God, Human, Animal, Machine
Happy Pride 🏳️🌈
Also, happy 66,043,104th-ish anniversary of the dino-killing impact ☄️🦖—at least according to this paper:
Aquatic leaves in the K/T boundary section near Teapot Dome, Wyoming, preserve structural deformation that can be duplicated experimentally in extant aquatic leaves by freezing. Reproductive stages reached by the fossil aquatic plants at the time of death suggest that freezing took place in approximately early June.
I passed prelims!
This summer, I'm working on a few different research projects, including the next milestone of my PhD: writing my dissertation proposal, which I'll defend in early fall.
All blogging is preliminary, but when I'm no longer reading for prelims, "preliminary thoughts" is a less punny name. So I might change the name soon—and some other things as well—so I'd appreciate if you could tell me what parts of this have interested or excited (or disappointed or bored) you!
I'm still reading!
I'm challenging myself to set aside every Friday for reading books this summer. Some of them will be academic, both related to and unrelated to my dissertation, but others will be for pleasure. A sample of what I've read/am reading so far:
- The autobiography of John Sobieski, a civil war veteran, temperance/suffragist campaigner, and exiled descendant of King John III Sobieski.
- God, Human, Animal, Machine by Megan O'Gieblyn, who writes about technology and religion.
- Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (this one's long! I've actually been chipping away at it since January!)
Everyone should read more about John Sobieski, who is delightfully wholesome and strange, but today I want to talk about Gods, Humans, Animals, and Machines.
O'Gieblyn, Megan. God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning (New York: Penguin Random House, 2022)
This is a beautifully-written book, part history, part philosophy, part memoir. O'Gieblyn, who was raised in a non-denominational Evangelical Christian church and studied theology under hard-line Calvinists, makes much hay of the many similarities between that Calvinism (anyone else read Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God in high school history?) and the transhumanist ideology of our tech plutocrats (from Nick Bostrom to Sam Altman). This is more than a coincidence: O'Gieblyn traces the actual historical connections from point A to point B (e.g. tracing the term "transhuman" from Dante to Julian Huxley), arguing that for all their self-proclaimed rationalism, transhumanists owe more than they'd like us to think to Christianity.
At its core, God Human Animal Machine is a book about metaphor—it's indispensability, and the urgency of picking the right one. Our knowledge and understanding of God(s), humans, animals, and machines has always rested at least in part on comparing them to each other: On the one hand, we are said to be made in God's image, to think like a computer, to be the storytelling animal; on the other hand we make sense of our God(s) as extremely powerful versions of the consciousness we see in ourselves and our fellow humans, and we build computers to "think" like we think humans do.
Where some would urge us to escape metaphor, to only understand God, humans, animals, and machines through objective, rational deduction, O'Gieblyn argues that this is impossible, and entirely alien to how we make sense of the world. Instead, she urges us to pull our metaphors and analogies out into the open, so we can better understand why we think the way we do about consciousness, agency, and intelligence.
As I mentioned above, much of the book is devoted to showing how the cosmology, moral philosophy, and eschatology of Christianity made their way into transhumanism. And it matters that this was a particular kind of Christianity—a kind whose foibles O'Gieblyn is uniquely positioned to examine. Her theology education was deeply influenced by a hardline Calvinist school of thought that believes that God's omniscience limits our free will: some of us (the Elect) are destined for salvation, while others are destined for damnation, and our fates are already written. The Elect cannot help but be righteous, and the rest cannot help but be degraded.
The future that transhumanists envision, and its implications for human society, share almost a one-to-one correspondence with this Calvinist cosmology. If all of subjective experience is just information, and all information is ultimately computable, then our futures are already written and at least theoretically knowable. The transhumanist vision of the future hinges upon an apocalyptic "singularity," the point at which the exponential curve of advances in computational power goes asymptotically vertical. This represents the apotheosis of computation, in the literal sense of god-making: the post-singularity computing system is all-knowing, and humans will, transhumanists say either merge with it in a heavenly realm of pure thought or perish. In its most ambitious and weird forms, transhumanism even envisions a sort of resurrection of the body, by which even the dead may know this paradise, or else be punished after death for not helping bring about the singularity sooner.
This vision of what humans are, and what the future will be, leaves little room for human psyche, subjectivity, or free will. Fortunately for team human freedom, this future isn't as necessary or inevitable as its acolytes claim. Its claims are based on any number of unexamined analogies between, well, God, humans, animals, and machines, and these analogies can be otherwise. You should read the book not only for the history O'Gieblyn provides, but also for its exploration of alternative views of consciousness: idealism, panpsychism, and animism, all of which provide intriguing possibilities in reaction to or separate from transhumanism and its Protestant roots, but none of which O'Gieblyn embraces fully.
The point is not that there's only one right way to understand consciousness, but that we choose the metaphors with which we do so. Our choices have histories, and consequences: both Calvinist predestination and technocratic transhumanism use the imaginary of an omniscient figure—the deus ex machina, the God from the (human-made) machine—to produce predictions that are supposedly written in stone. These can be as intimate as unfair stigma—whether based on superstition or black-boxed algorithms for benefits denial or predictive policing—or as grandiose as an inevitable apocalypse. But either way, we must resist those who use God or machine to discourage us from the very human pursuit of asking but why?
PS: O'Gieblyn doesn't talk much about the third category in her title, animals—but watch this space; Marina's writing about how animals play into this all as we speak :)
Vegan minced "pork" from Rabbit and Wolves—great in lettuce wraps, but probably also works well over rice, in fusion tacos, or maybe even a spicy soup?
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