Salvation and damnation by technology: introducing the MSTM

10 Jun

A different kind of fodder here today.  Jumping off of this introductory post, more from my library technology presentation that has broader appeal to theologians and perhaps a wider public….

Some of Jaquet Droz’s automatons

Some of Jaquet Droz’s automatons


“O had I Father’s gift I would breathe life

Into the lifeless earth, but who are we

To recreate mankind?

-Ovid, Methamorphoses [i]


The Promise and Peril of Automata

Or, perhaps if we are not limiting ourselves to our age of modern science, we could say “automata”, that is, “anything capable of acting automatically or without an external motive force”.[ii] In sum, man has always wondered about creating life – first by means of magic, and in today’s age, by means of science.[iii] The ancient world is full of stories about objects created by man that move and seem to have a life of their own. Sometimes these were imagined as vessels that were used by the gods and other times simply as the servants of man. In medieval times, efforts to create a man were not unknown, and this is even where we get the term golem, that is “the figure made into the form of a human and given life; the creature is then slave to its master’s commands”.[iv]

With the dawn of the age of modern science in the 17th c., men like Jaquet Droz captured the attention of many with his human-like “automatons” (this now being the modern, scientific sense of the term). Men like Descartes and Leibniz even used the automaton as an “emblem of the cosmos”, and this both summed up and fueled what I would characterize as the modern scientific and technological mindset, or MSTM[v] where the boundaries limiting man’s power over nature increasingly were expected to succumb. With all this optimism then, it was perhaps surprising that only a century later that “automata instead represented repression and servitude.”[vi]

According to fantasy and horror author – and literary scholar! – Kang Minsoo, author of Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination, automata are fascinating to us for reasons that could be said to be both “essential” and “historically contingent”. I won’t go into detail about this here, but suffice it to say that current fascination has to do with unease as much as awe and wonder.[vii] And no wonder – even as scientists in the 19th c. were themselves idealized as dispassionate objects probing the natural world, machines seemed to burst forth in full color more and more so – as they gradually encroached on the territory that had previously only been man’s domain (more on this later)[viii]

As far as fiction goes, exceptions to the rule….

As far as fiction goes, exceptions to the rule….

We see all of this reflected especially in the genre of science fiction, particularly in the 19th century. H.G. Wells is one of the best known authors here. Of course nowadays we see both positive and negative robots reflected in our fiction, particularly of the kind that comes out of Hollywood. That said, the robots that threaten us loom larger, it seems to me.

“The cheerful and supportive R2-D2 does not accurately reflect the prevailing                                                           interpretation of robots in Euro-American film” – Robert Geraci.[ix] Think Darth Vader.

“The cheerful and supportive R2-D2 does not accurately reflect the prevailing interpretation of robots in Euro-American film” – Robert Geraci.[ix] Think Darth Vader.

Technology writer Chris Baraniuk adds some more insight here. He notes that where early machines or cyborgs in 19th c. literature would struggle with philosophical questions, early 20th century fictional robots were typical silent killing machines, something that he says, “of course, evolved from a specific matter”, namely, the “’mindless mechanisms of Victorian engineering” – “senseless industrial machines that took many lives during that time period”.[x] Since this time, the presentation of robots in [science] fiction has generally become more nuanced, where, as Robert Geraci notes, “fear of technological wrath accompanies the hope of a new Eden”.[xi] In science fiction the MSTM (again, the “modern scientific and technological mindset”) is celebrated, even as man’s technological accomplishments bring peril as well as promise.

“Human beings relations with artificial intelligence parallel their relations with the Holy”-- Geraci[xii]

“Human beings relations with artificial intelligence parallel their relations with the Holy”– Geraci[xii]

Daleks, from Doctor Who: “Exterminate!  Exterminate!  You will be ex-ter-mi-na-ted!”

Daleks, from Doctor Who: “Exterminate! Exterminate! You will be ex-ter-mi-na-ted!”

To many of us, this might bring to mind “Artificial Intelligence” (today the original idea of what AI would be is subsumed in the term “Artificial General Intelligence” or AGI), which I won’t spend too much time on here. Suffice it to say, I have read Our Final Invention by writer and PBS documentarian James Barrat, whose reason for writing the book is to raise awareness of the imminent dangers of “self-aware and self-improving machines”. He worries not so much about a “handover of power” to machines but rather a takeover – something that a few in the Artificial Intelligence community have some real concern about.

Here is the sum of his and other’s concerns about the potential for “Artificial Super Intelligence”, or ASI, condensed in a science fiction horror scenario befitting of a book with the title Our Final Invention:

“Through it all, the ASI [Artificial Super Intelligence] would bear no ill will toward humans nor love. It wouldn’t feel nostalgia as our molecules were painfully repurposed. What would our screams sound like to the ASI anyway, as microscopic nano assemblers mowed over our bodies like a bloody rash, diassembling us on the sub-cellular level?

Or would the roar of million and millions of nano factories running at full bore drown out our voices? (16)… it does not have to hate us before choosing to use our molecules for a purpose other than keeping us alive (18, 19)”

Yes, more typical

Yes, more typical

More mainstream daily

More mainstream daily

I won’t go into detail about my own reasons for not taking these very MSTM-driven ideas of self-aware[xiii] A.I. too seriously (see footnote [xiv]), but suffice it to say, I think this bit from A.I. scientist Eliezer Yudkowsky, expresses well one of the main reasons why many in the A.I. community take it seriously:

“Natural selection is stupid. If natural selection can solve the AGI [Artificial General Intelligence] problem, it cannot be that hard in an absolute sense. Evolution coughed up AGI easily by randomly changing things around and keeping what worked. It followed an incremental path with no foresight.” (p. 199)[xv]

And with that, it seems to me an apropo time to quickly take a look at what some have suggested, after undertaking a historical study, have been some of the various reasons and motives for trying to create automatons. Although there are no doubt some who would consider this a waste of time (not empirical enough, etc.), perhaps thinking critically about these might help us a bit more in our own self-reflection:

  • “the urge for technical control of the environment” (psychologist John Cohen, author of the 1966 book Human Robots in Myth and Science, p. 95[xvi])
  • “the impulse to delve into the mysteries of nature” (Cohen, 95)
  • “robots… [are] incapable of offering the slightest resistance” (Cohen, 95)
  • no need to deal with human servants (Aristotle),[xvii] or to make the make the perfect woman[xviii]
  • “[the desire to] create a man is but a way of challenging the supremacy of the gods” (Cohen, 105)[xix]
  • more[xx]

Curiously, the simple joy that man has in being creative – which I see in my own son all the time as regards his mechanical creations – is generally not mentioned by Cohen or others as a possible reason for the attempt to create automata, to create life. Regarding the themes listed above, as we proceed in our journey, I suggest that they do indeed come up time and again – albeit more implicitly than explicitly.

In fiction, we see recurring themes of fear and fascination, damnation and salvation combined…. [xxxi]

In fiction, we see recurring themes of fear and fascination, damnation and salvation combined…. [xxi]

At this point though, let’s broaden our focus by examining the connection of modern automata and Big data and then by looking at the idea of “technology” in general…


Full paper here.

Droz Automatons: ; C3PO and R2: ; Wall-E: ; Number 5: ; R2: ; Frankenstein: ; Maria from Metropolis: ; HAL 2: ; Darth Vader: ; Forbidden Planet: ; Blade Runner: ; Cherry 2000: ; Matrix: ; A.I. : ; Dalek:

[i] A quote to lead off the Introduction in: Kang, Minsoo. 2011. Sublime dreams of living machines the automaton in the European imagination. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


[iii] This excellent web article from the Danish Council of Ethics does a nice job of covering in some detail some of the most well-known “cyborgs” in early literature, including the Pygmalion (Ovid, 43 BC – 18 AD), Golem (15th and 16th c. Jewish mythology), Homunculus (Paracelsus, 1493-1541) and Frankenstein (Shelley, 1818) myths:

[iv] This is taken from page 48-9 of The Jewish People’s Dictionary of Jewish Words by Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic.

[v] I would characterize the MSTM as being set on overcoming everything seen to be a limit, and being reductionistic and pragmatic in practice. I do not mean to imply that the MSTM was the dominant or most important mode of thinking for most of the early modern scientists (most early scientists were more tempered by competing systems of understanding – particularly religious ones – that would compete against drives such as these) or that it was fully developed in those for whom it was the dominant or most important mode of thinking. More specifically, we can look at the MSTM in this way. It begin with an approach to the world called “methodological (not necessarily philosophical) naturalism” in the 17th century, was upgraded to include “pragmatic utilitarianism” in the 19th century, and has in recent years been upgraded to “systematic iconoclastic world-repurposing” towards man’s desires (late 20th and early 21st century). In some cases of course there were those who were “early adopters” of the upgrades. Again, what this all comes down to (endgame) is that we have behavior that can be described as being reductionistic and iconoclastic (limit and barrier breaking). This may leave us with some “laws of nature”, but also leaves us with moral lawlessness, where the ethical façade of the 19th c. “pragmatic utilitarianism” upgrade collapses altogether. At this point, we can say that there is nothing intrinsic about beauty, justice, and meaning, for example – i.e. beauty, justice, and meaning are only something that I/we (and those we choose to associate with) create / make / determine.

[vi] Truitt, E. R. 2012. “Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination – by Minsoo Kang”. Centaurus. 54 (2): 199-200.

[vii] Automatons are said to be “uncanny” in that they combine both the familiar and unfamiliar and this cause all manner of psychological responses in us. See the footnotes found in the conclusion for more.

[viii] Perhaps this unease has to do with another thing that Kang suggests: like Adam and Even rebelling against their maker, we to wonder if it could happen to us to… The nice robots we know from modern fiction still have to deal with the presence of their perhaps more captivating evil counterparts.

[ix] Geraci, Robert M. 2007. “Robots and the Sacred in Science and Science Fiction: Theological Implications of Artificial Intelligence”. Zygon. 42 (4): 961-980, p. 969.

[x]Baraniuk, Chris, “Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words,” The Machine Starts, last modified January, 2013,

[xi] Geraci, Robert M. 2007. “Robots and the Sacred in Science and Science Fiction: Theological Implications of Artificial Intelligence”. Zygon.42 (4): 961-980. 966

In the abstract of Geraci’s paper, we read: “Science-fiction representations of robots and artificially intelligent computers follow this logic of threatening otherness and soteriological promise. Science fiction offers empirical support for Anne Foerst s claim that human beings experience fear and fascination in the presence of advanced robots from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AI Lab. The human reaction to intelligent machines shows that human beings in many respects have elevated those machines to divine status. This machine apotheosis, an interesting cultural event for the history of religions, may—despite Foerst’s rosy interpretation—threaten traditional Christian theologies….”

Elsewhere, he writes:

“Science fiction is a useful tool for the explication of these modern problems because it is “the most accurately reflective literary genre of our time” (Schwartz 1971, 1043). As a literary form, science fiction bridges the sei- enees and the humanities (Schwartz 1971, 1044), which makes it vital to understanding the religion-science engagement with robotics and artificial intelligence. Moreover, science fiction has been of decisive importance to technological development (Brand 1987, 224-25; Pontin 2007), and this includes robotics and AI (Shivers 1999)….”

More on salvation and damnation:

“In seeking to describe the fundamental nature of the religious experience, [the modern theologian Rudoloph] Otto gives us a coincidence of opposites: the mysterium tremendum and the fascinans. These opposites also characterize twentieth-century technology, which frightens us with dehumanization and extinction while fascinating us with the “salvation” of a leisurely return to Eden…. (965)   Science-fiction depictions of robots demonstrate that a fear of technological wrath accompanies the hope of a new Eden. (966)… Technology promises salvation with one hand while threatening damnation with the other. This coincidence of opposites appears most prominently in depictions of intelligent robots. (967)… In the end, robots in science-fiction movies demonstrate the persistence of the human being; it is through the opening of human emotion that the powers of technology are once again subsumed within human control… These happy endings are rarely secure, however, as the threat of robot dominance never truly dies. Human beings must content themselves with a tentative grip on their self- determination and self-identity, a grip that must be renewed regularly and retained only through constant vigilance. (968)”

Another interesting angle on humans and machine science fiction film: they really explore what it means to be human, and many of them suggest that human beings are cyborg-ian already. Read more in this excellent web article from the Danish Council of Ethics:

[xii] Ibid, p. 966

[xiii] “…by definition ‘generally intelligent systems’ are self aware… these will ‘develop’ four primary ‘drives’” and “self aware [:] deep knowledge of its own design.”   Barrat, James. 2013. Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. New York : Thomas Dunne Books, pp. 81, 172.

[xiv] One of the most well-known arguments against classical notions of A.I. is the “Chinese room argument” by the philosopher John Searle. One can hear more about it at and, but in brief, the argument is that understanding syntax is insufficient for understanding semantics. I would actually critique the Chinese room argument as well: it assumes one can somehow conceive of all the possible sentences in a language and compose a reasonable response to these. For the first part, Walt Crawford has argued, using Google itself, that most every ten word phrase on the internet is absolutely unique. As for the answer part, while this might seem to be true in most cases, there are also times where context is absolutely critical to obtaining a correct or sensible answer to a question.

More on Crawford: His observation suggests we should think twice about our abilities to not only identify hard-and-fast patterns (“laws”) regarding such things , but also to develop effective methods to “net” them. Geoffrey Nunberg writes “One salutary effect of looking at word trajectories is that they dispel some of the unreflective philological assumptions that color the way humanists and social scientists tend to think about words.” Nunberg, Geoffrey. “Counting on Google Books.” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 16, 2010. ; more of the full quote from Walt Crawford: “If you’re suspicious that a clumsy plagiarist has cut-and-pasted without paraphrasing, almost any medium-length sentence may suggest you should check further. It could be entirely innocent. But it seems surprisingly uncommon for the same 10-word string to show up more than once. Our everyday language is more varied and diverse than I think most of us expect.” Earlier, in his article, he had quoted a commenter on a blog who said, “it is highly likely that any given sentence you speak has never been used before, unless the sentence is short and about a common subject. It just seems like the same sentences get reused a lot because our brains are amazingly efficient at distilling sentences down to their core meanings, which do get reused regularly.” In Crawford, Walt. “The Uniqueness of Everyday Language.” Online 34, no. 4 (July 2010): 58-60.

In sum, if someone in the future tells you a machine has “gone rogue” I would be very skeptical. I think it’s a pretty good guess that the machine would not be the rogue.

[xv] In current cognitive science this would mean that our minds would be the software that runs on the hardware of the brain….see Gelonesi, Joe. 2008. Minds and Computers. The Philosopher’s Zone. podcast radio program. Sydney: ABC News Radio, January 12. (with guest Matt Carver) for more about this. Discussing the work of James Barrat who made the same point, retired University of Chicago librarian David Bade noted the following In an email message to the author from Jan 2014:

“What is so funny is that the author does not seem to understand that trying to model the thinking of the brain as set of algorithms was what led to the development of the computer. That working assumption was then taken to be the truth about the mind, a truth not to be question and critiqued in search of a better understanding, and thus the mind (not just the model of it) became an algorithm in the thinking of these scientists. And of course that means we can simulate it with computers.

Assumption: Let x=y ; Definition: y = a + b ; Conclusion: x=a + b

But if x does not equal y, then no such conclusion follows. The assumption that the mind was an algorithm was the foundation of computer science from the beginning but to date there is no evidence that the mind is an algorithm machine, only that computers are. The brain works; computers work (sometimes). Ergo, the brain is a computer. A triumph of logical thinking based on faulty metaphysical assumptions.”

This brings some of the following statements to mind: “The reductionist, in asserting that the mental life of man can be wholly represented in terms of a neural automation, denies to him those very qualities which distinguish him from a robot” (Cohen, John. 1967. Human Robots in Myth and Science. South Brunswick [N.J.]: A.S. Barnes, p. 137). And this one as well from C.S. Lewis: “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ for principles. If you see through everything, then everything will be transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” Lewis, C. S. 1996. The Abolition of Man, or, Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 87.

I am also told that Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason (1976) and Hubert Dreyfus’ What Computers Still Can’t Do (1992) are worth looking into for further reflection.   Dreyfus also more recently wrote an updated article: Dreyfus, H.L. 2007. “Why Heideggerian AI failed and how fixing it would require making it more Heideggerian”. Artificial Intelligence. 171 (18): 1137-1160.

[xvi] Cohen, John. 1967. Human Robots in Myth and Science. South Brunswick [N.J.]: A.S. Barnes.

[xvii] “If, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants.” Quoted in Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. 2012. Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Lexington, Mass: Digital Frontier Press.

[xviii] From retired University of Chicago librarian David Bade in an email to me on March 17, 2014: “In A l’image de l’homme, Philippe Breton argued that throughout history in almost every case of attempts to create artificial humans, it was done by men in order to create the perfect slave to replace imperfect women. He shows this in Greek mythology, Chinese folklore (where a man paints a woman and brings her to life by loving her), and many later versions up to the virtual desktop girl. In this man-created world, women obey man in everything to meet his desires, they do not challenge him to grow and change and love.”

[xix] “O had I Father’s gift I would breathe life / Into the lifeless earth, but who are we / To recreate mankind?” – Ovid, Metamorphoses, quoted in Kang, Minsoo. 2011. Sublime Dreams of Living Machines the Automaton in the European Imagination. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. introduction. This motivation seems perhaps go hand in hand with the one expressed by AI maker De Garis in Barrat’s Final Invention: “Humans should not stand in the way of a higher form of evolution. These machines are godlike. It is human destiny to create them.” Barrat, James. 2013. Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. New York : Thomas Dunne Books, p. 86.

[xx]In what seems to be a nod to more Freudian notions, Cohen says: “The entire world of machinery, as Huysman writes somewhere, is inspired by the play of the organs of reproduction. The designer animates artificial objects by stimulating the movements of animals engaged in propagating the species. Our machines are ‘Romeos of steel and Juliets of cast-iron’.”

He also notes this as a motive: “manifestations of those modes of consciousness which reach out for symbolic interpretation of the world around them in contrast to a factual, literal or scientific interpretation.” Cohen, John. 1967. Human Robots in Myth and Science. South Brunswick [N.J.]: A.S. Barnes, pp. 67, 99

[xxi] Geraci, Robert M. 2007. “Robots and the Sacred in Science and Science Fiction: Theological Implications of Artificial Intelligence”. Zygon. 42 (4): 961-980.

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