Any Sufficiently Advanced Intelligence
17 December 2023
Arthur C. Clarke, a distinguished science fiction writer and futurist, made significant contributions to literature that continue to inspire countless dreamers and thinkers. Clarke’s ability to combine astute observations of the present with thrilling speculations of the future has, directly or indirectly, influenced how many of us perceive human progress.
I was reminded of Clarke’s insights recently by a friend. He shared with me a recording from the BBC archives, in which Clarke makes several predictions, including the eventual development of superintelligence. That reminded of an idea that I’ve mentioned before and merits elaboration.
Central to Clarke’s philosophical legacy are his Three Laws:
“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Consider with me Clarke’s third law, in particular. It is, of course, the stuff of science fiction. But it also has theological implications.
Implicit in Clarke’s Third Law is a revolutionary reconceptualization of sublime events, magic or miracles, and even the existence of God. Traditionally, at least in modern times, many imagine God as a metaphysical being, described as “omnipotent” and “omniscient,” perhaps altogether transcending the material world. In contrast, Clarke’s Third Law suggests that the attributes and actions that we ascribe to God could have another explanation. They could be consequences of technology so advanced that it is indistinguishable, not only from magic, but also from miracles.
With that in mind, we can derive a corollary of Clarke’s Third Law: any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable from God.
To understand this corollary, we must first rescue “God” from the bondage of anti-natural metaphysics. We can imagine God, liberated, as a highly advanced intelligence –- an intelligence so vast that its capabilities are, from our perspective, incomprehensible and practically indistinguishable from traditional notions of God.
Some religious traditions argue that God’s miracles are supernatural events that defy any possible natural laws – anti-naturalism. But from the lens of Clarke’s Third Law and its derived corollary, such miraculous events could be interpreted as the application of advanced natural science.
For example, consider superintelligent extraterrestrials, whose probable existence is posited by renowned atheist Richard Dawkins. In what sense would the most advanced interstellar civilizations not constitute Gods? Such civilizations could possess technologies that seem supernatural to us – “god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine,” Dawkins supposes. But, he emphasizes, their astounding abilities wouldn’t make them supernatural, but rather advanced agents that are still the product of evolutionary processes.
In any case, distinctions between conceptions of superintelligence and God will always depend on the particularities of the conceptions. What is God? What are intelligence and technology? And are we prepared to accept possibilities that challenge our traditions and preconceptions?
I think we are prepared, or at least increasing numbers of us are. Indeed, the function of theology may already be in the process of transforming into a science of superintelligence. Assuming this proves true, it would parallel earlier paradigm shifts, when astrology gave way to astronomy, and alchemy developed into chemistry.
Transhumanism encourages the exploration of these possibilities. It suggests that human beings may eventually evolve, through technology, to become superintelligent agents that some may perceive as divine. Arguably, glimpses of such possibilities have been embedded in religious and spiritual traditions for centuries, even millennia, pointing our minds toward the potential union of advanced technology, superintelligence, and spirituality or sublime esthetics.
Mormonism is perfectly consistent with, arguably even necessitates, such possibilities. Mormon scripture explicitly characterizes God in terms of superior intelligence. And per Mormon metaphysics, miracles do not contravene law, but are simply applications of knowledge superior to our own.
Here, though, is a word of caution. Not all gods are worthy of worship – not all would-be gods or apparent gods are worthy of esteem and emulation. Greater intelligence does not entail greater goodness. Be relentless in your search for and pursuit of the sublime esthetic, exclusively.
With that in mind, Clarke’s Third Law and its corollary provide a valuable approach to the intersection of theology and science. They reveal a possibility space for conceptualizing God that is both practical and expansive. Neither need be sacrificed. Any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable from God.