Forefather of the Singularity: The Omega Point

Tuesday , 21, October 2014 111 Comments

The Omega Point illustrated.

The Science Fiction myth of The Singularity (as best described by Vernor Vinge) has its non-mathematical intellectual origins in the older, pre-AI concept of Pierre Tielhard de Chardin known as The Omega Point.

The Omega Point concept portrays a universe that is simultaneously Progressive and doomed because of it: that mankind (and all matter, really) is evolving to a point of supreme complexity, by which all things will merge to a supreme collective consciousness.

The Omega Point is inevitable and written in the stars: in fact, its fate was sealed before the Big Bang, and is destined to result in the ideal, highest possible state of evolution at some point in the future. An unwritten assumption of Omega Point thinking is that man is physically, technologically, ethically and intellectually in a state of constant upward improvement.

2001: A Space Odyssey portrays an Omega Point concept: that of mankind being dependent on alien technology to accelerate the evolution of human beings to a higher, less warlike state. Childhood’s End is the classic model of a fully-realized Omega Point novel. Isaac Asimov takes an even more holistic approach in his very short story, The Last Question.

It isn’t a long read: if you’ve got a minute, go there. Now, it may be easy to confuse this story with a Singularity story, but note that the fundamental changes in human life due to technology are incidental to the story – in fact, the powerful technology at the beginning of the story is the same by the end: it has not elevated to merge with human nature in any overt way. The robots and other life forms exist only to demonstrate an incredibly long passage of time, not the miraculous evolution of man and technology due to the Singularity.

Omega Point stories are a bit more durable than Singularity stories in general, precisely because such stories do not have to demonstrate predictive technology. As long as the assumption of the spiral (pictured) is accepted, the odd wrong technological guess won’t alter the structure. In other words, an Omega Point story that relies on a room-sized supercomputer to do relatively simple calculations may seem dated, but a Singularity story that relies on mankind being augmented and in some way non-human due to the advent of the black and white television or an emergency pager will be nearly unreadable, except for a few good laughs.

In The Two Faces of Tomorrow James P. Hogan successfully avoided certain predictions that could have rendered his novel pointless within a few years. In fact, the thing is nearly 40, and its take on the Singularity still holds up without a chuckle. Jo Walton once made an interesting argument (against the Singularity as an overriding restriction on hard science fiction and marking it as the “turd in the punchbowl” of the genre) that to me, suggests that–at least in part–the decline of hard science fiction since the mid-90s or so may be the result of a dearth of new science fiction authors equipped to address the Singularity scientifically.

Singularity stories extend the Omega Point concept: they suggest that the addition of technology will fundamentally alter what it means to be human, and this notion necessarily is based on humanity being a fully convergent property. After all, if there is a segment of humanity that does not follow the spiral toward the Omega Point, then there remains a type of humanity untouched by the Singularity, which wouldn’t be very singular at all.

Modern Day Weapons Technology Awaits the Singularity

Both types of stories are based on a naive warrant: that everything really is coming together, and if it is, humanity–as a spiritual state–will merge into this entirely material unity. The most interesting characters in Asimov’s short are the two modern drunk scientists shooting the bull. As humanity approaches the near godhood through material evolution, it not only becomes non-human, but also neutered and wholly uninspired. Notice that the robots and evolved life forms are rational in their queries, not drinking buddies. Being completely dull, apparently, is a preferred genetic trait.

No one resists the Multivac or its descendants? No one thinks independently of the enormous, world-saving device? For goodness sakes, compliant, travel-addicted Americans at least gripe about the NSA.

Walton may have a point that while it may be scientifically valid, it makes for too narrow of a playground in fiction. I disagree: I simply don’t trust the settled science. I think it is more likely that skepticism of The Omega Point (and therefore the Singularity) is the valid reason why so many Singularity stories don’t hold scientifically dramatic attention the way that other, less prescribed story types do. After all, a story or two based on the concept that phrenology reflects a world’s concepts of identity and personality in a scientifically valid way would be interesting, but spec-phrenology as an entire subgenre? That might be too far. (Then again, I find the entire genre of steampunk to be generally spread far too thin across far too many books to be a valid science fiction genre, and prefer it as a subset of alternate history.)

The problem for me as a reader is that for me to buy into the concept of Omega Point fiction, I simply lack sufficient faith.

  • illuminatus says:

    Famous CIA shill and soma apologist Terence McKenna was all over this theory – that should be enough to set off your Spidey-sense

    • Daniel says:

      That’s interesting. I did not know that.

      Of course, all manner of Evil take the opportunity to use truth to an advantage when possible, so, as you suggest, this fact alone is not enough to discredit the idea, but it is definitely good to know.

    • peter connor says:

      The Omega Point theory is childish rubbish derived from a mixture of marxism and modernism.

  • paul says:

    Cool blog! Didn’t knw and look forward to breezing through all the posts!

  • Noah B. says:

    I also don’t see this Omega Point as a convincing inevitability, but instead as a somewhat intriguing, yet very unlikely outcome.

    • Daniel says:

      What is more interesting to me is why, exactly, it might be such a convincing inevitability to anyone. I mean, a lot of popular ideas have shaky warrants, but the power of the Omega Point as a concept seems downright supernatural in its persistence. My suspicion is that its promise of godhood is just too rich for most mortals to disregard.

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    Looking forward to On War

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  • roo_ster says:

    Commenting and subscribing to newsletter in response to the imminent release of Lind’s On War.

    Oh, and cool blog post. I have not bought into the Singularity, given that I already have a religion and expect an eschaton of a rather different sort.

    • Daniel says:

      Do you find it interesting that the Omega Point uses religious language and even directly lifts the concept of the totality of “Alpha and Omega” from the book of Revelation, while attempting to cut it in half (losing the Alpha Point?)

      • roo_ster says:

        Yes and no.

        No, in that it is not the first to plagiarize Christianity.

        Yes, in that even those who reject ethical monotheism want to believe in _something_. It is easy to crib off et’s playbook while excising objectionable content and adding a denoument flattering to one’s talents and prejudices.

    • RedJack says:

      What is interesting to me is that so many of the “new” fields of science and philosophy have been covered by theologians of ages past.

      The concept of a union of souls with God is very prominent in Eastern Orthodox views of heaven.

  • John Schneider says:

    First, please add me to the newsletter. Second, the thought virus of Progress is the ultimate cause of the Omega Point. It posits a world that is constantly improving despite all contrary evidence. Once someone reads the classics, he is confronted with how little has changed in human nature despite all the time that has passed.

  • Bob Phegley says:

    I suspect neither the Singularity or the Omega Point will happen in my lifetime.

    • Daniel says:

      I think you’d be in agreement with a majority of Omega Point believers on that account: it appears to me that only a minority of proponents see “the turning point” as being within the next 20 years or so. It is the structure of thought – the idea that we are at point X on the spiral and slowly inching our way to the pinnacle – that seems to capture the imagination of the philosophy’s fans.

  • John Cunningham says:

    please add me to the newsletter. also, I read Teilhard de Chardin back in the 60s, he was weird then, even weirder now.

    • Daniel says:

      Is there any question, then, why his ideas might have caught on among a certain subset of Science Fiction authors? You can’t have Weird Tales without a little weird.

      I think Walton’s objection is weird though too: why not dismiss an idea as unscientific rather than as “restrictive?” I mean, Vernor Vinge’s stories didn’t somehow ruin hers did they? Her complaint seems just as – if not more so – unscientific as the Singularity.

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  • Leatherwing says:

    I agree with Noah’s comment above. The Omega Point is intriguing, but assumes man will always rise to the occasion, no matter the complexity. I don’t agree that that is a foregone conclusion.

    • Daniel says:

      History agrees with you, but the Omega Point response would be that “progress” is not perfectly upward, but is precipitated on a series of civilizational booms and busts, with the booms eventually winning as man learns to master the flow of time. The Omega Point: Keynesian-style.

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  • Dave says:

    I never have bought into the idea of progressive evolution, especially this grand idea that the human race would evolve beyond the our darker side, beyond greed and war and plain old evil. It might make for a nice story, but my suspension of disbelief has limits and that is one of them.

    That said, I have thoroughly enjoyed many stories in which the human race evolved through the use of technology or even through biological processes, while still maintaining the struggle with and against our darker nature. That seems much more reasonable to me.

    • Daniel says:

      Never bought into it? I think that makes you somewhat rare. The one thing I can say for old lies is that they have staying power.

      I don’t have your fortune. Although its flaws seem patently obvious to me now, I was, at least to a degree, influenced by Omega Point thinking, despite (or perhaps especially because) Cold War nuclear destruction threats at the time. “Everything’s getting better; we are all going to die” is a damn persistent statement of faith.

  • Josh Williams says:

    “There are really only two ways, it seems to me, in which we can think about our existence here on Earth. We either agree with Macbeth that life is nothing more than a ‘tale told by an idiot,’ a purposeless emergence of life-forms including the clever, greedy, selfish, and unfortunate species that we call homo sapiens – the ‘evolutionary goof.’ Or we believe that, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put it, ‘There is something afoot in the universe, something that looks like gestation and birth.’ In other words, a plan, a purpose to it all.”
    (Jane Goodall, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey. New York: Warner Books, 1999: xi-xii.)

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  • BG says:

    I wonder if folks who liked this Omega Point idea would account for the mysterious underselling of the movie Idiocracy.

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  • George Pal says:

    Interesting post and by ‘interesting’ I mean not the ambiguous interesting but the real interesting.

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  • Andrew Terry says:

    I’ve speculated the singularity, if it did happen, would be the advent of the beasts of Revelation 13; the antichrist. The Omega Point would be the underling philosophy/theology of the beast. Being able to show signs and wonders could be because of a post-human reality; augmentations where a mere thought of the beast would send down fire from the heavens from orbiting satellites. It would make for some awesome fiction, better then the Left Behind trite.

  • Dustin says:

    Biblical possibly, the tower of babel could be considered a precursor of this phenomena. I can imagine it after a war against people who would not comply with assimilation.

  • Chiva says:

    A very good point Andrew.

    I see the singularity is another step where man thinks “I am now a God”.

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  • coyote says:

    oh- and a comment on “omega point”- the clockwork crowd cannot seem to find god anywhere except in piece of machinery. so sad for them.

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  • Clay says:

    Frank Tipler is a mathematical physicist and Christian, who is a supporter of the Omega Point theory. His books can be found on Amazon.

    OT: added to the mailing list, Lind’s On War looks to be an interesting read.

    • Daniel says:

      The Singularity was developed by mathematicians, and thus the Omega Point holds particular appeal for those who live and work in formula. It clearly flourishes within a mathematical model.

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  • Sigmazero says:

    Sounds like Casey Hudson and co. bought into Omega Point theory big-time in writing Mass Effect – it’s all over that series.

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    Thanks for the link to The Last Question.

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  • Dustin says:

    Very interesting! There’s nothing new under the sun, or that uses the sun as part of a theory.

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  • Eric Ashley says:

    Julian May, a writer I enjoy, seemed to have this idea in some books.

    Genetic entropy goes against this.

    The Singularity and the End of Communism both did a good bit to slag the SF mental landscape for a good while back in the Nineties.

    My view is that the Singularity gives powers to Man that would destroy. Most likely madness would be a result as well as the job would be done poorly.

    Also, you’d see people be able to use technological powers to resist the Natural Law, which only makes the eventual payment before the Law that much harsher. Consider STD’s and medicine. Medicine may save some, but if the end result is a destructive social revolution that kills tens of millions, perhaps it was not a good choice.

    Now add a Mad Godling bent on making the Universe conform to his/her/its/poly views…..

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