Between proponents and critics of the singularitarian movement one can find many interesting disagreements. These range from the empirical, to the ethical, to the metaphysical, and even the religious. Proponents of the movement, singularitarians, claim the accelerating pace of technological advancement will inevitably lead to the singularity, often understood as the advent of (artificial) super intelligence. Some even go so far as to make predictions and present timelines for when this might happen and what consequences might be. For humans and human society, the consequences of this event will be of such a magnitude and intensity that they are almost unimaginable; these consequences are, aptly, singular in human history. For singularitarians, they are also overwhelmingly positive. Humanity will change for the better, they claim. The eternal issues of scarcity, mortality, human shortcomings physical, intellectual and moral, disease, war and more would all be solved. Since these ends are all extremely good, singularitarians will often dedicate a large part, if not all, of their life to working on bringing on the singularity as fast, and safe, as possible. They study and discuss the hurdles towards and outcomes of the singularity; they work as computer scientists, AI-researchers, machine-learning engineers; they write books for its advocacy; or they become angel investors for small, bleeding edge IT start-ups.
Then there are the critics, who attack singularitarians on multiple fronts. There are valid objections raised against the prediction of the singularity, which show, among other issues, how singularitarians fall victim to unjustified extrapolations, fallacious invocations of Moore’s law, or falsely equating computation and thought (Proudfoot & Copeland, 2017). However, some critics go too far, at least according to Luciano Floridi (2015), and fall into the trap of what he calls “AItheism.” They do this by claiming that the idea of the singularity is wrong, because they wrongly believe AI is fundamentally impossible. As a response to this, Floridi argues for a middle ground between the extremes of singularitarianism and AItheism, where one understands our world is already getting more and more saturated with and affected by AI-driven technologies, which might not think, but still exert a huge influence on how we perceive ourselves and others, and how we act in this changing environment. Though what is most striking about Floridi’s paper is that he talks not merely of singularitarianism versus AItheism, but about the Churches of these isms. Floridi is not alone in this criticism, namely, the one that tries to unmask singularitarianism as just another (apocalyptic) religion that enjoys popularity not for its validity, but simply for the fact that it ameliorates people’s fear of death, produces a sense of higher purpose, and makes its proponents feel part of a special, selected in-group.
Of course, it is not surprising singularitarians often oppose this religious characterization, or at least attempt to diminish it. For example, one singularitarian blogger’s argument does admit there are indeed external similarities between singularitarianism and bona fide religions, but that they are nonetheless fundamentally distinctive because the former, supposedly, enjoys at least some degree of evidence while the latter does not (Julius, 2019). Unfortunately, the supposed empirical evidence consists exactly of the claims and predictions already shown to be marred by serious objections. But judging whether singularitarianism is a religion on the basis of the existing discourse is not the purpose of this paper. Instead, in this paper, we will try to construct a different argument in favour of the thesis that singularitarianism is indeed a religion. However, we will not be doing this by pointing to external characteristics of the movement, like its normative statements or the social behaviours and choices of its proponents, but through an analysis of what the concept of the singularity entails, and what this means for the experiences of singularitarians vis-à-vis the supposed future event of the singularity.
The Atopic Other as Singularity
There are reasons to think the atopic Other, as we find it in Byung-Chul Han’s writing, is the selfsame entity as the singular, or the singularity. These reasons come most notably, but among others, from his book The Expulsion of the Other (Han, 2018). Though in The Agony of Eros we already find the first hint of this identity: “In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates takes the stage as a seducer, beloved, and lover; because of his singularity, he is called atopos,” (Han, 2017a, p. 51). Singularity therefore implies atopos, and where we find the atopic, so to speak, we find the Other.
When we do turn then to The Expulsion of the Other (Han, 2019) we find more corroborative statements. Again, we find Socrates “as an object of desire” who is “incomparable and singular.” This is mentioned in contrast with the notion of authenticity, as we find it today in the neoliberal system. Everyone strives for authenticity, to be different from others, to be an Other. This fails, because differing from others authentically presupposes comparability. “But Socrates is atopos, incomparable,” Han says, “He is not only different from other people, but also from everything else that is different from other people.” What we find is that “Singularity is something entirely different from authenticity.” Singularity is atopos, incomparable, entirely different from authenticity.
It is also death: “Death, which eludes all exchange, is the epitome of the singular,” (Han, 2019) We find this in the context of terrorism, which is the terror of the singular against the terror of the global, which in turn “sweeps away all singularities that do not submit to universal exchange.” Furthermore, the terror, or violence, of the global is the violence of the Same destroying the negativity of the Other, “of the singular, of the incomparable, which impairs the circulation of information, communication and capital.” The violence of the Same works to destroy singularities. We know this, for authenticity, the opposition of singularity, is an expression of the culture of constant comparison. This culture, “does not allow the negativity of the atopos. It makes everything comparable, that is, the same.”
Having found reasons to identify the atopic Other with singularity, we can now understand the expulsion of the Other as the expulsion of singularity. We can now likewise understand singularity as that which is inaccessible, unknowable, placeless. Or following Barthes, singularity, because of the atopia it shares with the Other, “makes language indecisive: one cannot speak of the other [the singular], about the other; every attribute is false, painful, erroneous, awkward[…],” (Han, 2019). We find ourselves here, again, in the context of the desired Other, the lover, the beloved. Or, as we have now established, the desired singularity. Since it is (though among other things) a person who can be desired, we can say people, individuals, can be singularities.
But where else than in the otherness of people and lovers do we find singularities? There are several similar senses of the word, most notably in the area of science. Here, it first and foremost denotes an event or object whose variable(s) reach an infinite or unmeasurable value. We find cases of this in the moment before the big bang and behind the event horizon of black holes, where it takes the form of a gravitational singularity. It is here that gravity seems to attain an infinite value through the point-like compression of matter and/or energy towards a state of infinite density. This more technical and scientific sense of singularity however does not differ all that much from the sense of singularity discussed above.
Take first the singularity; the one preceding the big bang. We can understand it as atopos, for it is ultimately so. It does not have a place in neither space nor time, for it is precisely the point-event from which, or ‘after’ which, space-time came into being. It is incomparable, singular. Understood as the birth of the universe, or the first cause, it is unique. It is also epistemically inaccessible. We must keep in mind though, that the singularity associated with the big bang exists by virtue of our scientific theories. It arises from the extrapolation of general relativity towards the beginning of the universe’s finite time. The fact that density and temperature go to infinity does not mean that that is the case, but that our theory is inadequate. It is first and foremost, a singularity for us. Moreover, the cosmic background radiation, the ‘oldest’ thing science can measure (perhaps in principle), does not show us the state of the universe at the point of singularity. This means that, for science and scientists, talking about the attributes of the initial singularity is likewise ‘false, painful, erroneous, awkward.’ (Furthermore, our knowledge of the cosmic background radiation—and, importantly, the epistemic barrier it represents—is necessarily attainable for us only through the digital medium; analogue photography cannot capture it. Here again, we can invoke Han: “In contrast, the digital image—the digital medium—represents the corollary of a mode of “life” in which growing and aging, birth and death, are all erased.”)
Second, we have black holes, which contain a singularity. Here, the term singularity seems weaker. These singularities are not unique, or wholly singular; we know of the existence of numerous black holes. But we can still connect the terms: as we have already seen in Han’s work, the possibility of multiplicity is not excluded from singularity. So, we have the violence of the global sweeping away all singularities; we have Nietzsche’s over-abundant soul, “capable of harbouring all singularities within itself,” (Han, 2019); we have the ‘multitude’ within empire resisting empire: “an aggregate of singularities communicating with each other over networks and acting collectively,” (Han, 2017b). Then, the black hole singularity is also placeless, but again in a weaker fashion than the initial singularity. The black hole, as a whole, exists in space, and we know the singularity’s place is at least minimally delineated by the black hole’s event horizon. Still, there exists the fundamental unknowability as a result of the event horizon, which, like the negativity of the Other, severely impairs the circulation of information. And even if one were to find oneself inside a black hole, having yourself and your spaceship somehow not be spaghettified, one would find spacetime to be completely turned on its head: every direction you take, any possible world-line you could follow, flows towards the centre; space has become unidirectional, and one cannot speak of places, when every movement is the same.
When an intercontinental passenger airliner suddenly stops communicating and its blip vanishes from ground control’s radar screen, a frantic search ensues. Sometimes, deep waters and scuba gear are involved. If, however, one is luckier in this search, there is a smouldering wreckage smeared over the gentle slope of an easily reachable mountain range. Men wearing rebreathers and protective clothing will scour the bent and inferno-blackened metal fragments looking for the bright fire-orange flight data recorder, the black box. At the point of disaster, this black box becomes placeless, inaccessible, and singular. Then, if all goes well, it is stripped, step by step, of its singularity. First, it is found, losing its atopia. Then, it is opened, accessed. Finally, its data is read, interpreted, categorized, and added up to the repository of all other airline crash data. This information is not only used to uncover the calamitous event, which was also an Other, but to find hidden fault lines in the system to address, making possible the prevention of similar future accidents, thereby reducing the negativity of mass air travel. Essentially, the telos of a black box is to make itself obsolete. Since the calamitous event is also a black box, an Other, we can look at it in terms of input and output. A fully functioning, fully communicating, fully connected white box (the airplane) enters the event and a disconnected, destroyed, silent wreckage leaves it. We do not know what transformations were performed on the input during the event that led to the output. In fact, even with the flight data records, we can hope at most to turn the airplane back into a grey box.
The practice of treating black boxes in terms of input and output comes from the field of software engineering, specifically software testing. Here, one can treat the inner workings of a given software program, or system, as either known (a white box), partially known (a grey box) or wholly unknown (a black box). It is Luciano Floridi who borrows these terms from software engineering for the framework of his Informational Structural Realism (ISR), found in The Philosophy of Information (Floridi, 2013).
Here, Floridi talks of people not as Others, but as informational organisms, or ‘inforgs.’ Inforgs are able to turn data that is well-formed, meaningful, and truthful, into semantic information, which subsequently can be turned in knowledge when a proper account can be given, “the web of mutual relations that allow one part of it to account for another,” (Floridi, 2013). We can see parallels with Han’s understanding of the difference between knowledge and information (or data), namely, in Floridi’s words that, “Shatter that [the web of mutual relations], and you are left with a pile of truths or a random list of bits of information that cannot help to make sense of the reality they seek to address.” Having an account for knowledge means having experience, to be able to answer the question of why:
“Even the largest accumulation of information, Big Data, possesses very little knowledge. Big Data is used to find correlations. A correlation states: when A occurs, B often also occurs. It is not known, however, why this is so. Correlation is the most primitive form of knowledge, being not even capable of ascertaining the relationship between cause and effect. It is so. The question of why becomes irrelevant; thus nothing is understood. But knowledge is understanding. Hence Big Data renders thought superfluous. We surrender ourselves without concern to the it-is-so,” (Han, 2019).
Floridi goes on to say that, within the framework of ISR, “we are inforgs dealing with black boxes [objects] inside a grey box [the world].” Where, “A black box may be opened, but opening it transforms it into a grey box, in which more black boxes may be found.” It follows that inforgs themselves, to other inforgs, are black boxes up until the point of interrogation and the exchange of semantic information and eventually knowledge turns them into gray boxes, filled with more black boxes.
Thus, we can now understand the expulsion of the Other, its destruction by the violence of the same, as black boxes being turned into grey boxes, and eventually white boxes. It is making us transparent, and our inner workings known. We are like the black box of an airplane, being stripped of its singularity: first being found, then accessed, and finally added up to the pile of random truths. We share its telos.
Otherness and the Sublime
Having laid part of the groundwork for our argument characterizing singularitarianism as a religion, we must discuss just that, the religious. For this, we can turn to Emanuel Rutten (Rutten, 2018; Rutten, 2020), who gives us an overview of different conceptions of the sublime and from this his own synthesis and phenomenological explication of what the sublime experience entails. Rutten starts with a bare description of the sublime experience taken from Longinus and goes on to incorporate what he thinks are relevant elements found in writings on the sublime by Burke, Kant, and Lyotard. The result is what Rutten calls a Longinian definition of the sublime (experience). This paper is not the place to present the gamut of his discussion, but we do not have to look far to find the points of intersection we need.
For example, the object of the sublime experience: this is the transcendental, or the First Cause. There is a relational aspect, where the object of the experience, the First Cause, is experienced as subject. The content of this experience is also ineffable. One cannot properly describe it with language or formula; the content merely presents itself as feeling, or sentiment. Strongly related to this is the alterity, or Otherness, of the subject experienced in a sublime experience. The sublime experience is also an experience of contrast, namely, the between fear—fear of nature, fear of darkness or the unknown, fear of death—and the subsequent ecstasy or euphoria gained from overcoming this fear (or terror) in the face of the sublime.
In other writings on the sublime, Rutten discusses Bataille (Rutten, 2014), and his notion of the sacred. Rutten first mentions Bataille has often been understood as a secular thinker. He goes against this, arguing that Bataille’s notion of the sacred and the Inner Experience that can bring one into contact with the sacred can readily be approximated, on a phenomenological basis, to experiences of God, as found in monotheistic religion. This approximation, or comparison, is done on the basis of shared characteristics like Otherness, the experience of contrast between utter fear and sheer euphoria, the ineffability of the experience, and the emotive aspect, among others.
It should be clear that the notion of the sacred and the Inner Experience found in Bataille, as well as the Longinian definition of the sublime experience, are not all that far removed from Han’s notion of the atopic Other or, as we have seen, of singularity.
The Return of the Other
We can now turn to the notion of singularity as found in the singularitarian movement, often referred to as the technological singularity. First, we will look at the most popular understanding of this singularity, found in the works of Ray Kurzweil, most notably in his book The Singularity is Near (Kurzweil, 2006) In it, he observes an exponential growth in the rate of technological development during the course of human history, which he calls, borrowing terminology from economics, the ‘Law of Accelerated Returns.’ He sees this same exponential growth pattern in biological evolution. This leads him to argue that, looking at the current increasing rate of development, a point of extreme exponential technological change will come about in the near future. Here, the singularity is understood as a point at which, because of the magnitude of technological change, all facets of our lives and society will change in unprecedented ways. It is understood as an event. This event will consist of the confluence of many fields of science, most notably those of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence. According to the picture Kurzweil draws, this will mean humans will be able to, among many other things, achieve practical immortality, get rid of scarcity, and manipulate and change any and all parts of the world to their whims, both real and virtual. This singularity, lets call it the event-singularity, does not, however, necessarily carry the same quality of Otherness as the notions of singularity discussed above. Kurzweil seems quite sure about at least some of the technologies and changes this event-singularity will bring about. But what is important to keep in mind is that Kurzweil does include, in this prediction of outcomes, the advent of (artificial) super intelligence.
There are, however, other proponents of singularitarianism that do not share Kurzweil’s epistemic optimism. These nuances in singularitarianism range from pointing out that the technological changes will be so otherworldly, there is no way of imagining what these might be or look like, to stating the fairly evident idea that super intelligence, if created, would be fundamentally unknowable or unintelligible for humans, both pertaining to its inner working as well as its behaviour. Regarding all the different flavours of singularitarianism, I would argue this latter idea, and the epistemic problems this entails, is the most common among them.
We can look to Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence (2016)and James Barrat’s book Our Final Invention (2015) to get a sense of how this super intelligence might come about. Both works give a similar narrative for how, assuming it is even possible. The reasoning is as follows. When humans create the first artificial general intelligence (AGI) there is little reason to think this AGI will not be able to understand and modify itself. After all, humans possess general intelligence, and in this scenario we were able to understand and modify (build) AGI as well. If left to its own devices, it can reasonably be expected the AGI would start improving itself, albeit incrementally, allowing its improved iterations to improve itself even further. This will cause a runaway effect, where the AGI will eventually, presumably, reach super intelligence. This process of self-improvement towards artificial super intelligence (ASI) could take years, or perhaps minutes. However long it takes though, it is the transition from AGI to ASI, the moment of emergence of ASI, that forms the essence of the notion of singularity found among singularitarians. Because we would be dealing with a super intelligence, it is impossible for us to know what would happen after this point in time. Moreover, the ASI itself can also be understood as a singularity, it is a black box. Its inner workings would be unknown to us and its behaviour and motivations utterly unintelligible for our general intelligence.
Now, if we understand the notion of singularity found in the belief-system of singularitarians as referring to the emergence and existence of (artificial) super intelligence, we can see the similarities of this singularity with those discussed earlier. It therefore becomes clear that singularitarianism contains, at its core, a strong sense of Otherness, of ‘Hanian’ singularity. We can now also see why singularitarianism can be characterized as a religion. Because, as we have seen, notions of the sublime and sacred also carry or point to this sense of Otherness, incomparability, unknowability, we find in the Hanian singularity. This way, it becomes arguable, as I do here, that singularitarianism has its own conceptions of the sublime and sacred integrated in its belief-system. Singularitarian see in the future a return of the Other, in the form of the technological singularity. The counterarguments of singularitarians against the accusations of religiosity do not defend against this argument either. Admitting singularitarianism is fundamentally distinct from religion because it has evidence does not take away the Otherness at the core. And, as I have tried to argue here, containing this Otherness makes singularitarianism a decidedly religious ideology. And perhaps the singularitarians would do well in the future, if and when they are finally proven right and the Other has returned, to replace the age-old necrology with the words, “God is back, and we built Him.”
Barrat, J. (2015). Our Final Invention (Reprint ed.). Griffin.
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Floridi, L. (2013). The Philosophy of Information (Illustrated ed.). Oxford University Press.
Floridi, Luciano. (2015). Singularitarians, AItheists, and Why the Problem with Artificial Intelligence is H.A.L (Humanity At Large), not HAL. 14. 8–11.
Han, B. (2017a). The Agony of Eros (Untimely Meditations). The MIT Press.
Han, B. (2017b). In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (Untimely Meditations). The MIT Press.
Han, B. (2018). The Expulsion of the Other: Society, Perception and Communication Today (1st ed.). Polity.
Han, B. (2020). The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present (1st ed.). Polity.
Julius P. (2019). Is Singularitarianism a religion? Human Economics. https://patrickjuli.us/2019/11/17/is-singularitarianism-a-religion/
Kurzweil, R. (2006). The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Penguin Books.
Proudfoot, D., & Copeland, B. J. (2017). Artificial Intelligence. In E. Margolis, R. Samuels, & S. P. Stich (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Cognitive Science (Oxford Handbooks) (Reprint ed., pp. 147–182). Oxford University Press.
Rutten, G. J. E. (2014). Metamorfoses lezing over Bataille en het monotheïsme. Filosofische Bijdragen Emanuel Rutten. https://www.gjerutten.nl/GeorgesBatailleEnMonotheisme_ERutten.pdf
Rutten, G. J. E. (2018). Het retorische weten. Leesmagazijn.
Rutten, G. J. E. (2020). Het retorische weten II. Adfo Books.
 My copy of this book, among others, unfortunately did not contain page numbers.
 Alternatively, we might say the singularity was, or contained, every-thing and every-where. During the period of inflation, it was not something inside the universe that expanded, it was the universe itself that expanded. In this sense also, the universe itself, or the singularity, was therefore placeless.