Artificial spirits

The word “culture” is one of countless that have changed meaning over the years. From what one does for oneself — acquire something by one’s own assiduous efforts — it has instead become what is done to you. The culture is taken to install itself. Some variation on “the culture made me do it” is used as the presumptive excuse when overriding moral principles, which can be dismissed as “so yesterday.” Thinking things through is disparaged, and in a reverse of logic, false premisses are substituted for those that were demonstrably true.

Christopher Dawson made this observation — about the evolution of “culture” as a “cultural” term — in passing, about sixty years ago. I reflect that the phenomenon befits a “trend,” that has been passing through our “culture” from the French Revolutions of the 18th century to the French Revolutions of the 20th. A “culture” has become an animate thing, with a soul and a will, like a person. It has also become a vacuous, irrational force, such that a “multiculture” can also be a (singular) thing. Happily, the older use of the term has survived in some instances. One may still say that a person is cultured, or has acquired a cultural substance of some kind (such as the ability to read with attention). This, we might surmise, is a concession of “the culture” (now using the word in its contemporary sense).

What happens, gentle reader may ask, in a Petri dish? If one is a bacteriologist (or other real, ensouled, wilful person), one may use it to culture cells. The Petri dish itself, while real, is without soul or will. A culture can be said to form within the dish, but it is the product of chemical and physical mechanisms, which the scientist wishes to manipulate. The elevation of culture to a noun was illicit. It was a misappropriation of our intellectual resources.

I mention this because “artificial intelligence,” with all the misconceptions that it carries, has been sneaking into our cosmology. We claim to create something that, more carefully considered, pre-existed: the natural materials and forces that we manipulated. It may be that an advanced computer, specially programmed and focused over time, can beat Garry Kasparov in a game of chess. But the computer uses great electronic power, stored memory of innumerable moves, the means to search a vast database, &c — to defeat a guy with no “artificials” whose brain is functioning on one-fifth the power of a light bulb (less than 20 watts). Moreover, if he tried to do what the computer is doing, Kasparov would be disqualified for cheating.

The machine lacks soul, will, or consciousness, though it can be endowed with an appearance of such things — by human design. With the advance of technology the illusions grow. As I write, there are people cowering in fear of what Artificial Intelligence will do, including business lords of the tech sector, and by all means they should disconnect machines which they can’t philosophically understand.

But they don’t scare me — except in the sense that a crocodile or a skunk could scare me. A robot has no bad will, and cannot acquire one. Only its programmer can achieve the exalted state of malice. The robot may work on deterministic principles; the mad scientist certainly does not.

We live in an age of superstition and credulity in which, generally, abstractions from abstractions become gods, and even abstractions from them can be worshipped. The class politics of Marxism made this respectable among malicious intellectuals, but Marx was undergirded by Hegel and Hegel by the vaguely or precisely Cartesian project that undergirds modernity. History is taken to be governed by laws not unlike gravity, electromagnetism, or the strong and weak nuclear forces; except, thanks to their objective “material” existence, things like gravity are not actually worshipped, merely obeyed. The supposed fundamental historical forces — the gods who created the “cultures,” as it were — are, in the end, quite artificial spiritual constructions.

From the Devil, if you ask me.