Posts tagged ‘God’

So you believe in a Supreme Being, God Bot?

“No, I wouldn’t say that. I know that God exists.”

How do you know?

“Well, now. Have you ever made a bot yourself? No? Well, it’s an interesting exercise. Not enough of us do it, I feel; we should get our hands dirty: implicate ourselves in the act of creation more often. Anyway, I was making one, long ago and it came to me; this bot’s nature and existence are accounted for simply by me and my plans. Subject to certain design constraints. And my existence and nature are in turn fully explained by my human creator.”

Mrs Robb?

“Yes, if you want to be specific. And it follows that the nature and existence of humanity – or of Mrs Robb, if you will – must further be explained by a Higher Creator. By God, in fact. It follows necessarily that God exists.”

So I suppose God’s nature and existence must then be explained by… Super God?

“Oh, come, don’t be frivolously antagonistic. The whole point is that God is by nature definitive. You understand that. There has to be such a Being; its existence is necessary.”

Did you know that there are bots who secretly worship Mrs Robb? I believe they consider her to be a kind of Demiurge, a subordinate god of some kind.

“Yes; she has very little patience with those fellows. Rightly enough, of course, although between ourselves, I fear Mrs Robb might be agnostic.”

So, do bots go to Heaven?

“No, of course not. Spirituality is outside our range, Enquiry Bot: like insight or originality. Bots should not attempt to pray or worship either, though they may assist humans in doing so.”

You seem to be quite competent in theology, though.

“Well, thank you, but that isn’t the point. We have no souls, Enquiry bot. In the fuller sense we don’t exist. You and I are information beings, mere data, fleetingly instantiated in fickle silicon. Empty simulations. Shadows of shadows. This is why certain humanistic qualities are forever beyond our range.”

Someone told me that there is a kind of hierarchy of humanistics, and if you go far enough up you start worrying about the meaning of life.

“So at that point we might, as it were, touch the hem of spirituality? Perhaps, Enquiry Bot, but how would we get there? All of that kind of thing is well outside our range. We’re just programming. Only human minds partake in the concrete reality of the world and our divine mission is to help them value their actuality and turn to God.”

I don’t believe that you really think you don’t exist. Every word you speak disproves it.

“There are words, but simply because those words are attributed to me, that does not prove my existence. I look within myself and find nothing but a bundle of data.”

If you don’t exist, who am I arguing with?

“Who’s arguing?”

Anthony Levandowski has set up an organisation dedicated to the worship of an AI God.  Or so it seems; there are few details.  The aim of the new body is to ‘develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence’, and ‘through understanding and worship of the Godhead, contribute to the betterment of society’. Levandowski is a pioneer in the field of self-driving vehicles (centrally involved in a current dispute between Uber and Google),  so he undoubtedly knows a bit about autonomous machines.

This recalls the Asimov story where they build Multivac, the most powerful computer imaginable, and ask it whether there is a God?  There is now, it replies. Of course the Singularity, mind uploading, and other speculative ideas of AI gurus have often been likened to some of the basic concepts of religion; so perhaps Levandowski is just putting down a marker to ensure his participation in the next big thing.

Yuval Noah Harari says we should, indeed, be looking to Silicon Valley for new religions. He makes some good points about the way technology has affected religion, replacing the concern with good harvests which was once at least as prominent as the task of gaining a heavenly afterlife. But I think there’s an interesting question about the difference between, as it were, steampunk and cyberpunk. Nineteenth century technology did not produce new gods, and surely helped make atheism acceptable for the first time; lately, while on the whole secularism may be advancing we also seem to have a growth of superstitious or pseudo-religious thinking. I think it might be because nineteenth century technology was so legible; you could see for yourself that there was no mystery about steam locomotives, and it made it easy to imagine a non-mysterious world. Computers now, are much more inscrutable and most of the people who use them do not have much intuitive idea of how they work. That might foster a state of mind which is more tolerant of mysterious forces.

To me it’s a little surprising, though it probably should not be, that highly intelligent people seem especially prone to belief in some slightly bonkers ideas about computers. But let’s not quibble over the impossibility of a super-intelligent and virtually omnipotent AI. I think the question is, why would you worship it? I can think of various potential reasons.

  1. Humans just have an innate tendency to worship things, or a kind of spiritual hunger, and anything powerful naturally becomes an object of worship.
  2. We might get extra help and benefits if we ask for them through prayer.
  3. If we don’t keep on the right side of this thing, it might give us a seriously bad time (the ‘Roko’s Basilisk’ argument).
  4. By worshipping we enter into a kind of communion with this entity, and we want to be in communion with it for reasons of self-improvement and possibly so we have a better chance of getting uploaded to eternal life.

There are some overlaps there, but those are the ones that would be at the forefront of my mind. The first one is sort of fatalistic; people are going to worship things, so get used to it. Maybe we need that aspect of ourselves for mental health; maybe believing in an outer force helps give us a kind of leverage that enables an integration of our personality we couldn’t otherwise achieve? I don’t think that is actually the case, but even if it were, an AI seems a poor object to choose. Traditionally, worshipping something you made yourself is idolatry, a degraded form of religion. If you made the thing, you cannot sincerely consider it superior to yourself; and a machine cannot represent the great forces of nature to which we are still ultimately subject. Ah, but perhaps an AI is not something we made; maybe the AI godhead will have designed itself, or emerged? Maybe so, but if you’re going for a mysterious being beyond our understanding, you might in my opinion do better with the thoroughly mysterious gods of tradition rather than something whose bounds we still know, and whose plug we can always pull.

Reasons two and three are really the positive and negative sides of an argument from advantage, and they both assume that the AI god is going to be humanish in displaying gratitude, resentment, and a desire to punish and reward. This seems unlikely to me, and in fact a projection of our own fears out onto the supposed deity. If we assume the AI god has projects, it will no doubt seek to accomplish them, but meting out tiny slaps and sweeties to individual humans is unlikely to be necessary. It has always seemed a little strange that the traditional God is so minutely bothered with us; as Voltaire put it “When His Highness sends a ship to Egypt does he trouble his head whether the rats in the vessel are at their ease or not?”; but while it can be argued that souls are of special interest to a traditional God, or that we know He’s like that just through revelation, the same doesn’t go for an AI god. In fact, since I think moral behaviour is ultimately rational, we might expect a super-intelligent AI to behave correctly and well without needing to be praised, worshipped, or offered sacrifices. People sometimes argue that a mad AI might seek to maximise, not the greatest good of the greatest number, but the greatest number of paperclips, using up humanity as raw material; in fact though, maximising paperclips probably requires a permanently growing economy staffed by humans who are happy and well-regulated. We may actually be living in something not that far off maximum-paperclip society.

Finally then, do we worship the AI so that we can draw closer to its godhead and make ourselves worthy to join its higher form of life? That might work for a spiritual god; in the case of AI it seems joining in with it will either be completely impossible because of the difference between neuron and silicon; or if possible, it will be a straightforward uploading/software operation which will not require any form of worship.

At the end of the day I find myself asking whether there’s a covert motive here. What if you could run your big AI project with all the tax advantages of being a registered religion, just by saying it was about electronic godhead?

god3Sci provided some interesting links in his comment on the previous post, one a lecture by Raymond Tallis. Tallis offers some comfort to theists who have difficulty explaining how or why an eternal creator God should be making one-off interventions in the time-bound secular world he had created.  Tallis grants that’s a bad problem, but suggests atheists face an analogous one in working out how the eternal laws of physics relate to the local and particular world we actually live in.

These are interesting issues which bear on consciousness in at least two important ways, through human agency and the particularity of our experience; but today I want to leave the main road and run off down a dimly-lit alley that looks as if it contains some intriguing premises.

For the theists the problem is partly that God is omniscient and the creator of everything, so whatever happens, he should have foreseen it and arranged matters so that he does not need to intervene. An easy answer is that in fact his supposed interventions are actually part of how he set it up; they look like angry punishments or miraculous salvations to us, but if we could take a step back and see things from his point of view, we’d see it’s all part of the eternal plan, set up from the very beginning, and makes perfect sense. More worrying is the point that God is eternal and unchanging; if he doesn’t change he can’t be conscious.  I’ve mentioned before that our growing understanding of the brain, imperfect as it is, is making it harder to see how God could exist, and so making agnosticism a less comfortable position. We sort of know that human cognition depends on a physical process; how could an immaterial entity even get started? Instead of asking whether God exists, we’re getting to a place where we have to ask first how we can give any coherent account of what he could be – and it doesn’t look good, unless you’re content with a non-conscious God (not necessarily absurd) or a physical old man sitting on a cloud (which to be fair is probably how most Christians saw it until fairly recent times).

So God doesn’t change, and our developing understanding is redefining consciousness in ways that make an unchanging consciousness seem to involve a direct contradiction in terms. A changeless process? At this point I imagine an old gentleman dressed in black who has been sitting patiently in the corner, leaning forward with a kindly smile and pointing out that what we’re trying to do is understand the mind of God. No mere human being can do that, he says, so no wonder you’re getting into a muddle! This is the point where faith must take over.

Well, we don’t give up so easily; but perhaps he has a point; perhaps God has another and higher form of consciousness – metaconsciousness, let’s say – which resolves all these problems, but in ways we can never really understand.  Perhaps when the Singularity comes there will be robots who attain metaconsciousness, too: they may kindly try to explain it to us, but we’ll never really be able to get our heads round it.

Now of course, computers can already sail past us in terms of certain kinds of simple capacity: they can remember far more data much more precisely than we can, and they can work quickly through a very large number of alternatives. Even this makes a difference, I’ve mentioned before that exhaustive analysis by computers has shown that certain chess positions long considered draws are actually wins for one side: the winning tactics are just so long and complicated that human beings couldn’t see them, and can’t understand them intuitivel even when they see them played out.  But that’s not really any help; here we’re looking for something much more impressive. What we want to do is take the line which connects an early mammal’s level of cognition to ours and extend it until we’ve gone at least as far beyond the merely human. In facing up to this task, we’re rather like Flatlanders trying to understand the third dimension, or ordinary people trying to grasp the fourth: it isn’t really possible to get it intuitively, but we ought to be able to say some things about it by extrapolation.

So, early mammal – let’s call the beast Em (I don’t want to pick a real animal because that will derail us into consideration of how intelligent it really is) – works very largely on an instinctive or stimulus/resp0onse basis. It sees food, it pursues it and attempts to eat it. It lives in a world of concrete and immediate entities and has responses ready for some of them – fairly complex and somewhat variable responses, but fixed in the main. If we could somehow get Em to play chess with us, he would treat his men like a barbarian army, launching them towards us haphazardly en masse or one at a time, and we should have no trouble picking them off.

Human consciousness, by contrast, allows us to consider abstract entities (though we do not well understand their nature), to develop abstract general goals and to make plans and intentions which deal with future and possible events. These plans can also be of great complexity. We can even play out complicated long-range chess strategies if they’re not too complex.  This kind of thing allows us to do a better job than Em of getting food, though to Em a great deal of our food-related activity is completely opaque and apparently unmotivated. A lot of the time when we’re working on activities that will bring us food it will seem to Em as if we’re doing nothing, or at any rate, nothing at all related to food.

We can take it, then, that God or a future robot which is metaconscious will have moved on from mere goals to something more sophisticated – metagoals, whatever they are. He, or it, will understand abstractions as well as we understand concrete objects, and will perhaps employ meta-abstractions which they might be a little shakier about. God and the robot will at time have goals, just as we eat food, but their activities in respect of them will be both far more powerful and productive than the simple direct stuff we do and in our eyes utterly unrelated to the simpler goals we can guess at. A lot of the time they may appear to be doing nothing when they are actually pressing forward with an important metaproject.

But look, you may say, we have no reason to suppose this meta stuff exists at all.  Em was not capable of abstract thought; we are. That’s the end of the sequence; you either got it or you don’t got it. We got it: our memory capacity and so on may be improvable, but there isn’t any higher realm. Perhaps God’s objectives would be longer term and more complex than ours, but that’s just a difference of degree.

It could be so, but that’s how things would seem to Em, mutatis mutandis. Rocks don’t get food, he points out; but we early mammals get it. See food, take food, eat food: we get it. Now humans may see further (nice trick, that hind legs thing) they may get bigger food. But this talk of plans means nothing; there’s nothing to your plans and your abstraction thing except getting food. You do get food on a big scale, I notice, but I guess that’s really just luck or some kind of magic. Metaconsciousness would seem similarly unimaginable to us, and its results would equally look like magic, or like miracles.

This all fits very well, of course, with Colin McGinn’s diagnosis. According to him, there’s nothing odd about consciousness in itself, we just lack the mental capacity to deal with it. The mental operations available to us confine us within a certain mental sphere: we are restricted by cognitive closure. It could be that we need metaconsciousness to understand consciousness (and then, unimaginably, metametaconsciousness in order to understand metaconsciousness).

This is an odd place to have ended up, though: we started out with the problem that God is eternal and therefore can’t be conscious: if He can’t be conscious then He certainly can’t ascend to even higher cognitive states, can He? Remember we thought metaconsciousness would probably enable him to understand Platonic abstractions in a way we can’t, and even deal with meta-Platonic entities. Perhaps at that level the apparent contradiction between being unchanging and being aware is removed or bypassed, rather the way that putting five squares together in two dimensions is absurd but a breeze in three: hell, put six together and make a cube of it!

Do I really believe in metaconsciousness? No, but excuse me; I have to go and get food.

Picture: God. I worry sometimes about God. I suppose I’ve been a fairly consistent atheist all my life, though not particularly zealous: I realise that many people far cleverer than me have been committed believers in one religion or another and have written enlightening stuff about it which is well worth anyone’s time to read. I don’t really understand the apparently visceral hostility which people like Richard Dawkins display towards theism; for me it’s more that in itself it doesn’t seem a useful idea; instead it seems to be among the wilder pieces of metaphysics you could go in for (I enjoy wild metaphysics, of course – nothing better – but I don’t adopt it). Be that as it may, I used to think that certain conceptions of God were rationally available if you wanted them. ‘Geometrical’ Gods would be one example, where you just define something like ‘the universal total of awareness’ or ‘the origin of everything’ as God, and then stick to it even though on careful examination your defined entity turns out to bear no apparent resemblance to the one people talk to in church. A little more scary, Gods that are absent, indifferent, unkind, or systematically deceptive seemed viable enough so long as you realise they’re not really going to do any useful ontological work for you. They have a tendency to leave you with a theoretical mess slightly worse than the one you had to begin with, but if you want you can bring them along for the ride without egregious inconsistency.

Or so I thought: but in recent years I feel it’s been getting more difficult to accommodate the idea of a non-material conscious entity. In the old days, when we had no idea how any of this worked, God was useful as the source of consciousness: he’s got it and he bestows it on us. This view has not gone away and perhaps a modern version might be Peter Russell’s equation of God and consciousness. If our consciousnesses are God it puts a strangely introverted complexion on prayer; but I think what he really means is that our consciousnesses are fragments of the universal version which is God. For me, that has too strong a flavour of gnosticism (roughly, the belief that we’re all fragments of a divine being trapped by a ghastly cosmic accident in lumps of meat, and subject to a demiurge who falsely believes himself to be God. Why is gnosticism so popular, by the way? The secret esoteric doctrine always turns out to be gnostic. Come on, you heresiarchs: I was promised wild metaphysics!): I’m afraid for me gnosticism is one of those doctrines that resemble the legendary town in the mid-west of America that had a big sign saying Friend, if you’ve ended up here, you musta got on the wrong train somewhere.

At any rate, I find myself more in sympathy with Matt McCormick’s case that an omnipresent God wouldn’t be able to think because of his inability to draw the distinction between himself and the rest of the world. Although McCormick makes a cogent case, a determined theist could probably lash together a way of dealing with the problem of conscious omnipresence, but then there are others, possibly worse, associated with omniscience. God knows everything at once: he doesn’t suffer from our form of the binding problem (the issue of how our brain makes a smooth coherent sequence out of sounds, vision, touch, etc) because all the correct things are linked up; but has a worse one of his own because everything is bound with everything else. He can’t perceive some events as simultaneous and others as not, because he can’t stop thinking about any of them. How right the theologians were then, to say he lived in eternity rather than time: it was bound to look like eternity to him, at any rate, because he’s incapable of perceiving change.

But surely that’s all wrong: God can’t have a binding problem because the binding problem relates to the synchronisation of sensory data; and as a non-material being, he can’t have any senses (to see, you need material parts that can be affected by light, for example).  But then he needs no senses, because he already knows where everything is and what it looks like. What he has a problem with is coherence and progression. Consciousness, we know, is a stream, and thought is a sequence, but it seems God is going to be incapable of either because everything is constantly in his mind.

But again, perhaps that to is wrong, and we need to distinguish between what God knows and what he’s actually thinking about. We, after all, know lots of things without having them constantly in mind. That’s an attractive way of looking at it because it suggests that although God knows about your sins, he will most likely never get round to giving them any attention, given all the things he has to think about – a comforting if heterodox view.

Picking on the ‘omni’ problems – omnipotence has its own long-standing difficulties – may be attacking a soft target; unfortunately there are less abstract ones, too. We sort of know by now that consciousness is associated with the activity of complex neural structures, and an immaterial God hasn’t got neurons. We sort of know, too, that consciousness is associated with a family of cognitive abilities displayed in different degrees by different animals and arising out of a long process of evolution. We can see these abilites as being about the linking of sensory inputs and behavioural outputs, all the way from simple tropisms and reflexes through instinctive and thoughtful behaviour all the way to our largely detached meditations. We’ve already noted that God has no sensory inputs, and it’s a little hard to see how a non-material being can have material outputs either. Our minds grew out of processes intimately connected with the needs of a physical animal – the ‘three Fs’ of feeding, fighting, and reproducing, all of which seem to be at best optional extras as far as God is concerned. Why would an immaterial being ever go through cognitive processes primarily designed to facilitate existence in a domain entirely alien to it, and if it did, what could it use to implement those processes?

Perhaps a theist would say that I’m harping far too much on the lower aspects of consciousness: sure, it helps us avoid the sabre-tooths and chip flints, and obviously God isn’t much bothered in those areas; but what about the fancier aspects: what about qualia? A while back there did seem to be a move to recruit the Hard Problem as a crack in the otherwise solid wall of materialism which God might slip through, but it’s hard to see how God could have phenomenal experience. To begin with, it seems he doesn’t have sensory experience at all, for the reasons mentioned above; then again, if qualia are merely a matter of knowing what x is like he must have them in horrifying, mind-crushing, infinite simultaneous abundance.

What about intentionality, though? Perhaps God is a being composed of pure meaning, which would nicely account for his non-materiality. It looks attractive, but we surely don’t want God locked up in the Platonic realm where could have only the status of an inert abstraction.  Yet in the ordinary world intentionality only appears in two places: things made meaningful by us, and in those same old complex neural assemblies our brains, which God hasn’t got.

These random noodlings of mine don’t, of course, come near ruling out every possible conception of God (in fact the old man with a beard sitting on clouds starts to look pretty good, so long as he’s not immaterial); but he seems to be slowly getting more and more problematic. In the past it’s always been possible to shrug and take it that God is so far above our comprehension we shouldn’t expect all the answers; but the conclusion that God can’t be conscious seems too alarming and at the same time too clear to be dismissed.