Artificial Intelligence, Christianity, & Generative Death Anxiety

Daniel Quinn’s phenomenal book “Ishmael” had a deep impact on my worldview when I first read it some eight years ago. I could no longer look at the world in the same way again and soon found myself writing arguments defending the specialness of animal intelligence, denigrating capitalism, and so forth. Quinn argues that the Biblical story of Cain & Able is a poetic or mythological “history” of the agricultural revolution. His interpretation of the myth focuses on the difference between two fundamentally different kinds of societies: the “takers,” represented by Cain, and the “leavers,” represented by Able. The “leavers” are traditional hunting and gathering societies; peoples that we now term “primitives” or “pre-logical peoples,” in contrast to the properly civilized. These civilized peoples are the “takers,” who began with those primitive societies that split off to become agricultural some 10,000 years ago in the Near East and in so doing usurped the role of god in deciding which beings live and which die. The hunter’s success is still at the whim of Nature, where the farmer is much more in control of life and death, although not totally in control. Quinn wishes to deconstruct the notion that humans are the end product or pinnacle of biological evolution. He argues that human supremacy is a cultural myth that modern civilizations are actually living or enacting. Ishmael says:

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act as the lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.

The worldview of the Abrahamic religions, then, served largely as a justification for man’s conquest of nature. Nearly every myth that I am aware of involves some strategy for rationalizing death, especially the death that must occur daily simply to sustain human life. Native American Indians and Australian Aborigines, for example, not only must perform elaborate rituals before the hunt in order to cleanse themselves, harness occult powers, and obtain permission from these powers, but they must also obtain permission from the animal, who must offer up his life willingly. All of this is then followed by yet another ceremony to ensure that the soul of the animal makes a safe passage so that it may return again in a new physical body the next year. Even though these pre-logical peoples universally believe death to be completely unnatural and always the result of occult powers instead of natural ones, they nonetheless must hedge themselves against their daily participation in death. This all fits perfectly with the Neo-Epicurean theory of Ernest Becker, who argues that generative death anxiety is what fuels culture; that culture is man’s way of denying or repressing his awareness of death, which he experiences as guilt: the guilt of original sin. The mythologies of these primitive peoples absolve them of the guilt of killing animals and people alike, safely buffering them from an awareness of their own mortality. The Abrahamic mythologies, on the other hand, simply offer much better absolution from much more guilt!

Instead of Nature being our mother, Nature becomes man’s playground, his garden, to do with as he sees fit. It is no coincidence, then, that Christianity erects a picture of man as the epitome of Nature, as the endpoint of Nature; no coincidence that man is set apart from the rest of the noble automota by his godly Reason. This was man’s way of finding relief from the guilt of killing beautiful creatures every day: they are all machines with no consciousness whatsoever. Western civilization has since been rather obsessed with proving, along with Descartes, that animals are like machines. Eventually this comes back to bite us as our own science turns on the human being and begins to undermine the special status that was granted by the Abrahamic mythologies in the first place! “Perhaps man too is a machine,” we realize with horror! But here is the genius of such a development: if man is nothing but a machine, then he bears no responsibility, least of all for his wholesale slaughter of Nature or other peoples. Science thus becomes a new mythology that succeeds in protecting man from his guilt. Unfortunately, this modern, logical, “civilized” mythology fails to perform the primary function of any mythology: to give the individual rules to live by that ensure his specialness and thus his immortality. This is a real Catch-22 that modern man has gotten himself into. We long to be rescued by some form of Vitalism, but cling to our materialism for fear of the crushing burden of guilt that such a Vitalism would saddle us with. We try to compromise by seeing our own Free Will as just another algorithm. This grants us special status above primitive peoples and animals, but also allows us to fall back on determinism regarding our ultimate responsibility, which we reflexively abdicate without realizing the cost in meaning and fulfillment.

If we invented Christianity and the myth of Reason versus the noble automata in order to absolve ourselves of the guilt of killing, what other products of culture resulted from this generative death anxiety? I submit that Artificial Intelligence is such an example! We are so damned hellbent on seeing both animals and people as mechanical automata that we are willing to partly give up our myth of godly Reason. This will save us from the guilt produced by our wholesale slaughter of the natural world as well as man’s inhumanity to man. We are desperate to explain away the thought that takes place in animals as so many 0’s and 1’s going on in something like an unconscious computer. Tor Nørretranders extends this vision of thought or consciousness to human beings in his book “The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down To Size.” He depicts consciousness as being nothing but the “user illusion” or graphic user interface of an unconscious computer; the “I” as an illusion produced by the unconscious “Me.” What a perfect illustration of man’s retreat from consciousness and the guilt of death! Tor can claim that the unconscious “Me” is actually conscious in a special sense, a sense separating us from animals, while the conscious “I” is really just an illusion, responsible for nothing! This means that “I” am not responsible for anything, but the unconscious “Me” still remains more special than an animal. Though successful, this is a rather feeble attempt to rescue human specialness by abandoning Christianity’s formulation of conscious Reason being the divine spark.

It is no coincidence that the transhumanism movement and the radical life extension movement popped up at the same time as AI. How else was man supposed to reclaim his specialness and thus his immortality in a sense stronger than Tor’s vision could provide? Well, he will literally reprogram the computer that is his body. He will obtain literal immortality instead of symbolic immortality! Or perhaps he gets both. Genetic engineering would produce something post-human; that is, something more special than a human! Thus, the computer is the Procrustean bed into which human and animal alike are forced as man flees from guilt and death. No wonder that Ray Kurzweil seems more interested in the Methuselarity these days than the singularity; more interested in radical life extension that AI. Ernest Becker would be licking his chops if he were still alive! What beautiful confirmation of his views!

I too struggle with a desire to write off animal intelligence as mechanical and unconscious. If I imagine just the suffering of all stray dogs or cats in the US, the weight of such suffering is enough to crush me to pieces. How much easier it would be to look at these creatures as completely unconscious of any such suffering. How much easier to view them as computer programs operating without a user of any kind. I realize now that this was one thing that initially attracted me to Jaynes’ theory. However, this theory has since illuminated a new vision for me. It started with a lecture by Robert Anton Wilson, who cavalierly states that animals obviously have some form of thought. He urges us to look at a kitten playing with a leaf. This animal is projecting an unconscious archetype of “prey” onto that leaf. But even more precisely, this animal is projecting an archetype onto a model of the objective reality that includes that leaf. This is a crucial point. The animal is not simply an example of some instinct being pasted onto raw perception: that raw perception is organized into a model of reality, though likely much simpler than the model of reality through which human beings are constrained to perceive. Animals have experience: they just don’t have a symbolic self who can have these experiences. Thankfully, a dog only has some 15-30 minutes of short-term memory, such that if he suffers for 15 minutes, he doesn’t have to know about that suffering during the following 15 minutes. A dog cannot sum up his suffering, thankfully. Humans, on the other hand, are capable of holding in mind a single moment of suffering for decades. In fact, if you believe that Buddhists can hold an imagine in mind indefinitely, then humans can potentially hold onto a single moment of suffering for their entire lives! Anyway, the point that I wish to drive home is twofold:

1) human beings don’t actually experience true subjective consciousness, experience the “introspectable,” as often as they claim–making their experience just as “unconscious” as most higher animal species for a good part of their lives.

2) this “unconscious” experience, to which animals are entirely confined and humans are largely confined, though inaccessible to declarative memory or conscious recall, is nevertheless recorded in long term memory and can pop up again in experience as a recollection. Thus, you see a dog who was mistreated by a dark skinned person when it was a puppy snap at all dark skinned people for the rest of its life. The dog is not conscious of his prejudice. He does not have a prejudice, but rather a prejudice has him. The point is that his experience is far more complex that the picture we would prefer of a noble automota or computer algorithm. His experience too involves a roiling sea of drives and motives careening against a model of the objective world to produce a phantasmagoria too eerily similar to human experience for us to consciously admit.

Quinn is correct when he asserts that the myth of man’s supremacy is a cultural immortality-project that is being lived out. AI is the perfect example of the living of such a myth; the enacting of such a myth through cultural products. The explicit goal of AI research is essentially to produce a conscious robot, and then a super-intelligent conscious robot. However, succeeding in this venture would undermine our mythic protection from death and guilt, as this would prove that machines can be conscious and, by extension, so could the genetic machines we call animals! Perhaps this is why such research has failed, despite the “exponential” progress that was supposed to culminate in AI long ago. Perhaps mankind cannot risk losing his myths of determinism until he has created a Methuselarity and thus obtained a new form of both symbolic and physical specialness. Regardless, I urge the reader to take a very close look at writers like Sam Harris, Tor Nørretranders, and all those who would “cut consciousness down to size,” as they are most certainly acting out an unconscious drive to create a myth that saves man from his dilemmas. They do so unconsciously and thus risk stripping us of something beautiful and real in their attempt to spare themselves from the ugly and the ambiguous. How right Freud was when he observed that “Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.”

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