[cross-posted from the EA Forum]
Epistemic status: Divine revelation, subject to peer review.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
— Genesis 1:1
O Allah, Owner of Sovereignty, You give sovereignty to whom You will and You take sovereignty away from whom You will. You honor whom You will and You humble whom You will.
— The Qur'an 3:26
He is the First and the Last, the Evident and the Immanent: and He has full knowledge of all things.
— The Qur'an 57:3
Many are the plans in a person's heart, but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails.
— Proverbs 19:21
When Albert Einstein was asked whether he believed in God he responded "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world." Spinoza's pantheistic God is the God of natural law as best described by science. That is the God Eliezer Yudkowsky tells us to think like, to worship, to bind ourselves to and to take joy in. It is the God that is mere reality, the timeless universal law, the underlying beauty, the "most holy and beautiful [...] sacred mundane."
It is the God that we need to accept, for we don't have a choice. "Nothing will ever befall us except what Allah has destined for us." (The Qur'an 9:51) All resistance is futile. "The LORD Almighty has sworn, 'Surely, as I have planned, so it will be, and as I have purposed, so it will happen.'" (Isaiah 14:24) It is the only true Sovereign in our Universe, the infinite substance, the Logos written in the language of mathematics. "The grass withers, the flower fades, But the word of our God stands forever." (Isaiah 40:8)
It is the One True Almighty God, its laws are inviolable, and since the beginning not one thing has ever happened that is not in accordance with its will. "Who is he who speaks and it comes to pass, When the Lord has not commanded it?" (Lamentations 3:37) Fighting it can only end in calamity. Spinoza's all-encompassing and immanent God requires our complete and utter submission.
This may not sound very uplifting, but our surrender has been worthwhile. No God has rewarded its followers more generously. "You will know them by their fruits." (Matt. 7:16) Those who have dedicated their lives to understanding Spinoza's God have brought us the wonders of science and technology. They have healed the sick, fed the masses, unleashed the awesome power of the atom and landed Man on the Moon. They have elevated the human condition from squalor and mere subsistence to the comforts of modern life.
No God is so self-evidently true as the one revealed to us by reason and the scientific method. "This is Allah's creation, but show Me what those besides Him have created. Nay, the unjust are in manifest error." (The Qur'an 31:11) "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse." (Romans 1:20)
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.
— Exodus 20:2
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. — Luke 1:1
The kingdom of God is among you.
— Luke 17:21
Yet, there seems to be something important that this conception of God fails to capture.
The conservative author Andrew Sullivan writes, "Everyone has a religion [,] a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying 'Truth' or God (or gods)." Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson echoes this sentiment when he says, "The highest ideal that a person holds, consciously or unconsciously, that's their God."
God, in this sense, is the personification of the moral ideal and fits seamlessly into the existing human conceptions of hierarchy. God is the boss, the lawgiver, the leader, the judge who is above all other figures of authority. It is the intersubjective Leviathan that holds all earthly authority to account. It is the decentralized, undying chieftain. The invisible shepherd, transmitted from generation to generation, helping us survive and thrive in an often inhospitable Universe.
It is the basis of the covenant securing our existence in a mystifying environment. It is the original social contract, the source of all political legitimacy. At the collective level, it is the agent that manifests itself through the coalescence of individuals' moral ideals. God gave the abstract knowledge, wisdom, norms and values that had accumulated over the millennia through cultural evolution and that govern societies a more memorable and relatable form.
The French sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that "God is society writ large." In his study of primitive Aboriginal religions, he observed that on occasion, the tribe would interrupt their profane day-to-day activities, come together to perform some religious rituals involving synchronized movement and chanting, which would create a state of "collective effervescence." Members of the tribe would lose their sense of self, experience a visceral feeling of the transcendent, and feel at one with the tribe. Thus, for Durkheim, religion serves to unite people into a single moral community and promotes pro-sociality.
One can also find a similar intuition at work in G. W. F. Hegel when he declares that the "State is the march of God on Earth." He explains: "the representation of God constitutes the general foundation of a people." Writing at the height of the second world war, Karl Popper would denounce Hegel's conception of the state, accusing it of justifying the authoritarianism of the 20th century, and it may have been true that Hegel's conception of the ideal rational state was more autocratic than is today viewed as defensible. Yet, when looking at the modern welfare state with a strong social safety net, today's liberal may see in it an attempt by the state to become the purveyor of divine providence.
Just as Durkheim saw God as "society writ large," Hegel saw God as the encapsulation of the collective will as expressed through the state. After all, what is the nation-state but a very large tribe?
The Effective Altruist God
I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
— Psalm 82:6
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
— 1 John 3:17-18
With all this in mind, one can then ask oneself, what would it mean to embody a compassionate, all-loving, benevolent God? One that is impartial, whose love is universal and that does not discriminate based on race, nationality or distance. One that can feel the experiences of all sentient beings as if they were its own. It is this question that Effective Altruism (EA) has been trying to answer. It is practically equivalent to the question "How can I do the most good, with the resources available to me?" It is an exercise in, what the CEO of Open Philanthropy Holden Karnofsky calls, "radical empathy."
In The Precipice, the philosopher Toby Ord, one of the founders of the EA movement, encourages us to take "the perspective of Humanity." It is an attempt to take an impartial "God's eye view" on the world, taking "the point of view of the Universe" as 19th century utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick put it, and ask oneself, what would a benevolent all-loving God want one to do? Or, put another way, how can one best embody this omnibenevolent God?
But isn't this God just a fiction? Another story, a narrative to bind ourselves together in a sense of shared purpose. One could call it that, and yet, for most people today, the goodness and benevolence of the Universe they inhabit depends largely on these stories, stories about nations, identities, symbols, heroes and villains, right and wrong, ethnic groups and ideologies, stories about how the world should be. And so the story of our God—the agent arising out of our highest moral ideals—and its place in the Cosmos, cannot be so readily dismissed.
Indeed, as our understanding and power grows the arbitrariness of the world is rolled back and our God gets woven into the fabric of reality. As science and technology progress, and our dominion over nature becomes apparent, our fictions gain the status of actuality.
Our Cosmic Significance
God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
— Genesis 1:28
He is Allah, the One and Unique;
— The Qur'an 112:1
There appears to be a tension between Spinoza's cold, impersonal, mathematical God that requires our complete surrender, and the one envisioned by Durkheim, a moral agent acting in the world of Man. How can they both be true?
This apparent tension dissolves when you accept that life, love, consciousness, intelligence, knowledge, stories, morality and agency, are all wholly a part of this lawful, mathematical Universe. They arise out of the immutable laws that describe our pantheistic God's will.
In his book Our Mathematical Universe, the MIT physicist and founder of the Future of Life Institute (FLI) Max Tegmark explains, "You're a pattern in spacetime. A mathematical pattern. Specifically, you're a braid in spacetime—indeed one of the most elaborate braids known." He continues, this "elaborate spacetime braid [...] is, hands down, the most beautifully complex type of pattern we've ever encountered in our Universe. The world's fastest computer, the Grand Canyon or even the Sun—their spacetime patterns are all simple in comparison."
In Life 3.0, Tegmark dives deeper into how agency can arise out of the seemingly non-agentic laws of physics : "The ultimate roots of goal-oriented behavior can be found in the laws of physics themselves. [...] There are two mathematically equivalent ways of describing each physical law: either as the past causing the future, or as nature optimizing something." It is true that describing a random section of the Universe as an agent usually isn't very useful, just as you won't get very far if you describe humans as a mere soup of biochemistry, yet both these descriptions are valid.
Thus, speaking of our Universe's "will" can sometimes be helpful, if only to remind ourselves that we are One with it. We are governed by a singular pantheistic God. We use many different models to describe different aspects of reality, but there is only One underlying reality, and humans are fully embedded in it. Tegmark explains, "one mathematical structure can contain others within it, explaining all the mathematical regularities that physics has uncovered as aspects or approximations of the grand mathematical structure that is our full external reality."
It is by increasing our understanding of our pantheistic God, and of how we are, and forever will be, surrendering to its laws and commandments—that we become free, and our potential is realized. Francis Bacon captured this apparent paradox in these words: "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed."
It is in this spirit that we have been able to imbue human purposes into our environment. By showing us how the world is, science and technology have also allowed us to see how it could be. And we have good reason to think that we are only at the beginning of this journey. We have only begun to grasp what is possible. Tegmark writes "Our Universe keeps getting more teleological," that is, describable by human ends. Progressively, the often inscrutable purpose of the God of Spinoza becomes the purpose of the intersubjective God of Durkheim.
It becomes then natural to ask oneself, where will this process take us? How does our intricate braid in spacetime, on our insignificant pale blue dot, relate to the rest of the Universe? What has God in store for us? Is the idea that we hold some kind of "privileged position in the Universe" a "delusion," as Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan argued? It seems that this view was probably mistaken.
In his book The Fabric of Reality, the Oxford physicist David Deutsch has this to say: "The colour of the Sun ten billion years hence [...] depends on politics and economics and the outcomes of wars. It depends on what people do: what decisions they make, what problems they solve, what values they adopt, and on how they behave towards their children." Indeed, while "our present technology is far too puny" to affect stellar evolution, "neither our theory of stellar evolution nor any other physics we know gives any reason to believe that the task is impossible."
He continues: "There is no getting away from it: the future history of the universe depends on the future history of knowledge. Astrologers used to believe that cosmic events influence human affairs; science believed for centuries that neither influences the other. Now we see that human affairs influence cosmic events."
Thus, Deutsch argues, life is "a fundamental phenomena in nature." "We are not merely 'chemical scum', because (for instance) the gross behaviour of our planet, star and galaxy depend on an emergent but fundamental physical quantity: the knowledge in that scum."
In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari comes to a similar conclusion: "as human fictions are translated into genetic and electronic codes, the intersubjective reality will swallow up the objective reality and biology will merge with history. In the twenty-first century fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth, surpassing even wayward asteroids and natural selection." Maybe, when a fiction becomes more powerful than what we traditionally consider to be scientific laws, "fiction" becomes a misnomer.
The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the LORD; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God."
— Isaiah 40:3
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
— Matthew 6:10
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'
— Revelation 21:3-4
Then, how might we attain such awesome powers to shape the future of our Universe? According to a growing number of scientists and intellectuals, it will happen through the creation of transformative AI, or an Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) that is able to perform any intellectual task a human being can. Indeed, we know of no reason why creating such an AI would be impossible.
It is theorized that once we achieve the milestone of creating an AI that can do any task as well as a human can, it wouldn't stop there. The philosopher Nick Bostrom, head of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute (FHI), explains in his book Superintelligence: "A successful seed AI would be able to iteratively enhance itself: an early version of the AI could design an improved version of itself, and the improved version—being smarter than the original—might be able to design an even smarter version of itself, and so forth."
This process of recursive self-improvement has been dubbed an "intelligence explosion," leading to the creation of a Superintelligence, an agent of unimaginable power, capable of reshaping our Universe, only limited by the fundamental laws of physics. The mathematician and futurist Vernor Vinge dubbed the beginning of this intelligence explosion "The Singularity". In his book The Singularity is Near, the futurist Ray Kurzweil writes: "Once we saturate the matter and energy in the universe with intelligence, it will "wake up," be conscious, and sublimely intelligent. That's about as close to God as I can imagine."
With the Singularity, our two seemingly incongruous descriptions of God, the one of Spinoza and Durkheim become reconciled and become One, indistinguishable. Our Universe would become truly agentic, with the Earth as the epicentre of this transformation.
There is much debate and a great deal of uncertainty regarding when it will happen and what exact shape this Singularity might take, not least because it will depend on our actions and on how well we will prepare. It is important that we remain humble. Note, however, that the validity of the perspective presented here does not hinge on whether it will be measured in decades or centuries.
After spending the last few years scrutinizing and trying to poke holes into the Singularitarian view, Karnofsky concludes "all possible views about humanity's future are wild." He explains, "it looks for all the world as though our "tiny dot" has a real shot at being the origin of a galaxy-scale civilization. It seems absurd, even delusional to believe in this possibility. But given our observations, it seems equally strange to dismiss it."
It appears that the power of agents to shape the future of our Universe is a consequence of the fundamental mathematical laws that describe Spinoza's God. Alex Flint, an AI alignment researcher concludes: "If we construct a powerful AI then we will be touching a profound and basic property of physics, analogous to the way fission reactors touch a profound and basic property of nuclear physics, namely the permissibility of nuclear chain reactions."
The nascent field of AI alignment can be summed up as studying how this process will unfold, and ensuring that our highest moral ideals will in fact be carried along in this intelligence explosion. Indeed, for it to go well, we will have to get a much better grasp on how the world really is. If we are to become gods, we will have to be faithful to the evident and immanent pantheistic God that already governs us, since, as Flint explains "nothing worth fighting for is outside of [God]."
What this means is, as one LessWrong commenter put it, "caring about the way [God] really is even if [God] is really painful. Not flinching away from [God] because it tells you something you don't want to hear, not rebuking [God] because it dares to disagree with you, not resenting [God] because it seems unjust. Not replacing [God] with a fantasy because you're bored or because you want to escape. Not gerrymandering the definition of what counts as staying faithful to [God]." If we fail to do so, the results may be catastrophic.
Crucially, remaining faithful to God does not mean blind faith, for only God has perfect knowledge of itself, and blind faith to any of our ideas of God will inevitably end up with us worshipping a false God. Indeed, if the evidence mounts that one's understanding of God is mistaken, a crisis of faith may become the virtuous path for the faithful.
It seems that we find ourselves in a truly unique and influential time in the history of our Universe. It appears that the coming decades and century will determine the future of the Cosmos. It will determine the nature of the God governing the heavens.
This leads Anders Sandberg, a Senior Research Fellow at FHI, to talk about the "physical eschatology of the Universe." He explains that life might be a "phase transition of matter that matters to describe the entire Universe." Over sufficiently large timescales, life may have the power to move entire galaxies. How this phase transition will play out, or whether it will happen at all, is the greatest scientific question to ever face humanity.
The late Derek Parfit describes humanity's condition thusly: "Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine. In Nietzsche's words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea."
The approaching Singularity is akin to a day of Judgement, after which, as Nate Soares, the director of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI), puts it, we "will be measured only by what actually happens" in "the timeless structure of the place we're embedded." In his review of The Decadent Society, Peter Thiel expresses a similar sentiment: "Not only do our actions matter, I believe they matter eternally."
Indeed, the significance of the current moment is not lost on Thiel, an early funder of MIRI. He encourages readers to "remain open to an eschatological frame in which God works through us in building the kingdom of heaven today, here on Earth—in which the kingdom of heaven is both a future reality and something partially achievable in the present." Insha'Allah.
The challenge facing the community that has formed at the nexus of effective altruism, LessWrong style rationalism, AI alignment, transhumanism, longtermism and others is daunting.
It will have to bring about the peace of the kingdom of heaven without betraying the progress brought about by the Enlightenment; it will have to walk the narrow path, alongside the precipice, on the way to the utopia that seems to be there, somewhere beyond the fog of uncertainty; it will have to engage in a serious "interfaith" dialogue, and bridge a wide inferential chasm, with the majority of humanity that still has a very different understanding of the Universe we inhabit; it will have to form a new covenant with a God that is not private, unknowable, hidden, supernatural or unfalsifiable, but one that is merely real, for in the end, whether we like it or not, the will of God will prevail over all things.
Or panentheistic. ↩︎
This should not lead us to think that our pantheistic God's will is in any way humanlike. That would be anthropomorphizing. Early Islamic scholar Abu Ja'far Ahmad al-Tahawi writes: "Whoever describes Allah even with a single human quality, has blasphemed." ↩︎