The greatest challenge to traditional religion is waiting in the wings, as science and new technologies are converging that offer “humans extended lives within information systems, robots, or genetically engineered biological organisms,” according to the Futurist magazine (March/April). A convergence of cognitive science with information technology “already threatens traditional beliefs that are the heart of religion, notably a need for God to save souls,” writes sociologist William Sims Bainbridge. As cognitive science explains the personality in terms of brain functions rather than the soul, new technologies are being created that allow people to “archive their memories, experiences and thoughts by means of computers…Eventually it will be possible to assemble various components into comprehensive systems, essentially creating an artificial intelligence cyberimmortality,” he adds.
Recently, “a small but influential network of scientists, engineers, and scholars have coalesced with the aim of promoting technological convergence.” The convergenists’ agenda is to improve human performance without limit, but “many of the technological spinoffs would be useful for recording, preserving, and reanimating human personalities, ultimately creating cyberimmortality,” Bainbridge adds. The growing phenomenon of memorial web sites that provide digitized video clips of the deceased may be a precursor to the archiving of personalities. Bainbridge doesn’t believe this is a futuristic scenario, as an artificial intelligence breakthrough could take place within a few years, and, in the process, trigger a “harsh reaction from religion.” The reaction will be strongest among poor believers who do not have access to such technology, perhaps repressing cyberimmortality groups and forcing them underground, Bainbridge speculates.
Bainbridge’s forecasts are commonly found in trans-humanism, a movement that comes under special scrutiny in the Lutheran theology journal Dialog (Winter). Transhumanists believe that humanity will be complimented and eventually perfected through its integration with computer technology. Such trans-humanist theorists as Ray Kurzweil hold that as we insinuate ourselves in our computational technology, our “software and hence our immortality will no longer be dependent on the survival of our body.” Theologian Ted Peters writes that these and other artificial intelligence forecasts have rarely panned out. He cites a study by Noreen Herzfeld on AI achievements since the 1950s showing that goals have not been reached even now in the early 21st century. Despite enormous progress in computer development, current research in neuroscience suggests that the “workings of the brain are far more complicated than was initially supposed and may not be capturable in neural net technology as we currently conceive it.”
But Peters does see cognitive science as posing more of a challenge to traditional religion. The view that the soul is immortal and is related to human reasoning may well be a casualty of neuroscience that draws a close connection between brain functions and personality. But he adds that Christian theologians have increasingly forsaken what he calls “substance dualism” and emphasize the transformation of the whole person through God’s act of future resurrection.
(Futurist, 7910 Woodmont Ave., Ste. 450, Bathesda, MD 20814; Dialog, Blackwell Publishing Inc 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148)