It doesn't bode well that Skype keeps crashing during my first attempt to speak with Giulio Prisco. Despite the marvels of modern technology, I can't seem to find a way to talk with the Italian theoretical physicist and computer scientist about his latest, and, to some, most quixotic endeavor: the Turing Church, a transhumanist group that he hopes will curate the crowdsourcing of a techno-rapture. In many ways, Prisco and his supporters want to provide a literal faith in the future.
It's one of the newest in a multitude of quasi-religious movements, all vying for a place in the rapidly changing futurist landscape. Prisco is carving out a digital space for what he hopes will store the building blocks for the construction of humanity's direction. According to the official website, the idea is that by releasing and curating metaphysical and scientific "programming code" to the public, people have a better chance of successfully augmenting our path as a species in hopes of eventually achieving in the physical world what most religions only promise in the afterlife: the defeat of death.
The Turing Church aims to attract like-minded support from researchers, programmers, and philosophers hoping to direct transhumanist progress within the framework of a broad "theology" of sorts. It's a position best summed up by the group's three core pillars:
- "We will go to the stars and find Gods, build Gods, become Gods, and resurrect the dead from the past with advanced science, space-time engineering and 'time magic.'"
- "God is emerging from the community of advanced forms of life and civilizations in the universe, and able to influence space-time events anywhere, anytime, including here and now."
- "God elevates love and compassion to the status of fundamental forces, key drivers for the evolution of the universe."
Prisco and the Turing Church meet in Second Life to discuss transhumanist philosophy. Video: Turing Church
Based in part on the philosophy of early 20th century Russian cosmists like Nikolai Fedorov, Prisco and his supporters believe that, one day, we may, among other things, actually reach back into time through quantum weirdness and reconstitute our "information," thus providing, for all intents and purposes, a resurrection. Once reconstituted, we should be able to evolve into higher forms of consciousness currently incomprehensible to mortal minds and indistinguishable to our current conceptions of gods.
"Active evolution," writes Prisco, "taking the future of our species in our hands and steering towards cosmic transcendence, is also the core idea of transhumanism, of which the Russian cosmists must be considered its direct precursors."
This rosy pseudo-afterlife picture of existence can be comforting to some, but hard for many in the larger futurist movement to digest. The idea that something greater awaits us is the essence of transhumanism, even if outspoken members of the community are ambivalent to religion at best, and in some cases passionately atheistic.
Case in point: In between tries to get Skype up and running with Prisco, Eliezer Yudkowsky, a research fellow at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and co-founder of the imposingly dense theoretical discussion board Less Wrong, messages me to decline an invitation to comment on the Turing Church.
"Sorry, no," he writes. "And my answer to merging transhumanism with theology is the same as to merging transhumanism with Scientology—falsehood is falsehood, and humanity needs to get over its mistakes and move on."
Fair enough. I ask if it's alright to simply quote him on that.
"Sure," he replies, as my Skype call with Prisco crashes yet again.
While waiting for the program to reboot, I start reading an essay by Prisco on the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies' website in which he assures readers that, one day, humanity's superintelligent offspring, indistinguishable from what we now consider deities, will be able to reverse the inevitable slow death of the universe.
"Eventually, the Gods will be able to bring the dead back to life," he writes, "including you and I."
"I think it's better to start a revolution than to paddle out into the ocean and find new land."
"There are two billion Christians in the world, and billions of others who are religious. If anti-religious transhumanists succeed in making a war between the religious and transhumanism, that's not going to be a good scenario," Micah Redding tells me over the phone after Prisco and I agreed to postpone our interview for the time being.
Redding is one of the founders of the Christian Transhumanist Association, a group merging millennia-old Western belief with the most innovative, global scientific progress of our generation.
"Our Goal: To actively pursue the development and utilization of human technology so as to participate in Jesus Christ's redeeming purposes in the world," states the organization on their official website.
Like Prisco, Redding is part of the camp attempting to find a middle ground between zealots on both sides of the aisle. Micah, along with other Christian Transhumanists, argues that the goals of Christ and Ray Kurzweil aren't that far apart—both want to conquer mortality for the good of our species.
"The only good scenario here for any of us is that we actually invite the religious people of the world into the transhumanist discussion and say, 'Look, we face some big challenges over the next fifty to one hundred years. Let's engage in that process. I think that's absolutely essential," Redding explains.
In this sense, he completely understands where the Turing Church is coming from.
"I love what Giulio is doing. His idea of putting together some basic… religious axioms that people can agree on and build on, I think it's a powerful idea," Redding says.
The line begins to crackle and short out. I look at my iPhone screen—inexplicably, it flickers between one and zero bars.
"Micah?" I say, sprinting outside onto my back porch in hopes of salvaging the reception.
"Blarglewarble," he says behind a wall of static. That, or something very similar.
Three chimes ring through the speaker, indicating the call dropped. I try redialing a couple times, only to receive gurgling answers. Finally, I manage to get a hold of Micah for a few more minutes. I ask him if there are parts of Turing Church he disagrees with. In particular, Redding is unsure of how effective such a broad, interpretive belief structure can truly be. While basic shared tenets and are important, Micah doesn't fully believe you can't start such a system in a vacuum.
"I don't think anything really starts from scratch," Redding says through the failing reception. "I think it's better to start a revolution than to paddle out into the ocean and find new land."
"All popular philosophies and religions have dumbed-down formulations for unthinking brainwashed followers"
The next day, Prisco and I finally figure out that the best way to talk is via that most ancient of digital media: email. He opens with explaining why Turing Church's deliberate malleability is essential to future ideas and innovation. Rigidity, according to Prisco, equals stagnation.
"I think a philosophy or religion should be a DIY project to build an always incomplete, flexible, work-in-progress, always evolving personal system of thought," he writes to me. "Just like a free software project, which is a living project constantly revised and improved upon, released incrementally, and open to everyone to contribute."
Membership is free and open to anyone with ideas to share, with supporters often meeting on Second Life's Terasem sim along with the usual social media sites to discuss the latest in transhumanist trends. He likens the Turing Church's formational tenets to the fundamentals of computer operations development.
"A good analogy… is the Linux kernel, which can be reused to build Ubuntu with a nice graphical user interface wrapped around," Prisco said. "I focus on the kernel and leave the graphical interface to others."
Prisco anticipates and welcomes disagreements within the movement, even if that means the Turing Church will eventually transform into something completely different than what he first envisioned. Hypothetically, the more minds at work creating different paths towards the divine, the better chance humanity has at actually reaching this goal.
"An important point… is that the (inevitable) differences between contributors shouldn't be allowed to paralyze or water down the project," he said. "Fork instead of over-arguing… [B]etter two separate forks than one master distribution watered-down by too many compromises."
It's important to note here that, unlike many boutique existential communities one can find online, Prisco says he refuses to let his project to devolve into a cult of personality. The Turing Church is meant for the collective good, wholly egalitarian and devoid of any centralized hierarchical structure. The goal is long-term technological resurrection of the dead into new forms of consciousness, be it physical or otherwise—a project that, if feasible, can only be accomplished through the collaborative efforts of all.
"I think wise old men make excellent advisers but poor leaders," he told Ben Goertzel in an interview for IEET. "In general, I believe a social movement needs all sorts of persons and personalities."
Prisco giving a talk in New York City in October.
I message Prisco to ask how he'd feel if the Turing Church forked in a direction he never envisioned, something more hardline and inflexible, or one focused on an individual or individuals.
"I would feel misunderstood, and keep a distance," he responded. "I wouldn't denounce or condemn them, but ignore them."
Prisco pivots to the sad fact that occurs within many radical social projects, be it philosophical, technological, or religious: power can be a pretty corruptible force.
"Having said that, I concede that most people seem to need centralized dogmas and rigid hierarchies, and 'leaders' are always willing and ready to exploit those needs, so I guess if my ideas gain traction there will be centralized, rigid and dogmatic interpretations with plenty of geography and zoning norms," he says, referring to his theory that the current state of religion is too dependent on societal regulations, or theologies informed solely by ancient surroundings.
"All popular philosophies and religions have dumbed-down formulations for unthinking brainwashed followers," Prisco adds. "At the same time, a dumbed-down philosophy can be an entry point to a mature philosophy for those who want to do some thinking, so I guess dumbed-down stuff has a role to play."
As transhumanism further works its way into mainstream culture, much of the conversation will continue focusing on its most effective direction. Strictly scientific proponents will deny any room for faith, while the religiously-inclined will contend religiosity to be useful, if not necessary, in human development. It dawns on me while searching the troubleshooting section of Skype's website that at least a certain kind of faith seems necessary in the movement; namely, faith in bigger and brighter minds than my own finding a common ground in their quest for our collective transcendence. Before my computer crashes yet again, I manage to ask Prisco what he thinks of comments from detractors such as Yudkowsky or Zoltan Istvan, the Transhumanist Party's presidential candidate.
"I don't take [the critics] seriously enough to waste valuable time responding," he writes back. "...I deny their claimed right to choose what has a place and what has no place in the transhumanist movement."