The Deity Electric

The title set me back. “Deus ex machina: former Google engineer is developing an AI god.” The article in The Guardian is surprising in several ways. Firstly, technocrats tend to suggest that since there is no deity, worship of said non-entity is a waste of precious time. Is this, then, an acknowledgement that those of us who’ve spent our lives on religion may have had at least an inkling of the truth after all? Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that religion is an inherent, and perhaps unavoidable, aspect of being human. Whether you call it inspiration or superstition, we think in religious terms. It’s entirely natural. Perhaps it’s evolved behavior. It’s anything but absent.

Another aspect of the article that generates wonder is the idea that we can create God. Yes, analysts have long claimed that we humans made God in our own image. Traditionally, however, the very concept of God was based on the idea that there was something non-human about the deity. Artificial Intelligence, however, makes the hubristic assertion that human intelligence knows enough to create a god. We don’t even know enough to elect a sane person as president. Looking at the wider world—let alone the universe—there is so much we don’t know. Our five senses are limited. There are realities which we have no way to measure. Is is perhaps not dangerous to make a divinity when our own way of looking at the universe is so terribly limited? What if I don’t like the god you build? At least with the old fashioned one we can shrug our shoulders and sigh, “that’s just the God there is.”

Any fulfilled future humanist will need to find an outlet for this need to worship. Can we truly respect a deity whose transistors we’ve manufactured? This Godhead will be, at the end of the day, only 0s and 1s. And what’s more, we will know that. Traditional religions have given us gods from the outside. Some of them are flawed, some are perfect, but they all have this in common—we didn’t make them. The universe imposed them upon us. Throughout history people have attempted, in various ways, to build their own gods. It generally doesn’t end well. It’d be like designing your own parents. They made you what you are and what would you be if you could somehow reverse engineer them into more perfect versions of themselves? Can we invent gods? Oh yes. We do it all the time. But when we set about making one that our disembodied, downloaded consciousness can worship we might want to consider the history of such attempts.

Kindling

Paula Cocozza, writing for The Guardian, describes “How E-books Lost Their Shine.” Like most inveterate readers, she says she has stacks of books growing like mushrooms after a summer rain, in her bedroom. I was working in the publishing industry (I still am, so please take no alarm at my rhetoric) when e-book sales plateaued. Then declined. “Industry analysts” were baffled. I wasn’t. The reasoning goes like this: e-books are light and cheap and amazingly convenient—why would anyone want something different? Those of us who love books know. If you know what I mean when I write “library smell” I’m preaching to the converted. More beguiling than new car scent, that first deep breath when you step into a library takes you places your physical body may never go. All those bodies of books gathered together let off a bouquet that insists you follow your nose to an earthly paradise. I just tried sniffing my iPhone. Nothing. No synapses fired. I’ve read books on it, but have I really?

Studies tend to show we have trouble remembering books read electronically. It’s just too fast. Wham-bam-thank you whoever you are. Let’s get on to the next thing. But books, as Cocozza writes, are slow. Publishing’s a slow industry. You submit your proposal, and the editor reads it. The editorial board discusses it. The book is written and sent to a copyeditor. Then a compositor or typesetter. Then a proofreader. Then it’s off to the presses. Printed, bound, and shipped. It can take a year or more. And when you curl up in bed with a book, furtively sniffing it, gently rubbing your fingers along its pages, drawn into a world not your own, plastic’s the last thing on your mind.

A few Saturdays ago I attended the Hunterdon County Library book sale. I go every year. It’s a big deal. People line up in advance. You step into the barn-like sales floor and it hits you—the smell of all those books. The aroma of knowledge. You can’t repurpose an e-book. You can’t sell it back because nothing was ever really produced. You purchased electrons, you’re stuck with electrons. Hit “delete” when the storage is full. All these books in this room are valuable. All for pocket-change. Many of them were wildly overprinted in the exuberance that naturally comes from being over-stimulated. Like kids about to enter Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Industry analysts are puzzled. If they’d get their fingers dirty by thumbing through a used book once in a while they wouldn’t be. Yes, its dusty, grungy, and probably laced with germs, but I wouldn’t trade it in right now for a Kindle, even if it costs me nothing.

Dreaming Reality

The problem with monsters is that they’re not easily reduced to a lowest common denominator. This becomes clear in an article about the under explored (from a western perspective) monsters of Australia. Christine Judith Nicholls, in “‘Dreamings’ and place – Aboriginal monsters and their meanings” (sent by a friend), describes many of the scary creatures of the outback. The article title references Dreamtime, a kind of aboriginal journey that ties into indigenous Australian religion. The division between imagination and reality isn’t as wide as we’re sometimes taught. (More on this is a moment.) Nicholls’ article demonstrates that many of these monsters impress on children the dangers of wandering away from parents. Indeed, that is clearly part of the socializing function of monsters. The question, however, is whether that’s all there is to monsters or not. (Nicholls doesn’t use reductionistic language—she does note this is a psychological explanation.)

In an unrelated article in The Guardian, by Richard Lea—“Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds”—researchers suggest that fictional characters seem to appear in “real life” from time to time. All those who read fiction know this phenomenon to a degree. Just because someone is completely made up doesn’t mean that s/he doesn’t exist. Since our minds are the ultimate arbiters of reality, fictional characters and monsters may indeed be “real.” This isn’t to suggest that physical, flesh-and-blood imaginary beasts lurk in the dark, but it isn’t to suggest that they don’t either. Reality is something we haven’t quite figured out yet. The more we think about it, the more it appears that both hemispheres of our brains contribute to it.

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When the morning newspaper raises alarm after alarm about the frightening tactics of the Trump administration the temptation is to give up to despair. That’s not necessary, actually. Reality requires our consent. Imagination can be a powerful antidote to the poison spewed by politicians. What fictional character—or monster—might step into a situation such as this to make it right? If the power of millions of smart minds were concentrated on such a being, would it not become real? Friends have suggested over the past four months that the arts—creativity—are going to be especially important in the coming years. If we are to survive evil we’ll have to use our imaginations. That’s something that the aboriginal peoples can teach us, if only we’re willing to believe.

Tell It Straight

Apparently there is a burgeoning interest in swearing. Not necessarily in doing it, but in studying it. Over the past couple of years I’ve easily found a book every twelve months that devotes itself to the topic. After I finished reading the most recent one, my wife pointed me to a story on The Guardian that deals with the same topic. The story by Benjamin Bergen, “Well, I’ll be… There’s a real science to cussing and blaspheming but beware,” springs from his book on the subject, which I’ve not yet read. Interestingly, Bergen points out that there are four main classes of “bad words:” those that misuse religious concepts and names, those dealing with sex, words that denote various bodily effluvia, and finally, slurs. Today the final category, particularly when it comes to prejudicial slurs, is often considered the most offensive. Religious swears aren’t what they used to be.

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Why concern ourselves with such things? For me, I suspect, it is because of laws. Yes, laws. The religion in which I was raised was all about what you could or couldn’t do. One of those species of forbidden activities was swearing. Problem was, I didn’t know what all the words were. How could I not say them if I didn’t know them? And how could I know them if somebody didn’t say them? This vexed my young mind. I thought perhaps I should keep a written list, but this would be hard to explain if anyone ever found it. To make matters worse, some of the words were not swears sometimes and other times they were. “Hell,” referring to the fiery place, was not swearing unless you instructed someone to go there. Other uses beyond the literal were swearing. An ass was fine if it was an animal, but not if it was on an animal. And if you added one consonant that you couldn’t even hear onto a structure built to hold back water you were in hot water. Who made up these rules? The Bible didn’t say much about it.

In high school I heard there were seven words that you couldn’t say on television. Since we didn’t watch George Carlin I didn’t know what they were, but by this point I had collected more than seven. When I finally did hear his shtick (quite recently, at that) it contained some words I didn’t expect which, while rude, were never considered “swearing” on my canonical list. So it is we find ourselves with no definitive rules about what not to say. Professors are writing books about such things and even after having read some I’m no closer to my definitive list than when I started. It’s all a matter of laws, I suppose. Only the rules keep shifting. Best just to keep my mouth shut.

Fictional Fact

Do you remember that tragic sinking of a Staten Island ferry when a giant octopus pulled it under? Sounds vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t living near New York at the time. A story in The Guardian tells how Joseph Reginella, a sculptor, made his commemorative piece of art for Battery Park for a fictional incident. Like the memorial for War of the Worlds in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, this is something we remember that never really transpired. We remember what never happened. It’s easy to forget that memory evolved for specific purposes. Mainly we remember for survival. Our brains evolved to keep us alive. If we don’t recall where we found water, or where that hidden cliff edge is, we don’t last for long. But we remember other things as well. The time that Oog borrowed your stone axe and didn’t give it back. Our social memory made us human, so we’re told.

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No doubt it is possible to develop a keen memory. Precise recollection of events just as they happened, in sequence. It’s also possible, even collectively, to misremember things. We tell stories. We make myths. There was no giant octopus incident. Maybe we saw such a thing in a movie one time. That movie, paired with the plausible evidence of a public monument commemorating the event becomes a modified reality. I’m just sure I can remember it happening, can’t you?

Studies of such phenomena tell us that memories aren’t what they seem to be. To make distant recollections Holy Writ, for example, we have to rely on divine inspiration. Without it we might just be remembering a story somebody told once upon a time. And where did I put the car keys? Yes, our memories are open to manipulation. Things that never happened become real this way. George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree and confess to his father because he could not lie. And yet we believe. We make myths because they give our lives meaning. Face it, evolution is a pretty boring explanation for why we’re here. Natural selection has no goals in mind. Things that work best tend to survive in the gene pool. And in some people’s memory there may be a giant octopus in that pool as well. Did the the Cornelius G. Kolff get pulled under or not? Would a ship with such a name ever be made up? Myths are still born every day, even as the octopuses cower in their caves, awaiting the next naive ferry to transcend reality.

Buying Faith

Can belief be quantified? Apparently yes. I’ve spent my life trying to avoid the dismal science, yet it seems that everyone else is pretty much agreed that money is the measure of all things. Higher education has certainly been chasing that rabbit for years. My choice of “careers” has always been aimed at those which downplay finance while paying enough to cover the bills. One has to be practical. My wife recently sent me an article in The Guardian by Harriet Sherwood entitled, “Religion in US ‘worth more than Google and Apple combined’.” At first, I have to admit, a kind of triumphalism overcame me. A vindication that I had chosen a valuable aspect of human existence with which to while away my years here on earth. Then came the troubling implications.

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We tend to hear only the bad news about religion. Religion, we’re told, is only super-sized superstition. It supports prejudice. It capitalizes on fear. And nobody really believes anymore. And so the trite truisms march past like tin soldiers on their way to a real war. You see, if we can’t put a dollar value on religion—or any belief system—then we have no way to assess whether it’s worth wasting our time on or not. Maybe people will begin to pay attention now. There’s gold in them thar hills. Yes, the religious are more likely to open their wallets and keep the economy moving than are the wealthy. Yes, those are antithetical groups, for the most part. When we can start toting up dollars and pence it is time for those with more dismal scientific interest to take notice.

Religions, like all human institutions, have faults. They are prone to takeover by self-interested individuals who look for the angle that will lead to personal power or fame. They do often insist that they alone have the correct interpretation of what life means and how we should go about pleasing a deity that only they truly understand. And they bicker amongst each other. It’s easy to forget that religions are based, without exception, on the belief that human life can be improved. We can do better, people. Takeovers, sometimes hostile, can occur. One sect may take out a contract on another. Love may be recast as hatred. Overall, however, religions are, to borrow a phrase from a sage, “our better angels.” And of course, the fact that you can put a dollar value on that only sweetens the deal. The dismal science has studied the matter and its conclusions are indisputable.

Foiled Again

Few things travel as well as curses. Or so it seems in a news report from Serbia. Archaeologists in Kostolac, according to The Guardian, have excavated skeletons nearly two millennia old. That’s not news, since people have been dying as long as there have been people. What makes the find extraordinary are the gold and silver metal foils that have been found at the gravesite. Inscribed in Aramaic with Greek letters, these tiny missives were rolled and placed in lead tubes to be buried with the dead. Although translations of the inscriptions aren’t given, the fact that they contain the names of demons would suggest these might be curses against anyone seeking to disturb the tombs. Such devices go all the way back to the Pharaohs, and perhaps earlier. Nobody likes to have their sleep disturbed.

Serbia, for those unfamiliar with geography, isn’t exactly next door to ancient Aram. The burials and inscriptions seem to fall into the Roman Period, however, a time of cultural diversity. When cultures come into contact—in the case of Rome and prior empires, through conquest—new ideas spread rapidly. And sometimes old ideas. The Romans, in general, didn’t like competing religions. Then again, their idea of religion was somewhat different than ours. Ancient belief systems were more or less run by the state. They served to support political ends—at least they were upfront about it. Your offerings and prayers were to be given in support of the king, or emperor, and beyond that nobody really cared. Unless, of course, you were making curses.

Curses, it was believed, really worked. Even today in cultures where belief in curses persists people tend to be physically susceptible to them. We don’t want others to wish us ill. Perhaps that’s the most surprising thing about politics today. Our society has taken a decided turn towards the more secular. Candidates for political office, even if they personally believe nothing, can still cast curses on those who are different. They can claim support of their “faith” to do so as well. Words, in ancient times, were performative. They meant something. Curses were taken seriously because if someone were serious enough to say it, they probably meant it. They could be written down and preserved beyond death. Today, however, words are a cheap commodity. You can use them to attain your personal ends and discard them once they’ve outlasted their usefulness. Perhaps we do have something to learn from the past after all.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.