A long time ago one little-known band claimed we all live in a yellow submarine. Now, Elon Musk and others have said we probably live in a simulation — an environment constructed by our far-distant descendants using ultra-powerful computers, or maybe by aliens. Wired columnist Meghan O’Gieblyn reports in her new book, God, Human, Animal, Machine (Doubleday, 2021), that “the theory’s popularity has escalated over the past decade.”
O’Gieblyn discusses only briefly the odd theory, but her book brilliantly takes on tough questions: Will mind uploading work? Should we fear a computer takeover? How much of our science and philosophy grows out of self-justification? What does it say about God “that the universe, the more we probe it, appears to be perfectly adjusted to the necessary conditions for life?”
O’Gieblyn writes that she no longer believes in God: “I spent my final year of Bible school engaged in an intellectual game of chess against the Calvinist God, searching for his weak spots…. My papers came back lacerated with red ink, the marginalia increasingly defensive and shrill. GOD IS SOVEREIGN, one professor wrote in block caps. HE DOESN’T NEED TO EXPLAIN HIMSELF.”
Well, God does explain Himself, in the Bible. O’Gieblyn writes, “To concede that one’s mind is controlled by God is to become a machine.”
I think not, if we start by seeing ourselves as broken actors on a broken stage: We can begin to understand the difference between God’s objectivity and our own subjectivity.
O’Gieblyn (and many others) should read J. Richard Middleton’s lucid Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Baker, 2021). Yes, it’s puzzling that Abraham pleads with God for Sodom and not for the life of his son, but Genesis should be taught as a history of dysfunctional families, not a saga of exemplary characters chosen because they are meritorious.
I’m exploring simulation theory for a future book, so I’m reading about what makes human intelligence different from computer and even super-computer intelligence.
I semi-recommend Antonio Damasio’s Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious (Pantheon, 2021): Not great writing like O’Gieblyn’s, but it describes the “intelligence” of bacteria and plants, and probes what’s different in the feeling, consciousness, perception, memory, and reasoning of humans.
Christof Koch’s The Feeling of Life Itself (MIT Press, 2019) is better. Christof criticizes the common idea that “consciousness is just a couple of clever hacks away. We are only meat machines, no better, and increasingly worse, than computers.” He’s right to call this new religion “mind-as-software… as obvious as the existence of the devil used to be. For what is the alternative to mind-as-software. A soul? Come on!” Christof does not contend for the existence of souls, but he does shoot down the conceit that we can upload our brains to a computer and live forever: “You would appear to be living an envious life in utopia, but you wouldn’t experience any of it. You would be raptured into digital paradise as a zombie.”
Last month I also wandered around the graduate library of my old home, The University of Texas at Austin, and took out a backpack of books from the QB 981 and 982 shelves (Library of Congress system). I don’t know whether UT science majors read anything about Intelligent Design, but many titles certainly suggest order: See Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe by Martin Rees (Basic, 2000), The Nine Numbers of the Cosmos by Michael Rowan-Robinson (Oxford, 1999), and Ten Patterns That Explain the Universe by Brian Clegg (MIT, 2021). One more and we have a football team.
The other book I’m thinking of writing is The Tragedy of Compassionate Conservatism, which would explore how the GOP’s compassion agenda in 2000 devolved into the Social Darwinism of 2022.
Howard Husock’s excellent The Poor Side of Town — and Why We Need It (Encounter, 2021) shows that conservatives have been right to oppose big government housing projects, but haven’t sufficiently appreciated how privately-owned but unpalatial housing has been and can be a portal for upward mobility.
We need a politics of effective compassion more than ever, but that goes against the current that flows through Gideon Rachman’s fine overview, The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World (Other Press, 2022). Chapters on Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Xi Jinping, Modi, Orban, Bolsonaro, and others are quick and illuminating reads.
Farah Stockman’s well-written, deeply-reported American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears (Random House, 2021), explains part of the appeal of Trumpism to those hit hard by factory closings. The view from 30,000 feet makes “retraining” sound easy, but the typical sequence is hard: job loss, home foreclosure, car loss, wife or girlfriend loss, sometimes life loss.
Edward Glaeser and David Cutler’s Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation (Penguin, 2021) has good overview chapters concerning COVID consequences in education, health care, sanitation, telecommuting, and more, but it sometimes lacks street-level realism. The authors’ best proposal: More high school vocational training. We shouldn’t yearn to be computers, but we can fix them.
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