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.

Transcendent theologies have to do with fundamental and often merely assumed ideas about the essential nature of the world. For example, it may be an article of faith, so to speak, that some things are real – like rocks, tables and other people – and that other things are not real – like dreams, or fantasies. Transcendent theologies do not need scientific proofs; they are the most fundamental elements of belief, and go to the very core of our being. They are unquestionable, because even to question them would be to undermine everything else that we believe. Generally, we try not to think about them too much. Transcendent theologies are engaged with perpetually, passively, as modes of being. Monism is a transcendent theology (for example the Gaia theory associated with James Lovelock, or Spinoza‘s substance/attributes theory of god). Plato’s allegory of the cave demonstrates how a transcendent theology might form.

Lived theologies constitute the order within which we organise our worlds. Lived theologies have a physical manifestation in the world, in the form of objects, places, documents, and institutions. We find them in social orders – in governments, tribes and families – in organised religion, in law, economics, science and technology. Lived theologies are eulogised and reinforced through systems of education – which could for example be run by the state, a gang, a parent or a priest. Lived theologies are deeply experiential and participatory – they are engaged with daily, actively, as modes of living. They change frequently, and there is a great divergence in lived theology even within small physical spaces – such as within cities. Lived theologies guide us on how to live a successful life, on how to live together successfully. I separate successful from good as the latter brings with it ethical baggage which is unhelpful for this subject.

When we say ‘that’s just the way things are’, or ‘c’est la vie’ if I am told by my employer that they are withholding tax from my wages to pay to the government, or that as a kid I have to do homework when I come home from school even though I’d prefer to play outside, these are examples of lived theologies. The first example is a strong lived theology, while the second is a weak lived theology. When we say ‘that’s just the way things are’, we are not saying that anything else would be impossible, nor that there are no alternatives. However, to consider an alternative (to paying tax, or receiving a high school education) has some costs associated with it that we need to consider. We could work in the black market, but forego social security. We could drop out of school, but limit our career choices. The stronger the lived theology, the closer it comes to transcendence, though it can never truly become a transcendent theology. Lived theologies become stronger with scale, and with age. If more and more people believe the lived theology – such as that individuals have human rights – those theologies can acquire transcendent characteristics; they can feel like natural law, like truths, like absolutes. The US Declaration of Independence asserts ‘[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…’, a quasi-theological position. Similarly, as they bed down, and multiple generations continue to support those lived theologies, it is almost as if the ghosts of the past are demanding that they be respected.

We don’t say ‘that’s just the way things are’ or ‘c’est la vie’ about transcendent theologies, because there is simply no alternative. This isn’t just how things are – it is our only model of what is real. I may choose to not pay tax, or not do homework; but I can’t choose to run at 100mph or teleport to Milan, because those things are not possible. It’s silly to even consider them. I can’t decide to be a rock today, or to speak to my dead grandfather, because transmutation is supernatural, and death is final. Transcendent theologies describe the limitations of the physical world just as they describe the potentialities of the supernatural world. I don’t need a scientific proof, or formal evidence to prove that I can’t become a rock.

It is possible to say that we believe in lived theologies just as it is possible to say that we believe in transcendent theologies. For transcendent theology, it’s clearly a statement of faith to say ‘we believe in life after death’, or ‘we believe in God’. For lived theology, we can say that ‘we believe in the church,’ ‘we believe in the state,’ or ‘we believe in education.’ That means that we align ourselves with the objectives of social organisation towards divine worship, legal order or training the young. It is a deeper thing to say ‘we believe in the power of the church, the power of the state, or the power of education’. In this statement we are saying that these institutions or processes deliver unto the community a value or benefit that is important to us, that makes us more successful. There is also the beginnings of an elevated concept, a higher power as it were, that the institution or process generates through people organising and injecting it with a legitimacy and vitality. We will return to this later.

Political Theology

When Carl Schmitt in 1923 wrote about political theology, he wrote that all key concepts of the modern doctrine of the state are secularised theological concepts. Political theology was not a new concept, but it had evolved from Augustine and Aquinas through the late medieval period as a contemplation (for example) on the divine right of kings and how theological concepts intersect with theories of political legitimacy. Early political theology was far more (it appears to me) an inquiry into how theology was represented in social order, and how the law of God was instituted on earth. Through the enlightenment, and into the early twentieth century, the emphasis shifted from how theology was made into politics, to a questioning of how secular politics had acquired theological characteristics.

Layering political theology into my categories of transcendent and lived theology, we need first to consider the Thomist and medieval conception of political theology. In that analysis, there was a tight connection between the two, insofar as revealed religion informed both. Success was framed as securing redemption and salvation, the transcendent belief being centered on an almighty creator that had designed the world through which we would pass as a kind of test for righteousness. Political order then was established to facilitate the passage of people along that journey. The law of God was administered by the king, to maintain social order. The prevailing lived theology of the medieval world – in the western tradition, at least – was such that deference be awarded to the church and its representatives, that its laws be obeyed, and that its support of the king legitimised the throne. Politics then was a manifest transcendent theology: the king was no mere mortal; to attack the throne was to attack God. To question the legitimacy of the king was a heresy.

Political philosophers of the early enlightenment such as Hobbes and Machiavelli eschewed the need for transcendent theology in considering social and political order, as the organised church crumbled under its own weight, faced with the modernising ideas of the Protestant Reformation, and Renaissance aesthetics. The separation of church and state gathered momentum through the French Revolution, and the state itself scrambled to secure alternate sources of legitimacy through ideas such as popular sovereignty and Rousseau’s social contract theory. Hegel’s phenomenology of spirit further relegated organised religion to a pre-enlightened order, Feuerbach criticised its entrenchment of hierarchy, while Marx, Smith, Ricardo and other theories of value began to emerge in the new economics. We will return to these economics later.

Schmitt then arrived at his desk to recognise not only that the state and its legitimacy had been firmly detached from transcendent theology, but that the secular order had acquired theological characteristics. There were now elements of the state order that were somehow elevated above the lived experience. The sovereign power of the state, while conceived of in exclusively and explicitly humanist terms, is transformed: in Schmitt’s terms, ‘[t]he sovereign, who in the deistic view of the world, even if conceived as residing outside the world, had remained the engineer of the great machine, has been radically pushed aside. The machine now runs by itself.’ (Political Theology, Chapter 3, p. 48) Politics, then, and the state specifically, had become a fully fledged lived theology.

The State – its laws, courts, institutions and bureaucracy – constituted for Schmitt a political theology, having the necessary rituals (elections, swearing-in ceremonies, trials, public holidays etc.), scriptures (constitutions, statutes, case law), mantras (Liberté, égalité, fraternité!), holy places (parliament, courthouse, customs house) and orders (political and bureaucratic rank, hierarchy, power structure). This is in my formulation a lived theology rather than a transcendent theology. That said, this modern state constituted a very strong lived theology, and Schmitt’s sovereign, Rousseau’s concept of the general will, and even the ‘higher power’ that I referred to earlier that emanated from organised institutions and processes were trending towards the transcendent.

Economic Theology

The strong state – and by extension the strong lived theology – created a social order that was coherent, defensible and successful. However, it suffered from a lack of defensible legitimation. The medieval state, with its theological legitimation, was an expression of theology, not a source of theology. The modern state – the sovereign – was therefore weakened by its pure reliance on popular will. A failure by the state – such as in Weimar Germany or the rest of Europe and America through the Great Depression – was therefore seen either as a failure of the self, of the people, or as a failure of the social order. There was no escape in providence or divine will. The aftermath of the second world war and the post-colonial realignment masked some of the challenges for some time until everything came to a head in the 1960s with an explosion in civil unrest, economic crises in the early 1970s, and a turn to the markets and what has become known as neoliberalism.

Theories of value had been commonplace in the nineteenth century, most famously the labour theory of value that spawned the communist and socialist movements of the twentieth century. Friedrich Hayek in the 1930s was among the first to advocate a move away from values and towards markets, in a similar move to Schmitt, who had advocated a move towards power. Citing Emmanuel Sieyés, and foreshadowing the kind of philosophy that so endeared him to the Nazis, Schmitt writes ‘The will of the people is always good: The people are always virtuous…In whatever manner a nation expresses its wishes, it is enough that it wishes; all forms are good but its will is always the supreme law.’ (PT, p.48) Hayek, while ostensibly writing about economics but ultimately seeing his ideas realised as a political project, rejected values as subjugation. He believed in the idea of spontaneous order, that the world had evolved as it did on Darwinian lines, and extended Darwinism into economics. Markets and the price mechanism should dictate how the world worked, not political projects of control and centralised power.

As the state based on popular sovereignty receded in relevance, so the power of markets began to assert itself as the primary arbiter of social and political order. While prima faciae a grubby business, money, as the song goes, makes the world go round (from Cabaret, 1972). Politics, politicians and states began to fade as corporations, banks and international finance began to reconstruct the world. This became the lived theology of our modern western world as I was growing up; revealed religion was irrelevant, but money – that was real. The song – money makes the world go round – includes the lyrics ‘When you haven’t any shoes on your feet / Your coat’s thin as paper / And you look 30 pounds underweight / When you go to get a word of advice / From the fat little pastor / He will tell you to love evermore / But when hunger comes to rap / Rat-a-tat rat-a-tat at the window / (At the window!) / Who’s there? (hunger) oh, hunger! / See how love flies out the door!’ The message there is quite clear, with even an explicit religious reference! The pastor – fat, while you are thin, is telling you about love, but love means nothing when you’re hungry.

The markets in their turn acquired theological characteristics, and as Giorgio Agamben and others have described economic theology, its strengthening as a lived theology have seen economics trend towards the transcendent. There is a magical quality to the power of the market, even Adam Smith’s invisible hand has more than a whiff of the divine about it. Hayek’s concept of spontaneous order appears similarly wondrous – can it possibly be ordinary, or natural? Margaret Thatcher apocryphally declared over a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty ‘this is what we believe!’, allowing little room for doubt. The lived theology of economics has its scriptures (economic formulae, GDP, growth rates), rituals (ringing the bell at the stock market, quarterly reports etc.) mantras (greed is good), holy places (Wall Street, stock exchanges) and orders (rich, poor, servant, chattel, labourer, capitalist).

Technology: The Current Point of Inflection

In 2021 we find ourselves at a point where the ground of economic theology – the power of markets to allow us to successfully navigate the world – is falling away. Rampant inequality, multiple crashes, an inability to address longer term challenges like climate change, and the destruction of academic rigour, expertise and even core concepts of truth in media had led to Brexit and Donald Trump and a sense that the world is heading for conflict and more of the dreadful experiences of the twentieth century. We have arrived at a point of fundamental failure. The question is less where should we go next – as it appears we have even lost our own capacity for judgement, such is our lack of confidence. The question is where will we end up, based on the current trajectory of the world.

It appears to me that we are heading towards a part of technological eminence, where epistemological machines will judge for us, based on a kind of abstract economic model that some may fight over, but most won’t understand. Artificial intelligence machines, deciding for us how to distribute resources, adjudicating disputes, and determining for us what is in some abstract sense right, in order that we all, collectively, are successful – whatever that means. That technological eminence, that elevation of the machine – just as in the past we have elevated God and king, then law and state, then economics and markets – will constitute a new lived theology. It will have its scriptures (source code), rituals (Conferences like Apple; Product Launches) mantras (one more thing), holy places (Silicon Valley, data centers, virtual spaces, like Zoom) and orders (techno-literate, techno-slave, bots, venture capitalist, system adminstrator).

What form this takes is the subject of my current work. Just as there has been excellent work on computational epistemology – reflecting on the concept of machine mediated meaning, and computational propaganda – considering the political power of information technology – the question is whether we are witnessing the emergence of a computational foundationalism in the sense of epistemological foundationalism, along the lines of Alvin Plantinga’s idea of warrant. Where does our sense of meaning come from? In particular, this revolves around the evolution not merely of machines of judgement, but of artificial intelligence machines, that make decisions deemed to be wise – though we don’t know how. The power and opacity of AI machines immediately opens the door to first a lived theology, and trending once more towards transcendence: are these machines possibly making that leap? Are we witnessing the emergence of a computational theology, or what Ian Bogost has called a computational theocracy?

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