kurzweil is an influential atheist? really? how?

January 18, 2011

Those of my readers who are lucky enough to deal with kids on a regular basis probably saw Despicable Me, and might remember how one of Gru’s little minions reacted to a child blaming it for making a mess. Well, that was my reaction when I saw that Ray Kurzweil was named one of the 25 most influential atheists alive by the editors of SuperScholar. Quite a few of their choices are very hard to dispute. Dawkins? I’m not a fan of how he’s been made out to be “the atheist messiah” in the media, but yes, he’s immensely influential. Harris, Hitchens, and PZ Myers? Yes, yes, and absolutely yes. But the Singularitarian prophet obsessed with finding the key to immortality in the digital realm and whose primary occupation today is trying to predict the tech world’s future, often incorrectly? Again, I refer you to the minion for my thoughts on the matter. I really would think that SuperScholar’s own description of the man would make them think twice about this idea.

Author, inventor, entrepreneur, and transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil sees technology as fulfilling all aspirations previously ascribed to religion, including immortality. He argues that computing will soon outstrip humans’ cognitive capacities, at which point humanity will upload itself onto a new, indestructible digital medium (an atheist version/vision of “resurrection”).

I’d like you to focus in on that whole machines fulfilling all religious aspirations thing. See any red flags? Hold on, let me help. Ray is substituting miracles and the afterlife for mysterious future technology and putting his faith on the idea that technology will exponentially advance until he transcends his flesh. He’s an atheist in the same sense as a polytheist would be to a monotheist or a dedicated UFOlogist would be a to an astronomer working at SETI. Far from doing away with religion, Ray simply adopted technology as his savior, so much so that prominent transhumanists are starting to politely cough and say that there are other people who should be getting more attention than Kurzweil and putting the smackdown on Kurzweil’s loyal disciples. And this is our 21st most influential atheist in the world? A man who expects miraculous technology to descend to him when he’s on his deathbed and grant him eternal life through the power of Moore’s Law? Are you kidding me or are the editors at SuperScholar unable to read all the religious metaphors and references they had to use in his two sentence bio to explain his worldview and what he advocates?

Honestly, Ray’s influence is in the tech world and even then, it only seems to appeal to Silicon Valley big shot financers and CEOs who are really good at talking a big game but are so woefully self-absorbed they seem unable to understand where computer science is actually going, thinking that the Next Big Thing will rotate around them. The only connection I’ve seen between Kurzweil and atheism was made by Craig James and it was made erroneously, since he basically used Ray’s techno-utopianism to fantasize about how religion will simply vanish when humans are immortal because it would have nothing to offer. SuperScholar seems to be committing the same mistake, thinking that just because someone isn’t mentioning a deity when predicting a whole lot of amazing things that suddenly makes him an atheist and that what makes him an influential one is a following he gathered from promising his followers how they too will one day enjoy eternal life thanks to the transformative power of technology. Today’s efforts in the kinds of radical life extension Kurzweil says are just a few steps away from mind uploading are much more likely to kill you than free you of your flesh but his fans still follow his techno-gospel because he’s basically promising them eternal life by 2045.

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  • Spock

    I’m far from being a Kurzweil worshiper. I’ve read two of his books and seen a few of his interviews. I don’t consider myself a “transhumanist”, but I am interested in the future of technology and science. Kurzweil doesn’t come across to me as a crazy messiah-type at all. Is he a little full of himself? Sure. But lots of other people who are confident in their opinions are as well. I don’t understand why so many atheists seem to use him as a scapegoat for anything they dislike about transhumanism.

    Are all of his predictions 100% accurate? No, of course not. But name any futurist who is always accurate.

    Are all of his predictions regarding transhumanism going to come true at midnight on Jan 1, 2045? No, of course not. And he says so himself. In his books and his interviews, he is the first one to state that his predictions are generalizations and it may take more (or less) time than he predicts for the things he’s talking about to happen.

    But one thing is certain: Many of the things he talks about *will* happen. It might take until the end of this century, or two hundred years, or five hundred years. But even going by the most conservative estimates, technology *will* advance to a point in the not-too-distant future where humans intelligence and technology will merge. It has already started. The only way this will not happen is if we destroy ourselves, or nature destroys us first.

  • Greg Fish

    “Are all of his predictions 100% accurate? No, of course not. But name any futurist who is always accurate.”

    According to Ray, he’s right some 95% of the time. Though if you check out the relevant link in the post, you’ll see that this generous estimate is based on reinterpreting many of his prediction after the fact and declaring himself correct in envisioning the future. I’d be hard pressed to find a futurist who’s actually dead on in his or her pronouncements but they’re usually not trying to build a business out of promising a roadmap to the tech utopia and giving keynote speeches about our coming immortality.

    “But one thing is certain: Many of the things he talks about *will* happen. It might take until the end of this century, or two hundred years, or five hundred years.”

    So his predictions don’t matter, all that matters is that he’s right at some point? So how do we know that mind uploading will be possible at some point in the future? How do we really know that machine and human intelligence will eventually merge, especially without some working definition of what this merge entails? What proof do we have that society won’t technologically regress at some point in the future? It’s not like this never happened in the history of civilization. Compare the Classical Age to the Dark Ages for one example of this sort of massive, continent-wide plunge in science and tech.

    And this is exactly what I mean. This belief that technology will create a better world and whisk us all to a higher plane of existence simply casts technology into the role usually reserved for a deity and takes it from there. Saying that you know it will happen is rather far from providing any evidence that this change is inevitable and what we see today is not necessarily a good indicator of what will happen tomorrow. Or do we need to start recalling all the failed futuristic schemes supposedly well ground in the advancements of the time during which they were made and which seemed inevitable when shown to the world, or would you like to take a look at… oh, every third issue of Popular Science?

  • Xerxes

    Greg, Perhaps that’s why primitive man originally created religion. He could see (even if only subconsciously) that the universe has been exponentially revealing itself in patterns of information of greater complexity and order since the beginning and that soon this evolutionary force would fundamentally change man. Maybe this understanding has colored religion all along.

    I don’t think Kurzweil discusses technology as being our savior (although we would be in the cold mud with bloody, raw meat) if weren’t for technology. Still, I think as we crack the universe wide open in the coming decades it will appear to our ancestors that we are in fact Gods.

  • RocketCy

    Speaking of Popular Science, I’m still waiting for my flying car. I won’t be disappointed again by Kurzweil or anybody else ;).

  • Tom Stickler

    I know little about Kurzweil, but I sang in the Phillips Church choir with Dan Dennett over 50 years ago. Didn’t seem to have caused too much harm, since both of us turned out to be atheists.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    This belief that technology will create a better world and whisk us all to a higher plane of existence simply casts technology into the role usually reserved for a deity and takes it from there.

    Pretty much the same thing that Karl Marx did with Historical Dialectics, only fuzzier.

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  • Darren Lowe

    Great post! I’m afraid I just discovered you, but I’m glad there are skeptics about Kurzweil and his predictions. How otherwise intelligent people can’t distinguish it from other unsubstantiated woo I’m not sure, but then I suppose it’s similar to a belief in UFOs and such as your article points out. (I’ve noticed a similar trend with Buddhism, but apparently that’s off limits to most skeptics.)