Science Fiction, Naturalism, and the Singularity
Posted by Mark Hamilton
I love science fiction.
Though I haven’t read all that much of it recently.
The problem, I think, is that as I have grown older I have learned too much philosophy and metaphysics to really sit down and enjoy a meaty piece of speculative fiction. To be more accurate, I’ve learned too much of the wrong philosophy. Almost every really serious and thoughtful piece of science fiction I’ve read is heavily based in a naturalistic metaphysic, which is something I reject. This difference of opinion is particularly noticeable when it comes to science fiction opposed to other genres. In many ways metaphysics and philosophy is about models of reality, and different models will predict different things about the future.
For example, your average naturalistic model says that man is a kind of very, very complicated machine. Using that aspect of the model we can predict that someday we will build machines that are as sentient as ourselves. The naturalistic model also holds that the complexity of our bodies and brains is solely based in the natural process of evolution. If this is true then we can also predict that it is very likely that someday the sentient machines that we build will be superior to ourselves. This leads us to the whole concept of the “singularity,” the point at which computers will be smarter than humans and will be capable of designing even smarter computers which design even smarter computers and so on and so on for the foreseeable future. Once this singularity has been reached almost anything will be possible.
Of course it all depends on a purely naturalistic metaphysic.
If you’re like myself then you do not believe that the human mind is the product of a complicated machine. Though I do not fully understand what the mind is I understand enough to have confidence that it is not merely a machine. A machine is incapable of producing free will or reason, for example, and I have far more confidence in the existence of free will and reason than I have in the statement “the mind is what the brain does.” If we take this metaphysical position as our starting point the future looks very different. Computers may increase in processing power by wide margins but they will never be capable of reason or intelligence. Though some programs may be able to mimic human behavior they will only be able to do so by following the instructions of human programmers. Computers will never reach the lowest levels of actual intelligence; much less become our intellectual superiors. They will remain what they are: powerful processing tools. The computer on your desk is the equivalent of an army of accountants working at incredible speed, able to complete complex calculations and follow the commands of the most byzantine flowcharts imaginable, with only one major difference: an army of human accountants can think, while the computer can only obey. It is imaginable that an accountant working in a sea of other accountants could have an idea about a better way to solve the problem at hand than the instructions they’ve been given. The accountant might be completely wrong, of course, but a computer can never be wrong for the same reason that a computer can never be right. It doesn’t even have the capability to make an error without a human accidentally programming that error into it. How can a computer ever become a genius if it is not even capable of becoming stupid?
The only reason to believe that a computer could ever become intelligent is if you begin with the idea that the human mind is the result of a computer. Surely computers will produce intelligence if we can only make them complicated enough! It is a statement taken on faith, and faith alone. The computers we have now are as incapable of intelligence as a pencil and a piece of paper. It is only philosophy that makes them appear to be something more.
And that’s part of the reason why I have trouble getting into hard science fiction these days. The authors take so many things for granted that I simply don’t find plausible. It’s not like a fantasy either, where you can put your preconceptions away. J.K. Rowling does not expect us to believe that there is an actual hidden society of witches and wizards living in Britain, and thus we can enjoy Harry Potter; but the writers of many science fiction works do expect us to believe that the mind is actually a computer. No wonder I find one delightful and the other slightly insufferable.