Are We Headed for an AI Apocalypse?

It’s a staple of science fiction. 2001: A Space Odyssey; The Terminator; The Matrix; I, Robot. The plot: Humans create machines with artificial intelligence (AI). The machines become conscious. The machines turn on their human creators and kill or enslave them.

Popular movies and novels commonly reflect the hopes and fears of present-day society, even if they’re set in the distant past or future. And the fear of AI taking over the world is a very real one for some very smart people. Famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking issued an ominous warning that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Technological entrepreneur Elon Musk joined the chorus of fear, saying, “Mark my words: A.I. is far more dangerous than nukes.”

Others disagree. Computer scientist Michael Littman wrote an op-ed piece arguing that “the ‘rise of machines’ is not a likely future.” Computer Science professor Subhash Kak agrees in his recent article, “Why a computer will never be truly conscious.” Neuroscientist Anthony Zador and computer scientist Yann LeCun argue that since AI didn’t need to evolve in a competitive environment as humans did, it didn’t develop the survival instinct that leads to a desire to dominate others (see: “Don’t Fear the Terminator”). Besides, LeCun argues elsewhere, “One would have to be unbelievably stupid to build open-ended objectives in a super-intelligent (and super-powerful) machine without some safeguard terms in the objective.”

And so the debate continues.

Personally, I’m with the optimists. Yes, I enjoy an exciting apocalyptic sci-fi flick of the humans vs. robots variety. But in the real world, I don’t think machines will ever develop consciousness and enslave or exterminate humanity. Aside from the inherent scientific limitations of electromechanical devices, and the supreme stupidity of designing machines without safeguards, robots do not have a soul—and I don’t believe they ever will.

Why would we create our own destroyer?

About that supreme stupidity: I know, I know, we’ve created enough nuclear bombs to destroy humanity several times over. And that really is stupid.

But we humans still have to press the button. We have not given our nukes the ability to decide for themselves whether to destroy humanity. And we would have no motive to do so.

You see, we humans don’t just randomly and aimlessly do things, even if it may sometimes appear that way from the outside. No, we must have a motive. When we create fearsome weapons, we are motivated by the aforementioned survival instinct, and more negatively, by a desire for wealth and power. It would make no sense whatsoever for us to develop the technological means to ensure our survival, or to acquire the wealth and power we desire, and then let go of our control of that technology.

Even “evil corporations” have no motivation to create something that would ultimately threaten the wealth and power, indeed the very lives, of the people who own and run the corporation. They will build in controls on any technology they develop so that it will not do things it wasn’t designed to do. And if an error in the programming or design of the machines causes them to malfunction and negatively affect the corporations’ profits, they will correct those errors as quickly as possible.

Oh, and about those “evil corporations,” companies are slaves to their customers. Any business that does not provide what people want, when they want it, how they want it, at a price they’re willing to pay, will soon go bankrupt. If, for example, the masses of people stopped using cars, airplanes, and other machines that require fossil fuels, the massive power of Big Oil would quickly evaporate. If you want to know why many companies do things that harm the environment and the world, look in the mirror.

To sum up, unlike machines, we humans must have a motive to do something. And given that our survival instinct is one of our fundamental motives, and the desire for wealth and power are close behind when we are in our natural, spiritually undeveloped state, we have every motivation to make sure that we do not create machines that have the capability of taking our wealth, our power, and our lives from us. We have every motivation to maintain control of the machines we create, especially if we design and build fantastically powerful machines.

What is consciousness?

Behind the idea that the machines might become conscious and take over the world is the idea that consciousness is a function of the brain, and that if we simply build a sufficiently complex computer, consciousness will naturally emerge, just as it did when biological evolution advanced far enough to produce a brain.

However, science is nowhere near even understanding what consciousness is, let alone being able to show that it is a function of the brain. Yes, we can show correlation between activity in various parts of the brain and human thoughts and emotions. But that doesn’t mean that the brain produces consciousness any more than turning on the TV and watching a baseball game means that the television set produces the baseball game. Correlation does not imply causation. The “mind-body problem” goes back as far as human thought, and it is still hotly debated today.

Most scientists and philosophers admit that consciousness remains a mystery. In fact, science cannot even objectively demonstrate that consciousness exists. As the “philosophical zombie” argument shows effectively enough, scientific measurements cannot distinguish between a being that has consciousness and a being that only acts as if it has consciousness. The only way we know for sure that consciousness does exist is that we experience it.

This has led some scientists and philosophers to gravitate toward the theory of panpsychism, which posits that consciousness is simply a fundamental property of reality. See, for example, this article by philosophy professor Philip Goff: “Science as we know it can’t explain consciousness—but a revolution is coming.” But panpsychism doesn’t explain what consciousness is, or provide any real understanding of how it relates to the human brain and the human experience. It just sort of says that consciousness is, and that’s all there is to it. And that’s precisely why many scientists and philosophers don’t like it.

What all of the materialistic scientists and philosophers are studiously avoiding is the oldest, and I believe the best, solution to the mind-body problem: that consciousness exists on a distinct level of reality, traditionally known as spiritual reality. In other words, that consciousness is not a property of physical reality at all, but instead is a property of spiritual reality. Or in plain terms, that we have consciousness because we have a soul.

Is there any rational basis for believing that consciousness is not a property of physical reality? I believe so. Short version: A common property of physical or material things is that they are measurable in time and space. Even brain activity is measurable. But we cannot measure consciousness, nor do we experience it as being extended in time and space. It seems to operate on an entirely different basis than physical objects and physical reality.

And on this basis my rational mind, which does not feel the need to reject the reality of God and spirit, is perfectly comfortable stating that consciousness is not a property of physical reality, but of spiritual reality.

More specifically, I would define consciousness as the activity of the human will and understanding, which are the basic “components” of the human spirit. The will is the seat of all human love, motivation, feeling, and emotion. The understanding is the seat of all human knowledge, understanding, intellect, and thought. Together with the ability to act on our understanding from our will, these are the human soul or spirit.

Further, our spirit is our life. When our spirit departs from our body, the body dies, decomposes, and returns to the earth it came from. Animals, I believe, also have souls, complete with an earth-focused version of will and understanding. Even plants have a rudimentary soul, or they would not be alive. Inanimate objects such as rocks and water are not alive because they do not have a soul.

Will machines ever become conscious?

I do have some sympathy for the idea that if computers become sufficiently complex, they will develop consciousness. It seems clear enough that even if, as I and many others believe, consciousness is a spiritual thing, in order to express itself in the material world it requires a highly complex structure. That structure is the physical brain and body.

The human brain, in particular, has nearly 100 billion neurons (though some estimates put it a bit lower), each of them, as the article by Philip Goff points out, connected to 10,000 others, creating about ten trillion nerve connections. Meanwhile, the average human body has about 37.2 trillion cells, all differentiated, organized, and connected with one another so that the body functions as a unit. Given that the human brain and body do have this level of complexity, it is reasonable to think that the human spirit requires this level of complexity in order to express itself in the physical world by means of a physical organism.

Does this mean that if we build computers with 100 billion circuits and ten trillion connections, they will become conscious; and that if we then connect them to machines with thirty-seven trillion components, they will not only be able to think for themselves, but also put those thoughts into action? And become our robot overlords?

From a materialistic perspective, this seems like a real possibility. (Though even many materialistic scientists and philosophers don’t think so.)

However, from a spiritual perspective, it seems highly unlikely, if not impossible. That’s because unlike their human creators, computers and machines are not alive. They do not have souls.

Life is not just a complex collection of complex parts. Ten minutes after a person dies, his or her body is just as complex as it was twenty minutes ago, when the person was still alive. And yet, it is dead, not alive. Complexity by itself is not a sufficient condition for life to exist. Something else is required. And from a spiritual perspective, that “something else” is the soul. Once the soul departs the body, life departs the body.

And if, as people who accept the reality of God and spirit commonly believe, our consciousness is in our soul, not in our body, then no matter how complex a computer or machine gets, it will still not be conscious, because it has only a physical “body,” not a soul. Even if it looks conscious because of the complexity of its operations, it will be a mere “philosophical zombie,” lacking awareness of what it is doing.

This is why I do not believe that computers and machines will ever become conscious.

Perhaps one day I’ll be proven wrong. If so, that day will likely be hundreds or even thousands of years in the future. Artificial intelligence is nowhere near as advanced as people on the street commonly think it is. Just getting a robot to turn a doorknob and open the door is pushing the limits of what AI can currently do. Today’s AI systems are designed to do one thing (such as play Jeopardy or recognize human faces) extremely well. But they can’t do anything else, unless they’re reprogrammed to do it. “Artificial general intelligence” (AGI), in which a machine can learn and understand anything a human can, is far, far beyond our current capabilities. And as the above discussion points out, even having AGI doesn’t necessarily mean that the machine is conscious.

I can take comfort in knowing that at least I won’t be proven wrong in my lifetime!

But my prediction is that computers and machines will never become conscious, precisely because they lack what humans (and other animals) have: a soul. I do not fear that even our great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will be enslaved or exterminated by killer robots who have become conscious and rebelled against their human masters.

And if you view life and consciousness as a spiritual thing, not a physical thing, you don’t have to fear an AI apocalypse either.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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32 comments on “Are We Headed for an AI Apocalypse?
  1. Brian says:

    Hi Lee, loved the article!

    Lt. Commander Data would like to have a word with you..
    Joking aside, I believe you’re totally right. Worst case scenario would be a situation where an AI was foolishly put in control of some automated system or service that glitched or malfunctioned somehow, resulting in the accidental deaths of individuals. Probably not on any large scale either. We do have self driving cars now. What if one caused a major pile-up? This of course is a totally different thing than an AI that has a will, or “chooses” to harm people.

    You mention something interesting about animals. I remember Swedenborg writing about the spiritual representation of various animals. I’ve never considered them sentient or having souls, Although, our beloved companions do display emotions and surely have personalities. I’m now very curious about this, Primates are are obviously evolved enough to have hierarchies and roles within their habitats as do so many species of the insect world. Would you speculate that perhaps there is some sort of gradient for animal souls, moving from higher ordered mammals down to bugs (which are almost robot-like themselves) and then down to plant life?

    Cheers!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Brian,

      One moment please . . . . Ah, there’s Data’s off switch . . . . Now we humanoids can talk.

      Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, there is always the possibility of an accident or an unintended result that causes damage or death to humans and to the environment. That’s true with or without AI. And of course, humans and groups of humans with bad motives can and will use any tool at their disposal, including AI, to accomplish their nefarious purposes and schemes. But this, as you say, is entirely different than AI (theoretically) acting on its own will and initiative to cause harm to human beings for its own purposes. The latter I do not think will happen, because it would require machines to have a will, which would require a conscious soul.

      The idea that animals have souls goes back to ancient times. It is well-known that Genesis 2:7 and 1 Corinthians 15:45 mention Adam, or humanity becoming “a living soul” (KJV). Less well-known, but equally biblical, is the statement in Revelation 16:3 that “every living soul died in the sea,” which clearly refers to animal life, not human life. And Job 12:10 speaks of the Lord as one “in whose hand is the soul of every living thing.” In other words, the people of Old Testament and New Testament times thought of animals as having souls. Swedenborg was in accord with biblical tradition in saying this.

      I would agree with you that animal souls follow a gradation from quite primitive to fairly advanced, matching the character and capabilities of the animals that are associated with them, and the nature and level of the particular (spiritual) love or “affection” that they correspond to.

      However, there is a distinct difference between animal souls and human souls. Animal souls have only the lower, natural or earthly levels of spirit adapted to and focused on life in the material world. Human souls also have the higher spiritual and heavenly levels of spirit adapted to life in the spiritual world, and capable of a conscious relationship with God. For more on this, please see:

      Will We See our Pets Again in Heaven?

      If you want to get even more technical about it, Swedenborg wrote a brief series on the life in animals and plants in the “continuations” in Chapter 19 of his unfinished and unpublished exegesis of the book of revelation commonly known as Apocalypse Explained. They start at A.E. #1196:2, and run through #1215:3. The link is to an online version, where you can read the sections in sequence, each time scrolling down to where it says “(Continuation).”

      These “continuations” have been extracted and published in a slightly newer translation published by the Swedenborg Society in London in a small book titled The Life in Animals and Plants. Unfortunately, there are no copies listed for sale on the U.S. Amazon site. However, it is available at the U.K. Amazon site here, or direct from the publisher here. (The Swedenborg Society will soon be reworking its website, so the second link may get broken before long.) It’s a fascinating little book!

      I should add that though some of the science in this series on the life in animals and plants is now outdated, it is still well worth perusing for the light it throws on the nature of the animal and plant soul, and its relationship to their life.

  2. larryzb says:

    The false god of technology, or man is beginning to worship himself. Very sad and very disturbing.

    • Lee says:

      Hi larryzb,

      Technology can become a false god. But mostly, it’s just a tool to get things done.

      • Ben Copeland says:

        Hi Lee,

        You may enjoy this article by Thomas Metzinger going over some key philosophical constructs surrounding AI, specifically as it relates to virtual reality. It poses some interesting scenarios for AI in a virtual world (such as the ‘Postbiotic social boot-strapping scenario’) that, like you describe, a robot functioning in physical reality will be limited in its ability to achieve considering the complexity and efficiency of the human brain and body.

        https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frobt.2018.00101/full

        Also, despite the belief that technology is an amoral functional tool, I believe that John Dyer in ‘From the Garden to the City’ looks at technology circumspectly as it relates to culture, society and our relationship with God and arrives at his own conclusion that it is ultimately is a net loss due to the unintended/unanticipated and near-permanent personal and social side effects/trade offs are.

        http://fromthegardentothecity.com/
        https://www.slideshare.net/johndyer/using-technology-without-technology-using-you-3228351

        Blessings!

        • Lee says:

          Hi Ben,

          Thanks for the links. I read parts of the Metzinger article, but eventually tired of it. He seems to make the general assumption of materialists that God and spirit do not exist, and that consciousness is a property of the physical brain. Therefore, he seems to assume, if we are able to program computers to do what the human brain does, the computer will become conscious. As I say in the above article, I disagree with him on all of these assumptions, and on the conclusions drawn from them.

          In particular, Metzinger’s section on the philosophy of religion embodies the usual superficial view of religion and religious practice that prevails among atheists and materialists. This is particularly ironic since Metzinger seems to accept the idea that our perception of the physical world is not an accurate reflection of the actual physical world, but is a construct of the mind. I could just as well write an article deriding Metzinger and his fellow materialists for engaging in a shared augmented reality in which they superimpose imaginary constructs of physical entities such as animals, plants, rocks, planets, stars, and galaxies upon the actual reality of their conscious mind in order to create a sense of physical and objective reality where there is, in fact, no physical or objective reality to perceive, only disembodied consciousness whose nature we can never truly understand because all that we experience is mere artificially constructed reality—and that they create this imaginary “physical world” of theirs as a crutch to avoid the ultimate insubstantiality and meaningless of their lives.

          Still, I am happy for materialistic scientists and philosophers to continue in their endeavors to figure out and even create consciousness. If I am correct, they will ultimately fail in their efforts on these fronts. However, we modern, intellectual humans will rarely accept reality (especially divine and spiritual reality) as it actually exists as long as we still have hope of demonstrating the truth of our own faulty understanding of reality. That’s why God allows us to follow our errors all the way to their conclusion. It is the only way that we may eventually wake up and accept reality (including God and spirit) as it actually is.

          I have read the first couple chapters of John Dyer’s book. Of course, I disagree with his theology. I also think he makes unwarranted assumptions about the meaning of the biblical text. For example, he seems to think that “cultivating and keeping” the garden (Genesis 2:15) includes mining the garden for raw materials such as ores that can be manufactured into tools. But gardeners are not miners, even if gardeners do usually use tools. I am not as ready as he is to read (literal) meanings into the text that aren’t actually there.

          Ironically, biblical literalists are especially prone to reading meanings into the text that aren’t there precisely because they do not have access to the spiritual meaning of the Bible. Being very religious, they want the Bible to cover every subject and experience of human life. Yet literally, it simply doesn’t. For example, there are no computers and no virtual reality simulators in the Bible. Biblical literalists therefore stretch the literal meaning of the Bible to cover all sorts of things that it doesn’t actually cover literally.

          Still, I am finding the book interesting, and more worth the time to read it than Metzinger’s article. At least Dyer engages with God and spirit as if they are real, and seeks a connection between the reality of God and spirit and the physical reality of technology. That, for me, is more fruitful and worthwhile than perspectives that assumes that physical reality is the only reality, and that consciousness is a physical phenomenon.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Ben,

          Another thought as I read John Dyer’s book:

          I do not agree with his thesis that technology shapes us. I would say, rather, that we shape ourselves through our use of technology.

          To use his example of the shovel, it is not accurate to say that the shovel gives us blisters and makes us tired and sweaty, and with regular use gives us calluses and strong muscles. The shovel does none of these things. All of them are actions of the body in relation to the shovel. The body causes the blisters and the calluses as protective mechanisms. The body grows tired to protect itself from being damaged by overwork. The body then progressively augments and strengthens its muscles as it continues to do the work that the mind wants it to do with the shovel.

          This may sound like a mere technical distinction. But it is important to keep sequences of cause and effect clear in our mind in order to think clearly about what is actually happening. The shovel does not act upon the person wielding it. Rather, the person acts upon the shovel, which is a mere instrumental cause in digging the hole. The cause-and-effect relationship runs entirely in one direction: human mind -> human body -> shovel -> dirt. It never runs in the other direction.

          Even when it seems as if the shovel might be doing something to the human being, as when it rebounds off a big rock resulting in a shock to the bones and ligaments of the person who wields it, it is still the person wielding it putting the shovel into motion; the muscles of the wielder, not the rock or the shovel, provide the power that results in a shock when the shovel hits a rock.

          Similarly, the sequence of cause-and-effect always runs from the human mind through the human body to the technology, and not the reverse. The technology does not shape us. It is a passive and reactive thing. Rather, we shape ourselves in particular ways through our use of technology.

  3. Griffin says:

    This is similar to why I don’t buy into the idea we might be living in a simulation. Even if it was possible to make sentient “sim people” in a computer, which I don’t believe, why would we want to? What purpose would it serve to have our simulation think for itself rather than just act as a philosophical zombie?

    I guess I just find it hard to take much of what Elon Musk says too seriously.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Griffin,

      Agreed. I love what Musk is doing with his rockets, electric cars, and so on. But when it comes to his AI doomsday scenarios, he looks too much like Chicken Little for me.

  4. James Gomez says:

    In cases of spirit possession, it is believed a foreign spirit may sometimes temporarily inhabit a body that belongs to someone else. Here, we see that the body is simply a vehicle for the soul, just as animals and plants might be other types of vehicles for less developed souls.

    If computers and machines ever become conscious to any degree, it seems they will require souls to find them to be suitable vehicles. Just as they now need a physical body for giving expression to themselves here at a material level of being. So, even though machines and computers may not ever become conscious in their own right, they might eventually appear to become conscious when some soul(s) decides to inhabit one.

    • Lee says:

      Hi James,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughts.

      I agree with you that the body is simply a vehicle for the soul. That is true whether it is the vehicle for its own proper soul, or for some “foreign” soul that has partially or wholly usurped the place of its own soul. The body has no life or consciousness of its own. Life and consciousness reside in the associated spirit, which gives life to the body as long as it is associated with it.

      I’ve had similar thoughts that perhaps machines and computers might eventually become complex enough that they could be hosts for souls just as human and animal bodies are hosts for souls. However, though I would not swear up and down that this could never happen, I highly doubt that it will, for several reasons:

      1. It seems to me that the slow development of animal and human organisms from lower organisms, all the way back to proto-life and single-celled organisms, is likely an essential element of developing something capable of hosting a soul. We humans were billions of years in the making. I doubt that something developed and built within a few hundred years, or even a few thousand years, will ever become a suitable physical host for spiritual life.
      2. We have barely scratched the surface of understanding the biological processes of even the simplest of plant an animal life, let alone understanding what life itself is. Living creatures seem to be immensely more complex than we ever could have imagined when we first started studying them hundreds or thousands of years ago. I doubt that we humans will ever be able to build a machine or computer that even comes close to the level of complexity that has developed in living organisms over billions of years. And I believe that the complexity of a human body is the minimum necessary to host fully sentient, self-aware, and self-determining (i.e., not primarily instinctual) life and consciousness. If it weren’t, then we would see human intellectual capabilities in lower animals, or even in plants. But we don’t.
      3. I do not believe souls are separately created entities, such that there is a whole stock of souls just floating around looking for a suitable body to inhabit. I’m aware that this is a common Eastern and reincarnationist view. But my view is that a new human soul is built out of a blueprint derived from the two parents, just as the human body is built out of a (DNA) blueprint derived from the two parents. In other words, a soul requires parents just as a body does. It initially comes into existence when offshoots from the souls of the two parents combine into one, in parallel to the physical process of the sperm fertilizing the egg, and it develops into a soul in parallel with the development of the body. Computers and machines have no parents. They are not derived from previous life forms that have souls, but are built from scratch each time out of inanimate materials. There would therefore be no way for a soul to enter them, because there are no spare souls floating around waiting for a body to inhabit.

      In addition to what I wrote in the above article, these are some of the reasons I do not believe machines and computers will ever become conscious.

      Even souls that “possess” another body are not separate creations, but are souls that belong to a particular human being who has now become a spirit. Low-level and evil spirits that long to be back on earth in their physical bodies (all spirits were once humans on earth) may attempt to possess the body of someone who is still living.

      However, despite the popular horror genre, this is very rare in real life these days. Yes, some schizophrenics do, from a spiritual point of view, have spirits infesting and assailing them. But most often they are not entirely taken over by those spirits. They still have their own conscious awareness, and they are still generally in control of their own body, but they have evil spirits continually assailing them and pressing them to say and do destructive things.

      I believe that if the mental hospitals could recognize the presence of spirits in insanity, we could develop much more effective ways of dealing with the mental illnesses of their residents. For more on this, see the links and videos about the work of a therapist named Jerry Marzinsky in the comment thread on another article here.

  5. Rami says:

    Hi Lee,

    I’m glad you penned this article, because it hits on the issue of technology and ‘progress’ in a sense I’ve been pondering and meaning to ask you about.

    One thing I appreciate about Swedenborg’s depiction of heaven (and its levels) is that it provides us with a blueprint for how to construct our own, ‘heavenly’ earthly societies here and now. While obviously a far, far less perfect version of the spiritual reality, the way things work and the ways in which people live in heaven demonstrate to us, here on earth, a spiritual ideal of which we can attempt to emulate to the extent that our material realities can allow for.

    But one thing that’s apparently in Swedenborg’s depiction of these heavenly societies is that they mostly seem to resemble what we would see as small, agrarian communities, and indeed even Swedenborg’s depictions of alien societies seem to be structured the same way. Now, it makes sense that Swedenborg didn’t see any laptops or cars in any of his visions, since those are things he was himself without, and Swedenborg could only see things in terms of what he could comprehend. At the same time, despite many of the details to Swedenborg’s visions conforming to his knowledge at the time and the technology of the day, does the noticeable *lack* of technology in these heavenly communities give us any indication that at least *some part* of technological evolution is not how we were meant to develop, and is actually quite harmful to us?

    You may have hear of the Fermi Paradox, which basically asks if the universe is truly teeming with intelligent life, as the overwhelming number of stars and planets would suggest, then why haven’t we detected any? Many solutions have been offered to this paradox, some more unsettling than others, but one solution is known as the ‘great filter,’ which suggests the reason why we haven’t detected any life is because all worlds eventually hit a point of technological implosion, where they essentially wind up destroying themselves, and we’re just waiting for our turn.

    I wonder, if instead of total elimination, worlds (including our own) simply hit a cataclysmic crisis, where following a period of destruction they are forced to revert to a simpler existence, which, in the end, was the way we were meant to live all along. Does Swedenborg’s depictions of the afterlife provide us with any clue as to whether there’s any truth to that?

    It’s also worth mentioning that ‘technology’ is a relative term. Something that appears as primitive to us as a pitchfork nevertheless was considered ‘technology’ for the people who needed to develop one as an alternative to what they were using before, and likewise, our sense of technology today might be regarded in much the same way by societies thousands of years in the future.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      I recently read an article in which the author distinguished three types of technology:

      1. Technology invented before a particular person was born, which is just taken for granted, and isn’t considered “technology”
      2. Technology invented after a person was born, but before s/he hit the age of 30, which is exciting new technology
      3. Technology invented after a person turns 30, which is questionable and probably dangerous technology

      Obviously this is a highly subjective classification of technology. But it does illustrate how we view technology, and what we think of as technology.

      The technology Swedenborg described in the areas of heaven that he visited in which relatively recent arrivals from Europe lived contained all of the technology that was in their areas of Europe as they existed in their day. Swedenborg sees angels traveling in carriages, living in architecturally advanced (for their day) dwellings, attending parties that had all the latest glassware and table arrangements, such as pyramids of food and drink, and even playing the latest competitive games, notably a game called “rackets,” which was all the rage in Swedenborg’s Europe (see: “Is Heaven Physical? Can Angels Play Tennis?”).

      To us today, what Swedenborg describes in the European-derived heavens that existed in the 18th century does not look like technology, because it was invented long before we were born. But people from Europe who had recently died went on to live in a spiritual world that was virtually indistinguishable from the physical world they had previously inhabited, complete with all the latest trends and gadgets. It’s quite clear that in the context of his own culture, Swedenborg intended to describe heaven as a very advanced and up-to-date place.

      In short, it’s not accurate to say that the heavens Swedenborg observed lacked technology. It’s just that the technology that existed in his day hardly looks to us like technology, so we don’t particularly think of it as “technology” when he describes it in the spiritual world.

      Now, we could question whether manufacturing as it existed in those days existed in the spiritual world. Here and there Swedenborg says that in the spiritual world, animals, houses, streets, and so on are created directly by the Lord as an expression of the character and spiritual state of the people in a particular community. Therefore it’s questionable whether factories would be necessary. On the other hand, Swedenborg does describe women doing embroidery, people creating sculptures, and so on. So hand-making items is not absent from the spiritual world. This suggests that there could be factories, even if Swedenborg doesn’t (to my knowledge) describe them. In particular, evil spirits in hell are required to work in workhouses if they want food and clothing. It is possible that these are the “factories” of the spiritual world. One thinks of prisoners being required to manufacture license plates and other items in earthly prisons.

      When it comes to Swedenborg’s descriptions of people living on other planets, the picture is different. None of these civilizations on other worlds have even the level of technology that existed in 18th century Europe. They are indeed described as simple agrarian societies, albeit, as you say, living in (simple) constructed homes, and having domesticated animals and presumably agricultural implements. In at least two places Swedenborg mentions that the advanced technology that exists on earth does not exist elsewhere (Earths in the Universe #136, 155).

      If Swedenborg is correct that people on other planets don’t develop advanced technology as we have on this earth, then that would neatly solve the Fermi Paradox. And this is indeed one of the hypothesized solutions to the Fermi Paradox. See: Wikipedia -> Fermi Paradox -> Intelligent alien species lack advanced technology

      I would, however, differ from the Wikipedia article about these societies being “primitive.” Technologically, yes. But seeing technologically advanced societies as “advanced,” and non-technologically advanced societies as “primitive” betrays a materialistic view of what constitutes an “advanced” society. Swedenborg, in particular, for all his love of technology, views spiritual advancement as more “advanced” than technological advancement. I wrote about this in more detail a few years ago in response to one of your comments on a different article, here.

      So although it is certainly possible that alien civilizations that develop technology regularly destroy themselves with their technology, I believe a more likely solution to the Fermi Paradox is that most civilizations on other planets are more interested in spiritual advancement than in material advancement, and therefore don’t develop technologically any more than is necessary to have a relatively comfortable physical existence—which doesn’t require all the fancy gadgets and manufacturing techniques that we have today here on this earth.

      As for technology itself, I don’t think of it as being negative or evil, but rather as simply being rather materialistic. It is largely focused on producing material goods and providing for material well-being. And that’s not a bad thing. Technology is good or bad depending on how it is used. For one thing, here on earth we have been able to increase our population greatly through the use of agricultural technology. And if the primary purpose of the creation of the universe is to provide for a heaven of angels from the human race, as Swedenborg says, then rendering Earth capable of supporting more people is a good thing.

      I would add that much of what we do with our electronic technology is aimed at making possible things that happen automatically in the spiritual world, such as communication at a distance and conveying large amounts of information from one person or group to another. If we here on earth had not become so materialistic that we shut off open awareness of and communication with the spiritual world, we would not need much of that technology, because we would be tapped into the spiritual world, where everything we do technologically happens without the need of computers and telecommunications systems. I’ve commented on this in various articles here.

      So in answer to your particular question, I would say that Swedenborg’s depictions of the afterlife don’t support the idea that civilizations that develop advanced technology will almost inevitably wind up destroying themselves. First, if Swedenborg is right, such civilizations are exceedingly rare in the universe, so there would be few (perhaps only one) examples to draw on. Second, in general Swedenborg views science and technology as reflecting the character of the people who invent and use it. If their character is good, the technology will be used for good. If it is evil, the technology will be used for evil.

      It could be argued that the very fact of technological societies being materialistic suggests, from a spiritual point of view, that such societies are evil. However, Swedenborg’s overall depiction of heaven is of one that has many different levels, from highly heavenly and spiritual to rather earthly and materialistic in character, based on the character of the inhabitants of the various areas of heaven. He uses the organizing principle of the human body, with its various parts and organs, as his primary description of how the various parts of heaven, with their different characters, relate to each other. And our earth, he suggests, corresponds to the skin on the bottom of the feet—about as low, earthly, and materialistic as you can get.

      But we need skin on the bottom of our feet. The soles of our feet are not evil. They’re just . . . low. Without them walking would be quite difficult and painful. This suggests that even low, earthly, materialistic societies such as ours on this earth, with all of our focus on material science and technology, is, and can be, good and healthy if the character of the people of the society, low-level as it may be, is basically good, and focused on serving others rather than on dominating and exploiting others.

      All of this suggests to me that becoming technologically advanced in itself is not a sentence of doom on a civilization. Yes, if we use our advanced technology to dominate and exploit others for the sake of our own wealth and power, we could ultimately end out destroying our earth’s ability to support advanced life, including human life, through, for example, a nuclear holocaust.

      Or perhaps, as you say, a few would survive, as in the popular post-apocalyptic science fiction genre, such as the Mad Max series of movies. But even in a post-nuclear-holocaust world, if any humans survived, I believe they would still rely on and re-develop advanced technology. For one thing, they might need it to survive in a highly toxic and contaminated world.

      However, if we use our advanced technology to feed people, clothe people, house people, and provide people with knowledge and understanding, then there is no reason why advanced technology should inevitably end out rendering our earth uninhabitable by human life. In fact, as I said earlier, it can make it possible for our earth, and ultimately our whole solar system, to support far more people than it could if we had never developed advanced technology.

      I am aware of the present-day doomsday scenarios based on climate change. But as with past ecological doomsday scenarios, I don’t think the reality will be anywhere near as apocalyptic as the politicians claim. See, for example:

      Forbes: “Why Apocalyptic Claims About Climate Change Are Wrong,” by Michael Schellenberger

      This sort of thing is nothing new. Rachel Carson’s highly popular 1962 book Silent Spring predicted an ecological apocalypse that failed to materialize. Yes, we humans are seriously mucking up Earth’s environment, and we do need to take serious action to stop mucking it up so badly. But we are taking serious steps in that direction, notably recently with the rise of renewable energy. And it is newer and better technology that is overcoming the problems caused by older, dirtier technology.

      So once again, I simply don’t believe that technological advancement necessarily leads to human self-annihilation. It only does so if we act in wholly selfish and greedy ways. And I still have enough faith in humanity to think that the bulk of the population of this earth will not opt for the level of extreme selfishness and greed that would lead to our destroying Earth’s environment to the point where we can no longer survive here.

      • Rami says:

        Hi Lee,

        Lot of great points in your post, hope to hit on a few of them here:

        Great point about spiritual advancement in relation to things we currently rely on technology to achieve. I don’t wish to sail too far off the deep end in my speculation of what that entails, especially for alien civilizations, but it seems easy to imagine how spiritual advancement lends itself to the development of something like telepathic communication, or the manipulation of physical matter through the will of the mind, where (to quote Star Trek) time, space, and thought cease to be the separate things they appear to be. In that sense, it is us, through with our clumsy, inelegant use of gadgetry, who are the true primitives.

        Moving on, it does seem hard to imagine that we’re the only world to embark on a constant process of technological evolution, doesn’t it? And that we just happen to be living on it? It feels somewhat akin to the difficulty in believing that while all other worlds have accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, we just happen to be living on the one planet on which He incarnated. At the same time, *somebody* has to be on that world, so…why not us? Interestingly enough, in his conversations with Jesus during his incredible near death experience (that you’ve discussed here), Howard Storm asked about other life in the universe, and about UFO’s, and he was told that we should avoid trying to make contact with them because they were up to no good.

        I also think you’re precisely correct when you say:

        “…, in general Swedenborg views science and technology as reflecting the character of the people who invent and use it.”

        This is one of the major points I try to hit on with any and all conversations I have about the relationship between human morality and technology, though (and correct me if I’m wrong), but I seem to go a step further than you, when I say that technology is not a value-free enterprise. It’s commonly stated that technology is morally neutral and that questions of right or wrong depend on his its applied, but as you say, technology reflects the character of the people who invent and use it, and as such I believe we build our values *into* the technology we invent.

        For instance, dating apps are among the most popularly downloaded ones, and some have casual sex as heavily implied or explicitly part of their purpose, and while you *can* use those apps for finding something serious- indeed, a great number of people have- I don’t know it’s correct to say that those less savory apps are morally neutral, because they reflect a certain attitude toward sexuality. Indeed I think it’s possible to take a quick look around whatever room you’re in and identify a moral underpinning behind every piece of technology in it, electronic or not: each one in its mere existence says something about who we are, and what we value.

        • Rami says:

          I also wanted to add, and this manages to cover multiple points that were made earlier in this thread in a single blurb, but I saw a reference to our old friend Commander Data, and obviously one of the biggest questions about his character is: is he more than merely a machine, with perhaps the biggest question being: does he have a soul?

          I’m ultimately with you in saying that he along with any other conceivable form of artificial intelligence lacks and will ultimately never have one, but if its any consolation to Data lovers all over the world and throughout the galaxy, I think it’s correct to say that, in a sense he does.

          As I said earlier, technology possesses the values we build into it, and something like DATA is no different: he was constructed with the beliefs, aspirations, and loves of his creator. Our values reside at our individual and often collective center, so in that sense, Data does have a soul- we just gave him ours.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          Sentient robots are a common theme in science fiction. Lt. Commander Data in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” just happens to be one of the better-known examples. However, it’s still science fiction. Personally, I doubt there will ever be self-reflective robots or androids of the Data variety, not to mention the R2D2 and C-3PO varieties in Star Wars. And if they ever do come into existence, it will be long after I’m dead, so I won’t have to eat crow. I’ll be well-ensconced in the spiritual world—I hope in the good place!

          But yes, metaphorically the sentient robots of science fiction do have “souls” given to them by their human creators. (I’m using “human” in the broad sense of intelligent, self-aware life forms.) Their character depends upon the programming built into them by their creators. That metaphorical sense, though, should not be confused with robots having actual souls made of spiritual substance, such as humans have.

        • Richard says:

          Oh, so tempting….

          Lee, you’ve got to know I’m still peripherally interested and paying attention….

          I agree that, by current observation and definition, morality “may” be determined and limited by us humans, by I also believe that, as humans striving to make sense of things, we are arrogantly and obstinately on a path to make technology “better” than our human flaws and limitations, and push to imprint human qualities upon technologies in ways to surpass the current perceived boundaries of what defines it as such.

          And, in doing so, we will inevitably “create” self-awareness in technology as a substantiated consciousness. This may still be nothing more than an extension of ourselves, but if self-sustaining, it will be testament to us, as humans, of our spiritual advancement and accomplishment in our efforts to become better, purer and unbiased in thought and process.

          Rich

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rich,

          Good to hear from you again. I would only say that what we strive to accomplish isn’t always what we do accomplish. We may think that we can create consciousness, but I don’t think that we can. Time will tell if I’m right or wrong about that.

          It is at least clear that we are creating technology in order to extend our human powers in various areas beyond what we can do unaided. But hasn’t that always been the purpose of tools, ever since we first started making them?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          I tend to think that there probably are other technologically developed civilizations out there in the universe. Clearly Swedenborg didn’t encounter any others in his travels in the spiritual world. But it does strain credulity that there would be no others in the entire universe. More likely, they’re just few and tremendously far between. Scientists believe that we do not have access to the entire universe, but only to part of it that is within the “horizons” of what we can see based on the speed of light, and how far light could have traveled since the (believed) initial inflationary period of the universe. It is possible that there are other technologically advanced civilizations out there, but that they are so scarce that most or all of them are beyond the horizon of what we can see in the universe.

          About why Jesus was born on this planet and not any other, I believe resolving that question was the primary purpose of Swedenborg’s book Earths in the Universe. On that, please see this article, toward the end of it:

          Aliens vs. Advent: Swedenborg’s 1758 Book on Extraterrestrial Life

          About unsavory apps, I guess I think of apps as a use of technology rather than a technology in and of themselves. The technology, in my mind, is the platform on which the apps run, including both the physical device and the operating system (and programming languages). Perhaps that’s a simplistic view, but it makes some sense to me.

          I wouldn’t stake my life and reputation on the view that technology is morally neutral. But if it’s not morally neutral, that’s not because of the technology itself, but because of the technology’s (human) creators. So far, technology is not capable of creating itself. It will bear the stamp of its creators.

          Also, it is still humans that use technology, and not the reverse. Even the infamous dating apps that are commonly used for casual hookups could be used by people who are actually looking for love, and not just sex. If people use them for casual hookups and promiscuous sex, it’s still people doing that, not the app.

          Another common example is weapons, up to and including weapons of mass destruction. But even these can be used either for defensive or offensive purposes. As horrible as nuclear weapons are, the fear of them has been a factor in the superpowers not getting into wars with each other, for fear of being annihilated. Not the best motivation, but if it helps to avoid war, it’s not all bad, either.

        • Rami says:

          Hi Lee,

          Maybe saying that technology is not ‘value free’ is a better way than me claiming it lacks moral neutrality. Their application is far, far more relevant to the questions of morality than the morality of the person/collective who built it and who’s morality that piece of technology thus reflects.

          To your point about weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons have been posited in hypothetical scenarios of spacecraft propulsion, where a series of nuclear blasts are detonated behind the craft so as to accelerate it to dramatic speeds far greater than what can be currently achieved. This, perhaps more dramatically than any other example, can demonstrate how techno-morality hinges on how we use it.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          In short, the “morality” of technology is determined primarily by the way we humans use it. Morality exists only in the human world.

        • Richard says:

          Hi Lee,

          No disrespect, but I can’t agree that morality only exists it the human world. That’s a pretty bold and “immoral” statement!

          That, by itself, suggests that morality has no place other that in our mortal plane, that neither decency, personal (and spiritual) values, nor kindness and apathy towards others, have any bearing or place in the spiritual world.

          Isn’t the utopia of transcendent desire and, in some cases the lifetime endeavors of some, goals which are striven for? Would that not be a mockery of their beliefs and efforts?

          To say that “Morality exists only in the human world” casts doubt upon, and disbelief in, that the existential life beyond is any better that what we already live in here, today, no?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Richard,

          I didn’t mean to exclude the spiritual world, which is also a human world, if touched by the Divine as well.

        • Rami says:

          Hi Lee, Hi Richard,

          Can we necessarily understand ‘morality’ in the spiritual world in the same sense that we understand it in the material one? If we understand morality to be a principled code of conduct that’s used to distinguish right from wrong (a debatable definition), then I don’t see how heavenly living flows from an idea of morality, as in heaven there is only right, and we are drawn toward doing what is only good. In that sense, the way people live in heaven is certainly ‘moral’- in that it is good, but ‘morality,’ as a concept and code that we use to navigate the material world, seems like something that we leave behind *in* the material world.

          Of course this is all just my preliminary brainstorming on the subject, and am totally happy to think of it in an entirely different way.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          Angels still know the difference between right and wrong, and they still act on the right, and not on the wrong, to the best of their ability. But they are not perfect, and are always learning, so morality is still very much a presence in their lives, even if they’ve mostly gotten a pretty good handle on basic behavioral morality.

  6. Richard says:

    Hi Rami,

    I would think that our morality of “principled code” is a precursor and defining structure to that which we would adhere in the spiritual world and, thus, is still prevalent as a “defining” attribute by which we will survive and thrive existentially.

    Heaven may be defined, by some, as consisting only of good and right, and that’s a very plausible viewpoint. But, as is my understanding, there are possibly infinite levels (or layers) of Heaven which means, by definition, some are not as “good, or right” as others.

    I think human morality plays a part in this definition and separation of layers. I would like to believe it is our human character attributes and actions which define our prevailing life ever-after.

    • Rami says:

      Hi Richard,

      I think I would agree with this, largely based on what Lee mentioned in his reply to me, and to what I had forgotten about when writing my reply: as he pointed out, heaven is not a place of absolute perfection, and discernment between right and wrong is still something that’s undertaken in the spirit world. However heaven’s multitude of layers are separated, a greater inclination toward goodness (which I equate with a greater receptiveness to Divine light and closeness to God) would certainly distinguish among them.

  7. Brian says:

    Hi Lee,
    Earlier in the comments you mentioned ” the slow development of animal and human organisms from lower organisms, and “We humans were billions of years in the making”. I’ve always considered evolution and natural selection as being part of creation’s design, but here you include us humans. Of course, most spiritual leaders would scoff at this, but we all know of early models of humans such as Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. Would you suggest that at some point we were in fact even simpler life forms – that had to eventually evolve to a point where we could host an eternal soul? I’m fascinated about this idea because I always believed that evolution IS the product of creation. Thanks.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Brian,

      Much of traditional Christianity takes the Creation stories of Genesis literally. As I believe you know, I (and my church) do not, but rather take them as symbolic or metaphorical stories about the spiritual creation, or spiritual rebirth, of people.

      Applying this to the original emergence of humans, the Creation stories speak, not of our biological creation, but of our emergence as spiritually aware beings who have eternal souls as a result of that spiritual awareness. Though Swedenborg was pre-Darwin, and therefore did not have the concept of the evolution of species in his intellectual quiver, his theology is not incompatible with evolution, as earlier Christian theologies were.

      In this viewpoint, we humans physically evolved from lower animals just as present-day science believes we did. Neanderthals and Cro-Magons are only two of a number of species of early humans (see, for example, the recent article, “Nine Species of Human Once Walked Earth. Now There’s Just One. Did We Kill The Rest?” by Nick Longrich). And prior to species recognized as Homo, or human, there were previous species from which scientists believe we are descended through evolution and natural selection.

      However, from a spiritual perspective, at some point animal-like hominids on this earth became spiritually aware, and thus truly human. This probably coincided with the beginnings of early human burial rituals as studied by anthropologists and paleontologists. Prior to this new development of spiritual awareness, the early “humans” were mere animals, and they did not have eternal souls. After the development of spiritual awareness, they were truly human, and had eternal souls, albeit very simple ones at first.

      On the scale of human development, the Creation story in Genesis 1 is the story of the creation and emergence of that spiritual consciousness, which includes an awareness of the existence of God and the spiritual world. “Adam/Humanity” in Genesis 1 & 2 were thus not the first human-shaped beings, but rather were the first to have an awareness of God and spirit, and therefore the ability to have a conscious relationship with God. That ability to have a conscious relationship with God is why humans have eternal souls, whereas lower animals do not.

      For contemporary take on this from a Swedenborgian perspective, see The Five Ages: Swedenborg’s View of Spiritual History, by P.L. Johnson. (The link is to its Kindle edition on Amazon.)

  8. Rami says:

    Hi again, Lee.

    I find myself pondering this general topic from time to time because, again, it’s in Swedenborg’s depiction of the afterlife in which we seem to find a blueprint for how we ought to live in *this* life, and one recurring theme in both those depictions and his depictions of alien worlds is this central idea of community. I see whether something brings people together in the spirit of loving community, or whether it drives away and isolates them from one another, as a kind of litmus test for an ideal society, but to what extent are the basic ways in which modern society is structures at inherent odds with this?

    For instance, while there are innumerable small towns communities in America, the idea of the metropolis doesn’t seem conducive to the type of spiritual development that takes place within and fosters a sense of ‘community;’. Major cities are known to be harsh, unforgiving places where you’re essentially on your own, without the loving support you find from members of smaller communities.

    Now, while I don’t think that anyone wants to live in the town from Footloose, and while they definitely have their downsides, I think John Lithgow’s character has it right when he remarks that people in the big city simply can’t feel or understand the deep bond that his townsfolk share, knowing that all their lives are essentially intertwined with each other’s. That certainly sounds like a heavenly characterization to me!

    I find myself more and more drawn to the value and wisdom of communal living, where ever member has a place and a purpose- namely, to support each other, while naturally being conflicted as a participating member of a modern society (I’m writing this on my swanky new iPhone 11, after all).

    But these tensions aside, does Swedenborg offer us any insight as to how we ought to view the makeup of modern society, with its concrete jungles? Are we not living as we were intended?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      Just a quick response for now. Swedenborg describes both large cities and small villages in heaven. This suggests that both can be spiritual and heavenly. It’s more a matter of the particular people’s character. Some prefer relaxed small towns where everyone knows each other. Others prefer the high energy of the city. And people in the city do form sub-communities within the city, so that they have close friends and relationships.

    • Lee says:

      I should also mention that the final, crowning vision of the Bible, in the last two chapters of the book of Revelation, is not of a garden, but of a city that includes the Tree of Life from the Garden. We start in the Garden, and eventually find our way to the city. But it is a beautiful, resplendent city, full of everyone and everything that is good.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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