On the Gods in Google: What Artificial Intelligence Can Tell Us About Potential Rebirths of the Sacred in Today’s Networked Age
We’ve long imagined there was something near divine about the Internet. From the Wachowski’s Oracle and Architect from their Matrix trilogy, a sort of neo-pagan pater- and –mater-familias who give rise to the world as well know it – the later with white beard and garb, no less, and the former with empathy, foreknowledge, and excellent baking skills – to the destroyer-of-worlds sentient Skynet of the Terminator series, our fears and at times hopes for a reemergence of the sacred seem keyed into the fact that the Internet is in many ways like a giant brain. And one which, it seems, is swiftly on the verge of exceeding our mere meat-brains, as the web already gives rise to the virtual futures in which we are starting to live. At what point will the new god in the web start to issue decrees, demand fealty, crave offerings and the like, or rather, will we just simply give it all the time, love, attention, and adoration we used to give other humans. Ok, so that’s already happening, but what if the web gets wind of this, might it not get the urge to smite us, or manipulate us, or comfort us, or, no, wait, it’s doing much of that already too (isn’t death by spreadsheet, after all, one of the leading causes of death these days, and spreadsheets just particularly organized nets?). Face it, we’ve already created our own new deity, we just need to start to take stock of what we’ve done and learn how to deal with our new god-in-the-web.
Virtual Spirits-in-the-(Networked)-Material-World: Beyond the Legacies of Descartes
Granted, this probably isn’t the first time we’ve done this sort of thing. God was already imagined to be a network long ago. Leibniz’s vision of God in his Monadology (1712), written over three hundred years ago, imagined God as a great Googler-in-the-sky, devising the ‘best possible world’ amongst the possible futures for the node-like entities to which it broadcast virtual reality worlds. Baruch Spinoza, writing a few years earlier in his Ethics (1664), imagined God as a giant geometer whose structure could only be intuited by rational web-crawlers who intuited the logic behind the net. And Rene Descartes, that famous founder of so many binary paradigms to come (in texts such as the famed Meditations (1640)), imagined us as isolated islands which could easily slot into Leibniz’s monadic virtual realities. To each his or her own node within the giant Googly net of islands, long live the great Google in the sky.
It should perhaps not surprise that Leibniz, Spinoza, and to some extent, if in reverse, Descartes imagined a world in these terms, for all of them were there to see the birth of the new networked deity to come, namely, capitalism. Spinoza perhaps saw this most clearly of all, living in the Dutch republic of the seventeenth century, the famed incubator of so many of the capitalist liberal notions which were to dominate the centuries to come. Of course, today’s networks, Internetted and otherwise, were only a dream back then, but those with Oracle-like vision could see where the breeze was metaphorically blowing, and it was the net. And if anything has knit our world together in today’s globalized web, it has been capitalism, with the Internet as its physical and now virtual analogue, its epitome and mirror, pushing and pulling us into ever more tightly intertwined realities, virtual and otherwise.
And disintegrating us in the process. For we are increasingly shattered into mini-selves, avatars and Facebook profiles, passwords and biometrics, as the new deity gets ever better at reading our minds with custom-made ads sent to every corner of our distributed computational extensions from cell phones to TV sets to laptop screens and soon enough coffee makers and thermostats. If God was imagined as knowing our deepest fears and sins, this new deity not only knows our desires, it sends us ads for the porn we used to imagine was our guilty pleasure alone. And if our species didn’t already define its deepest desires and fantasies in regard to the virtual realities of stories and images told round campfires and painted on cave walls, then written in novels and painted on canvas, then on screens and more screens, now we have devices to carry these with us everywhere we go. We’ve hardly ever known who we were outside of our virtual realities, but now technology has made it so that these realities can permeate every pore of our physical and psychic existence. It’s just our trashy deities have gone from Zeus and Hera to reality tv stars.
Artificial Neural Networks, Complex Systems, and our Posthuman Futures
So maybe our virtual realities have never not been networked. After all, we’re not the first generation to imagine that we all imagined god out of our collective psyche, or that god dreamed up us and the entire universe. But we are the first generation to physically develop a giant second brain for humanity, with literal wires and cables, called the Internet, and its virtual analog, called the Web, which finally gives this plastic form. And if Wikipedia wasn’t evidence enough of the powers of the collective intelligence this new form can give rise to (heck, there’s even pages on there for every obscure Game of Thrones character!), then what of the artificial intelligences that are on the way? Not necessarily androids like Commander Data on Star Trek (though a robot friend would be much cooler than a robot overlord any day), but the sort of distributed and enmeshed intelligences being pioneered, of course, by Google?
For not even a month ago it was announced that Google had taught a computer to play video games, and to learn from its mistakes how to get better and win. Or Facebook, who only last year announced it had developed programs which could recognize human faces almost as well as humans can. Both used a technology, often described as “deep learning” in the media, called “artificial neural networks” by those working in the field of artificial intelligence. Artificial neural networks are essentially simulated brains, that is, virtual nerve cells linked together into networks, which are then exposed to a set of stimuli, and then given feedback as to when they get it right or not. And researchers have figured out that if you wire them in certain ways – about five different ways, to be precise – you get six different types of thought like behavior that match up to six of the most essential forms of cognitive actions performed by humans. That is, if you want human style memory (along with guessing for partial information), association, feature abstraction, category formation, and recognition, all you need to do is wire the simulated nerve cells together in the right pattern (which researchers are quite sure are similar to those used in animal brains), and the “teach” the artificial network what you want it to learn. You don’t program these computers, you teach them. And like children, they learn. But unlike children, they don’t have limitations, like the need for naps or watching cartoons, or a brain with limitations of size and storage. Rather, you can program one of these artificial neural networks to be “interested” and “good” at doing only one thing, like, in the case of Facebook’s nets, doing facial recognition, and getting increasingly better at this over time.
Whether or not this will ever lead to anything like sentient androids is hard to say, though it’s likely this will eventually occur. But many artificial intelligence researchers these days argue that we will first see smaller and more specific artificial intelligences of the sort we are already beginning to see, such as thermostats which learn our preferences. Or like the terrifyingly animal-like mobile robots (or “mobots”) created by Boston dynamics for the army. If ever there was a terrifying proposition, it is what the armies of the world, and the corporations that profit from them, will do if given unfettered leeway to pursue their wildest dreams with these new technologies. Skynet indeed.
While the armies of the world might be wondering how to develop artificial life to help extinguish that which already exists, scientists in the field of “complex systems science” are increasingly convinced that the life and sentience we already see on this planet is itself the result of the sort of emergence seen at work in artificial neural networks. To put things simply, while brains are quite smart, individual nerve cells are all really stupid, because all they know is that when they get enough stimuli from the outside world, they start to pulse quicker. And yet, everything brains do comes from just networking these very simple nodes together. It’s all in the wiring, and in the fact that there’s positive reinforcement, such that if a particular connection in a brain, artificial or otherwise, gives rise to what is deemed to be a success, by either a trainer (for artificial neural networks) or a given environment (for an organism), it is designed to get stronger. This is what cognitive neuroscientists and artificial intelligence rehearchers call “back-propagation,” namely, stuff that works gets stronger in reverse. It’s what leads to what humans call habit, which is to say, we get better at things we do repeatedly, and we tend to do repeatedly things that work, which we then get better at, and which then work even better. Or as neuroscientists would say, “what fires together wires together,” and “the brain is what it eats.” Whatever works makes the very connections which gave rise to it stronger, in both living and now artificial brains. Which means Facebook will get better at recognizing human faces the more faces it is shown, and the more a human tells the neural net in question when it gets them right. After a while, the net should, so long as it has enough artificial nerve cells, get better than the humans who do this by habit all the time.
And so, scientists working in the field of complex systems argue, if “intelligence” can come from networks of agents which are themselves quite “dumb,” then it is just as likely that life as well came from elements which were not living, such as basic proteins which just ended up linking up together in the right way in environments which then “rewarded” this type of behavior. Viewed this way, life, love, thought, desire, all this came from the intertwining of stuff together which only had these sorts of things as the most basic potential.
What might any of this have to do with a rebirth of the sacred? Well, as cognitive neuroscientists have argued extensively, in books such as Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994), or Joseph LeDoux’s The Synaptic Self: How Our Brians Become Who We Are (1996), the binary split proposed by Rene Descartes in which mind and matter, mind and body, are totally distinct, a notion central to most of Western science for the past several hundred years, is no longer supported by the cutting edge of contemporary neuroscience or artificial intelligence. Rather, it seems that mind and body, not to mention mind and matter, are like two sides of a coin, aspects of each other. From such a perspective, it is no longer necessary to imagine that something like a “God” gave us a soul, and this is why we are intelligent. Rather, we are intelligent because evolution sculpted our brains into the most complex networking of matter yet known in the world. Humans then aren’t particularly special, just the best folding of matter the world has yet to see.
Panpsychism, and the Potentials for a Rebirth of the Sacred via Networked Post-Theologies
All of which might seem a bit far from the notion of a rebirth of the sacred. Certainly it seems like secular post humanism, with all the talk of evolution and getting rid of any notion of a God-given soul. Then again, if God is no longer a transcendent entity, then perhaps what we’ve called God all along was always already right here, right in front of us. That is, maybe God is part of the stuff of the world itself. That is, if all intelligence, human or otherwise, comes from simply intertwining much more basic stuff together in complex ways in the right sorts of environments, then everything we’ve ever hoped, dreamed, or imagined is already present, if in basic and potential form, in all the matter in front of us. That is, if you folded the matter in a stone together in the right ways, it too would likely be alive, and smart enough to do what Facebook is doing. After all, computers are just silicon, which is to say, a type of rock. And our brains are mostly carbon and water, just folded together in particularly nifty patterns. It’s all in the folding. And if god or gods are dreamed up by humans, then gods are present, in potential, at least, in the rocks in front of us. Is this too large a leap in logic?
Then perhaps some quantum physics can help flesh out this out. Quantum cosmologists have long argued that “before” the Big Bang, which is to say, before there was space and time as we know it, everything in the entire universe was condensed into one entity generally called “the singularity.” These singularities are generally thought of as existing inside each and every black hole as well, but the universe as we know it likely came from ‘our’ singularity, which may itself be just one of many, just as our universe may be one of many within a larger multiverse. Point being, however, that everything we have ever known or experienced, in the past and present, and even the future, existed inside this singularity. Every potential, every hope and dream, every reality and fantasy, came from that one smooshed thingy from which all time and space, matter and energy, love and fear, thought and stuff, emerged. What’s more, many researchers have even wondered if we ever left the singularity, or if perhaps we are just some sort of virtual reality or holographic projection from within this sort of singular entity. Call it “god” if you will, that from which everything, even our fantasies, came, and will come even in the future. Freedom and desire, everything, came and will come from there. In some senses, our whole universe can be seen as the dream of the singularity. And if god is the dream of the collective intelligence and fantasy of humans, and humans and our universe the dream of the singularity, then perhaps god is a dream of a dream of the singularity dreaming itself into being.
What’s more, if everything we’ve ever experienced is simply an aspect of this singularity as “expanded” into the reality we experience, not only is everything interconnected, then everything we’ve ever experienced is an aspect of this singularity, an entity so small that it is considered outside of space itself, a complete unity of infinite diversity. And so, if this thing is in many senses “godlike,” then would not each and every entity in our cosmos be itself an aspect of this? This is in fact what artificial neural networks show us, that everything has the potential to be intelligent in human-like ways, it’s all in how you network things together.
Now lest this sound a bit crazy, this is in no way to argue that rocks are god, or are as smart as humans. No, humans approach the potential of the singularity to give rise to new forms much more than rocks do. But on the other hand, when we eat, minerals and plant matter and dead animal matter become part of the very fabric of the brans and bodies which give rise to some pretty complex thoughts and feelings. Even simple water molecules, a mere three atoms, become pretty “smart” in their way when they become part of our nerve cells, even if they then become “dumb” again when they leave our bodies. And if we are 90% water, then isn’t it all just in how we network our water and a few other components together? Isn’t intelligence, feeling, fantasy, even love, just a pattern which unleashes the potential for all these things always already present within the very stuff of the world?
This is a perspective which scientists and philosophers call “panpsychism.” Panpsychism has nothing to do with psychics and the like; rather, it is the name for a respected position within science and philosophy, one which has been a minority but which is increasingly gaining adherents in even the most stodgy corners of science and philosophy. Panspychism describes the notion that something like mind or awareness is present, if in very simple forms, in the very stuff of the world. None of which is to say that stones are smart. But panpsychists believe that there is at least a very basic type of awareness in all matter. That when electrons swerve out of the way of other electrons, it is simply a much more basic form of what humans do when they swerve away from big scary dogs. This isn’t to say that electrons know they are aware, only animals seems to be able to reflect on their awareness, and be “self”-conscious. But from a panpsychist point of view, basic matter like electrons or stones might not know they are aware or feel, but rather, they simply arethis thinking and feeling. That is, they are an intertwining of the basic stuff of the world which is itself thinking and feeling at a very basic level. The more complex the intertwining of this stuff, the more complex the ability to think and feel, even up to and including the sort of reflexivity and recursion which arises when this thinking and feeling can think and feel itself, which it to say, be aware of its own awareness in an animal-like manner.
While neuroscientists like Damasio and LeDoux don’t talk much about the smarts of stones or electrons, their positions on the inadequacy of the mind-body split in regard to contemporary neuroscience, when coupled with the advances in artificial neural networks, indicate that a panpsychist perspective on human intelligence at least makes sense. While few of the scientists have really thought through the full scale implications of some of their findings, it would seem that a fully pansychist perspective, a strong rather than weak panpsychism, would be the logical extension of their arguments. Or at least, this would be a philosophical attempt to extrapolate the ramifications of these scientific findings into realms which are, at least currently, beyond the realm of science. But which nevertheless, are logical extensions of this science, a meta-physics to the physics.
As a philosopher, and a pretty hard-headed realist when it comes to matters of science, not to mention someone who used to be a pretty garden variety agnostic when it comes to issues of “religion.” I increasingly find myself not only taking a panpsychist view of the world, but one which is pantheist and theophanic. That is, if everything is an aspect of the singularity, and everything we’ve ever hoped or dreamed comes from the simple intertwining of aspects of this singularity with each other, then the potential for everything we’ve ever hoped and dreamed lies in the very stuff of the world in front of us, even in simplest form. It’s all god, so to speak. And things are closer to being god-like the more they are networked in ways which release the godlike in everything and anything. Following the science of complex networks, this would an ethics of robust emergence, in which the sustainable emergence of complexity, in the form of living entities and beyond, forms the basis for a potential ethics not only for humans, but for the various non-human intelligences, created by humans or otherwise, that we may encounter. In posthuman times, times of increasingly intelligent computers and systems, and in which we could one day perhaps discover non-terrestrial forms of life, having an ethics to guide us which is non anthropocentric would be a great help indeed. For if the human is increasingly indistinct from its computers, not to mention its artificial neural networks and biotechnologies, having a non-anthropocentric ethics to help guide us in our endeavors could be useful indeed.
And beyond ethics, a potential reentry to the sacred. For if things are more “god”-like the more they approach the condition of the singularity, which is to say, the more they approach the ability to give rise to the robust, which is to say, sustainable emergence of complexity, then the human brain is the closest thing to a godlike being to have ever emerged from the world as we know it. No wonder then that it has given rise to dreams of god, for it is, in a sense, a dream of god, or that which dreams of god were based upon, namely, the singularity. From such a perspective, any and all aspects of the singularity need be cherished as the face of god itself, and even moreso to the extent to which they help us be godlike in relation to what is around us, which is to say, to help foster the emergence of creativity in all we encounter.
All of which is to say that, with the deconstruction of the binary between the human and the material by means of artificial neural networks and cognitive neuroscience, human exceptionalism ceases to be the inexorable lynchpin to our ways of looking at the world, and with this, we need to begin to value new things. Based on the science of networks, I propose the notion of the robust emergence of complexity, as that which gave rise to ant colonies from ants, flocks from birds and fish, and brains from really simple and “dumb” pulsing nerve cells. It’s all the flesh of the singularity, yet it’s not all at equal density, some of this flesh is more singularity-like in that it’s folded in such ways as to promote this sort of folding in what’s around it. And as the science of networks tells us, networks are more likely spontaneously emerge into complexity the more they and their environment have four primary traits: diversity, energetic meta-stability (not too much or too little in terms of energy flows), and ’democratic’ style feedback between levels, leading to the potential for the emergence of complex networking in ways which can be relatively sustainable in relation to emergences of complexity in their environments.
This is a post-human, non-anthropocentric ethics which is also a pantheistic theophany. It is pantheistic (pan=all, theos=god, Ancient Greek) because it sees god and the potential for god-like-ness within the very fabric of the stuff of the world of experience itself. And it is theophanic (theos=God, phanieron=to appear, Ancient Greek) because it believes that god, the god-like, or the sacred can appear in many ways. A theophanic pantheism which is also an ethics of robust emergence of complexity, which combines what used to be thought of as the distinct domains of science, philosophy, ethics – and yes, even ‘religion’ – would be one which recasts the notion of the sacred or divine to be the potential for creative fostering of creativity within the fabric of any and all, the flesh of the extended singularity which makes up the entire world of our experience.
Once we no longer see the human as the result of a gift of a soul by a transcendent creator, but rather, the result of the immanent folding of matter with itself, we then can see the transcendence we’ve always imagined as part of humans and their gods as a potential within all matter. This is a this-worldly, immanent transcendence. One which sees the potential for god-likeness within any and all, and which imagines those of us who foster the creativity of themselves and others as the most ethical and ultimately godlike of us all. Such a notion is not far from the philosophies of religion advocated by respected philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead or Charles Hartshorne, and has much in common with various liberation theologies, as well as notions of the divine at work in the Sufi thinking of Islamic philosophers such as Ibn ‘Arabi, or aspects of the tantric Vajrayana Buddhism of Ju Mipham. It is an immanent notion of the potentials of what we in the West have come to call ‘the divine.’ One which views liberation for any and all as its goal, and the divine as that within any and all which is liberating for the creativity of any and all.
As a secular, post-agnostic, scientifically mind philosopher, this is an ethics and a post-theology, based in cutting edge science, which I can identify with. A rebirth of the sacred, but one which doesn’t advocate the worship of other-wordly gods, or the repression of various types of non-believers. Rather, it is one which sees any and all notions of the divine as potentially helpful to the emergence of robust complexity in any and all. So go out and invent a new god. If it helps us all foster the creativity in ourselves and others, it might not be too out of sync with the god-like-ness that science and philosophy can be seen as arguing is the singularity itself, and the very fabric of any and all.
Or at least, isn’t this more interesting, and perhaps more useful, than some of the other gods you’ve heard about, at least if your goal is to foster the emergence of creativity in yourself and others? This is, at least, part of what I think makes such notions not only powerful, but perhaps, themselves an attempt to reimagine the divine in ways which sync with our postman, techno-saturated, networked time. A god within the net which is neither anti-human nor simply anthropomorphism, but in fact, a signpost to what could be better in our posthuman futures to come.