Akbar’s Hypothetical – The Unknown Machine Problem

Imagine the following scenario:

An alien form of consciousness with an extremely advanced level of intelligence sets up a transmitting device on another planet, let us say Jupiter, and this object transmits a constant signal toward earth, a sub-atomic field of particles that interacts with our neural patterns in such a way that every time we engage in a truly ethical or selfless act this field triggers the reward system in our brain, as well as those who witness it.  Imagine this machine has existed throughout all of human history.

Why?  Well, such a device would create the following problems.  It would expose a certain prejudice in our understanding of history and science, the one whereby we see ourselves in a purely deterministic isolated system.  The scientific pursuit, determined to understand the laws of nature and of human consciousness, would be upset by such a machine because it would represent a form of intelligence outside of human experience.  This sub-atomic field would be a deterministic mechanism, however it would ironically, in a deterministic way explain much of human religiosity and this would endanger the certainty with which we view history.  This sub-atomic field would, for all intents and purposes, operate in the same way that we have for thousands of years understood God.

My presentation of this hypothetical machine is meant to act as a metaphor for the presence of a consciousness in the universe, so that we have a concrete way to understand how we relate to our belief about the consciousness and meaning of existence.  Science has made the same mistake that religions made for thousands of years.  Where religion believed humans were at the center of the universe, science operates under the assumption that humans are not subject to intrusive forms of intelligence, meaning or consciousness.  There are all kinds of costs for such a perspective, and a strictly materialistic way of seeing the world can have the affect of magnifying the self-interest that works against so many ethical systems.

Let us allow our imagination to wander further, knowing what we do from our readings of Kurzweil, that greater powers of intelligence and computation are well within scientific plausibility, let us imagine this machine was quite powerful and could do a few more tricks.  Let us imagine that the machine could operate on many levels of intention, that it could track every human being following their neural pattern, and that it could affect that pattern through its transmissions, urging some human beings to act out on desires or violence, while giving others the power to suppress these urges or to engage in leadership, it could nurture forgiveness in some, love in others and lust.  It could provide an artist with a profound creative insight or it could infect somebody with a dangerous delusion.  Such a machine could choose to be partially engaged with some individuals, fully in control of others and completely detach itself from others, making the issue of free-will a continuum.  All of the usual dichotomies human beings use to describe the human condition, conservative/liberal, self-interest/communal, universal/relative, religious/skeptical, empirical/intuitive, etc. would all be right in some circumstances and wrong in others, colliding with one another to make the very notion of truth a contextual concept.

With such a hypothetical machine we would share a universal field of intrusion, unbeknownst to us, and yet we would be related to this universal in a relativistic sense.  The absolute truth of our lives would forever be obscure to us.  But, supposing we became aware of this machine, we would then look at history in an entirely new way, understanding that the victory of science over religion was a partial one, and that inevitably we would have to regain a sense of wonder about those individuals who were able to perceive the presence of this machine, and ironically admit a certain empirical wisdom in religious traditions.  But it would also shatter religious pride as well, because we would have to admit the possibility of a multi-faceted God, one that could be angry and destructive, and one that could be loving and generous, one that could present itself to Muhammed, Joseph Smith and Buddha.  In fact, the presence of this hypothetical would force us to ackowledge the possibility of the miraculous in our understanding of history, and further more, without a full disclosure from this machine, we would never know what was real in a deterministic sense, and what was human fiction.

Now let’s take this hypothetical to its ridiculous limits.  Let us imagine further, knowing what we do about the future of data storage, that this machine had a vast storage capacity, and after we lived our supervised life on earth in constant connection to this machine, that at the moment of death, due to the precision of this machine, our neural pattern was uploaded, literally ascending into the heavens, where we would face any number of virtual or real variations of that thing commonly known as the afterlife, and our lost loved ones were there waiting for us, and further more we could then watch those we left behind from inside this machine.  It is even conceivable within this thought experiment that we could visit those we love, who miss us, we could visit them in their dreams and comfort them.

The possibility of such a machine is meant to reawaken the sense of possibility in the universe and to act as a slight critique of that bitter kind of rationalism that takes a kind of pride in our universal solitude.  It is just as possible that the universe itself is just such a machine, that the field of existence, the substrate of matter, has coursing inside of it, an infinite number of worlds of actual consciousness, and that death is merely a trick we have played on ourselves in order to play this game called Earth.  Science is a tool, but I fight against seeing science as a worldview.  To take a leap toward the cold materialism that means death for all souls, is another way of forcing an answer in an utterly mysterious situation, it is as much a superstition as tying oneself to Jesus and no other.



  1. Globatron
    August 1, 2009

    This is a great experiment and strangely enough this is close to how I see the world minus it being an experiment. I don’t know who you’ve been listening to or reading but I’m not sure where you have gotten the idea that scientists don’t think the universe is amazing and mysterious and magical. I don’t understand why you seem to believe that someone could have a purely logical/scientific view of the universe and not have a spiritual connection to it. That seems to be the crux of your argument that there is no spiritual connection to a purely scientific view but I would argue that the more science finds out the less it knows and the more “magic” there is. I don’t think science is saying that all souls will die as I don’t think science believes that there is death. One can not believe they are part of infinity and realize a death.

    That’s the difference between the scientific view I believe and the religious view. Religion seems to want a beginning and and end. Science is looking at things not on a linear progression but on many dimensions. Many universes. The mystery of life seems to me much greater if we don’t try to define it with a beginning and an end. I believe looking at life through the lens of science can add many more dimensions to one’s spiritual life.

    I’d like to know more about your opinion and what has shaped your view of the scientific view being ant-spirituality. The more I learn about science I find it to be quite the opposite.

  2. Akbar Lightning
    August 1, 2009

    yo g-tron,

    i answered most of this question in the other post, but i want to add that i’ve been listening to that class at Yale on Death, and there is a long history of scientific skepticism that rejects claims where there is no evidence, and this particular strand of science, a data-focused branch is predominant.

    in other words, i am arguing that a certain relationship with science in the last few hundred years has led to a kind of divergence from religion in a more mystical sense, and has made religion a place for extremists. and because of this, a new kind of radical atheism has emerged as a backlash against religious extremism, and this is all a perversion that emerges from what i implied was our original sin, which was believing science to have some kind of primacy over the human spiritual tradition, and many scientists are guilty of this. more importantly, i think it is a part of our culture. it is more likely we could get away with bringing up a scientific discussion in almost any public setting then if we started talking about a conversation we had with God the other day.



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