Culture At Large

The rapture of the nerds

Andy Rau

It's rare that I have a chance to expose my truly geeky interests here on TC, so when something semi-relevant crosses my RSS reader (like the old Klingon version of the Bible chestnut), you'll have to forgive me for indulging. So file this under strange but interesting:

If you read a lot of science fiction, you may have come across the concept of the Singularity, a hypothesized point in the future when computers become smarter than humans, and continue to grow smarter at an exponential rate until it becomes impossible to even guess at or comprehend what the world would be like. It's got some links to transhumanism and other sort-of-scientific ideas about where humanity might be headed, existentially speaking.

Well, in an article at IEEE.org, John Horgan has a lengthy (and technobabble-filled) article about the Singularity... and he points out its suspicious resemblance to a certain evangelical belief about the end of the world. Specifically, he sees it as a scientific version of the Rapture:

Let's face it. The singularity is a religious rather than a scientific vision. The science-fiction writer Ken MacLeod has dubbed it “the rapture for nerds,” an allusion to the end-time, when Jesus whisks the faithful to heaven and leaves us sinners behind.

Such yearning for transcendence, whether spiritual or technological, is all too understandable. Both as individuals and as a species, we face deadly serious problems, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, overpopulation, poverty, famine, environmental degradation, climate change, resource depletion, and AIDS. Engineers and scientists should be helping us face the world's problems and find solutions to them, rather than indulging in escapist, pseudoscientific fantasies like the singularity.

Ross Douthat has some good comments. I don't have much of an opinion about the plausibility of the Singularity or a transhuman future, but two things struck me as amusing about this: first, it's just interesting that out of a largely mechanistic (maybe even atheist) worldview has emerged an idea with clear religious overtones, and specifically Christian-sounding ones at that. And second, Horgan is leveling the same criticism against Singularity-yearners that I've seen leveled against Rapture-obsessed Christians: stop thinking so hard about the next world and try to do some good in this one.

Like I said: no overarching theological point here; just something a little off-the-beaten-path to think about.

(Bonus reading: The Techno-Sapiens Are Coming over at Christianity Today.)

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, News & Politics, Social Trends