April 13 2012

Star Trek, Religion, and Apocalyptic AI

By The Philosophy Channel Editorial Staff

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Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the Stars,” aka Star Trek, explored many paths in its various incarnations over the years. One theme touched upon on occasion was the belief system or practices of the alien societies encountered on the celestial trail. The approach taken by the crew in such situations was generally one of respect, coupled to a certain anthropological distance and analytical stance – think political correctness, albeit in a tight-fitting uniform.

Now, my knowledge of Star Trek is hardly encyclopedic, however, it does seem that they rarely, if ever, explicitly addressed the detailed beliefs (or non-beliefs) of the human crew members. So, what might our descendants in the 23rd, 24th, or 25th centuries actually believe in?

Star Trek, a harbinger of much future-tech increasingly made manifest in our day, remains largely mute on the subject. Does it seem reasonable to assume that the major religious traditions on the scene today will also command broad adherence a few centuries hence?

Well, looking back at the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, one finds that, despite the enormously disruptive changes occasioned by the scientific and industrial revolutions, belief in the principal monotheistic faiths remained strong, though undoubtedly shaken a bit, among the vast majority of people inhabiting the socio-geographical boundaries of those respective faiths.

Looking ahead then a few centuries, through a period largely unpredictable except for the near-certainty of major technological change, one could be forgiven for expecting little recalibration in the realm of core, personal transcendental beliefs. (For the purposes of this present discussion, I’ll be setting aside the particular long-term prospects accompanying the rise of the ”New Atheism,” currently enlivening our cultural scene.) 

But, then again… in Robert M. Geraci’s Apocalyptic AI, Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality, we may see glimmers of what the world of the future may presage for our belief systems. Geraci’s book is not focused on the contours of possible distant theological influences and constructs, but it does offer a framework that hints at where notions of transcendence may be heading. Apocalyptic AI (Artificial Intelligence), in a nutshell, sees a future (possibly, this century) in which we will be able to shed our bodies and “upload our minds into machines and live forever in a virtual paradise.” Though it is uncertain to what degree such views will impact the core beliefs of our traditional faiths, is it possible that accelerating technological change - coupled to the permeability of our popular culture to the themes engaged by Apocalyptic AI – will, this time around, have sufficient influence to measurably alter and, perhaps, decisively redirect notions of belief in the coming centuries?

“Intelligent robots, as portrayed in Apocalyptic AI, matter in contemporary society. They matter to the researchers who benefit from public appreciation. They matter to the communities in virtual reality that might one day include most if not all of humanity. They matter in public policy. Speaking about robots allows us to circulate within these different groups, understanding how both science and religion constitute much of our social cohesion. The integration of religion and science in Apocalyptic AI reflects many of our traditionally religious concerns while at the same time recasting those concerns with a technoscientific aura,” says Geraci.

And further: “Apocalyptic AI is a powerful reconciliation of religion and science. The sacred categories of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic traditions have thoroughly penetrated the futuristic musings of important researchers in robotics and artificial intelligence. These categories have serious political effects in robotics research, virtual reality/online gaming, and contemporary disputes over the nature of consciousness and personhood, public policy, and theology [and, dare I say, philosophy] (all of which subsequently drive Apocalyptic AI deep into legal and social concerns). Robots, as portrayed in Apocalyptic AI, link these disparate elements of society. To study intelligent robots is to study our culture.” 

There is much here and in the larger themes Geraci (and others) explore that TPC editors and guests will discuss in future postings and related content. No doubt, such musings may seem far removed from the meaningful hustle and bustle of our daily lives to some. Not to us. And not to you, we suspect.       

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