Theology and Technology in Review

Demerzel, the literally faithful android in David Groyer and Josh Friedman’s interpretation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

Extending from the last missive on Computational Theology, I want to dive into the question of what it means to have a theology of machines, a machine theology, or a theology generating machine. Each of those three descriptions is different – a theology of machines is about believing in machines as otherworldly things. It’s a little challenging to think about how we might worship a toaster, but perhaps less fantastic to think about how we might worship a machine that no one had ever seen before, and that landed on earth from outer space. A machine theology asks what do machines believe? To assign belief to a machine, to assert that machines demonstrate a teleological sensibility, may be a stretch; but let’s see, shall we? When we consider ‘machine ethics’, we are opening up Langdon Winner’s question of whether artifacts can have politics; I go further than he does. Winner suggests that a machine can’t have its own politics, but that it can embody political biases. I would argue – in considering the distinction between lived and transcendent theologies that I wrote about in my last post, and the further distinction of strong lived theologies that trend towards the transcendent – that advanced machines machines can possess a strong lived theology. A theology generating machine is a more future looking device that predicts likely futures based on a Laplace’s Demon kind of model, becoming through its predictions a time machine of sorts. It has parallels in the Oracle at Delphi, Psychohistory in Asimov’s Foundation series, and is grounded in the biblical divinity of prophesy (the prophets, those who tell the future, are closer to God), and ancient practices of divination.

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Computational Theocracy

Creation of Robotic Adam - Stock Image - C002/8593 - Science Photo Library
Is God creating robots, or are robots creating God?

In considering technological theology, it is necessary to distinguish between what I refer to as transcendent theologies: belief, absolutes, or truth, and what I call lived theologies: scripture, ritual, mantra, holy places and order. Transcendent theologies are claims to higher knowledge, beyond what is possible in nature, in areas like life after death, and the existence of God (upper case ‘G’). Lived theologies are claims about how one should live in order to serve god (lower case ‘g’), what it means to live a good or successful life. Transcendent theologies in one sense do not matter to our life on earth; they are by definition unprovable, revealed to us through prophesy, and while they may inform our lived theology, they relate to a higher order of existence than that with which we are currently concerned. Lived theologies are extremely important, and while often informed by revealed religion, they predate all of the great modern religions. Each of us adheres to a lived theology, with some base understanding of right, and righteousness, whether that’s an altruistic, socially sensitive collectivism, or a Darwinist individualism. In each case we seek to advance our interests based on an understanding of the world, an evolved ontology – that is our lived theology.

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My Books and Me

The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg, a copy of which sits behind my desk.

A pile of them appeared on the countertop the other day. Ten, maybe twelve, the result of two trips to Vibes and Scribes in Cork who had just had a Theology PhD student’s entire library turned over for cash. Some were former library books, themselves acquired no doubt second-hand, still with their tags in place. Some older editions; a few primary texts; some contemporary commentaries. I note my name, the month and year, ‘Vibes and Scribes’ as the source, and log them on LibraryThing. This bunch of books was not acquired as part of a deliberate course of study or investigation – just generally interesting and opportunistically (and cheaply) sourced, so they don’t get much else in the way of notes – at least not immediately. If there was a particular thought or connection that caused me to select a particular book, I’ll note it. A book riffing on themes from the movie The Matrix – ‘ref Baudrillard; simulacra’; a book on angelic spirituality – ‘angelology; ref Agamben; Economic Theology; hierarchy, Pseudo-Dionysus.’ I don’t care much for the intrinsic value of the things; so writing on them is part of how they are consumed. The second hand books are so much more valuable when they have legible clear notes, or emphasis added from former readers.

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Epistemic Theology and Epistemic Technology

The 'Robotic Moment' | Essay by Sherry Turkle | Britannica
We are in what Sherry Turkle calls ‘the robotic moment’

In considering my proposal of technological theology as a waypoint in our current trajectory, from religious, political and economic theology, the idea of epistemic theology was brought to my attention in considering the grounding of Carl Schmitt. There have been questions about the theology of Schmitt (was he primarily Christian, or secular?), and some questions over whether political theology is about the politics of theology or the theology of politics; medieval political theology certainly appears to have been about the latter. Adam Kotsko suggests political theology is more concerned with the relationship between the two fields of theology and politics, though the consensus is moving towards what he calls a politically-engaged theology. My reading, reflects a range of kinds of theology, in that political theology is an ontological structure, allowing the world to be understood and engaged with. Just as Deleuze and Guattari argued that the role of the philosopher is to ‘create concepts’ (What is Philosophy?, 1991(FR), 1994(transl.), Columbia, p.5), so political theology is a way to understand the world, to understand the real in social, or more specifically political terms. It is, in Schmitt’s explanation, a secular theology (Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Chicago UP, 1985/2005).

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Hypocrisy, Identity and Emptiness

Brexit: Hypocrisy charge as Boris Johnson tells UK to 'obey the law' | The  National
Global Britain is a a fine vision. But there is so much that goes unsaid, often deliberately.

The word hypocrisy derives the old Greek ‘hypo’ – under – and ‘krites’ – interpreter. It means someone who presents an interpretation of the fundamental (foundation, substance) truth, and therefore distorts it. A related word hypostases is used in Christian Theology to refer to the persons of God in the Trinity, meaning fundamental (substrate, foundational) beings or essences. An interpretation of the world is not in itself a lie, or an untruth; it is perhaps a subjective presentation, a choice to represent things in a way that is not entirely true; but then, it’s not entirely false either. A politician who tells the country we need to tighten our belts, while buying expensive clothes for themselves at the same time, is not lying, as such; that the country needs to ‘tighten its belt’ may still be true.

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Magic, Miracles and Policy

Ronnie Hawkins, aka the Hawk. A strong believer in miracles, and booster of popular miracle worker Adam Dreamhealer (not his real name).

In an otherwise erudite essay on the deterioration of knowledge due to atrophying web links, Jonathan Zittrain unfortunately chooses to introduce the subject with a reference to Arthur C Clarke’s quote on sufficiently advanced technologies being indistinguishable from magic. The point of course is that magic isn’t real, that it’s just science that we don’t know yet. Clichéd and overused perhaps, but it did trigger the thought about what magic really is, what we mean by it when we say ‘magic’. It’s a contentious thing: do you believe in magic? The cosmopolitan contemporary answer should be ‘why of course not! that’s just a childish diversion!’ Magic tricks are just that: tricks, entertainment, distraction. Yet the question of what it is that we believe has never seemed so pertinent, so immediate as it appears today. The US Government recently released their UFO files, and a good deal of Americans believe in aliens – 29% according to a USA Today poll in 2013, one third in 2019 according to Gallup. What is as interesting is what people do not believe – namely, that the government is telling the truth. 68% of those surveyed in 2019 believed that the Government was hiding what it really knew about the aliens – a fair achievement given those same people didn’t believe the Government was particularly competent. But belief in things like aliens has little to do with statistics, numbers and science.

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Temporal Gospel

In the modern lexicon, the phrase ‘gospel’ means something that is undeniably true. But does truth change over time?

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the late Pope John Paul II defended capital punishment, ‘…to redress the disorder caused by the offence’. While the pontiff considered the problem ‘in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity,’ it was heavily caveated; it was an almost reluctant accession to conservatism. Nevertheless, ‘[p]ublic authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime,’ the pope wrote. Within two years, however, it was no longer church teaching. The update in 1997 to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, while recognising that the death penalty had long been considered appropriate on the part of legitimate authority, that was no longer the case. ‘Today,’ the Catechism goes at section 2267, ‘there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.’ In 2020, Pope Francis cemented the position of the Church in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti. ‘There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that “the death penalty is inadmissible” and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide,’ Pope Francis writes in section 263. How could an institution so committed to dogma, doctrine, and a unitary truth shift so dramatically in such a short period of time?

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Loneliness and The Cyborg Transmutation

Robots need friends too!

In the late nineteenth century, as the Industrial Revolution kicked into gear, social alienation became a significant concern of both social workers (in particular religious pastors and ministers) and policy makers. Durkheim’s anomie was one of the first studies of the phenomenon (The Division of Labour in Society, 1893), though it’s conceivable that such alienation was only made possible by urbanisation and the size of communities permitted through industrialization. Simmel (The Philosophy of Money, 1900) and Tönnies (Community and Civil Society, 1887) each looked at the money system and the built environment respectively as contexts for understanding alienation. Man was alienated from his species essence, in Marxist terms, a fundamentally economic alienation from labour and the product of that labour. The fullest expression of that alienation is ‘in the role of machines in modern life,’ (Wendling, Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation, 2009) those things that take touch away, that dehumanise. The industrialisation of the machine in the form of the city scaled that effect to community and social dimensions.

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Facebook: The Legitimacy of a Nation State

The Oversight Board: An abstract name for a group charged with making stuff right.

The analogy has been drawn before – that Facebook is like a country. As far back as 2010, The Economist suggested that Facebook was beginning to look like a nation state, comparing a meeting between CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the new Prime Minister of the UK David Cameron as ‘more like diplomacy’. In 2014 the Financial Times quoted Zuckerberg as saying to a new hire ‘[t]he best thing to do now, if you want to change the world, is to start a company.’ In 2018, Vox declared Facebook a Monarchy. But its most recent challenges and changes – specifically the establishment of a new ‘oversight’ board – have been towards addressing a fundamentally political challenge: establishing Facebook’s legitimacy.

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Language, Love and Meaning

Barreling through Eilenberger’s wonderful book on Weimar German philosophy, Time of the Magicians, themes begin to emerge. Some are forced, it has to be said, though language is certainly a consistent force. As Walter Benjamin had it, ‘the original sin of the philosophy of language in the modern era lies first of all in the fundamentally arbitrary nature of linguistic signs.’ (p.212) Ernst Cassirer ‘…understood man’s development through symbols as a continuous process of liberation that found its starting point in conceptual forms from which mythical thought derived.’ In other words, for Benjamin, language confused everything – that one is forced to theorise and philosophise through language limited the possibility of philosophy. Language of course was but one form of communication, one tool for concept formation; yet each concept, expressed as it had to be through nouns, imposed meaning on the thing, and distance between the signifier and the signified. For Cassirer, mythological concepts were as important as linguistic ones, allowing a level of transcendence – even if still wrapped in the stultifying chains of language.

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