Irrational Certainty: Is Predicting the End of the World Different from Predicting the Singularity is Near?

I have to admit that I was excited when I woke up this morning, after all, how many times do you get to wake up at the start of the end of the world?

It was May 21 2011, the day of Rapture, according to a Harold Camping; it was the day when true Christians would be whisked away to heaven while us heathens got 5 months to ourselves (admittedly it would be 6 months of ‘chaos’) before the world ended in October.

Harold Camping's Judgment Day Poster

I was pumped.

I checked the page on Facebook for “Post Rapture Looting” (“when everyone is gone and god’s not looking, we need to pick up some sweet stereo equipment and maybe some new furniture for the mansion we’re going to squat in”), an event that has over 2 million invited guests but unfortunately only about 800,000 attending. I then rocked out in the shower to “How Far We’ve Come”, by Matchbox Twenty. As the hours went by, I’ve realized that I’m less and less likely to be getting some sweet stereo equipment, and my prospects for mansion squatting are looking increasingly dim.

All kidding aside, I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering and a bit unnerved by how readily some people will advertise blatantly ridiculous predictions, and how easily others will believe it to be flawless gospel. Who would honestly believe they were going to be spirited away to heaven on May 21, 2011 just based off the words of an old man?

That’s when I drew some uncomfortable connections between this event and my own movement of Transhumanism.

Transhumanism and the concept of the Singularity have had a difficult time getting most people to accept them as rational and viable concepts, and this is a difficulty which has been heavily exacerbated by irrationality, and more specifically, the irrational certainty that many self-proclaimed Transhumanists ascribe to. Perhaps the most prominent example of this irrational certainty is the man who in many eyes epitomizes Transhumanism: Ray Kurzweil.

A few weeks ago I watched a TED talk featuring Kurzweil speaking “on how technology will transform us”, which is an idea that I completely agree with; towards the end of the talk, however, I began to feel uneasy by what he was saying. Why is that? Let me quote a bit:

“So let me just end with a couple of scenarios. By 2010 computers will disappear. They’ll be so small, they’ll be embedded in our clothing, in our environment. Images will be written directly to our retina, providing full-immersion virtual reality, augmented real reality. We’ll be interacting with virtual personalities.” (see video timeline starting at 19:50)


If you’re like me, then at this point you were looking around in alarm, wondering “Where’s my computer clothing? Why don’t I have images written into my retina? Have I missed out on something?”

Ray Kurzweil made blatant predictions in 2006 about how the world would be in 2010; it’s 2011 and we can obviously see he was wrong. This wasn’t the first time Kurzweil has done this and it definitely wouldn’t be the last; and this is where I have a problem. Most ideas propagated by Ray Kurzweil, the most prominent Transhumanist and Singularitarian, are not prefaced with disclaimers; they are all thrown out as “this is how it is GOING to be, there WILL be this, this WILL happen at THIS time.” And then it doesn’t.

I was introduced to Mr. Kurzweil’s ideas in an article I read on Time magazine’s website entitled 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal, and it is rife with these predictions. I’ve encountered Transhumanists and Singularitarians online who market their own personal opinions with religious zeal, shouting down all opposite viewpoints, reason, and logic in favor of their own predictions, and they often end up coming across as a bit unstable.

Now, there would be no problem with this if it was just an isolated individual, but it isn’t. These predictions are put forward by a host of bloggers and speakers, and for each one that doesn’t come true, Transhumanism and the Singularity lose credibility in the eyes of the world. After all, how different are Harold Camping foretelling the end of the world and a Singularitarian spouting the idea that complete global utopia – heaven on earth – is inevitable and just around the bend?

About the Author:

Hans Elde is going to be a freshman at the University of Washington in Fall, 2011 where he hopes to study bioengineering and mechanical engineering and eventually get involved in biomechatronics.

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