Robbie Young reflects on the struggle between science, technology and religion.
[New City Magazine – July 2023, page 18-19]
‘It may be the devil,
It may be the Lord,
But you gotta serve somebody’
― Bob Dylan
In the early sixties Bob Dylan’s songs were seen as counter-cultural anthems, for the ‘times they were indeed a-changin’. Yet, judged by other standards perhaps his most counter-cultural song is Gotta Serve Somebody. If there is anything characteristic of our modern Western culture it is that nobody wants to serve anybody, unless that anybody is myself. Looked at from this perspective, the last four hundred years have been one long struggle of emancipation from all obligations to serve or bow down before someone else. The execution of King Charles I in 1649 sent shock waves around Europe. It was a revolutionary act which overturned a worldview that for centuries most people had taken for granted. The highest authority to whom all were subject was God, and that obligation to bow down before God was handed on to God’s representative on earth whether pope, emperor, or king. Henry VIII contested the Pope’s authority but he still considered him to be God’s chosen ruler on earth. When it came to Charles I, the English Parliamentary Army was having none of it. Although fuelled by different motives, the French revolutionaries made the same point by sending King Louis XVI to the guillotine. It took longer for the call for the squashing of any form of rule by divine right to take hold in Russia, but eventually it claimed another victim in Tsar Nicholas II, and his unfortunate family. And along with the Tsar went the God whom he served. There would be no other authority in heaven or on earth than the will of the people. As Friedrick Nitzsche proclaimed decades earlier, European culture had ‘murdered God’.
Science – our new God?
But as Bob Dylan sang, ‘You gotta serve somebody’. That requires recognising a higher authority than yourself. So who or what replaced God and his representatives on earth? A good contender for the top spot is science. And it hasn’t gone away. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that the authority of science is palatable because after all, scientists are human beings, not gods or kings who were seen to impose their rule from above. There is no aristocracy of scientists, no ruling by divine right. Scientists are viewed as being leaders in the crusade of emancipation from all sorts of superstition and dogma based on obedience to some higher power. That is the pitch that science makes.
But is science itself under some higher authority? Or is science its own authority with no obligation to bow down before anyone whether it is you or me or even God? If that is the case, then science is effectively our new God. What sort of a God is it? Does it have our interests as human beings at heart? Or it is more like the god Moloch who needed to be placated by child sacrifices? Of course, if science is really to be given God-like status then it must demonstrate its absolute superiority to human beings. It must convince us that we are right to recognise its supreme authority. In fact, it would have to be seen as dangerous to rebel against it. Up until recent years, science was worshipped but it was always believed that it was a God under human control. Yes, science can make us an atomic bomb, but we humans can decide whether or not to use it. However, the current Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolution seems to question that belief.
The Artificial Intelligence God
Science is trying to develop an entity which is far superior that anything human intelligence can hope to achieve. The ultimate goal is that this entity will be given the freedom to use its super intelligence to constantly upgrade its own capabilities. In theory the possibilities for growth seem limitless. And why not? If we human beings can be uploaded into this entity and thus share in this limitless growth, wouldn’t this allow all of us to be ‘gods’ within the AI God? To some, that prospect seems exhilarating; to others it seems terrifying. Whatever our opinion may be, it seems that AI is a real ‘gamechanger’. Here are two quotes that should make us think more than twice about AI:
‘I set the date for the Singularity – representing a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability – as 2045. The nonbiological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today.’
– Ray Kurzweil
‘AI doesn’t have to be evil to destroy humanity – if AI has a goal and humanity just happens to be in the way, it will destroy humanity as a matter of course without even thinking about it, no hard feelings.’
– Elon Musk
Those comments are based on imaginative leaps into the future and their predictions may never come to pass, but the very fact that they can even think such things should set the alarm bells ringing. If you were offered a fruit drink composed entirely of artificial flavours and one made from fresh fruit, most likely you would choose the latter. Perhaps we need to find a new appreciation of our ‘natural intelligence’. Why would you opt for something artificial when you can have the real thing? And more importantly, our natural intelligence is open to that form of wisdom which may be our saving grace.