Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Singularity and Analogous Arguments

There's an excellent post by Annalee Newitz at io9 about exactly that. If you don't know what the Singularity is, I'm not even linking to it so you don't waste your time. Essentially, it's the geek Rapture, when artificial intelligence finally outstrips human intelligence, which event will result according to some in an era of unprecedented happiness and prosperity. (If you're raising your eyebrows at that you're in good company.) If you're already familiar with the whole Singularity subculture, check out my geek-blog which contains posts about the Singularity, the main themes being that a) it's a goofy idea, b) if it could happen, we shouldn't be happy about it.

What's interesting about Newitz's argument is that it's an argument by analogy. Frequently philosophical debates are very dry and hard to follow (although if you want to make sure your're right, the dry and hard-to-follow logic is the way to go.) But extra-argumental evidence, for want of a better term, is a decent way to assign likelihoods to positions. One example would be using the fact that a claimant has frequently been wrong in the past, or has a strong finance- or status-related interest in the outcome of an debate, to weight the likelihood that they are sincere and correct. Another is to see how closely the current argument tracks to previous arguments that are structured similarly. In this case, Newitz observes, "I am always suspicious of predictions that sound like religious myths." Me too!

Of course, the Singularity will turn out to be a meaningful concept or not, independent of its apparent similarities to End Times-sorts of narratives, and to Singulatarians, such an argument-by-analogy doesn't hold water. Newitz's plan here seems to be to shock Singulatarians by comparing them to theists. The point for atheists is that the same approach works with theists. That is, find a Christian, establish that you have in common the belief that Islam is goofy, and then go through the exercise: if I were Mohammed and I wanted to make up a religion, what would I have to include in it? Rewards for loyalty, check; rewards given in "next life" so no money need be spent, check; punishment in next life for defection, check; real punishment in this life for defection, check; claims of special access to the truth through scripture which was in turn given to the first leader by direct contact with a deity, check; etc. Isn't it interesting, when you view the "argument" for Islam in the abstract, how closely it tracks Christianity?

This is different than directly attacking the reality of resurrection or the internal contradictions in the Bible in that it's indirect. When you argue by analogy, the shields go up slower and later.

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