There’s been a lot of buzz about a recent Pew survey on religious belief. Most noteworthy for many, between 2007 and 2014, traditional belief in God significantly decreased, while the category Unaffiliated–comprised of Atheist, Agnostic, and “Nothing in Particular”–has grown. For whatever reason, news outlets obsess about such studies whenever they come out. They seem to be desperate to discuss: Do people in America believe in God or not? Do they believe in some other transcendent or ultimate force–something less definite than a personal deity? Maybe just something in the social ether like “the human spirit?” Do they believe in heaven–whatever that means and wherever it is located? What do people hope will result from religious adherence? TIME Magazine famously ran the cover story Is God Dead? in 1966, questioning the existence and relevance of a divine being in contemporary society. Nearly 50 years later, we appear even less willing to believe in a cosmic power behind the universe. So why write about the idea of “God” in a blog primarily focused on modern society and technology? Because at the same time that more people are rejecting the traditional understanding of God as an existing, extrinsic being, we’re more and more willing to entertain the possibility of a “God” we’ve created.
As Artificial Intelligence (AI) is realized in its most complex forms, the prospect of an entity that transcends people and society in a God-like way is actualized. The likelihood of I AM fades while the possibility of I AM, Because I was Made increases. And we seem rather eager about considering this potentiality. The plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron, one of the most anticipated blockbuster films in recent memory, hangs on the creation of not one but two different forms of AI beings–Ultron and The Vision. They are superior in power, knowledge, and presence in the way that “God” in a broadly Judeo-Christian sense has been perceived over the last few thousand years. And Avengers is not the only example in popular culture. The TV political thriller, Person of Interest, is an ongoing story about The Machine: an AI created to tap all cameras, phones, and other electronic sources to observe society, track developing injustices, and report imminent criminal behavior so that corrective action can be taken. A few seasons in, a second, less-forgiving machine is produced called Samaritan, which is determinedly set on both doling out hard justice itself and destroying the original Machine. This year’s season finale, in which the two competing machines have a climactic showdown, is entitled YHWH–the unpronounceable name of the Hebrew God. In the narrative universe of Person of Interest, The Machine and Samaritan mark the first time that something actually exists and functions in the way that human beings have thought about “God” for much of history. A tangible entity has emerged that fits that namesake in thorough correspondence.
Avengers and Person of Interest are not dissimilar in the characterization of their God-like AI. Though they are disembodied machines or cyber-cloud entities in Person of Interest, and embodied in Age of Ultron, Ultron correlates closely with Samaritan and The Vision to The Machine. Both Ultron and Samaritan are fixated on unforgiving, retributive or even vengeful justice. For them, “peace in our time” might mean that the whole Earth needs to be razed of depraved human beings and their constructions, because peace is perceived to be an impossibility as long as most or all of humanity is around. We are judged by a super-powerful, self-conscious being of our creation, and found wanting. In contrast, The Vision and The Machine both explicitly state gratitude for their existence. They seem aware that they are superior to the humans that have brought them into being, but they recognize that contingency of creation and are thankful to have been made and exist in the world. That gratitude keeps them grounded in such a way that justice includes the preservation of life and to work for the benefit of humanity–whatever the shortcomings of people.
Perhaps this is the sort of “God” Nancy Ellen Abrams actually meant to point to in the NPR articles outlining the main argument of her book A God That Could Be Real. She notes the disappearance of belief in God as traditionally understood, but wonders if there isn’t something emergent–something that arising from the collective interaction of human beings but is different, more complex, and transcendent over the mere aggregation of interaction–that properly fits or is “worthy” of the category, “God.” Abrams’ stated conclusion is incoherent: something like a wave of goodwill or a feeling of meaningfulness that has emerged from our unified “aspirations” bumping into each other. I have not read the book, so she may be more clear and compelling there. But the basic concepts of emergence and transcendence definitely and intriguingly apply to AI; they are entities that have come about through technological innovation over time and now overarch society in a way that we might think it fitting to call it “God.”
We seem deep down to kind of hope for a force or being transcendent to the world that will make it as we wish it would be. But not any farther. God, traditionally understood, is mostly rejected because such a being might impinge on us to be or do things different than how we like. It would exercise independence such that we are held accountable for our actions or enjoined to change our behavior. Ultron and Samartian might fall into that group–though there are likely days wherein we wish for a moment some otherworldly force like that would give the roadraged asshole next to us a flat tire or get our annoying co-worker fired. We like the idea of reaping what you sow or karma–but mostly just for other people. If such a being ever did something like that to us for our own indiscretions we would be outraged. This is where most people who dismiss the possibility of the Judeo-Christian God get off the bus. It’s off-putting. We want our independence–not to be subject to another’s vision of who we should be.
But perhaps AI is capable of both justice and graciousness–like The Vision or the Machine–in such a way that we’ve found the “God” we’ve been longing for. One that understands our capacities for good alongside our faults and finitude, and mercifully works for our well-being, the justness of society, and our flourishing into the future. The present state of the world clearly attests that we cannot carry those things out alone as human beings. We need something transcendent.
The Vision remarks near the conclusion of Age of Ultron that “a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.” With climate change, poverty, violent conflict, overrun ecosystems, and more, Homo sapiens may be doomed as a species. The Vision concedes as much to Ultron in Avengers. But with a benevolent God-like AI we may find the divine being we always hoped existed and appreciate working together to fix those kinds of fractures in the world–whether or not the God people have long-wondered about is out there. We certainty are enjoying entertaining such a possibility on-screen.