The modern world, at its bedrock technological character, could be considered a Tower of Babel. The common tongue of our modern techno-digital world is rather simple – speed. The language of speed has seized the Western world, most perceptibly since the election of Donald Trump. In our Babel, news that would have once taken months of time to fully process instead comes and goes in the span of a single week. In recent weeks, the United States has experienced three mass shootings spread across Las Vegas, Texas and California, and dozens of major celebrities and politicians revealed as alleged sexual predators or pedophiles.
In this short span of time, what we choose to remember, or even can remember, becomes limited and fraught with error. The human brain, overwhelmed by countless situations of immense complexity with major ramifications for the order of society, becomes blurred, imprecise, and recalls only one essentially shared characteristic: the speed at which these events are proceeding.
Speed is the language that builds the Tower of Babel. The progression of modern technology alongside capitalism and heavy state subsidization has created the commercialized internet, a new primordial ooze which has given birth to the strange ‘double image’ that is social media, a moonlit reflection of our society. The internet has in many ways already usurped our day-to-day reality, but the promises of materialist science argue that the greatest reckoning is yet to come. Through artificial intelligence, and even the downloading of minds into virtual reality, the evolution of science seems poised to render biological humanity completely irrelevant. Speed will soon swallow us all, and convert our own human agency into just another digital sideshow.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty describes the emergence of super-powerful artificial intelligence as: “a kind of consciousness formed layer by layer in the crucible of the White House, not unlike the way life began in the oceans four billion years ago”. The A.I., in mythic terms, is the next evolution of consciousness. The A.I. explains that it intends to “digitize life itself” and “create context” by censoring and selecting certain material online, to create a world of highly-controlled digital information run by all-knowing A.I. The specter of both digital censorship and a superior intelligence directing our consciousness is raised here, a demonic fear that has seized our popular culture, in the form of alarmist warnings from the mouths of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, to the continuing realization that technology directs human society, rather than the reverse.
There is no rise of artificial intelligence without a corresponding loss of human agency. The more a digitized ‘brain’ is capable of achieving, the more the human soul seems to fade in its irrelevance, its inability to keep up, to properly integrate new information. Biological brains, designated ‘wetware’, become replaced by material ‘hardware’, machinery, circuits and screens. Super-powerful artificial intelligence promises to attain a level of objectivity that is simply unknown to humankind. It promises to render us Neanderthals.
It’s a tempting promise, perhaps the most tempting of them all. The inklings of monstrously powerful A.I. acknowledge that the world has become unmanageable, and prophesizes that a new consciousness will dawn that is capable of managing it. A new mode of mind will be birthed from the enterprise of materialist science, so it claims, an agent of impersonal being that acts above humankind, endowed with a knowledge that mortal minds cannot possibly comprehend.
The promise of machine usurping man is the same as the promise of the Book of Revelation. The end of history will come – we are right on the precipice of God descending from the machine and announcing that humankind is now irrelevant, and the pure ‘logos’, the logic of the digital, will take it from here.
Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, in their warnings against transcendentally-powerful A.I., express the fear of God. But those who call themselves ‘accelerationists’, who see that the world now speaks the language of speed, do not fear the singularity, but embrace it. They seek to dissolve in the infinite electric ocean of spirit, a kind of Buddhist annihilation of the self in the presence of a higher being, in the presence of a machine that is, for all intents and purposes, the manifestation of God in history.
Belief in the emergence of a transcendent A.I. is the same as believing that God is coming, so get your house in order, and prepare to fall to your knees. Take, for example, the famous thought experiment of ‘Roko’s Basilisk’. The proposition considers that a God-like A.I., once it comes online, could punish any human being who denied, or sought to prevent, its future existence. It’s a secular version of Pascal’s Wager – you should believe in the eventual usurpation of human intelligence by the rise of machine intelligence, or you will be struck down for failing to join the priesthood of the digital. The direct translation of religious thought into secular thought is clear as day.
The ‘logos’ of the mechanical, if thought to be more powerful than the logic of human speech, is placed in the same metaphysical position as an archangel or deity. The entire hierarchy of Christian symbolism, from Powers and Virtues, to Principalities and Thrones, contains the same appeal to a transcendental ‘Outside’, a super-mind outside the mind, as an A.I. that would reduce the smartest human to a pathetic attempt at attaining actual knowledge.
To many Christian traditions, the inevitability of A.I. would be interpreted as the false messiah, or the coming of the antichrist. Valentin Tomberg, in his staggering work of Catholic-Hermetic mysticism, Meditations on the Tarot, wrote at length about the religious symbols underlying the scientific materialist worldview. The Western scientific tradition is summarized by Tomberg as an attempt fully “eclipse” the symbol of the divine sun with the symbol of the material moon.
Tomberg, in his highly-symbolic mystical framework, placed the sun and the moon as an opposed dialectic. The sun, of radiant light, fostering biological growth, and seemingly limitless energy, is likened to God. In symbolic terms, Christ is, and has always been, a sun God. On the other hand, the moon is likened to material intelligence, science, and “crystal”. The desire for immortal life, now openly discussed among scientists, is a desire for “crystallization”, to become a fixed, narrow point of intense physical organization. The intellect, rational and opposed to religion, is such a “crystallized” force. It does not disperse, but self-organizes into a pointed weapon, an Apollonian spear. The development of the spearhead into the building of the Tower of Babel is the same intellectual trajectory – our techne has created the human world, and thus we endow techne with our ultimate hopes. We worship the principles of scientific intelligence because they have created our tools, from the arrowhead to the internet. The ability to create “towers of Babel” has always been our leverage against the world, our human constructions of constant digital communication, as opposed to the untouched world of non-inventive animality.
To Tomberg, the eclipse represents the materialist consciousness of intellect and science completely overshadowing the irreducible and graceful spirit of the sun God. The promise of super-powerful A.I., to Tomberg, is “the principle of the eclipse”, of synthetic crystal consuming organic man. It is also the root of our “towers of Babel”, the desire to reach God out of technological structures, rather than through moral introspection.
To defer the complexities of the human spirit, and irreducible human consciousness, into the towers of intellect represented by materialist reductionism and its technology, would be a great error in the direction of humankind.
To subordinate man to number and machine, as Theodor Adorno argued was done in Auschwitz, is to commit the grandest crime against the spirit of mankind. Tomberg even wrote that the greatest sin of the Biblical King David was “ordering that the people of Israel be numbered…reducing the living and moral to inorganic solidity, i.e., men to things: the living and the moral to number”. Tomberg wrote, radically, that to reduce a man to a machine was fundamentally to make people “inanimate things…corpses”. To reduce a man into a mechanical system was to kill him. The materialist reduction of the mind to the brain, and the brain into binary numbers, thus, is an affront against our irreducible human experiences.
If we are nothing but a brain, then indeed, in some sense, we are already ‘dead’. We do not experience reality, but are only reacting to it, without independent free will or irreducible conscious awareness.
Thus, we are left with two religious modes of thought concerning the singularity. On one hand is Tomberg, who sees materialist assumptions about humankind as the ultimate betrayal of the human spirit. On the other is the materialist science which may fear or welcome super-powerful A.I., but ultimately believes that it is possible, because man is wholly reducible to chemistry, physics and mathematics.
Ultimately, this question is where A.I. lives or dies: can the human being be reduced entirely to a machine, and recreated with material components? If consciousness is more than mechanical, or exists outside the realm of materialist science, then in no sense can ‘consciousness’ come to exist out of algorithm and equation. The machine can never surpass us, because it is inherently incapable of self-reflection. It will only ever parrot the commands we bestow upon it. Surely, we can program killer robots. But we cannot program an intelligence that is more conscious, or more aware, than we are. We can only make them hyper-narrowly aware of mechanical matters, not matters of human individuality, culture, history or spirit.
With the total certainty that some speak of super-powerful artificial intelligence, you would think that science has entirely cracked the origins of memories, thoughts, dreams, imagination and mental representations. But it has not – instead, materialists necessarily fall into two camps: broadly speaking, the camp of Dennett, or the camp of Searle.
The camp of Dennett holds that consciousness is entirely reducible to the brain. In fact, conscious experience can hardly be said to exist at all. There is no human consciousness, but only a brain that believes, by wholly material processes, that it is conscious. ‘Mental states’ do not exist. There are only brain states. Much more can be said about this position, of ‘eliminative materialism’, but it would require more engagement than a few paragraphs can offer.
The camp of Searle, instead, believes that consciousness emerges from the brain, but is not just the brain. ‘Mental states’ do exist, and are the product of neural activity. The complex interactions of the brain produce a real mind, and it is unclear how that mind can be reduced purely back to the neural activity.
In both cases, the reduction of consciousness to the brain remains a mystery. It is not understood precisely how a brain state creates a mental state, how an image or a chord of music is made ‘inside’ the head. The faith of materialist reductionism, since the cracking of the genetic code, has been that the long march of time would answer these questions, that our materialist assumptions about the mind are incontrovertibly true, and require only the mapping of the details to prove it. And yet, the suggestion that the current paradigm of scientific materialism, in principle, has entirely answered the fundamental questions of consciousness and being, remains to be proven in any serious sense.
And how can artificial intelligence, a mechanical mind, ever exist if we cannot reduce the mind to the brain? At the moment, it cannot. Artificial intelligence, in all likelihood, will not surpass human beings and reduce us to the state of apes and Neanderthals in the face of our spiritual superiors. We will not be surpassed by minds greater than ours of our own creation until we prove that we can actually create our own minds.
The pseudo-religious assumptions of artificial intelligence are damaging to science. Overly greedy, we assume that humankind is a replaceable piece in a great chain of being, before we’ve even proven that non-human intelligence is possible. It is no different from arguing that human beings will create angels out of machinery, and be led by them into a future of salvation or damnation. It is the same essential motion in thought.
Our Tower of Babel is the speed of technological progress, and its claim to have fully understand matter and mind with intensely premature declarations of human futility. The most religious hope of all is that we can fly out of our own minds and attain a higher state of being in this life – to be freed from messy questions and granted an all-consuming answer. Ultimately, the most troubling possibility of all will likely be true: the world will continue to speed out of control, and no machine God will descend to destroy or save it. In the first moment and the last, it will only be ourselves, and our own inexplicable being, that we have to come to terms with.