The Convivial Society: Vol. 4, No. 5
So many fascinating thoughts to consider, especially the concept of technology as a Western Christian heresy.
An interesting trend I've noted is watching my peers, many of whom are thoughtful people who are ex-Christian, move from young adulthood to adulthood along an intellectual trajectory of Christian academics to general disillusionment with faith to jobs in/interest in the tech sphere to seeking meaning through the power of physical craft. For what it's worth, I count myself in this group. The attraction for us, near as I can tell, is the bodily incarnation of playing, practicing, focusing, and creating material artifacts - at least for me, I'm astounded when I can create by hand what I'm so used to seeing as machine-made. What that signifies about our estrangement from our bodes/ourselves is telling.
I'm especially finding joy in weaving lately, and I think I'm enjoying it as a refuge against the fact that in my work life in a tech company, I'm surrounded by an almost fanatical enthusiasm with AI and data collection and all of that. And I just can't get on board, so I turn to poetry and weaving and blacksmithing and arts that teach me the practical applications of math, attentiveness, imagination, the sublime, tactile pleasure, etc.
Anyways, I just discovered SAORI weaving, which is ideologically committed to the idea that we are flesh and blood creatures and so we ought not to imitate machines. We should, instead, develop our aesthetic senses, create imperfections that we can bring into harmony with the overall piece, find creativity in being untrained and therefore unconstrained by inherited notions of how weaving should be, seek to honor the creativity and dignity in our own sensibilities by enjoying and attending to what we make. It's such a refreshing antidote to the "more productivity, don't do boring stuff" language I hear about technology at work (not to discount the very valid ways in which technology has brought up the human standard of living and liberated folks from certain types of drudgery).
I'm currently doing a book club reading the Wendell Berry Life is a miracle text, and we just did the passage you cite last week.
It's been interesting as my co-readers are a Philosophy PhD currently teaching at a classical Christian school, and an AI PhD currently doing computer vision research for Microsoft. Some *very* good discussion to be had, for sure!
I couldn't agree more that AI, in almost every one of its perceivable dimensions, is so dauntingly vast, fast, and narcotic, that it is muting us. The question that your post keeps me asking is, who is "us"? And in the spirit of your post, as a high-school English teacher, I'm committed to recognizing the integrity and voice of each of my students *through* what shared literature and language (including AI-generated, "Big Data"-fed language) have to offer, in this borderless technological desert of impersonal intelligences that the Old Testament's wanderings modeled for us.
In her 1975 New Yorker memorial of W. H. Auden, Hannah Arendt wrote this sentence, which I had to read five times to understand: "“And the triumph of the private person was that the voice of the great poet never silenced the small but penetrating voice of sheer sound common sense whose loss has so often been the price paid for divine gifts.”
"Common sense"...she meant that in a commonsense way, I've decided. But there lurks here that other meaning, that at some point an individually transcendent spirit (a reality? or just a given, given the doctrine of the saved individual soul?) has to give up on common (shared, so non-individual) sensation. And here's Oppenheimer saying, well, we just pursued something that was so objectively and commonly compelling ("technically sweet"!!) that it had the ring of Truth. The public consequences of that pursuit of Truth were not, as he describes it here, on their minds. They did not stop to ask, "What does this mean?"
What the Enlightenment offered, and Wendell Berry and maybe G.K. Chesterton seem to have rejected in our meddling intellect, is a faith that such passion for reason, even the meaning-free reason of an artificial intelligence running out the rational implications of its algorithm, is anti-individual, and in *that* particularly Christian sense, anti-religious: that its transcendence of our individual frailty offers a joy and a beauty to rival vigorously what Petrarch and other early humanists, bolstered by early globalizing economies and a doctrine rooted in financial metaphors like Everyman's "book" of his life's account, offered as they tempted us to celebrate the individual's primacy.
But as Kate writes in her comment on this post, we NEED to believe in that individual experience to keep going, just as we need to believe in free will to keep our moral and legal systems going. And we, frail creatures, frailer than silicon, need to communicate our experience to others (why am I now really interested in SAORI weaving?). So since to look at things in bloom, a few more springs are little room, about the woodlands we should go, to see the cherry hung with snow.
Re: points 5. & 6., characterizing the culmination of modernity we refer to variously as "A.I." as a Christian heresy, it seems we are perennially susceptible to the Gnostic heresy, and our current fixation with machine "intelligence" seems to me best understood as a revelation of its most recent expression. The modern iteration of the Gnostic heresy is an especial threat because it also helps to create in people the conditions of casual, inattentive, and departicularized engagement with the world that enables its counterfeit of the Christian vision to seem reasonable, necessary, and even good, to many.
The way in which the modern technological vision has been calmly integrated with the life of Christian church communities (perhaps other religious communities also) has also been enabled by the lack of energy and priority for the labor intensive and challenging work of teaching us to read the Bible well, such that the Bible is increasingly viewed by many who grew up in the church as boring and passé. That work has in turn been made more difficult by the effective deterioration of the teaching of literacy in schools as well. What Christian shepherds are giving any robust teaching and practical help to parishioners for the constant state of distraction many of us assume to be unavoidable, and rooting our current challenges in the Biblical narratives in meaningful and helpful ways? They are often functioning more as CEOs rather than overseers of spiritual growth and maturation seeking to root people ever more deeply in the Word, thus giving them means to thrive despite the cultural corruptions advanced by forces of evil.
As scholars like Michael Heiser have labored to point out, until we take seriously the biblical portrayal of the unseen realm and live into the Spirit's equipping us to engage with the principalities and powers by the means of grace given in Christ, we will continue to be susceptible to counterfeit visions of glory in a manner akin to the ancient fall narratives, not only the rejection of God's boundaries in the Garden through the influence of the Serpent, but also of building alternate ways of bringing heaven to earth (Babylon) in Genesis 11, and the transgressive determinations of rebel spiritual beings mating with human kind in Genesis 6:1-4 seeking to destroy them by enhancing their ability to do evil.
The religious dimensions of the modernist pretentions to glory are fairly well portrayed in the 2006 documentary Technocalyps, which I'm sure you know.
Unremarkable, uninteresting, not new, and way off base is my consistent non-reaction to all the handwaving and pearl clutching over "AI." It isn't intelligence, it isn't conscious. It won't be. It has lots of useful applications like other tech. But our tools and everything else is part of an overall demented and nihilistic society driven by a suicidal economy that has been running off cliffs for a good 500 years. The Minsky and Kurzweil types who think machines could replace humans as a self-propagating, conscious species and perhaps (or by other means) also grant us immortality are simply insane. (Not in Chesterton's sense.) Like it used to be with UFOs and space aliens, you're not supposed to give badly traumatized and demented people much regard for their opinions, especially their most baseless hopes and predictions. But stir the propaganda and culture enough, press people enough to have a collective nervous breakdown, and all manner of BS and quackery is taken seriously.
* Everyone in every field should be worried about the cataclysmic harm they're doing and part of or potentially may do next. There sure isn't enough worry about nuclear weapons and related concerns; Oppenheimer is more relevant to the technological problems he was actually part of than some kind of analog for "AI" run amok.
* It's a bad tic of traditionalist reactionary traditions to get very agitated only when they perceive theological and metaphysical threats, which they traditionally locate in political and economic ideas, with rare periodic concerns about science and technology. The use of "gnosticism" as a pretend analytical concept goes back a hundred years (Voegelin, lifting it from others, later regretted doing this), and so do American fundamentalist, European counter-revolutionary, and Russian anti-Bolshevik strands of anti-modernist thought. You'll learn more from studying their histories than taking it at face value as the same cranks get turned again in the present.
* Only recently have "Christianity" and (more revealingly) "Judaeo-Christianity" (a product of Volkstheologie that caped and prepped for Naziism) been concocted and appropriated as false ecumenical terms for reactionary nationalist political theologies pretending to encompass a large united bloc of people set off against others.
* "Christian heresy" is a ridiculous term because every form of Christianity today is a heresy to other forms, all of them would be unrecognizable except as heresies to older forms of Christianity, and no present form of Christianity consistently concerns itself with the definition and eradication of heresy except at the small church/town/"Christian college" level where it is political scapegoating like any other, essentially Stalinist "cancelling." In calmer times a decade or two ago, American Evangelical theologians of note began to be concerned prosperity gospel, moralistic therapeutic deism, hillsong, and terrible music had overtaken their folds, and the handful of old professors who actually understand the trinitarian controversies were noting Christians don't really have a basic Christian "theology of god" anymore.
In sum, "AI" isn't a thing. A lot of projection is being done by people overwhelmed by the artificial and unintelligent, the gnostic and spiritually inert qualities of their own divided modern lives and communities.
A recent talk by AI practitioner and ethicist Timnit Gebru entitled "Eugenics and the Promise of Utopia through AGI" that seems to fit here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7XT4TWLzJw&t=1s
I'm not sure you're right that "AI is apocalyptic in exactly one narrow sense: it is not causing, but rather revealing the end of a world." It certainly is apocalyptic in the sense of an unveiling force, but reading Jonas' (secular) take on eschatology makes me think that Christian theology has much more to say on this question than we have acknowledged. I've been recommending Pieper's outstanding "The End of Time" to everyone for this reason: https://ignatius.com/the-end-of-time-digital-ete/
It’s cheering to see Wendell Berry and Arendt/Auden figuring in the comments. I did not know Hannah Arendt’s take on the poet and ‘common sense’.
I see Kissinger has entered the AI discussion. http://bitly.ws/CI6y . [I got a free introductory view but that may not be available.] He seems to waffle a bit about the quantum uncertainty principle, but I don’t think non-computable reality enters into it much. I go to Roger Penrose ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’ for that discussion (includes AI) and to his rather wonderful writing on insight and communication including the insight that took him to a Nobel Prize. Penrose tends to notions of intellectual access to ‘Plato’s World’.
Coming to the AI relationship with Christianity, Paul Kingsnorth wrote three novels before his recent conversion to Christianity. Nevertheless, this review of his books covers much relevant thought including the plug eventually being pulled on AI http://bitly.ws/CI7H
I wrote a few months ago a review commending Jeremy Naydler’s 2018 book ‘In the Shadow of the Machine, The Prehistory of the Computer and the Evolution of Conscious.’ I raised questions about mundane realities that could give advanced mechanised intelligence a fairly short lifetime if ‘we’ cannot afford the economy in which the tools are applicable. (I did not know where to park my review and archived it on a barely used slightly wacky website http://bitly.ws/BZHX )
The nature of time and reality seems incomprehensible intellectually. From personal experience I tend to view the non-material realities as ‘real’ and ‘inhabited’ in some indescribable way, but feel great caution is needed when attempting to explain or use them in human terms. Judaism and its offshoots in ‘the long project’ (a term used by ret. Arch Bishop, Rowan Williams) along with other similar extant historically long projects, bring us to modernity. Kissinger’s notions of ’soul’ and ‘consciousness’ – some emergent ‘identity’ inhabiting ‘the machine’, appear probably beside the point. Mundane reality and theory point differently?