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.

There’s a lot of work coming up as we finish out the year here at State Legitimacy HQ. First, off, there’s a review of four books being planned on that schism between science and reason, from the point of view of the scientists – Werner Heisenberg’s Physics and Philosophy; Paolo Zellini’s The Mathematics of the Gods and the Algorithms of Men; Carlo Rovelli’s Helgoland; and Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World. These are joyful books, it seems to me, from men – and it remains mostly men, I’m afraid – who have done the science and recognise its limitations. That is, it appears, with the exception of Labatut who chronicles the periphery, rather than being a practicing scientist himself. Each is also new – in the last couple of years – save for Heisenberg, of course, whose book dates to 1958.

Second, I’m looking at theology and religion in science fiction. In particular, the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy; Philip K Dick’s The Minority Report and Adjustment Team; George Orwell’s 1984; and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Dick’s stories to me in particular appear to have occupied a world just on the other side of the real, not quite within the possible, or the rationally contingent, but in a space where physics was ordered differently. His blade runner in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep disregarded the conventional guardrails of our ontology that disallowed the potential for sentience as a theological dream. In Minority Report and Adjustment Team, he specifically looks at law and bureaucracy, and his protagonists are angels, God’s agents here on earth. The Wachowski’s deliberately messianized Neo in the Matrix, and the Baudrillardian simulacra is overt, but there’s another element to this: Neo’s juxtaposition against Agent Smith, the good versus evil, and realization / actualization versus commodification / meaninglessness. Orwell’s Big Brother was a transcendent figure, and the fervour and awe constituted clear lived theologies, with rituals like the two-minutes hate. As for Asimov, the recent TV adaption includes an interesting robot who believes in a religion. When asked why (in episode 6) she replies ‘[f]rom the moment you come into the world, you and your brothers know your purpose. But the rest of us have to seek these things on our own.’ She references grace, sacrifice and wholeness (the reunification of the Descartian separation) as guiding her.

Finally, there’s the germ of a sub-theory of theology – insofar as it is a strong lived theology – being seen through and developed by literature, culture and inter-generational praxis. Theology perhaps exists in symbiosis with ontology, as a mechanism to orchestrate how we deal with the transcendent, either through deflection, suppression, or engagement – assuming that is that for us as human beings, it is imperative that we do something. For before meaning comes purpose; and before purpose comes persistence: we retain a drive to not die, and so on. This is the will to…something. Let’s see how it unfolds. Computational Theocracy Part 2 will hopefully come in a few weeks.

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