A chatbot called ChatGPT, released last year by OpenAI, has brought new intensity to the controversy about artificial intelligence. If you haven’t used ChatGPT yet, I encourage you to try it. I’ve included some helpful links at the end of this post.
Just like a lot of new technology, artificial intelligence raises questions about economics and power and equity. Will people lose their jobs and be replaced by AI? Who controls the AIs? Can they be trusted, or are they amplifying human bias and prejudice? Should they be regulated and how?
But artificial intelligence raises more profound questions too: philosophical and even religious questions.
Are the AI’s we’re creating conscious in any sense? For that matter, what is consciousness and what is mind?
Have we become gods by creating something so powerful? Or are we creating a new kind of god that will rule over us?
God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning by Meghan O’Gieblyn examines these and many other questions. The book is a collection of loosely related and somewhat overlapping essays. Each one contains a mix of personal reflection, history and philosophy. Taken together, they form a wide-ranging look at some very deep topics.
Meghan O’Gieblyn is a philosopher, essayist and author whose writing has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, The Guardian and The New York Times. She was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, studied theology & philosophy at a bible college but is now an atheist (as am I).
I found this book intriguing but difficult to fully grasp and write about. I read most of it twice and I still can’t crisply describe its overall message. Maybe that’s because the essays cover a lot of ground.
So in this review I’ll limit myself to summarizing a few of the themes I found most interesting.
Why write about a book I struggle with so much? I think O’Gieblyn raises some important issues, particularly about how we seem to be elevating artificial intelligence into a new kind of god, one that cannot be challenged, only obeyed. There’s a danger here that we all need to be aware of.
God, Human, Animal, Machine:
Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning
By Meghan O’Gieblyn
Anchor Books, New York, 2021
One of the key themes running through God, Human, Animal, Machine is the importance of metaphor. We do a lot of our thinking by way of metaphors. O’Gieblyn says we tend to define ourselves according to our likeness to other things. We might describe someone as being strong as an ox, or frightened as a rabbit.
In the opposite direction, we frequently anthropomorphize or project human characteristics onto non-human things. In other words, we make humans the metaphor for everything else. Pet owners often describe the human personality traits of their beloved pets. And you’ve probably grumbled from time to time about how your computer is behaving badly.
This leads to one of O’Gieblyn main insights: metaphors are a two-way street. Over time they often come to operate in both directions.
A good example is one of the most defining metaphors of our time: the brain as computer. As neuroscientists developed a deeper understanding of how the brain works – regions of the brain performing specific tasks, neurons connected in a complex network, synapses firing on/off in binary fashion – it became common to refer to the brain as a computer with the mind as “software” running on the brain’s “hardware.”
More recently, with advances in artificial intelligence, the metaphor has flipped. We now speak of the computer as a brain, one with intelligence, and possibly even consciousness.
Sometimes we get confused about which way a metaphor really operates.
“For centuries we said we were made in God’s image, when in truth we made him in ours.” [p. 12]
O’Gieblyn cautions us to be careful not to take metaphors too literally and too far. Over time they lose their original context and get applied to situations they weren’t intended for. More importantly a metaphor is not the thing it describes. It’s only a representation, a model. As Erica Thompson says in Escape from Model Land, we must be careful when applying them to the real world.
O’Gieblyn delves into the history of Western philosophy and theology in several of her essays. To recap briefly, let’s rewind the clock about 2500 years to what’s known as the classical period of European history, shown in the timeline below. This was the time of ancient Greece and the development of logical thought by Plato and Aristotle.
During this time people believed that everything in the universe possessed both matter and “animating spirit.” This included animals, trees and even inanimate substances. Rocks had a “desire” to fall back to earth, for example.
Everything was “enchanted,” O’Gieblyn says.
This view continued into the Medieval period when Greek thought was incorporated into Catholic theology, particularly scholasticism. Back then, there was no distinction between science and religion. In fact, science was considered a branch of theology, a branch that explored God’s handiwork.
Two important philosophers helped to change all this and to kickstart the modern era we now live in.
First, an English scholar and Franciscan friar named William of Occam (sometimes spelled Ockham), who lived from around 1288 to 1347, argued that since God transcends human reason (an omnipotent God is not bound by human reason and can do things that are incompatible with it) then God is unknowable through science. The only way to God is through faith and the scriptures.
The reverse is also true, he claimed: knowledge of God acquired though faith and scriptures doesn’t tell us anything about the natural world. (Occam and his famous Razor are described in detail in Johnjoe McFadden’s excellent book Life Is Simple.) These ideas eventually led to the schism of religion and science.
Then along came René Descartes (1596 – 1650) insisting on a separation of material and immaterial things, most notably mind and body. No longer did everything in the world have an animating spirit or soul. He reduced animals to machines that obey physical laws just like rocks, without souls, inner life or consciousness.
Descartes “disenchanted” everything except humans. Humans were distinct, according to Descartes, because we and we alone possess consciousness and souls.
O’Gieblyn claims modernity, especially science, would not have been possible without Descartes splitting the material from the immaterial, the mind from the body, because it allowed us to focus on the objective physical world and ignore the subjective experience of the conscious mind.
But today, researchers are attempting to reenchant the world, or at least parts of it. Through AI, nanotechnology and other advances, we are seeing the development of robots, smart speakers and other devices that have at least some semblance of intelligence. They can perform independent actions and communicate and coordinate with each other. There’s even a start-up company out of MIT called Enchanted Objects.
One form of enchantment is consciousness. O’Gieblyn examines the question of consciousness in several of the essays in the book.
If Descartes was responsible for stripping consciousness from everything except humans 500 years ago, today the existence of human consciousness and even mind itself is in question. Some philosophers, like Daniel Dennett argue that there is no such thing as mind at all, no inner life distinct from the physical brain. For one thing, science can’t explain where consciousness comes from. How does consciousness arise from physical processes in the brain? This is known as the “hard problem of consciousness.”
O’Gieblyn explores several possible answers to this question including emergence, panpsychism and integrated information theory, none of which are particularly convincing.
The development of AI further complicates this question. As AI advances, are we creating machines that exhibit consciousness? Do computers have minds? Do AIs have an inner life or subjective experiences? How would we know, since we don’t really understand what human consciousness is?
As O’Gieblyn wryly notes:
“All the eternal questions have become engineering problems.” [p. 8]
And that leads to the final idea from God, Human, Animal, Machine that I’d like to highlight.
Old Gods and New
O’Gieblyn points out that both science and religion rest on the shaky foundation of faith. Yes, science too.
“The modern era Descartes inaugurated was, after all, not based on empirical evidence. No one ever proved that the mind was not part of the world or that the universe was entirely passive and mechanistic. Modern materialism was a philosophical project, a thought experiment dreamed up in an armchair by the fire.” [p. 164]
Yet despite this uncertain foundation, we have a tendency – a regrettable one, I think – to create gods and to place them above ourselves. This tendency makes us subservient and cuts us off from our own humanity.
Our latest god is artificial intelligence, and O’Gieblyn notes that it bears a striking resemblance to the Christian god, in particular the strict Calvinist god who transcends human understanding and is not bound by human standards of reason and justice.
There’s little or no opportunity to appeal this new god’s decisions or even get an explanation. In fact, AI models are so complex they can’t be explained or even properly understood. They can only be obeyed, and increasingly that’s just what we’re doing.
O’Gieblyn seems to be saying that it’s important not to elevate or privilege some “higher order,” like god or science, over human interests. Instead, we need to hold to our own convictions, limited and imperfect though they may be. Doing so is heroic, she says.
“It is faith in human nature, and perhaps in humanism as a project, an acknowledgement that our perspective, as limited as it may be, is still a legitimate point of view and one that is worth defending.” [p. 265]
As I said earlier, I found God, Human, Animal, Machine to be fascinating but difficult to get my arms around.
It’s impressively researched, presents interesting ideas and history, and the personal details add warmth and humility to the book.
Yet the overall message of the book feels elusive to me. It presents compelling ideas that are linked in complex ways, but it’s like studying a handful of snow. It’s intriguing but the more time you look at it and the more light you shine on it, the more it seems to melt away.
There also seems to be something important missing from the book: some idea about human agency. Maybe O’Gieblyn feels it’s not a philosopher’s job to be prescriptive, but I can’t help wondering what all these ideas tell us about how we should live our lives.
If you’ve read God, Human, Animal, Machine, please leave a comment. I’d love to know what you think about it.
Thanks for reading.
You can sign up for a ChatGPT account here.
ChatGPT isn’t a search engine. You don’t enter a query, instead you enter a prompt. For example, I once asked ChatGPT to write a sonnet explaining how SpaceX rocket boosters land back on Earth. For a “lists of lists” of ChatGPT articles and prompts, click here.