God, Human, Animal, Machine: Consciousness and Our Search for Meaning in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
By Maria Popova
“To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her exquisite reckoning with the life of the mind, would be to “lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”
I have returned to this sentiment again and again in facing the haunting sense that we are living through the fall of a civilization — a civilization that has reduced every askable question to an algorithmically answerable datum and has dispensed with the unasked, with those regions of the mysterious where our basic experiences of enchantment, connection, and belonging come alive. A century and half after the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler prophesied the rise of a new “mechanical kingdom” to which we will become subservient, we are living with artificial intelligences making daily decisions for us, from the routes we take to the music we hear. And yet the very fact that the age of near-sentient algorithms has left us all the more famished for meaning may be our best hope for saving what is most human and alive in us.
So intimates Meghan O’Gieblyn in God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning (public library).
Once a theologian in the making, studying at a fundamentalist Bible school, O’Gieblyn left the faith for a life as a rational materialist, but remained animated by the selfsame questions that course through the human-made story myths we call religion — questions about the relationship between the body and the tremors of consciousness we call soul, about the nature of reality, about the wellspring of meaning in an austere universe governed by fundamental forces and impartial laws with no room for blame or mercy. She takes up these questions with rigor and passion, tracing tendrils that reach into the vast and varied body of culture, from a robot dog to The Brothers Karamazov, from vitalism to transhumanism, from Descartes to Arendt.
A century and a half after Nietzsche considered how metaphors both reveal and conceal truth, O’Gieblyn writes:
To discover truth, it is necessary to work within the metaphors of our own time, which are for the most part technological. Today artificial intelligence and information technologies have absorbed many of the questions that were once taken up by theologians and philosophers: the mind’s relationship to the body, the question of free will, the possibility of immortality. These are old problems, and although they now appear in different guises and go by different names, they persist in conversations about digital technologies much like those dead metaphors that still lurk in the syntax of contemporary speech. All the eternal questions have become engineering problems.
O’Gieblyn recounts her early encounter with transhumanism and its patron saint, Ray Kurzweil, with his blazing prophecy that we shall reach the Singularity by the year 2045 — a point by which we would have so merged our bodies with our machines that we would survive death, our consciousness itself “resurrected” in a supercomputer. I have long marveled at the comical symmetry between such supposedly materialist models of reality and the religious mythologies of life after death from epochs past — a touching reminder of that elemental human yearning for permanence in a universe governed by constant change, a reminder that everything we dream up, everything we poetize and prophesy and code, is just our coping mechanism for the eternal struggle to bear our own mortality. O’Gieblyn arrives at a kindred conclusion:
It became clear to me that my interest in Kurzweil and other technological prophets was a kind of transference. It allowed me to continue obsessing about the theological problems I’d struggled with in Bible school, and was in the end an expression of my sublimated longing for the religious promises I’d abandoned.
Most transhumanists are outspoken atheists, eager to maintain the notion that their philosophy is rooted in modern rationalism and not in fact what it is: an outgrowth of Christian eschatology.
Our restlessness about mapping the relationship between mind and matter far predates the transhumanist movement. The dawn of quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century only complicated things, with its strange ricochets of causality between observer and observed. Drawing on the influential theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler’s It from Bit theory — in which he argued that “all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe,” that “observer-participancy gives rise to information” — O’Gieblyn writes:
Once you enter the quantum realm, the smallest particles, at a certain scale, dissolve into energy and fields, entities that have so little substance they appear nearly inseparable from the conceptual tools — math, probabilities — we use to describe them. This is baffling. How can objects as solid as rocks and chairs have nothing substantial at their core?
Wheeler’s answer was that matter itself does not exist. It is an illusion that arises from the mathematical structures that undergird everything, a cosmic form of information processing. Each time we make a measurement we are creating new information — we are, in a sense, creating reality itself. Wheeler called this the “participatory universe,” a term that is often misunderstood as having mystical connotations, as though the mind has some kind of spooky ability to generate objects. But Wheeler did not even believe that consciousness existed. For him, the mind itself was nothing but information. When we interacted with the world, the code of our minds manipulated the code of the universe, so to speak. It was a purely quantitative process, the same sort of mathematical exchange that might take place between two machines.
Against this backdrop of pure information arose another field that anchored reality not in the almighty bit but in the relationships between bits of information: cybernetics, whose founding father had declared that “we are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.” O’Gieblyn writes:
The reason that cybernetics privileged relationships over content in the first place was so that it could explain things like consciousness purely in terms of classical physics, which is limited to describing behavior but not essence — “doing” but not “being.” When Wheeler merged information theory with quantum physics, he was essentially closing the circle, proposing that the hole in the material worldview — intrinsic essence — could be explained by information itself.
Nowhere have our models of reality inclined further past the comprehension limits of the human mind than in multiverse theory — the idea that ours is not the only universe but one of numberless coexistent universes all forged by randomness, and ours, by a lucky play of statistical mechanics and probability theory, just happens to be hospitable to the chance-configuration of us. At first glance, multiverse theory appears like the ultimate antidote to the illusion that we are special — the same illusion that once placed us at the center of the universe, then at the center of the biosphere, and now at the center of consciousness. But O’Gieblyn exposes the basic human bias of even this model:
The multiverse theory and other attempts to transcend our anthropocentric outlook so often strike me as a form of bad faith, guilty of the very hubris they claim to reject. There is no Archimedean point, no purely objective vista that allows us to transcend our human interests and see the world from above, as we once imagined it appeared to God. It is our distinctive vantage that binds us to the world and sets the necessary limitations that are required to make sense of it. This is true, of course, regardless of which interpretation of physics is ultimately correct.
Delving into the far fringes of the speculative, that strange lacuna between science and spiritualism, she arrives at panpsychism — a theory particularly fashionable in our age of alienation and disconnection, satisfying that aching need for belonging, for communion, for interbeing with the world. She writes:
What interests me most about panpsychism is not what it says about the world but what it suggests about our knowledge of it. While popular debates about the theory rarely extend beyond the plausibility of granting consciousness to bees and trees, it contains far more radical implications. To claim that reality itself is mental is to acknowledge that there exists no clear boundary between the subjective mind and the objective world.
A century after quantum pioneer Niels Bohr observed that there is a realm of reality religions have always accessed through images and parables and that “splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far,” she adds:
If consciousness is the ultimate substrate of everything, these distinctions become blurred, if not totally irrelevant. It’s possible that there exists a symmetry between our interior lives and the world at large, that the relationship between them is not one of paradox but of metonymy — the mind serving as a microcosm of the world’s macroscopic consciousness. Perhaps it is not even a terrible leap to wonder whether the universe can communicate with us, whether life is full of “correspondences,” as the spiritualists called them, between ourselves and the transcendent realm.
Panpsychism clearly satisfies a longing to escape modern alienation and merge once again with the world at large. But it’s worth asking what it means to reenchant, or reensoul, objects within a world that is already irrevocably technological. What does it mean to crave “connection” and “sharing” when those terms have become coopted by the corporate giants of social platforms?
At every turn, with every theory, we inevitably collide with the blinders of human bias, encoded in our machines — in algorithms that perpetuate the systemic biases of our society, in artificial intelligences that repeat the same pitfalls of reason that pock our own minds. Having begun with the observation that “for centuries we said we were made in God’s image, when in truth we made him in ours,” O’Gieblyn ends with the question of what it would take to dehumanize the universe and rehumanize ourselves:
The more we try to rid the world of our image, the more we end up coloring it with human faults and fantasies. The more we insist on removing ourselves and our interests from the equation, the more we end up with omnipotent systems that are rife with human bias and prejudice.
And yet pulsating beneath this hard-edged realism is a buoyancy, a largehearted curiosity, something we might even call faith — faith that “the most fascinating thing about the world [is] that we don’t know why it exists.” Radiating from it, at least for me, is a hint at how all of our why-probing instruments, from religion to ChatGPT, are but a gasp of gladness at the improbable fact that the world exists.
Couple God, Human, Animal, Machine with Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of AI, then consider some thoughts on consciousness and the universe, lensed through cognitive science and poetry.
Published March 2, 2023