Friday, July 10, 2009

Contemporary gods

I'VE LONG BEEN fascinated with theoretical computer science, including such obscure but important topics such as algorithms, operating system design, and most especially artificial intelligence. The latter subject, artificial intelligence, or AI, is particularly interesting (at least to me) because it climbs up into some lofty philosophy, such as the meaning of reason and the mind.

An old argument in AI is whether or not computers can be intelligent, and ultimately whether or not they can be conscious. As there appears to be few orthodox-minded individuals working in the field, let alone Catholics, or especially Catholics who are of one mind with the great Scholastic tradition, AI research tends to be relentlessly materialistic. This is despite the fact that the rarefied nature of the field would benefit greatly from the line of reasoning developed by the Greeks and the Schoolmen. As is typical of contemporary thinking, questions about the potential intelligence of machines has been inverted, reducing men to the level of impersonal machines. Rather than saying that machines are capable of self-consciousness, the most progressive view is that men are not capable of self-consciousness.

According to this theory, self-consciousness or selfhood is an illusion.

But to whom is this illusion presented? A person who believes this theory may comfortably believe it for every human being in the world except himself.

Consider the psychology of someone who holds the as true the scientific worldview of impersonal forces and matter: he knows that logically he himself cannot exist in this world. But he knows that he does in fact exist, and so must be somehow greater than the world. In his own mind, he must be a god.

A god in the world would certainly be egotistical, self-centered, and an insufferable know-it-all (this hits uncomfortable close to home for me, as my family and friends could tell you). Although this god may eventually find other like-minded gods in the world, he would view normal human beings as mere sheep, or machines. And machines are tools, which are to be used and discarded according to whim. Welcome to our contemporary world.

According to Walker Percy, these individuals may psychologically view themselves as being outside of the world — transcendent — or at one with the world — immanent — in a striking inversion of our view of the Godhead. And the major problem experienced by these gods is boredom and the consequences of attempts to relieve boredom.

Contemporary artists and scientists are the preeminent types of transcendent false gods.

An artist-god creates. He is not content to merely doing a job well, according to the rules, tradition, and the needs and wants of his fellow man, for these considerations do not apply to him. He decides what is true, good, beautiful, and useful.

Likewise, the scientist-god is not merely interested in nature for her own sake, but tends to focus his attention on controlling nature, particularly human nature. As a god, morality does not apply to him, and so devising schemes to efficiently control and destroy his fellow man is of no moral consequence.

Of course, getting these transcendent gods to cooperate with each other is difficult. Like the demonic gods of ancient Greece, these contemporary gods tend to argue with each other and constantly engage in power struggles. Ask anyone familiar with university department politics for examples.

While the transcendent types view themselves as being outside of the world, the immanent types are at one with the world. These immanent gods are consummate consumers. They know what to watch on television, what wine to drink, what music to listen to, and where are the vacation hotspots. These gods are voracious consumers of the media, travel, practical education, and food, and are always in the know as to what is in fashion, what is best, and where to go.

Now the immanent gods are well aware of those who are transcendent, even though the opposite may not be true. Being in the world, they know that they are subject to the social conditioners — C.S. Lewis' term — who provide them with media and technology, seemingly from the outside of their world of consuming. As you may imagine, this type of person may become demanding — Why don't they do this? — instead of taking matters in their own hands, and even attributing powers to them that even the social conditioners know they lack.

As I mentioned, boredom is the a major problem with gods who live in the world. Novelty and power help, but nothing really makes you feel alive like sex and violence, either directly experienced or through the media, hence the popularity of divorce and war. Drugs help, too.

Some may state that we live in a society governed by rights, freedoms, and ethics, and not strict impersonal materialism. But the fact that these concepts are tacked-on to our scientific worldview, with no scientific justification, shows that the model of selves in this essay — where persons think of themselves as gods outside of the realm of nature — is likely valid. Contrast this with the natural law theory of society as proposed by the Church: it integrates naturally with the Catholic view of the cosmology of the world and the anthropology of man, both being creatures of the One God. The Church's view is consistent and universal — the world's is not.

Note that our contemporary gods have a problem with recognizing other people as persons, who are just like themselves, and so have a problem with relationships, both with their fellow man and with the only God.

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