On Exodus At Exodus: A Fresh Perspective on the Singularity from Mitchell Heisman
by Nikki Olson
Today there exists few extensive, scholarly, 'liberal arts' publications discussing historical and religious aspects of the coming Singularity.
Mitchell Heisman, a young man who committed suicide on the steps of Harvard Memorial Church Saturday September 18, 2010, left behind just this: a research paper of 1905 pages, 1,433 footnotes and a 20-page bibliography, some 500 pages of which provide a socio-biological theory regarding the 'roots' of the Singularity. He entitled this paper "Suicide Note", and it is available for free here.
The work covers a lot of ground and gets varied reviews. It has been remarked upon favorably for its originality, breadth, and bravery. However, having taken a 'modernist' approach in analysis, dichotomous paradigms and binary relationships run wild, to an extent many scholars would regard as fatal. Not to mention, Heisman is just plain wrong in some of his assertions regarding Hebrew language and Jewish ritual, and on several occasions throughout, complex social phenomenon are grossly oversimplified. Despite its shortcomings, Heisman's work is thought to have intellectual merit and is often praised. University Press writer Robert Lutener for instance refers to it as "a masterpiece of modern philosophy and a brilliant application of socio-biological theory to politics". The work is well researched, and Heisman himself was clearly a genius. Given the complexity and uniqueness of the research, his ideas regarding the roots of the Singularity are certainly worth considering.
The Singularity, for Heisman, represents many things, one of which being a marker of "biology mastered by technology".
He takes a strict evolutionary psychology approach in his understanding of human behavior. Biological instincts of today, he thinks, are in accordance with what optimized the survival of primate ancestors. This is a viewpoint characteristic of many technology futurists. Ray Kurzweil, for instance, argues that much of our psychology is (still) based upon what enabled survival on 'the Savanna'.
Heisman's central, and perhaps most unique insight regarding the Singularity lies in his connecting the roots of the Singularity with the Exodus, arguing that "the Exodus paradigm contains the kernel of a larger paradigm shift in human evolutionary history" that "may culminate in the technological singularity".
He argues that prior to the Exodus, polytheistic and aristocratic philosophy placed human intellectual evolution in a holding pattern. Ancient Egyptians, he thinks, prioritized 'primitive', 'biologically oriented' traits in humans, idealizing that which enhanced the prosperity of man in pre-civilized times, and benefited a certain race at the expense of another. In line with Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals, Heisman believes the Exodus and the advent of monotheistic doctrine inverted the Egyptian value system, devaluing the importance of the 'biological', and labeling that which the Egyptians considered 'good' as 'evil'.
The Jews, argues Heisman, by inverting the moral code, and turning the social structure of Egyptian rule on its head, broke out of the grip of the 'eternal return' philosophy that had permeated all aspects of civilization. By re-conceptualizing 'evil' as action in accordance with "instinct," and promoting ideals of a more egalitarian nature, the Jews were able to begin transcending the limitations that prehistoric biology puts on man, and set in motion the project of 'overcoming biology'. We will continue to transcend biology until we have 'overcome' it completely, he thinks, at which point we enter a 'postbiological' state. Ultimately, 'postbiology' will entail 'mind uploading', and existing on non-biological substrates.
Heisman quotes Ray Kurzweil (from the film 'Transcendent Man') on the matter of whether or not God exists. Ray answers "not yet". Heisman agrees. The Singularity, in Heisman?s case, entails the coming of 'God-like' entities in the form of advanced AI. Heisman believes that religion and God are social construction and nothing more, but that advanced AI will resemble God as conceptualized by monotheistic tradition.
In addition, aspects of 'The Book of Revelation' could be read as a primitive description of the Singularity. He argues; "there is reason to think that the Singularity is the end of the human era that has been anticipated by the great monotheistic religions". The phrase 'overcoming our biology' he thinks, given the postbiological future we face, ought to be taken more literally to mean the end of the human species in its biological form.
I would point out that making analogies between the Singularity and religious theology is far from innovative, despite how counter-intuitive it might seem. Not only are analogies between the two entertained in science fiction literature, but the Singularity is often described by critics as 'the rapture for Geeks' for the resemblance it bares to fundamentalist Christian prophecy of the Southern U.S. Furthermore, some religious sects have already adopted aspects of the Singularity into their own theology.
There is much room to debate with Heisman on these matters. To his credit, he does attempt to cover all angles of sociobiology as applied to the Singularity in the paper, even if with broad strokes at times.
Heisman's writing on the Singularity if nothing else raises some interesting questions, and is something we would find value in pursuing in greater depth. Matt Swayne raised some similar questions in his recent blog 'Singularities Happen'. Most discourse on the Singularity thus far has been empirical or predictive. Heisman's paper changes the landscape in this regard and adds extra dimensions to the debate.