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Modern Science & Modern Religion

Transcendence, Religious and Technological

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Nothing described thus far is ancient history because the legacy of religious science and technology remain with us. Today, the religious impulses underlying technological advancement take two general forms: using explicit religious doctrines, particularly Christianity, to explain why technology should be pursued and using religious imagery of transcendence and redemption removed from traditional religious doctrines but without their losing any motivating power.

An example of the first can be found in modern space exploration. The father of modern rocketry, Werner Von Braun, made use of Christian millennarianism to explain his desire to send humans into space. He wrote that the world was "turned upside down" when Jesus came to earth and that "the same thing can happen again today" by exploring space. Science did not conflict with his religion, but instead confirmed it: "In this reaching of the new millennium through faith in Jesus Christ, science can be a valuable tool rather than an impediment." The "millennium" he spoke of was the End Times.

This religious fervor was carried along by other leaders of America's space program. Jerry Klumas, once a veteran systems engineer at NASA, wrote that explicit Christianity was normal at the Johnson space center and that the increase in knowledge brought by the space program was a fulfillment of the aforementioned prophecy in Daniel.

All the first American astronauts were devout Protestants. It was common for them to engage in religious rituals or reveries when in space and they generally reported that the experience of space flight reaffirmed their religious faith. The first manned mission to the moon broadcast back a reading from Genesis. Even before astronauts stepped out onto the moon, Edwin Aldrin took communion in the capsule — this was the first liquid and first food eaten on the moon. He later recalled that he viewed the earth from a "physically transcendent" perspective and hoped that space exploration would cause people to be "awakened once again to the mythic dimensions of man."

 

Artificial Intelligence

The attempt to divorce thinking from the human mind represents another attempt to transcend the human condition. Early on, the reasons were more explicitly Christian. Descartes regarded the body as evidence of humanity's "fallenness" rather than divinity. Flesh stood opposed to reason and impeded the mind's pursuit of pure intellect. Under his influence, later attempts to create a "thinking machine" became attempts to separate immortal and transcendent "mind" from mortal and fallen flesh.

Edward Fredkin, an early apostle and researcher in AI, became convinced that its development was the only hope for prevailing over human limitations and insanity. According to him, it was possible to view the world as a "great computer" and he wanted to write a "global algorithm" which, if methodically executed, would lead to peace and harmony.

Marvin Minsky, who directed the AI program at MIT, regarded the human brain as nothing more than a "meat machine" and the body as a "bloody mess of organic matter." It was his hope to achieve something more and something greater — some means of transcending what his humanity was. Both brain and body were, in his opinion, easily replaceable by machines. When it comes to life, only the "mind" is really important and that was something he wanted to achieve by technology.

There are common desires among AI community members to use machines to transcend their own lives: download their "minds" into machines and perhaps live forever. Hans Moravec has written that intelligent machines would provide humanity with "personal immortality by mind transplant" and that this would be a "defense against the wanton loss of knowledge and function that is the worst aspect of personal death."

 

Cyberspace

I don't have the time or space to even begin to address the many religious themes behind nuclear weapons or genetic engineering - but I do need to spend some time on a technological development very relevant here: cyberspace and the internet. There is no question but that the progress of the internet into people's lives is having a profound effect upon human culture. Whether you are a technophile and welcome this or neo-luddite and oppose it, all agree that the old civilization is ending and something new is beginning. Many of the former regard this as a form of salvation while the latter see this as yet another Fall.

If you read the writings of many of the technophiles who work hardest to promote the use of cyberspace, you cannot help but to be struck by the obvious mysticism inherent in the experiences they are attempting to describe. Karen Armstrong has described the mystic's experience of communion as "a sense of unity of all things... the sense of absorption in a larger, ineffable reality." Although she had traditional religious systems in mind, it is worth remembering this description as we look at ostensibly non-religious statements from secular apostles of cyberspace.

John Brockman, digital publisher and author, has written "I am the Internet. I am the World Wide Web. I am information. I am content." Michael Heim, consultant and philosopher, has written: "Our fascination with computers... is more deeply spiritual than utilitarian. When on-line, we break free from bodily existence." We then emulate the "perspective of God", an all-at-oneness of "divine knowledge." Michael Benedikt writes "Reality is death. If only we could, we would wander the earth and never leave home; we would enjoy triumphs without risks and eat of the Tree and not be punished, consort daily with angels, enter heaven now and not die."

Once again, we find technology — the internet — being promoted as a means to transcendence. For some, this is a non-traditional religious transcendence of the body and material limitations in the ephemeral, ineffable realm known as "cyberspace". For others, it is an attempt to transcend our limitations and reacquire personal divinity.

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