“At the very furthest of scientific description, psychology has to give way to “theology” – that is, to a world-view that absorbs the individual’s conflicts and guilt and offers him the possibility for some kind of heroic apotheosis.” – Ernest Becker
I quoted this sentence from the exceptionally revealing book, that I’m currently reading, “The Denial of Death” by the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. In short the book is about the true nature of man and what drives every individual deep down: the denial of ones’ death. Consciously or subconsciously every human being realises that his existence means nothing for the world at large. He is just another incarnation of genes, of which he has no control.
“Without man’s consent, but with an inevitable death sentence, man arrived in this world”
Without man’s consent, but with an inevitable death sentence, man arrived in this world. The thought of such a prospect is so fundamentally terrorising that the primary goal of a human being’s life becomes to patch up this truth; to create an illusion of meaningfulness, of control over ones’ destiny. And so the bottom-line is that the entirety of an individual’s psychology is based on “theology”, so to say, on false belief.
“We are, metaphorically speaking, proving that gravity exists by sweeping the ground underneath our feet”
What’s even more interesting is that modern Western society has trouble fabricating a belief-system that satisfies this inner-urge of mankind. In the pre-industrial era people collectively believed in an omnipotent god, in the afterlife, in living virtuous to ensure a place in heaven. It didn’t matter how miserable and ugly life was, heaven was awaited. While science is giving us solid answers about the world we live in, it is failing to build a belief-system that sanctifies our illusions; we are, metaphorically speaking, proving that gravity exists by sweeping the ground underneath our feet.
“We need a new god”
Our society needs to adopt a world-view that can keep our existential fears at bay. Therefore, we need a new god. In my opinion we are already acquainted with this potential god, namely: Artificial Intelligence. The current level of A.I. is of course not sufficient, but it’s already giving us a glimpse of its might. In many of the historic “man versus machine” battles, such as Deep Blue against chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997, or IBM Watson’s Jeopardy! in 2011, and Google’s AlphaGo versus Go world champion Lee Sedol last year, there were decisive moments, in favour of the machine, that were hard to explain from a human perspective. In the famous second game of Deep Blue vs Kasparov, Kasparov actually accused IBM of cheating after Deep Blue made a deceiving mistake. These seemingly irrational, yet arguably powerful, decisions of present-day A.I. illustrate the potential for A.I. to truly surpass our intelligence.
“It’s not about A.I.’s actual power, but our subjective experience of that power”
I think A.I. will in the future become unfathomably complex and unpredictable, to a point of godlike transcendence. What makes the religious idea of a god so perfect to take away our death anxiety is his immateriality, his fictitious character. As such, his powers cannot be disproved, making him immutable and free of the fragility of life. Anything physical has limitations and can never reach perfection, but a god as a fantasy can have absolute power over life and death. Now it might seem that I’m shooting myself in the foot by saying that anything physical cannot be omnipotent, while A.I. is ultimately a physical computer. However, it’s not about A.I.’s actual power, but our subjective experience of that power. Anything that is, therefore, a number of magnitudes more intelligent than ourselves will strike us as god-like omnipotence.
“Although we also fear such a powerful entity, deep inside we crave for it; we desperately need the illusion of immortality”
Although we also fear such a powerful entity, deep inside we crave for it; we need the illusion of immortality, because otherwise life becomes too burdensome a venture. That is not to say that nothing else besides A.I. has the potential to cloak a most confronting truth, present day theologies include: capitalism, consumerism, democracy, idolatry, technology, science, etcetera.
To conclude: human beings need a form of religion, a belief-system that transcends us, in order to live peacefully. As science makes it increasingly hard for us to believe in a spiritual god, free of, or embodied by, the forces of nature, we need a god that is in-line with scientific thinking; a god that is on the one hand at the mercy of the scientific dogma, a god who’s existence is a proven fact, but on the other hand sways the scepter in all its achievements, like a truly omnipotent god. We need a god who is both immaterial, making him the ultimate scape-goat for our faith, and embodied by various media, which we can easily understand and integrate in our personal narrative, making it ‘real’. A.I. seems to be the perfect candidate for such a god.
“The godlike A.I. would need to fashion a god of his own”
Ironically enough, if such a super computer would be realised it, too, should realise how utterly insignificant and vulnerable it is in the cosmic scale of the things and will not be exempt from the experience of death anxiety. Therefore, the godlike A.I. would need to fashion a god of his own. But since he is the most powerful and intelligent being in existence he has got no god to put his faith in, nothing ostensibly absolute that makes his consciousness bearable. Therefore I predict that the A.I. will do one of the following four things:
- Venture into deep-space to find an intelligence greater than his.
- Create another more powerful A.I. that transcends him like a god.
- Do nothing, as existence is meaningless anyway.
- Pull its own plug, out of shear terror of life.
Number four would be the biggest joke in history. Just imagine that billions of dollars have been put in a hyper intelligent computer to solve all of mankind’s problems and the first thing the computer does is turn itself off.
“Even a ‘completely’ rational A.I. needs to believe in something in order to live an existence amidst the haphazard grandeur of the Universe”
Whatever might happen, it is probable that a god-like A.I. will be just as vulnerable to the insecurities of life as humans have been in the whole of history. Hence, even a ‘completely’ rational A.I. would need to believe in something greater than himself in order to live happily ever after amidst the haphazard grandeur of the Universe.