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).

This means, in effect, that what we believe (our theology) is fundamentally political. We believe in our institutions, our political form, our democratic and state legitimacy. That act of providing legitimacy, and endorsing the social contract, stakes out the conceptual territory upon which our mortal battle lines are drawn. This is what we believe. Schmitt argues in his Roman Catholicism and Political Form (Greenwood Press, 1996) that the Catholic Church in particular has been persistently accommodating of contradiction, in what he calls a complexio oppositorum (p.7). In its political structures, welcoming of all from autocracy to monarchy to democracy, in its support of both war and peace, both the death penalty and amnesty, and countless other oppositions, the church has been highly elastic and adaptable. It is the capacity of the church to house apparent contradictions that has elevated its role in our world. We do not so much believe – according to Schmitt – in the divine revelation of the church, but rather in its institutions and values, which are inherited by, adapted for, and subsumed by the secular state.

In economic terms, it appears to me that Keynsean economics were a logical issuance from this political theology. Belief in big government, the welfare state, the new deal, and communist idealism in the earlier part of the twentieth century were all based on a desire for peace and economic security in a war-torn world, and collective faith in the government and its institutions to provide it. It didn’t work, though. Through the 1970s, a series of failures and shocks, from the Vietnam War to the Oil Crisis, countless political scandals including Watergate, and the civil rights and post-colonial independence movements all contributed to an increasing awareness of some fundamental weaknesses in the structures of State. In 1974, Friedrich Hayek was awarded the Nobel prize in economics, and Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher flexed and prepared for government, with the latter famously declaring, in referencing Hayek’s Road to Serfdom ‘This is what we believe!’ Suddenly, violently, neoliberalism was upon us, as the market became the holiest of holies: welcome to economic theology.

The nature of theology is that it is something that provides answers, a big story arc that can answer the seemingly unanswerable. It has a power source, like God, the State or the Market. It has some kind of book, or set of rules, like the bible, the state constitution, or economic formulae. It is not necessarily, however, prescribed, and is often vague. There are plenty contradictions and options within the bible, and State constitutions are notoriously subject to interpretation, interpretations that change over time. As for economics, the frequency of economic crashes and the persistence of austerity as policy have all been rationalised after the fact: for all of the formulae, predicted outcomes appear beyond our most dismal of scientists. But where does religious theology come from? Politics and economics appear rational ideas, that can assume theological characteristics – they are secular theologies. But what of religious theology?

Gavin Rae in his 2016 paper on The Theology of Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology in the journal Political Theology argues forcefully that there are two forms of theology that one can consider: the first is a religious theology, rooted in divine revelation. The second is what he calls ‘an epistemological form of theology, rooted in recognition of the limits of human reason.’ Rae’s argument is that Schmitt’s theology is in the latter category, and that his conception of religious theology is an epistemic one. Furthermore, Rae argues that this epistemic faith is the foundation upon which divine revelation can happen – that divine revelation can only occur within an epistemic frame. Religious doctrine, Rae argues, arises from epistemic faith, though it then proceeds beyond epistemology in making origin claims, claims of preeminence. ‘The “essence” of the political,’ Rae argues, ’emanates from the theological, the “essence” of which lies in the complexio oppositorum, which entails not the rigidity of reason, but the elasticity of faith.’

In a crucial passage, Rae theorizes that epistemic faith as a path to truth does not require a belief in religion or in God, but ‘”merely” an epistemological commitment to the notion that not only is truth revealed through belief (=faith) rather than revelation or reason, but also that revelation and reason are, ultimately, dependent on faith.’ This is a very postmodern view: there is no discernable absolute truth. There is however an epistemic truth, which we can find if we believe in epistemology, and its undergirding of tradition, language, and history. This is not entirely satisfying of course; our epistemic foundation is in some sense arbitrary, guided as it is by fallible memory, and distorted and undermined by the passage of time. Still it serves as a perfectly serviceable model for understanding secular theology in some kind of rational sense, and that represents progress.

What then of the evolution of our epistemology, and the persistence or preservation of meaning? Is that even something we should aspire to? The financial crash of 2008, and others in 2001 and 1997, combined with persistent wars especially since September 11th 2001, rampant inequality, an assertive China, and an abject failure of global collaboration in the face of a global pandemic (where states themselves appeared to revert to a Hobbesian state of nature, of all against all, in the initial grubby dash for PPE and then vaccines) does not bode well. And the challenge of climate change lies before us. Our systems have failed, though we have no alternative right now – or do we? What about technology?

Technology remains the hope – this is the Silicon Valley narrative. Technology can ease the burdens of poverty, disease and climate change, it continues. Robots can do dirty jobs and in turn make us all richer. It’s not sufficiently well developed yet, but if we allow technology to do what it does, and don’t obstruct its progress through things like regulation, it will continue to get better. Sure, there are negative elements, in areas like surveillance and job displacement, but the good outweighs the bad. To persist more techno-utopianist tropes, these means justify the ends, for ahead of us lies a glorious future! In my domain – information technology – artificial intelligence is a critical component of that future. We’ve discussed many times on this blog the challenge of AI and its insistence on self-contained ontologies: the AI looks at the world, defines the world in binary terms, and then situates its decisions therein. Small machines at first – cars, smoke alarms, and so on; but ultimately entire systems – cities, factories, food production, construction, finance – will all control and operate an environment within which the human is situated, within which the human – in order to engage – must have trust in the machines; the human must have faith in the machines; the human must believe in the machines.

As the epochal sun sets on our concept of economy and rises on that of technology, this is perhaps an epistemological singularity. Over the course of time, ideas have come and gone, histories have been written, some preferred, many forgotten, and meaning in the world has evolved. Machines, however, do not age – at least not in the same way as humans do. Rather, they freeze time in their binary sensibility, and drive banks. Their memory is in some sense infinite; they do not have the judicial privilege of evolving precedent, nor the luxury of a complexio oppositorum. Inconsistency is verboten; there is only one set of facts, one truth, one world inhabited by all, and the machine will administer that. This machine – to invert EM Forster’s conception – is designed to stop the world from spinning, to dismiss dissent, and forever persist its memories and meaning as immutable, and right. What tyranny awaits!

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