – filled with the breath of God – seeks to understand and imitated those ordered patterns he finds in nature. Of course, the fact that he is matter and is working with matter imposes several limitations on man. He must work within the laws which God has imposed upon matter itself, and thus he cannot make it do anything which God has not or could not do with it. he can limit but he cannot improve Nature. Thus man can imitate but cannot create life because it is an order imposed by God upon matter. This also means that man cannot imposed upon himself or others and order that violates the divine reality, the God-given order of his own soul, since it would lessen or crush the human person. It is from this aspect of the advancement of technology which Ratzinger warns against. Technological advances have given me a certain freedom from anxiety and superstition, a certain power over the world. But this power leads to a temptation to view as reasonable and therefore as serious only what can be corroborated through experiment and computation and to reject as irrational all that is moral and holy. By denying all that is moral and holy, the essential nature of man as made in the image and likeness of God is denied, crushing him to fit within a utilitarian view of the world, and eventually destroying him. Ratzinger posits that man must recognize the existence of two different kinds of reason, the physical-natural scientific and the moral-religious reason, and that the contours and scope of moral-religious reason are not mathematical as it is more fundamental. It is also in the moral-religious reason that man, in his moral freedom, images God and is more than earth. Without moral-religious reason, man will increasingly isolate himself, unable to love or find meaning in life and would eventually destroy himself for existing without purpose.

My next post will be a fictional argument between Kurzweil and Ratzinger using their books, The Singularity is Near and In the Beginning, respectively, as sources for the dialogue.

The Proper Use of Technology: The Evolution of Technology and The End of Man

The technocrats, in order to help bolster their arguments that man is a machine, turn to the history of technological development and not only compare it to but say it is a part of Evolution. One such technocrat is Ray Kurzweil, inventor of the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, and the first music synthesizer to faithfully recreate several orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition software and recipient of the MIT-Lemelson Prize and the National Medal of Technology. In his book The Singularity is NearRay Kurzweil argues that Evolution demonstrates a law of this particular universe “The law of accelerating returns,” that is, that lasting or meaningful patterns develop into better meaningful patterns at an exponential rate and that the end of Evolution is universal intelligence. He then place man as a key component of Evolution as being the first meaningful pattern that both recognizes and analyzes meaningful patterns. For Kurzweil, Man’s drive to develop technology arises from the evolutionary urge to develop better meaningful patterns and that Man, because he is hingepin upon which the rise of a better meaningful pattern, will eventually merge with that better pattern, just as single cell organisms merged to become multi-cellular organisms. This will happen since, according to Kurzweil, reality is purely composed of meaningful patterns of information.

This view of reality and man’s nature denies that man’s dignity comes from his moral and spiritual nature, but rather from the fact that each man is a meaningful, though flawed unique pattern information. Man is trapped in his biological limitations and must discover some way to allow his unique pattern to overcome those limitations. Looking at the power of computers in storing information, and the improving algorithms that allow computers to form meaningful patterns from that data, Kurzweil states that if man, as the highest product of biological evolution is to overcome his biologically imposed limitations and continue to evolve, then he must take on those powers of the computer. All claims of morality and spirituality are merely the manifestation of the evolutionary urge to seek greater intelligence, all desire for salvation is a desire to become a flawless meaningful pattern of information. thus, seeking to accomplish that evolutionary urge by freeing and perfecting man’s intelligence from the severe limitations of its biological form can be regarded as an essentially spiritual undertaking.

Kurzweil does not stop here. He then states that since evolution is inevitable, all attempts to stop the merging of man and machine will come to naught as those who have embraced this next phase of evolution will leave behind those who refuse to join. Man must seek this next step relentlessly, according to Kurzweil, for once the human pattern can be copied or stored, it will be possible to prevent each unique human pattern from ceasing to exist. Also, since the pattern of human consciousness would be understood, those limitations which cause suffering, disease, and death could be overcome. Any attempt  to hold back this evolutionary step would result in the unnecessary continued suffering and death of millions of human beings.

This is the argument of the technocrats for man and his relation to technology. My next post will be concerning another side of the argument, the side held by Joseph Ratzinger who wants to maintain man’s dignity, seemingly in spite of the development of technology.

 

The Proper Use of Technology: They call themselves Technocrats

After watching the Eyeborg Documentary,  I thought, as probably many who watched this video, that technology is a wonderful tool. Just look at those disabled people and how robotic prosthetics have allowed them to live nearly normal lives and look at the lives we will save with tools like the fireman’s heads-up-display(HUD). How could such technology threaten us with the loss of our human dignity?

Looking at the video again, we see that these prosthetic technologies are ever more closely imitating and more closely integrating into the human body. Because of this fact, the idea of merging man and machine, to the point of being unable to distinguish man from machine, becomes tenable. From this idea naturally springs the question of whether man is a machine.

Those who hold that technology proves man is a machine and applaud and encourage the use of technology as shown in the Eyeborg documentary often call themselves technocrats. They defend their claim using known facts of human biology, modern technology and the history of technological development. With robotic prosthetics, they point to functioning non-biological limbs and organs replacing non-functioning or improperly functioning biological ones. With the brain-machine interface, they point to how we observe how the world is perceived through the biological and non-biological systems and these perceptions can be manipulated much like information is manipulated in a computer. Because the mind can be effected through the manipulation of the brain, technocrats claim that the mind is caused by the function of the brain.

At this point, the technocrat turns from the facts of human biology and modern technology to the history of technological development. The examination of this section of the argument will happen my next post.

The Proper Use of Technology: History

Throughout written history, primitive and technologically stagnant civilizations slavishly hold superstitious beliefs and practices while advanced and technologically dynamic civilizations cast aside such superstitions as irrational or unnecessary. When an advanced civilization meets a primitive civilization, conflict often arises, as the primitive civilization rejects the technologically enhanced knowledge of the advanced civilization as some false or disordered superstition. The Jesuits report a conflict of this kind in their relations written during the French Colonization of Canada between 1617 and 1791. Desiring to spread the Catholic faith and learn more about the American Indians, the Jesuits found themselves in direct conflict with the Indian medicine men during an outbreak of those European diseases to which the Indians were extremely susceptible. The medicine-men used lies and tricks to maintain or increase control over the tribe during these outbreaks and the Jesuits often stepped in to stop the ridiculous ceremonies in order to administer real treatment and prove the claims of the medicine-men false. In one account, a Jesuit tried to give orders for the treatment of an Indian child suffering from a fever.  The medicine-man who was present said, “That is very good for you people but, for us, it is thus that we cure our sick” and proceeded to beat a tambourine and blow all over the child’s body. The parents of the child, however, took into account the priest’s recommendations and, upon the child’s recovery, came and thanked him for his help Using more advanced medical treatments, the Jesuits discounted the superstitions on which the power and control of the medicine-men relied, weakening and embittering them. As seen in this account, technological advance led to the rejection of superstition. However, as superstitions fall by the wayside, an increasingly compelling current of thought forms that all things spiritual, including those which are truly moral and holy, are irrational and only that which can be corroborated through scientific experiment or computation is reasonable. This current of thought questions that very existence of man’s moral dignity which Joseph Ratzinger warns must be defended. Is Ratzinger right in his warning, or is he a medicine-man whom technology will eventually prove wrong?

In the next few blog posts, I will first examine recent technological advances and their possible consequences on the human person, then I will examine whether Ratzinger is a medicine-man who is behind the times or whether he is a prophet seeking to save man from enslaving himself to technology, and finally I will examine some of the consequences that follow from this conclusion.

The Proper Use of Technology: Prologue

This is the first post in a series concerning the proper use of technology and is meant to act as a threshing floor for my Bachelor of Arts thesis. I was inspired to write about this topic from a homily, given by Cardinal Ratzinger at Regensburg and published in the book “In the Beginning….”: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, concerning the Catholic understanding of the nature of man. In that homily, Benedict said “The fate of all of us depends on whether this moral dignity of the human person can be defended in the world of technology, with all its possibilities.” This statement has inspired me to explore how the dignity of the human person – that he is made in the image and likeness of God – could be defended in our age. Of course, the “world of technology”  is much too large to be properly covered in a Bachelor thesis, so I have decided to limit the scope strictly to electro-mechanical augmentations, such as prosthetic limbs, artificial eyes, and brain interfaces. (Yes, they all exist.)

In my next post, I plan on giving a little historical background as well as a little bit of the structure that my paper will be taking. Until next time!