Notes on Out of the Silent Planet – Scientism and the Tower of Babel

Scientism and the Tower of Babel: Scientism is a term that refers to the belief that scientific knowledge and application will perfect our lives, and further that belief drives us to pursue scientific advances no matter the cost. (One who practices science is called a scientist. One who practices scientism is also called a scientist. Regrettable.) Futurology (often referred to as futurism which is an artistic movement) is not unlike scientism. Futurists are the more forward thinking scientists, the true believers. Futurology aims at predicting and anticipating the future based on current trends and, more often than not, working toward, or at least cheering for, the predicted future.

Both of these are alive and well. One of my favorite economists, FA Hayek, has been considered an adherent of scientism. He believed if we got our economics worked out, our society would necessarily become its best. Noted futurist Ray Kurzweil anticipates a “technological singularity,” a point in time brought on by the advancement of technology and the effects beyond and because of which, we (on this side of the singularity) are blind to. Singularity is a term used to describe a black hole in space; it is an event horizon. Nothing, not even light, can escape the black hole’s pull. So we are powerless to observe what is within or beyond it. Likewise the technological singularity will be so earth-shattering in its effects, we don’t have a clue as to what life on the other side might look like.

Futurists of this “bent” believe:

  • that computerized or machine artificial intelligence will eventually become powerful enough to begin to improve itself
  • that machine-human interaction will become seamless with hardware plugging straight into our central nervous systems
  • that nanobots will enter our bodies to fight disease and perfect our biology

After this things will really get crazy. Artificial intelligence will begin exploring the universe, bound only by the speed of light, and maybe not even that. Once intelligence grows to that level, we may even be able to break that speed and spread our intelligence throughout the universe.

He writes in The Singularity is Near: “Ultimately the entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence. This is the destiny of the universe… We will determine our own fate… The length of time it will take the universe to become intelligent to this extent depends on whether or not eh speed of light is an immutable limit.” (Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near, p 29). Huge dreams indeed.

These ideas are not that much different than Weston’s plans in OOTSP. He planned to use technology to take over Malacandra first, on his (or humanity’s) way to the stars. He desired for humanity to always grow, conquer, destroy and triumph. Humanity would become greater and greater and fill as much of the universe as was needed.

I have to wonder if these futurists have ever read a story about a mad scientist who plans on immortality (Kurzweil is shooting for some form of this) and world domination. The Christian Worldview is not silent on this philosophy. The Genesis account of the Tower of Babel describes an early attempt of the futurists to make a name for themselves, lest they be dispersed. They wanted to make themselves great, to build a tower into the heavens, in an effort to be equal with God, to have renown on the earth. It was their destiny. They weren’t dreaming of traveling to the stars yet, but they wanted the deities of the star to know their greatness.

They saw their society as supreme and desired for it to grow and fill the heavens. When futurists speak of our collective intelligence, they mean something along the lines of all that we are as a people, as a society, collectively: the universe will be filled with “our intelligence” as we expand. They are no longer concerned with merely biological humans, but with our collecting machine-enhanced technology.

God had an answer to Babel. Lewis proposes an answer to the same arrogant spirit in OOTSP. I can’t help but think there is a link. I also expect a similar crushing defeat to the modern futurists, though I have no idea what that will look like. Maybe nanobots just won’t work. Maybe the human-computer interaction just won’t be so seamless. Maybe AI just won’t be able to maintain the exponential growth we’ve seen from from computer science over the past hundred or so years. Or there may be something far more dramatic. The science fiction television show Revolution was interesting (Youtube link). Electronic technology just stopped one day. I admit I didn’t watch much of the series. It seemed that when electricity died, so did all forms of human compassion. Once upon a time, God confounded our languages, and He will do what he wants to do in order to glorify his name and humble his creations.

In Lewis’ day the scientism-ists were concerned with eugenics, economics, nuclear power, city-planning and birth control. Now its the fusion of biological and machine intelligence in an effort to “march on, step by step, superseding, where necessary, the lower forms of life that we find, claiming planet after planet, system after system, till our posterity – whatever strange form and yet unguessed mentality they have assumed – dwell in the universe wherever the universe is habitable” (Lewis, OOTSP, p 136).

And Oyarsa wonders aloud of man, “Are your fellow-creatures hurt in their brains, Ransom of Thulcandra?”

I think he may be onto something.

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