Turing, Strong AI, and The Fantasy of Transhumanist Spiritualism.

By Robert Hanna

Alan Turing (1912–1954, circa 1928)


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Turing, Strong AI, and The Fantasy of Transhumanist Spiritualism

In 1933, under the heading of “[The] Nature of Spirit,” Alan Turing wrote:

[A]s regards the actual connection between spirit and body I consider that the body by reason of being a living body can “attract” and hold on to a “spirit” whilst the body is alive and awake and the two are firmly connected. When the body is asleep I cannot guess what happens but when the body dies the “mechanism” of the body, holding the spirit, is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later perhaps immediately.

As regards the question of why we have bodies at all; why we do not or cannot live free as spirits and communicate as such, we probably could do so but there would be nothing whatever to do. The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use. (As quoted in [Popova, 2017]).

In 1936/1937, Turing published “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” (Turing, 1936/1937), the foundational text of the formal science of digital computing; and in 1950 he published “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” the foundational text of the cognitive science of artificial intelligence, aka AI.

It might not be immediately or intuitively obvious, but in fact there’s an essential connection between what Turing wrote in 1933 on the one hand, and what he wrote in 1936/1937 and 1950 on the other, namely, what I’ll call transhumanist spiritualism.

What do I mean by that term?

The recent and contemporary movement of transhumanism (aka “posthumanism”) is a

social and philosophical movement devoted to promoting the research and development of robust human-enhancement technologies. Such technologies would augment or increase human sensory reception, emotive ability, or cognitive capacity as well as radically improve human health and extend human life spans. Such modifications resulting from the addition of biological or physical technologies would be more or less permanent and integrated into the human body. (Britannica, 2022)

More specifically,

[a]s humans, we are defined by, among other things, our desire to transcend our humanity. Mythology, religion, fiction and science offer different versions of this dream. Transhumanism — a social movement predicated on the belief that we can and should leave behind our biological condition by merging with technology — is a kind of feverish amalgamation of all four. Though it’s oriented toward the future, and is fuelled by excitable speculation about the implications of the latest science and technology, its roots can be glimpsed in ancient stories like that of the Sumerian king Gilgamesh and his quest for immortality…. Transhumanism represents a desire to obliterate the boundary between human bodies and machines, and a confusion in the first place as to the distinction between the two. (Guardian, 2018)

Even more specifically, transhumanism claims that the selves of creatures like us not only can exist independently of our bodies, as functional systems of representational content that are inherently able to be implemented or realized in digital-mechanical technology and uploadable to servers, but also can survive accidental or natural human death in server-limbo, then be downloaded into technologically enhanced partially mechanical humanoid bodies or even into wholly artificially-created completely mechanical non-humanoid bodies, survive in these new implementations or realizations for an indefinitely long time, repeat that process, and possibly even become immortal.

Now, it’s true that the belief in and desire for digital-mechanical immortality isn’t strictly required for transhumanism: as a recent survey showed, as many as 23.8% of contemporary transhumanists don’t actually desire digital-mechanical immortality (Wikipedia, 2022).

But of course, that also implies that as many as 76.2% of contemporary transhumanists do actually desire (and therefore, presumably, also believe in) digital-mechanical immortality.

Leaving aside for a moment (although I will come back to this later) transhumanism’s inherently questionable metaphysical appeal to what I call the mechanistic worldview (Hanna, 2022), including the strong thesis of artificial intelligence, aka strong AI, and also its all-too-trendy, breathless, and high-gloss futurological appeal to the Promethean wonders of digital technology, transhumanism is in fact metaphysically equivalent to Swedenborgian spiritualism (see, e.g., Swedenborg Foundation, 2022), which Immanuel Kant so effectively criticizes and wittily derides in his 1766 book, Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics:

In Stockholm there dwells a certain [Swedenborg], a gentleman of comfortable means and independent position. For the last twenty years or more he has, as he tells us, devoted himself exclusively to cultivating the closest contact with spirits and with the souls of the dead, and, in exchange, to giving them information about this present world, to composing hefty volumes devoted to his discoveries, and periodically travelling to London in order to supervise their publication…. [Swedenborg] distinguishes between the outer and inner memory in humankind. A person has outer memory as someone belonging to the visible world, whereas a person has inner memory in connection with the spirit-world. [Swedenborg’s] own superiority consists in the fact that, already in this life, he sees himself as a person who belongs to the community of spirits and that he is recognized as someone belonging to that community. It is also in this inner memory that everything, which has vanished from outer memory, is conserved, none of a person’s representations ever getting lost. After death, the memory of everything which had ever entered his soul and which had so far remained concealed from him, goes to make up the complete book of his life. (Kant, 1992: pp. 341, 348 [Ak 2: 354, 362])

By the term essentially embodied rational human selves, I mean necessarily and completely embodied conscious, self-conscious, sensible (i.e., sense-perceiving, imagining, and emoting), volitional or willing, discursive (i.e., conceptualizing, judging, and inferring) human animals, aka human persons, innately possessing dignity or absolute value, and fully capable not only of free agency, but also of a priori knowledge of analytic and synthetic a priori truths alike, with egocentric centering in manifestly real orientable space and time.

Or as Kant much more compactly puts it in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer: “My soul is wholly in my whole body, and wholly in each of its [organic] parts”(Kant, 1992: p. 313 [Ak 2: 325], italics in the original, bracketted word taken from the original source quoted by Kant, cited in the editorial note on p. 449, n. 11).

In my opinion, for which I’ve argued in detail and at length elsewhere, all rational but also “human, all-too-human” in Nietzsche’s sense (by which I mean: animal, embodied, finite, and thoroughly normatively imperfect) creatures like us — for example, the readers of this essay — are, synthetic a priori necessarily,[i] essentially embodied selves (Hanna and Maiese, 2009; Hanna, 2011a, 2011b; Hanna, 2018).

Let’s call that the essentially embodied selves thesis, or for short, EEST, pronounced like “east.”

If EEST is true, then it’s synthetic a priori impossible for the selves of creatures like us to exist independently of our own living organismic animal bodies or beyond the deaths of those bodies, as spiritual selves, whether temporarily or permanently, by any means whatsoever.

Indeed, the very ideas of disembodied spiritual selves, their survival after death, and of human immortality, while minimally logically consistent, are in fact conceptually empty and incoherent, even over and above the synthetic a priori impossibility of such things, since the term “myself” indexically picks out an essentially embodied self, all of whose core features require grounding in a particular living organismic animal body.

Moreover, and more importantly, if EEST is true, then, just like Swedenborgianism, transhumanist spiritualism is not only conceptually empty and incoherent, but also synthetic a priori impossible.

And what’s more, it’s also existentially and morally reprehensible (Gare, 2016).

In short, then, the belief in transhuman spiritual selves is nothing but an existentially and morally reprehensible metaphysical fantasy.

To be sure, Turing was an exceptionally brilliant and important mathematical logician and philosophical visionary, and also the decrypter of Nazi communications codes during World War II — thereby substantially contributing to shortening the war by 2–4 years and probably saving between 14 million and 21 million lives — who lived an all-too-short and tragic life (he committed suicide in 1954), intensely suffering under the moralistic coercive authoritarianism of the very State he so nobly served in World War II, England, because it also systematically persecuted homosexuals (see, e.g., Popova, 2017).

Nevertheless, according to the conjunction of his own explicit formulations in 1933, 1936/1937, and 1950, Turing was also at least implicitly committed to the fantasy of transhumanist spiritualism.

Let me explain.

The classical Swedenborgian metaphysical fantasy about the self is that our “human, all-too-human” self can somehow exist in disembodied form, as a Geist/ghost-self, or spirit, that hovers epiphenomenally above the manifestly real world, immortally, yet also retains all the representational content that we ever personally or sub-personally cognized.

The recent and contemporary crypto-Swedenborgian metaphysical fantasy of transhumanist spiritualism, post-Turing, is that this Geist/ghost-self or spirit is a functional system in digital format, as described by the formal science of digital computing and Turing machines (Boolos and Jeffrey, 1989), that can exist in abstract, disembodied form like a computer program, and be repeatedly uploaded or downloaded to, and implemented or realized on, on different kinds of digital technology, that also have other causal powers of various kinds, and thereby our transhuman spiritual self epiphenomenally hovers above the manifestly real natural and social world like a causally inert shadow, going from from one uploading, downloading, implementation, or realization to another, escaping accidental or natural human death for an indefinitely long time and perhaps even forever in the sempiternal sense, i.e., immortally.

Transhumanist spiritualism, in turn, presupposes the truth of the strong thesis of artificial intelligence, aka strong AI, which again in turn presupposes the truth of the materialist/physicalist doctrine of metaphysical computational-functionalism about the human mind, which says that the human mind and all its contents can be explanatorily and ontologically reduced to a Turing-computable system of input-output mappings that can be implemented or realized on different sorts of machines, all of which operate as digital computing machines, in addition to whatever other causal powers these machines might have.

But if EEST is true, then both strong AI and metaphysical computational-functionalism about the human mind are necessarily false.

More specifically, strong AI is the two-part thesis which says (i) that rational human intelligence can be explanatorily and ontologically reduced to Turing-computable algorithms and the operations of digital computers (aka the thesis of formal mechanism, as it’s applied to rational human intelligence), and (ii) that it’s technologically possible to build a digital computer that’s an exact counterpart of rational human intelligence, such that this machine not only exactly reproduces (aka simulates) all the actual performances of rational human intelligence, but also outperforms it (aka the counterpart thesis) (see, e.g., Block, 1980: part 3; Kim, 2011: ch. 6).

The strong AI thesis is not only immensely controversial, but also strongly apt to be seriously muddled, for at least three reasons.

First, the strong AI thesis is very often confused with the weak AI thesis (for details, see [a few paragraphs] below), but (i) the weak AI thesis is itself ambiguous as between a non-trivial version and a trivial version, and (ii) even if both of the versions of the weak AI thesis were true, nevertheless strong AI could still be false.

Second, the strong AI thesis, as such, overlooks the fact that rational human intelligence is also conscious: hence if strong AI were true, then human consciousness would also have to be explanatorily and ontologically reducible to Turing-computable algorithms and the operations of digital computers, which is equivalent to metaphysical computational-functionalism about human consciousness, which in turn puts an extra-heavy burden of proof on defenders of strong AI.

Indeed, Ned Block, David Chalmers, Frank Jackson, and others have developed (admittedly, controversial) arguments which, if sound, show that phenomenal consciousness does not logically strongly supervene on functional physical facts (see, e.g., Chalmers, 1996: chs. 1–4).

But even if, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the conception of phenomenal consciousness that’s assumed by all those anti-functionalist arguments is false (Hanna and Maiese, 2009; Hanna, 2011a), nevertheless if EEST is true, then necessarily, consciousness in creatures like us is essentially embodied, so metaphysical computational-functionalism about human consciousness is false and indeed synthetic a priori impossible.

Third, the very idea of “being artificial” is ambiguous as between (i) being mechanical, as opposed to being organic, and (ii) being able to be built or constructed or synthesized, as opposed to not being able to be built or constructed or synthesized, for whatever reason, but (i) and (ii) are mutually logically independent of one another: something could be mechanical but not buildable, constructible, or synthesizable (for example, digital computations involving more digits or computations than there are particles or future moments of time in the cosmos), and conversely something could be buildable, constructible, or synthesizable but not mechanical (for example, certain exactly reproducible uncomputable, non-equilibrium thermodynamic biochemical processes, including organismic processes).

Over and above the controversies, the strong AI thesis is demonstrably false, for at least four good reasons, and the weak AI thesis is either false (the non-trivial version) or boringly trivially true (the trivial version), as follows.

1. If EEST is true, then necessarily, intelligent rational human minds are alive, but systems that conform to the strong AI thesis are inherently mechanical and non-living, so the strong AI thesis is necessarily false.

2. If EEST is true, then necessarily, intelligent rational human minds are essentially embodied, but systems that conform to the strong AI thesis are possibly disembodied, so the strong AI thesis is necessarily false.

3. If EEST is true, then necessarily, rational human knowledge requires a non-accidental connection between judgment or belief and truth, and also a non-accidental connection between true belief and justification (Hanna, 2015: esp. chs. 1 and 6–8), but systems that conform to the strong AI thesis only ever provide accidental content-connections, hence not only (i) is the strong AI thesis necessarily false, but also (ii) if the strong AI thesis were true, then our intelligent rational human minds would be nothing more than digital computers, and therefore we couldn’t ever know the truth of the strong AI thesis, so the strong AI thesis is also epistemically self-undermining.

4. If EEST is true and also Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems (Gödel, 1967), which say (i) that all Principia Mathematica-style systems of mathematical logic based on the Peano axioms for arithmetic will contain undecidable, unprovable sentences, and (ii) that no such system of mathematical logic can prove its own consistency, hence the truth of mathematical axioms has to be demonstrated outside those systems — for example, by acts of rational human mathematical intuition (see, e.g., Hanna, 2015: chs. 6–8) — are true, then EEKST together with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems jointly entail that there will be uncomputable, undecidable, unprovable mathematical axioms that only intelligent rational human minds, i.e., essentially embodied selves, can know, so systems that conform to the strong AI thesis inherently fall short of the actual performances of rational human intelligence, and therefore the strong AI thesis is false.

Moreover, if the weak AI thesis says that not all but only some actual performances of rational human intelligence are exactly reproducible (aka can be simulated) on digital computers (i.e., the non-trivial version), then since the strong AI thesis is not only false but impossible, then the non-trivial version of the weak AI thesis is false and impossible too.

But if the weak AI thesis says merely that some behavioral or formal features of some actual performances of rational human intelligence are either operationally or isomorphically representable on digital computers (the trivial version), then this is indeed true, but at best boringly trivially true, since the very same thesis is true of even the simplest counting or calculating procedures, using, for example, one’s fingers, hockey pucks, or an abacus.

In short, the very idea of transhumanist spiritual selves is nothing but a metaphysical fantasy — a digital Geist/ghost-self or spirit — of precisely the sort so effectively criticized and wittily derided by Kant in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer.

And as we’ve seen, if EEST is true, then the very idea of transhuman selves is conceptually empty or incoherent and synthetic a priori impossible.

Now, the only remaining philosophical question is, why are post-Turing transhumanists so attracted to, and indeed intellectually and emotionally addicted to, the crypto-Swedenborgian spiritualist fantasy that their own “human, all-too-human” selves are digital Geist/ghost-selves or spirits?

By way of answering that question, I strongly agree with Arran Gare’s critical diagnosis of the postmodernist/posthumanist “quest for disembodiment”:

The illusory quest for disembodiment … appears to be common among “macroparasites” who live off the work, products and lives of others. Historically, this illusion of disembodiment appears to have legitimated exploitation of others, but in doing so has led the ruling classes of civilizations to destroy the real conditions of their own existence. The … postmodernist forms of this illusion … are transmogrifications of the illusion of disembodiment on which medieval civilization was based. (Gare, 2016: p. 27)

So, assuming that Gare’s critical diagnosis is correct, then not only are the transhumanist crypto-Swedenborgian fantasists of transhuman selves — digital Geist/ghost-selves or spirits — self-deniers of their own living organismic human animal embodiment (i.e., they’re committed to an inherently inauthentic way of life by virtue of existential self-stultification), they’re also explicitly or implicitly intellectually and emotionally addicted to a rationally unjustified and immoral coercive authoritarian sociopolitical theory (i.e., they’re committed to a social-institutional system that violates the universal obligation to to treat all rational human animals with sufficient respect for their human human dignity, and is thereby inherently oppressive).

The very idea of transhuman spiritual selves is therefore not only a crypto-Swedenborgian metaphysical fantasy, it’s also an existentially and morally reprehensible fantasy.

Now, it’s an obvious and tragic truth that people can become addicted to things that are not only bad for them personally, but also objectively bad.

And so it is with post-Turing transhumanist spiritualism.


[i] For a full presentation and detailed defense of the analytic-synthetic distinction, including the synthetic a priori, see (Hanna, 2001, and 2015: esp. ch. 4).


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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.